Forever my ‘home town’

I was born in Congleton, but my family moved to Leek in North Staffordshire when I was seven, in 1956. I haven’t lived in Leek for more than 50 years since I moved away to university in 1967, and afterwards to distant parts across the globe. Despite not being a native-born Leekensian, I always consider Leek, the Queen of the Moorlands, as my ‘home town’. My deep memories of Congleton are really few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had tickets to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and rather than try and make it to the show in one day from our home in north Worcestershire (a round trip of almost 200 miles by the ‘fastest’ route) we decided to spend a couple of nights in Leek, and take in other visits to Biddulph Grange Garden on the way north, and return home via Lyme Park which is southeast of Stockport.

Leek was an excellent base for these excursions. And it was a great opportunity to see how the town had changed since we were last there in September 2011. 

Leek (from Ladderedge in the west) in the 1960s, with The Roaches and Staffordshire Moorlands beyond.

Many of the mill chimneys have disappeared from the Leek skyline, but four (maybe five) buildings still stand out: the tower of the Church of St Edward the Confessor on the left, the green ‘dome’ (now grey) of the Nicholson Institute (centre), and to the right the spire of the Catholic church, St Mary’s, the Monument, and the tower of St Luke’s. What a magnificent panorama! No wonder Leek keeps drawing me back, even if it is only once in a while.

I have included here just a small sample of the photos I took during this visit. There’s a larger collection in this album for you to enjoy.


One thing that struck immediately me on this visit: just how much traffic and congestion there is in the town now. We had traveled into Leek along the Macclesfield Road and Mill St en route to our hotel, the Premier Inn next to the Monument. We followed a long line of cars and trucks (some of them behemoths).

The roundabout was removed after 2013.

The roundabout at the junction of Derby St (Leek’s main shopping thoroughfare), Haywood St and Ashbourne Road has now been replaced by traffic lights. I couldn’t fathom how this change had improved traffic flow, except that it must be easier for large commercial vehicles making their way through the town, rather than having to navigate a rather tight roundabout. Through traffic is routed this way to and from Stoke-on-Trent. 

Removal of the roundabout was a cause célèbre among Leekensians at the time. I don’t know whether that has now died down. There does seem to be some nostalgia for it on a couple of Leek Facebook groups that I joined. Personally, I quite like the ‘new’ look around the Monument and the end of Derby Street, with the development of Sparrow Park and its seating areas. But we did find one aspect very confusing. Given the layout there and along sections of Derby Street, and the types of paving used, we often did not realize which parts were traffic free or not. Or maybe I was just having a senior moment.


Leek is about half the size of where I live now, Bromsgrove. But Leek seems to be thriving better than Bromsgrove. Maybe it’s the proximity of Bromsgrove to Birmingham. But the shopping in our High St is rather run down compared to Leek.

In another blog post I commented on the high number of pubs in Leek compared to Bromsgrove. It never ceases to amaze me when wandering around the town just how many there are. However, it seems some are not doing so well, like The Quiet Woman at the bottom of St Edward St, where there was a notice stating that the pub was closed until further notice.


I was interested to see renovation in some parts of the town, such as the opening of Getliffe’s Yard, off Derby Street. I had no idea it was there, and it’s now a haven for a number of upmarket boutiques and a very decent restaurant, Leek Café Bar & Grill, with a Mediterranean (Turkish) flavour. We had an excellent meal there on our first night, washed down with a couple pints of Efes lager.

It’s good to see how a number of mills, like the one on the corner of Shoobridge Street and Haywood Street are occupied once again. But it’s also disappointing that too many are empty, particularly the one that dominates Mill Street that is now in a bad state of repair. Is conversion to apartments not feasible? After all, these mills are a solid part of Leek’s industrial heritage.


I decided to go and look at the six properties around the town where my family had lived since moving to Leek in 1956:

  • 65 St Edward Street, until 1961/62; we lived above the shop
  • 56 St Edward Street, 1962-1963
  • 26 Market Place (an apartment above the former building society that’s now Costa Coffee), 1962-1963
  • 19 Market Place, 1963-1976; we lived above the shop
  • Greystones, Stockwell Street, in the first floor apartment
  • 13 Clerk Bank – my mother (as a widow) moved here in about 1986, until 1989 when she moved into a care home.

My dad took over a photography business at No 65 when we first moved to Leek, but when the lease came up for renewal (around 1960) he knew he had to find somewhere with better footfall. In the interim we moved across the road to No 56 (taking over from a retailer of fine china) and living part-time in a room behind the shop until we found the apartment at 26 Market Place.

Around 1962/63, my parents purchased and renovated No 19 Market Place, and stayed there until their retirement in the summer of 1976. They then moved into the first floor apartment in Greystones on Stockwell Street. My father passed away in April 1980, and my mother stayed on in Greystones for a few more years before the council found her a terraced bungalow on Clerk Bank. Suffering a stroke in 1989, she moved away to a nursing home in South Wales, and our direct link with link was severed.

