architecture, church of St Edward the Confessor, George Edmund Street, Greystones, Larner Sugden, Leek, Leek School of Embroidery, Nicholson Institute, Norman Shaw, oatcakes, ragged schools, River Churnet, silk mills, Staffordshire, stained glass, William Morris, William Sugden
The nearest town to where we usually stay in the Staffordshire Peaks is Leek. It is the principal town of the area and is known locally as ‘The Queen of the Moorlands’. It is not a large town; it is built on a hill and is contained in a large bend in the River Churnet. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries it changed from a quiet market town to a silk-weaving centre and a few large mills were built there. This industry has completely gone now but some of the old mills remain.
William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement lived and worked in Leek from 1875 until 1878. He studied the art of dyeing there and it was Leek which provided his firm with silk.
R and I woke on the Saturday morning to hear the rain still falling and so didn’t rush our breakfast. Fortunately, by the time we had washed up after our meal the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. We decided we would spend the rest of the day in Leek so after a mid-morning cup of coffee we drove into town and parked the car in a car-park next to playing fields.
The town is full of interesting architecture.
We began to feel hungry and went to the White Hart Tea Room in order that we might sample their wonderful Staffordshire oatcakes.
Mine was filled with sausage and melted cheese and R’s had bacon and melted cheese.
Rested and refreshed, R and I continued to wander about the town.
There is an 8th Century Saxon cross in the churchyard and some of the stained glass in the church is by Morris and Co. The church also has a wonderful collection of examples of the work of the Leek School of Embroidery that R and I were lucky enough to see a couple of years ago in an exhibition. There were enormous altar frontals and embroidered panels as well as smaller pieces of work and all so beautifully done. The church was extended in the 19th Century by the architect George Edmund Street. William Morris was one of his apprentices.
Apparently, until the trees in the churchyard grew too tall, a phenomenon called a double sunset could be seen from this church at about the time of the summer solstice. There is a hill called the Cloud and as the sun sets it can be seen above and to the side of the hill at the same time.
The plaque on the wall states that the building was restored in 1911. It also says ‘The gift of Elizabeth Ash widow, the eldest daughter of William Jolliffe, Esqr. Anno Dom 1696’
I looked on the British History Online website and discovered that William Jolliffe acquired some land (part of an estate) in 1644. When he died in 1669 the land passed to his daughter Elizabeth Ashe (the site spells her surname with an ‘e’), widow of Edward Ashe a London draper. In 1677 she charged the land with rent to support the almshouses which she had founded at Leek.
I wonder what the tenant of the land thought about that!
Looking at the building it appeared to be disused and was a little worse for wear.
Ragged Schools ‘were charitable organisations dedicated to the free education of destitute children in 19th Century Britain.’ (Wikipedia) Eventually these schools began opening at night as well to educate all comers, children and adults. The novelist Charles Dickens began his association with Ragged Schools in 1843 when he visited one in London. He was appalled by the conditions but wished to help them. His experience inspired him to write ‘A Christmas Carol’. He said, ‘They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy and forlorn to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and who would be driven from any church door: are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something and show them some sympathy.’
William Sugden the architect arrived in Leek in 1849 to work on the design of the Churnet Valley Railway. His son Larner was born in 1850 and was apprenticed to his father in 1866. Both men’s influence on the town was very great. It was they who built the Methodist Chapel and Ragged School in 1870. Larner’s masterpiece was the Nicholson Institute built in Queen Anne style in 1882.
The quote from Milton says, ‘A good booke is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.’
The Institute is tucked away behind a 17th Century building on the main road. Any other architect of the time would have pulled the building down but apparently Larner had a real regard for old buildings and so the building was allowed to remain.
Local rumour has it that William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 as a result of his successful campaign to prevent the demolition of this building. It was through the SPAB he came into contact with Larner Sugden who went on to publish some of Morris’ speeches and essays!