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Origins

At the beginning of the thirteenth century Leeds was a small village, part of the manor of Leeds; the villagers made their living by cultivating the common fields. In 1207 the manor was owned by Maurice Paynel (or Maurice de Gant). He was in debt, the manor was mortgaged, and he needed to increase his income. A way of doing this was to establish Leeds as a borough where some of the inhabitants would be freed from their obligations to work in the fields, and left to follow a craft or trade. In return they would pay a high rent to the Lord of the Manor. Maurice Paynel hoped that this would attract skilled craftsmen from elsewhere to settle in his borough.

A new town was established, along a broad street stretching from the edge of the open fields in the north down to the crossing point on the River Aire.  On either side of the street there were thirty building plots (burgage plots) where craftsmen could live and pursue their trade. The owners of the plots of land were called burgesses, and they were also given a half acre plot of land at Burmantofts (burgage mens' tofts); their income came from a craft or trade, not from agriculture, and they paid a rent of 16 pence a year to Maurice Paynel. The new street became known as Briggate, and it was deliberately made wide enough for a market to be held there. This market place, surrounded by craftsmen's workshops was the beginning of Leeds as an industrial town. The earliest map of Leeds made in 1560 shows the layout of the town.

As the town grew, so did the market place as a centre of trade for the area, and by the nineteenth century Leeds had become a major industrial city, with a great variety of manufacturing industries. Why Leeds rather than anywhere else became the most important centre of trade and commerce in the district is not certain, but it must in part be due to its situation.

The proximity of Leeds to the River Aire has been of major significance in the development of the city, but it is not just its situation beside the river that is important. The village of Leeds was near to a crossing point on the river. In 1819 the remains of what was thought to be a Roman ford were discovered just to the south of Leeds bridge, so from earliest times Leeds had a link with the towns and villages south of the river.

The river was important both in providing a supply of soft water for the developing textile industry, and as a means of transport. As early as 1699 the Aire and Calder Navigation made the river navigable as far as the Humber and connected Leeds to the port of Hull and beyond. By 1816 a link with the west coast had been established with the building of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Both the waterways, and from 1834 the railways, meant that Leeds had good transport links to bring in coal and other raw materials cheaply and easily, and to export manufactured goods to all parts of the world.

There was a plentiful supply of raw materials close at hand. Coal measures underlie much of the district, and there is a supply of limestone to the east of the town; supplies of stone and clay for brick making are also found nearby. Medieval bell pits from which iron ore and coal were extracted were found near Briggate in c.1900.

And there were the people who made it all happen. The enterprising merchants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Early pioneers of industry like Benjamin Gott, John Marshall, and Matthew Murray, who brought their entrepreneurial skills to Leeds at just the right time, and were willing to risk investing in new industries and methods of manufacture. And there were the thousands of workers who made up the labour force; without them there would have been no industrial development.

Click images to enlarge
Map of Leeds, 1560
Map of Leeds, 1560
King's Mill Goit in 1892
King's Mill Goit in 1892
Leeds and the River Aire in the seventeenth century
Leeds and the River Aire in the seventeenth century
Middleton Railway and Coal Staith, 1829
Middleton Railway and Coal Staith, 1829
Medieval Bell Pit
Medieval Bell Pit
Collier, 1814
Collier, 1814




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