My first post of 2021 was going to be about a murder in Yoxall but things are grim enough at the moment and so I thought I’d write about something nice for a change.
They say love can be found where you least expect it and under the floorboards of a house on Beacon Street surely qualifies as unexpected. In 1980, a bundle of letters between William Davis and Ann Bayley of Longdon were discovered by Mrs Sheila Paterson when she was replacing her stairs.
In one of his letters, William wrote, ‘Some people, like me now, fall into love even as a fly falls into a honey pot. What can be sweeter? Indeed, love is a pretty pleasant thing’. Then there’s a bit of drama because William complains, ‘You would not speak to me when you came from the church which gave me a great deal of grief till I came before your pretty face’. At the end of the letter he writes, ‘I hope I shall love you to my end. I hope you will take this in good heart’. In Ann’s letter to William she says, ‘ You say my company is sweet to you and yours is to others no doubt; if your pen and your heart agree I shall be glad, but if not you won’t lose your time or me mine for I keep all others at a distance for your sake and I hope you will do the same’, signing off ‘Your constant lover’.
The Lichfield Mercury report on the discovery of the letters say they were undated but thanks to a brilliant bit of detective work from Baddiley Ram (on Twitter and Instagram) we now know that they were written in the mid-eighteenth century. It also gives us an answer to the did they live happily ever after question the Mercury was unable to answer.
Reader, she married him.
The registers at St James the Great record the marriage of Ann Bayley and William Davis on 2nd April 1768. I can’t help wonder whether Ann would have touched the Bride’s Hand in the church porch at Longdon as she arrived on her wedding day.
The unsolved parts of this staircase are who hid the letters and why? And where are they now? If you do know anything more, do drop me a line.
Thanks to the person who first contacted me about this story
Just before Christmas, I went to meet an old tree called Noddy. As I was driving over to see him, I was listening to the radio. It was safe to do this since I’d been recently been Whamageddoned when delivering a tub of Heroes. A careless wispa indeed. Slade were playing en-root, and though singing along felt a little hollow this year, given that everybody is probably not having much fun this year, I enjoyed the nominal coincidence.
I’ve been to Colton twice before. Once to show my Mum the erratic boulders that mark the four corners of the bridge over Moreton Brook and once for the slightly more rock and roll reason of a party at Ye Olde Dun Cow.
On the latter occasion, I was having a look at the memorabilia the pub had about the local area. You can find some really interesting things on display in old pubs. I even found a blog post from this amazing local history blog called Lichfield Lore printed out and framed once….Hanging on the wall of the Dun Cow I found a drawing of a massive old chimney stack but more about that later.
The Dun Cow is at the edge of the village and Noddy lives up a nearby country lane called Newlands, an old name dating back to 1339. As I started walking up there, I was almost run over by a delivery driver but he smiled and waved cheerfully and it was a novelty to interact with someone from outside my bubble. On reaching a huge puddle and contemplating how best to cross, I became aware of three men without a boat on the opposite shore. Yes, this puddle was that big. After much ado, Staffordshire’s answer to Compo, Clegg and Foggy reached my side. I decided to play the part of Batty and told them I was looking for a tree. An lo! Glad tidings of great joy they bought as they told me they’d just passed him a short ago. In fact, from this moment hence, they shall be known as the Three Wise Men of Colton.
I was originally introduced to Noddy by an absolute star who helped to fight and win a battle against HS2 to save him. The destruction of old roots for this new route is a huge tragedy and although many other battles have been lost, there is some comfort in knowing that this eight hundred year old oak has survived. Stood beside him, it’s just possible to see the chimney tops of Little Hay Manor House. The current house is relatively modern, built in the 19th century but remember the big old chimney stack I mentioned earlier? It’s all that remains of the Tudor manor house, demolished in 1846 due to the decayed state of its floors. Incredible to think that Noddy would already have been around 450 years old when it was built. According to Frederick Perrot Parker, the Rector of Colton who wrote a history of the village in 1897, on the third day of December each year, the boundaries of the manor of Little Hay were perambulated. I understand that Noddy was part of that boundary and thankfully still is.
I’m reading the rest of the Rev Parker’s history at the moment and it gives such a detailed account of the family trees of Colton gentry that I now feel I know them better than my own relatives. Mind you there are also some interesting snippets such as this intriguing sentence,
‘Hamley House, now belonging to Lord Bagot, is mentioned as Mr Webb’s new house in a vestry book of the year 1707; it has undergone considerable alteration from time to time, and there was probably an earlier dwelling on the same site; traces of an old window remain blocked up in the wall of one of the outbuildings, and the well is said to be curious‘.
