Cloth Market and Cloth Halls

Leeds Markets – 17th & 18th Centuries

The Civil War (1642-51) interfered with the production of cloth in West Yorkshire, particularly in the early years, when Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield became garrison towns for the opposing sides of the conflict. After the wars, Leeds became a principle market for the sale of woollen cloth.

Taking woollen cloth to market along packhorse routes

In the 17th Century, the Leeds Cloth Market became a major centre in the area for marketing cloth of all kinds. It was held every Tuesday and Saturday from 6 am and was held on Leeds Bridge, a historic crossing point on the River Aire. By 1684, it had outgrown its site and moved to Briggate, where it remained until the Leeds Cloth Halls were established.

By the early 1700s, woollen textiles accounted for 26% of all English manufacturing output, though the cotton industry of Lancashire was now beginning to outstrip wool in growth. Cotton textiles such as calico, imported by the East India Company, became popular with British consumers and began to threaten the traditional woollen trade and only legislation protected the woollen producers, for a time, from the onslaught of cotton. Nevertheless, huge amounts of woven wool cloth were changing hands and Leeds became dominated by merchants and trading with its traditional outdoor cloth market. The saying goes that “Leeds was built on wool”.

Old Leeds Coat of Arms on Leeds Bridge
Oosoom [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

On Market days there were strict codes of conduct. The following text has been transcribed by the author from Daniel Defoe’s “A tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, Volume III”, published in 1753:

From Aberford (note: 10 miles north east of Leeds) we turned West, and went to Leeds, which is a large, wealthy, and populous Town, standing on the North Side of the River Aire, with great Suburbs on the South Side, and both joined by a stately, strong, Stone Bridge, so large, and so wide, that formerly the Cloth-market was kept upon it; and therefore the Refreshment given the Clothiers by the Inn-keepers (being a Pot of Ale, a Noggin of Pottage and a Trencher of boil’d or roast Beef, for two-pence) is called the Brigg-shot to this Day.

The Increase of the Manufactures, and of the trade, soon made the Market too great to be consigned to the Brigg; so that 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 begins; which also is the greatest of its kind in all the North of England. You may judge of the Plenty of it, when 500 Load of Apples have been numbered by the Mayor’s Officers in a Day.

But the Cloth-market is chiefly to be admired, as a Prodigy of its Kind, and perhaps not to be equalled in the World. The Market for Serges at Exeter is indeed a wonderful Thing, and the Money returned very great; but it is there only once a Week, whereas here it is every Tuesday and Saturday.

Early in the Morning, Tressels are placed in two rows in the Street, sometimes two Rows on a Side, across which Boards are laid, which make a kind of temporary Counter on either Side, from one End of the Street to the other.

The Clothiers come early in the Morning with their Cloth; and, as few bring more than one Piece, the Market-days being so frequent, they go into the Inns and Public-houses with it, and there set it down. At about Six o’Clock (am) in the Summer, and about seven in the Winter, the Clothiers being all come by that Time, the Market Bell at the old Chapel by the Bridge rings; upon which it would surprise a Stranger, to see in how few Minutes, without Hurry, Noise, or the least Disorder, the whole Market is filled, and all the Boards upon the Tressels covered with Cloth, as close to one another as the Pieces can lie longways, each Proprietor standing behind his own Piece, who form a Mercantile Regiment, as it were, drawn up in a double Line, in as great Order as a Military one.

As soon as the Bell has ceased ringing, the Factors; and Buyers of all Sorts enter the Market, and walk up and down between the Rows, as their Occasions direct. Some of them have their foreign Letters of Orders, with Patterns sealed on them, in their Hands, the Colours of which they match, by holding them to the Cloths they think they agree to. When they have pitched upon their Cloth, they lean over to the Clothier, and, by a Whisper, in the fewest Words imaginable, the Price is stated; one asks, the other, bids; and they agree or disagree in a Moment.

