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Armley – A Brief History

9th March 2016

The first record of Armley as a settlement occurs in the Domesday Survey compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086. From this we learn that there were 8 villages in Armley and Reestones (the locality now known as Wortley). It is difficult to know how many people this represents and Domesday only takes account of heads of families. If we assume a multiplier of four or five, this would give us a total population of in the region of 32 – 40 people for the two communities together.

Before the Norman Conquest Armley and Reestones were held by two Saxon noblemen. After the Conquest William gave the villages to Ilbert de Lacy as part of a vast estate centred on Pontefract Castle. Ilbert in turn granted control of the manor to a man called Ligulfr. This is a rare example of a Saxon maintaining a position of relative power in the region after the Norman Conquest. Perhaps Ilbert was not giving much away. Before the Conquest Armley and Freestones were worth 20s: in 1086 they were only worth 10s.

The next dramatic change in the life of the villagers came in 1152 with the establishment of the new Cistercian abbey at Kirkstall. Visitors to the Abbey ruins today often think that the precinct around the buildings was the only land which the monks owned. This is not so. Pious landholders such as Henry de Lacy, who founded Kirkstall, gave grants of money and land to help support the monks and their work. Some of these parcels of land were than amalgamated together to make a single economic unit. In Armley, there were two such Granges, as these outlying farms were called. One of these, Wether Grange, was situated near what is now the junction of Armley Ridge Road and Cockshott Lane and is still remembered in local street names such as Wyther Park Road. The other, Redcote, probably lay somewhere in the valley bottom though its exact location is uncertain. Neither of these properties was worked by the monks themselves. Labour was provided by local villagers as was the case with estates held by secular landlords.

(We would like to thank the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper for much of the above detail. Read more: http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/cm/armley-today-2-11904/news/latest-local-news/armley-local-history-1-2767321#ixzz42P1OGoHT)

Modern Armley owes most of its heritage to industry, especially mining and brickworks in the Industrial Revolution with many artisan houses erected for the workers in the local factories and mills. There was street after street of pavement-fronted back to back terrace houses interspersed with some grander through-terraces for the foremen and clerical staff and the occasional much larger dwelling for the managers of the factories.

Only occasionally would there would be some open space areas among these homes. Charlie Cake Park is one such space that still exists today. Situated at the junction of Town Street and Whingate, opposite what was West Leeds Boys Grammar School (now swanky loft-apartments) this railing-fringed garden was owned by the Gott family (Benjamin Gott was an industrialist in Leeds and owned the largest textile mill in the world – now Armley Industrial Museum) and the story goes that a peddlar called Charlie Cake used to sell delicious patisseries and petits-gateaux across the area from the back of a cart pulled by his trusty horse. The ‘pull’ up Town Street from the valley bottom to Hilltop took its toll on the horse and Charlie would stop at this little park, let his steed have a breather, and sell his wares to the residents of Armley and Hilltop. Further rumour indicates that upon one such visit Charlie came up with the idea of making triangular shortbread in the same shape as the ‘little park’ in which the inspiration came to him.

Charlie’s Shortbread became legendary, so the tale goes, and he successfully sold it across Leeds. So much so that when the Queen visited Leeds to open the new Town Hall in 1853 she was presented with some of Charlie’s Shortbread. Charlie was posthumously awarded after his death with the renaming of the park by the Gott family.

(Many thanks to Armley Cat for much of the above about Charlie – I Love Armley website)

A notable area of open land which still exists today is Armley Moor/Far Fold. The built-up area of industrial Armley terminated at this common land following the Inclosure Act of 1793, which allocated this open space would become a tenter field, an open area for drying cloth and the siting of wool hedges. It was deemed there should be “no roads, footpaths, properties, trees or other obstructions may be on or near the Tenters Ground”. At opposite end of the Moor one or two large dwellings were built for the merchants who were making significant profits within this industrialised area, and who wanted to be close to their workforce. One such building remains today, Farfield House, (now the Conservative Club). The Moor is one of the most important open spaces within the Armley Conservation Area.

Armley Park is the other notable open space. This was laid out in 1893 in the grounds of Armley House. It was designed with a balanced layout of formal ornamental gardens and still retains the Grade 11 listed Jubilee Fountain, a Gothic wayside chapel which is a First World War memorial, along with walls and pillars to complement, and delightful winding footpaths that meander down to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

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