THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Benjamin Gott (1762-1840)
Merchant, Industrialist, Patron of the Arts
It comes as a shock to find an empty space now in Wellington Street where the chunky, concrete Yorkshire Post building stood so recently, a familiar landmark to thousands of passing motorists. Fifty years ago another iconic building stood here, also swept away in the name of modernisation, though after a much longer existence. This was Benjamin Gott’s huge Bean Ing Mill, the first and largest of the Leeds woollen mills and famous in its day throughout Europe. Benjamin Gott revolutionised the production of woollen cloth and put Leeds on the map as a textile centre. In the process he made a fortune, building a great house and park and sponsoring buildings and works of art which remain part of the city’s heritage.
Born in Calverley in 1762, he came from a comfortable background. His father was the engineer for the Aire and Calder Navigation and later surveyor for the West Riding. He could afford to launch Benjamin, at eighteen, into a career with a leading firm of Leeds cloth merchants, Wormald and Fountaine, first as an apprentice and then a partner – total cost £4000 (over quarter of a million now). Young, energetic, and inventive, Benjamin soon became the driving force in the firm, and when the senior partners died he took over control. It was lucky timing: trade was booming, with a massive increase in demand for all qualities of cloth, particularly from America. New advances in spinning and weaving and the development of steam power meant that production could be industrialised and the quality of the finished cloth improved. Benjamin seized the opportunity.
In 1792 he bought a field known as Bean Ing, in open country next to the river, and began building a new mill (originally called Park Mill) where many of the processes of cloth-making could be brought together and mechanised, though weaving remained mostly home-based. He bought new machinery and installed one of the newly-developed Boulton and Watt steam engines – forging a lasting friendship with the inventors. He experimented with new dyeing methods and other processes. He encountered resistance (threats and broken windows) from some hand workers, particularly the croppers, but faced it out.
The outbreak of war with France brought a sudden massive demand for army uniform cloth and blankets, while trade with the Americas and China boomed. By 1800 the Mill was employing over a thousand workers but still could not meet demand, so he set up another vast mill at Armley (now the Industrial Museum) Both mills were to suffer devastating fires, but he rebuilt them to fireproof standards. Visitors marvelled at his increasingly massive Bean Ing mill, but the prevailing wind wafted its black smoke and evil smells across the town. He was taken to court in 1824 but the case was dismissed. The wealthy fled to the country.
His personal life flourished too. In 1790 he married Elizabeth Rhodes, and ten children followed. He needed a large house for his growing family and in 1803 bought an estate in Armley, with wooded grounds plunging steeply down to the Aire valley. He employed the famous landscape designer Humphrey Repton to lay out the park and the architect Robert Smirke to build a grand mansion, Armley House, in the fashionable Greek Revival style, its colonnaded terrace overlooking spectacular views, on one side towards the romantic ruins of Kirkstall Abbey and on the other towards Armley Mill and the chimneys and furnaces of Leeds – the source of his wealth. With his business and family flourishing, he could devote time to enriching his new house with sculpture, paintings, books and fine furniture. He commissioned many works from the sculptor Joseph Gott in Rome (his cousin) and portraits from the eminent painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. One poignant commission was for a monument to his sons Benjamin and Henry, who had died abroad in their twenties – now in St Bartholomew’s Church, with his own monument by Gott.
He played his part too in civic life: Mayor in 1799, a founder of the Philosophical and Literary Society and the Mechanics’ Institute, and a sponsor of public works of art. He gave generous donations locally, to the chapel, almshouses and school in Armley. By the time he died in 1840, he was said to be a millionaire, the grand old man of the cloth industry on which Leeds’ prosperity was based. A monument to him stands in the Parish Church, and sculptures he owned are in the city’s collection. Armley House has suffered over the years, but survives, together with its beautiful Park, now partly used as a golf course, opened as Gott’s Park in 1928 for people to enjoy, a memorial to one of Leeds’ industrial giants.