Good ale has always been popular and it was this feature of Leek (and its ‘good buildings’) that was commented on by a Frenchman in 1716. Inns and alehouses are traditionally the places where ale is best appreciated -in convivial company hosted by the jovial landlord. They have thus been a focus for social activities for centuries and in the early 18th century Defoe noted that it had become something of a fashion for innkeepers to “build a handsome room , for breakfasting, dancing and entertainment. A fashionable luxury of the age which every village for 10 miles around London has something of: Diversions of no sort of use, but to bring the sexes easily into each other’s company.” Defoe disapproved. He thought it gave opportunity for “intrigues and Amours which gave the heartache to parents and husbands” and no doubt he was right!
Despite the disapproval of people like Daniel Defoe the idea spread and by the 1789 Leek’s Swan Inn had acquired an ‘Assembly Room’ where those who could afford the subscription “7s 6d (37 1/2p) for ladies. 10s (5Op) for gentlemen” could entertain themselves and be entertained. In the 1820., the price was equal to three quarters of a skilled silk weaver’s weekly wage and ensured that Leek’s upper classes could exclude the working class from their social gatherings. Even if someone who was neither gentry nor a wealthy tradesman had sufficient money to buy a ticket, he or she would have been prevented from entering the Assembly Room by gentlemen stewards, part of whose function on the night was to exclude the socially unacceptable. The room was similar to those erected elsewhere (Nottingham’s Assembly Room was 67 feet long and 21 feet wide with a gallery for music). The Swan with Two Necks, hosted by Tom Wooliscroft, had offered ‘Good English entertainment’ from at least 1770 though what form this took is not known and the offer may simply have referred to the normal hospitality (good food and drink, and a good bed) provided by English inns.
Leek’s Assemblies were organised by and for the local gentry, the professional classes and successful local business men such as the Debanks, Sneyds, Gaunts, Davenports, Fowlers and Crusos. They were held under the patronage of the wives of local worthies such as the wife of silk manufacturer Richard Badnall, senior of Highfield, Mrs Coupland, a solicitor’s wife, or the wife of the Reverend John Sneyd JP -a different patroness for each event in the season.
“Assemblies” took place at monthly intervals in the autumn and winter months and were advertised in local papers such as the Staffordshire Advertiser, The Derby Mercury and the Macclesfield Courier. The managers, or stewards (the younger sons of the local gentry), also sent invitations by post to subscribers and other ‘suitable persons’. Tickets were available at the Swan Inn bar for non-subscribers and cost ‘gentlemen’ considerably more than ‘ladies’. In 1788, for example, ladies paid 3s (15p) and gentlemen 4s (2Op) but by 1829 these prices had risen to 6s (30p) and 8s 5d (42 1/2p) respectively.
These were glittering events where the district’s social elite could see and be seen and fine dresses and expensive jewellery displayed. Once inside you could sip tea or coffee, enjoy the polite company of Leek’s high society and “from 8 o’clock dancing”. If the practice in Leek followed that in Nottingham, other entertainments such as playing at cards would also take place at tables where those not dancing could sit out.
Christmas occurred in the middle of this ‘season of Assemblies’ and of course Leek society put on an ‘Annual Christmas Ball tickets 5s (25p)’ -usually during the first or second week of January but sometimes in December and these would also (generally) take place at the Swan.
Some ideas of what these occasions were like can be gained from an eye witness account printed in the Macclesfield Courier in 1835. On the 7th of March that year the newspaper carried an advert which announced ‘Leek Charity Ball in Aid of the Completion of the Sunday School to be held at the Swan Inn, Leek on Thursday the 12th March. Dancing commences at 8 o’clock. Gentlemen’s tickets l0s 6d, ladies tickets 7s 6d each. Tea etc included. The joint patronesses of the Ball were Mrs Heathcote, wife of the vicar of Leek and Mrs Fowler of Highfield, widow of a wealthy banker. Thomas Sneyd Esquire (of Belmont), Samuel Phillips Esq. (of Ashenhurst), Mathew Gaunt Esq., Francis Cruso Esq. (a Leek solicitor and brother of John Cruso junior) and Thomas Carr, Esq, were the stewards.
The Ball took place on the 12th March, 1835 and the account of it was, reputedly, contained in a private letter which had ‘fallen out of the post bag between Macclesfield and Congleton’ and had somehow come into the hands of the Courier. Many society families from towns and country seats within a 20 mile radius of Leek attended and their arrival must have been a spectacular sight, even if their many carriages, rattling through Leek’s narrow streets, created something of a traffic problem. Once inside all were welcomed and the proceedings started by an opening ceremony performed by Thomas Sneyd and the “amiable and accomplished” Miss Phoebe Fowler.
