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13 November 2014

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You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire > History > Local History > Thomas Wardle

Thomas Wardle

Thomas Wardle

Thomas Wardle

Sir Thomas Wardle is one of the great names of Leek's history. The industrialist oversaw the town's growth as a power in the world of luxury textiles in the nineteenth century

Without Wardle, who was born nearly two hundred years ago in 1831, would Leek have become what it did?
In 2009, the town remembered him in his anniversary.

As a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, and as a willing supporter of his wife Elizabeth Wardle (the leading light of the Leek Embroidery Society), his influence on the town was immense.

Thomas Wardle's house in Leek

Thomas Wardle's house in Leek

Dyer by birth

Thomas inherited the family firm from his father, and became interested in the very process of dying.  When the firm acquired the Hencroft site, Thomas spent time there researching India's 'wild silks'.

Here too, he started work with William Morris. When the great artist arrived in the town in 1873 to study dyes, Thomas invited him to work at Hencroft - to such an extent that Hencroft was converted into a printing works to support a new direction in the use of colour and design.

William Morris

Wardle collaborated with William Morris, thus making Leek's fabrics an essential item for enthusiasts of the Arts & Crafts movement.  Large and deceptively simple floral designs, using newly developed dyes, helped to push the boundaries of textile manufacture.

William Morris bust

William Morris

Silk yarns and fabrics, which came from India and China, were dyed in Leek, using dyestuffs from all over the world and were further enriched with gold thread from Japan.

Morris was so impressed with the developments he observed in Leek, he stayed in the town two years working on colours and processes that would make his own experiments in tapestry, printing and wallpaper all the more possible.

Wardle's dyeing and printing company had three sites along the River Churnet. The river water had properties that helped produce superior dyes.

Elizabeth Wardle

Wardle's wife, Elizabeth, also is worth attention.  A lot of women worked in the industry, but a more genteel pursuit was embroidery, particularly in making tapestries and banners for churches.

Sometime around 1879, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth set up the Leek Embroidery School.
From producing pieces for local buyers (from local materials of course), the school and the associated Society went on to take commissions from all over the country.  The work was extremely innovative, and Elizabeth loved a challenge. It was she who organised the production of the Bayeux Tapestry replica...

Tapestry of William Morris design

The pieces left behind by the The Leek Embroidery Society's gifted needlewomen can still be seen, not just in churches like St Edward's but in museums too.

Wardle Centenary

In no small part because of Thomas Wardle, Leek grew to be a huge centre of influence in the world's textile trade. It's extraordinary to think that less than a hundred years after his death, silk production ceased altogether in the town, ending a three hundred years old tradition.

And Thomas  was also a man of his age - the age of Darwin.  He had a huge range of interests - he was a businessman and an inventor, but also gained a reputation as a composer of religious music and also enjoyed local history particularly geology.  His collection of fossils he donated to Leek's Nicholson Institute.

Thus, throughout 2009, the hundredth anniversary ear of Wardle's death, the area  remembered Sir Thomas, with a number of events and exhibitions, including a year-long programme at St Edward's Church in the centre of Leek.

The largest of these shows was the 'Dye, Print & Stitch' exhibition at the Silk Museum in nearby Macclesfield.

A new publication 'Dye, Print, Stitch: Textiles by Thomas and Elizabeth Wardle' was been produced to coincide with the centenary.

For full details, see


It was the nearby village of Cheddleton where Sir Thomas and his wife were most at home... and especially in the wonderful church there, where the Wardles worshipped - and are now buried.  Some of the stained glass windows in St Edward The Confessor were designed by William Morris himself.

Wardle wrote hymns, and to celebrate his centenary, BBC Radio Stoke returned to the church and recorded a service, in which the congregation sang many of his hymns.
Hear the service by clicking on the link below:-

The leading expert on Leek's local history, Cath Walton, believes that Wardle should be known as a great man in north Staffordshire's story. Hear what she had to say about Wardle by clicking on the link above.

The Wardles' grave in Cheddleton churchyard

The Wardles' grave in Cheddleton churchyard

Thomas and Elizabeth were buried in the churchyard at Thomas' beloved church of Edward The Confessor - where the grave can be seen to this day...

last updated: 17/12/2009 at 18:00
created: 18/08/2009

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