In Fradley Fields

RAF Lichfield, or Fradley Aerodrome as it was sometimes known,  was Staffordshire’s busiest airfield during the Second World War. At its peak, there were over 3,500 people serving there. Note I say people and not men. At Fradley, as at other airfields up and down the country, women made an enormous contribution.

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Author: 66usual (taken from Wikipedia)

Some of the women associated with RAF Lichfield were Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilots, who delivered aircraft to and from the base.  It’s said that Amy Johnson was amongst them and that Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia, was the first person to touch down on the runway at when the airfield opened on 1st August 1940, and 51 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) took up residence. Johnson lost her life on one of the ATA ferrying missions, flying an Airspeed Oxford from Prestwich to RAF Kidlington.   After the war, the job of 51 M.U. was to break up aircraft. Although these were mostly recycled, according to David Mace of the Jet Age museum who contacted me early last year, some parts may have been dumped in the hedges and woodlands surrounding the airfield. Although nothing has turned up yet, several walks in the area have brought other new discoveries and so, I remain hopeful that some trace of the 900 Typhoons , 500 Liberators and 150 Fortresses broken up here might still remain in amongst the surviving hangars and other buildings.

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One of the most intriguing recent discoveries is this scribble on the wall of one of the buildings believed to have been used to store ammunition.

From 23rd April 1941, until the end of the war,  RAF Lichfield was home to 27 O.T.U which trained crews from mainly Australia (you may have noticed a bench in The Close with a plaque commemorating the many Australian airmen who served at Fradley) and other Commonwealth countries before they went on to join their squadrons. australian-airmen-plaque

Sadly, some didn’t get that far and many of those who were killed whilst training at Fradley are buried at the church of St Stephen in the village. They may have lost their lives but I’m determined that we don’t lose their stories, or the stories of the other ordinary men and women who were brought together at RAF Lichfield in extraordinary circumstances and loved and lived, laughed and cried here.   Later this month, we’re holding a community meeting in Fradley to discuss how best to carry on the work of the now defunct RAF Lichfield Association and continue to tell the stories of the airfield and its people. Together, we will remember.

If anyone would like to get involved, or has any stories or information to share regarding RAF Lichfield and those who served here, please do get in touch via the blog.

The Leomansley Witch Project

Imagine you’re watching a horror film. A woman heads into ancient woods which are shrouded in mist. And before long, she comes across a tree. With an eye stuck to it.

leomansley-mist

Chances are at this point in the film, you’d be shouting, ‘Don’t go in there. Run away!, whilst feeling smugly confident behind your cushion that you’d never be as stupid as to stay hanging around in mist shrouded woods where there are eyes stuck to trees. Well, I was in Leomansley Woods earlier this week. It was shrouded in mist and there was an eye on a tree. But did I leg it? No. And not just because I don’t do running under any circumstances.

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If something wicked that way had come, I had Finn the swamp dog to protect me and my experience of fighting off a clown in Beacon Park earlier in the month to draw upon. Crucially though, I know and love these woods and consider the tokens and trinkets that have been appearing there since the summer more curious than creepy, possibly symbols of someone else’s affection for them.

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Back in 2004, when I was a newcomer to these parts, I remember getting a call from my sister telling me to go and take a look in the woods as somebody, or more likely somebodies, had created works of art in amongst the trees. There were mosaics created from leaves and petals, clay faces sculpted onto the trunks of trees and brightly coloured papers hanging from their branches. For reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t take any photographs but I can clearly recall the sense of mystery and magic someone had created in the woods that day. We never discovered who or why and there was no encore. The seasons turned and the years went by and then, early this summer, we began to notice things. At first it was subtle. A pebble placed here, a strip of silver birch bark there. It was the first piece of pottery appearing lodged in the knot of a tree that convinced us this was more than the handy work of squirrels and our overactive imaginations. Dog walks took on a new dimension as every day seemed to bring something new. I’m sure at its peak, others were joining in and making their own contributions. And this time I did bring my camera.

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As the summer faded, the activity seemed to wane, and I’d assumed there would be no more. The other half took over the dog walks for a while but recently, for reasons involving a prolapsed disc, I took up the lead once again. Many of the original tree decorations had vanished but a handful of hawthorn berries, melted candle wax and a tickle of feathers (that’s genuinely and rather pleasingly the collective noun for them) had taken their place. Interestingly, others seem to be joining in once again, including the Leomansley contingent of the One Direction fan club.

