The History of Leeds – Cotton, Wool, Flax, Linen and the Industrial Revolution

  • SumoMe

‘The phrase “Industrial Revolution” can be interpreted in many ways. It is not simply a matter of technical innovation, but also of the economic, social and political changes which were made possible by the revolution in technology.’[i]


Lying upon the banks of the River Aire, Leeds finds itself in no unlucky geographical position. Since 1816, a canal link between Liverpool and Leeds meant that Leeds was now at the epicentre of northern trading; connected to two major coastal ports at opposing sides of the country. The positioning of Leeds however, is no coincidence and the reasoning behind this can be traced back to 1207, during the High Middle Ages.

Although Leeds is indeed mentioned in The Domesday Book of 1086 (notable for containing around 200 people), the true reckoning of Leeds came about when Lord of the Manor, Maurice Paynel (otherwise known as Maurice ‘Paynel’ De Grant), established a charter in the hope of creating a new town. Establishing this creation meant that the underfunded Maurice would be able to free people from the land; so they could learn trades useful to the local area where they would pay high rent to the Lord of the Manor. The preamble of the original charter reads;

‘I Maurice Paynall have given and granted and by this charter confirmed to my burgesses of Leeds and their heirs franchise and free burgage and their tofts and with each toft half an acre of land for tillage to hold these of me and my heirs in fief and inheritance freely quit and honourably rendering annually to me and my heirs for each toft and half an acre of land sixteen pence at Pentecost and at Martinmas.’

The first borough charter was the seed in the soil that would lead to the slow development and growth which would later lead to the future city. In fact, in the Poll Tax of 1379, the town was seen to have less than 300 residents and nearby settlements such as Selby and Snaith (a small town near Goole), were seen to be of higher importance. Interestingly however, in 1217, Maurice Paynell lost his estate after siding with the French during that Battle of Lincoln (thereby ending the First Barons’ War). Just over forty years later in 1275, the first reference to cloth making in Leeds can be found. Although this is significant, little progression in terms of industry was taking place; this would not come into play until around the sixteenth century.

Leeds in 1560

Leeds in 1560. Used with kind permission by Steven Burt and Kevin Grady

A little around 1560, only three years before the first stocking frame machine is invented, Leeds, as seen by the earliest map; starts to show evidence of an expanding town as streets can be seen leading away from the apex of the town. Although Leeds inhibited various trades, including a woollen mill from around 1400, no mention of growth and prosperous activity would take place until around the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, which was, in its own way, a prelude and seedling to the great Industrial Revolution which would take place a little over sixty years later.

‘In the material field the human race has only taken two major steps forward in a million years’ occupation of this planet. The first was when agriculture was pioneered in the Middle East, about 10,000 years ago… The second was what we call the Industrial Revolution, which had its origins deep in the history of Western Europe…’[ii]

Indeed, although it is a great shame to banish the scarcely remembered yet highly imperative ‘Glorious Revolution’ into the foot locker of history, it is now the Industrial Revolution which takes precedence in the history books and the subject of this very discussion.
Although many credited historians pinpoint the birth of the Industrial Revolution to 1750, the beginnings of the period can be found at a much earlier date than this.

‘Opinion varies as to the exact date, but it is estimated that the First Industrial Revolution took place between 1750 and 1850, and the second phase or Second Industrial Revolution between 1860 and 1900.'[iii]

If for example, we were to inspect the production of coal within the United Kingdom in 1660, we would find that the country produced around two million tonnes of coal on those twelve months. A century later and a decade into the Industrial Revolution we can see that the country was then using ten million tonnes. A figure which, credibly, is higher in the first decade of the revolution, although we must remind ourselves that this increase was no peak, and was rather a gradual growth throughout the years following 1660; the remnants of which can still be found all the way up to 1900, where Britain was found to be using 240 million tonnes of coal per year.

‘Britain was the pioneer of the modern Industrial Age, and within Britain the first great strides forward were made on the coalfields of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands.'[iv]

Indeed, it is coal, the very substance which we have now grown to view with a sense of abhorrence that laid the foundations and powered the engines of the Industrial Revolution; thus shaping the way we live today. It is therefore no coincidence, that upon the year which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, that cotton, flax and wool production became the main industries within Leeds (interestingly, a mere five years after the Bubonic plague hit the city wherein 1,325 people died).

