A History of Leeds

By Tim Lambert

Leeds in the Middle Ages

Leeds began as a Saxon village. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), it had a population of around 200. By the standards of the time, Leeds was quite a large village. Many were much smaller.

Then in 1207 the Lord of the Manor, Maurice De Gant, founded a new town at Leeds. At that time trade and commerce were increasing in England and many new towns were founded.

First, the Lord of the Manor created a new street of houses west of the existing village and he divided the land into plots for building. Then craftsmen built houses and paid rent to the Lord for the land. The new street was called Brigg Gata (gata is an old word for a street and brigg is an old word for a bridge so it was the bridge street). Soon the town of Leeds was flourishing. In Medieval Leeds, there were butchers, bakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

However, the main industry in Leeds was making wool. In Leeds wool was woven then fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Afterward, it was dyed.

In Medieval Leeds, there was a weekly market. There were also 2 annual fairs in Leeds. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Yorkshire to buy and sell at a Leeds fair.

However many of the people in Leeds made a living from farming. The little town probably had a population of around 1,000 people. It would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days. A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants. Having said that, in the Middle Ages, Leeds was a small and relatively unimportant town.

Leeds 1500-1800

Leeds grew much larger in the 16th century. That was mainly due to the rapid growth of a woollen cloth industry in the town. The amount of cloth made in Leeds boomed and the population soared. By the late 16th century the population of Leeds had reached 3,000 and by the middle of the 17th century was probably about 6,000. From being a small and rather insignificant town Leeds grew to be one of the largest towns in Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, in 1552, a grammar school was founded in Leeds, and in 1626 Leeds was incorporated. In other words, it was given a corporation and mayor.

In 1628 a writer described Leeds: (I have changed the words slightly to make it easier to read) Leeds is an ancient market town. It stands pleasantly in a fruitful and enclosed vale upon the north side of the River Eyer over or beyond a stone bridge from where it has a large and broad street (paved with stone) leading directly north and continually ascending. The houses on both sides are very thick and closely compacted together, being old, rough, and low built and generally all made of timber (although they have many stone quarries in the town). Only a few of the richer inhabitants have houses that are larger and more capacious.’

During the 17th century as Leeds grew more prosperous, many of the merchants rebuilt their houses in stone. St Johns Church was built in 1634.

Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. Most of the townspeople supported the king and a royalist army occupied Leeds. But in January 1643 parliamentary soldiers captured it. They held Leeds until the summer of 1643 when, after losing a battle in Yorkshire, they were forced to abandon the town. The parliamentary army returned to Leeds in April 1644. They held Leeds for the rest of the civil war.

In the 17th century, Leeds was a wealthy town. The wool trade boomed. However, like all towns in those days, it suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1645. However, in 1694 Leeds gained a piped water supply (for those who could afford to be connected).

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Leeds as a large and wealthy town. She wrote that Leeds had many broad, well-paved, and clean streets. The houses were built of stone and were often of substantial size.

In the early 18th century the writer Daniel Defoe said: ‘Leeds is a large, wealthy and populous town. It stands on the north bank of the River Aire, or rather on both sides of the river for there is a large suburb or part of the town on the south side of the river’. Meanwhile in 1714 Queens Court was built for a wealthy cloth merchant.

In the 18th century wool manufacture was still the lifeblood of Leeds but there were other industries. Leeds pottery began in 1770. There was also a brick-making industry in 18th century Leeds. There were also many craftsmen such as coachmakers, clockmakers, booksellers, and jewelers as well as more mundane trades such as butchers, bakers, barbers, innkeepers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and glaziers.

In 1700 the rivers Aire and Calder were made navigable from Leeds to Wakefield. In 1794 work began on the Leeds to Liverpool canal. It was completed in 1816

For the rich and the middle-class life grew more comfortable and genteel during the 18th century (although there were also many very poor people in Leeds). The first newspaper in Leeds began publication in 1718. After 1755 the streets were lit with oil lamps. After 1790 ‘scavengers’ cleaned the streets.

Meanwhile, in 1777 assembly rooms where balls were held and people played cards were built. In the 1780s the park estate around Park Place was built.

Meanwhile, for the poor, a charity school called the Blue Coat School was built in 1705. Mary Potter’s almshouses were built in 1736.

Leeds in the 19th century

By 1801, the year of the first census the population of Leeds had reached 30,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. By 1851 it had reached 101,000.

Leeds grew rapidly but many of the new houses built were dreadful. Overcrowding was rife and the streets were very dirty. As a result, there was a cholera epidemic in Leeds in 1832 which killed over 700 people. A second epidemic in 1849 killed more than 2,000 people.

In the 1850s the council built sewers but very many of the houses in Leeds were not connected to them. Many dwellings continued to use cesspits or buckets which were emptied at night by the ‘night soil’ men. Not until 1899 was it made compulsory for dwellings in Leeds to be connected to sewers.

Nevertheless, life in 19th century Leeds gradually improved. From 1819 the streets were lit by gas. In 1834 Leeds was connected to Selby by railway. Then in 1839, it was connected to York. In 1848 it was connected to Derby. The first modern police force was formed in 1836. Beckett Street Cemetery was opened in 1845. The Town Hall was built in 1858. Leeds United was founded in 1864.

