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19th Century Leeds: The Working Classes

Leeds between 1900-1950

People at different ends of society continued to live very different lives in 20th Century Leeds.

Grand houses in Park Square, Leeds

However, the gap between rich and poor narrowed in some ways and more people found themselves in the 'middle class'. New schools meant improved education for children from working class homes. New laws on working hours meant that people had much fairer and safer working conditions than in Victorian Britain. 

Back to back terraced housing with a group of children standing in the foreground. Photo taken in 1901
Working class housing in Bell Street, Leeds 1901, children in foreground

Pensions and poverty

Life was slowly improving for working people too. From 1908, for the first time, people over 70 were paid a small pension, if they earned under £31 10 shillings a year. This helped many elderly people, who would have been forced to go into the workhouse, to support themselves at home.


However, working people still had very low incomes and could not afford to pay for a doctor if they became ill. During the 1920s things became very difficult for many families, as there was an economic depression. This meant that a lot of people were out of work and there were fewer jobs for them.

'Homes fit for heroes'

In 1918, 70% of people in Leeds were living in back-to-back houses. Most of them were the two-room houses with shared toilets built in the 19th Century.

After the First World War, the government wanted to do something about the poor housing that many working class people were living in all over England. 


The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George announced that soldiers who had fought in the war would be given 'homes fit for heroes'. New housing estates were put up on the outskirts of towns and cities all over the UK, including Leeds, during the 1920s and 1930s. 


Leisure for all

Cheaper and easier travel meant that working class families no longer needed to live close to their workplaces. More public facilities were built, like swimming baths, playing fields and parks for everyone to enjoy. The cinema also became extremely popular.

People were now earning enough to take an annual holiday and travel was cheaper. Although air travel was still very expensive until later in the 20th Century, people could go on holiday to resorts in Britain, like the Isle of Man or Scarborough. After the 1938 Holiday with Pay Act, people could take a holiday without losing their weekly wage.


Discussion ideas:


  • There were a lot of changes to ordinary people's lives in the early 20th Century. Which do you think were the most important and why?
  • How might getting a pension have improved elderly people's lives?
  • Why do you think the government felt it was important to improve working class housing after the First World War?
  • Why are public facilities like swimming pools and parks important?
  • In what ways do you think life in Leeds improved from the 17th Century onwards?


Annual - happens every year
Economic depression - a time when there are fewer jobs and people are poorer in general
Facilities - places for people to use, like a sports centre
Narrowed - grew smaller
Pension - money paid regularly to someone
Resorts - places where people often go for holidays
Shillings - old coin no longer used, worth 12 pence