I confess that I would have liked a little more about the curious well and a little less of the dry geneaology but the Rev Parker is in my good books for including a drawing of the Tudor incarnation of Little Hay Manor. Besides, it’s good to have some Spring explorations to look forward to…
All pubs are closed at the moment but one that’s highly unlikely to ever reopen is the Malt Shovel Hotel on Conduit St. Closed in 1971, the pub became an electrical retailer and is now ‘Fat Face’. The current building is around 142 years old and the original building is shown here on the Staffordshire Past Track site. It seems to have been demolished circa 1878 when a Samuel ‘no, not that one’ Johnson took out an advertisement in the Lichfield Mercury asking for ‘persons desirous of tendering for the pulling down of the old Malt Shovel Public House, Malthouse, Stables, and other old places and for the erection of a Wine and Spirit Vault, Club Room, Stabling’ to send their names to him.
After the pub closed, then owners Ansells discovered a bundle of deeds and other documents in their basement which they presented to Hubert Appleyard, the curator of Lichfield Museum, along with the wooden malt shovel which hung above the bar. The earliest documents relate to Thomas Glacier who ran his butcher’s business there in 1592, possibly one of the reasons Conduit Street was known by an alternative name of ‘Butchers’ Row’ until the mid-19th century. Other records show that in 1774 it was occupied by a maltster and baker and by 1801, deeds refer to a ‘Thaynes, publican’, suggesting links to the beer trade for at least a couple of hundred years. The documents are now at Staffordshire Record Office and the shovel is part of Lichfield District Council’s collection, which I believe is currently shoved in an attic. There’s a lot more I could say about Lichfield’s lack of a museum but rather than dig myself into a hole here, I will instead be positive and say that foundations are being laid for a number of alternative ways to fill this hole in our heritage.
Looking back in the newspaper archive it’s clear that looking back in the newspaper archive has always been a thing. In 1903, a column called, ‘Lichfield a quarter century ago’ recalled an incident in which the landlord of the Malt Shovel had been injured when falling off a ladder whilst attending to some pigs in his loft. Thankfully his injuries weren’t too serious and he just needed some oinkment. It also turns out that making typos has always been a thing (and a tradition I am proud to continue) as a look back at the original article on the Malt Shovel mishap reveals it was pigeons rather than porcines in the loft which makes a lot more sense unless pigs actually do fly.
There was scandal in 1903, when the license of the pub was objected to on the basis that there was something irregular involving a privvy and there was card playing, bookmaking and ‘a good deal of female drinking’ on the premises. It was re-issued after the landlord promised that ‘he would be extra careful that nothing of that sort went on in the future’. Seems the subsequent landlady was not even slightly careful however, and under Florence Slater’s tenure in 1922, an illicit gambling venture was uncovered in police raid. Things seems to have calmed down after that as the most exciting thing that the Mercury reported about the Malt Shovel between then and its closure was that at the Lichfield, Brownhills and District Victuallers Association meeting in September 1942, ‘biscuits were the main topic under review’.
Fast forward to 1997, when the building was occupied by camcorder merchants Dixons and the Lichfield Mercury reported that the old Malt Shovel may be haunted. The store’s manager revealed, ‘There have been lots of unexplained smells and sounds but no-one has actually seen anything’, before going on to make the bold claim that he believed it could once have been used as a brothel which makes you wonder exactly what kind of strange noises he was hearing? To be honest, my money is on any unexplained sounds and smells having something to do with the pigs in the loft and the irregular privvy. Is there anybody out there who has a connection with this building that can tell us more?
On the Derbyshire and Staffordshire border, a lonely spot has two possible stories attached to its poignant place-name. Many believe that Lads Grave, close to the crossroads just outside of Coton in the Elms, is the final resting place of Phillip Greensmith, a soldier hanged during the Civil War for desertion. The parish registers of All Saints Lullington, record the execution as being carried out, ‘upon a tree at the Green of Coton (in the Elms)’ and note that afterwards, the tree died by degrees. Perhaps it was ashamed of its part in the sorry affair? The other story, as told to the Lichfield Mercury cycling correspondent Maurice Purser in 1997, suggests the lad was a young traveller boy buried at the crossroads.
A quick look at the county’s tithe maps suggests that there are a number of these unorthodox burials scattered across the Staffordshire landscape. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a Dead Lad’s Grave in Penn, Deadman’s Lane in Wednesbury, Chit’s Grave and a Dead Knave Farm House in Sedgley, Old Woman’s Grave in Stanton, a Wilkinson’s Grave in Rolleston, Knock’s Grave (now Knox’s) in Hints, a Beggar’s Grave in Rocester, Dod’s Grave in Standon and a Mare’s Grave in Hopton. Some places are still known by these names although others have faded from maps and memories.
Unusual burials aren’t always found at crossroads or by the wayside. In 1728, in a building in the Close called the New College and occupying the site opposite the Cathedral’s south door, the skeleton of a female was found placed upright in a stone wall, a silver bodkin which her hair had been wrapped around on her skull. The author says that recently (the book was written in 1811), another was found in a similar position on moving other old foundations. Who, why, when and where are they now? Nobody seems to known.
