The Leopard, Burslem - A Rich History to a Bitter End

· 11 min read
The Leopard, Burslem - A Rich History to a Bitter End
The Leopard in 2013 before it's restoration - Raven Photography

I think many of us expected this; the end of another heritage building that was lost to fire. It seems to be the way in which many of our old buildings end their life in Stoke-on-Trent. So much so actually, that it is a morbid running joke across the city.

The Leopard Hotel in 2013 before its refurbishment - Raven Photography

However, this one has hit everyone exceptionally hard. The Leopard Hotel in Burslem has been a social hub for over 300 years that we know of. The moment this pub was sold to private developers we all knew this was the end.

So let's take a look back through some of this pub's varied past and remember the history that is now lost thanks to mismanagement, lack of funding and a complete lack of care for Stoke-on-Trent's heritage buildings.

In 1816 Enoch Wood commissioned a map to be made of Burslem circa 1750-1759. He paid £3 to Mr McPhail to scale the town onto a sketch. This map is based on the recollections of John Lovatt, John Fletcher and others who were around 80 years old

The 1700s - The Origins of the Pub

There aren't many early records of the pub, so what I have found may not be 100% correct and if anyone has any early records I would love to see them!

In 1711 Ellen Wedgwood, who was a distant cousin of Josiah Wedgwood, purchased the two cottages that were on either side of her own. The cottages were built in the early 1600s and Ellen knocked them both through to her own to create a large space which she used to establish an inn, which she called The Leopard Inn.

On Enoch Wood's map of Burslem in 1750-1759, you can see Ellen's Leopard Inn, comprised of the three cottages, marked on the map with a number 6.

This painting was in The Leopard, showing the meeting between the four men in a back room in The Leopard in 1765

The Famous Meeting of Minds

The moment most remembered at The Leopard is the famous and well recorded meeting between Josiah Wedgwood, James Brindley, Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Bentley to discuss the creation of The Trent and Mersey Canal, the first sod of which was cut by Josiah Wedgwood in 1766 and Brindley carried it away in a barrow.

Wedgwood wrote in a letter that he met and dined with James Brindley in March 1765.

On Friday last I dined with Mr Brindley, the Duke of Bridgewater's engineer, after which we had a meeting at The Leopard on the subject of a Navigation from Hull... To Burslem — Josiah Wedgwood - 11th March 1765
The Leopard Hotel in Burslem in 1903. You can see the coach entrance which lead to the stables. In the 1800s this was a busy coaching inn with stabling for over 50 horses.
The licence for the inn is changed from Mary Lees to James Norris, The Staffordshire Advertiser - 30th March 1872
A view of the additional bedrooms at the back of the pub, taken from the roof of the town hall in 2015

The 1800s

By the early 1800s, The Leopard was in a poor state and was owned by a vicar from Porthill.

Its fortunes were soon to change though, as in the 1830s the inn was re-fronted and given a new lease of life. It soon became one of the major coaching houses in the area and at its peak had stabling for over 50 horses to the rear. As well as being a coaching inn it was also a coach station, parcel depot and ticket office on the main post coach express route which operated from Liverpool to London via The Potteries and Manchester.

This importance as an inn catapulted The Leopard into being a social hub in the area. Local newspapers and adverts directed people to apply for jobs at The Leopard and correspondence were posted and collected there.

This led Mary Lees to purchase The Leopard Inn in 1850. Mary Lees was a widow of means who owned a few other properties.

In 1857 there was a grand celebration to open the new town hall for Burslem and Mary Leese was commissioned to create an incredible feast, featuring 5 courses and over 100 different dishes.

The creation of The Potteries Loop Line was a cause for celebration and that celebration was held in The Leopard on Thursday the 21st of July 1870. Drinks were had to mark to the cutting of the first sod by Mr John Watkins, the Chief Bailiff.

In 1872 The Leopard Inn was purchased by James Norris, who was a local brewer. On the other side of the road to the pub, Norris had built a brewery and a bottling plant, next to the new town hall. So it made good business sense to have a pub so close to his brewery.

It was Norris who expanded The Leopard into the large hotel that became known as 'The Savoy of The North'. The inn had a large four-storey extension built to the rear of the original building which housed 57 bedrooms spread across three floors. The ground floor housed a large function room and kitchens to cater to the guests.

This was when the alleged tunnels were dug under the road to transport the beer directly from the brewery across the road to the pub.

The new Leopard Hotel soon became one of the leading hotels in the area. Leading to many famous and influential people of the time staying at the hotel, including HG Wells in 1888.

Unfortunately, this newfound fame and fortune were not to last.

There was a devastating fire at The Leopard in 1910, The Leominster News - Nov 4 1910

The Early 1900s

By 1901 the census shows that the licensee was Mr Thomas Amson and his wife Helena. By this point, the hotel was still a social hub for the area and a good employer, as is shown by the servants and workers on the censuses over the last few decades. There were housemaids and cooks, ostlers and waitresses, barmen and more. The hotel was an extremely busy and well-known place to stay, go out for a meal or even just call in for a pint.

However, it was not to last. On the 4th of November 1910 at around half past two in the afternoon, a fire was discovered by a local policeman that was working his beat in the marketplace. At this point in time, the landlord was Mr George Pople, and he lived at the hotel with his wife Bessie.

This was the 1911 census for The Leopard.

