Thomas Leaman

Thomas Leaman 1852 – 1931 – A Ripley radical

Thomas was born on 20th January 1852 in Ilsington, Devon to John and Harriett Leaman. His father, a thatcher, had four children with his first wife Elizabeth Lock, who died in 1842. John and Harriett married in 1843, and had 9 further children, although one, Samuel, died in infancy.   

Ilsington is situated on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. Although the village was primarily reliant on agriculture, the geological area surrounding Ilsington was rich in minerals, particularly tin, iron, lead, zinc, copper and manganese, and there is evidence of mining from the 16th century onwards. Granite was also quarried in the locality, mostly on Haytor Down. Mining activity reached a peak in the mid-19th century, with the 1861 census for Ilsington listing 51 miners, 1 mining clerk, one mining engineer and one engine driver.(1) By 1891, however, only 17 were shown as working in the mines.

Map of Ilsington1888 showing some of the local mineworkings

The census of 1861 shows the family resident at Sigford Cottages, near Ilsington. Thomas’ brother John,29, is described as an ‘invalid from Her Majesty’s service’, whilst William is listed as a miner, and Edwin ‘works the engine at the mines’.

Ten years later, the family are resident at Mine Cottage, probably located between Sigford (to the south-west of Ilsington) and Ashburton, with Thomas aged 19 listed as a miner. Nearby mines included Owlacombe and Stormsdown mines (arsenic, tin and copper), Union mine, Ashburton (tin and pyrites) and Sigford Consols (tin,copper and pyrites). Although the Atlas tin mine near Ilsington was productive, a number of the smaller mines did not fulfil their early promise and activity declined quite rapidly.

To compound the problem, by the mid-1870s British agriculture was impacted by the ‘great depression’, caused by ‘a dramatic fall in grain prices following the opening up of the American prairies to cultivation… and the advent of cheap transportation with the rise in steamships’ (2). This led to significant rural depopulation as people flocked to towns and cities in search of regular employment.

 Leaman and his brothers and sisters joined the exodus. Several, including Samuel (3), James and Harriett emigrated to Canada in search of a new life. Charles, along with Thomas, travelled to the north-east of England for work, whilst Elizabeth remained in the south-west.

Thomas married Mary Elizabeth Purrington, a tailoress, on 3rd September 1874, in or near Bath. By the following year, they were resident in Choppington, in the Northumberland coalfield, and by 1878 they had two children, John William b 1875 and Elizabeth b 1878.

Thomas with his bible class, Choppington 1876

The Leaman family were strong Wesleyan Methodists. A chapel had been built in Ilsington in 1852 and it is likely that the family were regular attendees. John and Harriett Leaman are both buried in the graveyard attached to the chapel. Thomas continued to spread the word after his arrival in Choppington and a picture (above) shows him with his bible class in 1876.

In September 1878, Thomas and family moved to the East Midlands, where he was to settle for the remainder of his life. The railway employment records show him working as a porter at Butterley Station in December 1978.

Soon after, in January 1879, Leaman joined the Ripley Co-operative Society, with which he continued to be associated for over fifty years. The cooperative movement had grown quickly in the 19th century and was a popular model of consumerism, profits being returned to its members in the form of dividends. Local Co-operatives were run by their members and were particularly successful in the East Midlands, societies such as Ripley and Ilkeston dominated their respective towns for most of the 20th century.

Ripley Co-operative building

The first co-operative shop in Ripley had been established as early as 1860, in Butterley Hill. Trade increased rapidly, and later the society was able to build its flagship department store in the centre of town (above). This and other premises throughout Ripley housed a bakery, dairy, bank, butchers, boot and shoe retailers, fish shop, tobacconists and a store for radio, television and other appliances.

At its height in the early 1960s, the Ripley Co-op had 75 branches, employed 738 people and had sales of over £61 million (4).