‘Leeds was more than a market for industrial raw materials and foodstuffs. As the textile industry grew and others, especially coal mining, developed, and agriculture itself witnessed a new era of prosperity after 1750, wealth generated in this area gave it a prosperity which few other areas in England exceeded.’[v]

Indeed, Leeds held two weekly cloth markets within the centre of the town (at this stage, Leeds was still classified as a town, city status would not come for over a hundred years later), which were considered as one of the seven wonders of Georgian industrial England. The mass markets, where people travelled for many miles to attend, also attributed to the wealth of many inns throughout Briggate. Despite the vast prospering that was to be had throughout the region, like many areas of Britain, the wealth wasn’t exactly distributed to the masses. Like in major cities across the board, professional doctors, attorneys and bankers took much of the profit which was necessary for Leeds to expand; continuing its prosperities and matching the industry of nearby cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.

Besides the lives of the affluent elite, it is very hard to convey and analyse the day-to-day lives of those who worked in factories and production mills in and around Leeds. Most of this is due to the fact the information it is simply not documented and any evidence provided around the area is merely statistical; findings such as dates of birth, marriages, religion and deaths are quite possibly only the few indications of daily life that can be found.

Armley Mills as seen from Canal Street. Used with kind permission of Terry Cryer.

By 1788, Leeds continued its rapid rate of growth and in the same year, Colonel Thomas Lloyd, bought Armley Mills (now Armley Mills Museum) in the centre of Leeds and turned it into the world’s largest woollen mill. Llyods himself was a cloth merchant within the city itself and even became the Deputy Lieutenant of the West Riding and Commander of the Leeds Volunteer Infantry. Although the mill is known to have been around since 1707, it was not developed into the mega structure until much later.

Though Armley Mills is of huge significance to the city and the industrial revolution, there were other notable mills around this time. For instance, Temple Works, which can be found just a few minutes away, once contained ‘the largest room in the world.’ Built in 1838-40, the Works is known for its beautiful architecture and the production solution that it provided for flax mills all over the world. In fact, the roof of the building was so large that grass was planted on its surface, allowing sheep to graze upon the building itself.

Temple Works as seen in 1938. Photograph used with kind permission of Leeds Library and Information Service with Leodis.net

It was around the time of the building of Temple works when, in 1834, railway links between Leeds and Liverpool were connected, merely eighteen years after the canals connecting the coasts were finished. The development of both of these transportation veins were crucial links between Leeds and other industrial cities around the United Kingdom. Of course, thanks to the development of each of them, merchants in Leeds found it much easier to trade with the rest of Europe and the new world. Although the town continued to grow, the development was not all plain sailing; as the development of machinery around Britain continued to advance, so did the fear of this new equipment and the Luddite Movement therein attacked mills in the Leeds area in 1812 and in 1842, military intervention was found necessary to suppress a Chartist insurrection.

A little over eight years later however and the Industrial Revolution would be recognised as all but over and the machines that the fanatics set to destroy would be with us forever; though they would be continually developed and renewed, as can be seen in 1859 with the building of the first oil well; consequently signalling the birth of the internal combustion engine.

But where in the world, does that leave us today?

According to experts, although the industrial revolution is indeed left in the smoky shadows of the past, the environmental repercussions of the period are, unfortunately, still being felt today.

In a recent report, experts have warned with upmost starkness, that the period is continuing to pollute drinking water, poison rivers and threaten the modern landscape as we know it. This is happening because of the millions of tonnes of mining which occurred throughout the period is still contaminating up to 2,000 miles of waterways, with estimated repair costs rising into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Dr. Hugh Potter, a specialist for the Environment Agency stated that, ‘the metals are going to continue to come out of these mines and soil heaps for hundreds of years without any significant lowering of the impact. So unless we do something about it, it will have an impact for a very long time.’[vii]

The impact of the industrial revolution along the Peak District has been stated to have been catastrophic, so much so that the pollution has made local peat, more acidic than lemon juice itself.

With that put into consideration however, things are being done to help rectify the damage done by the industry.

Leeds is one of several Local Enterprise Partnerships which make up the Enterprise Zones in the UK for example, which aim to curb the amount of derelict and dilapidated buildings left over from the Industrial Revolution and is working to convert and develop them into working and successful buildings once more, making sure that the Industrial Revolution keeps on giving to the people of tomorrow.


Special thanks to leodis.net for sourcing the images used for the publication of this article and The Bedding Company manufacturers of bedding and bed linen in the UK since 1972 for their help in researching this article

[i] F. Singleton. Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire.  The Dalesman Publishing Company. 1970.

[ii] M. Rix. Industrial Archaeology. Historical Association. 1967.

[iii] E. Hobsbawm. The Age of Revolution: Europe 17:89-1848. Weidenfield & Nicolson Ltd. 1988.

[iv] F. Singleton. Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire. The Dalesman Publishing Company. 1970.

[v] D. Fraser. A History of Modern Leeds. Manchester University Press. 1980.

[vi] Learn History. Found at http://learnhistory.org.uk/cpp/luddites.htm. 2004.

[vii]BBC, 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-17315323