To mark the anniversary of 100 years since women were given the vote in Britain I thought I would look at one of my Industrial Revolution heroes – Hannah Lees (1764 1831). She was the owner of one of the earliest and largest iron works in the Manchester city region during the late 18th and early 19th century. Hannah was thrust into this role on the death of her husband. At a time when the new industries of the period were dominated by men, and with her own large family to look after (she had 12 children), Hannah played the major role in ensuring the continuance of the ironworks, established by her father-in-law and inherited from her husband, and laid the foundations for its future success. Originally the firm produced iron bars but under Hannah it developed into an engineering works, manufacturing rollers for textile machinery. Iron billets were also sold for the making of horse shoes and general smith work.
Hannah Buckley, as she was born on 20th April 1764, was the daughter of John Buckley of Oldham. When she married Samuel Lees junior (1754-1804), on 25th December 1783, she was marrying into an old local family. The Lees of Higher Hazlehurst, near to Park Bridge, are recorded in 1613, and there was also a branch of the family resident at Lower Hazlehurst in 1625. It is thought that around 1670 Samuel Lees of Alt Hill founded a smithy at Parkbridge, though precisely where is unclear.
The Park Bridge Ironworks were established by Samuel Lees junior in 1786. On the 3rd May of that year Samuel, described in the lease as a Whitesmith from Carrs (the family home) in Hurst, rented 14 perches of land from the Earl of Stamford. A few days later on the 10th May 1786 he mortgaged the Dean estate, comprising seven Lancashire acres, to the Reverend Hugh Worthington of Leicester for £200. Using this money he built the first phase of buildings on the Park Bridge site. These were located on the 14 perches of land and according to a further mortgage document buildings had been erected by the 9th September 1789.
By the time of the baptism of their sixth child in September 1792, the family were living in a place called Dean. This was probably the group of cottages at Park Bridge noted by James Butterworth in 1823 as lying on the northern side of the Medlock valley, possibly near to the present site of Dingle Terrace. As the business grew Hannah and Samuel were able to build a new home, Park Bridge House, later known as Dean House, for their large family.
The early years of the 19th century were testing times for Hannah. In 1800 three of their children died within the space of two months, and in 1804 Samuel died, leaving an estateworth between £600 and £800. Hannah was thus left on her own, running the business and bringing up her six surviving children, the eldest of whom, Edward, was 15 years old and the youngest, William, was just two years old.
Although Samuel’s will does not survive, reference to this document is made in a later deed. From this it is clear that he left the business in trust for his eldest son Edward. The two trustees were James Heginbottom and John Wood, both cotton manufacturers from neighbouring Ashton-under-Lyne. Yet it was Hannah who was given the administration of his estate and who was to run Park Bridge until Edward was 21 years old. Samuel’s remaining children were each to receive a share of the remaining estate on attaining 21 years, whilst thereafter Hannah was to receive an annual sum. However, Edward does not appear to have been greatly interested in the iron business, and later legal documents refer to him as a hatter from Macclesfield. This may explain why in 1806 the lease of the Park Bridge site was transferred by the Stamford Estate to Hannah.
Thereafter under Hannah’s guidance the business steadily expanded. In 1808 Hannah and Edward leased the Copperas House and pyrites beds in The Park near Bardsley to a Staffordshire merchant, George Birch and a local man, Samuel Newton, for a rent of £550. According to the terms of the lease the business had to be returned to the Lees family if the rent could not be found, and this may explain why in 1814 Copperas works were in the hands of her eldest surviving son Edward. Why Hannah should be interested in copperas, which was used as a mordant or fixer in the dyeing process, is unclear.
Two years later in April 1810 Hannah borrowed £500 from Richard Bills, an Iron merchant from Darlaston in Staffordshire. This money probably financed the erection of a new weir and water-powered building on the River Medlock mentioned in a lease also of April 1810. Although the function of this building is not named it was probably the site of the roller manufacturing shop. In 1825 the Ashton rates books named Widow Lees & Sons as the owner of the site. At that period the site comprised: ‘House and Prem [ises]: Turning Rooms by Water with 3 cottages, meadow land and ley…At New Mill more Turning Rooms by the Water’.
Hannah’s legacy was not one but two thriving ironworking businesses. Her third surviving son Samuel, inherited Park Bridge, the company by then being known as Hannah Lees & Sons, Edward maintaining his interests in Macclesfield, whilst Henry had set up his own ironworking business in Ashton-under-Lyne, at what would later be known as the Bridge End Works. The Park Bridge Ironworks was subsequently extended by the four succeeding generations of the same family, becoming the largest such complex in Tameside, encompassing a neighbouring colliery with its own railway connection to the Oldham and Ashton Railway. The company remained owned by the Lees family until it closed in 1963.
The site was surveyed and excavated as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey between 1997 and 2009. For further details see: Nevell M & Roberts J, 2003, The Archaeology of Tameside Volume 3: The Park Bridge Ironworks. Loughborough: Tameside MBC.