Builders make fascinating archaeological finds on the site of Leeds' oldest street

An aerial view of the First White Cloth Hall before redevelopment began
An aerial view of the First White Cloth Hall before redevelopment began
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A property development company has uncovered centuries of history beneath Kirkgate in Leeds.

Rushbond PLC and their contractors are currently working on the site of the First White Cloth Hall, which was built in 1711 for the trading of textiles and has been derelict for several years. It is the oldest building in Leeds city centre.

A pit and sump have been found beneath the building

A pit and sump have been found beneath the building

Excavations at the site on Kirkgate, the oldest street in the city, have revealed evidence of a pit, sump and keystone.

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A keystone is a wedge-shaped stone found at the apex of a masonry arch, and is the final piece placed during construction which fixes the other stones in position. They often have a decorative role. Sumps were spaces beneath buildings that were used for drainage.

Archaeologists are based at the site and are working to date the finds. The keystone will be restored and incorporated into the new development.

This historic keystone will be restored and returned to the building

This historic keystone will be restored and returned to the building

Rushbond's plans for the Grade II-listed building, which has been on Historic England's At Risk register since 1999, include rebuilding the West Wing and creating a large assembly room. The public courtyard will be enclosed and a new cube will link the site to the Corn Exchange. They are hoping that First White Cloth Hall will be leased to a retail store, cultural business or leisure operator.

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Rushbond's director of real estate Mark Finch said that the discoveries were not unexpected, and that experts had been commissioned by their architects to survey the ground during the building work.

"There have been a series of additions to the First White Cloth Hall site over time, so we're currently in the process of carefully dismantling the later additions. We're starting to uncover pieces and artifacts from the past that tell the story of the building.

The First White Cloth Hall has been completely derelict since 2010

The First White Cloth Hall has been completely derelict since 2010

"Some items are being removed from their positions and taken away for restoration work, such as the timber buttresses from the roof, which we've found are actually older than the building itself. It's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle at the moment.

"We're looking to date them and various photographic records are being taken. There is a lot of layering of different periods, which will be useful in telling the story of the First White Cloth Hall.

"The archaeological surveys are all done concurrently, so there is no delay to the project. You just don't know what you will find - this area is very rich in heritage."

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What is the First White Cloth Hall?

The 18th-century building, the oldest in Leeds, was a cloth trading exchange built for merchants. Incredibly, there have been four White Cloth Halls in Leeds during the history of the textile industry.

The First fell out of use when the Second White Cloth Hall was built in Holbeck to replace it. This building was used for just 20 years before the Third White Cloth Hall, which was much grander, opened on Crown Lane. In 1865, the third incarnation had to be partially demolished to make way for the North Eastern Railway, who were required to fund a replacement Fourth White Cloth Hall on King Street. The decline in the cloth trade meant this building was never heavily used and it was razed in 1895. The Hotel Metropole was later built on the site.

The original White Cloth Hall was the only survivor, and it was used for several purposes before its condition began to deteriorate. By the 1960s, it was mostly vacant and it was completely disused by 2010.

In 2011 part of the First White Cloth Hall site had to be demolished when a neighbouring building collapsed. The previous owners were unable to restore it due to heavy conservation costs and it one point it was feared the hall had degenerated so much that it would have to be knocked down.

Historic England had campaigned for years to save it, arguing that the building was the 'birthplace' of the city's economy.

Rushbond bought it in 2017, and contractors HH Smith and Sons Ltd began work in March 2019.