East Leake occupies a favourable position straddling the Sheepwash Brook and the Kingston Brook, which is a tributary of the River Soar, and the area first attracted settlers over 4,000 years ago. A few pre-historic finds have been made, and evidence from the Roman period includes coins found less than a mile from the centre of the present village. It was from Anglo-Saxon times, however, that the settlement became recognisably a village, with a lay-out radiating from the Church, basically the same as today’s. It acquired an Anglo-Saxon name, too; the word for the water meadows beside the brook was “lecche”, which had various forms over time before becoming “Leake”.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records 38 persons (only those with some sort of land rights and therefore of interest to William 1’s taxman were counted, and there were probably twice that number living here) in “Leche”, roughly the equivalent of modern East and West Leake combined.
In the medieval period, farming and the beginnings of commercial activity on which the prosperity of the village depended were in the hands of the owners of a few large farmsteads, or “manors”. The principal manor was Shirley’s, close to the Church and today comprising the Old Hall Farm complex; Joyce’s manor was originally where the buildings of the former Brookside Farm now stand, but the name was transferred by John Bley (see below) to his grand new house on Main Street – years later this became a shop and Post Office, which only closed in 2003; Cosby’s manor, demolished in 1963 when Salisbury Avenue was built, stood just about where a block of flats was built in 2006.
The foremost family in the early days and throughout the Middle Ages were the Leekes or Leakes (originally Leche, Leke or Lake, descendants of an 11th century Norse settler); they occupied Shirley’s manor. The direct line died out here, but other branches survived, notably at Sutton Scarsdale in north Nottinghamshire; there were also connections with the Shirley and Ferrers family at Staunton Harold. Socially one step down, but still comfortably off, were the yeoman farmers, some of whose names appear again centuries later among the the awards made under the Enclosure Act of 1798 – Wootton, Burrows, Hardy, Oldershaw, Woodroffe, Angrave, Marcer. The families are now long gone, but several of them are commemorated in village road names.
Through the nineteenth century, technical advances in farming led to expansion and greater prosperity, but at the same time other activities were being developed. There had been weavers in East Leake since medieval days, and there was a framework knitter living and working at 10-12 Main Street in 1757. The small scale hosiery trade as practised here grew steadily till the 1880s, but then more or less collapsed as large factories took over. Willows, or osiers, have always been grown along the brook, and from about 1830 commercial basket-making provided a livelihood for several families, the Mills’ being the most important; they produced every shape and size of basket, including cutlery trays used at the Savoy Hotel in London, eel traps, which were modified during World War I to serve as shell cases, chairs and tables – such versatility has recently been recognised by the naming of our newest road, Osier Fields. But post-World War II, plastics overtook willow in the basket trade, and by 1960, production had virtually ceased.
Nottinghamshire has large gypsum deposits, which were mined from medieval times, and were a valuable economic resource where they could be transported by water along the Trent and Soar valleys, but in East Leake the first attempt to extract gypsum for plaster was only in about 1880. It was not a success, but traces of the shaft remain somewhere near the clubhouse of Rushcliffe Golf Club. The next attempt also struggled, because of transport difficulties, but was saved in 1898 when the Great Central Railway was cut through, opening East Leake to the heavy freight services it needed. The path to becoming the major player it now is was not entirely smooth; there were various owners, take-overs and amalgamations before production reached nearly 1.5 million square metres of plaster board in a year and the company won a Queen’s Award for Technical Achievement in 1988
The arrival of the railway was an important factor in East Leake’s development as a commuter village – business men had their big houses on Station Road and West Leake Road and travelled daily to Loughborough and Leicester or Nottingham; the infamous Beeching Plan put an end to that in 1966. The railway provided employment, too; the stationmaster had a house, and there were cottages for the porters, signalmen and gangers. Modernisation of the village infrastructure as a whole took until well into the twentieth century, and the old Parish Council minutes record some of the difficulties in getting roads surfaced and lit, or a supply of piped water laid on.