The Reason of this prudent Silence is owing to the Clothiers standing so near to one another; for it is not reasonable, that one Trader should know another’s Traffick. If a Merchant has bidden a Clothier a Price, and he will not take it, he may go after him to his House, and tell him he has considered of it, and is willing to let him have it; but they are not to make any new Agreement for it, so as to remove the Market from the Street to the Merchant’s House.

The Buyers generally walk up and down twice or each Side of the Rows, and in little more than an Hour all the Business is done. In less than half an Hour you will perceive the Cloth begin to move off, the Clothier taking it up upon his Shoulder to carry it to the Merchant’s House. At about half an Hour after Eight the Market Bell rings again, upon which the Buyers immediately disappear, the Cloth is all sold; or if any remains, it is carried back into the Inn. By Nine o’Clock the Boards and Tressls are removed, and the Street left at Liberty for the Market-people of other Professions, the Linen-drapers, Shoemakers, Hardwaremen, and the like. Thus you see 10 or 20,000 pounds worth of Cloth, and sometimes much more, bought and sold in little more than an Hour, the Laws of the Market being the most strictly observed that I ever saw in any Market in England.

If it be asked, How all these Goods at this Place, at Wakefield, and at Halifax, are vended and disposed of? I would observe;

First, That there is an Home-consumption; to supply which, several considerable Traders in Leeds go with Droves of Pack-horses, laden with those Goods, to all the Fairs and Market-towns almost over the whole Island, not to sell by Retail, but to the Shops by Wholesale; giving large Credit. ’Tis ordinary or one of these Men to carry a thousand Pounds worth of Cloth with him at a time; and, having sold that, to send his Horses back for as much more; and this very often in a Summer; for they travel chiefly at that Season, because of the Badness of the Roads.

There are others, who have Commissions from London to buy, or who give Commissions to Factors and Warehouse-keepers in London to sell for them, who not only supply all the Shop-keepers and Wholesale Men in London, but sell also very great Quantities to the Merchants, as well for exportation to the English Colonies in America, which take off great Quantities of the coarse Goods, especially New England, New York, Virginia, etc and also to the Russia Merchants, who send exceeding great Quantities to Petersburg, Riga, Dantzick, Narva , Sweden, and Pomerania; tho’ of late the Manufactures of this kind set up in Prussia, and other Northern Parts of Germany, interfere a little with them.

The third Sorts are such as receive Commissions from abroad, to buy Cloth for the Merchants chiefly in Hamburgh and in Holland, etc. These are not only many in Number, but some of them very considerable in their Dealings, and correspond with the farthest Provinces in Germany.

A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain; Daniel Defoe 1753

Cloth Halls

The Five Leeds White Cloth Halls

Eventually, the outdoor cloth market could no longer cope with the volume, requiring the establishment of the white cloth halls. A site was found in Leeds at Kirkgate to erect the first cloth hall. Financed by merchants and clothiers, a “White Cloth Hall” was opened in 1711. In the White Cloth Hall, the pieces of un-dyed cloth were displayed on stalls for the inspection of the merchants, providing the first secure and sheltered building for the sale of un-dyed cloth in the town.

Daniel Defoe reported:

At the Well End of the Town formerly stood a Castle, wherein King Richard II was imprisoned before he was carried to Pontefract. And on the Site thereof now stands the ancient Manor-house, with the Park, etc. lately belonging to Mr. Richard Sykes. Here are two magnificent Halls, both built about the Year 1714; one for White Cloths, supported by Pillars and Arches, which form a Quadrangle like the Royal Exchange, with a handsome Cupola, and Bell on the Top, to give Notice when the Market for these Sort of Goods begins. The other is the Guild or Moot Hall, the Front of which is built likewise on Arches, with rustic Coins and Tabling; where, in a Niche, is placed a fine Statue of Queen Anne, done by Mr. Carpenter, at the Expense of Alderman Milner.

A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain; Daniel Defoe 1753

Not long after this, the First Hall became too small and a replacement Second White Cloth Hall was built between Hunslet Lane and Meadow Lane. The building was opened in 1756 but only used for 20 years and was demolished in 1786, only 30 years after it had been built.

