A few years ago, we published a short article about William Brogg Leighton and his legacy in Heaton and beyond. Recently Heaton History Group’s Michael Proctor has been looking in more detail at his life and achievements, which went far beyond his involvement with the chapel that bore his name:
William Brogg Leighton was born on 27 July 1810 to Thomas and Isabelle Leighton. He was to play a significant role in the civic and religious life of Newcastle throughout his life, not least in Heaton, where the Leighton Memorial Primitive Methodist Chapel on Heaton Road, was named in honour of his extensive contribution to the Primitive Methodist movement.
The Primitive Methodist movement was characterised by the relatively plain design of their chapels and their worship, compared to the Wesleyan Methodist Church from which they had split in 1811. Its social base was among the poorer members of society, who appreciated both its content (damnation, salvation, sinners and saints) and its style (direct, spontaneous, and passionate). It was democratic and locally controlled and offered an alternative to the more middle-class Wesleyan Methodists and the establishment-controlled Church of England which were not at all democratic in governance. In Newcastle, John Branfoot was the first Primitive Methodist missionary to preach. On 1 August 1821, he preached at Sandhill, followed later in the year by William Clowes, one of the movement’s founders, who preached in the home of John Wood in Quality Row. That may be significant in the young William Leighton’s involvement in the movement. As the earliest census is 1841, we don’t know where Leighton lived at this time, but his mother, Isabelle, is shown in the 1841 census as a shopkeeper in Quality Row.
A commemorative booklet, marking the 50th anniversary of the Leighton Primitive Methodist Chapel in 1927 describes how the Primitive Methodist movement developed in Newcastle. In the east end, the Ballast Hills Society was established as early as 1822, although it had no home, with public services held in hired rooms on a Sunday evening. It was in August 1829 that a 19 year old William Leighton and some colleagues, after canvassing the neighbourhood, commenced a Sunday School in a single room in Quality Row. There were 74 scholars and 9 teachers when it opened, quickly rising to 250, requiring the addition of a second room. As there was no education and very young children were working 12 hour shifts in the flax mill and potteries of the Ouseburn area, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was so popular.
The church also grew and by 1841 a chapel was built on Byker Bank. The young William continued to be involved in both Sunday Schools and a Mutual Improvement Association, which provided an opportunity for younger men to come together and acted as an incubator for future Sunday School teachers and lay preachers. William appears to have been active in recruiting young men, many of whom became major players in the church as it developed.
Of course the church, whilst undoubtedly a major part of Leighton’s life from an early age, never provided him with an income. On 23 January 1833, William married the 20 year old Mary Singleton. (There is some dispute about this as Norman Moore and Geoff Dickinson in their earlier article on WB Leighton have him marrying Mary Hedley. However, she was 10 years older than him and every census has his wife as being 4-5 years younger than him.)
The 1841 census has William and Mary living at Garth Heads and William working as a printer. This was to be his main employment throughout his working life, although by no means his only one. At the age of 30, he was already employing a domestic servant.
The printing business was obviously a success, as the 1851 census shows the Leightons living at no 7 Grainger Street, in the block between Neville Street and Westgate Road, directly opposite the Central Station. At the time, the newly built Grainger town would have been one of the most prestigious addresses in Newcastle, so business was obviously good, indeed the family continued to live in Grainger Street, moving two doors along to no 11 around the end of the 1850s, where they stayed for most of William’s working life. It seems likely that the building included both the print shop on the ground floor and the family’s accommodation above. The census describes him as a letterpress printer employing three apprentices and a provisions merchant. Unusually, subsequent censuses also show Mary as being a provisions merchant. The couple by now had three daughters, with the eldest, Elizabeth aged 13, shown as home schooled. William’s mother, Isabelle, was also living with them, having presumably retired from her shopkeeping role.
By 1861 the Leighton’s middle daughter, Isabelle was described as working as an assistant in the butter and eggs trade, which may well have been part of the family provisions business.