There was probably a wooden church on the site of the present St Mary’s from the 7th or 8th century, replaced by a stone structure about the middle of the 11th century. The lengthy portion of herring-bone masonry in the north wall of the nave is typically Saxon and survives from this period. The Leake family funded reconstruction and expansion of the building through the following two centuries, even providing a rector in 1207, William Leake. Up until the 14th century, the church had been dedicated to St Leonard, but after a wealthy rector, Cardinal de Fergis, made more improvements, the church was re-dedicated to St Mary, a more popular saint at that time. Inside, there are pews from the 16th and 17th centuries, a still working clock dating from 1683 (superseded first in 1911 by one purchased by public subscription to commemorate George V’s coronation and in 1987 by an electronic timepiece accurately mastered from Rugby) and a number of interesting windows, but the most unusual relic is a shawm, or vamping horn, used during services in the mid 1800s, and one of only eight remaining in the country. The chancel collapsed in the 19th century, and extensive repair work and additions took place 1884-86. Minor alterations occurred since, especially the replacement of an ugly brick south porch in 1902, but the building remained substantially the same for about 150 years. During the autumn of 2007, however, a transformation took place – a massive “re-ordering” of the building to modernise it and make it a much more flexible meeting place. The hope is that St Mary’s will again be a focal point for the whole community, just as it would have been in medieval times and was to some extent until well into the last century.
Non-conformist churches met with hostility from East Leake’s Anglicans as they did throughout the country, but, through the efforts of determined individuals, developed and thrived. East Leake was an important centre for the Baptist Movement, and the fine Meeting House still in use at the eastern end of the village was built on land given in 1757 by a wealthy lace and hosiery merchant, Thomas Clarke. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, were active during the latter part of the 18th century, and after John Wesley met members of the Angrave family in 1798, John Angrave gave land for a chapel, only the date stone of which remains now, built into the Village Hall extension. In 1863, a handsome Victorian chapel was built on the opposite side of Main Street, but a hundred years later this became unsafe and was replaced by the simpler multi-purpose building opened in 1983. The Roman Catholics had no premises of their own in East Leake until the present church was built; it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2006.
The most significant occupant of St Mary’s churchyard, now closed, is John Bley (c1674 – 1731). He was the son of William Bley, curate at St Mary’s, whose family owned Joyce’s manor. As a fifteen year old, John was sent to London to live with an uncle. He was apprenticed to the brewing trade for seven years, and later set up in business as a distiller, becoming an exceedingly wealthy man. He maintained his East Leake connections, where his grand house was built in two stages (the gable ends are marked 1715 and 1728). He also kept a youthful promise to build a school for the village if he ever made his fortune; this opened in 1724 and served for nearly 150 years, until it became a Board School under the 1870 Education Act. For 48 of those years, the schoolmaster was Richard Hawley, whose name is preserved in Hawley Close. The building itself was replaced in 1877, when what is still in use as part of the Brookside School complex was built.
In his will, apart from bequests to relatives and friends, Bley left £10 to every “husbandman” and £5 to every “cottager” in East Leake, except the “idle family of George Doughty” (what sin of commission or omission he was guilty of is not recorded). He also left £10 for the poor of several neighbouring parishes, and £50 to pay the schoolmaster’s salary for five years. As £10 was the equivalent of a lot more than £1,000 nowadays, these were generous legacies, and it is not surprising that the broad terms of the will were inscribed on a slate plaque on the tomb his friends erected in his memory. After nearly three centuries, this tomb was in a fragile state, and thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund it has recently undergone a conservation programme which included new railings as replacement for the originals which were removed during World War Two.
More about John Bley
During the later part of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, the institutions and forms of modern life developed nationwide – local government, compulsory education, police, welfare systems – and East Leake gradually grew up with the rest of the country. Census and other records show a growing and diversifying population.
Two authors in particular have collected and interpreted material from East Leake’s origins almost to the present day, and fill out the story in much greater detail than here:
- A History of East Leake by Sidney Potter (Rector)
Published by the Thoroton Press,1903.
Reprinted by David Dover, tel 01509 267450
- Two Millennia of Village Life by Owen Wood
Published by East Leake Parish Council, 1999.
Obtainable from the Parish Office, price £4.95
Also, visit the East Leake Local History Association website for details of their publications