By Keith Lawrence
Talke o’ th’ Hill sits at the junction of the routes from Lancashire and the north-west of England (A50) and one of the southerly routes from Manchester (A34). Once joined, these routes next move on to Newcastle under Lyme, Birmingham and potentially Southampton.
Talke was mentioned in the Domesday Book and certainly by the mid thirteenth century had a weekly market and a three day fair on the feast of St Martin. It probably lay on the route dating to the fifteenth century from the southern Lake District to Southampton, packhorses carrying cloth for export. The cloth was woven in the Broughton-in-Furness and Hawkshead area and carried to Cartmel and Kendal for finishing and dying a distinctive green; the cloth was known as Kendal greens. This route by-passed Manchester and followed the well-worn path south, crossing the Mersey at Latchford near Warrington.
Certainly by the eighteenth century Talke had developed into a major over-night stop for carriers, as was evident with the large number and the size of the inns. One particular inn, the Plume of Feathers, was described by Parrott in 1730s as a “great waggoners inn I have seen, about twenty teams of a night”.
Talke was the site of one of the loudest noises in England, at the time, when in 1781 there was an explosion involving a carrier’s wagon:
This description comes from William Pitt’s book “A topographical history of Staffordshire: including agriculture, mines and manufacturers. 1817, page 346.”
“In the summer of 1781, an explosion of a cask of gunpowder took place in the village of Talk, as a carrier was conveying the same in a wagon to its place of destination. The driver and horses all perished; and two houses were thereby demolished, in the ruins of one of which the body of the driver was said to be found in a mangled state. The regular carrier or man belonging to the wagon had entrusted the care of his team to another, while he was transacting business, or taking refreshment, in a public house, and thus providentially escaped an untimely end. The explosion was attributed to friction.”
There is more to the story – the date was the 4th August 1781. The explosion involved nearly two tons of gunpowder not just a cask; it took place on Coalpit Hill, Talke. The dead man was Joseph Fellows, a coach driver doing a favour for the carter who was in the Queen’s Head at the time. There was a leak of gunpowder and as the wagon moved down the hill, friction in one of the wheel hubs created enough heat to set light to the spilled gunpowder setting off the explosion. In the debris of one of the damaged houses was not just the body of the driver but also one of the horses – the remains of the other horse travelled some distance along with shrapnel-like twisted metal. The downward force of the explosion left a depression in the road in which the driver’s pocket watch was found as a melted mass. In an interesting little book by James Parkinson called the “Companion to the Museum (late Sir Ashton Lever’s): Removed to Albion Street, the Surry End of Black Friars Bridge. 1790, page 3.” On the bottom shelf of Glass Cabinet II, labelled exhibits 14 & 15 were “Eight pieces of Iron from Talk on the Hill, Staffordshire, being part of the tire and other iron work of a wagon with gunpowder in it, which took fire, and blew up there.” There was also a much larger part sitting just outside the case. (Sir Ashton Lever was an antiquarian and collector of natural objects who founded the Leverian Museum (Holosphusikon) – a wonder of the late eighteenth century containing over 28,000 specimens. Sir Ashton collected until he bankrupted himself where upon he sold his collection by lottery. However where the pieces of the wagon now reside, or indeed still exist, will need further research).
The damages caused by the explosion added to that of a fire which had destroyed nine house and five barns the previous month amounted to nearly £2,500. The events had left the village with one dead, many traumatised, families with no clothes or possessions and having to share already crowded houses. Help came from the surrounding district as far away as Newcastle under Lyme. Most significantly King George III ordered collections to be taken in England & Wales to relieve the suffering of the people of Talke. The order was entitled “Talke Fire in Co. Stafford, damage £2387 15s. 3d. To be collected from house to house throughout England, the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the counties of Flint, Denbigh, and Radnor in Wales.” We can surmise from this that the year 1781 was during one of the King’s more lucid periods.
Talke also had a place in the history of Pickfords – the only eighteenth century carrier still in business not far off four hundred years later. The founder of the business – James Pickford – died in 1768 and for four years it was run by his widow Martha. In 1772 it was taken over by their son Matthew who must have met his wife Hannah Taylor in Talke as she was a local girl; they married in Talke in 1776. A bright spot in this story.
Talke o’ th’ Hill has seen more than its fair of disasters as coal mining increased in importance in the area. In the fifty years between 1860 and 1901 a total of 325 men and boys were killed in the mines – the size of the village was only around 1,500 people. It had had its time in the National spotlight but for tragic reasons.
Times have changed – the most likely cause of mortality now is visitors to the Freeport Outlet Mall shopping until they drop!
Talke is now quiet, as huge volumes of traffic use the M6 and it is itself now by-passed by a re-aligned A34.