The Woollen Industry in Ossett
To set the scene for Richard Wilson’s long walk, we should first look at the industry in which he worked. It is unclear when the woollen industry began in Ossett, but the northern towns, especially in Yorkshire, wove wool from very early days. Ossett, is only three miles from Wakefield, ten from Leeds and eleven from Bradford, situated in the heart of the West Riding woollen district.
Much English wool was shipped to Antwerp and Bruges, to the weavers there and was sold on to other clothiers all over northern Europe. However, W. Herbert Scott, includes the following information on the West Riding:
Although up to the time of Edward III (1327-1377) most of the wool from England was exported, the West Riding was a textile manufacturing area from earliest recorded times. Ancient documents indicate that there were cloth mills in Leeds and fulling mills in Leeds and Bradford as far back as the 12th century. At the close of the 14th century, there were four cloth mills in Leeds. At that point, however, Wakefield was a more important cloth centre. Wakefield was the third most important cloth centre in the West Riding in the late 1400s. In 1626 Charles I granted Leeds its first Royal Charter in recognition of the fact that the inhabitants for many years had skillfully exercised the art or mystery of making and working woollen broadcloth commonly known as “Northern Dozens”, to their perpetual praise and great increase of revenues of the Crown of England for the custom of the same cloths. At the time, Leeds, Halifax and Bradford were “three very populous and rich towns depending wholly on clothiers”.“The West Riding of Yorkshire At the Opening of the Twentieth Century”; W.T. Pike
Note: A Northern Dozen was half the length of a Northern Cloth. The Dozen or half-piece measured between 12 and 13 yards long and 7 quarter yards wide (1.75 yards), weighing a minimum of 33 lb (pounds).
It’s also worth considering the value of the wool trade to the crown:
…in 1341 a government estimate was formed of the amount of wool or money which each county of England should pay to the crown, and the three Ridings of Yorkshire could afford to pay towards the first tax of 20,000 sacks of wool, then valued at £4 per sack…No other county came near to this amount.From Charles Knight’s “Popular History of England”.
Wool Trade in Ossett
The inhabitants of Ossett, had therefore been employed in making broad woollen cloth for centuries. The inhabitants of Ossett, a village three miles from Wakefield, have been employed in making broad woollen cloth from time out of mind. In this year, the weavers, &c , employed in that trade, had to work fifteen hours every day for eight pence. A horn was blown at five o’clock in the morning, the time for beginning, and at eight at night, the time for leaving their work. The clothiers had to take their goods to Leeds to sell, and had to stand in Briggate in all sorts of weather.Mayall’s Annals of Yorkshire, 1734 – 1736
In many cases trade would be a full time family business, with the wife spinning, the husband weaving and the children combing and carding. The woven cloth had to be finished by fulling, that is, pounding and matting the wet cloth to produce a nap on the material. Cloth might be sold to merchants dyed or un-dyed.
At one time Ossett could boast of well over a hundred small manufacturers – most of whom were handloom weavers who worked at home. Most Ossett houses had looms in them, and the township was said to be “musical with the sound of their working”. A manufacturer who had a small mill and employed from ten to twenty people was considered to be a man of significant worth.
When a person could buy a bag of wool and a bit of shoddy or mungo and had a family to assist him, he became a manufacturer.
“Shoddy” is the local name for rag-wool and “mungo” the name for mixed wool, cotton and linen fibres. These small manufacturers carried their pieces to Leeds; either on their heads or backs, or on the backs of donkeys and had to stand at the outdoor cloth market in all sorts of weather until their piece was sold, or carry it back home to try another day.
Richard Wilson’s long walk
Now at last we get to it!
About the year 1736, Richard Wilson, a clothier from Ossett, made two pieces of broadcloth. He carried one of them on his head to the cloth market in Leeds and sold it to a merchant. The merchant, being very pleased with his purchase, wanted to buy the other piece, so Richard walked back to Ossett to collect the second piece, carried it back to Leeds on his head and sold it, walking back to Ossett afterwards. He had walked about forty miles that day.
