A double anniversary: the end of Central Station 1967 & start of 'greening' 2009
In 1792, Benjamin Gott started to build his pioneering Park Mills on a field beside the River Aire, beyond the western edge of the old cloth trading town of Leeds. For centuries, the preparation of wool, the spinning and weaving had all taken place in scattered villages and farmsteads across West Yorkshire with only the final processing and then sales taking place down in Leeds. Gott, a wool merchant, had the bright idea of bringing together all the processes of cloth making. He invested in a steam engine to improve efficiency even further. The town began to play its part in the industrial revolution.
What lay between his new-fangled ‘manufactory’ and the houses of the Georgian west end of Leeds?
Empty fields. And so it remained for another 35 years.
An optimistic surveyor and map-maker marked out imagined new streets on his map of 1821. Surely the rapidly expanding population and their new businesses would mean more demand for buildings in the smarter part of town?
A new road was made in the 1820s, but its purpose was to connect Leeds and Halifax. From Aire Street, it headed south west across the fields, with Monk Bridge built to carry it over the River Aire. That became Whitehall Road. Soon, Wellington Street was also laid out, making a proper connection to Gott’s mill.
Then came a massive new demand for land. The first railway line reached the other side of Leeds by 1834. Railway mania gripped Britain, with new routes being rolled out at a hectic pace. By 1848 the fields between Gott’s mill and the town centre were covered with railway lines and equipment. The ‘architecturally undistinguished’ Central Station was completed in 1854.
All this remained in place for over 100 years, but the radical pruning of the railway system in the 1960s resulted in Central Station being closed in May 1967. The site was cleared, a new tower block was built for the Post Office and behind it a retail warehouse park was created.
After the turn of the Millennium, with the Post Office building and the 1860s hotel both converted to apartments and many other developments on nearby sites under way and proposed, MEPC saw the opportunity to create an extensive new quarter of the city. They drew up plans for offices, apartments and an array of facilities, including green space. Planning permission came through and they prepared to start work.
Along came the severe recession and the proposals hit the buffers in 2008. MEPC could have mothballed the whole site behind its hoardings and waited until demand picked up. Instead they took up an idea to create green space and bring activity to the vacant land. They made the biggest lawn in central Leeds, set out beds for growing vegetables and fruit, planted trees and provided a 5-a-side football pitch. Charity events were held in marquees on the grass. The company’s offices, cunningly made out of several reclaimed shipping containers, also acted as a meeting place for discussions about the future shaping of the city.
By 2013, economic prospects were improving and MEPC decided to lead off a new development era: construction of the first office building began. By the mid-2020s, Wellington Place will be complete.
PS. What happened to Gott’s mill? It was completely demolished 175 years after its inception and was replaced by The Yorkshire Post. It’s now being redeveloped again.