A Brief History of the Leeds Improvement Acts: 1755 – 1842

This week, Librarian Antony Ramm brings you a brief history of the Leeds Improvement Acts. This content was used as part of a talk given in conjunction with colleagues from the Leeds Museums and Galleries service, on November 7 2019. 

The Improvement Acts were a series of private Acts of Parliament passed in the 18th and 19th-centuries by local governments, as a means for gaining the powers needed to undertake particular projects of urban regeneration: the introduction of street lighting, improvements to road paving, or general measures to deal with public nuisances of all kinds. These Acts created local Improvement Commissions – generally operating at arms-length from local Corporations or other governing bodies – who were vested with the powers to enact the clauses of the relevant Acts.

The first Leeds Improvement Act was passed in 1755. Making reference to the (admittedly meagre) sources for Leeds-life in that period can lead the casual reader or observer to some confusion about the need for this Act; the maps and prospects that show the town in the mid-18th-century generally present it as a bucolic, semi-rural environment, with wide open-spaces abounding:

An extract from Cossins’ famous c.1726 map of Leeds town centre
An extract from Samuel Bucks 1745 South-East Prospect of Leeds

Of course, it does not take an expert to reckon that daily existence in the town from the 1720s through the 1750s was almost certainly not as portrayed above; a suspicion confirmed by a description made by Horace Walpole during a visit to Leeds in 1756 – in which he peeled back the layers of civic boosterism displayed in the images seen here, to reveal Leeds in all its naked ‘glory’: “a dingy large town.”

The title page of the 1755 Improvement Act

That word ‘dingy’ is key, gesturing toward the need for the 1755 Act, and hiding behind it a whole history of day-to-day life during the 18th-century; a history that comes through clearly in the Act’s preamble:

several Burglaries, Robberies, and other Outrages and Disorders have lately been committed. and many more attempted within the said Town, and the Streets, Lanes, Alleys, and Passages thereof.

Conditions in the streets are also described, if only by reading against the grain of the Act’s clauses: residents of the town were no longer allowed to throw waste out of their homes or places of work (waste defined by the Act as “ashes, rubbish, dust, timber, dirt, dung, filth, tubs and other annoyances”), and were required to sweep outside their doors at 3 o’clock every Saturday afternoon (one supposes people had to have something to do at that time of a weekend, in that grim pre-Leeds United era), before leaving said sweepings in a pile ready to be taken away. No cattle, calves, sheep, lambs or swine were to be slaughtered in any part of the street, except the Shambles (a row of Butcher’s shops, to be found in a notorious alleyway running between the edges of Briggate and the Moot Hall situated toward the top of the town’s main street). In short, the town centre was defined by its risks to public health, much more so than the idealised existence seen in the Cossins and Buck images reproduced above.

Extract from Giles 1815 map of Leeds centre, showing the Shambles and Middle Row, behind the Moot Hall

Of course, the achievements of the 1755 Act – including the formation of the Leeds Improvement Commission – were not enough to completely prevent the (re)emergence of poor living conditions in the town, especially once the Industrial Revolution got fully underway toward the end of the 18th-century. As such, further Improvement Acts were required – and the provisions of each tell us a little about the concerns and anxieties of residents during the period in question:

  • 1790 – Provision for scavengers to clean the streets and for better supplying the town with water and improved lighting.
  • 1809 – provision to extend the powers of the Improvement Commission with regards to cleaning streets, paving, providing lighting to a mile beyond the town bars and for the building of a courthouse and prison.
  • 1814 – provision for the establishment of the police and watchmen.
  • 1824 – provision for the compulsory purchase of Middle Row and removal of cattle, fruit and vegetable markets from the streets.

Middle Row was also the site of the town centre’s butcher trade. This watercolour by the Leeds painter, John Rhodes, shows Middle Row & the Shambles prior to its demolition after the 1824 Improvement Act.

Extract from the Rhodes painting. Taken from William Boyne’s grangerised History of Leeds

It is unclear whether Rhodes was painting from life, or from memory (though we certainly know he was active in Leeds from at least 1811), and the image could be criticised for presenting a romantic, idealised version of the reality. Even so, the painting does show some of the features that would have brought the area to the attention of the Improvement Commission: the uneven pavements and streets, together with the cuts of meat in close proximity to wild dogs roaming the streets.

Even then, the 1824 Act did not completely resolve the matter; evidence, of course, for the unrelenting, unforeseen and unprecedented effect of the industrialising process. So it was that 1842 brought the biggest Improvement Act of them all to the city of Leeds: An Act for Better Lighting, Cleansing, Sewering and Improving the Borough of Leeds. The size of the Act’s text alone tells us something about its intentions and need, compared to the original Act nearly a century before – the latter totalling just 10 pages, the former an epic of more than 100.

The origins of the 1842 Act were in three Bills introduced into the House of Commons in 1841: on borough improvements, building regulations and town drainage. Wanting to preserve the independence of the town, the Leeds Improvement Commission rushed to complete their own Bill; one that would render the three Commons drafts irrelevant. These efforts were successful and the Act received Royal Assent on July 16, 1842.

The effect was immense. To that point, the town’s Corporation had limited powers, even since the reforms of 1835 – little more than the finance and management of the police. The 1842 Act, however, “endowed the Council with major powers to improve public health conditions” through “one of the most comprehensive and complete [Acts] which had then been obtained by local authorities.” The Act permitted the Council to acquire the authority previously vested in the Improvement Commission (partly a reaction to the latter body being dominated by elected Chartists, with radical ideas about reforming their own committee); greatly enlarged the existing powers which the Commission already possessed in relation to markets, urban lighting and and street improvements; as well as creating new powers, such as the authority to lay and operate a sewerage system, organise public cleansing, manage smoke pollution and introduce building regulations (though the effective execution of these powers is another story entirely).

Naturally, the Act also allowed for the enforcement of punishments in the case of breach or flouting; an abridged copy of the 1842 law is held at the Central Library (published by Alice Mann), which clearly lays out the relevant fines and charges. While these amounts may not necessarily mean that much to us at first glance, given historical inflation, we should put them alongside the £6 a year subscription to the very exclusive, very elite Leeds Club on Albion Street (which opened in 1849); an amount that reminds us of the extent to which authority requires punitory measures to enforce itself; and proof, perhaps, that power is almost always rooted in contested claims to authority,

*****

One final effect of the 1842 Improvement Act is worth mentioning: it led, almost directly, to the construction of the first municipal cemetery in Leeds (and, it has been claimed, England as a whole) – Beckett Street Cemetery. You can read more about that sort-of sequel, elsewhere on this blog.

Please contact the Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library, to access any of the stock referenced here.

One Comment Add yours

  1. rhodiegirl61 says:

    I love the fact that Leeds had its own Shambles. Shame it can’t bee seen now.

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