Behind No 19 was a ‘court’ with a couple of cottages, that were no longer occupied when we moved there in 1963. After a year or so, the cottages were demolished, and Mum and Dad began to build their urban garden. No-one passing by in the Market Place would have guessed there was such a jewel hiding there. We decided to see how it looks today, and were disappointed that subsequent residents of No 19 had let the garden decline.

Leek town centre is very much lived in. We enjoyed strolling along the streets off Derby Street, like Bath Street or Ford Street. These seem very much like communities, and can be seen radiating out from Leek town center, a legacy, no doubt, of the town’s industrial past in silk weaving.


Another thing we liked were the ‘blue plaques’ placed on various buildings around the town by the Leek and District Civic Society. Two of the properties which we’d occupied have blue plaques: 56 St Edward Street and Greystones. No 56 is now a photography business once again.

At the entrance to Clerk Bank is a small sandstone cottage, with a blue plaque stating the the Leek and Moorlands Cooperative Society (LMCS) had been founded there in 1859.

By the end of the 1890s, the LMCS had moved to a new premises on Ashbourne Road, next door to the White Lion and across the road from the Talbot Hotel, now Leek’s Premier Inn. This building was being refurbished, and the plaster reliefs depicting some of the town’s trades then were looking splendid. In style and colour they closely resembled the reliefs that adorn one of the original buildings at the Leek School of Art, now the Buxton & Leek College on Stockwell Street. I have it on good authority that the reliefs are by the same architectural sculptor, Abraham Broadbent.


Before we left Leek to return home, we couldn’t resist one last stop: Leek Oatcake Shop on the corner of Haywood Street and London Street. Delicious!


One thing I’d had forgotten was just how beautiful the Staffordshire Moorlands are. One of the finest landscapes in England. Here are a couple of dashcam videos of part of our journey to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on 6 June, from the Premier Inn to the Longnor turnoff on the A53 (first video), and from there to crossing into Derbyshire at Crowdecote (second video).


 

Bull is the name . . . history is the game

John Bull is, according to the article in Wikipedia, the national personification of the United Kingdom in general, and England in particular.

One of my family names is Bull.

My grandmother, Alice Maud Bull, born on 16 April 1880, married my grandfather Thomas (Tom) Jackson on 23 August 1904. They had four children together, and she was also stepmother to Tom’s daughter and son by his first wife Maria Bishop, who died in childbirth in 1900.

Alice hailed from the village of Hollington in Derbyshire, about halfway between Ashbourne and Derby. Tom and Alice set up married life together in Burton-on-Trent, but returned to Hollington after Tom retired. Grandma was 68 when I was born; grandad was almost 76. So I only ever knew them as elderly folks.

My parents and my elder brother Edgar and myself with Grandma and Grandad Jackson at Ebenezer Cottage in Hollington, around 1958.

My father Frederick was the second child born to Alice and Tom, in September 1908. My dad married Lilian Healy in 1936; I was born 12 years later in November 1948, the youngest of four children. My middle name is Thomas, after my grandad. My wife Stephanie and I named our younger daughter Philippa Alice after my grandmother.

After my father passed away in 1980, my eldest brother Martin began a long search into our family ancestry, that has lasted more than 37 years. He has uncovered many of our family ties, stretching back (on the Bull line at least) to the late 15th century, some fifteen generations, and almost as far on several other lines.

I’m the 13th great-grandson of a man named Bull who was born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border (where many of my ancestors hailed from), probably in or near Ellastone (as that was where his son and grandson were born and buried). Several generations of Bulls over 200 years lived in the village of Cubley in Derbyshire, less than five miles from Ellastone.

I’m also the 6th great-grandson of John Jackson (b. 1711, m. Hannah Clark 1732), the 9th great-grandson of Thomas Holloway (b. 1600, m. Isabella ?? around 1620), and 10th great-grandson of Hugh Tipper (b. 1574, m. Ellen Crichelowe in 1604 or 1605).

My father’s side of the family comprised, at the beginning of the 16th century, some 16,000+ direct ancestors, about 0.5% of the population of England. Do the maths. We can’t all have completely independent family lines, so they must come together in a vast web of inter-relatedness, sharing many ancestors in common, if we could just make the connections.

Knowing the names of my ancestors in this way also helps me connect vicariously with the major historical events through which they lived. But, because they were living in rural Staffordshire and Derbyshire, it’s hard to fathom how their lives might have been affected. The Bulls were, in general, farming and laboring stock.

