Belle Tower

Around a year ago, restoration of the old church tower at Shenstone started, thanks to the fundraising efforts of a friends group founded in 2019. I recently visited for the first time since the work commenced and what a glow up there’s been.

It’s a 10 but it needs some TLC…
The old tower in April 2021
Ding dong!
The old tower August 2021

One of the highpoints of the project, literally, is the installation of a staircase which will enable visitors to climb to the top of the tower and enjoy the scenery of Staffordshire and other less illustrious counties. Joking apart, it will be interesting to see just how far can be seen from the rooftop. On my visit I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek inside to see the new staircase. I say new, there was never actually an old staircase, instead the brave bell-ringers had to climb the rungs of a ladder to access the bell ropes. An alternative albeit accidental way to ascend the tower was via one of said bell ropes. The Derby Mercury reported on some high-jinks which occurred in July 1790 when Mr Brown, a Lichfield miller was amusing himself with the ringers at Shenstone Church and, ‘was overpowered by the great bell and carried up with great velocity by the rope to the ceiling of the Belfry, from whence he fell down on the floor upwards of thirty feet. He was taken up very much bruised and quite insensible, put into a bed and carried home in a cart but fortunately having the immediate aid of a surgeon there is a prospect he may recover, although it cannot at present be discovered whether or not he has any broken limb’. On another bell related note, I heard from a resident of Shenstone that raising money for the restoration work included selling off pieces of the old wooden bell frame from the tower. I love the idea but if I find out that they didn’t refer to it as a fundraising ap-peal then I’m going to be disappointed.

Stairway to heaven

It’s referred to as ‘the Old Church Tower’ but just how old is it exactly? Evidence from excavations in the 1970s showed that the 13th century tower of the church of St John the Baptist had been built on Saxon foundations but, as I’ve said before, I suspect this site may have been sacred long before St Chad introduced Christianity to Mercia. A short distance from the church is a holy well, also dedicated to St John. Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England tells us, ‘At Shenstone, near Lichfield, a little distance from the church, was a well called ” St. John’s Well,” after the saint in whose honour the parish church is dedicated. It was looked upon as sacred from the miracles or cures wrought by its waters on St. John the Baptist’s day, June 24. For this reason was a sanctity placed upon it by the faithful, who brought alms and offerings, and made their vows at it.’

We know there was some continuity between pagan sites and Christian ones and that a well thought to have healing powers would have been spiritually significant for followers of the old gods and the new one but I’m not going to dive into that subject anymore deeply here. Whatever the origins of the well, it’s wonderful to see it still survives in the garden of Ivy House, a 17th century property on the village’s Main Street. And I do literally mean see! The house is up for sale and there’s a photo of it included in the particulars.

(c) Knight Frank

Within the estate agent’s description, there is also a reference to a priest’s hole, which is even included on the floorplan and perhaps more tenuously, an underground tunnel. Obviously there is no photo of that but intriguingly I have come across an article in the Rugeley Times from 1939 which paints an interesting picture in relation to this subterranean selling point. It describes how three years prior, workmen repairing the pathway by the old tower ruins came across the entrance to what they believed to be a tunnel leading under the steep slope towards the old tower. There had been a tradition locally that there was a ready made shelter for Shenstonians beneath the church hill should the village ever require it and the workmen’s discovery did nothing to dampen these rumours. It’s also referenced in, ‘The Annals of Shenstone’, by the Rev Essington, vicar between 1848 and 1895, who said, ‘It was said there had been an underground passage between the house (the vicarage) and the tower, and the ex-vicar regrets he never tried to trace it’. Obviously, as it seems is so often the case, the vicar at the time the apparent tunnel was discovered instructed it to be filled in. Wait, there have been rumours circulating for centuries about some kind of mysterious underground feature in your churchyard and you have the opportunity to bring the truth to light but instead choose to keep it buried? Seems to me there’s something about this story that does not ring true…

Sources:

Derby Mercury, 29th July 1790

Lichfield Mercury, 31st October 1947

The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, R C Hope (1893)

Rugeley Times, 4th March 1939

Grave Digging

I recently visited the Staffordshire village of Colwich. It’s a lovely place but as is my wont, the outcome of the outing is a tale of murder and mystery.

We start our story in May 1977, when a member of the congregation of St Michael’s and All Angels took a walk through the churchyard and almost disappeared into an unmarked vault. The vicar at the time was the daring David Woodhouse who decided to descend into the dark depths to discover what, or who, was down there. Inside the vault, he found two skeletons and whilst there is nothing unusual about bones beneath a graveyard per se, there was something not quite rite about these burials. Skeleton One lay in a coffin and Rev Woodhouse mentions two odd things about it. Firstly, a small hole in the skull and secondly, the finger bones were disarticulated suggesting that this may have been a victim of both murder and grave robbery. The strangeness doesn’t stop there though as the remains of Skeleton Two are described as surrounding the coffin containing the first. One of the keywords for me here is ‘remains’, suggesting to me that this corpse may not have been complete when it was interred here.

The vicar’s theory was the vault was built for a wealthy family who fell on hard times and were then unable to afford a memorial to the two individuals resting in peace (or more aptly in one case, pieces) within it. Everyone seemed satisfied with this explanation, the hole was bricked up and, as far as I am aware, no-one has ever thought anymore about it until I read about the mysterious vault and started doing a bit of digging that is…

Back now to 18th July 1773 and a woodland just outside of Stone, Staffordshire where John Challenor and his son, also John, are working together. The two men have just eaten lunch when an argument flares up and John Jnr throws the iron cooking pot at John Snr’s head. It’s thrown with such force that once of the metal legs pierces the older man’s skull. He dies three days later and his son is sent to gaol for parricide. On 23rd August 1773 John Challenor Jnr is executed and his body taken down and hanged in chains at a spot near to the scene of his crime.

