Leek: Introduction

Pages 78-83

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 7, Leek and the Moorlands. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1996.

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In this section


The ancient parish of Leek extending north to the county boundary with Cheshire consisted of the 12 townships of Leek and Lowe (including the town of Leek), Bradnop, Endon, Heaton, Leekfrith, Longsdon, Onecote, Rudyard, Rushton James, Rushton Spencer, Stanley, and Tittesworth. (fn. 1) The largest parish in Staffordshire, it was 33,254 a. (13,458 ha.) in area. (fn. 2) It had also included the chapelries of Cheddleton, Horton, and Ipstones until the 16th century, when the three became separate parishes.

The area is part of the Staffordshire Moorlands, known as the Moorland as early as 1329. (fn. 3) The town of Leek is built on Sherwood Sandstone, which is also found at Endon Bank. Elsewhere the underlying rock is sandstone of the Millstone Grit series. It outcrops as the Cloud in Rushton Spencer, 1,126 ft. (343 m.), and as the Roaches and Hen Cloud in Leekfrith, respectively 1,658 ft. (505 m.) and 1,350 ft. (410 m.), the highest points in the ancient parish. The Cloud produces the phenomenon of a double sunset when viewed from St. Edward's churchyard in Leek at the summer solstice. (fn. 4) The east side of the area is dominated by Morridge, a long ridge of high moorland which reaches 1,604 ft. (489 m.) on the northern boundary of Onecote. The northern boundary of the parish, which is also the boundary with Cheshire, followed the valley of the river Dane. On the east the boundary followed tributaries of the Dane and of the river Churnet, crossed Morridge, and then followed the river Hamps. Much of the southern boundary followed the Churnet and its tributaries. The western boundary was marked by ridges, culminating in the Cloud.

The grandeur of the scenery caught the imagination of Robert Plot when he visited the area c. 1680. He wrote enthusiastically of the rocks of the district, 'some of them kissing the clouds with their tops, and running along in mountainous ridges for some miles together'. At the sight of Hen Cloud and the Roaches 'my admiration was still heighten'd to see such vast rocks and such really stupendous prospects, which I had never seen before, or could have believed to be, anywhere but in picture'. (fn. 5) In 1708 Thomas Loxdale, the antiquarian vicar of Seighford and later vicar of Leek, visited Leekfrith 'to view some of our Moorland wonders' and found the Roaches 'one of the most romantick prospects in Nature, far beyond Dr. Plott's description'. (fn. 6) Such feelings were the exception before the end of the 18th century. Staffordshire's first county historian, Sampson Erdeswick, writing at the end of the 16th century, considered the area between the source of the Churnet and Dieulacres 'one of the barrenest countries I know'. (fn. 7) About the same time William Camden described the Staffordshire Moorlands as 'a tract so very rugged, foul, and cold that the snows continue long undissolved'. (fn. 8) A few years later Michael Drayton took a mixed view: (fn. 9)
But Muse, thou seem'st to leave the Morelands too too long:
Of whom report may speak (our mighty wastes among)
She from her chilly site, as from her barren feed,
For body, horn, and hair, as fair a beast doth breed
As scarcely this great Isle can equal.

In the mid 18th century the antiquary Richard Wilkes enlarged on that description: Leek was 'seated on a hill in the northern and most barren part of the county, among large heaths and commons, whose soil is black with many loose naked stones standing on the tops and sides of the hills. These make the road to Buxton unpleasant and dismal.' (fn. 10) A feeling of awe was returning by the end of the century. William Pitt, the agronomist, visited the area in 1794 and considered the Roaches and Sharp Cliffe Rocks in Ipstones 'stupendous piles . . . a sublime lecture on humility to the human mind'. (fn. 11) When Westwood Farm west of Leek town was offered for sale in 1804, its situation was described as commanding 'many beautiful, romantic, and extensive prospects'. (fn. 12) A view of Ball Haye north-east of the town published in 1813 showed it with the Roaches as a 'stupendously grand' background. (fn. 13)

