Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The University of Leeds and its City - Part 1

A Proper Place for a University

All great universities have found their being in centres of trade and commerce: the geographical circumstances which have favoured the exchange of goods have been equally hospitable to education and liberal culture. The Universities Oxford and Cambridge established themselves among communities of traders, whose fairs and markets gave itinerant teachers their best chance of finding an audience and making a permanent settlement. . . . In a great commercial capital, the natural reservoir of the industrial energy of a wide area, our University finds its proper place. (Hamilton Thompson cited in Shimmin 1954: xiii)

A. N. Shimmin's book, The University of Leeds: The First Half-Century (1954), written in the university's jubilee year, provides an in-depth history of this period. The other historical analysis solely dedicated to the university is P. H. J. H. Gosden and A. J. Taylor's 1975 edited text Studies in the History of a University, which celebrates the period of 1874 to 1974. My three-part historical summary of the University of Leeds will be taking the perspective of its relationship to the city in which it grew.

The three centuries leading up to the Leeds Charter of incorporation in 1626 saw Leeds being forced to deal with not only a number of crises in the form of multiple infections from the bubonic plague to floods and drought, but also a burgeoning wool industry and the birth of a formalised education system that responded to local needs. What Charles I Charter meant for Leeds, along with its incorporation as a town under the control of a local council, was that it was able to control the quality of the cloth produced there and also in the surrounding area. Dishonourable manufactures could be marginalised due to the new regulations. However, the Charter did not bring with it a Member of Parliament status, nor was the council democratically elected. Following the town's incorporation, later developments included a properly designed reservoir-fed water supply in 1694, and an improved road system to enable the transportation of raw materials and cloth to and from the town.

The history of Leeds tells a story of economic, political and social advancement not dissimilar to many other economic hubs that sprung up in England and whose history can be traced back to pre-Roman times. In the 'Industrial North' its significance as a prominent civic centre and profitable economic region becomes even more apparent in the period that followed. Its civic attitude to education, coupled with the continual need for an improved technology required to maintain the status of the region, lent it to becoming a town fit for a university.

Shimmin, A.N. 1954. The University of Leeds: The First Half Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

The University of Leeds and its City - Part 2
The University of Leeds and its City - Part 3

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