This is a just
a very quick review of some of the highlights of Leigh’s
history – there is much more to learn and the Society
is always willing to help researchers wherever it can.
Leigh was mentioned in the Domesday book
as Legra. The entry describes Leigh as being held by 1 freeman
as a manor and as a hide (measure of land) and having 2 villeins
(a tenant who occupied lands on condition of performing services
for the lord of the manor) and 2 bordars (of lower status
than a villain) and 1 plough on the desmesne and half a plough
belonging to the men, and 5 bordars by the water (fishermen)
who held no land. There were also sheep, rounceys (horses),
cows and calves and it was worth 100 shillings.
So Leigh has been a fishing community for
over 1000 years and gradually increased in size from a small
village to become of national importance to seafaring and
trading from the 14th to 18th
centuries. With its strategic position it protected the Thames
from the Dutch, French and Spanish navies and the army used
Leigh for the embarkation of thousands of troops to the continent.
It was a fast route from London to Calais, which was British
for several centuries.
The mariners of Leigh were expert seamen,
captains and admirals, and some became brethren of the Guild
of Trinity House, founded in 1514 by Henry V111, whose area
extended from the Port of London to the Crowstone.
These included Richard Haddock, whose family
provided ten captains and two admirals, who was knighted by
Charles II, after the Battle of Sole Bay, and was made Commissioner
of the Navy. There were other admirals and many captains who
lived in Leigh, such as the Goodlads, Witakers, Salmons, Rogers
and Bonners and many London merchants owned ships which were
built in Leigh, and their masters and crews were Leigh men.
William Camden (1551 -1623) the Elizabethan
historian described Leigh as ‘a proper fine little towne
and verie full of stout and adventurous sailers’.
In 1588 ships were paid to keep watch for
the Armada, and the Spanish Ambassador told Phillip of Spain
that Leigh had built 31 vessels that could be armed. In the
event a number of Leigh ships with Leigh masters went to fight
or assist the English fleet against the Armada.
In the Dutch wars of the 17th century Admiral
Blake brought his damaged fleet to Leigh after losing a fight
with the Dutch in the Medway. He then took his repaired fleet
of 60 ships to beat them at Portland Bill.
During the Napoleonic Wars at least one
Leigh man appears to have been involved in the Nore Mutiny
and may have sailed with Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.
John Wesley came to Leigh on several occasions
and founded the strong Methodist community which survives
to this day.
There was, and is, of course, the fishing
industry which reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries,
but Leigh’s significance as a port declined in the latter
part of the 19th century as the deep water of Leigh Creek
silted up. The oyster and shrimp trade became important in
the 19th century.
The Railway Company, later the London Tilbury and Southend
line, literally cut the Old Town in half in the 1850s when
over one half of the buildings were demolished and we lost
many Tudor mansion houses, which after becoming bricked up,
had became public houses and tenements.
Leigh like many another town lost men during
the Great War and the little fishing and cockling ships and
their valiant volunteer crews of Leighmen went to Dunkirk
in World War Two to help rescue the British Expeditionary
Force from the beaches, some losing their lives at sea, as
with the tragedy of the loss of the Renown.
Illustrious the events and the main characters
may be, but behind them all are the ordinary people of Leigh
who through the centuries have plied their trades and made
the town what it was and what the Leigh Society strives to
The character was summed up eloquently
by a 19th century Methodist Minister of Leigh who said –
The fishermen I came
into contact with at Leigh were old men with no scholarship.
They told me of their thoughts; the things they said within
themselves as they sailed with the stars and with the wild
waters about and beneath them. For sheer poetry I have never
heard more beautiful things than fell from the lips of those
For stories about Leigh and its characters check out our newsletter ‘The Leighway’ and leighlives.co.uk