Lees: a brief history

A brief history of Lees by John Kirkbride

The old days
IT may be tempting to believe that Lees doesn’t have quite the same history and heritage of some of the other Saddleworth villages – but that really isn’t the case.

In fact, there are at least five Grade II Listed structures in Lees, including Leesbrook Mill, Wellfield House, St Thomas’ Church, Lees War Memorial and Hey Lane Mill, better known as Acorn Mill.

St Thomas the Apostle Leesfield church

And yes, like all the other villages, Lees began life as a collection of small hamlets, which were ecclesiastically linked (I think that means joined by religious ties) to Ashton-under-Lyne. The name is believed to have derived from John de Leghes (I would have pronounced that ‘leggez’, but never mind) who back in the 14th century was boss of the district.

Lees was obviously a lot more rural in those days, as was Oldham itself, and most of those who lived there fed themselves by farming. Some managed to boost their income by hand-loom weaving, and behind the Village Pizza off Mellor Street there’s an area called Weavers Fold. The houses are new, but the name is a fairly clear reference to this ancient profession.

Leesbrook Mill

In the late 1700s someone discovered a natural spring in Lees and by the beginning of the 1800s water from Lees Spa was so popular it was being bottled and sold around the country. It wasn’t oil, of course, and didn’t make the owner a Beverley Hillbillies-style millionaire, but it does explain the existence of Spa Lane, Spring Lane and Spring Close.

Sadly, plans to turn Lees into a spa town went down the pan following the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the cotton mills.

In 1819 Lees weavers made themselves a flag and marched through the village in political protest.

Lees high Street today

A week later a group from Lees travelled to Manchester to take part in a public demonstration calling for the reform of parliamentary representation. Little did they know that 200 years later somebody would be making a movie of it. The ill fated gathering they’d attended became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
The late 1800s saw cotton spinning arrive in the area, and a total of 11 mills were built for the purpose in Lees Urban District. Naturally this resulted in big changes as the ‘village’ quickly became much more urbanised. It was at this point that modern day Lees was born, and this small but bustling outpost of Saddleworth has continued to expand ever since.

Listed in Lees
Built in 1848, St Thomas’ Church in Leesfield is a Grade II listed building. The tower was added in 1855 and the organ chamber in 1885, while further minor improvements were made in 1889. The positive news is that it’s still a place of local worship for those who need it.

Lees War Memorial is also a Grade II listed structure, erected by public subscription in 1921 to commemorate those who died in the Great War. According to the inscription it was re-erected in 1949, as a tribute to those who fell in World War II.

One of the most imposing historical buildings in Lees is the Lees Brook Mill, another of the village’s Grade II listed properties. It seems to me all the more impressive due to the fact that it’s still in operation. It’s not a cotton mill anymore, but it does supply some plush playthings for the toy industry, so there’s probably some cotton in there somewhere (or is it all polysomething-or-other these days)?

If you look closely at the mill you’ll see a blue plaque on the wall, dedicated to local girl Annie Kenney, who worked at Lees Brook when it was absolutely full of cotton. Which leads me neatly on to the next section of our brief history of Lees.

Annie Kenney

Historical figure
Ann Kenney was born in Springhead in 1879 and at the age of 10 she was working part-time at the cotton mill as well as attending school. By the time she was 13 she was a full-time employee at the mill.

Despite her working class background, Annie’s mother encouraged her 12 children (11 of whom made it to adulthood) to read books and talk about the issues of the day. On Sunday evenings she would read them stories. “They all seemed to be about London life among the poor,” Annie later said.

Annie worked at Lees Brook Mill for 15 years, losing a finger in the process, and was very much involved in trade union activities. In 1905, after hearing suffragettes Christabel Pankhurst and Theresa Billington speak, Annie Kenney first learned about the crusade to secure ‘Votes for Women’.

She agreed to arrange a meeting for women factory workers and was invited to tea at the home of the Pankhursts. That summer she travelled around Lancashire, speaking on the subject of women’s suffrage.

At a political campaign meeting in Manchester on Friday, October 13, Annie and Christabel asked delegates if they would make women’s suffrage a government measure if they were elected. The question was ignored more than once, and when Annie unfurled a banner that she’d hidden in her clothes, the pair were dragged from the meeting.

In order to ensure arrest, Christabel spat at a policeman, and she and Annie spent seven days in Strangeways after refusing to pay a fine. The story of the incident also appeared in The Times and the battle lines were drawn.

Annie’s struggles in the cause of women’s suffrage are pretty well documented, and she’s recognised as one of the leading protagonists in the drive to secure votes for women.

Speaking of the day in 1918 when women won the vote, she said: “Though I had no money, I had reaped a rich harvest of joy, laughter, romance, companionship and experience that no money can buy.”

The unveiling of Annie Kenney’s statue in Parliament Square, December 2018.

When Annie died in 1953 her ashes were scattered on Saddleworth Moor. In 2018 an impressive statue of her was unveiled outside the Old Town Hall in the centre of Oldham and as far as I know (and do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) that’s something no other Saddleworth village can boast.

Lees today
Still comparatively rural in aspect, Lees has continued to grow and evolve following its expansion during the industrial revolution. There’s no shortage of pubs, music venues, restaurants and independent businesses, and, for my money, that’s exactly what you want at the heart of a community like Lees.

Set in the midst of the Medlock Valley, Leesbrook Nature Park is a haven for wildlife, and offers some wonderful walks for both locals and visitors. True, it might be raining, but if you’re interested in slugs that could be a bonus. There are playscapes for kids, and the area’s also popular with cyclists and horse riders.

With the arrival of the Co-op some years ago to complement the independent retailers, Lees became a village where you could get pretty much everything you needed. From a haircut to a hand saw or a Viennese slice to a vindaloo, if you can’t find it in Lees, you’re probably not in Lees.

Co-op Lees

If Lees had become a spa town all those years ago instead of a cotton spinning community, it’s hard to say what it would have looked like now. Prettier perhaps, but as we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Besides, if they’d built spa hotels instead of cotton mills, would Annie Kenney ultimately have achieved what she did?

The truth is, Lees has all the bustle of a thriving community, (or as thriving as anywhere can be in these difficult days) and is a prominent member of the Saddleworth village club. And that’s something the village’s residents can be genuinely proud of.

4 Replies to “Lees: a brief history”

  1. The history of Lee’s was very interesting. I have family life ing in Lees/Soringhead and it is s lovely area. Well done.

  2. Top article. Well researched, informative and lively written. I never knew Lees was so interesting.

  3. Does anyone have knowledge of an old mansion on Malta St or Back Malta St. This was on the also seen on Vigo St that has now a new estate on. I remember it vividly when I were a child.

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