I don’t think you need to be DCI Barnaby to work out the links between this high-summer murder and the skeletons below ground at Colwich. The hole in the skull of Skeleton One clearly corresponds with the fatal injury sustained by John Challenor Snr. What’s more, the lack of a coffin together with the seemingly jumbled and incomplete nature of Skeleton Two is in keeping with a body that’s been gibbeted and later cut down and hastily buried, although not seemingly not quickly enough to prevent time, the weather or macabre souvenir hunters from starting to take their their toll. Perhaps it was the Challenors, who not only had a very literal reminder of the skeletons in their family closet displayed for all to see at a spot near Stone, but who may also have been concerned that without a Christian burial of sorts, their relative would not be resurrected to heaven but condemned to eternal damnation. Was it enough to save John Challenor’s soul though?

Thanks to information provided by Fulford Parish Council I believe I have located the place where his body was hung in chains. On their website they say ‘On the left of Hilderstone Road when travelling towards the ‘Wheatsheaf’, and just a short distance from Spot Acre cross roads, is a stand of Beech trees known locally as ‘The Rookery’. According to local lore the gibbets used to stand here, hence the overgrown lane which runs down past Idlerocks to Moddershall being called Gibbets Lane’.

Now, as regular readers of the blog will know, I love ghost stories but if you Scooby Don’t, then stop reading now as the next part of this story requires a little belief in such matters. You see, Stone lore also tells of a boggart which haunts these parts. And what on earth is a boggart I hear the non-northerners amongst you ask? Well, you know us Lichfield people love a dictionary and so I’ve looked it up in the OED and found the following definition: “A spectre, goblin, or bogy; in dialectal use, esp. a local goblin or sprite supposed to ‘haunt’ a particular gloomy spot, or scene of violence”.

Could the the boggart be the unquiet spirit of John Challenor? I mean it doesn’t get much more gloomy than having your corpse displayed on a gibbet does it? If the naysayers are still with us at this point I’m sure they’re saying, well, nay way but I’m tempted to head over there to see if I can find any more answers. In 1933, a Mr P C Dutton of Stone told members of the North Staffordshire Field Club that the boggart took the form of a dog or a calf and so this may involve me quizzing the local cows and canines to see if they’re the spectral incarnation of an 18th century murderer. More Doctor Doolally than Doolittle I know.

On a slightly more serious note, I am increasingly keen to not only share the stories which give us a sense of place but to bring something along to the party as well. I hope my version of events has given people some food for thought but as we know from the iconic Marmite, when it comes to a Staffordshire legend there is always a risk that some people might hate it 🙂

Sources:

Aris’s Birmingham Gazette – Monday 23 August 1773

Rugeley Times 21st May 1977

Staffordshire Sentinel – Friday 19 May 1933

http://www.fulfordvillage.com/resources/History/Fulford%20Parish%20-%20Spot%20Acre.pdf

https://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng947.htm

The Pub with Two Names

An intriguing message about a strange experience at the Wolseley Arms inn received late one night inevitably led to me doing some research into the place. According to the Rugeley Times, the pub has fifteenth century origins and originated as a hunting lodge on the Wolseley estate before being transformed into a coaching inn as passing trade on the Liverpool to London Road demanded. Much to Sir Charles Wolseley’s disgust, this trade included the ‘Convict Van’ which stopped at the inn in June 1834 to change horses. It was the governor’s decision to give the 18 men on board their dinner which particularly incensed the local lord and resulted in a heated letter penned to ‘Mr Corbett, the Member for Oldham’ being published in the Staffordshire Advertiser. Clearly this was the way for local politicians to embarrass themselves and their constituents prior to Twitter being invented.

Turn right at the Roebuck

According to Wolseley’s correspondence, the coachload of convicts each received, ‘an enormous piece of the WHITEST bread, as large a lump of COLD BOILED BEEF’ as he ever saw. He then continues, ‘Well! but this was not all – for there was handed to each of THE GENTLEMEN half a pint of Mr Moxon’s best ALE!. While these CONVICT GENTLEMEN are REGALED with COLD BOILED BEEF and STAFFORDSHIRE ALE, the POOR or IRELAND are absolutely STARVING!’. By the way, the capitalisation and exclamation marks are all Sir Wolseley’s! Except that one. That’s mine.

By 1952, the Wolseley Arms was still lit by paraffin lamps and, according to the article in the Staffordshire Advertiser on 28th March of that year, it was probably one of the last in the country to be so. The article also explains how the inn was originally known as the Wolseley Arms, then changed to The Roebuck Inn and then changed back again around 1945. Confusingly, the original Roebuck Inn was what is now Wolseley Bridge Farm. In 1963, the Rugeley Times described the Wolseley Arms/Roebuck Inn as one of the few pubs in the country to be known by two names, with two signs to reflect this. However by 1973, only the Wolseley Arms sign remained, no doubt creating confusion for travellers who had been given instructions such as ‘Turn right at the ‘Buck’ by rapscallions from Rugeley.

