Pulling the Wool Over Leeds, Part One by Chris Nickson

This month, Chris Nickson looks at how the fortunes of Leeds were built on the wool trade. Part Two follows next month.

Leeds is built on wool. That’s something many of us learnt at school. Lancashire was cotton, Yorkshire was wool. But it’s not quite the whole story. The big factories that made suits – Barran’s, Burton’s, and more – transformed tailoring with their mass-market approach. Before that everything had been made-to-measure, bespoke tailoring; off-the-peg was something new. Long before that, though, the fortunes of Leeds were founded on wool in a different way. Centuries before the place was a bustling industrial city, weavers in the surrounding villages would bring the finished lengths of woollen cloth they’d completed at home to Leeds on Tuesdays and Saturdays for the merchants to buy and sell on to markets elsewhere in Leeds and abroad.

When did it start? No one seems certain. Certainly by Elizabethan times Leeds had a wool merchant who took on the voluntary office of Cloth Searcher for a year, inspecting the goods offered for sale on the parapets of Leeds Bridge to make sure the quality was high enough to carry the Leeds imprimatur; even then, the place had a reputation to protect.
But around the West Riding, other towns offered competition – Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax, and especially Wakefield. Leeds was far from the dominant force, although it wanted to be. Business was growing every year, everywhere, and Leeds was ambitious for the lion’s share.

In 1711, to head off competition from Wakefield, the first White Cloth Hall was built on Kirkgate where you can still see a little of the outline, and there are plans to rebuild it. It was quickly and slyly done, but it worked. From that point, the wool trade took off, with Leeds as it centre. 
In 1720, the writer Daniel Defoe visited Leeds and saw the cloth market in action. He writes about it in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1726):

“At seven a clock in the morning, the clothiers being supposed to be all come by that time, even in the winter, but the hour is varied as the seasons advance (in the summer earlier, in the depth of winter a little later) I take it, as a medium, and as it was when I was there, at six or seven, I say, the market bell rings; it would surprise a stranger to see in how few minutes , without hurry or noise, and not the least disorder, the whole market is filled; all the boards upon the trestles are covered with cloth, close to one another as the pieces can lie long ways by one another, and behind every piece of cloth, the clothier standing to sell it.

This indeed is not so difficult, when we consider that the whole quantity is brought into the market as soon as one piece, because as the clothiers stand ready in the inns and shops just behind, and that there is a clothier to every piece, they have no more to do, but like a regiment drawn up in line, everyone takes up his piece, and has about five steps to march to lay it upon the first row of boards, and perhaps ten to the second row; so that upon the market bell ringing, in half a quarter of an hour the whole market is filled, the rows of boards covered, and the clothiers stand ready.

As soon as the bell has done ringing, the merchants and factors, and buyers of all sorts, come down, and coming along the spaces between the rows of boards, they walk up the rows and down as their occasions direct. Some of them have their foreign letters of orders, with patterns sealed on them, in rows, in their hands; and with those they match colours, holding them to the cloths as they think they agree to: when they see any cloths to their colours, or that suit their occasions, they reach over to the clothier and whisper, and in the fewest words imaginable the price is stated; one asks, the other bids; and ’tis agree, or not agree, in a moment.

The merchants and buyers generally walk down and up twice on each side of the rows, and in little more than an hour you will perceive the cloths begin to move off, the clothier taking it up upon his shoulder to carry it to the merchant’s house; and by half an hour eight a clock the market bell rings again; immediately the buyers disappear, the cloth is all sold, or if here and there a piece happens not to be bought, ’tis carried back into the inn, and in a quarter of an hour, there is not a piece of cloth to be seen in the market.
Thus, you see, ten or twenty thousand pounds’ value in cloth, and sometimes much more, bought and sold in little more than an hour, and the laws of the market the most strictly observed as ever I saw done in nay market in England; for,

1. Before the market bell rings, no man shows a piece of cloth, nor can the clothiers sell any but in open market.
2. After the market bell rings again, nobody stays a moment in the market, but carries his cloth back if it be not sold.
3. And that which is most admirable is, ’tis all managed with the most profound silence, and you cannot hear a word spoken in the whole market, I mean, by the persons buying and selling; ’tis all done in whisper.”

There was a ritual to it. The clothiers even had their special breakfast, the “Brig End Shot,” which existed in 1698 when Lady Celia Fiennes visited Leeds: “There is still this Custome on a Market day at Leeds, the sign of ye bush just by the Bridge, any body yt will goe and Call for one tanchard of ale and a pinte of wine and pay for these only shall be set to a table to Eate wth 2 or 3 dishes of good meate and a dish of sweetmeates after.”

That’s where the real money in Leeds begins. Long before the factories, before the band cutters and industry. This was when Leeds’ fortunes were really built on the wool trade.

Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. His latest, On Copper Street, the fifth in his Inspector Tom Harper series, takes place in 1895. Named one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months by the US Booklistonline. You can order it here.

The day after his release from prison, petty criminal Henry White is found stabbed to death at his terraced home on Copper Street. Pursuing enquiries in a neighbourhood where people are suspicious of strangers and hostile to the police, DI Tom Harper and his men find the investigation hard going. If anyone knows anything about Henry White’s murder or the robbery that landed him in gaol in the first place they are unable or unwilling to say.

At the same time, acid is thrown over a young boy in a local bakery in a seemingly unprovoked attack.

Praying for a breakthrough, Harper knows that he must uncover the motive in each case if he is to have any chance of catching the culprits. One thing he is certain: if he doesn’t find answers soon, more deaths will follow.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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