The River Aire meanders its way south-eastwards across Yorkshire and eventually joins the Humber and the North Sea. In prehistoric times it flowed through a heavily wooded and swampy valley and it is here, at a ford over the river, that the village of Leeds was established. Other villages such as Armley, Bramley, Headingley and Hunslet grew up on the rolling hills around it. However, it was Leeds, at that vital river crossing, which came to dominate the surrounding out-townships, gradually absorb them and ultimately become a major European city.

When the country was in the grip of the Ice Ages animals like the mammoth roamed through the Aire valley. As the ice melted and pine and birch trees began to dot the landscape, hippopotami wallowed in the swamps by the river and the auroch and red deer foraged in the surrounding hills. The antlers of a red deer have been found at Kirkstall; at Thwaite Mills the tusk of a mammoth and at Wortley the remains of three hippopotami.

The first human inhabitants of the area appeared in the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. Their remains have been found at Thorpe Stapleton a few miles to the east of Leeds. Implements from the Bronze Age have been found at Roundhay and Hunslet and a beaker at Tinshill. It was here on the hilltops north of the valley at Cookridge and Ireland Wood that the Iron Age Celts settled. Remains of their huts have been discovered there but no evidence has been found to support the theory that an Iron Age fort was established on Woodhouse Moor.

The Romans marched north to subdue the Brigantes, the tribe that inhabited most of northern Britain and a Roman fort and settlement were built at Burgodonum (Adel). Roman remains have been found both there and at several other places in the Leeds area. But it is not until some 300 years after the Romans left Britain that there is any written mention of Leeds.

About AD 730, the Venerable Bede, writing his classic 'History of the English Church and People', refers to Loidis, by which he meant the town and surrounding area of Leeds. He also went on to tell how the pagan king, Penda ,was killed at the battle of Winwaed 'in the region of Loidis.'

The coming of the Vikings saw Yorkshire divided into thirdings or 'ridings.' These were subdivided into wapentakes where the local assembly met. The villages south of the Aire; Armley, Beeston, Farnley, Hunslet and the rest were part of the Morley wapentake. Those to the north, like Leeds and Cookridge, were in the Skyrack wapentake which met at the old oak tree in Headingley. It has been suggested that a Viking settlement was established at Giant's Hill, Armley, but no archaeological evidence is available to support this.

With the arrival of the Normans comes the first detailed account of the area. According to Domesday Book Leeds had a mill, a church and a priest. It was sited around the area of the present Parish Church and fared much better than many of its neighbouring villages. William's punitive devastation, the infamous ‘Harrying of the North' in 1069 reduced the area between the Humber and the Tees into a waste land. The villages around Leeds did not escape. Seacroft, along with Garforth, Coldcotes, Manston, Bramley, Beeston, Halton, and Allerton were utterly destroyed. For some reason, Leeds was left unscathed and actually increased in value.

map of Leeds In 1207 Maurice Paynel, the lord of the manor, decided to develop a new town. He obtained a charter from King John and the new town grew around the street we now call Briggate. Most importantly it enabled the inhabitants to develop their own businesses. It became a focal point for the surrounding out-townships, standing as it did at the river crossing. Leeds probably had a bridge across the Aire in Norman times and certainly one existed by 1372. Slowly the old town, centred on Kirkgate, and the new one, around Briggate, coalesced.

By the fourteenth century Leeds was a busy place. Records show that there were two innkeepers, a butcher, and three smiths working in it. The beginnings of the textile trade are noted in the mention of the three dye vats in the town. In Kirkgate was the common oven where bread was baked and to the west of the town, on the site where the Scarborough Hotel now stands, was the lord's manor-house. Ranging north and west from there was the rolling parkland used by the lord for hunting - hence the names Park Row, Park Place and Park Square. Basinghall Street, originally Butts Lane, was the site of the archery butts and at Burmantofts, the borough men's tofts, were found some of the open fields where grain was grown. It would be ground into flour at the watermill sited on the river bank at the bottom of Mill Hill.

The church dominated everyday life. Apart from the Parish Church there were numerous chantry chapels around Briggate and Kirkgate. Although the manor of Leeds was relatively small, the parish of Leeds encompassed the villages of Hunslet, Headingley, Bramley, Seacroft and the rest of the out-townships. Adel and Whitkirk were separate parishes. A fine example of a mid-twelfth-century Norman church can still be seen at Adel and at Whitkirk is the only medieval church within the old city boundaries.

The Leeds area also could boast two religious settlements. In 1152, Cistercian monks from Fountains Abbey founded a monastery at Kirkstall. Its remains are among the best preserved monastic ruins in Europe. A little later, the Knights Templar established a settlement east of the town near the village of Newsam. Nothing of their habitation now remains other than the name Temple Newsam.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the wool trade had become Leeds' main industry. Its cloth market, originally held on the bridge, expanded so rapidly through the century that it was eventually moved to Briggate itself. However, by the 1620s disreputable clothiers were seriously damaging the business by selling inferior cloth and claiming that it was the original Leeds product. To combat this, Leeds merchants argued that the town should be able to regulate the trade through its own corporation. Thus in July 1626, Charles I granted the town its a charter and the first corporation of Leeds was established.

