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William Hirst - Leeds woollen industry pioneer
"I'd like to know about my husband's ancestor William Hirst, who was an important figure in the Leeds wool trade."
Leeds has been described as a city built on wool. The woollen cloth industry grew rapidly in the 16th century, and by the end of that century the population of Leeds had reached 3,000, doubling again in the next century when its prosperity grew even more. Wool was what made its world go round. All this was enhanced by the opening of navigable waterways - the Aire and Calder Navigation in 1690 and the Leeds/Liverpool Canal in 1700 - linking Leeds with the overseas export market and increasing its customers and suppliers in Australia, Europe and the Americas. The coming of the railway in the 1830s and 1840s expanded the industry still further.
William Hirst was born in Huddersfield in 1777. He became involved in the woollen industry at a very early age - when he was 7 years old he was spinning worsted on a hand wheel. Then he became a carrier, carrying cloth for his uncle. His early life is described in a book he wrote in 1844. In it he says that when he was 15 he was apprenticed to a cloth finisher but then moved from Huddersfield to Leeds in 1810. He worked for Benjamin Gott, a famous name in the woollen industry in the area and a major figure in the history of Leeds. Gott had bought Armley Mills in 1804, but in November 1805 the mill was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Gott rebuilt it and this mill has survived largely intact, now housing the Armley Mills Industrial Museum.
William Hirst started his own factory in Leeds in 1816 in School Close, using hydraulic presses for the first time. He was an innovator but eventually all the mechanisation he had brought in began to cause him problems. He was taking away the work of the travelling jobbers, the people who travelled round selling their expertise to the mills. This was the time of the Luddites. At one stage Hirst had to employ ten armed men to protect his mill at night, and he always carried loaded pistols with him.
From his shop in School Close, Hirst sold his finished wool. He sold in Scotland, Ireland and America. He achieved a measure of national fame by sending a piece of cloth to the Prince Regent in 1818. The Prince awarded him a diploma and this enabled him to put a Royal coat of arms on all his cloth.
In 1825, however, there was a big financial crash in America which severely affected William Hirst. He could no longer sell his wool, which led to it being stockpiled and caused his bankruptcy. He spent nine months in the debtors' prison in Rothwell partly because of his failure to sell the wool to America. He also encountered problems when he tried to pass on School Close to his son. One of his rival Leeds clothiers, Abraham Naylor, said that he had done it fraudulently - which he had not.
In 1825 Hirst received a silver cup which was presented by the merchants and clothiers of Saddleworth for his importance to the industry. A 19th-century source says of him: "Yorkshire produced only the coarser kinds of cloth. The present improved qualities of its goods are the result of the skill and perseverance of Mr. William Hirst, himself an humble manufacturer, who introduced such improvements as enable Yorkshire to enter into competition with the superfine qualities of the West of England cloths."
Making History consulted
Leeds local historian John Gilleghan
Kevin Grady and Steven Burt, The Illustrated History of Leeds (Breedon Books, 2002)
John Gilleghan, Highways and Byways from Leeds (John Gilleghan, 1994)
John Gilleghan, Leeds: An A to Z of Local History (John Gilleghan, 2001)
Ian Beesley, Through the Mill - The Story of Yorkshire Wool in Photographs (Dalesman Publishing, 1987)
W.R. Mitchell, A History of Leeds (Phillimore, 2001)
David Thornton, Leeds: The Story of a City (Fort Publishing, 2002)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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