Leonard Lead


A Shropshire Charcoal Burner in the Industrial Revolution

 by Peter Lead, BA. FRGS, AR HistS

Journal  No 10 (1982),  pp. 3-9

In legend and folklore the charcoal burner sounds the forlorn note of faerie, and in reality the men who once carried on this lapsed trade, remain just as anonymous. As Mary Hill, the County Archivist for Shropshire, has said:

"It is so rare to find anything positive about this profession, which took its members all over the area, wherever coppice wood was ready for cutting" [1].

In view of this statement the records that have survived of the life of Leonard Lead are especially valuable, as they provide a rare insight into the life and work of an eighteenth century charcoal burner, whilst at the same time they provide a case study of how one handicraftsman adapted himself to changing economic conditions. The character of the Industrial Revolution as a human achievement should never be overlooked, nor should the individual contributions of working-people be neglected.

Leonard Lead was born at Wellington in Shropshire, in 1755, the son of Leonard Lead (1731 - 1807) and Sarah Lead (née Brown). The trade of charcoal burning was well established in the family, as a letter written by Leonard in 1795 indicates:

"for generations back, both of fathers side and mothers, have followed the above business (of) coating and cording line" [2].

The family appears to have originated in Scotland, although the name appears in the south-eastern part of England by the early part of the sixteenth century. Odd references are found in parish registers throughout the Midlands during the seventeenth century, which is in keeping with the family trade. The first mention of the name in the Wellington area, concerns Leonard's grandfather, who was baptised at Wrockwardine in 1709, and was described as the son of William Lead : "wood-collier of Wrockwardine Wood" [3]. Subsequently, there are numerous entries relating to the family in the Wellington registers. The names of some individuals are found only once, which suggests that they are simply passing through when they had need to call on the services of the church.

There has long been a tradition in the family that William Lead of Wrockwardine Wood had some business connection with Abraham Darby I and his Coalbrookdale works, although documentary evidence is not forthcoming. Dr. Raistrick has outlined the attractions which the Coalbrookdale site had for Abraham Darby, among which he includes the still well wooded nature of the area, so that supplies of charcoal would be available for as long as Darby had need of them [4]. Darby's innovation in the use of coke for iron smelting does not appear to have affected the local demand for charcoal, and this is reflected in the continued presence of the Lead family in the Wellington area. Only in the period 1750 - 1760 does the number of entries in the Wellington registers fall off, and members of the family are hereafter found further afield in pursuit of their trade. Only three furnaces, outside Coalbrookdale, are known for certain to have attempted to smelt with coke before 1750, and this, taken with the fact that there was no printed account of the process, would account for the continuing demand in Shropshire for charcoal.

During the 1750s new coke furnaces were put into blast in the Coalbrookdale district, at Willey, Ketley, Horsehay, Lightmoor and Madeley Wood. As a response to these local developments, something like a half of the family left the area, although Leonard's immediate family continued to use it as a centre for their activities. Charcoal burning was a seasonal occupation, and during the winter months the men pursued secondary occupations; like John Lead, who is identified as a baker in the Newcastle-under-Lyme registers of 1768 [5]. Leonard himself had a secondary occupation, that of a clerk, and in 1795 he was to advertise for a position of that kind[6].

By the time Leonard began to practice his trade, sometime between 1776 and 1780, it was necessary for him to operate in the adjacent parts of Staffordshire, to the north of the Black Country. At Wheaton Aston he established his home, after his marriage to Mary Bailey at Lapley on 3rd December 1781,and this was to remain the family home until 1795 when he removed to Derby [7].

Derbyshire was at this time rather backward in the nature of its iron industry, so much so that the first coke furnaces were not erected in the county until 1780, when those at Morley Park were put into blast [8]. The opportunities in this county were therefore more promising for the charcoal burner, and in addition there was a healthy demand from other industries in the county. One of these was the pottery industry, which required charcoal primarily for use in firing the enamelling muffles. Professor W.H.B. Court has written that, by 1788, there were no longer any charcoal furnaces in Staffordshire, and so it is unlikely to have been purely coincidental that in the same year Leonard began his business association with William Duesbury of the Derby China Factory [9].

