In the 16th century Leeds became the wool centre of England. The sheep on the Yorkshire moors provided the wool for the spinners and weavers working in Leeds and the surrounding villages. Leeds position as the main market for the trade in woollen goods was helped in the 18th century by the building of the 127 mile long Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Aire & Calder Navigation that went to Hull and the River Humber.
Leeds also had the advantage of having the oldest horse-drawn railroad in the world. Built in 1758, this 3.5 mill railroad supplied the people of Leeds with coal from the Middleton Colliery.
The invention of an efficient flax-spinning machine that produced good quality yarn by John Marshall and , Matthew Murray, and the building of Temple Mill at Water Lane helped the growth of the textile industry in Leeds. The introduction of steam-powered machinery in the late 18th century also encouraged the building of textile factories in Leeds. Farming land, north-east and south of the town, was purchased and filled with rows of back-to-back terraced houses. Houses were also built by infilling the long, narrow crofts behind the streets of houses, shops and inns of Leeds. In 1801 Leeds had a population of 30,669 and by 1831 it had reached 71,602.
The economic importance of Leeds was increased in 1840 with the completion of the Manchester & Leeds Railway. This line was in 1847 to become the principal constituent of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Leeds was now linked to Liverpool on the west coast and to the east coast at Goole on the River Humber. The population of Leeds grew rapidly after the development of the railway network and by 1861 the town had a population of 207,000. This made Leeds the largest town in Yorkshire.
(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)
Leeds is a large, wealthy and populous town, it stands on the north bank of the River Aire, or rather on both sides of the river, for there is a large suburb or part of the town on the south side of the river, and the whole is joined by a stately and prodigiously strong stone bridge, so large, and so wide, that formerly the cloth market was on the bridge itself. The increase in the manufacturers and of the trade, soon made the market too great to be confined to the bridge, and it is now kept in the high street, beginning from the bridge, and running up north almost to the market house, where the ordinary market for provisions begin. The market is here twice a week. At seven the market bell rings (in the summer earlier, in the depth of winter a little later). It would surprise a stranger to see in how a few minutes, without hurry or noise, and not the least disorder, the whole market is filled; all the boards upon the tressels 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.
The manufacture of cloth affords employment to the major part of the lower class of people in the north-west districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire. These cloth-makers reside almost entirely in the villages, and bring their cloth on market-days for sale in the great halls erected for that purpose at Leeds and Huddersfield.
In the census of 1841 there appear to have been in Leeds 34,002 inhabited and 2,419 uninhabited buildings. This includes 15 churches of the Establishment and upwards of 30 dissenting places of worship. Of the latter the Wesleyan posses six chapels - the New Connexion Methodists, 3 - the Association Methodists, 2 - the Teetotal Methodists, 1 - the Primitive Methodists, 2 - the Independents, 5 - the Particular Baptists, 1 - the General Baptists, 1 - the Society of Friends, 1 - the Presbyterians, 1 - and the Unitarians, Swedenborgians, and Inghamites, 1 each. Most of the places of worship have Sunday schools attached to them. The number of scholars is estimated at about 12,000.
The corporation of Leeds is, I understand, about to spend a very large sum (about £30,000 or £40,000) in the formation of an extensive system of paving, drainage, etc., in hitherto neglected portions of the borough. Never were sanitary reforms more imperatively called for. The condition of vast districts of the opulent and important town of Leeds is such that the very strongest language cannot overstate.
Virulent and fatal as was the recent attack of cholera here, my wonder is that cholera, or some disease almost equally as fatal, is ever absent. From one house, for instance, situated in a large irregular court or yard - a small house containing two rooms - four corpses were recently carried. I looked about and did not marvel. The floor was two or three inches deep in filth. This seemed to be the normal state even of the passable parts of the place. In the centre of the open place was a cluster of pigsties, privies and cesspools, bursting with pent-up abominations; and a half a dozen places from this delectable nucleus was a pit about five feet square filled to the very brim with semi-liquid manure gathered from the stables and houses around.
The east and north-east districts of Leeds are perhaps the worst. A short walk from the Briggate, in the direction in which Deansgate branches off from the main entry, will conduct the visitor into a perfect wilderness of foulness. I have plodded by the half hour through the streets in which the undisturbed mud lay in wreaths from wall to wall; and across open spaces, overlooked by houses all round, in which the pigs, wandering from the central oasis, seemed to be roaming through what was only a large sty. Indeed, pigs seem to be natural inhabitants of such places. I think that they are more common in some parts of Leeds than dogs and cats are in others.
(5) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)