THIS year marks the centenary year of the start of the First World War. To continue our monthly features surrounding the centenary, BELINDA HARGREAVES delves into the history of one of Leek's businesses, which has been going for more than 100 years and helped in the war effort.
FOUR generations of a Leek family, with the same name as the town, has been running a successful engineering company for more than a century.
Charles Leek and Sons Limited is a small engineering company with a history that dates back to the early 1900s.
It became a limited company in 1920 and was managed, up until a year ago, by four generations of the Leek family.
Initially producing machinery for the then thriving textile industry in Leek, the business has evolved over the years and now focuses on making gears and cogs for numerous industries.
The origins of Charles Leek & Sons Ltd actually date back to the late 1800s when teenager Charles Leek first formed an interest in engineering.
The 13-year-old was inspired to enter engineering by machine-maker Thomas Potts of Buglawton, near Congleton, whom Charles' mum Mary was housekeeper for.
Charles and his mum had moved from their family home in Sheffield to live in-house at the Potts' residence after Charles' father Joseph had passed away at the age of 44 of consumption, and Charles' older siblings had become independent. By the age of 23 Charles was working as a machine joiner on looms in the mills in Leek, and would walk the 12 miles or so from Buglawton to his place of employment in Leek.
Two years later, he was living in lodgings situated in Wellington Street, Leek.
Documentation, which still remains in the possession of the Leek family today, shows that Charles branched out alone in the world of engineering in 1904 by hiring both tools and machinery.
Within a year he had taken a lease on a former mill premises – Britannia Mill – in West Street, Leek where he developed knitting looms and winding machines for the local textile industry.
Charles married twice and had four children. His sons Harry and Harvey worked with him after leaving school.
Harry became his Engineer's Clerk of Works, and Harvey an Engineer's Fitter, and the business thrived.
This was largely due in part to the munitions work that the firm undertook in the First World War years.
During some alterations to improve the building, in 1916, a disastrous accident occurred.
Charles had climbed a ladder to the office area on the first floor, as a new staircase was to be fitted. He came out of the office and forgot there was no staircase; he fell to his death at the age of 60.
After Charles' sudden death in 1916, his sons, Harry, then aged 27, and Harry, aged 25, issued a notice informing people of his death and that they would be carrying on the business. The brothers' partnership became official a year later with the formation of Charles Leek & Sons, and a year later, they purchased the premises their father had originally leased, known as Britannia Mill.
The business later became a Limited Company, and the brothers continued to make it a thriving engineering company.
Later, Harvey's son, Charles Barrington (Barry) Leek, continued the family business and then Barry's younger son, Charles Edward Adrian Leek, took the helm before selling the business, which is now at Springfield Works in Ashbourne Road, at the end of 2012.
The business, which is still being called Charles Leek & Sons, is now owned by Jonathan Bell of Investors in Engineering, and being run by director and general manager Leslie Rushton and production director Michael Harvey, who have both worked at the firm for many years. There are currently 14 employees at Charles Leek & Sons, many of whom started at the engineering firm straight from school. General manager Leslie Rushton has worked at Charles Leek & Sons since leaving school at the age of 16 in 1972. He said: "It is a shame that the company has not stayed in the family, but we hope to carry on the Charles Leek reputation, and that is why we have kept the name of the company."
Sixty-seven year old Adrian is married to Hilary and they have a son Alistair who works in the sports clothing industry. Adrian said: "We have had a good run with four generations of the family running the company. That is what matters that the business is still going and the staff have their jobs. That was always my philosophy – to be honest and fair with staff and then you get it back in return. I do miss it but having said that it was the right decision to make. I am pleased that they have kept the same name."