One of Staffordshire’s most infamous burials can be found at St Lawrence’s at Rushton Spencer. Well, in theory it can be found if you aren’t a scaredy Kate like me. After a considerable hike to reach it, I can confirm that this 13th century timber framed church encased in 17th century sandstone definitely earns its epithet of ‘The Chapel in the Wilderness’. However, my search for the grave of poor Thomas Meakin, re-buried here after his body was exhumed from the churchyard at St Michael’s, Stone showing evidence of having been poisoned and buried alive, was brought to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was my imagination but when I heard the churchyard gate squeaking, knowing I was the only living person within a mile of the place, I decided I’d had enough of braving the wilderness and legged it. Turns out this girl can run when she’s frit.
Rushton Spencer was originally known as Hugbridge which sounds quite nice and cuddly right? Wrong. Both the old and the new names for the villlage are taken from the name of the local lords of the manor, the dreadful Despensers and this gives us a connection to two more interesting interments. Hugh Despenser the Younger was a favourite and possible lover of Edward II which made him very much not the favourite of lots of other people. Some of his enemies even approached a magician in Coventry to kill both Hugh and the King using witchcraft and wax effigies. However, as Queen Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer discovered, hanging, drawing and quartering him for treason proved a much more effective way to dispense with Despenser. After his execution in Hereford in 1326, Hugh’s head was stuck on the gates of London and his arms, legs and torso dispersed to Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol for display. Four year later, his widow was given permission to gather his remains for burial but she only managed to retrieve the head, thigh bone and a few vertebrae. In February 2008, a skeleton which had originally been uncovered by archaeological work at Hulton Abbey in the 1970s was identified by Dr Mary Lewis of the University of Reading as being likely to be the rest of Hugh, given it was missing all of the above body parts, showing signs of a post-death dismemberment, matched the age Despenser was when he died and was discovered on land which would have been owned by his brother-in-law at the time. Even more than half a millenium after his disgrace and dismantling, Despenser remained unpopular. In 2006 he was voted one of the ten worst Britons in history and it’s also rumoured that he ate big dinners.
It’s not the only surprise in a sepulchre at Hulton Abbey. When a medieval tomb belonging to Lady Elizabeth Audley was opened in 1886, her body had decomposed but her two plaits had been preserved giving rise to the hair-raising legend that her locks had continued to grow after her death.
Talking of locks, close by to Rushton Spencer is Rudyard Lake, which gave its name to Mr Kipling (the writer, not the one who makes cakes as my son thought) and has a bridge adorned with examples of a 21st century ritual, adored by some but possibly considered by others to be the most unsettling thing within this entire blog post. I can however assure you that ‘honour’ goes to the sight of me running
Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire by John Charles Cox
A short account of the ancient and modern state of the City and Close of Lichfield and the Cathedral (1818) by Thomas George Lomax
The run up to Halloween feels like the right time to resurrect the blog and, in keeping with the spirit of my favourite season, it’s my intention to share some of the more sinister stories that I know about Staffordshire and the surrounding area over the course of the coming week. However, 2020 hasn’t quite gone to plan and it’s entirely possible that I could fall victim to an attack of the mutant crayfish clones by Friday and so whether my bad intentions will materialise or fall by the wayside remains to be seen.
I suspect Pevsner would not approve but I think it gives churches a nice lived-in feel and exudes an eccentric sort of charm and therefore, I make no apologies for failing to remove the carton of milk and bottle of spray from my photograph of the remains of this stone cross in Tixall Church.
The cross stood on Kings Lowe, a Bronze Age Bowl Barrow on Tixall Heath before what remained of it was removed to the church for safe keeping. Its exact provenance is a mystery but in 1818 Sir Thomas Clifford of Tixall described it as having been placed there in around 1803, it being, ‘a very antique stone cross, which once stood before the gate of a ruined mansion in South Wales…It is of very hard moor-stone; the shaft, which has eight unequal sides, supports a tablet of an hexagonal form, adorned with very rude carvings; on one side, a crucifix, on the other, the virgin with the child in her lap. On the edge of the tablet is also a figure thought by some experienced antiqueries (sic) to be St. John the Evangelist’. The cross was said to mark the spot where Sir William Chetwynd of nearby Ingestre Hall was assassinated in 1494, although you might think that after 309 years the moment for a monument to a murder had passed. Who erected it and why they did so after all that time is not recorded.
In 1825, Alexander Wilson wrote a travelogue called ‘Alice Allan, The Country Town etc’ and appears to have had some sort of down the rabbit hole experience, proclaiming that, “When I entered Staffordshire, my straight-forward, regular travelling was at an end”. After insinuating that the residents of God’s own county used to get up to some Summerisle-esque unpleasantness involving wicker, Wilson relays the story told to him by an old countryman whilst driving across the heath. Sir William Chetwynd of Ingestre and Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe Ridware were both vying for the favour of King Henry VII, and so Sir Humphrey decided to rid-ware himself of his rival. A letter purporting to be from the Sheriff of Staffordshire was sent to Sir William requesting his attendance in Stafford at 5am the following morning. As he crossed Tixall Heath at dawn, accompanied by his son and two servants, he was ambushed by twenty men, several of whom were members of the Stanley family.
