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Meanwood – A Brief History

3rd March 2016

The first evidence of human occupation in the Meanwood Valley dates from early prehistoric times. There was Roman activity in the vicinity with the discovery of a coin hoard at Sugar Well Hill at the turn of the 20th century. This contained 36 Roman coins all dating from the 260-273 AD.  Meanwood Beck running down the centre of Meanwood; the name itself actually means ‘the common wood’, implying that it may have originally been held in common, and is Anglo-Saxon in origin. It is mentioned in 1252 as ‘Menewode’ in the Yorkshire Deeds, and later in the 1584 Parish Register of Leeds.

Beckett’s Park, today housing part of Leeds Beckett University, was the site of New Grange, a large farm of Kirkstall Abbey that dates back to the late 12th century. In 1230 William de Alreton granted all his land in ‘le Menewde’ to Kirkstall Abbey, and throughout the medieval period the monks received rents from their tenants there, who were mainly farmers. Although agriculture was their main focus, the monks also worked the quarries, and owned an iron working site (a bloomery) and a corn mill in the valley.

Highbury Works, was the probable site of the monastic corn mill at Meanwood. The earliest documentary evidence for the corn mill dates back to the mid 13th century. The site became a paper mill known as Wood Mills in the 18th century, and then a tannery in the 19th century. Meanwood Tannery is particularly important as an illustration of a once-thriving, and now virtually obsolete, local industry that was once of national importance.

Another potential monastic site in the area is Valley Farm, formerly known as Smithy Mills, which is the possible site of Weetwood Smithies, a bloomery held in the Weetwood area by Kirkstall Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the monastries. Another medieval bloomery belonging to Kirkstall Abbey, Hesslewood Smithies, has been tentatively identified within the valley

Throughout the late 17th to the 18th century the Meanwood valley was alive with small scale industrial activity. This was matched by a growth in population, but Meanwood was still a self contained community, yet to be engulfed in fast expanding Leeds. The industrial activity of Meanwood was shaped by the large stream, which could act as a water supply, power source and sewer! The Meanwood Valley contained various manufacturing sites dating from the post-medieval up until the industrial period, from tanneries to watermills and dye works, which are all important as part of the industrial heritage of Leeds. During the 19th century some of the smaller enterprises in Meanwood began to falter, but the valley was still widely known for its tanneries.

The first key event that caused Meanwood to eventually assume its role as a suburb of Leeds was the construction of the Sheepscar/Meanwood turnpike in 1829. It was the introduction of cheap and reliable transport that finally sealed this fate. In 1878 horse tram-cars were first introduced, followed soon after by steam trams in 1898, and electric trams in 1901. The easy commute was now available to and from Leeds city centre.

The Beckett family had a great influence on Meanwood, particularly around Tannery Square. When the industry of Meanwood had begun to falter in the mid 19th century, it was the Beckett family that provided the money to shape Meanwood by way of public buildings. Christopher Beckett was responsible for the construction of Meanwood Institute (1840) and Meanwood school (1840). The quality of these structures helped shape the “Meanwoodside” area, which led to the designation of the Tannery Square conservation area in 1972. Other building developments in the area were usually the result of industry, such as around Parkside Road, and at Hustler’s Row. As the 20th century developed, the centre of Meanwood moved away from the industrial areas around the quarries and the beck. The detrimental effect of this can be seen at Myrtle Square. An area which once contained 20 cottages, as well as wash rooms, coal houses and a butcher’s, was reduced to the single structure of the Myrtle Tavern by 1959. This is indicative of the decline of industry in the area, due to Meanwood being established as a suburb by this point

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