Briggate is a pedestrianised principal shopping street in Leeds city centre, England. Historically it was the main street, leading north from Leeds Bridge, and housed markets, merchant's houses and other business premises. It contains many historic buildings including the oldest in the city, and others from the 19th and early 20th century, including two theatres. It is noted for the yards between some older buildings with alleyways giving access and Victorian shopping arcades, which were restored in late 20th century. The street was pedestrianized in the early 21st century.
Briggate's name comes from brycg, the Old English for bridge and gata, the Old Norse for a way or a street. It is the road leading north from Leeds Bridge, the oldest crossing point of the River Aire, and the main street of Leeds from its formation as a borough in 1207. When Leeds became a borough, land on either side of Briggate was allocated into 30 burgage plots for tradespeople to carry out their business, setting the style and layout of the street today. The burgesses were also allocated half-acre agricultural plots in what is now known as Burmantofts (burgage men's tofts). The street developed as the commercial centre, with fairs and markets by the end of the 13th century when the woollen industry was beginning to grow. Leeds fair was held annually on Briggate from 1322 and from 1341 there were two.
In 1533, Leeds was described as "a praty market" consisting of the four streets of Briggate, Kirkgate, Swinegate and Boar Lane, plus the "Head Rows". Leeds' oldest building, a three-storey wooden house with a projecting upper storey, is in Lambert's Yard, off Lower Briggate. It was built in the late-16th or early-17th century.
By the 17th century, Briggate was lined with shops, offices, workshops and houses, grand and humble, and the area retained its medieval street pattern, but the original burgage plots had been subdivided. The street was wide enough to accommodate regular open air markets. At this time the street ended in fields at what is now the Headrow, but a field path continued north. John Harrison, a wealthy cloth merchant and the King's Bailiff, owned land north of Briggate. He built a town house at the north end and extended the street into what is now New Briggate, then New Street. Harrison paid for a new Moot Hall and market cross by the market place on Briggate in 1615, and the grammar school on New Street in 1624. He endowed the St John's Church which opened in 1634 to the west of New Street.
In the 18th century, Briggate housed the shambles or slaughter place and meat market described by Ralph Thoresby as "the best-furnished Flesh Shambles in the North of England". The street was lined with fine three-storey merchant's houses often with gardens and fields behind them. A surviving example is Queens Court (1714), a former cloth merchant's house and business premises with packaging workshops and warehouses behind. During the 18th century, the population grew from 6000 to 25000 leading to overcrowding. Many merchants moved their homes away from Briggate to Park Square leaving their properties to be subdivided and converted for commercial use or multiple residences. The lanes and yards off the street were filled with slum cottages and workplaces in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the early part of the 19th century Leeds was described as a "smokey city, dull and dirty", with Briggate its "one large street". In 1889, Briggate was "one of the broadest, handsomest, and busiest thoroughfares in the North of England", Leeds' commercial success led to the construction of many fine buildings, including the Grand Theatre on New Briggate in 1878. Land on Briggate, owned in the medieval form of long strips leading in both directions from the street, was particularly suitable for the construction of shopping arcades, beginning with Thornton's Arcade in 1878. The Leeds Estate Company was formed to redevelop the area of the shambles and surrounding slums. Redevelopment was carried out from 1898 to 1904 under the direction of architect Frank Matcham, who created two new streets between Briggate and Vicar Lane: Queen Victoria Street and King Edward Street. The three blocks around them included the Empire Theatre and County Arcade and Cross Arcade.
From the early 1900s trams used Briggate, until Leeds tramways closed in 1959. In 1907 a Post Office Exchange was built in brick and terracotta. It became Woolworths and an extra storey was added in 1920. In 1909 Marks and Spencer opened its first store at number 75. A new building, the present store at number 47 was begun in 1939 and completed postwar in 1951.
In 1910, Dyson's Jewellers added a clock with a ball which dropped down at precisely 1 p.m. becoming a landmark known as the Time Ball buildings. In the 1930s the Headrow became Leeds' main thoroughfare, which led to a decline in the fortunes of business in Briggate. Debenhams department store arrived in 1936 on the corner with Kirkgate with an unusual zigzag pattern of windows. Developments often required the demolition of old buildings, including the Empire Theatre in the 1960s, to make a very plain arcade. The 1980s saw the refurbishment of old buildings and the creation of the Victoria Quarter in September 1990. This consists of three blocks between Briggate and Vicar Lane, comprising County Arcade, Cross Arcade, Queen Victoria Street and King Edward Street. In the 1990s the arcade on the site of the Empire Theatre was demolished and a glazed frontage created to link the older buildings on either side which were refurbished to create a Harvey Nichols store in 1997. Pedestrianisation started in 1993 when only buses were allowed, and in 1996 the street was closed to all traffic. Lower Briggate and New Briggate remain as public roads.
In phases from 2004 to 2006, Briggate was paved with York Stone, removing the roadway and pavements that remained. In 2008 the 1970's Burton Arcade at the southern end of Briggate was demolished to make way for the Trinity Quarter that opened in March 2013. In 2008 the Market Street Arcade at the southern end of Briggate closed for redevelopment giving the arcade an extra level, glass roof and new tenants. It reopened in 2012 as the Central Arcade with a first floor and is extensively glazed.
Leeds is noted for the arcades on either side of Briggate. Modern arcades were built in the 1970s at the southern end, but the arcades of architectural significance are at its northern end.
- Grand Arcade was built by the New Briggate Arcade Company Ltd in 1897, with Smith & Tweedal as architects. It is home to small, independent retailers on the non-pedestrianised New Briggate.
- Thorntons Arcade, designed by Charles Fowler, a Leeds architect, was completed in May 1878. William Potts and Son designed and made a clock with four life size figures that stands above the western exit onto Lands Lane.
- Queens Arcade, named after the reigning monarch was opened in 1889. The Briggate entrance was enlarged in 1895. It is particularly light and airy, and tenants are largely designer or upper-class novelty shops similar to those found on London's Carnaby Street.
- County Arcade, designed by architect Frank Matcham, was completed in 1903 and is particularly grand when compared to the other arcades. Its marble floors, intricate stonework and elegant iron domes make up part of the Victoria Quarter complex.
- Queen Victoria Street has been arcaded since 1990. The largest expanse of stained glass in Europe, designed by Brian Clark, makes up its impressive canopy. It is part of the Victoria Quarter and linked to County Arcade by Cross Arcade which is of the same design as County Arcade.
- Central Arcade opened in 2012 on the former Market Street Arcade site. This is the only arcade to have shops on the first floor.
- Leeds Grand Theatre on New Briggate was redeveloped from 2004 to provide an enlarged home for Opera North and regenerate the area.
- Leeds City Varieties on Swan Street is one of the UK's oldest music halls. The City Varieties was granted Heritage Lottery funding for refurbishment and restoration, and closed in January 2009 and re-opened in September 2011.
- Frank Matcham's Empire Theatre on Briggate was demolished in the 1960s, its site is occupied by Harvey Nichols.
Briggate is known for its yards or alleyways that branch off and have changed little over the years. They house public houses such as Whitelocks, The Ship, The Packhorse and The Angel Inn. The back entrances to the yards were called 'low ins', or 'loins', which is where the term Loiner (a resident of Leeds) is suspected to originate. Loiner refers to the people who would 'hang around in the loins'.
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