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18th Century Leeds: The Well-Off

18th Century Leeds: The Working Classes

During the 18th Century, the population of Leeds grew very quickly. The birth rate rose, and at the same time more people came to the town to look for work in the growing number of factories. 


Because a lot of people were competing for jobs, wages were low for most working people. Men rarely earned more than 12 shillings a week, women as little as 2-3 shillings. Most working people lived in small cottages, often in the yards and courts behind the main streets of the town. They had few possessions, except basic furniture and cooking utensils. 


Most poor children were unable to go to school, as at this time there were few free schools. The lucky ones went to the Charity School (also called the Blue Coat School), which opened in 1705. There they learned reading, writing and arithmetic - skills meant to help them get a job.


An 18th Century diet:

For poor families, daily meals included: bread, oats (in oatcakes or porridge), milk, treacle, beer, and a little cheese and meat. They had to plan carefully how they would spend their weekly wages, to make sure they could afford food, rent, and other basics like candles, salt, fuel, clothes and linen. There was no money over to save and if they were unemployed or ill, then they had to depend on the parish poor relief money or go to live in the workhouse.


Healthcare before the NHS:

At this time, medical care cost money, and when most people became ill they found it hard to pay for a doctor's fee. Instead, they tried herbal remedies, like Dr Daffy's elixir, which were often useless. Things improved in 1771, when the General Infirmary opened, providing free medical care to the people of Leeds, the poor, as well as the rich. 


Pastimes for paupers:

The poor could not afford the same leisure activities as the rich, but they still managed to enjoy themselves. Many people spent time in the inns and alehouses, where entertainments like cockfights were arranged. Bull baiting took place on Quarry Hill and there were free races, feasts and fairs. People also enjoyed celebrations for national events, like the King's birthday, and military victories. At these events they could enjoy themselves and forget the harshness of their day-to-day lives.


Discussion ideas:

  • What do you think it was like to live in 18th Century Leeds?
  • What sort of meals do you think ordinary people ate in the 18th Century, thinking about the most common foods listed above?
  • What do you think life was like before free medical care?
  • What would your own life be like if you couldn't afford to go to the doctor?
  • How might the Leeds General Infirmary have changed people's lives?
  • Why do you think rich and poor people enjoyed different leisure activities?
  • What aspects of life do you think were most important to working people in the 18th Century (eg. family, having a good time)? 



Cock-fighting - (now illegal) when two cockerels are forced to fight and people bet on the outcome

Compete - to try to win or do better 

Elixir - a drink meant to cure an illness

Infirmary - hospital or place where the sick get medical treatment

Parish - local area with its own church and council

Population - people who live in a certain country or place

Possessions - things people own

Remedies - cures or treatment

Utensils - items used to cook or each with