Active in campaigning for the new charter was John Harrison, a Leeds woollen merchant. He was to become one of the greatest benefactors of the town. In 1624 he replaced the old grammar school which had been founded in 1552, and in 1634 he built St John's Church at the top of Briggate.

However, the gradual economic prosperity of the town was halted as firstwar and then pestilence swept the land. With England riven by civil war, Leeds found itself in the hands of the Royalists. Then in January 1643, Sir Thomas Fairfax and his Parliamentarians launched a two pronged attack on its defences. Whilst the main body attacked the town from Woodhouse Moor a smaller body advanced on Leeds Bridge from the south. The action was centred around Briggate and lasted for about two hours. Fairfax was successful. Some 500 prisoners were taken but, in his words, ‘There were not above forty slain.'

Two years later an even worse disaster struck the town. Bubonic plague, which had made repeated appearances in Leeds through the centuries, struck in Vicar Lane. It spread quickly through Leeds and on to the out townships. Between March and December that year some 1,325 people perished.

Fortunately the town recovered fairly quickly from its setbacks and by 1720 when Daniel Defoe visited it he was able to remark of its cloth market that it was ‘a prodigy of its kind and not to be equalled in the world.' Knowledge of the period is considerably aided by the fact that the Leeds antiquarian, Ralph Thoresby kept a diary of the times and published, among other works, his famous Ducatus Leodiensis, the first history of the town. Not surprisingly, the premier historical society of Leeds, formed in 1889, was named after him.

The eighteenth century saw Leeds growing in strength both industrially and economically as well as culturally. The textile trade was flourishing. The numerous coal mines in the area provided fuel for the increasing population and for the textile factories which were beginning to emerge as the Industrial Revolution began to develop. Predominant among the local entrepreneurs who led the way were18C Benjamin Gott and John Marhshall. The woollen cloth manufacturer Gott became one of Europe's largest employers. His Bean Ing mill, sited at the west end of Wellington Street where the Yorkshire Post building used to stand, was the first to concentrate all the processes of manufacture under one roof. His smaller mill at Armley is now the Leeds Industrial Museum. John Marshall's flax mills in Holbeck can still be seen on Marshall Street. His most famous and original is a full scale replica of the Ancient Egyptian temple at Edfu which Marshall opened 1838.

Several important buildings were erected at this time time. Cloth halls were built for the sale of the cloth; the Coloured Cloth Hall, where dyed cloth was sold, was sited on present City Square whilst part of the one-time magnificent White Cloth Hall can still be seen behind the present Corn Exchange. Leeds General Infirmary was opened on Infirmary Street to meet the medical needs of the growing population. To cater for cultural pursuits the Assembly Rooms were built next to the White Cloth Hall; on Hunslet Lane the Theatre Royal opened as did music halls in Albion Street and Vicar Lane. The longest lasting of these cultural contributions is the Leeds Library which opened in 1768. It eventually moved to its present home in Commercial Street and is today the oldest surviving example of a subscription library left in England.

Throughout the eighteenth century transport was a national major issue. It was no less so in Leeds. However, by the end of that century the town was developing into a major coaching centre. The Leeds-Liverpool Canal and the Aire and Calder Navigation were both opened, linking the heartland of the industrial West Riding with both west and east coasts. Meanwhile, the building of a waggonway in 1758 to transport coal from Middleton Colliery to Leeds heralded the beginning of the railway age.

The nineteenth century saw the population of Leeds soar from 53,162 in 1801 to 428,572 in 1901. By the Victorian Age Britain had emerged as a major industrial nation and could claim to be the ‘workshop of the world'. Leeds was part of that success as it saw new industries begin to make their impact upon the town. The woollen and flax industries were still active until the 1870s and 1880s but as the century developed old industries like engineering expanded and new industries such as ready-made clothing emerged. But Leeds was fortunate in having a diversified industrial base and other dominant industries included leather, printing and brewing.

During the nineteenth century the increasing population, recurring economic crises, widespread poverty, appalling working and living conditions and political agitation posed problems the town had difficulty in coping with. Luddite riots broke out in Leeds in 1812 and in 1842 military intervention was required to support the newly formed Leeds Police force in suppressing a Chartist insurrection. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations on Holbeck Moor were the Leeds' response to the government's refusal to introduce some form of Parliamentary Reform. In 1832 when the Reform Bill was eventually passed Leeds was finally granted two MPs.

Diseases; cholera in 1832 and 1848 and typhus in 1847 took a heavy toll in the poorer areas. Robert Baker, the Leeds town surgeon, produced a series of reports which graphically identified the problem and which in turn became recognised as being of national importance whilst Leeds-born Richard Oastler, the ‘Factory King', launched his national campaign for factory reform in the Leeds press.

Many of those affected by the squalor and poverty were Irish immigrants, fleeing their homeland following the Potato Famine of the 1840s. In the 1880s a new wave of immigrants, this time Jews, escaping the pogroms of eastern Europe, arrived in the town. Most of these newcomers settled down to work in the ready-made clothing industry.