The first White Cloth Hall remained standing but was much altered in character and use over the years, becoming endangered in the early 21st Century. By 2010 it was empty and derelict. A major project was planned to restore it. At the time of writing (2020), renovation has now begun. This will involve dismantling the later additions, rebuilding the west wing and creating a large assembly room. The public courtyard, once revealed and restored, will be enclosed. More with photographs here.

The Third White Cloth Hall in Leeds was built as output and trade continued to increase with the introduction of mechanised mills. Most of the money for the third hall came from the wealthy Leeds merchants, and a site was found on a piece of land, which was previously the Tenter Ground, in the Calls. The hall was built around a large central courtyard, and at the northern end it was two storeys high, with adjacent assembly rooms. The Hall was built at a cost of £4,300, and opened on 17th October 1775.

Leeds Third White Cloth Hall early 1900s

In 1868, the Fourth White Cloth Hall, was built by the North Eastern Railway company, on King Street, to replace the 3rd White Cloth Hall, that they had had to partly demolish in 1865 to make way for the building of a viaduct. This fourth White Cloth Hall was never fully used, and was demolished in 1895. The Metropole Hotel on King Street re-used its cupola.

Tom Paine Hall was built on Albion Street in 1793, for the use of clothiers who had not served an apprenticeship, making 5 white cloth halls in total.

The Leeds Coloured Cloth Hall

After the building of the Second White Cloth Hall, the mixed or coloured cloth makers were still using the open-air cloth market in Briggate and they wanted a cloth hall of their own. A piece of land at “the ‘Parks’ was bought from another Richard Wilson, who was the Recorder of Leeds. He had inherited the land from his Sykes ancestors and agreed to sell a plot for the building of the new Coloured Cloth Hall. The building of the Coloured Cloth Hall was financed by the clothiers who contributed between £2:10s and £7:10s each. The hall, the largest ever built in Leeds, was U-shaped in plan, 127 yards long and 66 yards wide. It cost £5,300 and opened in 1756.

The Coloured Cloth Hall, for mixed dyed cloth, became one of the City’s two major textile trading centres throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. At its busiest, the Coloured Cloth Hall housed 1,770 stalls for merchants to display their goods, whilst its central courtyard accommodated up to 20,000 people for public meetings. 

Briggate on Market Day 1872

The Leeds Cloth Halls Today

The First White Cloth Hall is meant to undergo re-furbishment. After it was closed, the First White Cloth Hall was used for various purposes, was later converted into an alehouse, shops and then houses, and most latterly used as shops again. It has been on the Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register since 1999 and Leeds City Council is currently working with other groups to plant to restore and re-develop this important historic building.

The Leeds Coloured Cloth Hall is now a Grade II listed site and in 2017 work was begun to restore the building and convert it to a major conference centre.

The Third White Cloth Hall, in Crown Street, still exists in part, including the cupola and the adjacent Assembly Rooms have also been re-developed.

Assembly Rooms (left), Third White Cloth Hall (centre) and Corn Exchange, (right).
Crown Street, Leeds, cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mark Stevenson – geograph.org.uk/p/5441409
The Assembly Rooms, Assembly Street, Leeds
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Rich Tea – geograph.org.uk/p/1411010

Huddersfield Cloth Hall

Huddersfield held weekly markets from the 1670s, but as it became too overcrowded, the clothiers set up their tressels along the Parish Church walls. The Cloth Hall was built in red brick in 1766, first a single storey then a second storey was built on top. Various alterations took place over the years, but as mechanised mills took over from small clothiers, the cloth was now sold direct from the mills and the cloth halls fell into disuse.

Huddersfield Cloth Hall and White Hart Inn
Huddersfield Exposed published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Cloth Hall was then used for various purposes until it was demolished in 1930 to make way for a Public Library, which was never built. Instead, the Ritz Cinema was built on the site in 1935. Parts of the entrances and the clock tower were re-erected in Ravensknowle Park in 1932 and are still standing today.

