Powder Mill Workers and Relocation: The Cheeseman Family 1830-1859

Powder Mill Families:  The Cheeseman Family 1830-1859

It is often assumed that, until the Second World War, rural families seldom moved from the village in which they were born.  The Cheeseman family, however, were much more typical: they moved to where the work was.

John Cheeseman was born in Sutton Valance around 1810.  By the mid 1830s, he was working around Leigh as a wagoner, probably for the Powder Mills.  In 1835 he married a Leigh girl, Fanny Morgan in Tonbridge and in the 1841 census (as John Cheesman) he is shown as living at the Powder Mills with already four children and his occupation given as an “agricultural labourer”.  They had the help of “a servant”, Esther Morgan aged 12 who may well have been a relative of John’s wife – also a Morgan.  However in 1851 John is shown in the census as a powder maker.  The family was given a company cottage – probably a big asset, not least as they were already in the process of having sixteen children.

However, in 1858/59, presumably after he had become a skilled gunpowder maker, John and the whole of his large family except the eldest son moved to Kendal in Cumbria where a new gunpowder mill, The Sedgwick Gunpowder Works, had just opened.  John is shown in the 1861 census for Helsington, Westmoreland as “foreman gunpowder” (with 10 children still living with them).   We know that the owners of the Sedgwick Works had a recruiting drive but the sale of the Leigh Powder Mills from the old local family firm headed by William Burton to a much larger group headed by the Curtis brothers and the probable uncertainty may also have played a part in the Cheeseman family move. As often seems to have happened, the family followed the father into the gunpowder industry, sadly illustrated when in a major explosion at the Kendal works in 1883, one of John Cheeseman’s sons and one of his grandsons were killed.

It seems that it was Matthew Thomas Cheeseman who remained in Leigh.  He was born in 1836 and was therefore a man of over 20 working at the Powder Mills when his parents moved.  It was his descendants who continued to live in Leigh until the end of the 20th century and Doris Dale remembered going to school with Madge Cheeseman in the 1920s/30s, who cycled from the Powder Mills everyday.  However, there is also another son, William, who is shown in the 1861 census as living in the Powder Mills and working in one of the various trades used in gunpowder making – a cooper.

Cyril Cheeseman and his wife lived at The Bungalow, Lower Green from the 1930s until after the War when they moved to 16 Lealands Avenue.  Their son, Michael – a great cricketer for Leigh – eventually left the village – the last link with John Cheeseman – and now lives in Henley.

(Information from Roger Baldwin, John Cheeseman’s great great grandson).


Parish Magazine Article: Nov 2006/May 2008 combined: by Chris Rowley