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1900 - 1950
Leeds entered the twentieth century with a thriving manufacturing industry, trade flourishing, and plentiful employment. Soon, manufacturing was to decline, to be replaced by distributive and service industries. Already by 1900 the textile industry was declining, employing only one tenth of the town's workforce. Since 1880 the leather industry too had been in decline, due to competition from abroad and reduced demand from the local footwear industry which had failed to adapt to the demand for lighter shoes rather than heavy boots.

The engineering industry however flourished, even though local supplies of ore had run out and steel was replacing iron. At first Leeds was a centre for steam engine production and the manufacture of textile machinery; by 1911 there were 33,000 people employed in the industry ; that is one in five of all male workers. McLaren's (Steam Ploughs), Jubb's (metal castings) and Rice and Co. (hydraulic machine tools) were all advertising in the Leeds chamber of Commerce Year Book for 1913.

The clothing industry continued to thrive, and several of the major manufacturers like Hepworths and Burton's opened their own retail shops which sold ready made clothes and offered a tailoring service. Montague Burtonís tailoring empire was founded by Sir Montague Burton, born Meshe David Osinsky in Russian Lithuania in 1885. He left his homeland aged only 15, with a capital of about £100, to start a new life and a business in Britain.

His early experiences in this country were of peddling goods door-to-door, but by 1906 he had begun to establish a chain of shops selling ready-to-wear menís clothing. The first of these was in Mansfield, followed by Sheffield. The Leeds empire was not established until 1910 at Elmwood Mills, Camp Road. By this time, Sir Montague was married with a small daughter, and by 1921, the business was doing so well that the company acquired the Hudson Road factory from Albrecht and Albrecht, which was eventually turned in to the largest clothing factory in Europe.

Sir Montague was a benign and forward-thinking employer, who understood that he would get far better results from his workforce if their working conditions were pleasant. The Hudson Road factory was light and airy, and had a staff canteen, a sun-ray room, dentist, doctor and optician all available for the staff.        

Although manufacturing industry was the largest employer in Leeds at the beginning of the twentieth century, the distribution and service industries were also important. Leeds was a major distribution centre, and many people were employed in traditional domestic service.

Leeds was important as a manufacturing centre of both weapons and clothing for the Great War. New armaments factories were opened like the one at Barnbow. Greenwood and Batley made rifle cartridges, and Marsh Jones and Cribb produced Camel biplanes. The city was the centre for both manufacturing and distribution of military clothing.

Between the Wars
After the war, hopes of returning to pre-1914 levels of production in the manufacturing industries were soon dashed. But Leeds survived the depresssion of the 1920's and 1930's better than many northern towns. This has often been attributed to the diversity of industry in Leeds, but other factors were also important. The clothing industry continued to do well throughout the depression. In 1929 sales of ready-to-wear garments and exports increased, and while people could no longer afford to buy the more expensive items, the demand for cheaper clothes increased, until in 1934 it was difficult to find enough workers to man the factories.

But it was the distribution and service trades which carried Leeds through the depression, and meant that the city suffered less unemployment than for example Glasgow and Liverpool. Leeds was a regional centre for wholesalers, and also a retail centre for the region providing essential services for people from the surrounding district. The local authority increased the number of people it employed during this period, and there were also jobs in, for example, transport and entertainment.

The building industry was a major employer throughout the 1920's and 1930's. Although there was no industrial building, house building, and major projects like the Headrow alterations, the Civic Hall, and  extensions to the University meant that the the building industry escaped the worst effects of the depression.

So did the printing industry; in 1923 Waddington's began making playing cards, and in the 1930's developed new products like cardboard jigsaws, and in 1936, Monopoly.

So the clothing industry, distribution and service trades, and the building and printing industries, together employing two thirds of the city's workers, were to some extent protected from the depression. But manufacturing industries like engineering were as badly hit by the depression as they were in other towns.

Exceptions were those firms who made new or specialised products. Fowler's began to make concrete mixers and construction equipment instead of steam ploughs. Kirkstall Forge continued to produce axles for all kinds of vehicles, and the Yorkshire Copper Works operated the largest factory in the world making copper and brass tubing. The Monk Bridge Iron and Steel works were advertising their special steels in 1936, and R W Crabtree & Son were making printing presses for export.  An example of a firm who had moved with the times was George Bray & Co. who were now  making acetylene and coal gas burners as well as gas burners for lighting. Burrow Davis & Sons made brushes of all kinds, and were contractors to the Admiralty and the War Office.

Leeds, however, was no longer a city that made everything. Like other northern towns Leeds was affected by national changes in the economy between the wars. Basic industries like engineering contracted, and new industries like car manufacture, the aircraft industry, and the manufacture of electrical and electronic goods became important. In the 1920's there were car and aircraft factories in Leeds, but most of these industries were based in the Midlands and the south-east.

Leeds failed to attract new industries. Several reasons have been suggested for this; high rates, the failure to build the proposed new ship canal, an unwillingness by the old firms to change, and the fact that the new industries did not want the skills and wage structure prevailing in Leeds. Also there was a shortage of female workers already employed in the clothing industry and in shops and offices. The new industrialists chose to set up in business in the south, where they could build new factories to suit their needs.

The traditional industries in Leeds were saved for a while by the second world war. Fowler's made tanks and other fighting vehicles. Fairbairn, Lawson Combe Barbour produced shell fuses guns and mortar barrels, Blackburns and Avro made aircraft, and  Burton's made military uniforms.




Click images to enlarge
McLaren's
McLaren's
Jubb's Foundry
Jubb's Foundry
Rice machine tools
Rice machine tools
Hepworths Providence Clothing Factory
Hepworths Providence Clothing Factory
Barnbow
Barnbow
Barnbow
Barnbow
Waddington's Factory
Waddington's Factory
Monk Bridge Iron and Steel Company
Monk Bridge Iron and Steel Company
Crabtree, advertisement
Crabtree, advertisement
Bray Burners
Bray Burners
Blackburn 'Velos' Torpedoplane, 1926
Blackburn 'Velos' Torpedoplane, 1926
Burrows Davis c.1930
Burrows Davis c.1930
Fairbairns
Fairbairns
Fairbairns
Fairbairns




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© 2003 Leeds City Council | Site created by: LCC electronic information team | 25 March 2003