Leeds Market through the ages: How ‘Cheap Jack’ scrubbed a mucky kid to sell soap

The exterior of Leeds's new market buildings in about 1904
The exterior of Leeds's new market buildings in about 1904
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Leeds’s market was held in Briggate for 600 years until the population and building booms of the 19th century drove merchants off the street and to dedicated sites. Several were created and Kirkgate Market survives as a fitting reminder of the importance of trade to the city and its inhabitants.

Lord of the Manor Maurice Paynel created the borough of Leeds in 1207 and, as part of this act, people were allowed to trade. This activity found a home in Briggate and took place on Tuesdays. When the charter of incorporation was passed in 1626, bringing Leeds and outlying areas together, the market gained a wider significance.

Leeds Market c 1904

Leeds Market c 1904

At this time the principal item brought to Leeds market was wool and the increasing value of this led to the addition of Saturday as a trading day. Highlighting the importance of other traders and the premium of space in Briggate, Ralph Thoresby, Leeds historian from the 18th century, notes that once the cloth trading was over vendors of a vast array of goods would swarm over the area.

Early in the 18th century it was decided to remove the wool merchants from Briggate into their own dedicated buildings in an effort to rationalise the market in the street and reduce the congestion. Two cloth halls were erected; the white cloth hall in Kirkgate, but later moving to Holbeck, the Calls and finally King Street; and the coloured cloth hall on the site later taken by the post office in City Square.

However, this did little to alleviate Briggate’s overcrowding and in the 1820s there were calls for the market to be moved. With the increasing wealth of local businessmen there was a will to do this, but there was little coordination and, as a result, five markets were opened which did not deal sufficiently with the problem.

The dealers in cattle, livestock, fruit and vegetables were left out of these arrangements and the task of finding them a home was left to Leeds Improvement Commissioners, a group of elected townspeople. They set their sights on the Vicarage of St Peter’s Church and the Vicar’s Croft at the junction of Call Lane and Kirkgate. The latter was particularly ripe for development as contemporary historian Edward Parsons notes it was “... overgrown with weeds, and the common receptacle of every abomination”.

Trading began on August 31 1822, but on an informal basis as the land was not purchased. This did not happen until 1826 as the trustees of the Vicarage and Vicar’s Croft let the land to an individual who charged traders a toll. However, the intention of the commissioners was to let the land be used for free and this was the case from December 1.

Some Leeds residents took a little time to note the change of use in the land, however, as the Leeds Intelligencer reported that ‘disorderly girls and their attendants’ were disrupting traders and the customers.

The idea of the free market was admirable, but by the early 1830s there was the realisation that maintenance, administration and improvements had to be funded by rents.

Towards the mid-1800s moves were made towards the erection of a market hall through the establishment of a Market Committee which purchased additional lands and gained approval for the demolition of nearby slums. In mid-1857 the hall, made from iron and glass, was completed, being designed by C. Tilney with input from Sir Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace fame.

In the 1870s buildings for traders outside the market hall were provided, these being known as the “new market”. There was great pomp for the laying of the foundation stone as councillors in their robes walked through the streets to the ceremony. A total of fifteen two-storey structures were subsequently erected, and some still survive today.

Kirkgate Market: An Illustrated History (1992) provides a glimpse of some of the characters involved in the market during this period. Soap merchant John Kelley, or “Cheap Jack” would pluck a dirty boy from the crowd and wash his face to prove the effectiveness of the soap.

Despite further rationalisations at the market before the end of the 19th century, with the removal of wholesale fish and meat merchants, the facilities were seen to be outdated. After Leeds became a city in 1893 the councillors wanted public areas to reflect this new importance and, while City Square was the first development to be instigated, the improvement of the market was seen as equally pressing.

A competition was staged in 1899 to attract designs for a new covered market. Leeming Brothers of London, designers of buildings in Halifax, won the contest with a market hall projected to cost £73,000. Work began in 1901 and was finished in 1904.

The Rt Hon. G.W. Balfour, President of the Board of Trade and MP for Leeds Central, was asked to perform the opening on July 1. At the door Balfour was given a gold key and declared the building open. However, because of a delay to the party the cheers came from the interior of the hall as spectators had already been allowed in.

The market’s clock, which had been set to chime at 12 o’clock, the official opening time, went off just as the party took their seats, some twenty minutes late. Then the buzzer to announce closing time also sounded.

The market hall cost £116,750 and a further £126,000 had been spent on the other work to the market. As a result the rents were increased by the Market Committee in an attempt to recoup some of the money, leading to a good deal of resentment from the traders.