The Double Sunset Behind the Cloud

The evidence of place names in the area suggests predominantly Anglo-Saxon settlement, with a Scandinavian element in the 10th or early 11th century in the north part of the parish. (fn. 14) A derivation from either Old English or Old Norse has been suggested for the name Leek itself. The centre of the area in the 10th century may have been at Rudyard, but by the 11th century Leek was the centre, with a church built perhaps c. 1000. Before the Conquest Leek belonged to the earl of Mercia, while thegns held Endon, Rudyard, and Rushton. All were held by the Crown in 1086, but by 1093 Leek had been granted to Hugh, earl of Chester. The entry in Domesday Book for Leek 'with the appendages' probably covered the site of the later town, Lowe to the south and west, Tittesworth, the area of the later townships of Bradnop and Onecote, and most of Leekfrith. Bradnop and Onecote became separated from the rest apparently in the 12th century, and in 1218 manorial rights within that area were granted to Henry de Audley. The rest of the Domesday manor of Leek was enlarged to include part of Rudyard manor (the south-west part of the later Leekfrith township and probably Heaton township), and the northern half of Rushton manor (the later Rushton Spencer). As a result Leek manor comprised the tithings of Heaton, Leekfrith, Lowe, Rushton Spencer, and Tittesworth. The core of Rudyard manor remained separate. The southern half of Rushton manor (later Rushton James) became part of the manor of Horton, created by the Audley family and including Horton itself, Endon, Longsdon, and Stanley together with Bagnall, in the parish of Stoke-upon-Trent.

In 1207 the Crown confirmed to Ranulph, earl of Chester, a weekly market and a seven-day annual fair at Leek, and about the same time Ranulph established a borough there. The town has remained a market centre and also a centre of communications, with several medieval roads converging on it. By the early 13th century it was the centre of a fee which comprised the earl of Chester's estates in north-east Staffordshire. (fn. 15)

In 1214 Earl Ranulph founded a Cistercian abbey beside the Churnet a mile north of the town in Leekfrith, naming it Dieulacres. He granted Leek church to the monks in the early 1220s, and in 1232 he gave them the manor of Leek. The monks established granges in Leek and Lowe, Heaton, Leekfrith, and Tittesworth. The Cistercians of Hulton were granted Bradnop and Mixon in Onecote by their founder, Henry de Audley, in 1223, and they too established granges. The Cistercians of Croxden also had a grange at Onecote apparently by 1223. In the south-west part of the parish the Augustinian canons of Trentham had an estate by the early 13th century at Wall in Longsdon, where they established a grange. Leekfrith and Rushton Spencer lay in the earls' 'forest' of Leek, and the earls also had a hunting ground at Hollinhay in Longsdon.

Stock farming, which seems to have been important in Leek manor in the 1180s, flourished in the area in the 13th century, with Morridge and the Churnet valley providing pasture. In 1490 Dieulacres had a herd of just over 200 cattle at Swythamley in Heaton. Sheep farming too was important, and in the later 13th century Dieulacres was producing wool for export.

In 1552 the Crown granted what were described as the manors of Leek and Frith to Sir Ralph Bagnall. He asserted his rights against those of the burgesses of Leek, and the town lost its borough status. Otherwise there was a general absence of strong manorial control after the Dissolution, and the only part of the parish where the manorial lords pursued a policy of economic improvement was in the east. Successive Lords Aston attempted the inclosure of Morridge in the 17th and earlier 18th century as lords of Bradnop. Attempts were also made to exploit the limestone and mineral deposits at Mixon between the 17th and 19th centuries. In the late 20th century pasture still predominated, the farming being mainly dairy and sheep.

The usual building material from the 17th century onwards was stone. Most of the farmhouses were built of coursed rubble with ashlar dressings, though some of the wealthier builders made greater use of ashlar. Earlier buildings had often been of timber, and timber framing was used for internal walls well into the 18th century. Brick, which became widespread in the town in the 18th century, made an occasional appearance in the rural area, but stone continued as the main material throughout the 19th century. The parish contained some larger houses, notably Swythamley in Heaton, evidently rebuilt in the 17th century and enlarged in the 18th century, Ashenhurst in Bradnop, rebuilt in the mid 1740s and demolished in 1954, Ball Haye in Tittesworth, rebuilt about the end of the 18th century and demolished in 1972, and Westwood Hall, remodelled c. 1820 and further enlarged in 1851.

Protestant nonconformity was widespread in the later 17th century, with Presbyterians and Quakers particularly numerous. A Quaker meeting house was opened in Leek in the later 1690s, and in the earlier 18th century the Leek meeting appears to have been the largest in Staffordshire. The Presbyterians had a meeting house in the town by 1715. There was a Baptist centre in Rushton Spencer from the later 17th century.

By the 1670s silk working was established in Leek, and by the end of the 18th century the silk industry employed c. 2,000 people in the town and 1,000 in the neighbourhood. It was then still a domestic industry but became increasingly concentrated in factories in the town during the 19th century. A landscape of mills and streets of terraced houses appeared as the industry and the town expanded.

