Historic Building

kadampa leeds blue plaque historic

The Leeds Assembly Rooms

KMC Leeds provides a place of peace and refuge for busy modern people and offers guided meditation classes, teachings and courses in meditation, and opened in the city centre in 2022.

However, the building in which it is housed has already played a major part in Leeds’ social life for almost 250 years, and still remains one of the city’s finest survivals from the Georgian period. Set behind the impressive Corn Exchange of 1860-63, it looks as if it was conceived as a simple, elegant architectural design, but in fact was constructed in two phases to serve two completely different functions. Initially its ground floor formed the northern wing of a massive quadrangular cloth market that extented almost down to the River Aire.

Waterloo House

Leeds had to fight off great competition from neighbouring towns in order to maintain its position as the capital of the Yorkshire woollen industry. To do that it was essential to provide the best market halls in which the handloom weavers working in the hills to the south and west could sell their cloths to merchants who then performed the highly-skilled finishing processes before selling the pieces both inland and abroad. In 1711 the erection of a cloth hall in Wakefield caused the Leeds merchants to build the First White Cloth Hall that, now beautifully restored, still stands in Kirkgate. By 1756 this had proved inadequate, having to be replaced firstly by the Second White Cloth Hall just south of the river in 1756, and then the Third White Cloth Hall, which included the ground floor of this building.

In 1774 a group of gentlemen decided to build a new cloth hall at Gomersall, seven miles south west of Leeds, in the middle of the white cloth weaving area. As this would have severely damaged trade, the trustees of the Leeds White Cloth Hall resolved to build a new hall, and began to gather the required funds by raising a subscription from all interested parties. By 9 September they had received £847, this rising to £1,737 three weeks later, and £2,500 with a further £1,500 promised by 7th December. Raised in donations ranging from £200 down to £5, this enormous sum demonstrates the great wealth of the town at this time. By the time its site had been purchased on 26 May 1775, the foundations had already been cut into the ground, the whole building opening for business in 17 October 1775, having taken just six months to complete at the cost of £4,300.

historic waterloo house leeds ballroom
historic waterloo house leeds

The finished building was a large rectangle measuring 310 x 210 feet, its perimiter having long, narrow single-storey ranges along its north, east and west sides and a two-storey range along the south side, the sole entry being the gatehouse in the middle of the west side, leading towards Call Lane. For security, there were no external ground floor windows; light only coming from those facing the courtyard.

Now, every Tuesday and Saturday, a bell was rung at 10.20am in summer, or 10.50am in winter, to admit merchants. Inside, they found pieces of cloth displayed on 1,213 ‘stalls’; these being divisions of the long, low wooden benches that ran down the centre of each five covered ‘streets’. Each piece or group of pieces was attended by the clothier who had wove it, ready to deal with the merchants. If a merchant was interested in a piece, he would take out a small stiff-bristled brush and use it to reveal the structure of the cloth, then wisper a price to the clothier. If accepted, the clothier then carried it to the merchant’s house / workshop, receive payment, and use it to purchase fresh wool and groceries, ready to return with a new piece the next week. In this almost silent, secretive way some £1.5m worth of cloth passed through the Leeds cloth halls each year in the 1770s. After 45 miutes the bell was sounded again to give the merchants 15 minutes notice of the closure of the market, and then again ten minutes later, for if any merchant remained here at or after closing, he was fined 5s (25p) for every five minutes over.

historic waterloo house leeds detail

At this period the Leeds merchants still lived in the town centre close to the cloth halls, good examples remaining in Lower Briggate including Queens Court (formerly George Yard) and Blayd’s Yard. Both have elegant houses onto the street front and ranges of cloth-dressing shops, accounting houses and warehouses lining the yards behind. Enjoying the high incomes, they enjoyed the best of both polite Georgian lifestyles. Instead of attending the Parish Church (now Leeds Minster), for example, they worshipped in their own exclusive new church of Holy Trinity, Boar Lane. This had been built in 1723-27 with a gilded golden fleece at the top of its spire to demonstrate the source of their wealth. Their social life included lavish home entertainments and hospitality, along with balls and concerts held from 1756 in the Assembly Rooms of the 1711 First White Cloth Hall. Since this was now far too small, plain and out-of-date, a subscription had already been raised for the building of a concert room before November 1775, after the Third White Cloth Hall had opened.

Leeds Assembly Rooms - drawing of old ballroom
kadampa buddhist shrine with statues
helpers building the shrine cabinet

It now became evident that the new assembly rooms could be built over the north wing of the Cloth Hall, saving the cost both of purchasing another site and having to pay for expensive foundations. Work started in 1776, being completed in 1777 at a cost of £2,500. The architect is unknown, but most probably was William Johnson of Leeds, since he was agent to Lord Irwin, a supporter of the Hall, rebuilt the south wing of His Lordship’s house at Temple Newsam, and removed the cupola of the Second Hall to the gatehouses of the Third, where it still remains, in 1786.