Over the years the council, re-formed in 1835, only slowly began to come to grips with the problems of the town. However, it felt confident enough to build a Town Hall as an example of its civic strength which Queen Victoria opened in 1858. Then, over the years, it gradually provided an adequate water supply, an education service and a public transport tramway system. Transport developed over the century as roads were improved and new ones constructed. From the port of Leeds vessels sailed regularly to London and other places on the east coast and from 1834 the building of several railways running from the town was undertaken.

back-back houses If most of its workers lived in back-to-backs, Leeds could nevertheless boast some fine architecture. The New Infirmary opened in 1868, the Grand Theatre ten years later and in 1874 the Yorkshire College of Science which eventually become the University of Leeds in 1904.

In 1893 Leeds became a city, boasting an effective tramcar service, libraries, parks, schools and one of the finest shopping centres in the North, famed particularly for its arcades. By now the village by the Aire had spread itself across the hillsides of the valley, absorbing the local townships. It had become as the 'Yorkshire Factory Times' described it 'A vast business place ... a miniature London.'

The twentieth century saw that development continue. The biggest industrial change was the decline of the traditional textile industry and by 1926 tailoring, distributive trades, and engineering dominated the eighty-odd other trades being carried out in the city. By then Montague Burton's bespoke tailoring factory on Hudson road, employing 16,000, become the largest and most popular clothing company in Europe. It was the diversity of its industries which has proved to be Leeds' greatest strength and enabled it to survive the turbulent years of economic crisis and political conflict in the first half of the century.

It was a century which again saw the city mirror the historical events of the rest of the country. Mrs Pankhurst and her suffragettes met on Woodhouse Moor in 1908. There were Labour disputes like the corporation workers' strike of 1913 to 1914 which resulted in paralysing the city for a while. The appalling events of the First World War were brought home to the local population in July 1916, when virtually every street in Leeds lost a man in the bloody Battle of Somme. As a prelude to the Second World War, Fascists and Communists clashed on Holbeck Moor.

Leeds also had a major housing problem to address as considerable numbers of its back-to-backs were classed as unfit for human habitation. Thus, between the wars, the development of large corporation estates and areas of new private housing was undertaken. The most imaginative of these schemes was the building of Quarry Hill Flats between 1935 and 1941. This was a dramatic move to provide over 3,000 people with homes on a single site.

Fortunately Leeds was relatively unscathed by the bombing of the Second World War although seventy-seven Leeds people were killed and197 buildings were destroyed. The post war years saw more and more housing estates being built, new schools erected and public facilities improved. The ethnic mix of the city also altered during the 1950s and 1960s when large numbers of West Indian and Asian immigrants settled in the city.

In 1974 Leeds became a metropolitan district with a population of 730,000. During the 1980s recession it suffered a high degree of unemployment, though not as drastically as some places. Race riots in the Chapeltown area erupted in 1981 but great efforts have been made to improve relations between the various ethnic groups of the city and these have met with considerable success. There was still much room for improvement. In 1986 some 2,600 houses in the city that had no bath, inside lavatory or hot and cold water. Some areas were designated Urban Priority Areas where crime, long term unemployment and deprivation generally were felt. But changes were coming. Many took the opportunity to buy their council house whilst the rundown Aire waterfront was transformed as the Labour council and the Development Corporation converted the area of derelict warehouses and run-down docks into expensive apartments, hotels and quality restaurants with its crowning achievement being the Royal Armouries.

By the twenty-first century Leeds had become one of the boom towns of Europe. It is today the second major centre in the country for printing and publishing and the third largest centre for media and communications. In fact some 35 per cent of the country’s e-mail traffic is carried on from there. Today there are about thirty national and international banks in the city, as well as law firms, companies offering financial services, accountancy firms, and insurance companies.

As the people of Leeds stand in the second decade of the new century and view the future, not surprisingly they do so with the same thoughts passing through their heads that occupied those of their forebears in December 1900 as they viewed a new century. Then the Leeds Mercury anticipated the future and contemplated on what was to come, ‘wonders far surpassing anything the wisest among us can foresee or imagine’.

David Thornton

All illustrations used on this page were drawn by Dr. Thornton and are from his book 'The Picture Story of the City of Leeds'  ISBN 0 907339 19 0

Other books by Dr. Thornton are :

General histories

Leeds; the Story of a City (Ayr, 2002) Fort Publishing   ISBN  0-9536576-6-3

Great Leeds Stories (Ayr, 2005) Fort Publishing ISBN 0-9544461-9-4

Leeds; a Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events (Huddersfield, 2013) Northern Heritage Publications ISBN  978 1 906600 74 7

 The Story of Leeds (Stroud, 2013) The History Press   ISBN  978  0  7524  9957   4


For children

The Picture Story of Kirkstall Abbey (Leeds, 1978) ISBN  0  907339 14   X

The Picture Story of the City of Leeds (Leeds, 1983)    ISBN   0  907339  19  0