By now well established in his printing business, William began to diversify. A newspaper advert in 1858 for the Tyneside Benefit Building Society shows him as the principal trustee. The advert was for a first subscription meeting of the society, to be held at the Gray’s Adelphi Temperance Hotel in Clayton Street. At the time, building societies were relatively new. The earliest had been established in Birmingham in the late 1700s, with members paying a monthly subscription to finance the building of houses for members. The early societies were wound up once all of the members had built a house, although this changed in the 1840s when Permanent Building Societies developed. The concept would have appealed greatly to the Primitive Methodist ethos and the location of the first meeting in a temperance hotel rather than a tavern, which is where the early societies tended to meet, suggests that connection.
This is the only reference to this particular society that I’ve found, but a search of the British Newspaper Archive turns up hundreds of references to William Leighton’s involvement with the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society, where he became a trustee and continued in that role throughout most of his life. The Northern Counties was one of the earliest established and largest building societies in Newcastle and continued to exist until 1965, when it merged with the Rock Building Society to form Northern Rock. Sadly, we all know how that story ended.
He was also an active member of the Newcastle Temperance Society and papers record his contributions to various meetings. Although it’s not recorded in the papers, his wife Mary was also known to be active in the Temperance Movement. Sadly Mary died in 1866 at the tragically young age of 51.
By the time of the 1871 census, William was still living and working at 11 Grainger Street, with his youngest daughter, Mary Jane, and her husband Alexander Morton, a railway clerk, and their son William as well as a nurse and a housemaid. Alexander would also go on to play a leading role in the life of the Primitive Methodist movement.
1871 was also the year that William went on to become a member of the Newcastle School Board. The Education Act of 1870 had made provisions for compulsory free education for all children aged 5-12. Local Authorities were charged with establishing School Boards to oversee the provision and, in Newcastle, the elections took place on 25 January. The Newcastle Daily Journal of the previous day has half a page of statements from prospective candidates, effectively setting out their manifestos. Many of the candidates were selected by the churches and put forward. Interestingly William Leighton put himself forward as an independent. His statement reads:
‘Mr W.B.Leighton desires to thank his friends and the electors generally for the liberal support they have promised him, and to inform them that he still continues his canvass as a Liberal and independent candidate, favourable to the reading of the Bible, with only that explanation that will make it intelligible to the young, but opposed to all sectarian teaching, and also favourable to compulsion where seen to be necessary.‘
Interestingly, there is another statement from Leighton on the same page, which reads:
CAUTION TO THE ELECTORS
‘I wish to caution you against being misled by the statements of certain unprincipled persons, who, to secure their own, or the friends election, are trying to persuade you, either that I have retired from the contest, or that I have no need of your support. Do not be deceived; but show your abhorrence of such trickery, and also your independence by plumping for me as soon after noon as possible on Wednesday first.‘
Whatever skulduggery took place, William was duly elected, continuing his lifelong interest in education. The papers report that after the elections, he took some 60 of his supporters to a private dinner at the Temperance Hall, once again demonstrating that he was a man of some means in the town.
He was also a man of some influence within the Primitive Methodist Church in Newcastle. The Newcastle Daily Journal of 5‘ March 1868 records the laying of the foundation stone for a new chapel and school in St Anthony’s, with William Brogg Leighton laying the foundation stone. He was presented with a commemorative silver trowel, plumb and mallet and a time capsule was laid in the stone containing copies of the local papers, a plan of the circuit, the names of the trustees, the number of local preachers and Sunday school teachers in the district and the name of the foundation stone layer.
This was to be the first foundation stone that he laid, but by no means the last. On 5‘ May 1869 he laid the foundation stone for a new chapel in Scotswood Road and on 27 August 1874 he laid the stone for a new chapel in Choppington Northumberland. He must have amassed quite a collection of silver trowels! So it’s not at all surprising that when thoughts turned to the need for a chapel in the Heaton area, William would play a major role. The commemorative leaflet for the 50th anniversary of the Leighton Memorial Chapel states: ‘In the early seventies Heaton presented all the appearances of a rural neighbourhood. Soon the scene was to suffer a transformation at the hands of architect and builder. Country lanes have given place to avenues of streets and the green fields are now suburbs.’
