A Brief History of Leeds #5: The Industrial Revolution

The fifth part of a series exploring the history of Leeds, using books and other stock resources held in the Leeds Libraries collections. For all the entries in this series, see our dedicated page.

Part four of this series finished with a suggestion that the writings of 18th-century Leeds antiquaries such as Thomas Wilson and John Lucas provide an appropriately dynamic way of approaching that period in the town’s history. That dynamism was never more evident than when, at around the same time Wilson was adding annotations to his copy of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis in 1758, Charles Brandling, the owner of the Middleton Colliery estate, successfully applied for an Act of Parliament to build a waggon-way taking coal into Leeds.

In doing so, Brandling effectively kick-started the next phase of Leeds’ development.  This supply of relatively cheap coal would play a major role in stimulating the new or rapidly expanding industries of the era; most notably, the manufacturing of woollens in mills like those of Benjamin Gott from the 1790s; a move to a factory system which brought many of the previously independent stages of textile production under one roof; changes that would uproot forever the seemingly settled world of the gentleman merchants, the genteel and leisurely world of Thoresby. Leeds rapidly expanded, with its population growing from 25,000 in 1790 to 88,000 in 1841.

Factories brought demand for coal, but also for machinery; both brought a need for talented and innovative engineers – men such as John Smeaton. The plans which you can see above, dated 1779, are almost certainly from the Smeaton workshop, and possible drawn up by the man himself, most likely for the steam engine-driven pumping house in operation at Middleton Colliery from 1780. The attribution to Smeaton is proved by his signature – or, at least, a copy of his signature – which you can see in the smaller image below.

Engineering continued to grow in importance in Leeds’ economic development, becoming the town’s dominant employer by the end of the 19th-century. Pioneers such as Matthew Murray, many not born in Leeds, were attracted to the town by its dynamism, the opportunities for those with entrepreneurial zeal.

These Smeaton plans also feature on their reverse the signature of Charles Brandling, dated 1780. Brandling’s agent on the colliery estate at the time of the waggon-way was a man intimately connected to another item in the Central Library collections relating to this period: Richard Humble.

Humble co-founded a pottery company in the 1770s after leaving Brandling’s employ – the Leeds Pottery, a plan of which can be seen below. That plan shows how the colliery waggon-way ran along the northern edge of the Pottery works, providing the Pottery with a ready-supply of coal. That access allowed the Pottery to develop quickly and with great success, most particularly in the production of its famous creamware, often called Leedsware.

The Pottery is represented at the Central Library through nine drawing, pattern and Published design books. Images from both can be seen below: the drawing and pattern books being visual guides for company potters and decorators and the published design books probably being used by agents for advertising and sales purposes, with several designs translated into French, German and Spanish – a sign of Leeds’ place in international networks of trade, taste and influence. The Industrial Revolution had taken the Leeds name around the world, creating a longstanding reputation for excellence

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