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Gentlemen Merchants

Two-thirds of the merchants had an annual income of 200-600, and the wealthiest of them had incomes over 600. Even in the late 1700s, 400 per year would pay for a large house, 5 servants and a high standard of living. The larger and grander the house, the more successful the merchant who built it.

Until about 1780, many of the merchants still lived in a house adjoining their business premises. They commissioned architects like William Etty and John Carr to build fine houses of stone and brick. A large house cost from 2000 to 5000, and included business premises such as warehouses, and dressing shops. The impressive exteriors were often of brick dressed with stone, decorated with classical detail. The houses were equally impressive inside. Some merchants could afford to pay the French artist Jacques Parmentier to decorate the interiors. Examples of merchants' houses were Robert Denison's house on North Street (1715) and Denison Hall built for John Denison in 1786. Money was also spent on the gardens: according to a report in the Leeds Mercury of 1738, Alderman Cookson grew nectarines and peaches in his garden.

In 1780 the Park Estate was built at the west end of the town away from the town centre, and busy highways, yet near to the Coloured Cloth Hall. Many merchants moved to live there, but kept their business premises in town. The terraces and squares of the Park Estate were secluded and genteel.

Probate inventories tell us what possessions the merchants had silver cutlery, and teapots, expensive furniture, fine linen and luxuries such as a spinnet were all listed in the long inventory of Mr. Croft Preston, who was mayor of Leeds in 1714.

The rich could afford a good education for their sons, to prepare them for carrying on the family business. In the early eighteenth century they would probably have attended the Grammar School, and although it was a 'Free School', it was attended by the sons of the gentlemen of Leeds and of those living further afield in Yorkshire. In 1780 a house was built for the headmaster with room to accommodate boarders. There were also private schools like Joseph Tatham's School in a room above the Quaker Meeting House in Water Lane, and Kemplay's Academy for young gentlemen. At 15 a merchant's son would serve an apprenticeship of 5 years, sometimes spending a year abroad learning the trade.

But life was not all hard work; the rich could afford to enjoy themselves. 'Many of the merchants divide the week between their Pleasures and their Business and what they gather with one hand scatter with the other.' So wrote a correspondent to the Leeds Mercury in 1742. There were plenty of ways in which the merchants and their families could spend their leisure time, and their money.

In 1712 after the cloth market moved to the new cloth hall in Meadow Lane, the cloth hall in Kirkgate was used for banquets. In 1777 Sir George Savile and Lady Effingham opened the New Assembly rooms above the third white cloth hall. Admission was half a guinea for a gentleman and two ladies, for such entertainments as card and dancing assemblies. Music was also popular, as was Tate Wilkinson's theatre in Hunslet Lane. People met in coffee houses and the best inns to discuss business and exchange gossip. The Leeds Library, a private subscription library, opened in 1768, and booksellers stocked, among other things, copies of the Royal Female Magazine, the Ladies General Repository of Pleasure and Improvement.

There were also sporting activities; an important social event was the Leeds Races. Jockeys weighed in at the Talbot Inn in Leeds, and then rode out to Chapeltown Moor where the races took place. Running races also took place there, and it was a popular place for ladies and gentlemen to 'take the air' before dinner. Cockfighting was popular, and took place in inns like the Rose and Crown in Leeds. In addition gentlemen could play bowls, cricket, or go foxhunting. However, only a small proportion of the population could afford either the money or the time for these activities; most people led much simpler lives.
Click images to enlarge
Sheepshanks Hall, 1872
Sheepshanks Hall, 1872
Denison Hall, 1949
Denison Hall, 1949
Denison Hall, interior, 1949
Denison Hall, interior, 1949
Houses in Park Square, 1948
Houses in Park Square, 1948
Grammar School
Grammar School
Assembly Rooms
Assembly Rooms
Leeds Intelligencer 7th July 1760
Leeds Intelligencer 7th July 1760
Leeds Intelligencer 2nd February 1760
Leeds Intelligencer 2nd February 1760




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