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Once again, the who and why is a mystery, and perhaps that is how it should remain. Whether activity continues beyond the season of the witch or not, for me, Leomansley Woods will always remain a magical place.leomansley-cobweb

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Crime Scenery

I know. It’s been a while. You don’t know what I did this summer but I’d quite like to confess. There have been visits to gibbets, wells, shrines, mausoleums, derelict churches, ruined abbeys, tunnels and places with names which sound a bit rude. It’s less about serious history and more about a series of stories told by the landscape that surrounds us. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear them (especially over the sound of my friend Jacky eating crisps), sometimes they shout in your face via an interpretation board funded by the parish council.  If you’re sitting comfortably*, then I’ll begin by sharing** evidence from some of the crime related activities we’ve been getting up to.

*unlike another friend Eddie the time we visited an old priory and had to stick him in the back of a van
**unlike Jacky with her crisps

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Katie. When she grew up she wanted to be Mavis Cruet from Willo the Wisp. For a short while, she lived in Coleshill in North Warwickshire and almost everyday she’d walk past the town’s pillory. At the time she didn’t realise that it was a rare example combining three methods of corporal punishment i.e. stocks, a pillory AND a whipping post, and was last used in 1863, but she was curious all the same.

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Coleshill Pillory by Michael Garlick from geography.org.uk http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Many years passed and in August 2016,  Katie was visiting her parents in Stone in Staffordshire when she turned off too early towards Hilderstone. This was in no way down to her lack of navigational skills, there was a tree obscuring the ‘Hilder’ bit of the sign. Around the corner was a patch of grass with a set of stocks.

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Despite extensive research (doing a google search), she couldn’t find any information on them. Katie hadn’t grown up to be Mavis Cruet, but she had continued to be curious. How many more sets of stocks were there around the country? Had anyone ever recorded them? Who had been publicly humiliated and punished here and what were the reasons? Our towns and cities are filled with monuments to the so-called great and good of society. Are these our monuments to those considered petty and bad who lived on its fringes? And so, after musing over these thoughts with friend Patti who already had a knowledge of and interest in this area, they decided to set up a discussion group called ‘Offending Histories’, with the aim of finding remaining physical evidence of crime and punishment across the Midlands and telling the sort of stories in which no one lives happily. Ever after or otherwise.

In just a month, we’ve already started to record a fascinating range of sites and objects. Here are some samples of the more local examples.

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a Scold's Bridle or brank on display. There's an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here - http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/…/object-of-the-mo…/). Of particular interest is the following reference,

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a scold’s bridle or brank on display. There’s an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here. Of particular interest is the following reference, “In 1789, the brank was used in Lichfield. A local farmer enclosed a woman’s head “to silence her clamorous Tongue” and led her round a field while boys and girls “hooted at her” “Nobody pitied her because she was very much disliked by her neighbours.”

Outside St Michael's church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word 'hanged' appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others who were executed and buried e.g. John Wilson Sept 23rd 1583 and John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others e.g. John Wilson on Sept 23rd 1583 and, John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door in Elford church, dating to circa 1450AD. By touchin the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time. If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book 'Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages' tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who 'killed the gaoler's attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church'. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church'. Another example comes from Colton History Society - in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl; he fled to the church and took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was abolished 1623.

At St Peter’s in Elford, Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door dating to circa 1450AD. By touching the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time (this seems to have been forty days which is a nice biblical number) . If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book ‘Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages’ tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who ‘killed the gaoler’s attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church’. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church’. Another example comes from Colton History Society – in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl and fled to the church where he took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was officially abolished in 1623.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attemping to murder his step- daughter. Massey's headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attempting to murder his step- daughter. Massey’s headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

Unable to find much on this pillor outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley, but it does appear to have been relocated here at some point.

Pillory outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley. Appears to have been relocated here at some point as not shown on early 19thc photographs of the pub

It is a dark subject at times but there are lighter moments too. Currently providing wry amusement is the question of how, and indeed why, was a seventeenth century cucking stool stolen from the church of St Edward at Leek? A meta-criminal mastermind at work? It’s very much an ongoing exploration and if you are interested or better yet, have something to contribute, and aren’t offended by an element of gallows humour, please do join our Offending History group here

St Giles and St Michael

St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and surely it’s no coincidence that there was a medieval hospital at nearby Freeford caring for those unfortunates suffering from the disease.  Less readily explicable is the short lived name change at the end of the ninteenth century when, according to the Whittington History Society, the church was known as St Matthew’s for around twenty years, before reverting back to St Giles in the 1890s.