Apparently, the original name change to The Roebuck came about as the inn became known as a place of ill repute and Sir Edward, the baronet at the time, didn’t want the family name besmirched. Ironically, the family had themselves been at the centre of an eighteenth century Staffordshire scandal when claims were made about the validity of the marriage between Sir William Wolseley and Ann ‘The Widow of the Wood’ Whitby, who may or may not have also been married to the MP for Stafford at the time. Full details of the ‘intimacy and alleged marriage’ between Whitby and Wolseley can be found in a 1755 book, which survived the Wolseley family’s best efforts to buy and burn as many copies as they could. I wonder if it’s available in our new Waterstones? Feels like there needs to be a Netflix series called ‘Wolseley Bridgerton’.

Colwich Church where the alleged marriage took place, allegedly at midnight on 23rd September 1752
The bridge and the inn are supposedly haunted by a ‘Quaker looking man’. A pub seems an odd place for a Puritan to hang out in for eternity but who am to question how someone spends their afterlife?

Supposedly the Wolseley estate had been given to the family by King Edgar as a reward for ridding the area of wolves. To celebrate, the Wolseleys adopted a family motto, ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ or ‘Man is a wolf towards his fellow man’, as the Royalist Sir Robert found out when said estate was confiscated after the Civil War. Ah, how the family fortunes of our local nobility ebb and flow like a spring time river. On the subject of rivers, the Wolseley Arms sits on one of the banks of the mighty Trent. Tradition describes it as a greedy river claiming three lives a year but whether this is a warning or a demand I do not know. Perhaps this is why in medieval time a wayfarers’ chapel was built on the crossing but it seems it was no match for the old water gods, and it was eventually swept away with the rest of the structure in 1795. Traces of the former bridge were discovered in July 1962 when engineers lowered the level of the river by 18 inches as part of a realignment project. Old blocks of sandstone were discovered along with the bases of the piers the lost bridge’s arches were built upon. The largest of these was found beneath the central arch giving rise to the theory that this is where the chapel would have stood. You can see photos of the discoveries here.

The Wolseley Arms was enlarged in April 1973 and given a new ye olde makeover with a medieval theme including swords, spears, balls and chains, suits of armour and other military ironmongery, plus a portcullis. Frankly I’m suprised they didn’t go all in and rename the pub (again) as The Drawbridge. It was renovated again in July 1982 when it was officially opened by Patrick Anson, the 5th Earl of Lichfield. The Queen’s cousin is not the only famous punter to have a pint here. NHS hero Nye Bevan popped in for a drink, as did Winifred Atwell the Trinidadian pianist who was the first black person to have a number one hit in the UK singles chart. I sincerely hope they didn’t have to buy their own STAFFORDSHIRE ALE.

References:
Staffordshire Advertiser 28 March 1952

Rugeley Times 16 August 1958

Rugeley Times 28th April 1973

Staffordshire Newsletter 16 July 1982

Rugeley Times 7 August 1954

Rugeley Times Saturday 20 April 1963

Rugeley Times 7 July 1962

The Hanging Tree


Outside Hanch Hall is an ancient chestnut tree on a godcake. That’s what our Warwickshire neigbours call a grassy triangle at a road junction because of its resemblance to a sweet pastry filled with some sort of preserve. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase traffic jam. Anyroads, this tree has intrigued me for years, it clearly of being of some age and significance. Records and maps reveal that the tree marks the parish boundary between Kings Bromley and Longdon.

In 1887, the Walsall historian Duignan estimated its age as three hundred years old and in 1894, the tradition of beating the bounds of the former was resurrected. After lunch underneath the spreading chestnut tree, where I’d like to think Staffordshire oatcakes were eaten on the godcake, a number of small boys in the party were instructed to climb up and were passed between its boughs. I’ve found an even earlier record of the tradition in the Staffordshire Advertiser in May 1838, detailing a perambulation of the boundaries of the manor of Longdon, which began at the Chestnut Tree and I’m sure it dates back centuries further still.

Local folklore tells the tale of a Victorian postman called Mr Lyons who had to pass the tree on his way to deliver mail to the village of King Bromley. On several occasions he reported seeing the ghost of a dog, pacing around the trunk. Faced with disbelief, he invited sceptics to go and see the pawprints of the giant hound for themselves. Local historian J W Jackson, who always claimed he didn’t believe in ghosts but was always ready to fire up his mystery machine regardless, went to investigate and found freshly trodden tracks around the trunk, although inconclusively concluded that, ‘What had made it, we couldn’t say’. I am sure that there is no connection between these events and the notice of a one pound reward in the Staffordshire Advertiser in October 1837 for anyone giving information to the shepherd at Hanch Hall leading to the recovery of a ‘rough, grizzled sheep dog (Bob)’.

Since posting the story about the mailman and his encounter with the demon dog on the godcake, several people have contacted me to say they’ve heard that the chestnut was a ‘Hanging Tree’, used to execute criminals. One even claimed that bones had been found in an adjacent field. Perhaps that’s what Bob the non-ghost dog had sniffed out?

Clearly a belief in this tree being a place of execution has grown from somewhere, but as yet I’ve not discovered anything to corroborate this. I do however know for that it’s not the only big, old tree at a junction to be labelled a ‘hanging tree’. Outside the now demolished Baswich House at Weeping Cross on the outskirts of Stafford, a tree also known by that grim epithet was believed to have been planted in 1832 to replace a gallows which once stood on the spot. When it was struck by lightning in 1975, the borough council decided to sell off chunks of its trunk for a quid a piece. Who says money doesn’t grow on trees?

Sources

Lichfield Mercury 25 November 1938

Burton Chronicle 18 October 1894

Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle – Saturday 30 July 1887

Staffordshire Newsletter August 8 1975

Bad Habits

It is time to say hello once again to Farewell. A little recap for those of you who did not binge read my blog during lockdown because there was, frankly, not much else to do. Farewell is named after a spring, which still flows near to the church. This ‘fair well’, if you will, would clearly have been the reason why the site was originally established as a hermitage by Bishop Roger de Clinton in the twelfth century. By 1140 it had been transferred to a community of nuns, and became a Benedictine Priory.