This association was formalised in an agreement, dated 20th May 1790,which, together with six letters written by Leonard between 1788 and 1795, provide a rare fund of information on the business of charcoal burning at this time [10]. A study of these papers reveal that the main concern was the scarcity of seasoned wood, a problem which had beset charcoal burners since the early years of the sixteenth century. Joseph Soresby, who seems to have acted as

a purchasing agent for Duesbury, wrote to his client in February 1792, advising him to accept cord wood at almost any price as it was "an article that was not likely to drop in value". To overcome his difficulties, Duesbury was not above sharp practice and this often proved to Leonard's disadvantage. Such an incident led to Leonard writing to Duesbury to complain that:

"They don’t put the wood up in Shottle so well as they do at Grangefield, and me taking my tools so fare and you Removd me not letting me finish the job, it will be very much out of my way. It wilt Entirely Spoile my Somers work and I ham very certain it will not be to your advantage to part with the wood above any other" [11].

However, on the 11th May 1795 the Derby line of the Derby Canal and Railway was opened for the conveyance of coal [12] , and this development caused Duesbury to abandon the use of charcoal in the firing of his kilns.

Duesbury had obviously been considering this move for some time, as in April of that year Leonard had drafted an advertisement for inclusion in the Derby Mercury

"I Haveing Been all my Time Brought up in the coating and cording line, Should sute as clerk at a Forge, Being well verst in the workmanship and measurement of cordwood. This last Seaven years back I have Coald for Mr. W. Duesbury of Derby. But he has Quite left of useing charcole. I for Generations back Both of Fathers Side and Mothers have Followd the above mentioned Business therefore if such a person is wanted my Carector will Be undeniable from my present Master likewise from several Others - I Ham Sir your Servant, Leonard Lead".

The day before the opening of the Derby Canal, Leonard had written to Duesbury asking if he could find him additional employment, in order that he could continue to support his family and at the same time not be forced into seeking employment elsewhere. Some sort of temporary employment had obviously been found for him around the factory, but Leonard was really looking for employment as a clerk or as a book-keeper [13].

The result of this appeal is unknown, but he continued to be employed at the Derby China Factory until October 1796. At this time William Billingsley left Derby to become a partner in the china factory at Pinxton, and Leonard was among the small band of Derby workpeople who accompanied him [14]. At Pinxton, Leonard acted as a woodcutter and charcoal burner to the factory. He first appears in the factory wage book on 23rd December 1796, when he was paid 1s 6d in regard to his expenses; and at the same time his daily wage was recorded as being 2s 4d. In addition to his wages, he had the occupancy of one of the seven cottages, which comprised part of the factory buildings. The whole of Leonard's family accompanied him to Pinxton; and by March 1797 his eldest son, John, then aged thirteen, had begun working in the factory. John's wage as an apprentice flower painter was 4d per day, which was increased to 6d in August 1798. According to George Mellor, who was employed at the factory at this time, both of Leonard's sons, John and Leonard Junior,were apprenticed at the factory. In fact both brothers are mentioned in an entry in the Factory Book for February 1799, when "last payments" were made to them. Meanwhile, their father had left the factory in March 1798, when the following entry appeared:

'24th March 1798, Leonard Lead: 7½ days at 2s 4d. (This is the Last day at the Factory for Leonard Lead, who has acted as woodcutter. Richard Irishman now becomes the woodcutter.) £0 17s 6d[15].

Leonard had in fact returned to Derby, where he had found employment as a clerk to William Harrison, a Derby whitesmith, who was to continue to employ him until 1810. His sons meanwhile completed shortened apprenticeships at the Derby factory, which had passed into the control of Michael Kean, following Duesbury's death in 1797. The younger Leonard had to complete an apprenticeship of only six years, which he did at the age of nineteen in 1805 [16]. He was to remain there until 1848, when the factory closed, unlike his brother, John, who went to the Worcester China Works in 1810 [17].

It has already been stated that the opening of the Derby Canal had been responsible for Duesbury's decision to abandon the use of charcoal, in favour of coal; therefore, it seems ironical that the canal company should become Leonard's new employer. For in 1810 he was appointed, at the age of fifty-five, as the Company's Agent and Toll Collector at Little Eaton [18]. This was the place where the Company's railways, or "Gangway" to use the local term, met with the Derby Canal and as such was the focal point. of this system. This tramroad has been dealt with adequately elsewhere, but the records concerning the employment of Leonard on the line were considered to be unique by the late Bertram Baxter [19].

The vacancy at Little Eaton had arisen through the death of Thomas Ward, who had held the position of Toll Collector and Agent at Little Eaton since the line had opened in 1795. Leonard was to receive the same salary of £40 per annum, plus the occupancy of the Agent's house and garden at Little Eaton. Since 1809 the duties of the Agent had included a general responsibility for the maintenance of the railway, a duty specified in 1811, in an order that he was:

"to go up the Railway to Smithy House at least three times every week to examine the state of the railway and to keep the labourers to their work and that he write dorm his observations thereon in a book to be kept for the purpose and to send the same to the Committee previously to every meeting"[20].

