A Brief History of Leeds #6: The Early to mid-19th century

Part six 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.

Our previous step in this history looked at the place of the industrial revolution in Leeds, noting in particular the growth in population and wealth that was a result of that development. As one scholar has noted, however, these huge changes to economic models bring other kinds of change: “Industrialisation creates massive economic and social change,” as academic Patrick M. Kuhn has said.

Exhibition of radical printing in Leeds and the West Riding, held at the Central Library in February 2020 (c) Leeds Libraries

A truism, perhaps; but, still, very much the case in 19th-century Leeds, when working-class radicalism, a response from-below to that industrialisation, made a significant appearance, with one authority declaring Leeds second only to Manchester as a hot-bed of Northern radical politics in the first half of the 19th-century. Leeds was home to several newspapers catering to this radicalism, including the Leeds Patriot in the 1820s and the Chartist Northern Star in the 1830s and 40s, original copies of which can be seen in the bottom section of the photo above; while the rather grainy image below shows a truncheon, also held at the Central Library, and said to have been used during the August 1842 Chartist disturbances around Leeds and its townships.

(c) Leeds Libraries

Many radicals and Chartists later sought public office, including men such as Robert Meek Carter and Dr. Frederick Richard Lees, both of whom held positions as town Councillors and later, in the 1860s and 1870s, were elected as MPs for Leeds. Both Carter and Lees can be seen in this 1874 image from our collection of over 200 political cartoons, which caricature and satirise parliamentary elections in Leeds between 1868 and 1880. Lees and Carter were both standing as Liberal candidates, alongside Edward Baines Jnr., the emblem of Liberal power in 19th-century Leeds.

(c) Leeds Libraries

Also to be seen in the political cartoons collection are rather problematic caricatures of those Irish people who had migrated to Leeds in large numbers through the 1840s and 50s, where they faced intolerable housing conditions and low paid employment in the textile mills of the town.

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