Despite a petition by the widowed Lady Chetwynd, Stanley literally got away with murder. Or did he? According to the story told to Alexander Wilson, some years after he’d killed Bill, Sir Humphrey was thrown from his horse at the same spot on Tixall Heath, breaking his neck. Official records show he died in 1505 and is buried amongst the great and also probably not very good at Westminster Abbey. As of yet, I can’t find a record of where or how he died and so perhaps that old countryman was right and karma did catch up with him in the end. Interestingly, it seems with the Stanleys, the rotten apple did not fall from the tree. An effigy in Lichfield Cathedral immortalises the disgrace of Sir Humphrey’s son, John, a man who committed a misdemeanor so grave that he was excommunicated and had to agree to spending the rest of his death being depicted as paying penance in order to be granted a Christian burial inside the Cathedral. There is no record of his specific wrongdoing but in 1867, the Very Rev Canon Rock suggested that Stanley’s offence may have been that he had spilled blood inside that sacred space. A 17th century drawing of the effigy by William Dugdale shows the stone Stanley bareheaded and bare chested, flanked by two bucks’ horns, wearing a skirt decorated with heraldic arms and armour on his legs. It’s a strong look to carry off for eternity although during the Civil War, the Roundheads did make some alterations in their own unique style… The much mutilated monument can still be found in the Cathedral so do go and see what’s left of him. I bet you there will be a stack of plastic chairs somewhere nearby too…
This latest post has taken a while to write and not just because I’ve been binge watching the complete adventures of Dogtanian but because, just like my New Years Eve outfit following a week bingeing on cheese and Baileys, there’s a lot to squeeze into it.
Firstly, glad tidings of great joy I bring, the Angel Croft is at last now off the Heritage At Risk Register, thanks to the work of Friels who have been renovating the former hotel since Spring 2017. Friels are now seeking planning permission to develop the adjoining Westgate House and Cottage plus the surrounding land to create a small spa hotel, houses, apartments and a new pedestrian route which connects Beacon Park to the Cathedral Close. For more information on the proposals and to see a walkthrough of how the site might look, take a look at https://youtu.be/4fEyzXbSLV0
It seems like a good time to remind people that change has to happen and that the places where we live are not preserved in aspic, like no doubt so many things on the menu at the Angel Croft were. Actually, I’ve just had an epiphany about how best to illustrate this. Let’s take a look at how the site has changed over the last 500 years.
The Angel Croft was built at the end of 18th century for a wine merchant called George Addams and was converted to a hotel in 1931. Some of the features from the time this was a house have been uncovered during the recent renovations, including a fragment of wallpaper which an expert has declared to be one of the oldest examples in the country.
Other discoveries include smoking ephemera, a collection of bottles, drawings, old newspapers and most interestingly of all, for me at least, a mismatched pair of boots. When I was shown a photo of the latter, I had one of those moments that thrills my sole. ‘Were these found under floorboards?’, I asked. ‘Yes they were!’ came the reply. I can’t be sure but I suspect they didn’t come to be there by accident. The Northampton Museum and Art Gallery keeps an index which has at least 2,000 examples of concealed shoes or boots being discovered up chimneys, in rooves or indeed, below floors (ironically, Lichfield no longer has a museum and keeps its entire collection hidden in an attic). The exact reason for this isn’t known but it’s thought to be a folk magic ritual designed to protect a property and its occupants from malevolent forces. I had thought it was the first example of this apotropaic custom to be uncovered in Lichfield but there is at least one other recorded discovery in the city. A 16th century house in Lichfield (not sure where. Yet.) had a shoe hidden up the chimney along with a chisel and a bunch of flowers (not sure why. Yet). There are also examples of more sinister discoveries concealed in the city’s walls and foundations (not sure if I’m ready to share these. Yet).
The Angel Croft was built on the site of an inn known as the Talbot. We know the pub dates back to at least 16th century Lichfield thanks to The Bawdy Courts of Lichfield blog, a fantastic Staffordshire Archives and Heritage project sharing quirky and scandalous stories emerging from the church court case papers of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry. By coincidence, at the start of December, I’d been asked if I knew where Christopher and Ann Hill’s house, also known as the Sign of the Talbott, was in Elizabethan Lichfield, as it was where Tamworth woman Grace Spooner called Ellen Allen ‘a whore, an arrant whore and a common strumpytt and whore and not worthie to be talked of’ leading to a defamation case. You can read the post about the case here. A later incarnation of the Talbot stood at the corner of Bore Street and Bird St and is mentioned in various books about Lichfield pubs including John Shaw’s classic Old Pubs of Lichfield and Neil Coley’s more recent Lichfield Pubs. Intriguingly, records now held at Stafford Record Office show that at some point the Beacon Street Talbot was known as the Three Crowns. Of course, this too had a later incarnation and The Three Crowns on Breadmarket St is famous for being frequented by Dr Johnson, as marked by a plaque on the early 18th century building.
