Leeds is well-known as the commercial centre of the Yorkshire woollen industry, and as the location of many woollen mills. It was also the principal flax-spinning town in England, and its mechanical engineering, tailoring, printing and leather industries were also of major importance.
The city’s industrial museum is at Armley Mills, located between the River Aire and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. There have been mills on the site since the middle ages, and in 1788 five water wheels provided power for 18 fulling stocks used in the finishing of woollen cloth. The mills were rebuilt in 1788 and in 1804 were old to the entrepreneur Benjamin Gott (1762-1840). The buildings were soon afterwards destroyed by fire, and were rebuilt with iron-frames from 1805, and remain in that condition. Manufacturing of woollen cloth at Armley Mills depended entirely on water power until 1850 when the first steam engine was installed. The water wheels passed out of use in the 1860s. The mill passed through several ownerships in the twentieth century and was eventually closed about 1970, after which the site was purchased by Leeds City Corporation and opened as the city’s industrial museum in 1982.
Visitors to the museum can see an array of textile machinery used and made in Leeds, together with their sources of power, a working water wheel and two four-column beam engines of c1820 by Matthew Murray (1765-1826) and Benjamin Hick. Several workers’ cottages of the nineteen century remain on the site and have been restored with appropriate interiors. There is a collection of narrow gauge and standard gauge steam locomotives, many of which were built in Leeds, and a display of the products of John Fowler (1826-64) pioneer of steam ploughing, whose works was in the city. Another section deals with tailoring, and particularly the enterprise of Montague Burton (1885-1952) who was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, migrated to England to avoid pogroms in 1900, and established a nationwide chain of men’s clothing shops, supplied from a large factory on Hudson Road, Leeds. Other exhibits relate to printing, which was important in Leeds from the time that John Hirst founded the Leeds Mercury newspaper in 1718. The best known product of the city’s printing industry is the board game Monopoly developed by John Waddington from 1922. The museum also displays examples of the products of the city’s extensive leather industry, and a small cinema in the style of the 1920s commemorates the work of Louis Le Prince (1841-1880), who was born in Metz and demonstrated cine films in Leeds in 1888 before disappearing in the United States two years afterwards, and the firm of Kershaws, the Leeds-based makers of cinematographic equipment. The museum provides trail guides which visitors can follow along the banks of the canal to Kirkstall Forge and the iron bridge at Newlay.