The Evolving Shape Of Leeds

One of the things that fascinates me, something that I’ve tried to capture in my novels, is the changing face of Leeds. To me, Leeds is a character in my book, one always there in the background, that shifts and grows and takes on different shapes over the years.

That shape is often very physical, and finding a series of panoramas of Leeds, sketched or painted over almost two centuries illustrates all too well.

The earliest seems to be from 1715. Look at the place, it’s bucolic, unspoilt. But at this time, the population was between six and 10 thousand – a village by today’s standards, although certainly a town by 18th century ideals. The drawing might well be somewhat romanticised, too, with a deliberate innocence. The White Cloth Hall had only been built four years earlier, and Leeds was just as the beginning of its dominance of the wool trade. At the start of the 18th century, Yorkshire – the whole county – was responsible for 10% of Britain’s wool exports. By 1770, Leeds on its own handled 30% of them. Wool made Leeds’ fortunes.


That’s the view from up on Cavalier Hill, basically up where Cross Green is today. But stand there now and it’s impossible to imagine Leeds over looked that way. This view, drawn in the same year, is from the other side of the river in Holbeck – then just a hamlet, makes Leeds look more crowded, and maybe well be a more accurate representation of the skyline.

Leeds from Holbeck Road 1715

In this image, Leeds seems little more than a distant hamlet.

leeds 1700s

The wood trade brought money, money brought people, and Leeds grew. By the time of these 1745 images, the population had likely risen to 13-14 thousand.

Certainly, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1770s, Leeds still looked very rural, as this from Leeds Museums and Galleries shows.

Fielding, Nathan, 1747-c.1814; Prospect of Leeds
Fielding, Nathan; Prospect of Leeds; Abbey House and Leeds City Museum;


Compare that to this, from 1800, which very plainly shows the changes the new manufactories have brought. The town has grown, pushed out very quickly, while the factory chimneys dominate the skyline in the way church spires had just a few years before, although the process of industrialisation is still in its infancy. How quickly had Leeds expanded? In 1775, the population was 17 thousand. By the time of this image, it had mushroomed to 30 thousand. That getting on for double in just 45 years, a huge increase, with all the problems that entails, most especially housing,

leeds around 1800

The artist JMW Turner was a regular visitor to Leeds at the start of the 18th century, and he did a sketch and painting of the town from Beeston Hill in 1814. The painting itself is in the Tate Gallery in London; this image is from Yale university, the sketch image from the Tate. Building and industry is still very much congregated around Leeds, although it’s certainly spreading out – yet most still north of the Aire. Just a few miles away, this is pure countryside.

Far forward another 30 years, and that population had more than doubled again; it now stood at 71 thousand. Change and the way industry and trade have exerted their grip on Leeds are obvious in a drastically altered skyline. Factory chimneys are everywhere. The warehouses by the river are almost skyscrapers for their times. What’s most noticeable, though, is the darkness of the sky. All the smoke spewed out, day after day, creating a haze over the place.

This 1840 panorama very effectively captures the transformation of Leeds into an industrial landscape. Still 50 years from becoming a city, it was one of the manufacturing centres of a burgeoning empire, a true Victorian success story – as long as you were at the top of the ladder, looking down on those below. There was wealth, plenty of it, but also extreme poverty hidden under all the smoke that hung over the town.

1840 Leeds

Yet, for all its growth, Leeds remained quite a contained place. Everything was crammed close and tight. New houses went up, spreading the reach, but so many places were still quite rural, as this 1858 view from Beeston Hill shows. Compare that to Turner’s 1814 painting, and away from the town, you’d be hard pressed to find many changes to the landscape. Chimneys and the smoke, the grey pall to the sky, are the main features of Leeds. But where the artist sits, building remains quite sparse, surprising really, with the population now topping 117 thousand, although in Beeston itself there were only 6,700 people, a figure that that only risen by 1000 in the previous 20 years.

leeds from beeston hall 1858

Even as late as 1870, there was still a fair amount of agricultural land in Holbeck, with all the building the factories hugging the area closer to the river, although it was continually pushing out. In Leeds the population was soaring, up to 139 thousand, and in Holbeck itself it was over 17,000.


A pair of drawings from around 1880 try to capture Leeds. By this stage, any real panorama has become impossible. The town – not a city until 1893 – has grown too big for any single drawing to encompass it all. It sprawled, containing 160 thousand people and slowly expanding like a puddle, gobbling up the out-townships that had once been villages with their own strong identities. Even so, south of the river there are still more open spaces, and about the only trees you’ll see in the whole landscape. The style of this almost seem to anticipate L.S. Lowry. There’s industry everywhere, too many factories and chimneys to even count, the gasometers, the railways as one of the main features. By this time, Leeds has becoming one of the great manufacturing cities of the British Empire, at the height of its wealth – something that can be seen in the grand Victorian buildings all around the city centre, yet also in the back-to-back houses of the working-class suburbs, dwelling originally meant to last 70 years but still going strong.

