Writing of Leeds’ White and Mixed Cloth Halls, in 1814, Seacroft man George Walker said:
“They are both open every Tuesday and Saturday morning for one hour; in which very limited time all the business is transacted. The cloth is arranged on low wooden stands; the manufacturer behind it, and the merchant or buyer passes in front. As the bargains are made in a half whisper, strangers are much surprised with the silence which prevails in such a crowd.”
At first, Leeds had just a White Cloth Hall but as other West Riding towns started to vie with it for the trade, it built a bigger and better White Cloth Hall and then a Mixed Cloth Hall, too.
“By 1758, however, the [wool] trade had outgrown that old‑fashioned mart, and, accordingly, a commodious building, now known as the Mixed Cloth Hall, was set up a little to the west of Trinity Church. This structure, thought preposterously large at the time… formed a quadrangle three hundred and sixty‑four feet long, and a hundred and ninety‑two feet broad, with an inner court measuring three hundred and thirty feet, by ninety‑six. It was accessible by seven doors, was lighted by a hundred and sixty‑seven windows, and was large enough, it was reckoned, to hold 109,200 l.‘s worth of cloth at a time. Within seventeen years from its opening, it was found necessary to build another meeting‑place. The White Cloth Hall, between Briggate and Saint Peter’s Church, was completed in 1775; and within a few years, nine similar structures were opened in all the trading towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire…”
[H. R. Fox Bourne. English Merchants: Memoirs in Illustration of the Progress of English Commerce, 1866, II, 217‑18, 219; in J. T. Ward, ed., The Factory Syste
m, Vol. I, Birth and Growth (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), pp.37-38].
Yesterday I was in Leeds for the day so thought I’d go on about this important ‘wool’ city and its history. For some of the day, I was in the Local History Library, researching a Napoleonic mill owner’s diary. For the rest of the day, we visited the Art Gallery, Museum, and Royal Armouries and got some great pics.
Like everyone who grew up in my village in the 1960s, I was born at St James’ Hospital, in Leeds. So technically, am a ‘Loiner’ like my father, grandfather and great grandfather. Even if I only “lived” there til I was ten days old!
My family, the Listers, were alternately wool weavers/clothiers and croppers right down to my great grandad who broke with tradition and became a printer.
Recently mentioned this to a curator of a West Riding Museum, when we were documenting some Great Wheels in his reserve collection, and he commented “They were the elite of the West Riding wool trade” (the croppers). The croppers were so skilled at finishing the woven cloth, their work added a great deal of value to the cloth’s price. My great great grandad, Tom Lister, came to Leeds from Huddersfield. He was a cropper, his father a weaver from Halifax who came to Huddersfield around 1816, just a handful of years after the Luddite croppers had been active in Huddersfield and Halifax. So far as I can trace, this lot go back and back in Halifax, as wool weavers/croppers. This had been the biggest brick wall in our family history, and we only finally broke through it in December, 2012, so I am still coming to terms with the fact my wool love is in the blood!
Somewhere round about 1971, we had a student teacher come to teach us for part of a term. She came in one day having looked up the meanings of all our names. When she got to me, I was intrigued to hear my first name meant “weaver of cloth” and my surname, by coincidence, “dyer of cloth”. Lister is a name thought to originate in medieval Leeds, so it seems my West Riding weavers went full circle, returning to Leeds in the mid 19thC.
I can do the Leeds equivalent of “I remember when it was all fields round here” – as the glassed over shopping area in the Victoria Quarter, next to County Arcade, I can remember when that was still a road and can remember being driven down it! I have always loved Leeds’ arcades, and long been fascinated by this particular gilt mosaic on the dome of the County Arcade. All of this along the usual grand civic lines of Industry, Labour, Prosperity, etc.
Leeds must have the most stunning late Victorian and Edwardian civic architecture, in the country. Endless classical and progressive themes explored on various buildings, around Briggate and beyond. And this is just one of many references to the wool industry; romanticised and slightly illogical as it is. The spinner appears to have some kind of distaff but no discernible spindle. By the time this mosaic was made, hand spindles had fallen out of folk memory, in England and the spinning jenny had enjoyed a good hundred years or so pre-eminence. My own Halifax hand-weavers came to Leeds to work in vast, mechanised mills. That was the way of it.
Nothing to do with spinning whatsoever, but Thornton’s Arcade holds many happy memories, for me. As a child, I would go into Leeds on the bus with my mum and many is the time she’d race across town from the bus station, to get to Thornton’s Arcade as the clock struck the hour. Apparently, it is called ‘The Ivanhoe Clock’ but we always knew it as ‘the Robin Hood Clock’. The clock was made by William Potts and Sons of Leeds and shows Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Frair Tuck (in the skimpiest monk’s habit ever) and someone called, remarkably, Gurth the Swineherd all characters from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’. Leeds seems to have had a love affair with Sir Walter, as his head is one of the literary greats depicted in bas relief in the magnificent Tiled Hall, at the Art Gallery.
Another place that holds great memories is Leeds City Market. My grandfather – the one whose grandfather was the cropper – walked into the city centre most days and went to the market. I never go in there but I think of him. Leeds’ symbol is the owl, of course, and also sheep pop up on various coats of arms and insignia around the city, given the city’s proud woollen industry history. But the third most common bit of Leeds iconography is the dragon. The market’s wrought iron dragons are the first thing I think about, when I think about Leeds.
My grandfather was incredibly active and fit for a man in his seventies; and was on his boat on the Ouse near York when he wasn’t walking rapidly through the streets of central Leeds. The time we spent on the river with him, is part of the reason I got interested in the inland ganseys.
Next, we were on to the Royal Armouries, by the Aire and Calder canal’s wharf – another relic of Leeds’ once mighty industry. The canal joins with the Leeds & Liverpool around this point, as well. Those of you awaiting ‘River Ganseys’ should know we have documented a number of gansey motifs from the canals. These boats carried all kinds of freight and were the arterial routes that held the life-blood of the West Riding’s commerce. Now of course, only a handful remain, mainly as pleasure boats of one kind or another. Of course, canal boats weren’t the only form of transport for the wool packs.
On our travels yesterday, we wandered through Leeds’ new shopping centre, Trinity.
Here we found the stunning fifty foot high, two tonne sculpture, ‘Equus Altus’, (‘high horse’), by artist Andy Scott. Andy wanted to show Leeds’ wool heritage, and how the pack-horse was “the HGV of its time”. Another line of my Leeds ancestors came to the city, also mid 19thC, from the Dales, where they had reared working horses; fell ponies and pack horses amongst them. Yesterday, I passed an hour or two in Leeds Library trancribing parts of the diary of a Bramley mill owner, who wrote, about visiting Leeds Cloth Hall in January 1808:
“5th January. John , Josh & Father at Leeds, a soft morning but very slippery. A Bad Market for Cloth but a good many Merchants in the Cloth Hall. One Waggon and four horses might have pulled all the Cloth that has been bought today, or any market day lately…”
Although our wool trade – once the greatest in the world – is long gone, its place in our hearts will never be erased, and ‘Equus Altus’ is keeping our heritage alive in one way, as today’s textile craftsfolk do, in another.
All photos except final one, credit: Nathaniel Hunt