Notes from the Library (No. 6, December 2013)
A personal account of a Leeds wheelwright’s business 1805-1834

hollidays book

This well-worn leather-bound foolscap book, with over 250 handwritten pages, belonged to Thomas Holliday, a master wheelwright who ran a substantial business in Hunslet from 1805 to 1839, making a wide range of carts and wagons, wheels and axles, mainly for the booming carrier trade. The book, dated 1822 on the spine but covering the period 1805-1834, is written in his own hand and seems to have been for his personal use, but perhaps was also intended for his son who later took over the business. Here, roughly indexed but in haphazard order, he recorded the growth of his business over the years, his dealings with his customers, his stock and turnover (from his day books and ledgers), his terms of employment for his apprentices and workmen, and on a more personal level his anxieties, fears, and thoughts about the problems he faced with his workmen, in what were then difficult times of labour unrest. Some pages are filled with neat, tightly-written tables and notes, at times difficult to read, others with sprawling writing sprinkled with angry capitals, reflecting his aggrieved feelings.

Thomas Holliday was born c 1773, probably in Leeds. By his own account he was apprenticed to a wheelwright when he was about 13, and served 21 years as an apprentice and a journeyman until in 1805 he set up as a master wheelwright, in partnership with John Richardson, as Holliday and Richardson, Wheelwrights, Blacksmiths and Patent Arms Manufacturers, Wilks Place, Hunslet Lane. (‘Patent Arms’ were patented forged axle arms for wagon/cart wheels; the firm also made the cheaper ‘common’ and ‘turned’ arms.) For some 20 years Thomas Holliday lived nearby, in Cooper’s Court, Bowman Lane. The partnership was dissolved in 1822, and he then ran the business himself, transferring his workshop to the newly-built Waterloo Street close by, while he moved his home to Trafalgar Street, off North Street (and on retirement to St Peter’s Square).

hollidays book

Extract from the 1815 Netlam and Giles map, showing Wilks Yard, Hunslet Lane, and Cooper’s Court, off Bowman Lane, south of Leeds Bridge.

In this pre-railway age his business thrived as industry in Leeds expanded: carts were needed to carry supplies of coal, wherries for building-stone, and wagons to transport goods in and out of Leeds through the carrier network – to London, to the ports for export overseas, and to every corner of the country. Roads had been improved under the turnpike system, and technical improvements in wagon design had speeded road transport. By the mid 1820s, in addition to local traffic, and the longer-distance stage and mail coaches, more than 40 carriers’ heavy wagons and ‘caravans’ left Leeds every day wagons on routes across the country, sometimes linking with fly-boats working along the canals. Some of the biggest firms of carriers were among Thomas Holliday’s customers: Deacon Harrison & Co., F & R Pickersgill, John Hartley, and others. He not only constructed, repaired and sold carts and wagons, gantry wherries, wheels of varying width, axles etc, but he also offered the carriers a ‘mileage’ scheme: he would build and provide them with new wagons which he undertook to keep in repair, in return for a mileage charge for the journeys taken – details of some of these agreements are noted in his book. This was clearly a popular option with the big firms of carriers and brought in a regular income. When Thomas Holliday summed up his annual assets over the years from 1805 to 1834 his increasing prosperity was evident. His modest assets in 1805 of £168.19s.4d had grown by 1834 to £7316, including the value of two plots of land and two houses he had recently bought (on mortgage), perhaps in readiness for retirement. He was now a man of property.

But life was not easy for him, as he confided in his book. From 1822, when he took over on his own, he was plagued by problems with his workmen. He employed several apprentices and some 10-12 journeymen (wheelwrights and blacksmiths, and sawyers responsible for sawing the wood), most paid by the week but some, notably the sawyers, by ‘the piece’; also some casual labour. He recorded his very detailed rules of work for his journeymen in 1827: every day (except Sunday) work to begin at 6am and end at 7pm, with half hour breaks for breakfast and for ‘drinking’ in the afternoon, and an hour for dinner at 12, with adjustments for dark winter days when work had to finish earlier; wages to be as agreed with each man – and no ‘perks’! He wanted, he said, to pay what was fair and commonly paid by other masters, and he clearly viewed himself as a reasonable employer. But these were times of unrest and disturbance, with working men banding together for improved conditions in spite of the Combination Acts, which had banned trade unions and collective action. One of his trusted long-term journeymen led a turn-out in 1823 and had to be persuaded back with an increase in his weekly wage from 24s. to 27s. In 1824 Thomas recorded his anxieties about the sawyers, a notoriously difficult group who worked in dreadful conditions in the sawpit. He copied out the rules of ‘the Friendly Burial Institution of Sawyers, Leeds’, a union in disguise, and wrote of his fears of these ‘Luddite’ sawyers, who were trying to terrorise their fellow workers into joining their ‘Club’, broke up tools, and ‘threatened mischief and theft’.

The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824 but more strikes followed and a new Act was passed in 1825, again outlawing trade unions and provoking more discontent. In 1827 he noted ‘I have been so Ill used since 1822 with My Old Workmen, especaly; with their union and combining with each other & turning out against me to advance their wages and Prices for doing work, to shorten the time of working, to increase their privilidges, to become Master of Me and do as they plese’. The situation worsened in 1833, when the Leeds wheelwrights formed a Society with the motto ‘Unity is Strength’, threatened to strike and, he feared, attack their masters.


He copied out their recruitment letter, speculated anxiously about possible defensive action, and wrote a long account of his ‘reasoned’ rejection of a written request to finish work at 5 o’clock on a Saturday – a request that to modern eyes seems modest enough, and was expressed in very moderate terms. He had to face days of strikes, but there is no record that he ever suffered violence. Nevertheless his final comments in 1834 reveal his bitter disillusionment with the ‘idle, self-serving, ignorant, conceited’ workmen of the day.

The book ends with a series of drawings, apparently sketch plans for a new workshop, perhaps dating to his move to Waterloo Street. They are not complete but we can get an idea of his substantial works: a wheelwright’s shop, with separate sections for bodies, carriages and wheels; a smith’s shop with three furnaces, for ‘stroking’, hooping, and making patent arms, with a tall chimney; a paint shop; a sawyer’s shop and sawpit, with a stack for ‘round wood’; a dryhouse; a harness room; a counting house.

Thomas Holliday retired in 1839 and died in 1849. His business did not last long in the new railway age. Remarkably, his book did survive: a unique, personal glimpse into one aspect of the commercial, labour and transport history of Leeds in the early nineteenth century.

Sources: Thomas Holliday’s Book (Thoresby Soc. MS II.1); Map and images from the Society’s collection. © E. J. Bradford/Thoresby Society.



All illustrations are from the Thoresby Society’s collection.