a leeds revolution

Made in Leeds: the story of how textiles built a city

May 10, 2019

Made in Leeds: the story of how textiles built a city

We might count ourselves fortunate when we consider that human life has existed on the planet for millions of years and yet we are the generation that witnessed the birth of the internet, and teabags, and we even saw Leeds United win a trophy. What is also remarkable is that in all that time, the Industrial Revolution is still considered one of the world’s most seismic evolutionary steps forward and it happened in Britain, and furthermore, we can still see evidence of it in Leeds today.

The Industrial Revolution was not just the discovery of ways to mass-produce critical materials, it was a shift in thinking that brought profound economic, societal and political change. If Britain was at the heart of it, the north of England was pivotal, but primarily for the wide scale development of coal mining around the mid-1700s. Meanwhile Leeds was about to play a decisive role, and one that, in truth, it had already been harnessing for a number of years.

Leeds is synonymous with the development of the textile industry, and while it brought prosperity for some key individuals, it is widely acknowledged as being the catalyst for supplying the skeletal framework of a working city. Leeds might count itself lucky to have been located on a navigable river and then able to develop the web of transport networks by road, rail and canal, which, whilst creating internal barriers, undoubtedly encouraged a primitive belief that somehow you could reach the rest of the world. But you also need people, and that’s perhaps where luck played its part in enriching Leeds with a smattering of disparate pioneers (both home grown and imported) who had the ideas and had the energy.

(Blue plaques on landmark buildings in Leeds signifying the importance of the textile industry)

But it wasn’t the Industrial Revolution that introduced textiles to Leeds. You can date that back to the middle ages when monasteries owned thousands of sheep, and to convert the wool to finished cloth Fulling Mills operated in England, with one of the very first being traced back to 1185 at Temple Newsam, which was then considered to be outside of Leeds. ‘Fulling’ was a step in woollen cloth-making which involved the cleansing of cloth, and particularly wool, to eliminate oils, dirt and other impurities, and to make it thicker. By 1324 there was a Fulling Mill in the town centre of Leeds.

Textile production of any description was still very much a skilled craft done by hand, however, although by the 1700s people had worked out that multi-storey mills offered more profit, and while these became mechanised to the point where less skilled workers could be employed, this was merely carding and spinning and nothing on the mammoth scale that John Marshall and Benjamin Gott would later introduce. It was also a period in between sweeping epidemics of both the Bubonic Plague and Cholera in Leeds, combining to see over 2,000 people perish, and to serve as a reminder that this was far from the prosperous metropolis we see today, but an uncultivated area desperate for an identity and a crutch to lean on. 

The 1699 completion of the Aire & Calder Navigation offered Leeds some commercial prominence. It allowed for the shipping of the small coal production and the larger woollen production, and it also imported raw materials. At this time, the built-up area of Leeds accounted for only 60 acres and 2,500 houses, with the skyline dominated by the more notable domiciles of the town’s key textile merchants.

In the early 1700s there were two weekly cloth markets in Leeds, selling the wares of hand-weavers from cottage industries. They started on the site of the original Leeds Bridge, but outgrew that location and moved a few yards up the road to Briggate. People travelled for many miles to attend the markets, and the textile trade had the knock-on effect of bringing income to the inns sprouting up off what was now the central merchant’s street, which included the formative establishments later known as Whitelocks and the Packhorse.    

However, any wealth accumulated was only enjoyed by the privileged few, and there was an affluent elite who were all-too-ready to maintain a financial disparity and did little to build Leeds as a flourishing area with opportunities for all. This began to change when Leeds upped its game to become the premier textile region of the north.

The First White Cloth Hall was constructed in 1711, and was where Leeds moved on to another level in terms of its standing in the textile trade. It was the first covered area to sell cloth in Leeds, and it was also the result of a game of tit-for-tat with nearby rival Wakefield, where a covered hall had been erected in 1710 to attempt to lure trade away from the cloth markets on Briggate.

In response to Wakefield’s strategic move, a merchant clothier called Ralph Thoresby acted on behalf of Leeds. Thoresby approached the owner of land on Kirkgate, Lord Irwin of Temple Newsam, and a building described as “a stately hall built on pillars and arches as an exchange, and with a quadrangle within” was opened on May 29th 1711. Funded by the merchants, the hall was used as a centre for the trade of undyed (white) cloth.

