Holbeck and its Fancy Factories
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Just outside Leeds city centre lies the area of Holbeck. Named after the stream that runs through it, Holbeck was once a very industrialised area. The area was once an important centre for the flax spinning industry. It was here that John Marshall with the help of engineer Matthew Murray mechanised the industry in much the same way as Richard Archwright had earlier done to the cotton spinning industry along the Derwent Valley of Derbyshire. The area also became an important centre for the manufacture of machinery. This began with the mill machinery such as had been used in flax spinning. Stationary steam engines were built, and later the first successful railway locomotives. One company specialised in producing something as simple as needles for the textile industry, yet with so many mills producing textiles this was a big business. It is no exhageration to say that the Holbeck area played an important part in the industrial revolution and the innovation that was happening amongst the firms here can still be appreciated by looking at the buildings that survive.
All | Dark Arches | Victoria | Canal | Tower | Round Foundry | Marshall | Temple | Midland | Viaduct | Low | Shed | Village
Seen in a painting of 1844 (this is part of a large veiw of Leeds displayed in the Abbey House Museum at Leeds) the Holbeck area looks nothing special, a typical 'dark satanic mills' sort of scene, close up however there were some very interesting buildings.
The first half of the 19th Century saw a massive increase in the population as well as the number of businesses opperating. To attract business it was essential to attract attention, there was much greater use of advertising and here we see the buildings themselves used as adverts. In the centre of the picture is a round brick building, this was part of a steam engine works and was said to be reminicent of an engine cylinder itself. Other interesting examples were a flax mill built to look like an Egyptian temple and a works with chymneys disquised as Italianate towers. Some of these buildings survive to this day
The Round Foundry
The complex known as the Round Foundry begins on the corner of David Street and Water Lane, the site was once the works of Fenton, Murray and Wood and home to the famous engineer Matthew Murray. Murray had begun his work in Leeds as an engineer with flax miller John Marshall (we'll come to part of his mill complex shortly) and made a number of revolutionary improvements to the machinery used in the industry. This led to him establishing his first mill machinery factory with David Wood in rented buildings nearby at Mill Green, later moving to the purpose built works once joined by financial backer James Fenton. The site was famous for its Rotunda, a round brick building, actually a 'fitting up shop' but the name Round Foundry caught on and the site is still called that today, even though the Rotunda has gone.
The works is most famous for its locomotives built for the Middleton Railway. Prior to these locomotives none had been succesfully applied to freight traffic, they broke the rails with their weight and were not particually powerful. By using Blenkinsop's patented rack railway system the locos Fenton, Murray and Wood built were light enough to run on the rails yet powerful enough to haul impressive loads. On seeing a Murray / Blenkinsop locomotive George Stephenson was adamant that he would build a better locomotive.
The works built lots of other machines. By the time the Middleton locomotives were built they had already been building mill machinery for over a decade and were producing some particually good stationary engines. This led to a bitter rivalry with Birmingham firm Boulton & Watt, to such an extent that James Watt Jnr purchaced land next to the works so that they could prevent expansion and spy on their Leeds rivals at the same time. The building on the corner of David Street and Water Lane occupies the site of this, it was not part of the original Fenton, Murray & Wood works and was built later when the site was owned by machine makers Smith, Beacock & Tannett.
After Murray's death in 1826 the firm became known as Fenton, Murray & Jackson with Murray's son-in-law having become a partner. There was a return to locomotive manufacture, the highlight of which was twenty of the Firefly class for the Great Western Railway. These included the first engine to haul Queen Victoria and the engine chosen to represent the GWR's broad gauge at the gauge trials. A number of staff went on to form the engine building industry of Hunslet, the subject of another of my guided walks. With much competition around the orders dried up and the company closed down.
The site was later taken over by Smith Beacock & Tannett, the works was renamed Victoria Works and returned to making all manner of mill machinery. Sadly part of the works was badly damaged by a boiler explosion and in 1875 a fire burned down the famous Rotunda. Many of the early works buildings do survive as can be seen by comparing the site today with old plans of the works.
Picture of Murray’s works from the rear.
Recent excavation as part of the Round Foundry development work revealed the foundations of another part of the works that had long been demolished, a former 'fitting up shop'
Unearthed foundations of a demolished part of the works seen in January 2007.
At the back of the works site the perimeter wall of the Rotunda from which the Round Foundry got its name was excavated some years ago and the perimeter is now marked out in the paving.
Foundry Street has been refurbished recently, much of the buildings here are original, though rebuilt several times over the years. Off Foundry Street parts of the complex such as the Saw Mill have also been refurbished. With its prime location close to the city centre the area is being put to use as offices, bars and restaurants. The redevelopment work has been sensitive to the historic value of the site with old buildings refurbished and several plaques fitted giving visitors details of the history of the site.
The layout of the site is very different to that of later engine building works. This site brought together a number of seperate trades for the first time, though each trade had its own part of the complex so for example we see the courtyard around which woodworking took place and the small buildings in which the foundry work took place instead of the vast factory floors we'd see in later works.
A HREF="photo.asp?phby=www.leedsengine.info&photo=/leeds/images/Fenton Murray and Wood/fmw works site (3) kw.jpg" target="_blank">Picture of Foundry street.
Picture of the Saw Mill Yard.
Much more about the history of this works in the article about the history of this works
A History of the Middleton Railway Leeds, ISBN 0-9516205-5-X, Available from the Middleton Railway Shop
John Blenkinsop of Middleton, John Bushell, Old Middleton Railway publication.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal, ISBN 1-85936-013-0
Old Ordinance Survey Maps, Holbeck & New Wortley 1906, ISBN0-85054-111-5, Available in most local books shops.
Victorian Society Walks No6, Leeds – 3 suburban walks, from 1987, copies can be found in the Leeds Civic Society shop.
Further Reading on the Internet
History section of the Holbeck Urban Village Site.
This article was produced by Kris Ward, any feedback or contributions about the Leeds engine making industry would be greatly appreciated.
Page last modified: 08 January 2022
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