Research guide - the lost charter project

The Burgesses of Newcastle-under-Lyme: a family perspective by Dominique Cairns and Rory Cairns

The burgesses of Newcastle-under-Lyme: A family perspective

By Dominique Cairns and Rory Cairns

To support the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of the charter, and the creation of the borough of Newcastle-Under-Lyme, presenting a personal view of the burgesses of the town, and venerable family connections, by Dominique and Rory.

It is with great pleasure that I am writing this piece for the museum and the borough. My journey began with my son who, at the age of 12 years old, wanting to volunteer at the Brampton Museum - he loves history. The museum contacted him to see if he still wanted to volunteer and support a history and art project. He jumped at the chance, and I tagged along because of his age. Little did I know how fascinating I would find the project myself, and how, because of my own history, it would make me want to reconnect with my hometown.

My son is passionate about world history but knew very little about Newcastle-under-Lyme, or the part our family played in its creation as one of the borough's burgesses. He was born outside of the borough, but I grew up here. As a child, I can remember the busy cattle market and bustling market stalls in the High Street; some of my fondest memories are of visiting the town on a Saturday morning with my Nana to do her shopping. Later, my connection with the borough was through Newcastle-under-Lyme school, a distinctive part of the town, where I attended from the age of 11.

Connections and interest in the Lost Charter Project

Arriving at the museum on the first day of the exhibition 'The Lost Charter' I started to get goosebumps. As I started to walk around the exhibit and read the descriptions, emblazoned across everything was the borough's seal (from at least the 15th Century) - but that's my school badge, my head was saying. Why didn't I know about the connection to the original seal?

I went to Newcastle-under-Lyme School (originally founded in 1604, but on the current site from 1874). It was originally a fee-paying school for boys from wealthy families. When I attended the school, it was still single sex, and I attended the site of the former Orme Girl's school (founded in 1876). The school's history and ties to the borough were always proudly on display with the school badge, the emblem being the borough seal of the castle and the fish. Our motto is 'Summa Sequendo,' - 'Strive for the Highest'. A message that has always resonated with me and been a principle in my life - education is the game changer and was greatly moved forward by such vanguards as Reverend Edward Orme, who founded the charity school Orme Boys. 

As I continued around the exhibit I started to read about the origins of the borough, its birth from Trentham Manor and the legal changes Henry II made to enable the creation of medieval new towns, Newcastle-Under-Lyme being one of them. It also revealed the key part the burgesses played in making this reality, paying the King to rent 'burgages' strips of land along the new streets created in the new towns and being free from the 'manorial control' of Trentham Manor. Over the years I had heard about the burgesses from my Mum's family and their link to the borough but never fully appreciated the origins. I knew the right to be a burgess only passed to males in the family and knew my uncles and cousin would never leave Newcastle because of the need to live in the borough to remain a burgess. My Mum has always spoken about the connection with pride, but as this was not directly relevant to me and I had taken limited interest - now, I certainly wanted to know more.

My Mum's maiden name is Emery, and she is the youngest of eight, her dad was a burgess, and her five brothers were entitled to become burgesses, but she was not. Until 1835 the burgesses ran the borough, they were the only ones able to hold the office of Mayor, had the right to vote or take part in the management of the borough. In 1835 this changed and over the centuries the role has reformed to become ceremonial only. It should though, not be forgotten, that they were pivotal to putting Newcastle on the medieval map, to its prosperity as a key town in North Staffordshire and the step change it enacted of freedom for ordinary people in the area today. Whilst some of the rules to become a burgess in the borough have relaxed (residence etc.), the rules up until this year excluded women. One woman, Pauline Dawson (86 years old) a former pottery painter has been challenging the position for the past 20 years after her original appeal was rejected. This anniversary year she decided to try again and has been successful and was confirmed at a ceremony on 20 September 2023. Pauline Dawson has changed history, with the clerk of the trustees confirming that from this date forward female descendants of burgesses can apply, which means that by her perseverance she has also changed things for my family, as my Mum is now eligible too.