Two images from 1890 show the real stranglehold that manufacturing had one Leeds. The first, from Holbeck Junction, looks into Leeds. It’s busy, it’s bustling, the skies dark with smoke. The top of the Town Hall rises on the skyline, but it’s the factories and offices that are doing the important work, that dominate the image. This isn’t civic pride; it’s business.

And the cost of doing business is shown in the second image along the canal. On both sides there’s nothing beyond the smoke of production, Blake’s dark Satanic mills come to terrible life, probably worse than anything he’d envisaged. There were 177,000 people living in Leeds at this time, and most of them were no more than the human fuel for the factories.

The age of photography in the 20th century offers a more dispassionate view. A camera lens is different to an artist’s eye, and it’s become impossible to encompass Leeds in a single image; it’s simply too big. Both these images are from the 1930s. In the first, the brand-new Civic Hall takes centre stage, the infirmary below it, the Town Hall to the right. But spreading out from that, far beyond anything here, there are houses. Most of them date from the late 19th century, and hardly any of them exist any more.

leeds 1930s

The second view, of Harehills Lane, offers more of the same. A factory as the focal point, endless streets of back-to-back housing – and, of course, chimneys and smoke. By then, though, industry was already in decline. The slump after World War I had become the Great Depression.

harehills lane 1930s-40

300 years on, what had happened to the small, simple town shown in 1715? Hardly any of it remained, just a handful of buildings, all of them churches or pubs. Wool remade the city first, and then industry caught the place in its maw and altered it almost beyond recognition.

Almost, but not completely. Someone from the 1700s could still have found his way through the a number of streets in the city centre in the 1930s. They were laid out exactly the same. He might hardly recognise anything, but he’d still be able to tell where he stood. And he’d have made sense of the of the people. Stubborn, defiant, some of them venal. Many of those qualities haven’t changed. The smells of the city would have altered. No more open sewers, middens or cess pits. Instead, there was the constant taste of soot, the washing already grey by the time it was hauled in after washing.

And all of this is what I try to make a reader understand and feel, to experience as if they’d been there. It’s important, it’s the backdrop, it alters, and each small shift  helps form the people who fill out my books. But it’s more than them – it’s shaped all of us who live her.

The Cloth Searcher

You didn’t think I’d let a week pass without a Leeds story, did you? It might be Christmas week, but let’s face it, you’re tired of work and sick of shopping. So make yourself a cuppa, relax, and we’ll take a little trip back to see Leeds in 1590.

‘Hoping is not enough, sir!’ Randall Tenche berated the younger man. ‘You have to act with certainty. Certainty!’
Ebenezer Lister was sweating inside his doublet. It wasn’t just the warm July weather. He’d been nervous about reporting his doubts to Tenche, knowing how excitable and precise the man could be.
It wasn’t as if he wanted the duty of Cloth Searcher. And by rights he shouldn’t have had it. But with Tenche so often gone from Leeds these days, it had to fall on someone. The merchants had elected him as Tenche’s deputy in the post of Cloth Searcher. So, each Tuesday and Saturday morning that Tenche was away, Lister was on Leeds Bridge, examining the lengths of woven cloth displayed for sale on the parapets.
The office brought great responsibility. If Leeds was ever going to be a force in the wool market, the merchants argued, if it was ever going to be greater than York or Beverley, then the quality of the cloth had to be the highest. Unassailable. And so the cloth searcher inspected each piece to make sure it met the standards – and they were high. Any not deemed adequate were rejected.
Yesterday Lister has passed a piece that might not have been good enough. He had his doubts but he’d let it go because it wasn’t sure. Tenche hadn’t been here – he’d been on the road, coming back from Wollaton in Nottinghamshire. Now Lister had confessed his fault and he was feeling the sharp edge of Tenche’s tongue.
He stood and took it, knowing he’d done the wrong thing.
‘God in heaven, man. Don’t you want Leeds to have the best reputation in England?’
‘Of course.’ Lister swallowed.
‘Who bought the piece?’
‘Mr. Atkinson.’
‘I’ll go and see him later. If it’s not good enough, perhaps we can recompense him and it can just vanish. Who was the clothier?’
‘Thompson. From Whitkirk.’
‘I know him,’ Tenche said with a nod. ‘He’s always been a sly devil. I’ve had to refuse his work before.’ He sighed. ‘Never mind, never mind. Just be more careful next time.’
‘Will you be here for Saturday’s market, sir?’
Tenche fixed him with a stare.
‘I think I’d better make sure I am, don’t you?’