Women of God they may have been but there are suggestions they may not have been quite so pure as the spring water which gave the place its name. Two canonical visitations in the 14th century found that nuns would sometimes take a leisurely stroll down to Lichfield without the permission of the Prioress. Less nuns on the run, more nuns on the way to do a bit of shopping. Yes, I am showing my age with that reference. In fact, so bad were the nuns’ habits that the back door of the nunnery had to be kept locked as a result of ‘several scandals’ which I wouldn’t even like to speculate about. If you would like to, then you don’t have to Google too far afield to find similar stories. However, while we may laugh about naughty nuns and get all Carry on Convent about it, it is fascinating to think of this community of land-owning sisters doing it for themselves on the outskirts of Lichfield in the Middle Ages. I’m not claiming it was paradise but arguably there were worse options for medieval women than getting thee to an nunnery?

Of course, the Priory did not survive horrible Henry’s reformation and in 1527 the remaining nuns said farewell to Farewell and their lands were given to Lichfield Cathedral. We know the last prioress, Elizabeth Kylshaw, was transferred to the aptly named Nuneaton but her presence may still be in evidence here with a possible carving of her initials on an oak seat in the sanctuary. It seems that the church was then largely abandoned until the 17th century by when the Priory buildings had most likely been pilfered by locals for its stone, some of which you can see reused in local walls and houses in the lanes between Lichfield and Burntwood. The Church of St Mary was rebuilt in the 18th century and re-dedicated to St Bartholomew. During the restoration, a number of earthenware vessels were discovered built into the church’s south wall. Each lay on their side, their openings facing the church and covered with a thin layer of plaster. Their exact purpose is unknown but they may have been ‘acoustic jars’, used to improve the building’s resonance. I have heard of them being found elsewhere but, to the best of my knowledge, they are the only examples of this practice in Staffordshire.

All that survives of the Priory today, visibly at least, is the stone chancel of the chapel. In 1993, when installing a new toilet at the church, the remains of the other priory buildings were discovered. Unfortunately, the article in the Sandwell Evening Mail does not specify where but does include a brilliant quote from one of the archaeologists who said the discovery did not mean an end to hopes for a new toilet. Priory priorities eh? As such, I’m still trying to flush out exactly where the buildings would have been. I had read they were in the vicinity of where Farewell Hall now stands but that seems a long way to walk if you are caught short during a service. In August 1931, the North Staffordshire Field Club visited the hall and were shown the alleged blocked up entrance to a tunnel in the basement which led to the church but but believe me, since starting this blog, I’ve stood in enough cellars with supposed secret passages to think the majority of these stories are just pulling our chain.

Both the church and hall are now approached by a drive, but until relatively recent times, the only approach was via a farmer’s field. Local historian JW Jackson was once the organist at St Bartholomew’s in 1887 and writing in the Lichfield Mercury, described how to protect the right of way, the farmer would meet an approaching funeral to collect a few pence from the undertaker for bringing the hearse over his land. In another of his history columns, self-confessed supernatural sceptic Mr Jackson described how he was once playing the organ in a local church late at night when, ‘something impelled me to look around, and there in the dark part of the western end I distinctly saw what appeared to be the figure of a beautiful lady in a shining light’. Joining the dots here, it seems that this mysterious apparition may have materialised at St Bartholomew’s. It wouldn’t be the only uncanny encounter in these parts. Recently, I was told a story about someone picking up a distressed woman from Cross in Hand Lane, the old pilgrimage route running between Farewell and Lichfield. He dropped her off at a pub in Burntwood and then decided to go inside and check if she was ok. He was informed by those inside that no-one else had entered the pub for some time. Perhaps it was one of those nuns and she’d been hoping to hitch a lift to go shopping in Lichfield like in the old days instead?

Sources:
Staffordshire Past Track

http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2021/08/blog-post.htm

https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/pp222-225

Sandwell Evening Mail 16 July 1993

Staffordshire Sentinel 21 August 1931

Lichfield Mercury 29 January 1943

The Curse of Crakemarsh Hall

Our story about Crakemarsh Hall begins at the end. The last member of the Cavendish family left in 1968 and in the thirty years which followed the hall fell into disrepair before being demolished in 1998. So far, so standard for a minor country mansion. Less standard however is that as decay crept over Crakemarsh, the only item remaining in its derelict shell was the curse carrying, life-sized portrait of Robert Dickinson, father of former owner Elizabeth Ann Cavendish.

Elizabeth had bought Crakemarsh in June 1900, with money given to her by her father on the occasion of her marriage to Charles Tyrell Cavendish who sadly died three years later at what was then known as the Royal Cheadle Asylum, the life assurance policy taken out in his name describing him as ‘a person on unsound mind’. The painting of her father was hung in pride of place at the foot of the salvaged seventeenth century staircase around which the hall had been rebuilt in 1815. However, following the death of two maids who had recently cleaned it, remaining staff refused to touch it. Was it these fatalities which led Mrs Cavendish to write the following warning onto the reverse of the canvas?

“I hope whoever succeeds me at Crakemarsh Hall will cherish this painting above all others or evil will befall them. It was my father’s money that enabled me to by Crakemarsh and the right to be called the master of the house”.