George Pople - Head Married Male 58 1853 Licensed victualler
Bessie Pople - Wife Married Female 56 1855
Edward Walker Berry - Boarder Single Male 28 1883 Motor engineer
Lillian Raybould - Servant Single Female 25 1886 Hotel barmaid
Elizabeth Dawson - Servant Single Female 33 1878 Hotel waitress
Emily Deuseilla Nolan - Servant Single Female 20 1891 Hotel chambermaid
Lizzie Simpson - Servant Widow Female 41 1870 Hotel cook
Elizabeth Gibson - Servant Single Female 20 1891 Hotel kitchen maid Staff
Arthur Barley - Servant Single Male 35 1876 Hotel barman
Thomas Dempster Adie - Servant Single Male 20 Hotel boots

The fire had spread quickly through the hotel before help arrived. Everyone managed to get out alive, although there were some injuries and the building was reported to have had considerable damage before the fire was put out.

Interestingly there is a little nugget in The Sentinel in 1947 that on the 18th of April Colonel Wilfred Barratt Green was fined for having no lights on his car, but the address he gives as that of The Leopard.

Captain Green, as he was later known, was a very well-known person in Burslem. He was an English World War I flying ace credited with seven aerial victories. He was born and bred in Burslem as the second son of Thomas Seaman and Louisa Green. His father was a grocer, baker, and provision dealer, who served as a member of the borough council, and as a councillor. After the war and his father's death, he became the managing director of the family business Messrs. T. S. Green and Sons. Ltd and a prominent figure in Burslem.

Census of the time show him and his family living in Nile Street at the time, so it is a mystery why he was staying at The Leopard and gave it as his address at this time, as there are no records showing that he owned it or lived there, it must be assumed that he was just staying as a guest temporarily.

Sentinel Fri 18th April 1947
The Evening Sentinel - Monday, September 15th 1947
The Leopard Inn in 1960, The Burslem Scheme in 1960

The Late 1900s

By 1956 the hotel had declined in popularity and there was just no use for all of the bedrooms at the back. So the decision was made to close them off, to save money on heating and lighting, and just go back to using the front rooms as bedrooms, although they did keep the ground floor open including the function room.

Bass Breweries purchased the pub in 1965 and renovated the restaurant, rebranding it as The Arnold Bennet Suite. They also revamped the pub, giving it a new lease on life.

The Leopard was listed on the 19th April 1972 as a Grade II listed building as 'The Leopard Public House, 21, Market Place'.

The rediscovered bedrooms at the back of The Leopard in 2013
The tunnels marked out in the cellar of The Leopard

The 2000s to Modern Day

The Leopard sprung to fame in 2007 when owner Neil Crisp re-discovered the 50-plus bedrooms at the back that had been lost to time and forgotten about.

When the rooms were re-opened they were found in the state they were left in, albeit in a worse condition. The plan was to re-open the rooms and create a hotel once more. But the cost was too high and these plans never went ahead.

The pub went onto international fame later in 2007 when it was featured on Most Haunted, a very popular TV show about ghost hunting. A multi-part episode showed the ghost hunters staying in the pub, in the basement and in the abandoned rooms, with many reports over the years of ghosts and this exposure, which led to a huge rise in popularity for the pub. Ghost hunts became a popular pastime and people came from all over the country to dine and drink at the pub and to even stay overnight in the derelict rooms and cellar.

The pub was once more a social hub for the area, becoming well known for its good food, friendly staff and its rise into a great live music venue. Local bands and musicians, comedians and parties were regulars in the function room on the ground floor of the rear extension and the pub enjoyed many years of being a warm and welcoming place once more.

In 2013 a £1m project helped to restore The Leopard, including roof repairs, structural repairs, historic fabric restoration and floor space brought back into use. The Leopard had £215,000 invested into it.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020, though following a downturn in Burslem's nightlife and lack of funding for shops, facilities and more, meant that unfortunately The Leopard never again reopened its doors.

Sharon Crisp, the last licensee, had run the pub for many years. Sharing a love of the history and the paranormal activity of The Leopard, she battled with the upkeep of the pub until the pandemic, unfortunately, closed the doors permanently.

In 2021 the pub was sold to a developer, Daneets Investments Ltd, which purchased it for £222,000 on January 22, 2021.

Daneets Investments is based in Cheadle Hulme in Stockport and has two directors, Danny Singh and Jaganjeet Rathore, who are also the directors of the sister company Daneets Developments Limited.

According to its website, Daneets Developments is 'an experienced and proven property developer in the northwest', which covers 'every aspect of property developing from sourcing, buying, planning applications to full refurbishments, lettings and sales'.

The plan for the pub was to restore the rooms in the back and convert them into luxury apartments and to re-open the pub at the front with a new license.

An application by community group Our Burslem - which was approved by Stoke-on-Trent City Council on February 17 2021 - means that the building is now an 'Asset of Community Value', which makes it the first pub in Stoke on Trent to be awarded the title.

The Leopard in 2001 - Mr Brian Peach
Fire rips through The Leopard - Andy Mackay

2022 - Drugs, Fire and the End of an Era

On the 17th of January 2022, police officers found a large cannabis farm in the pub. It was said that it posed a significant fire risk to the pub and its neighbouring buildings.

Never was a truer word spoken, as on the 22nd of January a huge fire tore through the beautiful, historic building. The blaze burned for hours, with over 40 firefighters tackling it.

The building has been left in a complete state of ruin. Will it be saved? Will it be demolished? It will probably sit empty and roofless for another 10 years before it gets demolished and some horrible houses or office building is built in their place.

I hope, I really hope that it can be saved, and restored in some way. Time will tell, but our city does not have a very good track record where buildings like this are concerned.

So my hope is that the people of Stoke-on-Trent can create change. Could The Leopard be the catalyst that leads to the saving of our heritage? Will its sacrifice be worth it? Can we stand up as a city and say no more, we will lose no more of our buildings to a lack of funding, absentee owners and a council that does not care!

Time will tell, but we should not let the loss of this important historical city landmark be in vain.

Art by Jenna Goodwin (Author)

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