Below is a comprehensive history of Charles Leek & Sons, as compiled by Hilary Leek (wife of Adrian Leek) in 2012:
In 1856 the first Charles Leek was born to Joseph and Mary Leek. They lived in Sheffield, where Joseph worked as a cutlery caster. Like many areas of old housing, their home in Henry Street is no longer standing. Joseph’s father was Moses Leek, who was born towards the end of the 1700’s. Joseph and Mary had five children, Mary A Leek, Harriet Leek (who died aged 11), Henry Leek, Jane Leek and finally Charles Leek.
When his father died of consumption in 1864 at the age of 44 Charles was only six years old. Joseph’s widow Mary decided to leave Sheffield a few years after, once their older children had grown up and become independent. She took employment as a live-in housekeeper for an elderly man named Thomas Potts. His home was in King Street in Buglawton near Congleton, and Mary moved from Sheffield to his house, taking her only remaining dependent child Charles with her. He would have been about ten-years-old by then.
Thomas Potts was a machine maker for the weaving industry, and so by the age of 13, in 1871, Charles began to develop an interest in machinery. The areas of Congleton, Macclesfield and Leek were all mill towns with many of the local people dependent on the weaving as their means of income.
By the age of 23 Charles was working as a machine joiner on looms in the mills in Leek. Each day he walked the 12 or so miles from Mr Potts’ house in King Street, Buglawton to his place of employment in Leek. Quite a trek, up hill and down and passing Rudyard Lake. By the age of 25 he was living in Leek in lodgings situated in Wellington Street. This was common practice at that time, and many households took in lodgers who worked locally. It helped to support their own living costs.
A liaison with a Macclesfield girl Elizabeth ‘Annie’ Burton, resulted in the birth of a child Nellie in 1883. Charles was also courting a Leek girl, Harriet Birch and married her in 1882 - possibly without knowing ‘Annie’ was pregnant. In Leek, he and Harriet had three children, Ethel, Harry and Harvey. At that time the family lived at 30 Buxton Road in Leek. Charles continued working in engineering, and Harriet worked as a french polisher.
Harriet died aged 33 (from laryngitis) when Harvey was less than a year old. Six years later Charles remarried to Annie - his first love. The marriage took place in Macclesfield. Annie came to live in their Leek home bringing their daughter Nellie with her. His mother Mary also lived with them after her employment with the elderly Mr Potts ended, until her death in 1903 at the age of 80. Mary had lived long beyond the average life-span of the time.
Charles was now aiming his sights on creating his own business. He hired both tools and machinery in 1904, and within a year had taken a lease on a former mill premises (Britannia Mill) in West Street, Leek. This enabled the business to expand, developing more knitting looms and winding machines for the local industry.
The family lived together at 10 North Street, Leek. His sons Harry and Harvey worked with him after leaving school, Harry became his Engineers Clerk of Works, and Harry an Engineers Fitter and the business thrived. This was due in part to the Munitions work that the firm undertook in the First World War years.
The family business was developing well.
During some alterations to improve the building, in 1916, a disastrous accident occurred.
Charles had climbed a ladder to the office area on the first floor (a new staircase was to be fitted).
He came out of the office and forgot there was no staircase - he fell to his death at the age of 60.
After Charles Leek’s sudden and tragic death, his sons issued a notice informing people of his death and that they would be carrying on the business. Messages of sympathy arrived from many sources.
Charles demonstrated in his will that he wanted to ensure his widow Annie and his daughters Ethel and Nellie were provided for. Annie continued to live in their home in North Street. His sons Harry and Harvey were of course in the business, which continued under their management.
At age 16 Ethel had become a student teacher. She secured a teaching position in Bournville Village, and taught all her working life. She never married and spent her last days quite happily in a retirement home for teachers in Trentham, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Nellie married a Leek man named Fred Howarth, but they had no children.
Harry and Harvey were aged 27 and 25 at the time of their father’s death in 1916, and knew that it was his wish that they continued with the business.
Their partnership became official in 1917, and the following year the two brothers bought the premises their father had originally leased (for £50 a year) in West Street. It was still known as Britannia Mill.