The Angel Croft takes its name from another inn, the Angel, which stood to the south of the site and was in existence since at least 1498, when it was listed as the prebend of Freeford’s property. Harwood’s history of Lichfield describes it as being in what was known as Cardon’s Lane, later Guard Lane. It seems it was destroyed during the Civil War but again the name was resurrected when The Angel opened on Market Street in the 18th century, where it still remains, despite a spell in the wilderness as Samuels.
The third inn in our holy trinity is the Lamb, a baa owned by the Vicars Choral in 1592 where Westgate Cottage now stands. Presumably the former was demolished to make way for the latter as the Lamb shows up on Snape’s 1781 map of Lichfield and the listed building entry for Westgate Cottage describes it as being built in the 18th century. The adjoining Westgate House, was built on the site of another ancient building known as Pool Hall, again thought to have been destroyed by fire during the civil war and later rebuilt, before being replaced by the current Georgian building.
Time never stands still and neither should it (although it once seemed like it did waiting to be served in a pub which shall remain nameless). We’ve gone back five hundred years but I could take you back further still to where a Roman goblet or Neolithic tools were found (and perhaps next year I will). The past should shape us but not limit us and I think this bit of Lichfield deserves something more imaginative than a resurfaced car park (I always get back to car parks these days somehow). Development for me is about constructively building on the foundations of what’s gone before and adding the next layer. Making sure you incorporate an old shoe in there somewhere of course. Chisel optional.
Lichfield: Manors and other estates’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990)
After posting about the Unicorn Inn, someone asked if I knew anything about the Goats Head as they’d seen an old photograph of it. Well, I kid you not, it turns out it’s yet another old Lichfield boozer that’s still there. Sort of.
In June 1969, the Mercury reported that the Goats Head would become a branch of Barclays Bank to meet increasing demand for services. The New Year chimed the bells of doom for the inn and also, the end of an era for licensees Horace and Maud Wilson. The Wilsons were born in the city and had run four Lichfield pubs in the course of their careers. They cut their teeth at the Angelesey in Curborough Rd, now a Co-op, and then went to the Kings Head for nine years, followed by the Swan for a further nine, before spending twelve years at the Goats Head. Mr Wilson had been born at the Royal Oak on the Walsall Rd, which had been kept by his grandfather, a cooper.
At the New Years Eve party, old aquaintances were not forgotten as 65 year old Fred Matthews of The Parchments, who had worked at the hotel as a hostler recalled a Mrs Lyons from the Roundabout at Handsacre who was apparently six foot tall and strong as a bull and had, ‘carried a bag of ‘taters under her arms from The Old Crown to this yard where she used to have to stand on an empty crate to get into the float or the ‘oss and cart would-a tipped up’.
I’d read that on one of the corners of Bore Street and Breadmarket St, Father John Kirk was installed as the priest of a new chapel established above a bakery when Pipe Hall in Burntwood, which had become established as a centre for Roman Catholicism in the area, was sold. Whilst this must have been handy for daily bread, directly above a baker’s oven was not a good place for a congregation to gather and the heat at times must have been too much like the bad place for comfort. In 1802, Father Kirk bought land in Upper St John St and built a new chapel and presbytery there, originally known as St Peter and Paul but later called Holy Cross. I was praying the chapel was located in the building that became the Goats Head purely so I could make a reference to the father, son and holy goat. However, in The Gentleman’s Magazine it says it was ‘that known in present as the Dolphin public house’ which is that known in present as White Stuff on the opposite corner.
This reminds me that I think the old Goat was rebuilt at some point, replaced by a new kid on the block. The photo that originally started this off is on Staffordshire Past Track and shows the Goats Head Tavern, apparently in the early 20th century (although it must be earlier as the sign outside shows the landlord as TA Carter, but the license was transferred from him to William Hill in June 1890) and the building in the picture looks significantly different to the one currently occupying the site.
Talking of signs, I found a lovely article in the Lichfield Mercury from September 1970 on the Bower Brothers – Eric, John, Ted, Malcolm and David – whose dad Sydney, the son of a stonemason, had established a sign painting business in a 1920 in the backyard of a big Burton Brewery. The brothers had painted a sign for the Goats Head Inn but also the Bowling Green, The Malt Shovel, The Nelson, The Nag’s Head and many other pubs in the Lichfield and Burntwood area. Thirty hours of work produced one double sided sign, each one a unique piece of art which began with research into the name, and then a small watercolour painting submitted for approval, before being scaled up and transferred to wood. Eric kept a book of the designs from around Lichfield which would be a a wonderful thing to see, as would have been the exhibition of pub signs at the Bowling Green Inn in February 1949. The Bowling Green’s own sign back then showed Francis Drake finishing off his game before defeating the Spanish Armada and the article in the Lichfield Mercury says a new sign at the Three Crowns in Breadmarket Street depicted three warriors wearing their crowns (which sounds suspiciously like a reference to that old Lichfield legend of the three Christian kings buried up on Borrowcop) was also on display.
