Landscape with buildings : a North Staffordshire study based on the medieval parish of Leek
Leek, with 53,102 acres and nineteen townships, was the largest of Staffordshire's medieval parishes, and one for which an earlier origin- has been suggested. Set in the foothills of the Pennines it formed part of the Leek and Macclesfield Forest where, in the early thirteenth century, Ranulph, Earl of Chester, established both the market town of Leek and the Cistercian abbey of Dieulacres. Altitude, high rainfall and a short growing season made it a pastoral area with a settlement pattern of small hamlets and isolated farms. It was an `open' parish with huge areas of waste, and population growth between 1563 and 1666 was well above the national average. The absence of wealth is reflected in the survival rate of early houses. Only five pre-date 1500, and sixteenth century remains are small and generally fragmentary. In the seventeenth century national growth worked in favour of the pastoral farmer. Leek's cattle market became one of the most important in the county, and a newfound prosperity manifested itself in the rural areas in good quality stone housing. The houses of the gentry and yeoman farmers survive in considerable numbers from this period, and form a major element in this study. The houses of the poor have been more elusive. Pastoral farming was increasingly supplemented by industry. Iron smelting had been present from the Middle Ages, but faded away in the eighteenth century. The making of buttons and silk goods were established in the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth century saw a modest expansion of urban wealth, and a new generation of houses built for dyers, button-men, `mohair' merchants and lawyers. The button industry dwindled in the face of competition from Birmingham, but the silk industry survived to become industrialized in the nineteenth century, when the market town was engulfed in a sea of mill buildings and workers housing.