Thomas Leaman quickly became involved with the affairs of Ripley Co-operative Society. He served on the local management committee from 1881, and by 1905 became its President, serving the maximum period of 3 years. He also served on the Co-op’s Education Committee, and was active in opposition to a proposal to reduce the education grant. Following the formation of the Derby District Association of Co-operatives in 1883, Thomas was elected to the District Committee, and in November 1890 became its Secretary.  His wife Mary was also a keen supporter of the co-operative movement and was active in the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

In 1911, the district societies showed their appreciation for his service with the presentation of a gold chain and pendant in recognition of 21 years service. A further presentation of a clock by Ripley Co-operative Society was made to Thomas and Mary in 1924 on the occasion of their golden wedding (above).

Other public service included secretary of the Derby District Hours and Wages Board from its formation on November 1916 and the representative of the District Board on the Sectional Hours and Wages Council from July 1921. He was also elected as Ripley representative to the Belper Board of Guardians.

The local newspaper summed up Leaman’s dedication to public service in 1931 : ‘Throughout, a genuine love of work for his fellow man has been the motive which has actuated Mr Leaman, and his genial personality remains as fresh as the spring sunshine’ (5).

As if this weren’t enough, Thomas also served as an auxiliary postman for over 20 years. He estimated that during his career he walked over 100,000 miles (6)

Initially, Thomas and Mary were resident in Lowes Hill, Ripley. The 1881 census shows the family, now with an additional son George, born 1880. By this time, Thomas was employed by the Prudential Assurance Company and is listed on the census as a ‘Prudential Agent’. He continued in this role for over forty years.

The 1891 census shows the family resident at Havelock Street, Ripley, and now the number of children has grown to seven, with the addition of Florence, Harry, Charlie and Edwin. The arrival of the final two children, Minnie (b 1891) and Arthur Ben (b1893) came soon after.

Family portrait, taken around 1895. Back row (l-r) : John, Elizabeth, George. Middle row : Thomas, Florence, Minnie, Harry, Mary (Polly) with Arthur Ben. Front row : Edwin, Charlie

By 1901, Thomas and family had moved to 39 Argyll Road, Ripley, where he was to stay for the remainder of his life.

Thomas Leaman outside 39 Argyll Road

Politically, Leaman was a Liberal all his life and only embraced the Labour Party in the 1920’s. “ I was always known as one of the Ripley Radicals” he said in an interview with the Derby Telegraph following his fifty year service for the cooperative society (7). It was his proud boast that he voted for every MP elected in the local area since the extension of the county franchise in 1884. These Liberal MPs included Mr Thomas Watson, Lord Ilkeston (then Sir Walter Foster) and Col. Seely. The only time he was ‘on the losing side’ was when Mr G.H. Oliver (Labour) failed to beat Col. Seely at the first attempt. Leaman himself twice sought election to Ripley Urban District Council, but was unsuccessful.

His commitment to collective improvement is perhaps best exemplified by the paper he wrote entitled ‘Strikes and Lockouts’ in 1893 for the Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society class in Ripley in November 1893 (8). The classes would be planned, written and delivered by the chapel-goers themselves, enabling them to develop their skills in reading, writing and public speaking. A set of rules were drawn up to govern meetings, a programme of topics agreed upon and a small library established. Weekly payments of tuppence were made. Political education was clearly a key aspect of these classes and Leaman’s paper shows that they were not afraid to tackle contentious and contemporary political issues.

This particular subject was prompted by the miners lockout of the same year. The origins of the ‘Great Lockout’  lay in the colliery employers counter attack against the growing confidence of the organised labour movement.

In June 1893, following an economic slump, the coal owners demanded a 25% cut to the basic miners wage. Hundreds of thousands of miners around the country were locked out from June until November, refusing to accept the reduction. Miners and their families endured months of hardship, and two men were killed after troops fired on striking miners in Featherstone, West Yorkshire. Eventually the Government intervened to resolve the dispute and the men went back in triumph on their old wages.

What is clear in Thomas Leaman’s paper is that his attitude to strikes has changed during the process of his research, with the discovery of the struggles of many generations of workers before him : “….before starting to write this paper, I held very much milder views with regard to the conflict between capital and labour than I do now”.