Alone, Randall Tenche paced around the room. His strongbox sat in once corner. He knew to the last farthing what lay inside. Always be certain of what you have; that was what his father had drummed into him, and he’d lived by it. The knowledge let him know what risks he could afford to take.
Bidding on the tapestry work the year before had been the biggest chance yet. So far it had paid off handsomely. £50 per annum from Sir Francis Willoughby at Wollaton Hall to execute on cloth the designs a painter created. Handsome money.
He’d been able to pursue the opportunity after two Flemish refugees came to Leeds and asked him for work. All he’d had to offer them was weaving, and they did a good job at that, both of them employing their families to help. But their experience was tapestry work; Flanders was renowned for that.
He stored the fact at the back of his mind. When he heard that Sir Francis was seeking tapestry makers he’d written the man a letter, explaining that he had the workers and imploring Sir Francis to enquire about his reputation. There was no man more honest that Randall Tenche. Everyone in Leeds said so.
After some negotiations he’d signed the contract. A huge sum for himself and six shillings and eight pence to each of the workers for every tapestry. His workers would create them in wool and silk, however Sir Francis demanded. Everything from dyeing and spinning to weaving. And they’d done it all very well; Sir Francis was pleased with the result, displaying them in the rooms at Wollaton Hall.
But on this last trip he’d had a new request: along with the silk Willoughby wanted the tapestry picked out in gold. It was in the contract, Tenche knew that, but this was the first time the man had invoked it.
‘I want something grand,’ Sir Francis told him. ‘Something fit…for a queen.’ And he’d let the words slowly settle.
So that was it. He was expecting Her Majesty to visit Wollaton Hall and he wanted a gift for her. He’d brought back the sketch, a woodland scene with nymphs and deer. Crudely drawn, but the weavers could make art out of it.
The door opened and Catherine, the servant, entered.
‘Mrs Tenche wants me to tell you it’s time for dinner, sir.’
‘Very well. I’ll be along shortly.’
She left and he sat at his desk for a moment. Where in the name of God was he going to find gold thread in Leeds?

‘You’ve been restive since you came back yesterday,’ Meg observed as he pushed the food around the pewter plate. ‘Don’t waste it. That’s good beef. I selected it at the Shambles myself.’
She was a prim woman, always cautious of luxury, even though they could well afford a good life. Meg always dressed plainly, as if all the extravagant silks in a gown could bring sin and danger on her. Every Sunday she attended the Parish Church faithfully. Not simply the morning service that he snored through, but all three during the day, dragging their children along with her.
His son Nicholas was wolfing down his food. Fourteen now, he’d been leaving for the Lowlands in another month. Tenche had arranged the boy’s apprenticeship with a merchant there. Let him learn that end of the business. He’d already been working in Leeds for three years, since he left the Grammar School, and he knew it as well as anyone. By the time he was ready to take over from his father he’d have a thorough understanding of how everything worked. And he’d have contacts. Contacts, they were the invaluable thing about business. Not what you knew but who you knew. Nicholas would do well. His head was firmly on his shoulders.
His daughter, Hannah, though, she was a different matter. She seemed to have no interest in anything. When pressed by her mother, she’d embroider a little, putting the needle aside as soon as she could. She was a year younger than her brother, pretty enough, Tenche supposed. He wondered if he might find a suitable husband for her soon. At least she wouldn’t be brooding around his house then.
‘The meal’s fine.’ He took a bite, chewing slowly to illustrate his enjoyment, and followed it with a gulp of wine. ‘I need to go,’ he said as he stood from the table. ‘I have an appointment.’

Dieter and Josef were brothers. They’d made their way to Leeds from Flanders together, wives and children travelling with them. They shared an old house near the top of Vicar Lane, looms set up on the ground floor, everyone living higgledy-piggledy upstairs. It seemed an odd arrangement to Tenche, but they were content enough with it.
He gave them the drawing, listening as they made their suggestions and pointed out what might work and what wouldn’t. Finally he said,
‘This is meant as a gift for Queen Elizabeth,’ and that left them quiet. ‘It needs to be the best you’ve ever made.’
‘It will be,’ Josef assured him. Over the last three years his voice had taken on the Leeds vowels to mix with his guttural speech. It wasn’t attractive. ‘The best ever.’
‘There’s one more thing,’ Tenche told them. ‘Sir Francis wants gold thread worked in to this.’
‘That won’t be easy,’ Josef said after some thought. ‘We’ve worked in gold before, a long time ago. It’s very delicate. Very expensive, too.’
‘Sir Francis understands that. He’s paying us a little extra.’
‘Good, good.’ Josef nodded approvingly.
‘Where will we find the thread?’ Dieter asked, sitting on the bench with his mug of ale. He drank all through the day but he was always in control of himself, hands steady and mind alert. He was the quieter brother, rarely speaking. ‘I’ve never seen any gold thread here.’
‘Nor have I,’ Tenche admitted. ‘I hoped you might know.’
‘York,’ Dieter told him. ‘Isn’t that where your archbishop lives? All those rich garments, they must have it for sale there.’
Tenche smiled.
‘Of course. I’ll go there tomorrow.’
He felt relieved. One problem solved.
‘Buy the best quality,’ Josef advised. ‘If you don’t, it will just snap.’
‘I will.’ It was for the Queen. He wasn’t going to cut corners there.

