A couple of years ago, I learned that there had once been a place in Lichfield known as Bessy Banks Grave. Appearing on several old maps, the name is also referred to in a newspaper advertisement from 1914, but seems to have disappeared shortly afterwards. The plot of land was in The Dimbles area and I suspect that the name may have been lost when the council began building houses there in the early twentieth century.
Attempts to discover the story behind the name led to a poem written by Anna Seward for her friend Honora Sneyd, at the place known as Bessy Banks Grave, which Miss Seward refers to as ‘the grave of a suicide’.
“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”
David Garrick also knew the place, adding that it was supposedly haunted and in 1805, John Jackson remarked that the spot was ‘once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy (sic) is said to have fallen victim to hapless love’.
After reading the original post, Margaret, left a comment to say that she had found a poem called ‘The Circuit Lane’, in the 1859 book ‘Rustic Rhymes’, by Frederick Price. The Circuit Lane marked part of the boundary of Lichfield, as can be seen in the following extract which appears in several history books from the early nineteenth century:
“… and so along that little cross lands unto another lane that leadeth from Lichfield to King’s Bromley and then along that lane towards Lichfield unto a little lane lying between the Grange Ground and Collin’s Hill Field commonly called the Circuit lane unto the further end of it betwixt two fields the one called Hic filius and the other Piper’s Croft and so over across a lane that leadeth from Lichfield to Elmhurst and then into another little lane between Stichbrooke Ground and Gifforde’s Crofte and so along that little lane to a green lane at the further side of the Lady Leasowe being the land of Zachary Babington Esquire and down that lane to a brook called Pone’s Brook and so over that brook into another lane called Stepping stones lane…”
As well as painting a picture of a disappeared landscape, Frederick Price’s poem also refers to the lost story of Bessy Banks. The full poem is here, but I have included an excerpt below
Daisy, ladysmock, and kingcup,
And the broad-leaved flag so gay,
With which we in pride would prink up
Doorsteps on the first of May -
Where bright flies their wings are sunning
Where shells strangely marked are found
Where the rippling brook is running
In which Bessy Banks was drowned.
Pass we these, and onward pressing
Where o’er head tall elm trees wave,
‘Tween banks rich in Nature’s dressing
Till we come to Bessy’s grave:
Here four cross-roads meet; a green mound
Indicates her place of rest;
Few spots are more lone, I ween, found
On old England’s face imprest.
Hawthorn blossoms fall and slumber
O’er where the betrayed one lies -
One more victim to the number
Sung in great Hood’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’
The betrayer, in corruption,
Lies in fetid church-yard soil,
Where e’en earthworms meet destruction
Fit ‘last home’ for one so vile.
Hence the lane has been neglected
From that time : the rustic swain
Since that hour the road rejectes
Nor dare traverse it again
Burdocks, thistles, nettles, tansy,
And the nightshade flourish there;
But the primrose or the pansey
Scarce are known to blossom near.
You’ll notice that Price’s version of the story differs from the earlier one told by Anna Seward. Perhaps the clue to this lies in the reference Price makes to ‘Hood’s Bridge of Sighs’, relating to the poem by Thomas Hood, written in 1844 and said by the Victoria and Albert Museum to be a ‘classic stereotype of the harlot and her destiny‘?
It’s interesting to see how a story like this changes over the years, and also by ‘reading between the lines’, what we can learn about the story teller and also the audience and the time for which it is being told.