The Committee of the Company do not appear to have found Leonard to be a completely satisfactory employee, for in January 1812 he was "displaced from his situation"; only to be reinstated in the following month as the reason for his dismissal was not of "the most urgent". However, he had to give the Committee an assurance that he would "in future pay the utmost attention to his duty". In the following year his duties were extended to include actual labour on the railway and not merely to supervise the labourers, who were proving troublesome at that time. Mention is made of their tendencies to leave off work and wander off, as and when the mood took them [21].

The new commitment to active labour on the railway necessitated his absence from Long Eaton for long periods of time, and during his absence his wife had to carry out his duties. She did not receive any payments from the Company, who instead paid Leonard £5 per annum for "his wife's trouble". Despite his wife's assistance he still had to keep detailed records of traffic on the railway and the tolls paid; in addition to this he still had to deal with matters more in keeping with his role as agent. Nowadays we are used to seeing trackside allotments. However, they had their predecessors, for in 1818 Leonard was required to approach an Abraham Whittaker who had a garden by the railway and "promised to pay to the Company four shillings for one years rent on the first day of June next" [22].

Leonard Lead died on the 6th February 1821, aged sixty-six years of age. Within six days a new Agent had been appointed and Mary Lead, his widow, was granted a gratuity of £5 and required to vacate the Agent's house at Little Eaton [23]. She went to live with her son, Leonard junior, at Little Chester near Derby, where she died in January 1831 [24].


The evidence of Leonard Lead's career illustrates a series of distinct changes in the nature of his terms of employment. Firstly, he pursued the family trade, within a definite framework of family co-operation [25], much as the three preceding generations of the family had done. His response to changing economic and technological conditions in Shropshire and South Staffordshire had been inter-regional migration; which was not a new expedient in the family, for his great-grandfather had settled at Wrockwardine after such a migratory movement in 1709. Duesbury's agreement with Leonard in 1790 [26] marks a distinct change in the pattern of his occupational activities, for  it effectively tied him to Duesbury's interest. It is the sort of regulation which was necessary for the efficient working of a factory based industry, but from Leonard’s point of view it must have only been one step from the standing of a wage-earner. Leonard's employment by Duesbury in an unspecified capacity; his employment at the Pinxton factory; and his employment by William Harrison comprise the second stage, that of the fixed wage- earner. The third was that of a salaried person, which he achieved by entering the employment of the Derby Canal Company in 1810.

Professor P. Mathias has written that : "Migrant labour (during the Industrial Revolution) flowed naturally to the 'pressure points' of the economy, where demand for labour was greatest and the supply in particular categories of jobs most lacking" [27]. Leonard's movements are in keeping with this statement, although the case of a charcoal burner involves consideration of certain factors, which have already been mentioned. The Lead family appear to lend themselves to a study of migratory movements in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on account of the comparative rarity of the surname. This will be something of a mammoth task as references in parish registers are well scattered throughout the Midlands, which is only to be expected from a family engaged in the trade of charcoal burning. Such a study would represent an exceptional case study rather than the norm, but in order that the human dimension of the movement we call the Industrial Revolution can be more fully understood, it will be necessary to undertake such projects of research. Leonard Lead was a craftsman and one who lived through some of the most violent convulsions of the Industrial Revolution; he was one of many, but is distinguished from the myriad by the fact that his life is well documented [28].


The writer is indebted to the many people who helped with the collection of information on which this paper is based; especially to John Leonard Lead, Mary C. Hill, David Coke-Steel and Mr. R.E. Martin. He also wishes to thank the staff at Derby Local History Library, Shrewsbury Public Library, William Salt Library, Stafford, Shropshire Record Office and the Derbyshire Record Office.



Agreement between William Duesbury and Leonard Lead

Memorandum of an agreement made this Twentieth day of May one thousand seven hundred and ninety Between William Duesbury of Derby in the County of Derby, China Manufacturer of the one part and Leonard Lead of Belper in the said county of Derby, Wood Collier of the other part.