The first page of ‘Strikes and Lockouts’

There were a large number of miners living in and around Ripley at the time, and the hardships endured by those communities  must have affected him deeply.  A sense of moral justice and compassion pervades his paper as he writes of men, women and children who “suffered with a noble endurance, not only for themselves, but for those who shall fill their places when they have passed away”. Leaman had himself been a miner in his younger days and there is no doubt where his sympathies lay on the subject his paper addresses.

Mary and Thomas Leaman

Friendly societies featured strongly during Thomas Leaman’s lifetime. The societies were embedded in Victorian and Edwardian society. Estimates vary but something like 80% of male workers were members at one time or another and there were between 6.3 and 9.5 million members in 1910. A social insurance system, before the days of the welfare state, their primary function was to help members financially in times of illness, unemployment or bereavement. The most well known societies were the Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters. Monthly contributions were often made during meetings at a local public house.

The societies also developed myths and rituals (including funeral rites) and provided regalia, badges, certificates, charitable activities, parades, communal singing and feasting. While these activities were sometimes presented as extravagant, subversive or financially unsound, they helped the societies to be seen as trustworthy and beneficial by potential members, members and patrons.

Thomas Leaman was initiated into the Pure Order of United Britons in 1886, and was active in its ranks until 1922, becoming its Treasurer in 1902 and General Secretary in 1908. The Order was organised into ‘lodges’, with names such as ‘Hope’ and ‘Good Intent’. The Ripley Lodge, to which Leaman belonged, was given the name ‘Do Well’. Very much a regional organisation, as opposed to the larger societies which were distributed nationally, membership of the order was concentrated in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, with an outpost in Worcestershire. In 1920, Leaman was proud to announce that the Order had 23 branches of which the Do Well Lodge was the ‘largest and most prosperous’ with 350 members (9).

Societies such as the Pure Order of United Britons, with their rule books, committees and formal meetings, provided opportunities for workers to be elected to positions of responsibility and to gain experience running organisation, and these skills enabled them to become active later in politics or other aspects of public life. The Order was relatively long lived, the first reference to it is in 1865, and the Do Well lodge was dissolved in 1949, following the establishment of the National Health Service.

In many ways, Thomas Leaman can be seen as a typical working class self-improver, with his involvement in the co-operative movement, friendly societies, religious non-conformity and mutual education. These were organisations established by working people as expressions of collective self-help. The drive for respectability, educational improvement and financial security on their own terms, rather than on those of their supposed betters, was an important factor in these developments. From his roots in rural Devon to a figure of standing in Ripley, the life journey of Leaman reflects that of many in the Victorian era, who left rural life and established themselves in industrial areas.

Following his death in November 1931, the local newspaper reported that ‘the esteem that the late Mr Leaman was held in the Co-operative and Friendly Society movements was reflected in the large and representative gathering in the (Ripley) General Cemetery’ (10). He was indeed ‘a citizen of whom Ripley might well be proud’ (11).

Phil Henshaw, May 2019


  1. A History of Ilsington – Bill Ransom (2005) p74
  2. Wikipedia – The Great Depression of British Agriculture
  3. The Leaman’s named a second son Samuel b 1845 after the premature death of the first Samuel in 1844, aged 6 weeks. Thanks to Malcolm and Maureen Pearce who record this in their booklet ‘Routes from Devon – A Leaman Trail’ 1992
  4. From ‘A Ripley Co-op Walk’ published by Ripley and District Heritage Trust.
  5. Ripley and Heanor News, 5/9/1931
  6. From Ripley and Heanor News 25/9/1924
  7. Derby Telegraph 2/ 3/1931
  8. Original paper in possession of Phil Henshaw. Also see typed transcript with and introduction and context, by Phil Henshaw (1985)
  9. Ripley and Heanor News 24/12/1920
  10. Ripley and Heanor News 20/11/1931
  11. Councillor H. Stanley JP on the occasion of Thomas and Mary’s Golden Wedding. Ripley and Heanor News 5/9/1924