In order to obtain the required width of 33 feet, the front wall of the new Assembly Rooms was supported on an open, arched collonade built beyond the south side of the north wing. Above this ran an elegant stone balustrade, then a series of blank arches topped by half-round windows, a large Venetian window being placed centrally beneath a broad, shallow pediment.

Since the rooms were to be used at completely different times to the cloth market, they had their own entrance stair at the north end of the west wing. From here a passage with a finely vaulted plaster ceiling led past a kitchen, then a large supper room, and on into the card room. Lit by the huge columned Venetian window and heated by a fireplace in its north wall, it was ideal for playing cards and gambling. The swags surrounding the central roundel of its ceiling took the form of rams heads, a reference to the town’s major source of wealth. Next came the ballroom, the most impressive room in the whole suite. Its stone-coloured walls were lined with freestanding columns topped by finely-detailed Ionic capitals and urns, all supporting a rich cornice. Above, 21 half-round windows were set into the deep vaults of the fine moulded plaster ceiling, iron hooks being fixed at the centre of each of the three roundels to support the large chandeliers needed for events held after dark. For the musicians, a gallery was provided in the western wall, to leave the floor clear for dancing.

The Assembly Rooms was opened on 9 June 1777, “by the most brilliant appearance of genteel company that were ever before assembled together here upon any occasion … The company in general were very agreeably surprised at the neatness and elegance of the different apartments, which allowed on all hands to be as complete and highly finished as any sest of rooms in the whole Kingdom.” Admission for one gentleman, or two ladies, cost half a guinea, suffiently high to exclude all but the wealthiest participants.

Regular assemblies directed by a master of ceremonies were held every two weeks from October through to June, alongside a range of concerts, balls and dinners. At the Yorkshire Archer’s Ball on 26 October 1780, for example:

“The company consisted of 200 ladies and gentlemen of the first rank and fashion in the country. The ladies appeared in white, with green ornaments and afforded the greatest display of taste and elegance. The ball was opened at 9pm by a minuet danced by the Earl Fitzwillian and the Countess of Mexborough … Country dances commenced at ten and the supper room was opened at 12 o’clock. It would be impossible to describe the decorations of the table … the propriety and brilliance with which they were ornamented reflect the highest credit on Mr Vickers of York. The effect of the festoons of coloured lamps was particularly pleasing. Dancing continued until 3am, soon after which the company began to retire, highly gratified with their evening’s amusement.”

From 1794 – 1808 the Assembly Rooms were also used by the Leeds Volunteer Corps, a local defence force raised when Napolean threatened to invate Britain. On 4 June 1794, the King’s birthday, they marched from the yard, round the town, and then back for a cold collation, toasts, songs, bonfires and a brilliant ball. More seriously, they assembled here on 6 April 1804, to hear the Articles of War before marching to York for three weeks training in preparation for offering their services to the War Office. Fortunately Admiral Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar removed the threat of invasion, leading to their disbandment in 1808.

The courtyard was also used for spectacular events such as the ascent of Mr Lunardi’s balloon draped in Persian silks and gold lacing in 1786, Mr Green’s ‘stupendous Aerostatic Machine of blue, red and yellow silk’ in 1823, and Mr Graham’s ballroom in 1837. Other attractions included firework displays and Pablo Fanque’s Circus in 1858.

By this time the Assembly Rooms had fallen out of fashion and closed, only to re-open in the early 1880s to serve a completely different clientele, as the first Working Men’s Institute in Leeds. Here, for a penny a week, men were able to have the use of a washroom, canteen, games room, reading room and library, all supervised by Mrs Heathcote as housekeeper.

Waterloo House entrance with balloons

By the 1850s, Leeds’ railway stations were on Wellington Street to the west and Marsh Lane to the east, and so construction of a viaduct to link them together was started in 1866 by the North Eastern Railway Company. Since it sliced diagonally through the cloth hall, the last market was held on 14 July 1868, after which only the Assembly Rooms and the gatehouse section of the west wing were retained, seperated by the newly-constructed Crown and Assembly Streets.

In the 1870s the ballroom had become the Central Hall of the Christadelphians, a Christian group founded in America in 1833, while other parts of the building were occupied by William Towler’s iron foundry warehouse and a number of smaller workshops up to 1919. Its new purchaser, L Hirst & Co tobacco manufacturers and wholesalers, then employed GF Bowman of Greek Street to remodel the west end of the Rooms in Classical style. It opened for business as ‘Waterloo House’ in 1923, followed by new steelwork in 1953.

Following its purchase by Crown Point Construction in 1988, the Assembly Rooms reopened as the Waterloo Antiquies Centre and a Museum of Georgian Leeds set up by the City Museum featuring local furniture, pottery, costume and pictures of the period.

In the late 1990s its use changed again, this time as a nightclub, followeed by a period of neglect and closure, that ended in 2022 with the opening of Kadampa Meditation Centre Leeds following a major building project and refurbishment work.

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