King Richard III

Mr Bull was born, in 1480, at the end of the reign of King Edward IV, and five years before King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field that, as the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses as they became known, heralded the founding of the Tudor dynasty by Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Henry Tudor passed through this area, or perhaps a little to the south on his way to Bosworth Field. Were men from the villages around forced to join his army?

Thomas (b. 1505) lived through the end of the reign of Henry VII, and the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, (Jane) and Mary Tudor. It’s highly probable that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (beginning in 1536) was keenly felt, as there were several nearby monastic houses in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Did they hear about the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, I wonder?

By the time his son and grandson, also both Thomas, had passed away, Elizabeth 1’s long reign had come to an end; the Tudors were history, and James I (and VI of Scotland) was on the throne, the beginning of the ill-fated Stuart dynasty. Thomas (b. 1581) and his son Robert (b. 1613) lived through the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651, the defeat of the Royalists, and the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that must have rocked England to its very soul whether you favored the Royalist or Parliamentary side. Who did Thomas and Robert favor? The closest major conflict to where they lived in Cubley was the 1643 Royalist Siege of Lichfield, just 20 miles due south. Certainly both Royalist and Parliamentary armies criss-crossed this area of Mercia.

Here is a timeline of England during the 17th century.

Working class dress of the late 17th century

Robert (b. 1613), his son Robert (b. 1653), and grandson Joseph (b. 1679) knew the restoration of Charles II in 1680, then lived through the tumultuous years of James II and William III and Mary II, the Glorious Revolution, the consequences of which passed through to the late 20th century in Northern Ireland. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill) achieved significant military success in Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Late 18th century dress, as depicted by Henry Singleton, ‘The Ale-House Door’ c. 1790

Joseph, son William (b. 1712), grandson Samuel (b. 1761), and great-grandson John (b. 1793) were Hanoverians through and through. This is an English timeline of the 18th century of industrial innovation.

Joseph lived through the two Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the latter experienced very close to home as the Scots under Bonny Prince Charlie reached as far south as Derby. Fear and alarm must have spread throughout all communities in their path.

Samuel and John lived through the French Revolution in 1789, and the wars with Napoleon Bonaparte until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Were they or their relatives called upon to serve under the Duke of Wellington?

John Bull, my 2nd great-grandfather was born in 1825, half way through the reign of George IV, and died in 1900 just as Queen Victoria’s reign was coming to an end. All my subsequent Bull ancestors were Victorians – a period of industrial expansion, the building of the railways (and demise of the canals), and Empire! My great-grandfather, John, was born in Hollington in 1855, and worked as smallholder farmer and coal merchant. The family remained in the same area of Derbyshire throughout the 19th century.

During five centuries many of my Bull family (and probably those who married into the Jackson line as well) came from and continued to live in quite a small area of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. People mostly married from the same communities, or from others not more than a handful of miles away. After all, a man had to do his courting on foot, until the late 19th century¹ at least. I’ve heard that Tom Jackson walked miles to court Alice.

It has been fascinating to see my family history unfold, and what Martin has achieved is truly incredible and inspiring. People, names, and dates bring history to life.


¹ John Jinks, who was Professor of Genetics at the University of Birmingham, hailed the safety bicycle as one 19th century invention that probably did more for human population genetics than had ever before occurred, since couples could now more easily court over greater distances.

 

 

Leek – Queen of the Moorlands (updated 2018-11-05)

April 1956. Did my world fall apart? I probably thought so at the time.

We moved from Congleton in Cheshire (where I was born seven years earlier) to the small market town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Less than 12 miles away, but it could have been another planet for all I was concerned.

New town, new home, new school, and new friends.

When I say ‘small market town’ I always was under the impression that Leek had a population of about 20,000 when we moved there in 1956. So I was quite surprised to note in the 2001 census that the population was a smidgen under 19,000. It seems the population has changed very little over the past century.

I’m not sure that I could say that Leek is a picturesque town, but it’s certainly a very interesting one, with some remarkable features and history (the link gives a pretty comprehensive account). And it’s surrounded by some of the most glorious landscapes in the country, the Staffordshire moorlands on the southern edge of the Peak District (the UK’s first national park). Although I was not born there, and actually only lived there for a little over a decade before moving away to university (and moving on) I still think of Leek as my home-town – and proudly so!

In the 1960s panorama below, taken from the top of Ladderedge (on the southwest of the town, besides the main road linking Leek with Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries) looking towards the northeast, you can see many of the distinctive features of the Leek skyline.

1-13 Leek

Just to left of center is the square tower of the 13th century Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor (although there is some evidence for a pre-Norman church in the vicinity), and to the right of center, the tall spire of the Roman Catholic church, St Mary’s (which we attended), built in 1887, although there had been earlier churches.