First the said Leonard Lead for the Considerations hereinafter mentioned doth hereby agree and promise to and with the said William Duesbury that he the Said Leonard Lead shall and will from time to time so Long as the said William Duesbury shall chose to employ him for that purpose burn and manufacture and convert into Charcoal in a good and workmanlike manner all the Cordwood which the said William Duesbury shall have occasion to have converted into Charcoal and which he shall give order and Directions to the said Leonard Lead so to do accordingly And shall also not nor will during the time he shall so continue in the Service of the said William Duesbury work or employ himself with the burning or manufacturing of Charcoal for any other Person or Persons When he shall have in hand for the said William Duesbury or on that Account delay or put off the converting into Charcoal or Cordwood belonging to the said William Duesbury without his consent being first obtained in writing but on the contrary shall and will so soon as he shall receive the said William Duesbury's Directions for the converting of parcel or parcels of Cordwood and by no means delay the work on pretence of any other Engagements.  In Consideration of which the said William Duesbury doth hereby agree to and with the said Leonard Lead that he the said William Duesbury shall and will well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said Leonard Lead Seven Pence per Quarter for every Quarter of Charcoal which the said Leonard Lead shall manufacture in a good and workmanlike manner as aforesaid such Charcoal to be measured when delivered at the manufactory of the said William Duesbury in Derby aforesaid And for the true performance of this Agreement each of the said parties bindeth himself his heirs Executors and Administrators unto the other his Executors, Administrators unto the other his Executors Administrators and assigns in the penal sum of Fifty Pounds of lawful British Money.

As Witness their Hands the day and year aforesaid ---­

Witness                                     Wm. Duesbury

Nathl. Edwards                              Leond. Lead.



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[1] Mary C. Hill, personal communication (18 November 1968).

[2] Duesbury Papers (hereafter Duesbury), Local History Library, Wardwick, Derby. Uncatalogued letter, dated 6 April 1795.

[3] Wrockwardine Parish Registers; 21 November 1709

[4] Iron-Founders: The Darbys and Re-printed by David and Charles, Newton

Arthur Raistrick, Dynasty of Coalbrookdale, London, 1953. Abbot, 1970; page 25.

[5] Burial of Elizabeth Lead, daughter of Jonathan Lead, 6th June 1768.

[6] Duesbury, 6 April 1795.


[7] C.B. Williams, personal communication (12 November 1968) Information from the Lapley Parish Registers, 1767-1810.

[8] Frank Nixon, The Industrial Archaeology of Derbyshire, Newton Abbot, 1969, page 34.

[9] W.H.B. Court, The Rise of the Midland Industries, 1600-1838. London, 1938, page 179.

[10] Duesbury: the first letter was written from Hanley (Handley) Wood, near Belper on 29th August 1788 and the last at Derby on 10th May 1795.

[11] . ibid : letters dated 5 February 1792 (from Belper) and "May 1792"

[12] Derby Canal Company, Minute Book :

[13] Duesbury : letters dated 6 April and 10th May 1795.

[14] John Haslem, The Old Derby China Factory, London, 1876 : see section entitled "The Pinxton China Factory".

[15] David Coke-Steel, personal communication (27th May 1969) : the Coke-Steel family of Trusley Old Hall, Sutton-on-the-Hill, have in their possession entries for 11th August 1798, the Factory Book from the Pinxton works; 23rd February 1799 and 24th March 1798.

[16] E. Gore, personal communication (16 September Miss Gore states that he "joined the 'Fox and Owl’ benefit society in 1805", having completed his apprenticeship.

[17] Derby Mercury, 30th January 1856, page 5.

[18] Derby Canal Company, Minute Book: 26th Feb 1810.

[19] J. Ripley, The Little Eaton Gangway, Lingfield, 1973. Bertram Baxter, Stone Blocks and Iron Rails (Tramroads), Newton Abbott, 1966, pages 75, 93 - 94.

[20] Derby Canal Company, Minute Book : 26 February 1810 and 17 July 1811.

[21] ibid : 14 January and 11 February 1812, 13 July 1818.

[22] ibid : 6 March 1815 and 11 May 1818.

[23] ibid : 12 February 1821.

[24] Transcript of burial register of St. Alkmund's Church, Derby,

in Local History Library, Derby.            This register covers the period 1800 - 1836; entry dated 3 January 1831.

[25] For example Zachariah Lead was working with Leonard in the Belper area in February 1790, when the former married Mary Taylor at Duffield parish church.

[26] See Appendix.

[27] Peter Mathias, The First Industrial Nation : An Economic History of Britain, 1700 - 1914, London, 1969, page 197.

[28] A typescript set of notes, entitled 'Notes on the life of Leonard Lead, 1755 - 1821'has recently been deposited in the Local History Library at Derby; and a further set will be deposited in the Local History Library at Shrewsbury.





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