Leeds Cloth Market, circa 1720

as described by Daniel Defoe

Leeds is a large, wealthy and prosperous town, it stands on the north bank of the river Aire, or rather on both sides the river, for there is a large suburb or part of the town on the south side of the river, and the whole is joined by a stately and prodigiously strong stone bridge, so large, and so wide, that formerly the cloth market was kept in neither part of the town, but on the very bridge itself; and therefore the refreshment given the clothiers by the inn-keepers, of which I shall speak presently, is called the Brigg-shot to this day.

The increase of the manufacturers and of the trade, soon made the market too great to be confined to the brigg or bridge, and it is now kept in the high-street, beginning from the bridge, and running up north almost to the market-house, where the ordinary market for provisions begins, which also is the greatest of its kind in all the north of England, except Hallifax, of which I have spoken already, nay, the people at Leeds will not allow me to except Hallifax, but say, that theirs is the greatest market, and that not the greatest plenty only, but the best of all kinds of provisions are brought hither.

But this is not the case; it is the cloth market I am now to describe, which is indeed a prodigy of its kind, and is not to be equalled in the world. The market for serges at Exeter is indeed a wonderful thing, and the value sold there is very great; but then the market there is but once a week, here it is twice a week, and the quantity of goods vastly great too.

The market itself is worth describing, though no description can come up to the thing itself; however, take a sketch of it with its customs and usages as follows:

The street is a large, broad, fair and well-built street, beginning, as I have said, at the bridge, and ascending gently to the north.

Early, in the morning, there are trestles placed in two rows in the street, sometimes two rows on a side, but always one row at least; then there are boards laid cross these trestles, so that the boards lie like long counters on either side, from one end of the street to the other.

The clothiers come early in the morning with their cloth; and as few clothiers bring more than one piece, the market being so frequent, they go into the inns and public houses with it, and there set it down.

At seven a clock in the morning, the clothiers being supposed to be all come by that time, even in the winter, but the hour is varied as the seasons advance (in the summer earlier, in the depth of winter a little later) I take it, as a medium, and as it was when I was there, at six or seven, I say, the market bell rings; it would surprise a stranger to see in how few minutes , without hurry or noise, and not the least disorder, the whole market is filled; all the boards upon the trestles are covered with cloth, close to one another as the pieces can lie long ways by one another, and behind every piece of cloth, the clothier standing to sell it.

This indeed is not so difficult, when we consider that the whole quantity is brought into the market as soon as one piece, because as the clothiers stand ready in the inns and shops just behind, and that there is a clothier to every piece, they have no more to do, but like a regiment drawn up in line, everyone takes up his piece, and has about five steps to march to lay it upon the first row of boards, and perhaps ten to the second row; so that upon the market bell ringing, in half a quarter of an hour the whole market is filled, the rows of boards covered, and the clothiers stand ready.

As soon as the bell has done ringing, the merchants and factors, and buyers of all sorts, come down, and coming along the spaces between the rows of boards, they walk up the rows and down as their occasions direct. Some of them have their foreign letters of orders, with patterns sealed on them, in rows, in their hands; and with those they match colours , holding them to the cloths as they think they agree to: when they see any cloths to their colours, or that suit their occasions, they reach over to the clothier and whisper, and in the fewest words imaginable the price is stated; one asks, the other bids; and ’tis agree, or not agree, in a moment.

The merchants and buyers generally walk down and up twice on each side of the rows, and in little more than an hour you will perceive the cloths begin to move off, the clothier taking it up upon his shoulder to carry it to the merchant’s house; and by half an hour eight a clock the market bell rings again; immediately the buyers disappear, the cloth is all sold, or if here and there a piece happens not to be bought, ’tis carried back into the inn, and in a quarter of an hour, there is not a piece of cloth to be seen in the market.

Thus, you see, ten or twenty thousand pounds’ value in cloth, and sometimes much more, bought and sold in little more than an hour, and the laws of the market the most strictly observed as ever I saw done in nay market in england; for,

1. Before the market bell rings, no man shows a piece of cloth, nor can the clothiers sell any but in open market.

2. After the market bell rings again, nobody stays a moment in the market, but carries his cloth back if it be not sold.

3. And that which is most admirable is, ’tis all managed with the most profound silence, and you cannot hear a word spoken in the whole market, I mean, by the persons buying and selling; ’tis all done in whisper.

The reason of this silence, is chiefly because the clothiers stand so near to one another; and ’tis always reasonable that one should not know what another does, for that would be discovering their business, and exposing it to one another.

If a merchant has bidden a clothier a price, and he will not take it, he may go after him to his house, and tell him he has considered of it, and is willing to let him have it; but they are not to make any new agreement for it, so as to remove the market from the street to the merchant’s house.

By nine a clock the boards are taken down, the trestles are removed, and the street cleared, so that you see no market or goods any more than if there had been nothing to do; and this is done twice a week. By this quick return the clothiers are constantly supplied with money, their workmen are duly paid, and a prodigious sum circulates throughout the county every week.

 

from Daniel Defoe: A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1726)





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