Atkinson was in his warehouse behind the big house on Briggate. As long as there was daylight, that was where he spent his time. Often long past that, too, his servant almost having to drag him in to supper with his family.
He was a man of profit. Atkinson lived for the excellent bargain and the well-struck deal that brought him good money. He revelled in it. In his forties, hair gone grey, he walked with a small stoop, his face always serious, his gaze forever searching around.
‘Tenche,’ he said. It was his normal greeting, terse and non-committal. ‘How was Nottinghamshire?’
‘Fine.’ He wasn’t about to say much. Keep your mouth closed, his father had said, and it had proved to be powerful advice over the years.
‘We missed you at the market yesterday.’
‘I heard you bought some cloth.’
‘Bought and already sold. A fair price for it, too.’ Atkinson gave a satisfied smile. ‘Shipping it out in the morning.’
‘There might be a problem, sir. Mr Lister came to see me this morning. He has his doubts about the quality of the cloth you purchased.’
‘Doubts?’ The word seemed to confuse him. ‘What kind of doubts? He passed it. He never said a word to me.’
‘He thinks he might have acted rashly, that it might not be good enough.’
‘Too late now.’ Atkinson waved the idea away. ‘It’s bought and paid for.’
‘I’d still like to look at it, if you’d be so good…’
‘No,’ the man said firmly. ‘I spent half the morning packing it. I’m not going to get it out again just because young Lister can’t make up his mind. If he doesn’t know how to be a cloth searcher, maybe we need someone else.’ He stared at Tenche. ‘Or one who’s always here for the markets.’
‘You know the reason I was away,’ Tenche said.
‘You’ve been gone a great deal in the last year.’ Atkinson seemed to warm to his idea. ‘It’s not good enough.’
‘It’s business, Hezekiah.’ He tried to make his tone friendly.
‘No doubt it is,’ Atkinson said with a quick nod. ‘But there’s business here, too, and that’s a damned sight more important to me.’
‘Let me at least take a look at the cloth. The reputation of Leeds stands on everything we send out.’
‘Your fellow passed it, didn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ Tenche agreed cautiously. ‘But-’
‘No buts.’ Atkinson slammed his fist down on the desk. The noise rattled through the warehouse. ‘He passed it. If he’s having second thoughts now, it’s too late. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Absolutely, Hezekiah.’ He spoke through gritted teeth. ‘But remember: the trade here is still young. We’ve worked hard to gain a reputation. All of us. It wouldn’t take much for it to vanish.’
‘Then perhaps the cloth searcher should do his job thoroughly and not rely so much on someone who’s little more than a boy.’ Atkinson glowered at him. ‘That cloth leaves tomorrow, and damn the man who tries to stop it.’
Tenche turned away, bidding the man good day. He could argue until his face was blue but he’d have no joy here. Atkinson was determined and Tenche had no power to stop things. The man was right; if Lister had passed the cloth, there was nothing more to be done, and Atkinson had never been a man to care about right or wrong, not when he weighed it against profit.
He knew that for the next fortnight he’d spend every night tossing and turning each night, hoping the quality of the cloth was enough and that the buyers were satisfied. Only then would he be able to sleep properly. Ultimately the responsibility was his. He’d taken on the job of cloth searcher. It had been an honour, one he’d sought, and he’d neglected it.
No more. He’d make sure he was at the cloth markets. Each Tuesday and Saturday on the bridge, Lister with him until he was certain he could trust the lad.

Historical Note: Randall Tenche was deemed and honest many by everyone. His contract with Sir Francis Willoughby was very lucrative – £50 was a huge sum in Elizabethan times – and he made sure everything was executed well. He was also the cloth searcher for Leeds. It was an honorary position, given to someone who could be trusted. The searcher inspected the cloth for sale at the market and rejected anything not considered good enough. It was a way of making sure Leeds only sold high quality cloth, giving it the reputation to surpass other towns.