When Elizabeth died in 1933, the contents of the hall were put up for sale, including the cursed painting, although that’s not how they described it in the catalogue. Perhaps if they had, someone might have bought it because I would argue that buying a hexed work of art isn’t as weird as buying a picture of someone else’s Dad. Anyway, the presence of Mr Dickinson remained in the house his mining money had paid for until 1980, when the painting was cut from its frame by someone who I like to think got it home, spotted the curse and then had to hang it up and cherish it for evermore. If you ever go round someone’s house and there’s a massive painting of a Victorian bloke on their wall that looks completely out of place but well cared for, do let me know. As fate would have it was probably this act of larceny which prevented the portrait from going up in flames, when hall was gutted by fire. The place had obviously acquired a reputation for being creepy Crakemarsh at this stage as, when asked if the blaze had been started by someone sleeping rough there, a representative of East Staffordshire District Council commented, ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to spend a night there. It is a weird and eerie house, the nearest to a haunted house I’ve been in. It is an odd place to go in on a bright sunny day, let alone at night’.

As if one family curse wasn’t enough, Elizabeth’s son Tyrell Cavendish and his new American wife Julia Florence Siegel made Little Onn Hall their marital home at the end of 1906. Locals called the house unlucky, most likely due to a sinister stone, which had supposedly been kicked by a cow as it escaped from a witch (it’s a long story. You can read more here) sitting at the end of one of its driveways. The cursed stone was said to predict the family’s fortunes. If it remained above ground, all would be well. However, if it were to sink into the Staffordshire soil it stood on, there was trouble ahead. Some say that in the days before Tyrell and Julia Cavendish boarded the RMS Titanic, to visit her parents in America, the stone had almost sunk into the ground entirely.

Elizabeth and a young Tyrell

As well as the not so subtle sign of the sinking stone, a further portent of doom followed in the form of a premonition Elizabeth had about the ship her son was to sail on sinking. Little wonder then that the will of Tyrell Cavendish is dated April 9th 1912, the day before he boarded the infamously ill-fated vessel. Accounts of his final hours aboard the stricken ship describe how Tyrell Cavendish saw his wife Julia and her maid Miss Barber to safety before returning to help fill the remaining lifeboats with women and children, keeping men who tried to take their place at bay with a revolver. His final words were, ‘Well there are no more boats to fill so we will shake hands and hope that we meet again soon”, before jumping overboard. Two weeks later his body was found off the Newfoundland coast.

‘Sir’ Benjamin Tyrell

Running alongside the story of the Cavendish family is a subplot involving a cab driver from Burton who lost his leg in an act of heroism trying to stop a runaway horse at the now demolished White Hart Hotel in Burton on Trent. Or maybe Benjamin Tyrell is actually the main character because, like his father and his father before him, he was utterly convinced that he was the rightful heir to both Crakemarsh and Thornton Hall in Buckinghamshire. The Tyrells claimed to be descendants of Sir Thomas Tyrell and wanted their baronetcy back, along with the associated estates. In the past, the Tyrells had taken the family tree idea quite literally by sneaking into the grounds of Thornton Hall and felling some timber to assert their ancient rights. In August 1880, a Press Association telegram reported that Tyrell senior had entered the then unoccupied Thornton Hall but had eventually been persuaded to leave by the Head Gardener. I can only hope that at one point he asked, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Tyrell had announced he would ‘return on the ‘morrow with assistance to demand admission and possession’. In response, the property agent and members of the Buckingham constabulary turned up on the morrow but Tyrell declined to make an appearance.

Benjamin, the Cabman Baronet of Burton, decided that he would pursue the family title a different way, amassing a range of evidence acquired in libraries and record offices over forty years, in the hope of mounting a legal challenge against the Cavendish family. A local lawyer was so impressed by the strength of Benjamin’s claim that he offered to take on the case for free. At first the story seemed far-fetched but in a tale already involving a murderous portrait and a fortune telling stone I was willing to suspend my disbelief even further and incredibly it seems that the Tyrells were not just some family tree fantasists and there had indeed been some shady shenanigans going on down south in Thornton. According to the Wolverton and District Archaeological and Historical Society, local Tyrell descendants said that the monuments of their ancestors were torn from the church and thrown into the river by the Rev William Cotton who married Hester, the official Tyrell heir, and seemed pretty determined to eliminate any evidence which might cast doubt on her status. It’s a claim that seems to be backed up by an account of the church from 1735 describing how there were no memorials to any of ‘the six (Tyrell) baronets, their ladies and children’. Equally suspicious is the fact that several pertinent pages had been torn from the church’s parish register and so, despite my initial scepticism, I found myself rooting for Team Tyrell.

St Michaels and All Angels, Thornton by Philip Jeffrey, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42396827

It was to no avail though as despite securing an audience with Edward VII to discuss his claim, Benjamin Tyrell never managed to restore his family’s fortune and died on 22nd March 1927 aged 80. I’d love to find his grave and see it makes any reference to his adventures in ancestry. Benjamin’s son Thomas, a brewery labourer from Burton, was interviewed by the Daily Mirror in October 1954 and said at the age of 68 he was giving up on his family’s claim, despite him believing it to be legitimate, as he and his wife had no children of their own and no-one to continue to fight for their rights to chop down trees in Buckinghamshire. ‘Still, it’ll make a good story’, said the Baron of Queen Street Burton. How right he was.