The Three Crowns was closed in the 1960s and converted to offices. At the time Mr Winterton the auctioneer whose firm were moving into the building said the emphasis was on renovation rather than reconstruction and so, like its neighbour the Goats Head, it’s yet another old Lichfield pub which is still there in body if not in spirits.
I’m really keen to do more on the pub signs of Lichfield and the surrounding area over the Christmas break, but even though I would really, really like to, I’m not going to be able to get round all of our fine hostelries before the end of the year. So if you are out and about enjoying festive frolics this Yuletide, and you spot an interesting sign, please do share a photo, either on Twitter @lichfieldlore or on the Lichfield Discovered FB page, or by emailing email@example.com. What do you think – anybody inn?
Sources: ‘Lichfield: Roman Catholicism and Protestant nonconformity’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 155-159
Yes I know I promised we were going on safari and we’re at yet another car park but bear with me. Whilst I was perusing some old history books looking for some information on Oxenbury Field, I found a number of other creatures featuring in the long list of lost places names. Golding’s Heron, Eagle Square by Gresley Row and Bird in Bushes up at Curborough. The latter was almost reinstated by the Housing Committee in 1957 but the suggestion ruffled a few feathers in the city council, with Cllr Wesley Hines chirping up to say ‘Accept this and we might as well have a Toad in the Hole Street too’. Was Cllr Hines was referring to the documented Toadshole Piece over at Christian Fields or just being a silly sausage?
I can’t resist a bit of whimsy and so it was a fantastic beast which leapt out at me and I was pretty sure I knew where to find it. And that is how I came to be standing in Sandford St car park looking for a unicorn. Until the middle of the last century and perhaps even more recently than that, the space behind what is now S&J Music on Bird St was known as Unicorn Yard. We know a little about some of those who lived there, particularly the ones who misbehaved. Percy Bolt, a cab driver employed at the Swan was fined a shilling for being drunk in charge of a horse and cab in Bird St on 9 April 1889. In January 1912, Arthur Osborne was summoned and fined for being drunk in Unicorn Yard. Later the same year, in July, he was back in court on charges of aiding and abetting Ellen Keenan who was charged with indecent conduct in a lane leading to Pipe Green. If ever the council are looking to name this lane, might I suggest calling it Toad in the Hole Street in their dishonour?
The name Unicorn Yard came from a pub of the same name, described in 1933 by local historian JW Jackson as a very old and extensive inn standing next to the present Kings Head. It seems it had ceased to trade as an inn even by 1819, when Lomax and Newling wrote that the house next to the Kings Head Inn was a considerable inn known by the sign of the Unicorn and the large court surrounded by houses retains the name Unicorn Yard. Until fairly recently (although not quite as recently as the 1990s feel they should be), the yard was accessible from Bird St via an entry. It was only when I was stood outside S&J Music looking for signs of where this had been blocked up that I had a mental breakthrough. Was I actually looking at what had once been the Unicorn Inn? I checked the listed building description and given that it says that 23 Bird St probably dates to the 15th century with 18th century alterations, I realised that I probably was. Even more compelling was the Staffordshire HER description that beneath layers of modern plaster, 23 Bird St is a rectangular timber framed building, once probably jettied.
At this point I need to pop next door to the Kings Head for a minute which is easy enough to do as there is a door connecting the two buildings. No I hadn’t ever noticed it either.
Something I had noticed however was a plaque on the wall claiming that the entrance was part of the original timber framed building. As there was no mention of this in the listed building description which says the Kings Head was rebuilt as a coaching inn in the mid to late 18th century, I’d always taken this with the same pinch of salt as the story the pub was haunted by a laughing cavalier who had been murdered as he left the premises. The Staffordshire HER however, suggests that it shares a timber framed wall with the Unicorn (yes, that’s what I’m calling it now) which would make this plaque more accurate than I’d arrogantly given it credit for.
I shall therefore be generous with regard to the other sign in the entrance, pronouncing it to be ‘The Oldest Pub in Lichfield Circa 1408’. So generous in fact that I have put my scepticism aside to look into whether the Kings Head could in fact be the oldest pub in the whole of this sceptred isle (let us not concern ourselves with claims that it isn’t even the oldest pub in Lichfield). We know the Kings Head has at least 15th century origins, albeit under its original name of ‘The Antelope’ which is recorded as standing alongside the Unicorn in 1495. Some of the claims to be Britain’s oldest pub are based on similar documentary evidence, others seem to be based on the fact there is a sign outside saying that it is. So I have a cunning plan for getting the Kings Head crowned as the oldest pub in Britain. We could spend ages hunting through the archives for an earlier reference but let’s be honest, that would be wasting valuable drinking time. Why don’t we just make a new sign that says it dates back to 408? Sorry, what’s that Norwich? You have a pub which started as a brewhouse run by monks in 1249? Pah, we had Romans coming here when the Mansio in Letocetum closed after the fall of the empire. Would you Adam and Eve it, eh? Also, how many spires has your cathedral got? If enough of us repeat something enough times someone will write it down and then it’ll become a fact. Isn’t that how local history works?
