At first, Maurice Paynel's new borough did not do as well as he had hoped. Wakefield, which had become a borough in 1180, was much more important, both as a market town, and as an administrative centre, as were the towns of York and Beverley to the east. Leeds remained as a small market town, although there is early evidence of the woollen industry which was to become so important later on.
In 1322 the Lord of the Manor built a fulling mill, which was powered by water from the River Aire. River water was also used in the fulling process, which was the last stage in cloth production. After fulling the cloth was dried on tenter frames, and then finished, which involved cropping the cloth and perhaps dyeing it. It was an advantage to be able to carry out all these processes in the same place, and Leeds became a centre for cloth finishing. A second fulling mill was built in 1356, and the industry continued to grow during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nether Mills, at the northern end of Leeds dam was in operation as a fulling mill at least as early as 1636.
In the sixteenth century Leeds, and its woollen industry grew rapidly. The upland areas to the west of Leeds were not self sufficient in agricultural produce and clothiers from these areas, bringing their cloth to market, needed to buy food. This was provided by farmers from the more fertile plain to the east who brought their produce to sell in the town. This meant that a thriving market developed in Leeds, and as the woollen industry grew, so did trade in other goods. The position of Leeds, between the agriculturally poor region in the west where cloth was produced and the rich farmland of the Vale of York, was one of the reasons for its success as a market town.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century the population increased rapidly, and many people moved into the area to set up in business. It was at this time, between 1580 and 1630 that Leeds became larger and more prosperous than other towns like Wakefield and York.
In 1626, a group of young, successful merchants obtained the Charter of Incorporation for Leeds. This enabled them to control the cloth market, and to exclude merchants from outside Leeds. They also regulated cloth manufacture in the town, setting standards of quality. The merchants exported cloth abroad, and had strong links with countries in Europe, like Holland and Germany, often spending part of their training there.
By 1684 the cloth market had outgrown its original situation on Leeds Bridge, and was moved to the lower end of Briggate. Although cloth manufacture was the principal industry in Leeds, there were also many other trades and professions. The court books of the corporation gives us the following list: doctors, lawyers, innkeepers, booksellers, butchers, bakers, shopkeepers (drapers, mercers, and grocers), millwrights, carpenters, joiners, cordwainers (shoemakers) tailors, haberdashers, hairdressers, leather workers (curriers, saddlers, upholsterers) whitesmiths, blacksmiths, ironmongers, coopers (barrel makers), building workers (plasterers, joiners, glaziers)
By the end of the seventeenth century the town was so prosperous, that in 1699 the merchants of Leeds decided they could afford to undertake an ambitious scheme to make the rivers Aire and Calder navigable to Hull, by building the Aire and Calder Navigation. This made it much easier to transport goods between Leeds and Hull, and was to have a major effect on the industries of the area.
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Briggate, seventeenth century houses
Old Leeds Bridge, c.1867
Clothiers taking cloth to market
Butchers shops in the Shambles
Busy wharf at Leeds, 1830