(The remains of the Third White Cloth Hall in central Leeds)

The textile trade in Leeds moved on from being a cottage industry and the hall quickly helped establish Leeds as a textile powerhouse. The two other weekly markets traded in coloured/dyed cloth until around 1756, when a huge mixed/coloured Cloth Hall was built on Infirmary Street. A Second White Cloth Hall was built on Meadow Lane in Hunslet, south of the River Aire, in the same year. Leeds was feeling the pressure to expand trade in the face of stiff competition from nearby towns and needed to build bigger facilities. A larger, Third White Cloth Hall was built in 1776 and the remains still stand today as a Pizza Express behind the Corn Exchange (crowned by the cupola from the now demolished Second White Cloth Hall). A Fourth was built in 1868 on King Street, but was demolished some 30 years later when the industry had died and where, again, the cupola has been integrated into the roof of the Metropole hotel which replaced it.

But back in the 1770s, Leeds merchants were now handling around two thirds of the West Riding’s cloth exports, which, to offer some context, represented around one third of the whole of England’s wool cloth exports. And wool cloth accounted for around half of England’s home-produced exports. The cloth markets had quickly become an institution and a central focus for anyone visiting Leeds.

Leeds now had 16,000 inhabitants and 3,500 houses, and was expanding rapidly as people got wind of work and burgeoning trades and migrated to the area, with outer-lying districts becoming swallowed up by the hunger of Leeds to grow.

Middleton Colliery was one of the few coal mines in Leeds, which generally produced on a low scale compared to other regions of the country, but its output was sufficient to feed ‘other’ industries that began to emerge in Leeds, such as chemicals, pottery and ceramics, glass works and iron foundries.

At this point we are just on the cusp of John Marshall meeting Matthew Murray and being able to ramp up flax production to an unprecedented scale, which triggered huge linen sales at home and abroad, and indeed, flax-spinning was one of the first trades in England to export to Europe. This meant that, by the mid-19th century, two out of every five workers in Leeds worked in the textile industry.

Marshall built his first two mills in Holbeck in 1791 and 1795, and in between those two developments, in 1792, Benjamin Gott built his first woollen mill on a field called Bean Ings on the west side of Leeds. It stood on the site later famously inherited by the Yorkshire Post Newspapers Group in 1970, and now resides in the middle of a busy road network.

Gott had already embraced the evolution of steam power and industrialised a number of spinning processes that enabled him to mass produce wool cloth, just in time for a huge surge in demand when England declared war with France in 1793, and Gott’s factories supplied blankets and cloth for army uniforms. He also built or developed Burley Mills (1798), Armley Mills (1804) and St Ann’s Mills (1824).

(Benjamin Gott's mansion house in the middle of Gott's Park in Armley)

Armley Mills was first built in 1707 and was developed into a mill in 1788 by Colonel Thomas Lloyd, but it became Gott’s most famous plant, and the largest wool factory in the world, after he leased it in 1804 and developed it from the ruins of a building that had been destroyed by fire. Today, Armley Mills is the site of the Armley Industrial Museum run by Leeds City Council. While Gott later became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1799, he also donated his family home to the city upon his death, with his Armley Mansion and its 70 acre grounds where he lived until he died in 1840, leased by his family on a 999-year agreement to Leeds City Council and known today as Gott’s Park.

Rail links between Leeds and Liverpool were established by 1834, only a mere 18 years after transportation of goods was possible between the same locations by canal, but it enabled the dispatching of goods quickly across the UK and overseas. Such industrialisation had by now brought great prosperity for some, and built townships with rudimentary welfare systems and the basis of a civilised society. But while the urban masses had purpose and opportunity, this was far removed from the life prospects we might expect today.

The mills offered work, but mainly to women and children who represented cheaper labour, and they were treated as such. 14-year-old girls might live up to two miles away from where they worked, and would have to get up at 4am to start a 6am to 8pm shift. If they were late their wages would be docked, and while they had 30 minutes for a lunch break it was little respite from a day spent bent over and scrambling between moving machinery picking up threads. On Sundays, they would go to school, and heaven knows where an appetite for learning would come from.

Leeds was no different to anywhere else at this time, of course, and while the large scale industrialisation of textiles brought jobs to people, it didn’t improve living conditions, stop over-popularisation, offer long term prospects or prevent the Luddites movement or Chartists insurrection from rioting against the prosperous mill owners.   