I jest of course. We don’t need to make stuff up. The Kings Head is the proud home of the Staffordshire regiment and, serendipitously for a pub known as The Bush for a while, in 1830 was home to a gooseberry bush which became famous for cropping twice in one year. Before I call closing time on the subject for now, let’s just head back to the Unicorn for a moment. The Staffordshire HER suggests that at one time the building was used as an annex to the Kings Head and the idea of the two neighbouring inns effectively becoming one around the time that the Kings Head was transformed into a coaching inn seems to make sense. Which is probably more than can be said for most of this blog post…
This is the final part of my car park trilogy and I know you’ve all been desperate to find out where this multi-story ends. Will it be Bunkers Hill, with its supposed civil war connections or the Friary Inner or Outer which always makes me think of bellybuttons? I felt it only right to end at the home of civic car parking in Lichfield. Buckle up, we are going to the Council House Car Park (Saturdays and Sundays only).
Back in 2008, there was an article in the Birmingham Mail about how archaeologists investigating the car park had discovered part of the ditch which ran around the city from around 1130AD. The section they found here contained broken medieval pottery, leather and animal bones, including a medieval dog’s skull, confirming anecdotal accounts that it had doubled up as a public tip. Rather than being a defensive structure, the ditch is believed to have been dug to stop traders entering the city without paying a toll at one of the five gates – Bachunneswich (Beacon St), Sandford St, Stowe, Tamworth St and Culstubbe (St John’s St). It’s ironic that that the excavations which uncovered the section of the ditch which has been used as the town dump, were undertaken as part of the preparation for Friarsgate, which was of course intended to bring traders into the city but ended up being a load of rubbish.
This section of the structure was known as the Castle Ditch. Back in the early 1800s, when digging the foundations for long disappeared cottages in Gresley Row, another section of it was discovered filled with the horns, skulls and bones of large quantities of cattle. Local lore has it that these are the remains of the two thousand oxen supposedly enjoyed by Richard II and guests during his Christmas food festival at Lichfield Castle in 1197. I’m guessing the bones are still there? We may not have kings under our car parks but we might have the remains of their dinner under the local branch of Argos.
In their ‘Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield’, Lomax and Newling noted land adjoining this newly erected street was known as Oxenbury field, which may or may not be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to find out more about Oxenbury, including where exactly it was. Well, still is but we just don’t know it by that name any more. There are a few clues to be found. One account by J W Jackson in the Mercury in December 1945 describes it as being to the south of St John Street and stretching as far as Aldershawe and on John Speed’s 1610 map, he has drawn two giant Oxen on what I think must be the site of Oxenbury Field, which may or may not be a coincidence.
According to the Staffordshire HER there is documentary evidence of a cross of Bishop Walter (Langton?) in the area to the south of St John’s Hospital which I think might be the same one referred to in Harwood’s History and Antiquities as, ‘a cross in the hand at the end of Aldershaw or St John’s Lane, anciently Schoolhouse Lane’. The same HER entry also says there is documentary evidence of a duelling ground in the same area and so it seems that Oxenbury, or at least part of it, may have been used as a tournament field in medieval times. According to an article on Lichfield place names in the Mercury in September 1972, an area of land near to Chesterfield Rd was known as Soldiers’ Field and a John Jackson article from June 1944 says Oxenbury was used for military exercises and was also where archery was practised. I’m fighting to resist making too much of all this until I’ve managed to put a bit more flesh on the bones of it all but it’s certainly worth a bit more digging.
By the mid-16th century, Oxenbury Field became known as Castle (Ditch) Field. We know this because Leyland visited Lichfield and said something like, ‘There hath been a castle of ancient time but no part of it standeth. The place of the ditch is seen and it is yet called Castle field’. In an advertisement in the Mercury in June 1888, building land known as ‘Castle Ditch Ground’ or ‘Cherry Orchard’ was to be sold at auction at the Smithfield Hotel or as it became known a hundred years later, the Sozzled Sausage. Sadly I never got around to visiting to sample the boozy bangers before it was closed. The building has now been demolished but stood near to where the entrance to Tesco car park (two car parks for the price of one you lucky things!) and, as you may have guessed from the name, it was connected to a livestock market. Wonder if they sold oxen?
Understandably, place names such as Castle Ditch and Castle Field have given rise to speculation over the centuries that Lichfield did have some sort of castle on the south of the city in addition to the Cathedral Close, fortified by Bishop Clinton in the 12th century. A little further afield, we have Castle Croft near Chesterfield and the Roman settlement at Wall and I’m starting to suspect that the legendary Lichfield Castle may in fact be Letocetum.
D Horovitz suggests that ‘Ancient names with castle often mark what was, or was thought to be a castle in the conventional sense (e.g. Castle Church referring to Stafford Castle and Castle Croft near Chesterfield, named from substantial walls of Roman date), but often a prehistoric or later earthwork, from OE and OF castel, but sometimes from OE ceastel, ‘heap of stones’, often with archaeological interest. Hang on, a heap of stones with archaeological interest? That brings us nicely back to the car park and the Friarsgate, sorry, Birmingham Road site.
