Site Home
 



Topic Home


1600 - 1700

In seventeenth century Leeds the houses of the rich and the poor existed side by side. The cottages of the poor were found in the yards and courts behind the houses of the richer occupants. A survey of 1628 reported on the houses in Briggate: 'The houses on both sides thereof are verie thicke and close compacted together, being ancient meane and lowe built; and generalie all of Tymber; though they have stone quarries frequent in the towne, and about it, only some of the richer sorts of the Inhabitants have their houses more large and capacious: yet all lowe and straitened on their backsides.'

The wealthy merchants built themselves fine houses like Richard Sykes' house on Briggate, and Red Hall, built by Thomas Metcalf just off the Headrow. A timber-framed house, built about 1600 in Lambert's Yard, is still there to day. Information about the way that these houses were furnished is given in the wills of the occupants. For example William Dixon, who lived on Kirkgate and died in 1663, left a detailed inventory of the items in his house. In the parlour were: 'Two stand beeds and beeding and hingings at the side of one beed belongin to the same with one foot cheist. One cubbord, one saffe, three cheists, one trunke. One coverlette and eleven peces of puter. Fower quishings. Fower paire of sheets 5 pillabeares.'

The poor have left little behind them to tell us how they lived in the 17th century. We have to turn to documents like the Hearth Tax Returns to find out how many poor people there were. For part of the seventeenth century people had to pay the hearth tax according to the number of hearths they had in their houses. The tax was 2shillings per hearth. The 1664 and 1672 hearth tax returns for Leeds tell us that about two fifths of householders, only had one hearth, and would have been living close to subsistence level. They were the labourers, servants, journeymen and poor widows, like Widdow Edmundson, who was named in the hearth tax returns. A further two fifths of householders had two or three hearths, and could afford to live in greater comfort; they were the craftsmen, shopkeepers and clothiers of the town. The remaining one fifth of households had four or more hearths and were the wealthy clothiers, merchants, retailers, clergymen, professional men, landowners and gentry. They possessed varying degrees of wealth; John Cloudesley of Briggate had 8 hearths, and probably lived in considerable affluence. Some people were exempted from paying the tax and also from church and poor rates, because they were too poor, and did not own enough property to qualify as tax payers.

It was necessary, for the dignity and good name of the town for the leading townsmen to find ways of looking after the poor. A poor rate was levied on the inhabitants, and distributed by the Parish overseers of the poor. In 1662 the corporation devised a scheme to prevent begging, and to assess the poor law on a regular basis. The town was divided into 6 wards, each having an alderman to supervise the parish overseers.

Another way of providing funds for poor relief was through charitable bequests and donations. A Committee of Pious Uses was set up in 1620 to oversee the administration of the charities, and to make sure none of the money was misappropriated. The committee consisted of the vicar and twelve of the town's leading inhabitants. The documents relating to the town's charities were kept in 'a strong chest in the vestry of Parish Church, locked with Three Strong Locks, one of the keys to remain with the Vicar of Leeds the other Two with the Committee.' A chest like this is still in the vestry today.

The measures for providing for the poor were totally inadequate and became increasingly expensive for the wealthier townspeople of Leeds. It was thought that the cause of poverty was idleness, and that if people were forced to work then there would be no more poverty. So in 1636-7 the mayor, Richard Sykes, and other members of the corporation built a house to be used as 'a common Work-house soe commonly called a House of Correction for the Reliefe and setting on Worke the Poor of the said Parish of Leedes.'

The new workhouse was built on the site of the old free school at the junction of Lady Lane with what is now North Street. It did not end poverty in the town, nor did the inhabitants earn enough money to support the workhouse and care for the poor. Many of them were too old or ill to work, and there were younger people and children who were unable to find employment to keep them out of the workhouse. In 1662 William Morris, was appointed as master of the workhouse to make sure that the inmates were 'set on Work'. His efforts failed, and Thoresby, writing in 1715 says that the building was used as 'a hospital for the aged poor', as well as a workhouse where 'poor boys and girls are taught to scrible, a new invention whereby the different colours in the dyed wool are delicately mixed.' (Scribbling was a stage in the manufacture of woollen cloth.)

Another way in which the richer townspeople helped the poor was to build almshouses or hospitals as they were called. The principle benefactor of the poor was John Harrison. Having built St. John's Church, and rebuilt the Grammar School, in 1653 he built two rows of almshouses, each with twenty apartments to house 40 poor women. The almshouses were endowed with a yearly income of 80 to give each woman a small pension and the means to maintain the houses.

Josiah Jenkinson built eight almshouses just near Boar Lane, to house 16 people. In 1673 he left instructions in his will that his trustees should 'place therein such impotent and aged persons inhabiting Leeds'. In 1673 Lancelot Iveson built three almshouses near the workhouse, to replace three old cottages in Kirkgate, which had been used as almshouses but had become derelict. According to Thoresby writing in 1715 there were two almshouses in Vicar Lane, and near the vicarage an old hospital, used as lodgings for the poor.

Despite the benevolence of the townspeople and attempts by the corporation to banish poverty with hard work there were still plenty of poor people on the streets of Leeds at the end of the seventeenth century, just as there were rich merchants building their grand houses in the town. There were also the gentry, the titled families, who lived outside the town, but influenced those who lived within it. One of these was Lord Irwin who lived at Temple Newsam House. He would have visited Leeds to see to his business interests, go to the races, or perhaps to a cockfight. Otherwise he lived in great luxury on his estate, an example of ultimate wealth and power to which the merchants of Leeds no doubt aspired.
Click images to enlarge
Richard Sykes' House in 1884
Richard Sykes' House in 1884
Red Hall
Red Hall
Wade Hall
Wade Hall
House in Lambert's Yard
House in Lambert's Yard
Pious Uses Chest
Pious Uses Chest
The Workhouse, 1715
The Workhouse, 1715
John Harrison
John Harrison
Harrison's Almshouses after rebuilding in 1849
Harrison's Almshouses after rebuilding in 1849
Temple Newsam, 1702
Temple Newsam, 1702
Arthur, Third Viscount Irwin (1666-1702)
Arthur, Third Viscount Irwin (1666-1702)




Site Map

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