Sources:

https://uttoxeterruralparishcouncil.org.uk/stramshall-history

The Ancient Manor of Crakemarsh, a history by John Walker

Northern Whig 13 May 1924

Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 13 April 1913

Burton Observer and Chronicle 15 May 1924

Birmingham Gazette 18 October 1954

Liverpool Mercury 30 August 1880

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/tyrell-william-cavendish.html

Onn the Hoof

Today I was going to look for a cursed stone imprinted with a cow’s hoof, after she kicked it in fury on realising she’d been tricked into being milked dry by a witch. However, as it appears the local petrol stations have now been milked dry I am not sure I can afford to go on a fifty mile round trip right now. Curse them.

Image (c) NLS

I would have been heading over Church Eaton way, where old maps show a ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross’, marked at a crossroads just outside of the village. A lovely email I had recently had asked if I knew who Joan was, as there were rumours she had been a witch. Snippets in local newspapers confirm this to be a long-standing local legend, although there was an interesting suggestion from an article in the Staffordshire Newsletter that she may have actually been the village’s patron saint. As one of those rare creatures, a woman whose name appears in the historical record of a place, she was always going to be sanctified or demonised wasn’t she? This small triangle of grass at the junction of the roads to Little and High Onn is said to be either her grave or the site of her execution, possibly both. The name ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross‘ suggests there may have once been a marker of sorts here but if there ever was it’s long since been replaced by a ‘Give Way’ sign.

Given Joan supposedly had a habit of stealing the milk from the neighbourhood cows, if her bones do lie beneath that patch of grass they’re surely going to be in pretty good nick thanks to all that calcium.

The story that I’ve pieced together from several accounts is that it was an encounter with the Dun Cow, a mythical creature the size of a bus, which ultimately led to Joan’s downfall. The owner of Redhouse Farm in Little Onn challenged her to have a go at milking it and Joan tricked the magical beast by using a sieve. When the cow realised it had been milked dry and done dirty, it kicked off and ran from the field leaving one of her hoof prints on a stone at the gate. Joan warned the farmer that if the stone were ever to be removed, Very Bad Things would happen. This pretty much confirmed the villagers’ suspicions that Joan was a witch and so she was taken to the crossroads where she was burned at the stake.

The Dun Cow was about the same size as this bus

Now, as much as I love a classic witch/magical cow/cursed stone bit of folklore, I need to separate the curds from the absolutely no whey did that happen. The appearance of the Dun Cow is obviously the first red flag that there’s a fair bit of bull in the tale. That’s not just because huge and magical heifers don’t exist but also because a very similar version of the story is told in Warwickshire. Except they have the heroic Guy of Warwick slaying it and went as far as displaying one of its ribs (which was actually the tusk of a narwhal, a huge and magical creature which really shouldn’t exist given that it’s essentially a sea unicorn) at the castle for many years. These South Midlands counties are so extra. Secondly, the part where Joan was burned at the stake for being a witch is a ropey old trope given that witches in England were hanged. One element of the story for which there does seem to be some sort of evidence however, is the existence of the stone.

At some point, it was moved from its original location at Redhouse Farm to the gates of Little Onn Hall and, as Joan warned, a Very Bad Thing happened as all of the cattle in the area died. This new location seems to have made things even worse as became apparent when a man was thrown from his horse and killed, after being spooked by the stone. Greeting guests with a cursed rock at your gate is not particularly welcoming and so the hall’s owner tried to move it. Sixteen horses failed to pull the it from the ground and each one of them was dead within a fortnight. A local chap was then employed to dig away the soil from around it and beneath it in an attempt to bury it. He succeeded in sinking it a yard or so, but found himself six feet under within a week. From then onwards, the fate of the resident family at Little Onn Hall became forever bound to the cursed stone. If it sank further into the ground, it followed that their fortunes would founder. Intriguingly, one writer relaying the story described how the house was once owned by a well-know family whose name began with a ‘C’ (that’s the original writer being cryptic, not me). I’m fairly sure I know which family he was referring to and, for me, there is something uncanny about a family whose fate was supposed foretold by a sinking stone being onboard RMS Titanic when it sank. However, we will return to unearth that story another day as incredibly it isn’t the only curse connected to the family.

Cursed image from Google Maps

The stone was still there in August 1956, when the ‘Old Stafford Society’ visited and described it as being covered in marks resembling a cow’s hoof prints. I think I may have found it on Google Earth but obviously can’t make out any marks on it from here. Once this petrol nonsense sorts itself out, I’ll go for a closer look although I suppose I could always dig out my broomstick if things get really desperate…

Sources:

Staffordshire Newsletter 18 August 1956

Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 25 November 1846

Raiders of the Lost Bark

There’s a little village in Staffordshire called Aston. Well, officially it’s called Aston-by-Stone as at some point they clearly got fed up of people not having a clue where it was and always having to explain ‘by Stone’, and just incorporated it into the name. Around fifty years ago, this tiny place hit the headlines of the local press on the basis that it was thought to be hiding a big secret. As a media circus descended upon the village, some may have been wistfully nostalgic for those days when no-one knew where it was.

Throughout much of its history, the Aston Hall estate had Catholic connections and since 1961, has been owned by the Birmingham Archdiocese and used as a retirement home for priests. Apart from five-a-side football, possibly, life was quiet and uneventful here until one day it was noticed that one of the trees in the grounds was in a dangerous condition. This was not just any old tree though but an ancient acacia with a legend attached. The tale told how there was treasure buried beneath its branches but that any riches at its roots would be revealed only if the tree fell down of its own accord, rather than being felled.

Understandably, it was decided that safety rather than superstition had to come first and in April 1974, the tree was cut down. A supposed conversation between one of the nuns and a former owner of the hall together with promising results from a metal detector suggested there may actually be some substance to the story and there was speculation amongst the priests that the subterranean secret may be some sort of sacred chalice. Disappointingly, when the tree was toppled, there was no holy grail or anything else in the hole. Despite this, the Sister Superior still had faith that the story still had some roots in reality and was quoted by the assembled press as saying ‘There must have been some grounds for the legend….’.

