The History of Leek
There is some debate about the foundation of Leek, though most evidence points to it being Saxon in origin. Norse settlers must have come to the area too: the churchyard of St Edward’s contains the remnants of a pillar that appears to be decorated in the Danish style.
Before the Norman Conquest Elfgar, Earl of Mercia was the landholder, with surrounding settlements held by his underlings. This suggests Leek was already of some economic importance, as does the fact that William the Conqueror kept the place for the crown for a time – in the Domesday Book of 1086 it was royal property.
The Earls of Chester, great magnates in the North, subsequently controlled the town until one of their number, Ralph or Ranulph de Blundevill, donated it to the Cistercian monks who had founded an abbey – Dieulacres - a mile or so north of Leek in 1214, at his invitation. By about 1220 when the Cistercians were granted the place Leek had already received its first royal charter from King John in 1214, seven years earlier having been given the right to hold a Wednesday market and an annual fair lasting a full week, again evidence it was thriving.
Trade in the area in the 13th century would have been dominated by cattle and sheep rearing, the monks themselves having significant wool flocks. This brought a livestock market to the town, primarily dealing in cattle.
The agricultural sector remained important as it still does today, but in the industrial revolution Leek became a major textile centre. Indeed it was a pioneering town in that age, its silk industry established in domestic workshops in the late 17th century mechanising in the second half of the 18th and through the 19th centuries.
As was so often the case, industrial development presaged religious dissent, and Leek was a noted centre of Presbyterianism and still more so of the Quaker sect, the latter establishing a meeting house in the last decade of the 17th century. Religious fervour notwithstanding, Leek was noted for the excellence of its brewing in the same period.
Many of the great upheavals of British history happily passed Leek by, but the town witnessed the progress of the Young Pretender Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 both south and north: south in hope, north in fear, retreating to Eventual exile.
Local man James Brindley, famed for his canal engineering, built a corn-grinding watermill in Leek of such quality that it remained in use until the mid-20th century, and is today preserved for posterity.
The Leek branch of the Caldon Canal opened in 1797, the reservoir to serve the canal built at nearby Rudyard township becoming a tourist attraction in the Victorian era. Swifter transport arrived with the Churnet Valley train line opened to Leek in 1849, a link to Stoke-on-Trent following in 1867.
The preservation and excellence of Leek’s architecture is largely down to the Sugden family. William Sugden and his son Larner designed many of the impressive structures still remaining, and Larner in particular was involved in protecting the heritage of earlier buildings enjoyed by the town. Joining him in that aim for a period was William Morris , who resided in Leek from 1875 to 1878, drawn there by the silk industry and the advanced dyeing works found alongside it.
Railways that had been built to exploit industrial opportunities offered tourists a way to reach the area, boldly called “Little Switzerland” by some operators. The railway is long gone, but the beauty of the countryside remains, and in 1951 the Peak District National Park , our first, was opened with Leek on its very edge, to give countryside access to the masses. Those masses may flock in greater numbers to the alternative attraction of Alton Towers now, but many wisely manage to combine the two worlds in one trip.
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