All the main roads through the parish were turnpiked in the early 1760s. The Caldon canal was opened through the south-west part probably in 1778, and a branch serving the town of Leek was opened in 1801. At the same time a reservoir for the canal was built on the boundary of Rudyard township and Horton parish, with a feeder running into the Leek branch. The railway arrived in 1849, when the Churnet Valley line was opened from Macclesfield to Uttoxeter with stations at Rushton Spencer, Rudyard, and Leek. A line was opened from Stoke-uponTrent to the Churnet Valley line at Leekbrook in 1867. There was a station at Endon, and a residential area for commuters to the Potteries began to develop nearby. The opening in 1896 of a station at Stockton Brook to the south-west was followed by a similar development, which continued in Endon during the 20th century.

A body of improvement commissioners was set up in 1825 with responsibility for the town of Leek and an area outside within a radius of 1,200 yd. from the market place, increased to 1,500 yd. in 1855. The area covered included much of Leek and Lowe township and parts of Leekfrith and Tittesworth. In 1894 it became an urban district, which was enlarged in 1934. In 1974 the urban district became a parish in the new Staffordshire Moorlands district, which has its headquarters in Leek. The rest of the ancient parish, having been included in Leek rural district in 1894, likewise became part of Staffordshire Moorlands district in 1974.

In the late 20th century the area has been promoted for its tourist attractions, notably its scenery and outdoor activities such as walking, rock climbing, and sailing. Leek itself has been styled Queen of the Moorlands. Tourism was first promoted with the development of Rudyard canal reservoir as an attraction after the opening of the Churnet Valley railway in 1849. In 1850 the owners, the North Staffordshire Railway Co., landscaped the ground on the west side of the reservoir and in 1851 organized regattas on what was then called Rudyard Lake. The events attracted thousands of visitors until they were stopped by a local landowner later the same year. The Rudyard area, however, remained popular with visitors and was even promoted as 'the Switzerland of England' at the end of the century. (fn. 16) In the 1870s the owner of the Roaches, Philip Brocklehurst of Swythamley, acquired Hen Cloud and started to encourage visitors to the Roaches area by cutting footpaths and erecting bridges across streams. It became part of the Peak National Park created in 1951. Swythamley and Onecote were also included in the Park.


Parish government.

The parish was divided into the quarters of Leek and Lowe (including the town of Leek), Bradnop (consisting of the townships of Bradnop and Onecote), Endon (consisting of Endon, Longsdon, and Stanley), and Leekfrith (consisting of Heaton, Leekfrith, Rudyard, Rushton James, Rushton Spencer, and Tittesworth). The division had been made by 1609, (fn. 17) and probably by 1553 when there were four churchwardens. (fn. 18) In the 1660s each quarter had its own local meeting place for the passing of its warden's accounts. In 1698, however, those accounts were passed at a general meeting of parishioners in the chancel of Leek parish church. (fn. 19) In 1654 the inhabitants of Rushton chapelry (covering the townships of Heaton, Rushton James, and Rushton Spencer) claimed exemption from serving the office of churchwarden for Leekfrith quarter on the ground that they already served as chapelwardens. (fn. 20) By 1725 the churchwardens were appointed by the vicar from lists of three names submitted in writing at Easter by the inhabitants of each quarter. (fn. 21) Only the Leek warden survived the creation of new parishes in the 19th century, with the office filled by the vicar from three names submitted by the St. Edward's vestry at its Easter meeting. The office of warden of Leek survived the appointment of district wardens following the creation of a team ministry for Leek in 1979. (fn. 22)

Each quarter had its own overseer of the poor by the 1660s. (fn. 23) By 1711 the movement of population into the town of Leek from the Leekfrith, Bradnop, and Endon quarters had created a burden on the Leek and Lowe quarter. That year the parishioners agreed that for a period of five years each quarter should be regarded as a separate parish for settlement purposes, an arrangement confirmed by the justices for Totmonslow hundred in 1712. Under the agreement the quarters outside the town were responsible for poor persons living in the town but having settlement in those quarters. In 1717 the overseers and several parishioners petitioned to have the arrangement made permanent. (fn. 24) Meanwhile in 1713 Leekfrith quarter was divided for purposes of poor relief into its constituent townships, each with its own overseer. (fn. 25) By 1743 Bradnop and Onecote townships too each had its own overseer. (fn. 26) Around 1700 money was collected for the poor and sick at celebrations of holy communion and distributed by the churchwardens; any such money not distributed was put in the poor's box. (fn. 27) There was a poorhouse in the parish by the 1740s. (fn. 28) It may have been in Derby Street in Leek, where by the late 1750s the vestry was renting a house from Lord Macclesfield for use as a poorhouse. In 1759 the vestry decided to end the lease. (fn. 29) A poorhouse on the east side of Ladderedge common in Longsdon in the mid 1770s was presumably for Endon quarter. (fn. 30) In 1768 a workhouse was built in Leek for Leek and Lowe township. All the townships were included in Leek poor-law union on its formation in 1837, (fn. 31) and a union workhouse was opened in Leek in 1839.