The mood was shifting, and the second half of the 19th century saw the flax industry crash, and while interests in wool remained, trade was moving to ‘heavy woollen’ areas such as Dewsbury and Batley, with Leeds’s textile focus centring on finer materials and more specialist tastes. The importance of clothing production grew, rather than simply generating the material, and machines were developed to allow tailored clothing to be produced. By 1911, 30,000 people were employed in clothing production in Leeds. The Marshall family’s glorious edifice, Temple Mill, had by now been taken over by a clothes manufacturer, James Rhodes & Co. and renamed Temple Works, and from 1937 it housed some of the burgeoning catalogue companies which were the Amazons of their day. 

The clothing trade in Leeds was a natural by-product of the long-established yield of yarn for the production of linen, cotton and wool fabrics. Tailoring in Leeds had traditionally been run on a ‘sweating system’, a forerunner of sweatshops, where a master tailor sub-contracted orders to poor workers who made garments from home in return for meagre wages.

John Barron was the first clothier to open a wholesale clothing factory in Leeds in 1856, triggering the ready-to-wear tailoring trade and soon employing 3,000 workers using 2,000 sewing machines. By 1881 he had 20 factories, while a competitor known as William Blackburn opened his first factory in 1890, by which time 15,000 people in Leeds were producing five million garments a year, which were mainly suits and coats for men and boys.

Mass manufacturing of clothes was the next revolution in Leeds, with Blackburn’s and another business called Hepworth’s opening retail shops to trade their own-manufactured goods. Hepworth’s was founded in 1864 by Joseph Hepworth, when he moved from Huddersfield to the textile mecca of Leeds. His son, Norris Hepworth, soon joined the business and by 1891 they had a chain of 107 shops and employed over 2,000 people, mainly females and mainly at their Providence Works factory on Clay Pit Lane.

Norris Hepworth took over the company when his father died in 1911, but himself died only three years later. By this time he had already poured a significant amount of his family’s fortunes into an ailing football club called Leeds City, becoming a major benefactor and the sole reason they managed to somehow stay afloat until later morphing into Leeds United. Hepworth’s business did okay too, still surviving today as the retail chain now known as Next.

(The classic and unaltered frontage of Montague Burton's huge main factory building on Hudson Road, Burmantofts, Leeds)

Montague Burton is the other name stitched into the fabric of the tailoring story of Leeds. He arrived in Britain as a Lithuanian Jew in 1900 and started his clothing empire in Chesterfield three years later. By 1913 he had five tailor’s shops, which expanded to 595 shops by the outbreak of World War ll. He also developed a huge clothing factory at Hudson Road in the Burmantofts district of Leeds, which carried a classic art deco design and would eventually employ 10,000 people making 30,000 suits a week, generally believed to be the largest clothing factory in the world and Burton, by then, was the biggest employer in Leeds. Burton was characterised after the war by the introduction of the ‘demob’ suit; a set of clothes issued to demobilised servicemen upon returning to everyday society. The ‘suit’ comprised of a jacket, trousers, waistcoat, shirt and underwear and is classed as the origin of the phrase ‘The Full Monty’.

John Collier was another chain of clothes shops opened in Leeds in 1907 by Henry Price, and which grew to nearly 400 stores nationwide. But after World War ll, a saturation of the market forced many Leeds clothing factories to close, while some exported to new markets. The development of better production techniques and machinery enabled the manufacture of higher quality garments and Leeds became a centre for bespoke, superior tailoring. And as we reached the 21st century and suits became less and less popular, it became evermore important that ‘tailors’ still existed on the high street as retailers such as Next and Burtons, and of course Marks & Spencer, another clothing behemoth with Leeds origins.

Today, too, Leeds and the Leeds City Region still holds onto a world-class, and only recently acknowledged, economic strand for the future that is a continuum from the past - for production of its fine woollen textiles. Produced by long established but innovative mills such as Hainsworths and Moons, displays on the rails of Leeds’s flagship Harvey Nichols store would be depleted were the Yorkshire textiles-originated clothing to be removed. The mills are key partners in a very high tech research & development partnership anchored by the Universities of Leeds and Huddersfield, with the Royal College of Art; the Future Fashion Factory, where innovation backed up by provenance has received international recognition.

But then Leeds, in defining its future, will always remember its past, and inglorious though it may be when dissecting the finer details of working conditions, pay structures and general standards of living, a journey has to start somewhere. For Leeds the journey is still ongoing, with new industries and new people showing us the way, but the location, the place, remains the same, at least in esoteric detail. Luck may have played a part in people arriving in succession and taking an industry by its breeches, but once it is there it is always there. Always something to be proud of, always the foundation we walk on and always Leeds.