Whittington church

The church history guide, handed to me by two kind ladies who found me loitering outside and invited me in, condenses eight hundred (ish) years of history into four paragraphs. Quality not quantity. It tells how a church has stood on this site since the thirteenth century, built with red sandstone from nearby Hopwas Woods.

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The edge of Hopwas Woods as seen from the canal.  There is a suggestion that stone for ecclesiastical purposed was quarried from an area of the woods given the tongue in cheek name of ‘The Devil’s Dressing Room’

The only original part standing today is the base of the tower, with the nave being rebuilt in 1761 following a fire and the chancel added in the 1880s. The Jacobean oak pulpit, installed here in 1922, was originally donated to Lichfield Cathedral in 1671. One hundred and eighteen years later it was moved to St Peter’s at Elford  but was discarded when that church was renovated in 1848 and lay disused in the stables of Elford Hall until a new home was found at St Giles. Apparently, at some point in this game of pass the pulpit, the Cathedral made enquiries about getting it back but obviously nothing ever came of this.

Whittington stained glass

More recycling can be found in the north and south windows of the chancel, where there are fragments of medieval painted glass thought to originate from the Benedictine Abbey at Burton. Presumably it was brought here following the dissolution but exactly why and how I don’t know, so if anyone fancies looking into Whittington’s windows in more depth, please do.

Whittington organ

Then, up on the balcony, there’s an organ, paid for by public subscription as a memorial to sixteen villagers killed in WW1. The brass plate at the front is inscribed with the name of the fallen and was made from a shell case brought from Mons battlefield. The church registers also records other WW1 deaths, with several servicemen from the military hospital at the nearby barracks and one from Brocton Camp at Cannock Chase buried here in late 1918, their deaths possibly related to the Spanish Influenza pandemic of that year.

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One unexpected celebrity burial here is Thomas Spencer, co-founder of Marks and Spencer, who came to live in Whittington to pursue his love of farming after retiring from the partnership which began on 28th September 1894, when he invested £300 into a business owned by Michael Marks. The church hall is named after him, built with funding from the retailer in 1984. Just as a bit of background, Marks had started out working as a pedlar selling wares from a bag and from this he went on to open a market stalls in Leeds, which became known as the Penny Bazaar. The stall featured the poster ‘Don’t ask the price, its a penny’. I suspect plenty still did, a tradition still carried on in Poundland today (other single price retailers are available but this one gets a mention as it started up the road in Burton).  The St Michaels brand was introduced by chairman Simon Marks to honour his father, who came to this country as an immigrant from Belarus with little money or English and founded a British Institution.

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We can’t talk about St Giles without mentioning the hospice, established at the vicarage in 1983, when Reverend Paul Bothwell decided to do something to improve care for local people living with terminal illnesses.   In its first year, there were 167 patients, today it cares and support for around 500 people a week. The free nursing and medical care provided by St Giles costs around £9 million every year. Only a third of this comes from the government, the rest is down to us. Now, it just so happens that I know of two trainer botherers top people who took part in a fun run on Sunday to help raise funds for St Giles. Normally, all I ask for on this blog is for people to tell me if they’ve seen a bit of Fisherwick Hall lying around or for an explanation as to why there’s a fibreglass elephant in Cannock town centre (and, ‘Well that’s just Cannock for you’ will not suffice!). Today however I’m going to ask you to consider making a donation to this amazing local charity. They ran 5km, the only steps you need to take are to get your credit card out and donate a couple of quid here.

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Sources:

http://www.stgileshospice.com/history.html

http://www.whittingtonhistorysociety.org.uk/assets/whs-church-booklet-with-plan.pdf

 

Higher Ground

As these things go, the highest village in England is a decent title to have. Far better than being say the wettest place (1) or the most haunted village (2). Yet, it appears wherever there there’s a superlative at stake, there will always be controversy and more often than not a good story to go along with it.  Just ask the good people of Burntwood about their park.

