One of the most important towns on the map of the United Kingdom, Leeds has a long history and heritage going back centuries. The name ‘Leeds’ was derived from the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Leodis’. Past history reveals that this area was under the domination of the Celtic Kingdom for a long time. Influences of the Anglo-Saxon period are quite visible in aspects of Leeds even now.
The history of Leeds goes way back to 1086 when it began to become prominent. Initially, Leeds was, like most other Anglo-Saxon cities, an agricultural township. The market was basically an exchange for agricultural products. Leeds was given a charter as late as 1207. At first it was an agrarian village but as trade flourished, it started taking the shape of a township. The population started growing by leaps and bounds. By the eighteenth century, the city had turned into a merchant city with cotton products and textiles as its major merchandise.
When Great Britain was ruled by the Great Kings and queens of the Tudor Dynasty that saw great rulers like the Henry VII, Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, Leeds was predominantly a merchant township. The main products manufactured were woollen clothes. Trading was done using a route through the Humber estuary. An estuary is the mouth of a river with a triangle formation. An estuary played a very significant role in trade by sea in earlier days. The reason was that the estuary had a free connection to the sea and could help ships move freely. Moreover, since an estuary is a junction of a river and sea, the sailors were able to get a good stock of sweet water for sailing from the adjacent river without having to run much further.
As trade prospered in Leeds, especially in woollen fabrics, the population of city also started growing speedily. Initially the population was less than a thousand but this grew into around ten thousand at the end of the seventeenth century. The population further escalated to around thirty thousand by the end of the eighteenth century. With the passing of time, Leeds became one of the leading merchant townships of England. Leeds became so important for English trade that nearly half of the exports of the whole of England started to be routed through the city of Leeds. The growth was so rapid that by 1840 Leeds had a population of around one hundred fifty thousand, a staggering figure by the population scale of the time.
Milestones that played vital roles in the enhancement of population and trade in Leeds, as well as its growing stature, were:
o Introduction of The Aire & Calder Navigation Act during 1699.
o Opening up of the Liverpool and Leeds canals in 1816.
o Setting up of the Railways in 1848.
o Granting of city status to Leeds in 1893.
The British Legislature passed the The Aire & Calder Navigation Act during 1699. This Act aimed to improve navigation from the river Ouse at Airmyn to Leeds which ran via Castleford. The navigation was carried on by the river Aire. This Act also controlled the route through the river Calder from Castleford to Wakefield. The river was originally a very difficult route and created big problems for navigators. However, new shortcuts and loops were later opened making navigation rather easier for sailors and thereby reducing the transportation costs for trading. Bypasses were created by engineers like John Smeaton and William Jessop during the last part of the eighteenth century. A major achievement was the creation of the 6-mile long Selby Canal that connected the Aire at Haddlesey directly with the Ouse at Selby. An earlier major achievement was the construction of the long and wide canal from Knottingley to Selby, creating the port of Goole that bypassed a long stretch of the Ouse and made the route easier to navigate. To top it all, in 1905 the New Junction Canal that connected the Aire and Calder to Sheffield and Stainforth was put in place. A new bridge having a 600 ton load bearing capacity was added in the 1980s.
The Leeds – Liverpool canal is 205 kilometres long and about 4.3 metres wide. To accommodate longer boats that arrive through the river Douglas, the line from Wigan to Liverpool was made 22 meters long. The Leeds end of the canal joins with the Aire and Calder. It also joins several other rivers and links like the river Ribble, and the Bridgewater Canal. The link from Manchester to the Midlands is thus created.
The work that played the most significant role in the city’s industrial growth was the coming into being of the Middleton Railways. It also helped the city get its City status in 1893. It is the world’s oldest, and now England’s most treasured heritage railway. It runs on a one mile track between Moor Road, Hunslet, Leeds, and the Parks, halting on the periphery of Middleton Park. The Parliament in 1758 authorized this railway as the first legal railway in England. Initially built on wooden tracks, the iron fishplates took over around 1807 and paved the way for commercial use in 1812. Built in narrow gauge initially and operating as such up to 1881, it was thereafter converted to standard gauge and much later to broad gauge. Used mainly for freight services, regular passenger operation services were started in 1969.
The insurgence of education started to change the face of the city by the twentieth century when a number of academic institutions started operating in and around Leeds. Today, educational institutions like the The Metropolitan University of Leeds, Leeds Trinity University Colleges, the Leeds University are household names. Studies of Medical Science also saw a boom with The General Infirmary at Leeds and St. James Hospital emerging immediately after World War II.
Secondary industries however, saw a declining period after the Second World War. The manpower employed in secondary industries declined from 64,000 in 1991 to 44,500 in 2003. A few large engineering organizations are still operating in the city. These organizations deal mainly with turbine, automotive and automobile parts and accessories.
During the 1980s the British Government took up the task of focusing attention on declining urban areas. The Development Corporation of Leeds was formed to look after the decaying areas of Kirkstall valley and riverside areas of Leeds. This organization functioned till the end of 1995 and took some notable steps to rejuvenate declining urban areas in Great Britain. A number of properties on the riverside were refurbished. Several institutions that were defunct were also opened up.
Irrespective of its ups and downs, Leeds continues to be one of the most important six industrial and trading cities of England. Most importantly, Leeds is counted as the premier city of the ceremonial county of West Yorkshire. Leeds has been voted as England’s best commercial city and employs around one hundred thousand people in financial and business services. Banking, financial occupations, and advertising and legal consultancies have been the fastest growing business sectors in the area.