Harry and Harvey worked hard in Britannia Mill over the next few years, to make the engineering services they provided sound, inventive, and affordable. Harry was 31 and Harvey was 29. Both were now married, and in their own homes in Leek. It was then that they made the decision to become a Limited Company.
The brothers were staking everything on the business being successful. They had a total of £8,000 assets, which included Britannia Mill and three houses in George Street adjacent to the company premises they had bought with a view to extending the premises at some time in the future. Also their vehicles and even sundry items from their garages. The whole amount was put toward the company launch. The brothers continued working hard together, designing, patenting and producing various machines for the weaving industry. One patent was a yarn sizing machine which was for the use with artificial silk yarn.
By this time both Harry and Harvey had their own families. Harry’s wife was Lucy, and they had two sons - Kenneth and Brian Leek, and lived in ‘Sunnyside’ in Daintry Street, Leek. Harvey had married Alice Sigley, and they also had two children - Margaret and Charles Barrington (Barry) Leek. They lived in Spring Gardens until just after Barry’s birth in 1920, and then the family moved to ‘Greywoods’ at Birchall.
In 1940 Harry died at the age of 51. His wife Lucy still had an interest in the company, and was represented at meetings by her son Brian Leek. Fred Howarth (Nellie’s husband) became a director of the company at this time.
Out of the next generation of the Leek family boys, namely Kenneth, Brian and Barry, it was Harvey’s son Barry who remained with the company. He had a passion for engineering design which he demonstrated for the rest of his life.
Despite engineering being a reserved occupation, Barry felt the need to join up during World War Two, and became a soldier in the Royal Engineers at the age of 20. He had married Kathleen by this time and they had their first child Charles Christopher in 1940, just before he left England for the middle east. Kathleen did not see him until his return at the end of the war in 1945. Their second son, Charles Edward Adrian was born the year after that.
During these war years, Barry’s older sister Margaret worked in the office, supporting her father and the war effort. After the war she continued to work in the office, despite her real love lying in art. She had attended Burslem School of Art and produced some excellent work with both paint and pen and ink, and these are still on the walls in the homes of her nephews Christopher and Adrian.
Harvey continued to improve the business, taking on more work supplying looms, and gaining a contract with the Ministry for aeroplanes components during the war.
Although Harvey was running the company without the support of his brother Harry, or his son Barry, it was through some very profitable years. The war did rely on the provision of many engineering parts for all sorts of machines. The firm was able to supply on many fronts, and as a consequence it’s profits grew along with it’s excellent reputation for service and quality.
Harvey had not approved of his son Barry going to war, but on his return over five years later, he returned to work in the company with many new ideas and his maturity earned his father’s respect. Barry and Kathleen moved into their lifetime home at 79 Spring Gardens with their two sons, in 1946. Bought for the sum of £1,700.
Barry’s design skills were a great asset to the company.
New knitting looms were designed. able to make a range of items - fringing, dishcloths, dusters, pompoms, pyjama cords to name a few. Barry continued to grow with his knowledge of company management, and as time progressed he was able to take on more responsibility from his father Harvey.
Barry’s older son Christopher went to university in Cardiff, where he met his future wife Angela. After their marriage, their careers took them to live in Worcester with their children. Helen was born in 1966 and her brother Charles Robert two years later. Christopher’s career route and his family commitments meant he did not become involved in the business, and Helen and Robert grew up in Worcester developing their own careers there. They are both successful in their own work and happily married. Helen to Matthew with two sons, Luke and Benji; and Rob to Charmain with two daughters Holly and Daisy.
Harvey continued to work, reducing his hours and input over time, right up to his death in 1971 at the age of 80. His final illness was short, having been unwell for a few days and being admitted to hospital with a bowel obstruction. The operation was successful but a clot on the lung afterwards caused his death. He did not have an unhappy death - other patients on the ward related tales of him fully believing he was in a hotel, and that a trip up the hospital corridor in a wheelchair would end up in Llandudno.