In 1863 a corn exchange was built in Leeds where grain was bought and sold. In 1824 a dispensary opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. Furthermore, at the end of the century, serious slum clearance began. From 1872 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Leeds. After 1894 they were replaced by electric trams.

In 1872 the first public library in Leeds opened. Roundhay Park also opened in 1872. Grand Theatre was built in 1878. City Varieties Music Hall was built in 1885. Then in 1888, the first moving pictures were taken of traffic crossing Leeds Bridge.

In 1884 Marks and Spencer opened their first penny arcade in Leeds. Several new shopping arcades were built. Thorntons Arcade was built in 1878. It was followed by Queens Arcade in 1889 and Grand Arcade and Victoria Arcade in 1898. Meanwhile, in 1891, Leeds gained its first electricity supply. In 1893 Leeds was made a city.

In the early 19th century the wool industry continued to boom. So did making linen. However, in the late 19th century textiles became less important. But tailoring for a mass market flourished. So did the leather industry and there were many boots and shoemakers. Tetley Brewery was founded in Leeds in 1822.

Leeds in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Leeds reached 178,000 and it continued to grow rapidly. In 1903 a statue of the Black Prince was erected in City Square. So were statues of 8 nymphs. Leeds University was founded in 1904. Also that year St Annes RC Cathedral was built. Leeds City Market was also built in 1904. The first cinema in Leeds was built in 1905.

In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Leeds. More were built in the 1930s. In 1925 St James Hospital was founded. In 1933 Leeds Civic Hall was built.

During the Second World War, 77 people in Leeds were killed by bombs, and 197 buildings were destroyed.

In the early 20th century the main industries in Leeds were engineering (such as making tram rails) and tailoring, with companies like Hepworth’s and Montague Burtons. But during the century the importance of manufacturing industry declined. Instead, service industries grew rapidly. In 1951 55% of the workforce was employed in manufacturing. By 1973 it had fallen to less than 35%. Many people in Leeds worked in banking, insurance, pubs, and hotels.

Leeds City Council was itself a major employer. In 1946 it employed 19,000 people. Thirty years later the figure had risen to 35,000.

In 1974 the boundaries of Leeds were extended to include 10 other boroughs and urban districts.

The city continued to thrive. Radio Leeds began broadcasting in 1968. In 1993 Quarry House, the headquarters of NHS Management was opened. Leeds Polytechnic was founded in 1970. It became Leeds Metropolitan University in 1992.

In the late 20th century tourism became a major employer in Leeds. Leeds Playhouse opened in 1970. (It moved to a new building in 1990). The Royal Armouries Museum opened in 1995. The Thackray Medical Museum followed in 1997.

The Monet Garden in Roundhay Park was opened in 1999.

Merrion Shopping Centre was built in 1964. A new shopping arcade was built in the early 1970s. St Johns Shopping Centre opened in 1985. White Rose Shopping Centre opened in 1997. In the early 1970s, Leeds city centre was pedestrianised.

Leeds in the 21st century

Leeds City Markets

In the 21st century, Leeds continued to flourish. Millennium Square opened in 2000 and a new Leeds City Museum opened in 2008. Trinity Leeds opened in 2013. In 2023 the population of Leeds was 812,000.

A Timeline of Leeds


Leeds is a small village with a population of around 200


Maurice De Gant, the Lord of the Manor makes Leeds a small market town


Leeds has a population of around 1,000


A grammar school is founded in Leeds


Leeds has a population of around 3,000


Leeds is given a corporation and mayor


St John’s Church is built


During the Civil war royalists capture Leeds


Parliamentarians capture Leeds in January but they withdraw in the Summer


The parliamentarians capture Leeds again


Leeds suffers an outbreak of plague


Leeds is a flourishing town with a population approaching 6,000. The wool trade is booming.


Leeds gains a piped water supply


The first newspaper in Leeds is published


Leeds is a rapidly growing town. Wool is still its main industry.


The streets of Leeds are lit with oil lamps


Assembly Rooms are built


Scavengers clean the streets


Work begins on the Leeds to Liverpool Canals


The population of Leeds is over 30,000


The streets are lit by gas


Brewery is founded


Cholera kills more than 700 people


Leeds is connected to Selby by rail


Cholera kills more than 2,000 people


The population of Leeds is 101,000


Leeds Town Hall is built


Horse drawn trams run in the streets of Leeds. The first public library opens.


Grand Theatre is built. Thorntons Arcade is built.


Queens Arcade opens


Leeds gains an electricity supply


The first electric trams run in Leeds


It is made compulsory for dwellings in Leeds to be connected to sewers


The population of Leeds is 178,000


Leeds University is founded


The first cinema in Leeds is built


St James Hospital is founded


Leeds Civic Hall is built

World War II

Bombing kills 77 people in Leeds


Merrion Shopping Centre is built


Leeds Polytechnic is founded


The boundaries of Leeds are extended


St Johns Shopping Centre opens


Quarry House opens


The Royal Armouries Museum opens


The Thackray Medical Museum opens


The Monet Garden opens


Millennium Square opens