History of Kirkgate Market

Kirkgate market is a story of innovation, ambition, disaster and tenacity.

The city centre has become more and more polished as big brands have moved in but Leeds wouldn’t be the outstanding shopping destination it is without Kirkgate Market.

Let’s not forget one of the biggest names on the high street – Marks & Spencer – began life right here in the market and still has stall. Plus Jamie Oliver has seen its potential and opened a Ministry of Food.

Just like the city Kirkgate Market has had a tough life with scars to prove it, but it is forward looking and won’t lie down without a fight. It’s been here, in its current form, for 120 years and a recent £12 million investment will carry it into a new era. Read on and hear the many stories told and be inspired by the many it has yet to tell.

European Leader

Illustration of Kirkgate market in the 19th century

Leeds Kirkgate Market became the largest indoor market in Europe when it opened​ in 1857.

But it’s not just it size that sets it apart as a truly unique shopping experience. It was designed by the celebrated architect Joseph Paxton who was responsible for the iconic Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

It pushed technological as well as architectural boundaries by creating ‘fish row’ an innovative cooled area for fishmongers bringing fresh produce from the coast in 1895. The characteristic domed and glazed roof was also added to protect shoppers from the weather around the same time.

Ambition and expansion

Kirkgate Market sat like a jewel in a crown of booming retail, commerce and textile industries, which saw Leeds granted city status in 1893. A competition was launched, by the recently formed Leeds City Council, to find someone capable of creating an elaborate entrance befitting of a market and city with such status and that is the entrance building we see today.

The prize of £150 was awarded to Joseph and John Leeming from London amid controversy and prize fixing allegations.

Humble beginning of a retail institution

As the entrance building was under construction the market witnessed the birth of a retail institution. Lithuanian Michael Marks set up a stall called the Penny Bazaar, with the slogan – “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny”, which proved wildly popular. Later he took on a partner, Tom Spencer. Together the business minded duo opened a string of shops, Marks and Spencer was born and rest is history.

An irrepressible spirit

Kirkgate market in 1904

During the peak of World War II the market, which had become an essential hub due to the depression, suffered from bombing raids, but the market hardly closed. Ever enterprising planners saw an opportunity for further expansion adding “Butchers Row” and the open market.

Fire raged through the halls decades later as traders welcomed festive shoppers on 13 December 1975 destroying two thirds of the now famous market – doing more damage than the bombs had. Traders battled to contain the fire as it spread throughout the halls destroying businesses and livelihoods.

Incredibly no one lost their lives, but traders mourned businesses that had served generations of locals. The 1904 hall remained untouched and the market’s fighting spirit saw it reopen just three days later.

In 1976 and 1981 new halls were opened and Dutch developers MAB (UK) Ltd proposed to expand and redevelop the market further in 1986 – plans that were later shelved.

A modern market with big ambitions

Jamie Oliver at his ministry of food

2013 saw Leeds City Council invest £12million in the future of Kirkgate Market and an ambitious plan of renovation work.

These include recovering the roof of the 1976 and 1981 buildings, allowing for creation of a cutting edge events space communal seating where shoppers can sit and enjoy street food and live music.

Butchers Row and Fish and Game Row have been completely rebuilt in new modern facilities give it a light and spacious feel.

New routes through the market will create distinct zones directing shoppers to all areas of the market. Newly extended shopping times from 8am-5:30pm will allows busy customers more flexibility. New trading schemes have also been introduced giving low risk rent free periods to new start-up businesses.

Jamie's Ministry of Food has been situated in the market now for over 5 years. For as little as £4 a class shoppers can learn how to cook delicious, affordable meals using produce straight from the market.

There has never been a better time to visit Kirkgate Market see the new developments, pick up a bargain and be part of its rich history.