The elite of Leeds society in the 18th Century were the gentlemen merchants and their families. At the bottom of the social scale were the working class poor, (the 'lower orders'), and in between the two extremes those of the middling sort, the middle classes.
The Leeds merchants could afford to build themselves large houses, which had gardens and were lavishly decorated inside. Some of the merchants houses are pictured around the edge of Cossins map of 1725. At first, these houses were built on the main streets of the town but in 1780 building plots on the Park Estate were sold to those who wanted to live away from the busyness, and increasing squalor of the town centre.
Meanwhile, cottages for the 'lower orders' were still being built in the yards and courts behind the buildings on Briggate, the Headrow, and other main streets in the town. Soon there was no more space to build houses in the town centre. Property developers began to build terraces of back-to back houses, as cheaply as possible, to house the increasing population. Development was haphazard, with no regard for sanitation and public health.
The poor had few possessions, and for many families, food was scarce. Children began work at an early age to supplement the family income; only the lucky ones had any sort of education. For those who were unemployed or ill, charity, poor relief, and the workhouse were still the only help available. For the old and infirm, there were the almshouses.
The rich merchants lived well; there was an abundance of food to be had in Leeds. Ralph Thoresby, in 1715, describes the variety of produce to be had in the market; meat, fish of all kinds, fruit and vegetables were all available for those who could afford to buy them. The merchants were able to buy fine furniture, paintings and books, and clothes. Servants were employed to look after the merchant and his family. If anyone fell ill the best doctors and surgeons could be consulted. The merchants could afford to send their sons to school, or to employ a private tutor.
Visits to the assembly rooms, the theatre, concerts, and sporting activities were all enjoyed by the merchants and their families in their spare time. Leeds was an exciting city to live in, if you could afford to live well.
Somewhere between the rich merchants and the 'lower orders' were those in the middle. A book called the 'Young Woman's Companion' published in 1759, is aimed at 'a family in the middling Station of Life.' They would have been comfortably off, perhaps with a servant or two, but the housewife herself would have undertaken much of the running of the house.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century in Leeds the rich merchants, 'those of the middling sort' and the 'lower orders' lived side by side. With the building of the Park Estate in 1780, the richer inhabitants began to move away from the centre of the town, a trend that was to continue throughout the nineteenth century.
|Click images to enlarge|
Cossins Map, 1725
Hugh Sleigh's house on Briggate
Thomas Denison's house, Town End
Houses in Park Square
Workers houses on Back Virginia Street
Leeds Intelligencer, 26th June, 1759