As Kirkgate Market celebrates a massive milestone, we look back over 200 years of an icon of Leeds’ Jewish history.
A fascinating surprise discovery in Leeds recently has revealed the city’s historic Kirkgate Market is believed to have achieved its 200th anniversary.
Material pulled from the archives suggests traders first set out their stalls on what is now Europe’s largest undercover market way back on 31st August 1822.
A book by Steven Burt and Dr Kevin Grady of Leeds Civic Trust, entitled Kirkgate Market: An Illustrated History, highlighted that the first mention of the market was made in the Leeds Intelligencer, a regional newspaper, which read: “All the carts attending Leeds Market with vegetables, fruit, etc, and which formerly stood in Briggate, took their station in Vicar’s Croft. Kirkgate Market had begun its life!”
The market has always been a place for shopping, eating, and drinking and over the years has evolved into a major social destination too, attracting not only the people of Leeds but also tourists from across the globe.
Steeped in history and culture, the market has seen many Jewish community traders over the years, not forgetting one of the biggest names on the high street, Marks & Spencer. The now famous brand was founded by Lithuanian immigrant, Michael Marks, who set up a six by four-foot trestle table called Penny Bazar and give it the slogan: “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny.” The shop became so successful Michael moved it to Wigan’s larger market in 1891. It was there, in 1894, he joined forces with partner Tom Spencer and thus Marks & Spencer was born. In celebration of this auspicious connection, the market still to this day contains a Marks & Spencer clock.
The market’s ties with the Jewish community still flourish to this day, as Lawrence Brown, Owner of Fletchers Fabric & Knitting (which has stood in the market for over 20 years illustrates: “There’s still about five Jewish traders operating today, but the number has gone down over the years. In its heyday – which was well before my time – there were lots!”
During the peak of World War Two, the market, which had become an essential hub due to the depression, suffered from bombing raids, but hardly closed. In fact, ever enterprising planners saw an opportunity for further expansion by adding Butchers Row and the open market.
Tragedy would strike decades later on 13th December 1975 as fire raged through the halls while traders welcomed festive shoppers, destroying two thirds of the now famous market – doing more damage than the World War Two bombs had. Traders battled to contain the fire as it spread throughout the halls, destroying businesses and livelihoods.
As Barry Smith, a butcher who traded on Butcher’s Row, recalled in a video collecting together memories of the market: “I remembered getting home and my mother rang me up and said: ‘The market’s on fire.’ I came down and you couldn’t get within half a mile of it, it was a terrific blaze. I met some of my colleagues on the Sunday morning to see what could be done. The fire had come halfway up Butcher’s Row. You can see now that the roof is lower where it came to. It took the tops off the bottom three shops, and we were out of action for about six weeks, but the rest of the row was trading as normal.”
Incredibly no one lost their lives, but traders mourned businesses that had served generations of locals. The 1904 hall remained untouched and the market’s fighting spirit saw it reopen only three days later.
Kirkgate Market gave many Jewish merchants beside Michael Marks their start and many in the community still have fond memories of their families’ stalls in the historic market.
David Bransby was happy to share his family’s recollections of his grandfather’s soap stall, Sloman Soap. “Sloman Soap was a business started by Joseph Sloman in the 1800s,” David explained. “The family tree shows that Joseph’s daughter, Frances was married to Soloman Woolf. Frances and Soloman had five sons (Alfie, Bernard, Sam, Henry, and Nate) and one daughter, Matilda. Matilda (Tilly Fox) was my maternal grandmother.”
Joseph sold his wares on the outside section of Kirkgate Market, and was reportedly quite the salesman, having a flair for showmanship. David’s cousin Susan recalled that in sales demonstrations to the public, Joseph would take a bite out of the soap and eat a bit in order to prove to the gathered crowd that the soap was pure.
Perhaps it was this flair for the dramatic that caught the eye of one particular aspiring businessman: “The family story unfolds that Joseph sold his soap on the outside of Leeds Market. One day, he was approached by another trader on Leeds Market, who went on to propose a business partnership. Joseph thanked this gentleman for the proposal, but declined, preferring to remain independent.
Not deterred, this entrepreneur – Michael Marks – made a similar proposal to Tom Spencer. So, what was going to be Marks & Sloman went on to be Marks & Spencer!”
Despite its long history, the market is still evolving to this day and most recently saw the opening of the new food hall at the bottom end of the market welcoming local street food traders.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s Executive Member for Economy, Culture, and Education, said: “We are so proud that Leeds is home to Europe’s largest indoor market. It plays a vital role in the city’s retail offering and is steeped in rich history and culture.
“The market is constantly evolving and adapting and has always been an inclusive, diverse, and successful part of Leeds city centre, which is something we can all be proud of. Happy 200th Anniversary to Leeds Market, here’s to the next 200!”