If you enjoyed the trip please do join me next time when inspired by Christopher Biggins and some old charity records (the archives kind, not the “Is this the way to Amarillo?’ by Tony ‘I was Waitrose’s most famous customer called Tony until someone saw that bloke from Spandau Ballet in there’ Christie & Peter Kay kind), we will be going on safari.
Amongst the slightly more leftfield Lichfield Discovered ideas me and a comrade have had, is lurking at various places where there is a wondrous story to be told, and regaling unsuspecting passers-by with it. However, we thought people might think we were a bit creepy if we did that and so we put the brakes on that idea. Instead you’ll have to hear about how fascinating one of Lichfield’s car parks is from the safety of your own home, rather than have me leap out at you from a pay and display machine whilst you are trying to remember your registration number.
So, if I haven’t driven you away yet, then let’s head over to Cross Keys car park. Or is it Lombard Street? To be honest, we probably all still call it Carol’s anyway because ‘the superstore with a whole lot more’ was only demolished about two years ago, and I still hear Bird St car park being called Woolies when it’s been gone for at least ten. Anyway, evidence of Lichfield’s oldest building was uncovered here and I call that momentous. The time between the last days of Letocetum, abandoned in the 5th century and the arrival of St Chad in Lichfield in the 7th century and the relationship between the two sites has always intrigued me. The ‘stone-built post-Roman structure’ discovered at Cross Keys during excavations in 2007/8 incorporated masonry from a ‘substantial Roman building’ and this along with a construction date of 5th to 7th century, seems to provide a link between the two times and places. The Cross Keys building is believed to have been continuously occupied from AD 400 to AD 950, with the post Roman structure later being replaced by a sunken feature building known as a Grubenhaus when it burned down.
It’s also important because it’s evidence of an early settlement of some sort at Lichfield and it has been suggested that St Chad came to Lichfield as there was already a church or religious community here. We know that there was Christianity in the area based on the discovery of a 4th century bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol in a grave at Wall. There is something else too, something that I’ve been avoiding for years because, frankly I thought it was as bonkers as my idea to recreate all of the statues in Lichfield using plasticine but it turns out it isn’t. There is a seventh century poem called ‘The Death Song of Cynddylan’ which recalls three battles fought by Prince Cynddylan of Powys. One of these was at a place called ‘Caer Luitcoed’, which translates to ‘the fortified grey wood’ or, as everyone, including proper historians, who has translated the poem calls it- Lichfield. Here’s the relevant extract:
My heart burns like a firebrand. I enjoyed the wealth of their men and women. They could not repay me enough. I used to have brothers. It was better when they were the young whelps of great Arthur, the mighty defender. Before Lichfield they caused gore beneath the ravens and fierce attack Lime-white shields were shattered before the sons of Cynddylan. I shall lament until I would be in the land of my resting place for the slaying of Cynddylan, famed among chieftains. Grandeur in battle, extensive spoils Moriel bore off before Lichfield 1500 cattle from the front of battle, 80 stallions and equal harness. The chief bishop wretched in his four-cornered house The book clutching monks did not protect those who fell in the battle before the splendid warrior.
So, if the poem is to be believed, Cynddylan’s mate Moriel plundered Lichfield, taking 1,500 cattle and 80 horses. The bookish monks were no match for the Welshmen (sometimes the pen just isn’t mightier than the sword unfortunately) and I think we can deduce from ‘gore beneath the ravens’ that this was a bloody affair. There is some debate around who the battle was actually between given that Cynddylan was a Mercian ally but that’s probably one for discussion in front of a fire over a goblet of mead. For now, let’s just focus on the fact that there appears to have been a battle at or near Lichfield in which religious men were slaughtered. Am I clutching at straws (eco friendly paper ones obvs) or does this not sound a bit like it might be where the Field of the Dead legend may have originated? You, know the one where early converts to Christianity were massacred by pagans and their bodies ‘left unburied, a prey to the birds and beasts of the forest’, an image that it doesn’t take too much imagination to get to from ‘gore beneath the ravens’. And what about those finds over at Toads Hole Piece (a meadow adjoining Christian Fields, near Pones Mill) in the early 19th century which included ‘a considerable quantity of human bone’ and ‘various piece of earthenware, some of which are Roman’? Yet I keep reading that there is no evidence that a massacre ever took place and it’s just a legend. It seems to me that this might just be a bit too dismissive and actually, maybe Robert Plot wasn’t just making it up after all but the story had become confused, as they often do. Or maybe I’ve just become confused as now I’m not quite sure how I got from Cross Keys to Christian Fields. Please do tell me if I’m losing the plot…
In the meantime, I’m off to the Fuse festival. Don’t worry, I won’t jump out on you and try to tell you the history of Bunker’s Hill cark park whilst you are waiting in the queue for the beer tent. Promise.