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The Working Classes

Housing
The increasingly large population of workers needed somewhere to live. At first, workers cottages were built in the yards and courts behind the buildings on the main streets of the town. When there was no space left, workers cottages were built in the yards and folds of farmhouses on the outskirts of the town. Some of the better off workers and artisans formed terminating building societies, whose members pooled their savings, bought land, and built houses. In 1786 the first back-to-back houses on Union Street, Ebenezer Street and George Street were built in this way. But most of the workers were too poor to subscribe to these building societies.

Property developers bought large areas of land and put up cheap back-to-back housing which they rented out to the workers. Development was haphazard. Some terraces were never finished, and others were built in open fields. Roads and pavements were narrow, and a narrow tunnel reached the back halves of the back-to-backs. This saved space, and meant that more houses could be built on the site; access roads and pavements brought in no rent to the landlord. Inside the houses were cramped, with two rooms, one up, one down, about 14 feet square. Often there was a cellar, rented out as a one-room dwelling. There was no piped water supply or proper sewerage system. The 'necessary' or toilet was often a wooden screen round a hole in the ground. Sometimes there weren't even any 'out offices,' or outside toilets; people used a bucket which could be emptied on a common midden. Most of these houses were built in the Bank, Far Bank, Quarry Hill, Mabgate, and the Leylands.

Information about overcrowding in the Leeds slums can be found in the census returns. For example at no.10, Sykes Yard in 1851. Living there were: Thomas Vasey, aged 28, a labourer from Ireland, and Jane Vasey his wife, aged 20, a spinner, with John their son aged 1. Mary Whelan, Jane's sister aged 18 lived with them. So did her other sister, Rosanne aged 9, and her 4 year old brother Anthony. And there was also Michael Burke, a lodger. The next dwelling listed is an Upper Room. Here we have John Mannix, aged 40 from Ireland, a commercial traveller, with his wife Rose Ann aged 45, a cordwainer, and Cecilia, his sister, a spinner. There was also Harry Chapman, aged 36, a lodger, a shoemaker, and William Riley, aged 32, a tailor. Then we come to 'a cellar', where lived William Mitchell, aged 42, a shoemaker, Harriet his wife, and James Tindale aged 9, a lodger. And in another Cellar, there lived Solomon Autey, aged 39, a general dealer, his wife Elizabeth, and their sons William aged 10, and Thomas, aged 7 and their daughter Mary Jane aged 4.

By the middle of the nineteenth century many of the areas of the town where the working class lived had become filthy insanitary slums. There were cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1839, and Robert Baker showed that the disease was most prevalent in the working class districts of the town. Dr Robert Baker was a doctor and factory inspector who publicised the dreadful conditions under which many people lived. Part of his report reads: 'I have been in one of these damp cellars, without the slightest drainage, every drop of wet and every morsel of dirt and filth having to be carried up into the street; two corded frames for beds, overlaid with sacks for five persons; scarcely anything in the room else to sit on but a stool, or a few bricks; the floor, in many places absolutely wet; a pig in the corner also; and in a street where filth of all kinds had accumulated for years.'

And James Smith in 1845 reported:
'By far the most unhealthy localities of Leeds are close squares of houses, or yards, as they are called, which have been erected for the accommodation of working people. Some of these, though situated in comparatively high ground, are airless from the enclosed structure, and being wholly unprovided with any form of under-drainage or convenience, or arrangements for cleansing, are one mass of damp and filth……The ashes, garbage and filth of all kinds are thrown from the doors and windows of the houses upon the surface of the streets and courts………. The privies are few in proportion to the inhabitants. They are open to view both in front and rear, are invariably in a filthy condition, and often remain without removal of the filth for six months.' In 1832, during the cholera epidemic, 75 cartloads of soil were removed from one of the privies in the Boot and Shoe Yard.

Despite Robert Baker's report of 1839, and criticism from many other people, most of the districts they condemned as insanitary remained as they were until the end of the century. There were some improvements; a water supply and a sewerage system were provided, and by 1901 four fifths of houses had a water closet. The Leeds Improvement Act of 1866 stipulated that back-to- back houses had to be built in terraces no more than four pairs long. Gated yards with shared water-closets and ash-pits were to be built between them.

Income
In 1830 the cost of building a workman's house was £70-£80. The rent was 2s to 4s per week, about a fifth of the average wage. Workmen earned 11s-15s per week. In 1832, Humphrey Boyle a shopkeeper in Meadow Lane worked out that the minimum amount of money a family of five would need to live on was £1-0-3d. His list of household items shows us what kind of things a working class family would have bought. Even with the additional earnings of other family members, there was barely enough to live on. There was nothing left over for luxuries, and not enough to save for hard times. Some better off workers could afford to join Friendly Societies like the Ancient Order of Foresters, who for a small monthly subscription would provide sick pay and free medical treatment when required.

For most people unemployment meant that the family would have to turn to poor relief from the parish, paid as out-relief to people in their homes. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 replaced the parish by the Poor Law Unions, and ended the giving of out-relief. Relief would only be given to those in the workhouse. The old workhouse in Lady Lane was totally inadequate, and in 1846-48 the Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School for orphans and poor children was built on Beckett Street. A new workhouse was built beside it in 1858. The churches also provided help for the poor; photographs show workers from the Leeds Mission, who took both religion and practical help to the poor of Leeds.

Education
Most poor children had little or no education. In the early 1800s Sunday Schools taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Lancasterian and National Schools were founded in Leeds. There were also factory schools like the one founded by John Marshall, and there were church Schools. But few children went to school at all, and those that did went for only a short time - for about 4½ years between the ages of 4 and 9. The Education Act of 1870 led to the foundation of Board Schools, which provided free elementary education, compulsory from 1876. Provision of free secondary education followed.

Leisure
A week spent working 10 hours a day for 6 days, on a workman's wage left little time or money for leisure pursuits. There was no paid leave, so no holidays. Inns and beerhouses provided an escape form the drudgery of working class life. Some of the inns had singing rooms where entertainment was provided free. The inns, beerhouses and brothels of Leeds were regarded with horror by the middle classes, as was the Leeds Casino and Concert Hall, (later the Amphitheatre). A visit by middle class reformers in 1849 found the audience 'gazing with zest on scenes, and listening with delight to sounds which to us, at least, were both humiliating and appalling.'

The response of the middle classes was to promote 'improvement societies' like the Leeds Rational Recreation Society, and in 1861 the Working Men's Institute was founded to provide 'innocent amusement free from the ruinous cost of the beer house'. The Temperance movement and the Band of Hope were formed to combat the evils of drunkenness.
Click images to enlarge
Back-to backs on Nelson Street
Back-to backs on Nelson Street
Back to backs in the Leylands
Back to backs in the Leylands
Dufton's Yard
Dufton's Yard
Pounders Court
Pounders Court
Baxter's Yard
Baxter's Yard
Sykes Yard
Sykes Yard
Bell Street
Bell Street
Budget
Budget
Assembly, Board School
Assembly, Board School
Infants Class, Board School
Infants Class, Board School
Moral and Industrial Training School
Moral and Industrial Training School
New Workhouse
New Workhouse
Leeds Mission photograph, early 1900's
Leeds Mission photograph, early 1900's
Leeds Mission Home Visit, early 1900's
Leeds Mission Home Visit, early 1900's
Pine Apple Inn
Pine Apple Inn
Crown and Anchor
Crown and Anchor




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