Church of St Edward the Confessor

To the right of St Mary’s spire is the white clock tower of Leek’s impressive war memorial, the Nicholson War Memorial, commonly known as The Monument (at the eastern end of the main shopping Derby Street), and to the right of that another Anglican church, St Luke’s, with a square tower and a small spire to one side.

The Nicholson War Memorial (the Monument), photographed in April 2012. The roundabout has now disappeared – a great local controversy – as part of road ‘improvements’ to ease the flow of traffic. The video below shows its dedication in 1925.

And in the middle of the panorama rises the impressive green copper dome (no longer green) of the Nicholson Institute, housing the public library and art gallery (including a facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry) and (in the past at least when I was growing up) a celebration of much of Leek’s wealth that was built on the silk weaving industry. Indeed, textile manufacturing and dyeing were among the main industrial endeavours in Leek, and quite a few of the mills and their chimneys can be seen on the Leek skyline. In the mid-60s a couple of these were destroyed by fire within the space of just one week – very dramatic happenings in a small town. William Morris, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement, may have resided in Leek for several years.

The central area of Leek is bounded by five streets: St Edward Street on the west, Stockwell Street on the north, Brook Street/Hayward Street on the south, and Ball Haye Street on the east. And these are through routes connecting Leek with Buxton to the northeast, Macclesfield to the north-west, the Potteries to the southwest, and Ashbourne to the east.


We lived in a couple of properties in St Edward Street where my father established his photographic retail business between our arrival in Leek in 1956 until 1962.

Then my father was able to purchase a prime site in the Market Place, which he kept until his retirement in 1976. I’ve recently discovered that 19 Market Place is now a shop selling home-made jewellery – Little Gem. That’s quite interesting since my wife’s main hobby is making bead jewellery. We must visit next time we are in Leek. But I digress . . .

Leek was granted a charter to hold a market on Wednesdays during the reign of King John at the beginning of the 13th century. And that market thrives today. In the valley of the River Churnet, and on the north-west of the town lie the rather depleted ruins of a Cistercian abbey, Dieulacres; many of the stones were used in local building after Henry VIII’s men had done their business, and particularly in the Abbey Inn that is found close by.

Leek was connected to the growing canal system in 1801, with a branch of the Caldon Canal. It closed in the mid-1940s, and was eventually filled in (now part of an industrial estate on the southeast side of the town). Famous 18th century canal engineer James Brindley lived in Leek for many years. Until the 1960s Leek was served with rail connections, but after these ended, the station was demolished in 1973. The last steam trains from Leek in 1965 are shown in the video below.

I read recently of plans to try and reopen the mothballed railway link between Leek and Stoke. The web site has some stunning photos of steam locomotives near Cauldon Lowe.

Close by the Monument is the bus station, opened in the 60s on the site of the former cattle market (that moved afterwards close to the site of the old railway station. Thanks to my old friend Geoff Sharratt for sharing these two photos with me.

We never talked politics at home. I suspect my parents voted Conservative, but I do not know for sure. When we lived in Congleton my father was elected to the local council – Congleton was a borough with a mayor. Not long after we moved to Leek my father sought election to the Leek Urban District Council – as an Independent since he strongly believed that national political affiliations had little or no place in local government. In 1968 he became Chairman of the Leek Urban District Council.

In the 1950s and 60s as I was growing up in Leek the annual Club Day, a 200 year-old tradition, held in mid-July was (and still is, apparently) a very important event in the town’s calendar. Held on a Saturday afternoon, it brought together churches and Sunday schools of all denominations in an ecumenical celebration, held in the Market Place. It was a riot of colour and best outfits, banners and bands, with the children and their parents and friends processing from the individual churches to the Market Place, and afterwards around the town.

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Today it seems that Club Day in Leek is rather a different celebration altogether. My elder brother Ed and I took part for a number of years with the St Mary’s 5th Leek Cub (cub scout) Pack. Here we are in our Cub uniforms.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

After my parents retired in 1976 they took up residence in a first floor apartment in Greystones, a 17th century town house on Stockwell Street, just in front of the Nicholson Institute. After my mother (and the lady on the ground floor) moved out in the mid-80s, the property became a tea room.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

But in many ways it’s the location of Leek that is one of its best assets, nestling as it does in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, with close access to the Peak District National Park, and particularly the Roaches, Dovedale, and the Manifold Valley to mention just a few special places, and the famous ‘double sunset‘ that figures in the old coat of arms (two suns).

Here’s a video I found recently on YouTube (2014-04-25) about the Staffordshire Peak District – all within a 10 mile or so radius of Leek:

I visit Leek rather rarely now, but when I do walk around the town, and look at how it has changed over the decades, my mind fills with good memories of a happy childhood. It was good growing up in Leek. And it seems that many around the world also hold fond memories of Leek, as comments on the Visitors’ Book at Leekonline show.

And finally, here are some recent photos of Leek that I have put together in a short video.