The Corn-price Riot of 1735 and the Turnpike Riot of 1753

Corn Price Riot (1735)
Corner of Briggate & King Edward Street
During the 18th and early 19th-centuries Leeds saw a significant amount of rioting relating to corn prices and, later, Corn Laws. In 1735 it was reported that, whilst huge amounts of corn were being produced and exported cheaply, Leeds citizens were met with rising, unaffordable prices – resulting in the first Corn Price Riot of 1735. Apparently the rioting crowds of Leeds were so violent that the ‘King’s troops’ were forced to fire: killing eight or nine people.

Turnpike Riot (1753)
Corner of Briggate and Duncan Street, The Old King’s Arms Inn, Briggate
Also known as ‘The Leeds Fight,’ this began when protesters assembled outside the Old Kings Arms pub on Briggate, with the intention of liberating people held by the borough magistrates for the crime of destroying toll bars at Halton Dial and Beeston. After seeing the crowd break windows in an effort to free the prisoners, the magistrates ordered out a troop of dragoons, who shot and killed at least 10 people (with another 27 injured). The same site was later the home of the influential Leeds Mercury newspaper.

Undated. The Old King's Arms, Briggate
Undated. The Old King’s Arms, Briggate. (c) Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net

Further Information and Sources
Both these 18th-century riots will have been reported on in the local press of the time. Sadly, no copies of the main newspaper, the Leeds Mercury, survive from the time of either riot, so our main source for both events is the record made in William Parson and William White’s Annals, History and Guide of Leeds and York – an 1830 volume which John Mayhall seems to have drawn on heavily for his better known Annals of Leeds (1860). In fact, Parson and White’s account is more useful than Mayhall’s, for the 1753 riot in particular, as they provide a full list of the wounded and those who lost their lives:

That said, a search of the British Newspaper Archive reveals another source for the 1753 riot – one contemporaneous to the actual events: an article in the Scots Magazine, dated June 4, 1753. While a copy of that article cannot be reproduced here for copyright reasons, it is well-worth seeking out, as it provides further information and detail about the riot, including the involvement of Edwin Lascelles of the Harewood estate, in a related incident just prior to the events at the Old King’s Arms:

…notice was sent to Edwin Lascelles, Esq; at Ganthorp Hall, that the rioters intended to demolish the gate at Harewood bridge, and to pull down his house. Mr. Lascelles armed about 80 of his tenants and servants , and marched to meet the rioters; of whom there were about 300, armed some with swords, and some with clubs.

While there is nothing in the local Leeds papers about either the 1735 or the 1753 riot to match this visceral account , interested researchers can immerse themselves in the 1700s by browsing our still very-significant collection of 18th-century newspapers – most of which are accessible through microfilms, but also including some original paper copies.

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Beyond newspapers, those interested in discovering more about 18th-century Leeds will find the period lacking in accessible primary sources, at least in the Central Library collections. We can, however, begin to piece together or flesh out a sense of life in the town during the broader 1700s using a disparate group of materials, not least visual resources, travel accounts and diaries.

The general appearance of Leeds at this time can be appreciated through sketches known as ‘Prospects’, several of which were made during the 18th-century. One of the most frequently-reproduced was that by Francis Place, published Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis in 1715:

Extract from the 1715 Place ‘Prospect’

Another view of Leeds at this time, an engraving from 1733, was created by the York printer Thomas Gent; you can read more about that prospect, and see a small extract from the same, elsewhere on this website. This sketch was almost certainly made during Gent’s visit to Leeds, which he recounts in his book A Journey Into Some Parts of Yorkshire – an extract from which can be seen below, offering an engaging description of the town – which he calls “really so beautiful” – in the early-to-mid 18th-century:

Closer still to the date of the 1753 riot  is the following view by Samuel Buck (1745), his South-East Prospect of Leeds:

(c) Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net

Another very useful visual source for this century are the maps surveyed by John Cossins in c.1726 and Thomas Jeffreys in c.1770. You can see extracts from both, below:

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Ralph Thoresby (1658 – 1725), mentioned above, is another significant source of information about the town in the 18th-century, not least through his topography of Leeds, the Ducatus Leodiensis. That book, the first written history of Leeds, also works as a guide to the town and its surrounding parish at the time of writing, with Thoresby taking the reader street-by-street through the centre of Leeds, and highlighting important contemporary buildings and historical events at each given place.

Even so, the book was written and published at least twenty-years before the first of our 18th-century riots. More relevant, perhaps, are the annotations made to a copy of the Ducatus around 1745, by Thomas Wilson – a Leeds-based antiquarian who added marginal notes that updated (and, occasionally, corrected) Thoresby’s work. The Central Library holds this very important edition of the Ducatus and you can read more about it elsewhere on the Secret Library.

Another important antiquarian during this period, who also recorded his impressions of life in Leeds, was John Lucas (1684 – 1750). Lucas, a schoolmaster, was known to both Thoresby and Wilson: mentioned in the former’s diary, and the latter’s superior at the Leeds Charity School. During his time in Leeds, Lucas compiled his ‘Memoranda Book’ – effectively a diary of events, both national and local. Lucas’ original manuscript is kept here at the Central Library – though, sadly, it contains significant gaps, including the period of both riots covered in this article. It remains a hugely interesting and important source for daily life in Leeds during the 18th-century, however; as does the diary of Ralph Thoresby himself – readily available in an edited edition published in the 19th-century.

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Finally, two key secondary sources are worth investigating by anyone interested in this period of Leeds’ rich history: Steven Burt and Kevin Grady’s The Merchant’s Golden Age: Leeds, 1700-1790(largely incorporated into the ‘Georgian Leeds’ chapter of their Illustrated History of Leeds) and Maurice Beresford’s classic East End, West End: The Changing Face of Leeds During Urbanisation, 1684-1842. A more detailed guide to books on the subject can be found in a research guide available elsewhere on this site.

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Please contact the Local and Family History  or Information and Research departments to access any of the resources mentioned here

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