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17th Century Leeds

The Origins of Leeds:

The earliest record of Leeds is in the Domesday Book, where it is described as a 'manor' or small village, near the River Aire, surrounded by open fields. In the early 1200s, the lord of the manor, Maurice Paynel tried to bring craftsmen and traders to Leeds by creating a new town called a 'borough'. From then on Leeds thrived, but while some citizens grew wealthy, others struggled to make a living.


A Divided City: 

By the early 1600s, the rich and the poor of Leeds were living side by side. The cottages of the poor were crammed into the yards and courts behind larger, more comfortable houses. 


At this time everyone had to pay a hearth (fireplace) tax (a sort of property tax) and the records of this show that: 

  • 40% of households had one hearth and were living on very little money. They were labourers, servants, journeymen and widows.
  • 40% had 2-3 hearths and could afford to live in greater comfort; they were the craftsmen, shopkeepers and clothiers of the town.
  • 20% had 4 or more hearths and were wealthy clothiers, merchants, retailers, clergymen, professionals, landowners and gentry. 


Fighting Poverty in C17th Leeds:  

Seeing many of their fellow townspeople living in poverty, the city authorities and wealthiest tried to find ways of helping the poor. A tax called the poor rate (a sort of council tax) was paid by people who lived in Leeds and used to provide an extra income for those unable to earn enough to feed their families. 

Another way of fundraising was through charitable donations. A 'Committee of Pious Uses' was set up in 1620 to manage charities trying to raise money for the poor in Leeds, and to make sure none of the money was stolen or misused.


Workhouses and Almshouses:

However, these methods did not solve the problem. Some wealthier people felt, unfairly, that people were only poor because they were lazy, and that if they were forced to work then there would be no more poverty. In 1637 the town built a house to be used as 'a common Work-house’, on what is now North Street. Many of its inhabitants were orphaned children or too old or ill to work.

'Almshouses' or hospitals were also built, where elderly people could live, if their families were unable to support them. These were usually paid for by wealthy benefactors. For example, Leeds cloth merchant, John Harrison built two rows of almshouses to house 40 poor women and give them each a small pension.

Despite the attempts to banish poverty there were still plenty of poor people on the streets of Leeds at the end of the 17th Century, just as there were many rich merchants building grand houses. 


Discussion ideas:

  • How do you think rich and poor people in Leeds felt about living so near each other?
  • Why do you think the workhouse and almshouses did not solve the problem of poverty in Leeds?
  • What sort of ideas would you try out instead?
  • Why do you think people called the poor lazy? 
  • How does this opinion make you feel?
  • Think of some modern views - both good and bad - that you have heard people say about the poor and poverty.
  • How do people try to fight poverty in the UK today?



Almshouse - house set up by a charity to care for elderly or ill people

Banish - to send someone or something away

Benefactor - someone who gives money to a charity or person

Clothier - sells cloth or clothes

Combat - fight or struggle 

Hearth - the bottom or floor of a fireplace

Household - a group of people living together in one house

Merchant - buys and sells goods 

Pension - money paid to someone instead of a salary

Thrive - to grow or do well

Workhouse - a place where people live and work, in exchange for food