It would have been a travesty if the decision had been different, after our late monarch Elizabeth II, who signed the 1973 Charter (800th anniversary), changed the inheritance rules on the UK monarchy itself when in 2013, she gave royal assent to the Succession To the Crown Act, which meant both sons and daughters of any future UK monarch would have an equal right to the throne. Many females have stood in great office as leaders and I, as a serving member of the armed forces, have always been an equal to my male colleagues. This change is warmly welcomed, relevant to society today and I feel will ensure burgesses continue for many centuries to come.

Our family

If I look at my own family tree, the Emery's, so far, we have been able to trace our tree back to 1700. Thomas Emery (born 1700, died. 1775) was a feltmaker (maker of felt hats) in the borough. I am not sure if Thomas was born into this role or was an apprentice who gained the status of burgess, but his membership had shaped my family's connection to the borough ever since.

My grandfather Harold Emery (born 1904, died 1963) was made a burgess in 1925 and for many years was the head buyer for the fruit and vegetable wholesalers Henry Ryder Ltd of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a company supplying greengrocers and market stalls in the borough.

Whilst we don't have addresses for all the members in the family, I think it is interesting to understand how these ordinary members of the borough lived their lives and where they lived. Richard Emery (born 1781) was a burgess in 1802. He lived in Market Lane and was a victualler, a person who provides foods or provisions or, if licensed, provides alcoholic beverages. We believe he ran a public house in or near to the Ironmarket and this could have been The Bull's Head Inn on Lad Lane, the oldest pub in Newcastle town or maybe, as he lived in Market Lane just off the Ironmarket, perhaps he was associated with the former shop that became The Star pub. That over time had a variety of names - The Superstar, Boozy Dog, Pig and Truffle and now the Reflex 80s bar.

It is amazing that he lived so close to the area where the original burgesses were given their strips of land.

Over the years, members of my family have met and celebrated in the old pubs of the town - none of us aware for years of the family's former trade. We now know that Newcastle was an important staging post from London to Carlisle. The Castle Hotel in the centre of town must have been an important hostelry and throughout the generations Emery family members fondly remember celebrations in this establishment.

My mother's family were all christened at St Giles Church in Newcastle. Little did any of them know that one of their descendants, Charles Emery, who was a bricklayer in the 1700s may have been an apprentice working on this iconic church or on the Guildhall. A number of my mother's family worked together in the local building industry. Her brother Gerald, also a burgess, ran a successful building business in the borough and went on to own the old Orme Boys School, that he himself attended as a boy and acquired the landmark Madeley Manor House also in the borough. My cousin Stephen, a burgess himself, continues to operate his roofing business in the town.

The Guildhall still stands today and is located on the High Street. The underneath was originally open with market stalls. To my family, this area and the outdoor market was always known as 'The Stones'. My family have had a strong connection with market trading in the town and my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Arthur continued the tradition of trading. Now both long retired, they can remember thriving indoor and outdoor markets, with market days seeing hundreds descend on the town centre. For many years, Dorothy ran a very successful children's clothing stall in Newcastle's indoor market, only closing its shutters when the new cinema in the High Street was commissioned and the shop area was needed for the development. Whilst my Uncle Arthur was an outdoor market trader of pottery, selling fine bone china and ceramics from world renown local factories of Stoke-on-Trent. He would stand regularly in Newcastle, but also many other markets across the country as well. Now in his 80s and still as sharp as a pin, he remembers his trading days with pride and affection, and he does have a view on the original Lost Charter itself. He is adamant that he knows where it is. Having traded at the Guild Market of Preston and having been invited to receptions by the Mayor of Preston, he believes that they have the original 'Lost Charter' of Newcastle Borough, and he has seen it in the Mayor's Parlour. If he is right, wouldn't that be a turn up for this centenary? Maybe we should ask them, just one more time.

Dominique Cairns and Rory Cairns 2023