History of Flax in Leeds

Interestingly, cotton was grown for manufacturing purposes as early as 500BC in India. Although it is widely regarded that perhaps the Egyptians had produced cotton for similar reasons at a much earlier date (though not commercially until 1821 when the country sought a whole in the market, caused largely by the American Civil War), India is the first instance where cotton was grown for weaving.

Indeed, Indian cotton was widely regarded as a premium cotton until the art was adopted and modified by the Arabs, who later introduced the methods to Spain during the 8th century. An influence that would dominate the world of cotton as we know it. So much so that we derive the very word from Arabic itself; ‘kutun’.


At this time the Moorish towns in southern Spain such as Granada, Seville and Cordova made goodly living from cotton. By the 13th century the Italian Towns were producing high quality cotton and their influence soon spread to the rest of Europe, especially the Netherlands.’[1]

Some presume that cotton was first introduced at Sunderland Point in Lancashire from the West Indies sometime during the mid-18th Century, however this is a common mistake as Britain had been receiving cotton from Egypt for some years before.


industrial-revolution-canals-300x225Opinion varies as to the exact date, but it is estimated that the First Industrial Revolution took place between 1750 and 1850, and the second phase or Second Industrial Revolution between 1860 and 1900.’[2]

Indeed, it was the beckoning of the industrial revolution that without, the City of Leeds would simply not exist in the state in which we find it today. For many years right up until midway through the 18th century, Leeds offered no distinction whatsoever from neighbouring towns and villages. So much so that settlements such as Snaith and Goole were considered of higher importance as late as the 14th century.

Around the 16th Century, the small town did indeed show evidence of growth as can be seen by one of the earliest visual representations of the area, as seen in the 1560 map; interestingly representing but a handful of streets.

Perhaps boosted by the excessive mining of coal (which was itself, the fuel and blood of the industrial revolution), the Industrial Revolution greatly inflated and boosted the town of Leeds into a productive and industrious city – something that it had been crying for since 1207, wherein the town was granted its first town charter by Lord of the Manor, Maurice De Grant. Even the introduction of a woollen mill around 1400 did little to increase the prospects of the town until the Industrial Revolution.


In the material field the human race has only taken two major steps forward in a million years’ occupation of this planet. The first was when agriculture was pioneered in the Middle East, about 10,000 years ago… The second was what we call the Industrial Revolution’[3]

By the 17th century, Leeds was indeed one of the most prosperous towns in the entirety of the North of England. Holding its own market twice a week in the centre of the town, they were even considered one of the seven wonders of Georgian Industrial England.


Leeds was more than a market for industrial raw materials and foodstuffs. As the textile industry grew and others, especially coal mining, developed, and agriculture itself witnessed a new era of prosperity after 1750, wealth generated in this area gave it a prosperity which few other areas in England exceeded.’[4]

In 1788, the growth of industrial Leeds was signified by the introduction of the largest woollen factory in history; Armley Mill. Brought into life by Colonel Thomas Llyod, the factory breathed life into the city and Leeds became one of the major heavyweights of wool production in England, competing too with the industrial might of Lancashire, itself a major cotton and linen producer.

temple-works-leeds2By 1938 however, a new factory was in process of being built. Known as the Temple Works, the architecture of the building is simply astounding and once held the record for containing the largest room in the world and was also accredited with hastening the solution to flax production, simply by introducing a new style of layout afforded by the large room.

In fact, it could be stated that the Temple Works was completed at quite possibly the best time possible as in the same year, the rail connection between Leeds and Liverpool were complete, hastening deliveries and exchanges between the two areas; merely eighteen years after the construction of the canals were complete, thereby quickly certifying them redundant.

The biggest problem that the town would face during the industrial revolution were not the intolerable working conditions as some would suggest, but the Luddite Movement which would throughout the 19th century, which continued to destroy industry machinery in major towns and cities throughout England. Although Leeds was not as badly affected as other neighbouring settlements such as Manchester, mills were attacking both in 1812 and 1842.

Although mass trials were staged in the City of York in response to the Luddite Movement, resulting in the executions of 17 men; the luckier ones were simply transported to Australia, though it is a little known fact that at one point, there were more British soldiers fighting the Luddites than there were fighting Napoleon Bonaparte in Spain. The attacks in 1842 however could be considered to be in vain as merely eight years later, the revolution would have slowed to an all-encompassing halt and the world would have a fuel to play with – oil.

Indeed, by the time of the 20th Century, the world of cotton in Northern England would itself slow into something that it would simply never recover from.


In 1912, 8,000 million miles of cloth had been produced, but by the 1930s 4,000 miles was regarded as a record.’[5]

By the 1970s mills across Northern England were closing at the rate of one a week and by the 1980s, the industry of the North West is over. Gone.



[1] Freethy R., Lancashire Cotton Mills. Countryside Books, 2010.

[2] Singleton F., Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire.  The Dalesman Publishing Company, 1970.

[3] Rix M., Industrial Archaeology. Historical Association, 1967.

[4] Fraser D., A History of Modern Leeds. Manchester University Press, 1980.

[5] Freethy R., Lancashire Cotton Mills. Countryside Books, 2010.