I’m with Sister O’Sullivan on this. I’ve read enough myths and legends to believe that on the (w)hole, even the most fanciful folklore does not just materialise out of thin air. For me, it’s not so much about whether spectres and secret tunnels exist but rather why the stories about them do, and why they persist. I do have theory about the treasure of Aston Hall and it relates to a bona fide discovery made here in 1838, although perhaps given the the nature of what Father Benjamin Hulme found beneath the altar of the hall’s chapel, bone fide would be a more fitting description. Inside a velvet-covered box and wrapped in silk were some of the relics of St Chad, smuggled out of Lichfield by Canon Arthur Dudley during horrible Henry’s reformation. Their three hundred year journey had taken them to the homes of a number of Catholic families in the Midlands for safekeeping, including that of Henry Hodgetts who kept them above his bed. The bones were enshrined in Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral when it was consecrated in June 1841, in a casket designed by Pugin which he based on the Venerable Bede’s description of the original at Lichfield Cathedral. In the mid-1990s, they were examined by scientists who dated all but one of the bones to the 7th century which fits in time-wise with Chad’s death in 672. However, the presence of two left femurs amongst these means that there are the remains of three individuals here in total. It’s widely accepted that one of them is Lichfield’s patron saint but, barring some miracle, the identity of the other two will forever remain a mystery.

The shrine of St Chad at Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral

At this point, I think it’s worth noting that Lichfield Cathedral once held a whole host of relics. In 1345, these included some of the bones of St Lawrence, plus part of the gridiron he was martyred on, some of Mount Calvary and Golgotha, a piece of the rock standing upon which Jesus wept bitterly and wept over Jerusalem, some of the bones of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, part of the finger and cowl of St William, some of the bread of St Godric and some of the wood of the cross of St Peter. Is it possible Canon Dudley managed to lay his hands on more than just the arm and leg bones of St Chad perhaps? And were these hidden relics the source of the story that there was booty buried here at the hall? As, um, Captain Jack Sparrow once said, ‘Not all treasure’s silver and gold, mate’.

Stained glass windows at St Chad’s Cathedral tell the the story of how St Chad’s relics made the three hundred year journey from Lichfield to Birmingham. I think chances of a new one showing a nun sat on an excavator next to an acacia tree being added in are slim to be honest

As a footnote, in the boundary wall at Aston Hall there is supposedly a cross commemorating a monk who was struck by lightning. I never managed to find it but then we all know that X never, ever marks the spot. But then neither does an ancient acacia tree apparently…

Sources:

HT to @stymistress on Twitter for inspiring the title!

https://lichfieldlore.co.uk/tag/relics/

Staffordshire Newsletter April 12th 1974

Birmingham Post 6th April 1974

Cope, N. Stone, the history of a market town

http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2020/06/how-saint-chads-relics-were-removed.html

Pipe Lines

The traffic lights at Pipe Hill crossroads are haunted. Let’s just put that out there right away. Ever since this was pointed out to me by Deb from Melbourne in Lichfield, I’ve often found myself on red, sat waiting for something that I can’t see to pull out of Fosseway Lane. I’m imagining this spectral vehicle to be a Roman chariot because that’s the way to Wall and all of us good classical scholars know that ‘fosse’ is a Latin word meaning ditch. We also all know that ‘Caecilius est in horto‘ but we’re going up Pipehill not Up Pompeii.

Yes that is snow on the ground. Yes this has taken me a while to write.

The Walsall Road was once owned by the Lichfield Turnpike Trust who had built a toll house and gate on it by 1787. In November 1879, the Trust held an auction at the Three Crowns inn, to dispose of them. The Victoria County History suggests the house was probably demolished by 1909, although the person who lives in it assures me that it probably wasn’t. The supposition most likely arises from a parish meeting at Hammerwich in 1909, where an old minute notebook from Pipe Hill parish (which by then had joined up with Wall) was produced, saying that the tollhouse had been sold to the Marquess of Anglesey on the condition it be taken down. At the time of the meeting the building was still standing but encroaching significantly on the footpath and the matter was referred to the overseers of Wall.

Further along towards Muckley Corner is Pipe Place, a mid-eighteenth century farm house. When owner Mr Bradburne was in horto he made a fascinating discovery that, like so much of our local Roman history, has never been acknowledged enough in meam humilem opinionem. As he was digging a drain, Bradburne discovered the trunks of several oak trees deliberately driven upright into the ground. Some had rotted away above the surface, but others were still whole, each with, ‘a cavity four inches wide and three inches wide from the top cut down its middle’. The structure was traced for about a quarter of a mile and was surrounded by a ‘fosse’ filled with peat.

From ‘A Topographical History of Staffordshire by William Pitt (1817)’

According to the Heritage Environment Record, this could still be seen as a linear feature on aerial photos in the 1990s but my amateur eyes can’t make anything out on Google maps. The Georgian gents who originally found it thought it must have been a military barricade erected by the Romans to defend Letocetum but more recently it has been suggested by archaeologist Jim Gould that it may have been an aqueduct built to provide the settlement with water. If you think about it logically, the water for that big bath at Wall must have come from somewhere. Two lengths of lead piping were discovered on the bath house site in 1874, last seen in the Lichfield Museum in 1961 but long since vanished with much else of the collection. In a later excavation, deer horns, a number of dogs’ skulls and the thigh bone of a teenage boy were discovered. Unfortunately, as yet I can’t find anything else about the context in which they were found although the pony skull discovered at the bottom of a nearby well may well have been a votive offering. It probably belongs to that one pulling that spectral chariot up at Pipe Hill cross roads.