It would take about three hours to walk the 10 miles from Ossett to Leeds and the market opened at 6 am, so it was necessary to be there in good time to sell his bolt of cloth. The weight of a piece of broadcloth or “Northern Cloth” was about 66 lb (66 pounds = about 30 Kg) and measured between 23 and 25 yards in length and the cloth was 7 quarters of a yard wide (1.75 yards wide). The average height of a man in the 1730s was 5ft 4in. These men were, nevertheless, used to hard work and long hours.
This Richard Wilson was my 6th Great Grand-uncle and would have been about 26 years old at the time of his long walk. Richard’s older brother, Robert Wilson, was my 6th great grandfather and was also a clothier. Richard and Robert Wilson were among Ossett people who founded the Green Chapel (later Ossett Congregational Church.) At this time, in the early part of the 18th century, Ossett had a population of about 2,000 and many were self-employed cloth weavers like Richard and Robert Wilson, or worked in family businesses or were employed in small mechanised mills.
Frequently these humble people had to sell their pieces fresh from the loom in order to get supplies of money for the purchase of wool for the next piece. Wool at this time was brought from Leeds to Bradford by road.
There was no standard guaranteed rate of wages as there is now, and when a certain manufacturer had an order in a time of depression, he called his men together and told them he could not accept the order unless they agreed to take 3 pence per string less. The men would hold a meeting in the fields and agree to the reduction rather than face a further period of idleness.
Wages were very low as compared with recent earnings. A fettler or woolyer would earn from 9s to 11s. a week, while, in the words of an old manufacturer, “them that piecened billy” – the youngsters – would earn 4s. 9d. a week working full time (about 15 hours a day). There were few work-people who averaged a pound a week.
The old hand loom system continued until the last of the Ossett handloom weavers passed away at the patriarchal age of ninety. The old order had given place to the power loom – an innovation that was long and sorely resented by the old weavers.“The Town and Trade of Ossett” 1927
Leeds Cloth Market
In the 17th Century, the Leeds Cloth market was held every Tuesday and Saturday from 6 am. At first it was held on Leeds Bridge.
In June 1684, it moved to Briggate, where it remained until the Cloth Halls were opened. Most clothiers traded in a very small way and to receive an order for half a dozen or a dozen pieces was big business.
Leeds White Cloth Halls
Halifax and Wakefield had set about building covered cloth halls for their markets and a site was found in Leeds at Kirkgate to erect a cloth hall in Leeds. 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 City.
By the early 1750s, the hall became too small and a replacement second White Cloth Hall was built between Hunslet Lane and Meadow Lane. In 1775, the Third White Cloth Hall in Leeds was built as output and trade continued to increase with the introduction of more 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 assembly rooms on the upper storey. The Hall was built at a cost of £4,300, and opened on 17th October 1775.
In 1868 the railway company built a new Fourth White Cloth Hall, on King Street. This fourth White Cloth Hall was never fully used, and was demolished in 1895
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 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. On market days there were strict codes of conduct:
As soon as the bell is done ringing, the merchants and factors and buyers of all sorts, come down, and coming along all the spaces between rows of boards, they walk up the rows, and down the occasional direct. Some of them have their foreign letters of orders, with patterns seal’d in them, in their hands; and with these they match colours, holding them to the cloths as 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…If a Merchant has bidden a clothier a price, and he will not take it he (the clothier) may go after him to his house, and tell him (the merchant) 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.Gentlemen Merchants: the Merchant Community in Leeds, 1700-1830 By Richard George Wilson
The Cloth Halls Today
The 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 First White Cloth Hall is also being re-furbished. 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 restore and re-develop this important historic building.
The Third White Cloth hall still exists in part, including the cupola.
© Christine Widdall updated 2019