His widow Alice died very soon after him, but was able to spend a little more time with their daughter Margaret (who no longer worked in the factory office), and Barry’s wife an her two grandsons.
Barry’s efforts ensured that business links providing looms were expanding to a wider range of customers. Looms were developed, made and sold to South Africa, New Zealand and Spain.
The main purchasers remained in the mill towns of Lancashire.
Adrian continued to work completing his apprenticeship, and learning more about the ways in which to ensure the company could be managed more effectively over the coming years. He gained a BA degree in Business Studies in the late 1970s and used this to keep the company abreast of modern requirements.
Barry gradually eased himself out of the business, due in part to a long standing heart condition. At 65 he fulfilled a dream, by retiring and enjoying five years owning a boat on Macclesfield canal, where he cruised to his heart’s content wherever he could, with the support of his wife Kathleen, and at least one keg of his home brewed beer on board.
Following his happy time, his health required a heart bypass operation. Sadly he did not survive this and died in 1992 aged 72.
His widow Kathleen always missed him, but enjoyed the love and support of all her family up until her death in 2010 aged 89.
How things change, business needs alter, ebb and flow. The company needed new markets and worked to provide an even more precise service to customers.
Adrian found himself guiding the company through recessions; in times of increased paperwork; legally binding requirements to enable the business to function effectively; a diminishing market for looms, and for work within the pottery industry.
The new watchword was ‘diversify’.
Niche markets were developed. Work on veteran cars, traction engines, leisure industry items including gears for Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers rides. Later on the new marketing areas included marine craft, industrial machinery of many types and all these were alongside the ‘bread and butter’ work of gear-cutting and fitting.
It took Adrian longer to ‘find a good woman’ than it had his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Adrian married Hilary in 1979 when he was 33. They produced one child, Alistair Charles Leek when Adrian was 38.
Alistair was the first in line of boys for two generations not to have Charles as his first name. Perhaps an indication of things to come, as Adrian would have had to work till he was nearer 80 than 70 for Alistair to continue the family tradition in the company. Adrian didn’t want his son to feel any sense of duty or responsibility that he should follow on in engineering.
As time went on, Alistair’s studying and career choices developed in Nottingham, where he now lives with his wife Clare, having met her when they were both at university.
Knowing how hard it is to run a manufacturing business both Adrian and Hilary are pleased that his aspirations have led him to other choices.
Words we have got used to hearing in the family, and with the loyal employees who have always supported the company: “Spurs, helicals, internals, bevels, sprockets, splines, racks, worms - long may they still be required.
Good old fashioned values and client support have been linked with modern needs. The company has its logo, mission statement, web site, marketing DVD, etc, etc. It complies with the Health and Safety standards, financial accountability, pays taxes and suppliers on time, and still treats clients with respect and the best service it can provide. Political climates have changed, company values remain constant.
There has been fun along the way, with visitors over the years too, including Fred Dibnah and Michael Portillo - you can’t get a wider variety than that.
It achieved Investors in People status, has up-to-date certification for British Standards, has run successful apprenticeship programmes, trained employees to reach director status themselves with a loyalty to the company over a period of many years.
Wow! Achievements to be proud of aren’t they? As family members we certainly are.
A family business throughout four generations of Leek men who developed a genuine passion and enjoyment in their work.
Beginning with the teenage interests of a boy from Sheffield who moved with his mother to Congleton in 1868. His passion for the way machinery is designed and produced, led him to instill the same interests in his children - and so the company began and continued.
Charles Leek, Harry and Harvey Leek, Charles Barrington (Barry) Leek, Charles E Adrian Leek.
The name Charles Leek and Sons is being retained above the door. Here’s to the new company continuing with the same high aspirations, values and with the customer based philosophy it has always had.
Engineers from 1875 until 2012. Now that is a proud family legend!