According to the writer (T.R.W.) he was not enthusiastic but went “that his mite should not be withheld from so meritorious an object”. In the event he was delighted not only by the lavish decoration of the Assembly Room whose effect on the eye was “striking, novel and grand, laurel leaves mingled with flowers of bright cheerful hue, disposed in graceful festoons, decorated with walls whilst a profusion of bright lights produced an effect which drew involuntary admiration from the dazzled spectators.”
However impressive the inanimate decorations, T.H.W. was much more impressed by the loveliness, gracefulness and elegance of “group upon group of Nature’s best and fairest works” on which his eyes roamed “without saitiety upon attraction rarely adorning a provincial town”. The lady patroness created an air of informality which gave the Ball the “ease and sociability of a private dance” impressing him with “the courtly dignity of one” which so contrasted with the “smiling urbanity of the other”.
“Harmonious and powerful” music was provided on this occasion by “the Leek native band” who persevered until 4.30 am when the Ball concluded with “the good old tune God Save the King” and our eyewitness made his way home (obviously impressed by’ Phoebe Fowler) warbling “My time, Oh ye muses, was happily spent when Phoebe was with me wherever I went.”
The Assembly Room was also used for vocal concerts given by touring London (and other) artists whose contracts sometimes prevented them from giving more than one performance in each place. In April 1830, for example, “one of the most numerous and fashionable audiences ever assembled in the town” were entertained by the choir of St Michael’s Macclesfield, accompanied on the piano with “much skill and neatness” by Mr Mason.
On special occasions such as the coronation of William VI in 1831, bells were rung and guns fired on the Thursday night and bands paraded through the streets. Leek’s high society celebrated by sitting down to “an excellent dinner” at the Swan Inn provided by the host’s (Thomas Tatler) wife. The festivities were presided over by Thomas Griffin, High Constable of Totmanslow who proposed many toasts including four each to the King and Queen and toasts to the Army, and Navy. He also toasted Ministers and members for the county (thanking them for supporting the Reform Bill) and Leek’s magistrates. When speeches weren’t being made “an excellent band” entertained the diners and “favourite glees (songs) were sung” so that “the utmost concord continued until a late hour”. On this occasion the less privileged inhabitants of the town were provided for though not in the Assembly Rooms. All Leek shops, factories and offices were closed and the chief silk manufacturers gave their workmen and boys “an excellent dinner of roast beef, plum pudding and ale”.
The Assembly Rooms were also used for official and semi-official business. The Leek Association for the Prosecution of Felons -a private enterprise initiative to deter crime and ensure offenders were brought to justice- met (in March 1833) at the Swan. John Cruso junior, was President and Thomas Griffin, vice-president and the event was a mixture of business and pleasure. After admitting new members and completing their business (which included the payment of a £15 reward to the Constable of Maidstone in Kent for information which helped convict James Gilbert* for stealing a horse belonging to one of the members -Mr James Salt) the 60 members sat down to a dinner “provided in Mr Tatler’s excellent style”.
By the 1830s, social occasions for the less well off were provided by (amongst other things) meetings of male friendly societies held at the Swan, the Red Lion and the Blacks Head and a female society held at the Duke of York. In August 1833 the various societies walked, with flags and bands, in procession through the streets of Leek to the church. After listening to a suitable sermon, they returned to their inns and sat down to dinner. In the evening all the groups met again and “exercised themselves in a merry dance to a late hour” -continuing the next day “with equal spirit”.
There were many other occasions too when Leek folk took the opportunity to eat and drink well at the Swan. Inns change hands from time to time. Sometimes the innkeeper moves to another inn in the town -as Samuel Braddock did in 1820 when he left the Swan to take over the Red Lion, Leek with its stabling for 40 horses and the custom of the Defiance and other London to Manchester coaches- sometimes they die and sometimes they go bankrupt as Sam. Braddock did in 1828.
Whatever the reason the new host tries to encourage old customers to continue to give him their business and to attract others and so -in the 1830s- the new host (landlord) might arrange a housewarming party. The Swan with Two Necks, “a commercial inn and hotel”, changed hands in late 1834 and the landlord (a Mr Gorman) a housewarming took place on New Year’s Day. It wasn’t a party for everybody but strictly “high (Leek) society” affair with John Cruso junior in charge supported by the Reverend William Badnall (Chaplain to the Duke of Cambridge) and Thomas Griffin Esq. Alter the usual loyal toasts, the health of John Cruso, senior, was proposed and then that of the Reverend Badnall (son or Richard Badnall, formerly of Highfield and brother of John Cruso junior’s wife Mary) who, in replying, made a speech of “great eloquence and feeling amidst the plaudits of the company”. Finally the company praised their host before breaking up at an early hour”.
The Swan Inn has a long history and still provides the convivial atmosphere which Gorman and the landlords before him sought to create. The Assembly Room erected to serve Leek’s social elite, now serves all Leek folk. Although a little timeworn, it is being used in much the same - though much more democratic- way than it was in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like the Inn, it is an important part of Leek’s heritage and one which. hopefully, will eventually be fully restored -internally and externally- to its former glory.