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Herald History: When the Leys was an orchard

By Tamworth Herald  |  Posted: April 24, 2012

Leys Model Dairy

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STREET names are the only clue that the Leys – a late 19th and early 20th century housing estate on the periphery of Tamworth's bustling town centre – was once a huge orchard populated with hundreds of cherry trees.

And there can surely be few more pleasing sights than that of cherry trees bursting into bloom, heralding the onset of spring and long, warm summer days ahead.

Picture perfect pink blossom in early spring develops in late July into succulent plump cherries.

The Leys orchard dated from ancient times, possibly back as far as Saxon days. The origin of the name 'Leys' is the Saxon word 'leage' – meaning fallow land.

It was in July that the annual St Editha's Fair was held, when the cherries were harvested and carried into the town to be sold in the market.

In Saxon times a fortified earthen fortification traditionally known as Offa's Dyke – although it may date from Ethelfleda's time – protected the town from unwelcome visitors.

It ran through the Leys, part of it passing beneath the old General Hospital (now MacGregor Tithe).

The north west corner of the Dyke, where Hospital Street meets Orchard Street, was known as the Walfurlong.

It is mentioned in an ancient Court Leet document dated November 10, 1488, when Maud Irpe and her neighbours, whose gardens adjoined the Walfurlong, were ordered not to allow any animals to be bought or sold during fair time without paying toll.

When Tamworth began to expand in the 19th century, however, the days of the cherry orchards were numbered.

Plot after plot was sold to make way for new homes and Leys House, a fine Georgian property that had formerly stood in expansive grounds, was hemmed in by encroaching residential development.

In 1880 the Co-operative Society had to move their horses from the Leys to new pasture and stabling at Glascote so that the site could be used to build the new Cottage Hospital.

Erected at the entrance to the Leys, the hospital was a gift of Tamworth's great philanthropist Rev William MacGregor, Vicar of Tamworth from 1878 to 1887.

The old gate where the drays used to enter to collect baskets of fruit was pulled down and a new road, Hospital Street, was created so that patients, carriages and wagons could reach the institution.

Axes worked relentlessly felling the cherry trees as street after street of terraced red brick houses were built, many of them by the Clarson family of builders, one of whom served three terms as Mayor of Tamworth.

Clarson Street, consisting of 16 properties in two terraced rows running off Moor Street, was named after the family.

Sadly, it was demolished in the early 1970s when access roads were created for the new Lichfield Road Industrial Estate. Standing on the site today are the headquarters of the St John Ambulance and Air Training Corp organisations.

Mr Clarson had five daughters – Nora, Ethel, Dorothy, Mary and Barbara.

The latter's name lives on in a street that was named in her honour – Barbara Street.

As the houses went up, King Offa gave his name to one street, while another was named after St John's Catholic Church, the original building of which was erected in 1829.

In February 1898, a new school was erected in Hospital Street. It was the Boys' Central School for Tamworth, later known as The Mercian Boys' School. It survives today as Moorgate Junior School.

Commenting on extensions at the school in 1936, local historian Henry Charles Mitchell wrote: "Unfortunately, this march of education has brought about the destruction of much distinctive local beauty.

"The last of the lovely Leys orchards, which for centuries were an enchantment in Springtime and Fall, are now being converted into playing fields and school gardens for both seniors and juniors."

Rows of new houses stretched from Aldergate to the Staffordshire Moor (now the Lichfield Road Industrial Estate), and from Lichfield Street to Upper Gungate.

The St John's School in Moorgate was erected in 1927 at a cost, including the site, of over £8,000, provided entirely by voluntary contributions. The school was demolished some years ago and replaced by modern housing.

The names of Cherry Street and Orchard Street are self explanatory, whereas other streets were named after councillors (Nevill, Tempest, Allton and Wardle) and a great event (Coronation Street).

Prominent Saxon kings such as Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder are commemorated, and the names Moorgate and Ludgate recall the old gates to the town.

The Leys became self sufficient, with small corner shops able to supply the daily needs of anyone who didn't wish to walk into town.

It had its own bakery, Sheltons, on the corner of Ludgate and Moorgate, and, with the Co-op bakery nearby, the area was renowned for the smell of freshly baked bread.

It had its own steam laundry, Davidsons and hairdresser, and several craftsmen made their living in nearby streets.

The Leys had its own social life, with regular dances in the Catholic Guildhall and the St John's and Mercian schools.

There were no pubs, but the Leys had three working men's clubs – the Co-op Club in Offa Street, the Catholic Club in Orchard Street, and the Progressive Club in Halford Street.

Up until the 1950s, the Tamworth Herald was printed in buildings that still survive at what is now the Offa House car park, formerly the Co-op bakery and butchery.

The Leys had its own Post Office, and in the post-war years became a quiet, self-contained backwater away from the bustle and noise of the town centre.

By the 1980s, however, wily motorists were using its streets to by-pass the town centre. Drastic traffic calming measures, such as humps and a one way system, were introduced to alleviate the problem.

Alas, the hospital has gone, the dairy has gone, the post office has gone, and so have the Co-op and the Catholic clubs.

But the Leys remains a pleasant, quiet place within a stone's throw of the town centre – and there are one or two cherry trees left to signal the beginning of spring.

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