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The Burslem History Club meets every second Wednesday of the month in the Arnold Bennett Suite at the Leopard Hotel. The doors open at 7pm, the talks start at 8pm.

History of the Leopard Hotel

If you have an interest in the history of Stoke on Trent then pay the Leopard a visit before it disappears. It will not be long before a Burslem treasure such as the Leopard no longer exists; no longer viable in a small town centre, it will probably be torn down and converted into flats. Such is the modern world.

The Leopard in context.  The American war of Independence began in 1775 in Lexington USA. We're talking red suits and horses, a letter from king George 3rd to his forces in the Americas could take up to 3 months to arrive, on sailing ships; meanwhile, the Leopard was serving pints. A listed building in Burslem, it is steeped in history and the recent discovery of tunnels has brought it centre-stage again. A previous owner Neil Crisp re-opened part of the hotel which closed down in the 1950's. There are over 50 rooms which he had hoped to bring back to their former glory, however, although only young, he died too early and his plans were never put into effect.

"For those who like to know these things, the Leopard Hotel has been a public house in continuous use since at least 1765. This information comes directly from the pen of the great potter Josiah Wedgwood whose correspondence mentions he'd dined here with the canal engineer James Brindley in March of that year. A framed facsimile of his letter currently graces the wall of the room the celebrated duo used.

The Wedgwoods were prominent potters in Burslem throughout the 18th century, fathers and sons, uncles and cousins all began their ceramic careers in this important town of the Industrial Revolution.

Josiah was born in 1730 at the Churchyard Works a short distance from the town centre. As a young man he entered into partnership with Thomas Whieldon, (1719-1795) returning to Burslem to manufacture at the Ivy House pottery directly opposite the Leopard then owned by a relative, Ellen Wedgwood and known as The Market Place Inn.

As the Wedgwood connection with Burslem receded the Market Place inn exchanged hands frequently. By the mid 1800's it was apparently in poor shape under the ownership of a vicar from Porthill. But high times were just around the corner as the pub came under the ownership of an enterprising woman named Mary Lees who quickly earned the respect of townsfolk as a property owner of substantial means and influence. In 1857 she was commissioned to prepare the banquet for the official opening of the town hall serving up a five course dinner with over a hundred dishes in a superlative range of meat, poultry and sweets.

The Leopard was purchased in 1872 by James Norris, a local brewer who'd built a bottling plant and small brewery directly opposite next to the meat market and the town hall. Regrettably the brewery and meat market were both demolished in the 1950’s. James Norris decided that Burslem needed a classy hotel to accommodate a lively commercial trade and set about extending the rear of the pub into the confines of what had formerly been a pot bank. By 1878 Norris's new Leopard was fitted with fifty-seven Victorian bedrooms to complement the half dozen Georgian bedrooms at the front. Overnight the Leopard became one of Stoke on Trent's premier commercial hotels overshadowing the accommodation provided by the neighbouring George Hotel, and equalling the facilities of three other city railway hotels – the Grand in Trinity Street Hanley, the Crown in Longton and Stoke’s North Stafford.

Although it remained a popular entertainment and accommodation facility the Leopard lacked the necessary interest to keep pace with changing social needs and the rooms were all closed in 1956 leaving just the ground floor Georgian rooms open to the public.

Happily new owners Bass Breweries undertook major regeneration work in the restaurant rooms which reopened in 1965 as the Arnold Bennett Suite. But the bedrooms remain closed-off along with the Georgian cellar vaults.

The Leopard is steeped in local history and features notably in a number of Arnold Bennett's Five Towns' novels where it is known as the Tiger.

I am asked many times whether Bennett himself stayed at the hotel. I tend to think not as he left Burslem in 1888 and on his infrequent visits he lodged at the family home in Waterloo Road.

Nevertheless, the descriptions of the Leopard interiors in his books indicate a knowledge that could only be obtained first hand. So it does seem likely that the great Potteries’ author would at least have visited to make notes and perhaps to sup a pint."

© Fred Hughes – writer and historian

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