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Leek and District Historical Society

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: January 22, 2014

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GEOFF Browne, who most of us know for his 'Bygones' in the Leek Post & Times presented a procession of at least two dozen people whom he called Leek's "Unknown Heroes".

Actually, it really was a gallop through the ages, for Geoff started with a speculation that the pages about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Ludchurch legend, a medieval story that only Chaucer beats for historical and literary significance, was quite possibly written by a monk at Dieulacres Abbey.

Everyone has heard of Samuel Pepys and his diary but Roger Morrice and his 'Entring Book'?

Well, his chronicled social and political life of England from 1677 to 1691 gives a completely different insight into those turbulent times. He grew up a yeoman's farmer's son at Swainsmoor, Upper Hulme; went to Oxford and then Cambridge; became a Puritan vicar but was ejected and ended his days at Westwood Hall.

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He bequeathed bibles to the children of Blackshaw Moor but more importantly his six volumes of diaries, published only in 2007, is likely to have a profound impact on our understanding of the 'Glorious Revolution', a critical time in English history.

Now take John Stretch, a blacksmith at Harper's Gate, Rudyard, whose son Peter, one of his 10 kids, took his skills to Philadelphia and fathered 'America's First Family of Clockmakers' according to financier and collector Frank L Hohmann III.

Move on to when Hogarth's cartoon had the slogan "Give us our eleven days".

This refers to George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, astronomer and mathematician who in 1752 effected the change over to the Gregorian calendar we use today.

Would Geoff have enough time to tell us of all his heroes. Not all were successful. Take the unfortunate Quaker George Fallowfield who kept the Cock Inn and, unlike the Darby's of Coalbrookdale, thought peat could replace charcoal to smelt iron. He died in 1740. Coke was better!

Or, a century later Richard Badnall, in 1830, patented his undulating railway only to find motion on-line is not perpetual. And the gifted but tragic and reclusive painter of seascapes Frederick Browne, who died in 1933. There must still be unsigned works from his garret in Pickwood Road around town. He was unrelated to Geoff.

Leek has been home to other such artists as Lizzie Philipps from Stockwell Street; Bob Dawson who became a dance band leader in Nottingham; and also John Edgar Plant.

The latter started his teaching at Leek School of Art and ended his career as director of Leicester's art college. He was renowned for his illustrations advertising the London Underground and specialised in navy craft as a war artist during World War Two.

Of course, Geoff anticipated the dearth of female heroes by explaining how in his sweep of history, women were more likely to be wielding brooms and tending babes.

However, not all were in the background tied to the hearth, the mill or the embroidery circle.

There was Harriet Kidd, a pioneer of the textile workers' union, women's suffrage, born in Leek in 1865 and died in London 1917. Also from the Foxlowe when it was a home there was Mrs Cruso was created pre-NHS, the Leek Aid and Sickness Fundm, a charity that still operates today.

Leek also had a film star in Sylvia Godwin but she preferred to teach dance in an upstairs studio to the fame of the silver screen.

Whatever else Geoff was not short of posing questions that challenged our ability to connect.

Take D'Arcy Bunyan, a microscope collector, his grandson a posh London dentist, John, a Leek modernist building now compromised by the imposition of uPVC windows and John's brother-in-law and Leek friend, Dr Billington.

Well, it's all to do with the use of Milton sterilising fluid (sodium hypochlorite) to clean ulcerating wounds and burns and the production of the Bunyan Stannard envelope, a dressing that would not stick and add to the trauma of pilots' injuries during World War Two.

Staying with battles, consider our Great War hero Jack O'Hare, the Leek 12-year-old lad who went to Australia with his mate, bluffed his way into the ANZAC army, fought in Gallipoli and was its youngest survivor, came home to raise a family and work as a postman.

And there's the Wardle twins Gilbert and Geoffrey. The first was killed in action but Geoffrey was shot down and held eventually in Colditz from which he made an audacious escape by just walking past the guards before recapture 60 days later, and then being involved in the escape-by-glider project that was overtaken by Germany's surrender.

Let's go back to railways and John Robinson who bought Westwood Hall from the Davenports.

He made his money building steam trains and was an internationally acclaimed mechanical and civil engineer. Moreover, it was his fortune that allowed for the purchase of the land and building of St Chad's, Longsdon, and St. John the Evangelist in Leek.

Still to be mentioned are Tiny Bostock from Beggar's Lane who, but for the war would have gone to America in 1939 to fight for a world title; and Roy Fowler, the athletes' athlete, the 'Red fox', who won the World Cross Country Championship in 1963.

In music the audience remarked on another chap from that end of town, John Birch, who was organist at the Royal Albert Hall.

Should you ever go to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, the elephant standing stuffed there once pulled wagons and performed in Bostock and Wombell's Circus.

Its last pitch in the Market Place outside the Red Lion was in 1931. Gerald Mee remembers hearing the lions roaring even as he lay in bed

Think Beecham's Pills and the quaint redundant toilet atop Mill Street might come to mind. It's just one of the contributions made by William Ernest Beacham as Leek's Town Surveyor.

Now add road widening at the bottom of Compton, new sewage systems, and the reservoir on The Mount. Quite a legacy and not forgetting the band stand!

We're nearly there. Another innovative builder, John Cornes. He lived in Norton House and designed and built affordable model homes for working class people with hot water boiler, baths and inside loos. He was regarded as an authority nationally just as the 'garden city' movement was gathering momentum.

He published 'Modern Housing in Town & Country; in 1905, having already built his ultra-modern homes to rent at 5/6 per week in James and Langford streets.

And finally, Geoff's all time uncelebrated hero from Leek. This is a lad who left school aged eight, was a weaver's 'shade' runner, self-educated, became a printer, newspaper reporter and proprietor of the Leek Post before moving into the building society and finance business at Leek United.

Born in 1865, he moved to Halifax and by 1927 he had created the largest building society in the world. He was knighted the following year.

Sir Enoch has no statue or blue plaque in Leek yet he was a financier of international stature.

He had also tramped 20 miles in all weathers to take a service up in the moorlands. What a hero.

There was so much to tell and so many more to mention but the problem is always time, the very unit of history. Geoff's compilation, his story, exuded a passion for local people's achievement, a labour of love and respect duly appreciated by a now much more aware, enlightened and proud audience. Browne sauce? Certainly. Magic!

Faith Cleverdon is our raconteur on Monday, February 10, at 7.45pm in the Dove Room of Moorlands House, Stockwell Street. Her title: Off with the old, on with the new". Sounds intriguing. Come early for the best seats.

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