Image from Lichfield Mercury. It was definitely a long term policy…

Let us now gallop 1,500 years forward in time from possible pagan practices to Victorian values. The Misses Topham opened an establishment at Pipe Hill for young ladies in 1856 and I’m sure there were definitely some good classical scholars amongst them. In 1882, a tiny chapel was built at Pipe Hill, as a mission room to the church at Wall and during the First World War, a street shrine listing the names of those from the local community who were serving their country stood outside it. These shrines were different to the later memorials we are all familiar with in that they were as much about praying for the living as remembering the dead, and were often bestrewn with offerings of flowers, flags and photographs. Perhaps we didn’t come all that far from those pagan practices after all….The Pipe Hill Mission Church didn’t quite last a century and after laying disused for several years it was bought by Staffordshire County Council and demolished in 1971. One other institution which warrants a brief mention is the Pipe Hill and Farewell Association for Prosecuting Felons who advertised in the Staffordshire Advertiser in November 1817 a list of rewards they offered for the apprehension and conviction of those committing offences such as ‘highway robbery’ (£21), ‘wrongfully milking any cow’ (£5 5s) and ‘maliciously pulling up turnips’ (£2 2s).

Finally, how can I write about Pipe Hill and not mention Lichfield’s creepiest cottage? The property has been empty and decaying ever since I moved here in 2004, intriguing us all with its mysterious ‘Not for sale or rent’ notice. I drove past earlier and saw this is no longer the case. Much of the wilderness surrounding it had been cleared and for just under £300,000 cash, it can be yours. I strongly suspect the traffic lights won’t be the only thing changing at Pipe Hill in the near future…

Sources

Staffordshire Advertiser 29th November 1817 and 30th January 1915

Gould, J. (1998) Letocetum

https://www.lichfielddc.gov.uk/downloads/file/1849/hammerwich-neighbourhood-plan-submission-version-march-2021

Lichfield Mercury 31st October 1879 and 3rd November 1916

‘Townships: Wall with Pipehill’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 283-294. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp283-294 [accessed 25 July 2021

The Hauntings of Ravenhill House

I say this with nothing but affection but, for me, Rugeley is the creepy capital of Staffordshire. Never mind the drama of the Moorlands with its mermaids or our fancy phantoms from the Civil War here in Lichfield. If you google, ‘What is Rugeley famous for?’, the answer is a murderer. If you google, ‘What else is Rugeley famous for?’, the answer is another murder. I may return to these infamous events at some point but for now it’s one of the town’s lesser told stories I want to share as further paranormal proof of my bold claim.

Spotted in a garden in Rugeley. I rest my case m’lud.

At the turn of the 19th century, William Hewitt was a young man who had recently entered into the employment of a titled gentleman at Ravenhill House. Hewitt recalled how the house and its grounds were scenic in summer but that come winter, it turned into a dark and dismal place with scarcely a light to be seen. The owner would disappear for months at a time and it was during one of these absences that speculation that a spectre had been spotted in the area arose. The ghost was first seen at the top of Redbrook Lane, by a man returning from a night at his local and two nights later, another man returning home from the pub was startled when the supposed spook sprang out at him. Several more appearances of the apparition followed to the point that there was genuine sense of fear in the community with many people choosing not to venture out after dark.

One group of residents decided that they weren’t afraid of no ghost and took to patrolling the streets at night. One evening, a gang of twenty men headed to the shadowy spot where the ghost had been known to materialise but there was no sign of the shade to be seen and over the next few weeks sightings subsided. Then, one night, Mr Hewitt was returning from Rugeley town with two friends, when they caught sight of something white standing in the gateway to Ravenhill House. One of them lashed out at it with a stick and it fell to the ground with a very earthly thud. In proper Scooby Doo fashion, the friends pulled the white sheet from the now prostrate phantom but before they could reveal its identity, they noticed a considerable amount of blood on the sheet. Finding themselves in the unusual position of thinking they’d killed someone who until two minutes prior they’d believed to already be a ghost, they panicked and ran off. A few days later, Hewitt, Fred and Shaggy heard a rumour that an employee of Ravenhill House was in bed with a nasty crack on the head, having apparently caught his foot on the carpet and fallen downstairs. Yes, that’s right. The butler did it and what’s more, he would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Actual footage of events on Redbrook Lane

The irony here is that Ravenhill House did actually have a genuine ghost, as far as any ghost can be genuine. An apparition of an elderly woman dressed in blue was witnessed by residents and guests on several occasions, her main haunt being a chair in the drawing room as, like all ladies of a certain age, she enjoyed a nice sit down. The lady in blue was such a feature of the house that when Harry Thornton drew a map of the house in the 1980s, based on information supplied by Major T. Gardener, whose parents lived in the house from 1920 to 1936, she was included albeit it as the ‘Grey Lady’. Perhaps she, or possibly Major Gardener’s memory of her, had faded over time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is map-of-ravenhill-house-from-staffs-pasttrack.png
‘Here be ghost(s)’. A map of Ravenhill House from Staffordshire Past Track website

Sadly, Ravenhill House was demolished in 1993 with its final moments captured in a series of photographs which can be seen on the Staffordshire Past Track site here.

Sources:

Rugeley Times Archive
https://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/details.aspx?ResourceID=29614&ExhibitionID=29552