By 1871, the need for a new church was recognised and a meeting was called to consider a site. The preference was for a site on Shields Road and WB Leighton along with Peter Kidman and Thomas Corby were sent to inspect it. The price was prohibitive and in Leighton’s view the site was too small to accommodate a church and schoolrooms, so a site on Heaton Road was selected instead. The site chosen was the first plot on the west side of Heaton Road, very close to the junction with Shields Road and came with a 75 year lease from the local authority.
The Board of Trustees was appointed in 1876, both to raise funds and to oversee the building work. As an experienced valuer and inspector of materials, William Leighton played a major role in the building, as did Thomas Parker, a fellow trustee who was the architect. The church cost £5,174 to build, of which William Leighton contributed £1000. At the opening, £3630 was still owed. By 1892, the debt still stood at £1600. The commemorative booklet from the 50th anniversary describes how in the early years it was a ‘heroic struggle to stave off disaster’ and in particular how it was a great tribute to the women of the church in organising bazaars and fund raising events that the debt was finally paid off.
The church opened on Tuesday 23 October 1877. The Newcastle Courant describes it as follows:
The site, which is on Heaton Road, near to its junction with Shields Road, has a frontage of about 76 feet and extends back 131 feet. On the front portion of the site is erected the chapel, which measures 64 feet by 41 feet affording accommodation for 600 people; and in the rear are four class-rooms and two schools rooms, each measuring 50 feet by 33 feet and accommodating about 600 scholars. The style of architecture is classic, freely treated.
The plans show an elegant and understated building, very much in the Primitive Methodist style. This would have been, when it was built, one of the first buildings on Heaton Road, but other developments followed rapidly. And by 1879, Wards Directory shows William, still accompanied by his daughter and son in law and their growing family living in Rose Villa, Heaton. So far, it’s not been possible to locate this building precisely, but it was certainly on the block of Heaton Road between Shields Road and Tynemouth Road. The Wesleyan Bainbridge Memorial Church was later built on the corner of Heaton Road and Tynemouth Road and maps from the turn of the 20th Century show six large semi detached villas next to it. Nothing now remains of these houses, but they must have been large as Tyne and Wear Archives have planning applications for no 29 and 31 to build stables and coach houses at the rear. It seems likely that Rose Villa was no 31, with James Coltman, a fellow trustee, living next door at no 29.
On the above early 20th century picture postcard, we believe that Rose Villa is immediately to the left of the Bainbridge Memorial Chapel. At the time William lived there, there were no buildings between Rose Villa and Heaton Station.
It was here that William Brogg Leighton died on 25 April 1884. Interestingly, despite his obvious wealth and position in society, the probate records show that he had assets totalling £172/19/11 and that administration of his will was granted to John Wallace of 1 Second Street, Wallsend, a creditor.
To quote the words of Rev H B Kendall, who knew William well ‘Every organised form of local Christian philanthropy had Mr Leighton’s countenance and co-operation, so that his life was of manifold activity. He was not eloquent by nature, or a skilful debater, but just a constant cheerful worker on behalf of deserving causes’. The 50th anniversary commemorative booklet goes on to say ‘He gave out great love and devotion, without ostentation, but with a passion that the church on which he had set his heart should be a glorious success’.
The church that was to be his memorial stood until 1965, when a rapprochement between the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodist traditions led to a merger with the Bainbridge Memorial Church a short distance down the road. It took some five years to sell the site, not because of lack of interest, but due to the council’s refusal to allow planning permission for retail and office developments. However, when the site was finally sold in 1970, for £9000, that is exactly what was built!
Can you help?
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Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.
British Newspaper Archive
Newcastle City Library: Newcastle trade directories:
Tyne & Wear Archives: building plans
Leighton Primitive Methodist Church Jubilee Souvenir 1927
Ordnance Survey Map Byker & Heaton, 1895