Flash village sign

Someone at Visit Cumbria was presumably high on Kendal Mint Cake when they wrote that Nenthead  in their county was England’s highest village.  The title belongs to Flash, Staffordshire, 1,518ft above sea level, and they have the paper sign to prove it.  The official village sign goes one step further however, proclaiming Flash to be the highest village in Britain, a claim disputed by Scotland’s highest village Wanlockhead. However in 2007 the BBC One show intervened and declared the Staffordshire village was indeed the higher of the two and perfectly entitled to look down on its Scottish rival. (3)

Flash villageElsewhere on t’internet, you will see the bold statement that there is no doubt that the Methodist Church in Flash is the highest in the country. However, the chapel has been converted to a residential property (it’s rather lovely and currently up for sale). Is a deconsecrated church still a church? Perhaps we should ask the people in charge of the second highest Methodist Church in England what they think….

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To even begin contemplating whether the New Inn at Flash is the highest pub in Britain, England or even Staffordshire, I’d need a stiff drink  but sadly on my visit, the pub was closed (although only for the afternoon). Instead I had to be content with Flash’s other watering hole i.e. the village well, dressed every year (the 2016 blessing will take place at 2.30pm on 18th June ) as is the custom in these parts.

Flash villag well

Flash’s well dressing tradition is a recent one, an addition to the annual and much older teapot parade, surely the highest teapot parade in the country. Ok, the only teapot parade in the country. It celebrates the village’s friendly society, established in 1846 to provide for residents who had fallen on hard times and only dissolved in the 1990s. The name is believed to derive from the vessel used to collect and hold the funds until someone needed them. There’s a fantastic write up and photographs here by the wonderful Pixy Led who attended the festivities in 2014.

Flash pub sign

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Although several people have started singing this when I’ve mentioned the village name, the traditional or folk etymology relates to something rather less heroic. A villainous looking character appears on the pub sign, and represents the gang who supposedly set up presses here making counterfeit or ‘flash’ money.  However, in David Horovitz’s invaluable survey of Staffordshire place names, he suggests the place name likely derives from a Scandinavian word meaning a swamp, or a pool of water. As a folklore loving linguist I shall sit on the fence.  And if the fence is in Flash it might be the highest fence in Britain…ok, I’ll stop now.

Flash cat

The highest cat and the highest Kate in the country. Possibly.

 

 

Notes

(1) There is indeed a good story about this. Earlier this year, the village of Eglwyswrw in South Wales had had rain for 83 consecutive days and were just six days short of the record set by Eallabus, Scotland in 1923. It was national news. The Telegraph reported on it imaginatively illustrating an article on a wet place in Wales with an umbrella and a sheep and even had a timer counting down the days, hours and seconds until Eglwyswrw claimed the soggy crown from the Scots but it was not to be and so Eallabus retains the title.

(2) A title awarded by the Guinness Book of Records in 1989 as it has twelve ghosts. Or more accurately perhaps, twelve ghost stories.

(3) Whilst on the subject please let’s take a few moments to think about Bwlchgwyn which erected signs announcing it was the highest village in Wales, but later discovered it is only the third highest. And yes, the Telegraph, the Metro and numerous others have already done the ‘left feeling low’ pun. Bet they wish they’d made their sign out of paper…

 

 

Dark Water

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the Little Mermaid lives, ‘Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal”. Our Staffordshire mermaid lives in Blake Mere high up in the Peak District, where the water is as black as the local peat, and as murky as the truth behind this classic bit of local folklore.

At midnight, the Blake Mere mermaid rises from her pool to entice single men travelling along the road between Leek and Buxton to a watery grave. Some say that animals refuse to drink there, sensing this malevolent presence in the dark water. Others insist the pool is bottomless, although I certainly wouldn’t call it that after seeing a man skinny dipping in there.  As it was around two in the afternoon, he presumably hadn’t been lured in by the siren’s call. To be honest, even if she’d been singing her heart out he’d probably not have heard her anyway as she’d  have been drowned out by the sound of my kids arguing about crisps.

Black Mere Pool

Black Mere Pool. Not always bottomless

One version of the mermaid’s tale is that a sailor from the nearby village of Thorncliffe fell in love with her and brought her back to landlocked Staffordshire from the sea like a goldfish won at a fair. This may explain her animosity towards single men. A more sinister explanation for her presence is that she was once a young woman who rejected the advances of a local man called Joshua Linnet. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned and he accused her of being a witch, convincing some of the other locals to drown her in the pool. Three days later he was found dead in the water, his face clawed to pieces.

