History of Leeds - Poverty and Riches

18th Century Leeds - the well-off

In 18th Century Leeds, while most people earned just enough to feed their families, a small group of very wealthy people made huge amounts of money. Two-thirds of merchants in the town had an annual income of 200-600. Today this would be worth roughly 500,000 -1,500,000. Even in the late 1700s, 400 per year could pay for a large house and five servants. 


Until about 1780, many merchants still lived next to their business, in impressive houses of decorated stone and brick. Gradually, they began to move out of the city. In 1780 the grand Park Estate was built in the west of the town, for wealthy businessmen who wanted to live outside the busy centre, yet still near the Coloured Cloth Hall. 


While their daughters were usually educated at home, their sons went to school, to learn the skills they would need to carry on the family business. In the early 18th Century they would probably have attended the local Grammar School.


Business and pleasure - leisure time

 

The rich could afford to enjoy themselves. 'Many of the merchants divide the week between their Pleasures and their Business and what they gather with one hand scatter with the other,' commented the Leeds Mercury newspaper, in 1742.


Banquets were held at the cloth hall in Kirkgate. When the New Assembly Rooms opened in 1777, the Leeds elite danced, went to concerts and played cards. Admission was half a guinea for a gentleman and two ladies - only the wealthy could afford to come. Men also met in coffee houses to discuss business and gossip. Sporting activities, like the Leeds Races were popular with families, and gentlemen also played bowls, cricket, or went fox-hunting.


Discussion ideas:

  • Why might the merchants have wanted to move away from the city centre?
  • How would it living in one of the big houses on the Park Estate, be different to a one-room cottage in the city centre?
  • What do you think ordinary people might have thought of the banquets and balls at the Assembly Rooms
  • How might life have been different for women in the 18th Century to today?

 

Glossary:

Banquet - a big formal meal with many courses

Coffee house - an early type of coffee shop

Discuss - talk about something with other people

Elite - a small group of people with a lot of money or power

Impressive - something that looks good

Gradually - something that happens slowly, over time

Guinea - old coin worth about 1.05

Income - the amount of money someone earns, usually in a year




 
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