Halifax Piece Hall

The first mention of a textile hall in Halifax is the Cloth Hall at Hall End in 1572 and a Linnen Hall is mentioned in a deed in 1629. In 1708 there were both Linnen and Woollen Halls. Whatever happened to these halls, they were presumably outgrown. By 1774, plans were drawn up to build a most impressive new Manufacturers’ Hall, the Piece Hall. It would be built on Talbot Field, would be suited to the importance of the town and rival anything in the area. A proposed plan for a circular building was rejected as being expensive and impractical. The present hall’s plans were approved in January 1774.

The Halifax Manufacturers’ Hall (Piece Hall)

Built between 1774 and 1779, the Piece Hall was built as a series of 315 rooms on three stories arranged around an open (almost square) courtyard. The two upper colonnades were used for the trading of “pieces” of broadcloth.

The three levels were named “Rustic” (Ground Floor) “Arcade” (First Floor) and “Colonnade” (Top Floor). Trading hours were between 10am and noon and were controlled by the ringing of a bell. Penalties were imposed for trading outside these hours. This meant that traders who had a long distance to travel would have to put up overnight at a nearby inn. Each trader had his own room or “shop” in the hall. So, with only two hours of trading allowed, how did a purchaser find his preferred trader? Well, the traders had their business invoices and letterheads printed with their unit number and lodging. For example, a John Murgatroyd of Warley had Room No.18 in the “Rustic” (Ground Floor) and put up at “The Old Cock Inn”.

Like other cloth halls, it became redundant after the Industrial Revolution. From the 1860s to the 1970s it was operated as a mixed wholesale market.

Piece Hall“Piece Hall” by PangolinOne is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today, the units around the 66,000-square-foot open-air piazza contain bars, restaurants, cafés and shops. The Piece Hall also has a heritage centre and hosts events including concerts, theatre and markets.

Halifax Piece Hall is still one of the most important buildings of its type in the area. It reflects the wealth of the town in the 18th Century and its importance as a centre for cloth making and export of woollen cloth. After a £20 million refurbishment, it was re-opened in 2017 with shops, restaurants and a museum and art gallery. It is now a major heritage destination and focal point for the town.

Alongside the Piece Hall all are the red-brick Non-Conformist Square Chapel, which was built in 1772 and is now a centre for the arts…and the stone Square Church of 1863 with its tall spire, which can be seen from all over the town.

The Story of Shoddy and Mungo

Throughout the 19th century, fierce competition from West Yorkshire drove almost every other English woollen manufacturing area out of business, aided by the development of the Shoddy and Mungo processes.

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Exhumations at Square Chapel

During the renovation of the Piece Hall, skeletons were exhumed from the cemetery at Square Chapel. 217 skeletons were removed and 203 underwent analysis. The burials date from 1772-1860 or so. The analysis shows many children who died in their early years and young women, who were likely to have died in childbirth among other adults who lived to a ripe old age. The diets of the subjects included plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables plus sugary foods (the latter shown by the amount of tooth decay). Men were prone to traumatic injuries and women to infectious diseases. Many of the burials were of middle class people and tradesmen. The skeletons were re-interred at Stoney Royd Cemetery.

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Family Stories in the Woollen Industry

Thomas Sheard, a 16th Century Woolman…and the Sheard dynasty of West Yorkshire.

The Hemingways of Southowram and Earlsheaton
The author’s ancestors, the Hemingway family, came from Halifax in the 16th century to settle in Gawthorpe, Ossett and Earlsheaton, where they made their small fortunes weaving woollen blankets.

Richard Wilson’s Long Walk (Northern dozens)
About the year 1736, Richard Wilson, the author’s ancestor, a clothier from Ossett, near Wakefield, made two pieces of broadcloth. The story of how he sold those cloths at Leeds market is the subject of this article.

A Case of Industial Espionage (Archer of Ossett, textile machinery maker)
The story of the author’s ancestor George Archer and his involvement in a case of industrial espionage.

Martha Arnold of Woolwich and Mirfield and a Possible Luddite Connexion
The story of the Luddite rebellion near Mirfield.


Copyright © January 2020, Christine Widdall, All rights reserved.

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