Briggate, one of the principal shopping streets in Leeds, has been in existence as a thoroughfare since 1207.
Lord of the Manor, Maurice Paynel, wanting to generate more income, developed a new town at the top of Kirkgate extending north to the Woodhouse boundary and south to a crossing point on the river. To do this he obtained a charter from King John and within this new town, a new wide street was made and named Briggate, with 30 burgage plots marked out on each side. Burgesses were given a building plot or burgage plot and an additional half-acre at Burmantofts.
Tenants of the Leeds Manor usually paid their rent in terms of agricultural labour, but the burgesses paid 16 pence annually. They were expected to earn a living from a craft or trade, thus creating a centre of commercial activity.
Although the new town venture was not initially a success, Briggate gradually became a focal point for surrounding areas, as it was conveniently situated near a river crossing. There was a bridge across the Aire by 1372 – the name Briggate means ‘the road to the bridge’.
Gradually, Leeds old town, centred around Kirkgate, merged with Briggate new town and the entire area became a busy place, with Briggate becoming the main street. By the 14th century a market was being held on Briggate on Mondays and fairs were also a feature.
Once established, streets like Briggate are given character by their buildings and it is certainly true that a number of Briggate’s buildings have dominated its history.
One of the first of these was the Moot Hall, erected in 1615. Situated on land in the middle of Briggate, the Moot Hall was the centre of judicial and council administration. It is said that in 1664, the heads of three men were said to have been placed on spikes at Moot Hall end. The building was rebuilt in 1710, and three years later, a white marble statue of Queen Anne by Andrew Carpenter, a gift of Alderman Milner, was placed within the frontage.
Many pubs of distinction have populated Briggate. One of them was a coaching inn with stables in Lower Briggate, called the Commercial Hotel. It stood on part of the site of the present Golden Lion and during the 1780s a service ran from there to York and Manchester. The Golden Lion was built to the designs of Thomas Ambler in 1879. The Bull and Mouth also played a part in Leeds’s coaching industry and was established in 1800 at 138 Briggate. It was renamed the Grand Central Hotel in 1903, the Victory Hotel in 1921 before closing in 1939.
Access from Kirkgate to the western part of the town was created during 1806 when Commercial Street was cut through into Briggate. Similarly in 1904, Albion Place linked Briggate and Lands Lane.
Large-scale maps of Leeds from the early and mid-19th century show the narrow courts and yards which existed on Briggate’s east and west sides. They also reflect the layout of the burgage plots. Among the yards and courts were Blayd’s Yard, Pack Horse Yard, Green’s Court, Rose and Crown Yard and Newsom’s Yard.
Containing an unhealthy mixture of slaughterhouses, small workshops, pubs, warehouses, cottages and common lodging houses, the appalling overcrowded conditions in these courts and yards were not eradicated until much later.
Towards the turn of the century, Briggate became a shopping centre for the new middle classes and its progress and affluence was seen in the creation of a number of magnificent arcades. The first of these was Thorntons Arcade, completed in May 1878. Designed by Charles Fowler, the arcade features a clock with four life-size figures that stands above the western exit.
The most spectacular arcade is undoubtedly the County Arcade, built in 1903 to designs by Frank Matcham. Complete with intricate stonework, elegant domes and marble floors, it currently makes up part of the modern-day Victoria Quarter. The Grande Arcade opened in 1897 and Queen’s Arcade in 1889.
Briggate could provide its own theatre and cinema entertainment as the 20th century dawned. The Empire Palace Theatre, also designed by Matcham, opened in 1898 with seating for more than 1,700. The Picture House opened in 1911, with 600 seats, and providing Wedgwood and Jacobean tea lounges and a smoke room.
Leeds embraced tramways as a means of public transport from 1871 when horse-drawn vehicles were introduced. There was a flirtation with steam trams between 1881 and 1902 , then electric vehicles were embraced from 1897 to 1959. Many of the tram services operating to the Leeds outer suburbs could be boarded in Briggate, which for a period had tram shelters in the roadway.
The first Boots chemist store opened in 1902 on the Briggate/King Edward Street corner. Other large stores opening in the street before the onset of the Second World War included Woolworths, which began trading in 1928 and existed until 1987. In 1938 an Art Deco 25-storey skyscraper was planned for Briggate but never carried out due to the war.
After becoming the Rialto during February 1927, the Picture House closed in March 1939. The building was demolished and a Marks & Spencer store erected on the site in 1940.
When the Headrow was developed in the 1930s it overtook Briggate as the city’s main street. Afterwards, Briggate saw a decline for a lengthy period and a number of its key architectural features were lost but over the last three decades considerable sympathetic refurbishment and development has taken place.
Thanks to Leeds Library for help with this piece.