Leeds before Queen Victoria

The Town Hall, with its dome and pillars, symbolises the opulence of Victorian Leeds. But rich merchants were not a new phenomenon in the town, and two civic building preceded the Town Hall. The first, which was known as the Moot Hall, stood in the middle of Briggate, and was surrounded by the main market area.

Although it dated in its original form from around 1615, it was rebuilt in 1710-11, with a gable adorned by a statue of Queen Anne. The Moot Hall was built for a town which owed its very considerable prosperity to the finishing and marketing of handmade textiles. As the textile industry became mechanised, commerce and wealth in Leeds increased, and so did population. This population growth vastly increased the work of Leeds magistrates, who needed to meet almost daily. To accommodate them, an elegant new Court House was built in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars. Courts had previously taken place in the Moot Hall, which now lost an important part of its function. The Moot Hall was taken down in the course of improvements in 1825, but the Court House had less than fifty years of importance, for it was reduced to being the Post Office when the Town Hall opened.

The Moot Hall and the Court House were examples of the increasing number of public buildings with which the pre-Victorian mercantile community adorned their town. In addition, Leeds and the other West Riding towns acquired a series of cloth halls and other market premises, in addition to assembly rooms, infirmaries and churches. These relatively ambitious structures, and the problems of financing them, are the subject of Kevin Grady's monograph, The Georgian Public Buildings of Leeds and the West Riding [Thoresby Society 133, volume for 1987].

Architectural aspects of the church building of pre-Victorian Leeds are discussed in Terry Friedman's Church Architecture in Leeds 1700-1799 [Thoresby Society second series, volume 7, for 1997]. Of these eighteenth-century churches, the single survivor, Holy Trinity, was one of twenty-four erected or refashioned in greater Leeds in this period. Anglican churches included four chapels-of-ease in the out-townships and a church for the residents of new West End [St Paul's, 1792]. The Catholics took advantage of the new legislation to build their first Leeds chapel, in Lady Lane [1793] and the various groups of protestant non-conformists, Quakers, Independents, Baptists, and Methodists, were also building places of worship. Most of these eighteenth-century religious buildings have now disappeared, partly on account of demographic change and the geographical spread of the town.

To accommodate the mushrooming population in the period covered by the first two books, a much more mundane form of architecture was necessary. Houses for workers at all levels were packed into the relatively small town centre and into the agricultural area immediately surrounding it. Urban courtyards and semi-rural farmyards and fields were filled with dwellings, often very humble. This swift and haphazard urbanisation is the subject of Professor Beresford's fascinating book, East End, West End: the Face of Leeds During Urbanisation 1684-1842 [Thoresby Society LX and LXI, for 1985 and 1986].

Ann Alexander, MA, MPhil

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