A few officers were appointed for the parish as a whole. There was a parish clerk by 1443. (fn. 32) By the late 1690s the clerk and the sexton were appointed by the vicar. (fn. 33) Besides fees the clerk then received seed oats, or money in lieu, from the parishioners at Easter. (fn. 34) In 1754 the vestry agreed to pay him a salary of £5 instead of oats, a figure raised to £10 in 1774. (fn. 35) By the late 1690s the sexton not only received burial dues but was paid £3 a year for looking after the bells and clock at St. Edward's and for cleaning the church every week. (fn. 36) He received 5s. for ringing the curfew bell at Leek. By the 1730s he was paid 4d. an hour for tolling the bell at Leek, Meerbrook, and Endon. (fn. 37) By 1725 the churchwardens were providing clothes for a dog whipper; by 1799 he was paid a salary. (fn. 38) In the late 18th century a mole catcher was paid 1s. a year by the churchwardens. (fn. 39)


  • 1. This introduction (written in 1994) draws together some of the topics which are treated in detail in the articles on the individual townships. Unless otherwise indicated, the sources for statements in the introduction are given in those articles.
  • 2. V.C.H. Staffs. i. 327-8.
  • 3. P.R.O., C 145/110, no. 22.
  • 4. Plot, Staffs. 4-5; Olde Leeke, i. 52-7.
  • 5. Plot, Staffs. 170-1 (spelling modernized).
  • 6. W.S.L., S.MS. 237/E, no. 8.
  • 7. Erdeswick, Staffs. 492.
  • 8. Camden, Brit. (1722), i. 642.
  • 9. M. Drayton, Polyolbion (1613), 207.
  • 10. S.H.C. 4th ser. xi. 91-2.
  • 11. W. Pitt, General View of Agric. of Staffs. (1796), 199.
  • 12. W.S.L., Sleigh scrapbk. ii, f. 57v.
  • 13. J. Nightingale, Staffs. (Beauties of Eng. and Wales, xiii), 1021 and pl. facing p. 1168 (reproduced below, p. 236).
  • 14. e.g. Berdeholm (later Bearda) and Swythamley, in Heaton; Middle and Upper Hulme, in Leekfrith.
  • 15. Staffs. Studies, v. 1 sqq.
  • 16. Above, Horton, intro. (Rudyard Lake).
  • 17. L.J.R.O., B/C/5/1609, Leek.
  • 18. S.H.C. 1915, 146.
  • 19. S.R.O., D. 1040/7, p. 24.
  • 20. Ibid. Q/SO/6, f. 11.
  • 21. Ibid. D. 1040/7, p. 78.
  • 22. Docs. at St. Edward's ch., Leek, vestry min. bk. 1817- 1959, pp. 156, 158, 162; Leek Parish Church of St. Edward the Confessor (Leek, earlier 1970s), p. xxxi; inf. from Mr. W. F. Brooks, warden of Leek.
  • 23. Leek Par. Reg. 151-2.
  • 24. B.L. Add. MS. 36663, ff. 396-400; S.R.O., Q/SO/11, M. 1711.
  • 25. Leek Libr., Johnson scrapbk. ii (3), no. 12.
  • 26. S.R.O., D. 3816/3/1.
  • 27. Ibid. D. 1040/7, pp. 24, 28, 40.
  • 28. Ibid. D. 1040/5/14, 4 June 1741, 3 Apr. 1742.
  • 29. Ibid. D. 3359/Condlyffe, memo. 24 Nov. 1759.
  • 30. Ibid. D. 4302/1/4; above, fig. 2.
  • 31. Ibid. D. 699/1/1/1, p. 4.
  • 32. S.H.C. N.S. iii. 163.
  • 33. L.J.R.O., B/V/6/Leek, 1698.
  • 34. S.R.O., D. 1040/5/3, f. 167; D. 1040/5/14.
  • 35. Ibid. D. 1040/7, pp. 124, 172.
  • 36. L.J.R.O., B/V/6/Leek, 1698.
  • 37. S.R.O., D. 1040/5/3, f. 165v.
  • 38. Ibid. D. 1040/7, pp. 79 sqq., 242.
  • 39. Ibid. pp. 204, 208, 211.