When I first saw this recently revealed sign at the City Road site in Cambridge, I thought it was the sign for Miss Nora Leach’s business as a hat maker. I first came across Nora Leach in Sara Payne’s excellent book Down Your Street Cambridge Past and Present II East Cambridge (Cambridge 1984). The reminiscences, captured by Sara Payne, of Mrs Hilda Desborough (who was born at no.23 City Road in 1910, the daughter of John Summerlin, baker) included the fact that Miss Nora Leach ran a hat shop from her home next door to Digbys (the other baker in City Road): “Miss Leach used to make her hats on moulds. My mother got all her hats there”, remembered Mrs Desborough.
Nora Leach was born Eleanor McLean Leach in January 1895, the eldest child of Barnett McLean Leach (1864-1929) and Ellen Elizabeth Leach, née Eccard (1868-1947), making her a granddaughter of Frederick Richard Leach, founder of the family firm and purchaser of 36 and 37 City Road in 1862.
Nora was the eldest of three children, her siblings being Jean McLean Leach (1896-1960) and Francis Leach (1898-1962). Their mother, Ellen Eccard, was Catholic and she married Barnett McLean Leach at the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs (OLEM) in Cambridge on the 25th of April 1894. At the 1901 census, the family was living at 17 Humberstone Road, next door to William George Pye, scientific instrument maker, but by 1905 they were in 36 City Road where Barnett had lived all his life until his marriage. Nora, Jean and Francis never married but I came across a reference to all three of them as godparents to Margaret Plumb who was baptised in the baptistery at OLEM on the 30th January 1936. Margaret’s ‘Memories of a Parishioner’ are contained in Catholics in Cambridge (ed. Nicholas Rogers, 2003). Nora outlived both of her younger siblings and died in 1968 at the age of 73.
A collection of picture postcards found at the City Road premises includes seven postcards dated between 1905 and 1925 addressed to ‘Miss Nora Leach, 36 City Road, Cambridge’. All the pictures are of churches in England and Nora clearly collected them as one card (from Lucy Worrall of 44 New Square, Cambridge) asks, ‘How many postcards have you got in your book?’ The only card from abroad came from Alkmaar in the Netherlands and is of the Accijnstoren. It is from Francis, her younger brother, and simply says ‘Here is where we are’.
But it was another of those picture postcards which made me think again about the uncovered ‘N.E.Leach, milliner’ sign. It was a colour postcard of St Nicholas church, Pluckley in Kent, addressed to ‘Mrs Maclean Leach, 36 City Road, Cambridge’ and began ‘Dear N’. A common diminutive of Ellen was ‘Nellie’ and Ellen’s middle initial was ‘E’ so I now think it possible that ‘N.E. Leach, milliner’ refers not to Nora Mclean Leach, but to her mother and that Nora learnt her craft from her mother. This would make the sign date from sometime after 1905 when the family moved from Humberstone Road to live at 36 City Road.