Of course, I don’t believe in mermaids but I also don’t believe that such stories emerge from out of the blue. In 1679, a woman was murdered by a man who overheard her talking about the money she’d earned from selling lace at Leek and followed her home over the moors where he attacked and robbed her, throwing her body into Blake Mere. The pool was also the scene of an attempted murder, undated but described in detail by Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686). However, in recounting events, Plot makes no mention of the mermaid folklore and I can’t help but wonder if someone took the true events which took place here and reworked them into a legend.

Mermaid Inn

The Mermaid Inn. And yes I will be looking up where and what ‘Royal Cottage’ is

But who and why? There is a reported sighting of the mermaid in the mid nineteenth century when locals apparently began to drain the pool in an attempt to discover whether it truly was bottomless. Their antics supposedly incurred the wrath of the watery wraith, causing her to get up from her lakebed before midnight for once to warn them that she’d flood nearby Leek and Leekfrith if they didn’t stop immediately.  It seems to have been around this time that The Mermaid Inn got its name and somewhere within its walls the legend of the eponymous creature has been inscribed.

She calls on you to greet her
Combing her dripping crown
And if you go to greet her
She ups and drags you down

I suspect the story may have been a clever PR stunt by the landlord possibly in cahoots with the locals (I’d happily say I saw a mermaid in Minster Pool if Suzie at The Drum offered me free beer). Or perhaps I’m being a cynical southerner and strange things really do happen up in the wild and mysterious north…..  These days The Mermaid Inn is self catering accommodation and so you’ll have to go elsewhere if you want to drink like a fish. I headed for Flash and what’s probably the highest pub in England. Other drinking establishments are available (as I found out when that was shut too, albeit it only for the afternoon).

 

Taylor Made

Whilst I’ve been in Wolverhampton attempting to master the phonemic alphabet and the forty four sounds of spoken English, things have been a bit quiet here on lɪtʃˌfiːld lɔː However, the exams are over and my final assignment for the second year has been handed in (note to those who say I leave things to the last minute, I actually had a good seven minutes to spare) and so a summer of stone gazing awaits.

My first ride out of the season took me to Barton Under Needwood and specifically to St James, the only church in Staffordshire to be built in the Tudor period I believe. According to Greenslade, it stands on the site of the cottage where founder Dr John Taylor was born in 1480(ish), the eldest of triplets. The story of the Taylor triplets is well known although several versions exist.  In perhaps the most romantic of these, King Henry VII was hunting in Needwood Forest when he became separated from his companions. He stopped off at a small cottage to seek directions back to Tutbury Castle and found that the couple living there were the parents of three strong healthy triplets. Perhaps a more likely story is that three surviving triplets were presented to the King as, if not quite a miracle, something that may have appeared close to one in those days when between a third and a half of children didn’t make it to their fifth birthday (the King would himself go on to lose three children in their infancy). What is certain is that Henry took it upon himself to be responsible for the boys’ education. In John’s case, there is note in the Royal Privy purse expenses of 1498 ‘for the wages of the King’s Scoler John Taillor at Oxenford’. A career in the church and as civil servant followed, with John eventually holding the position of Master of the Rolls between 1527 and 1534. It may sound like he was in charge of the King’s packed lunches but it was actually the third most senior judicial position in the country.

The tower of St James at Barton under Needwood

The tower of St James at Barton under Needwood

Taylor’s initials can be found on the church tower alongside the year 1517, when work commenced at St James (then dedicated to Mary Magdalene). Work was completed in 1533, and Taylor died the following year. However, his final resting place is elsewhere. John Stow’s survey of London in 1598 records it as being at St Anthony’s Hospital in London. However, there is a suggestion that the intention was for it to be here at St James which would have brought the local lad done good’s life full circle. Pevsner suggests that a blank arch in the north wall of the chancel may have been designed to house his tomb although why this never came to be is unknown. Another gap or three, based on the reading I’ve done so far, is what became of the other Taylor triplets Rowland and Nathaniel Taylor and also their elder sister Elizabeth, denied the opportunities of her brothers as she was not a) a triplet or b) male. How does her life compare to theirs? Taylor’s tale may be well known, but it seems to me to that the story of Barton’s most famous son and his family is far from being all sewn up.

Above this blocked doorway at St James is the coat of arms of John Taylor. Look closely and you'll se it features three little heads, representing John and his brothers.

Above this blocked doorway at St James is the coat of arms of John Taylor. Look closely and you’ll see it features three little heads, representing John and his brothers.

Greenslade, M (1996) Catholic Staffordshire Gracewing:Leominster