This is a Low

‘Hundreds’ were introduced by the Saxons as a form of local government, and so-called because each one was supposedly made up of enough land to sustain one hundred families (although if the land had to sustain families with sons who had an appetite like mine does, they’d have probably been called fifties). Often they took their name from the place where the men (inevitably?) of the hundred met to discuss local matters and to carry out judicial trials for petty crimes. This was often a local landmark, a little away from the madding crowd, where the business of the Hundred Court could be carried on undisturbed each month.

Here in Staffordshire, there are five hundreds (instinctively I want to say were, but they have never actually formally been abolished, although their significance dwindled to nothing during the 19th century). In the south of the county is Seisdon, its name said to derive from OE for ‘the hill of the Saxons‘, with a likely place for the moot suggested as  being Penn Hill.  Up in the north-west is Pirehill, taking its name from a landscape feature two miles south of Stone and 462 ft above sea level. Its name may refer to ME piren ‘to peer’, OE pirige ‘pear tree‘ or Latin ‘pyra’ bonfire/pyre. Totmonslow, up in the Moorlands, is thought to be named after a hill near to the present-day hamlet. The name appears to be made up of ‘tote’ relating to a watchman or look-out combined with the -hlaw suffix meaning a hill or burial mound to translate as something like ‘look-out hill’. Cuttlestone Hundred, with Penkridge at its centre, suggests that the meeting place here was marked by a significant, well, stone although all that now seems to carry the name is a bridge across the River Penk.

River Penk upstream at Cuttlestone Bridge
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © John M – geograph.org.uk/p/1443879

For now though, the locus on which I want to focus is Offlow, the hundred to which Lichfield belonged. In February 1937, Percy Laithwaite wrote an article for the Mercury in which he described how Offlow is marked on an ordnance survey map (and indeed Mark from the much missed Tamworth Time Hikes did a great cartography centred post around this), and is in a field near Swinfen by the old road from Lichfield to Birmingham, on the farm of Mr Percy Stubbs. He goes on to describe how there is little evidence of the hill to be seen but it is just traceable and blames a thousand years of agriculture for lowering the low to almost the same height of the field.

Never one to believe that there is nothing there until I have witnessed nothing with my own eyes, I went to have a look for myself.  I’m going to level with you, a further 81 years of agriculture have completely flattened it and yes, on face value, there is nothing there.

All that now seems to remain of Offlow is its name.  More on where that name may have come from in a moment but first, let’s join in Percy Laithwaite’s excitement at finding out the surrounding field also had a name.

While walking over that field some years ago with Mr Foden of Shenstone, I was considerably astonished, and not a little excited to learn that the field was known to him by the name of ‘Hundred Hill Field’. This is a most astonishing survival. Here is a name which has been preserved for possibly twelve centuries with its original form and meaning, and it still tells us that at this spot was the hill on which the local Hundred Moot held its council meetings

What about the name Offlow then? Well, the story behind that has turned into more of a saga. I was aware that there was a local tradition that it was the burial place of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796 AD) but until about two weeks ago, I was under the impression that this was impossible as King Offa of Mercia was definitely buried in a chapel just outside of Bedford.  The tradition of Offa’s Bedfordshire burial was recorded by Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler of English history, writing in the 13th century. In it, Paris describes how the chapel where the king was buried was destroyed by the River Ouse and that there were claims from some who bathed in the river that from time to time they had seen Offa’s sarcophagus deep beneath the water, but Paris recorded that, despite it being sought with the greatest of diligence, like a thing of fate, it had never been found. On reflection, the evidence for Bedford is hardly water tight and given that Mathew Paris was responsible, at least in part, for the Lichfield ‘field of the dead’ and the massacre of Christian martyrs legend, I’m not sure he’s the most reliable source….

In his book, ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’, Michael Wood, the King of Anglo-Saxon history, admits that there is uncertainty over where King Offa was buried but that Bedford is the most likely possibility, although, ‘Why Bedford was chosen in a mystery’ (the early Christian kings Wulfhere and Ceolred had been buried at Lichfield itself, and by the 9th century, Repton was the preferred spot).

Whether it’s been lost to the river at Bedford, or to the plough at Swinfen, any physical evidence for Offa’s burial place appears to have disappeared.  I’ll leave whoever writes the Bedford Lore blog to dive into their side of things but I think until something tangible turns up, its a bit of a moot point whether our Offlow has any connection to the Mercian king. In the meantime, I don’t want us lose sight of the fact that what is not in doubt is that it was the place where our local hundred court met and as such, I think we should do it justice by valuing it as an important historical site in its own right, royal burial place or not*

*in my humble opinion, probably not 😉

Sources:

‘Lichfield: History to c.1500’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 4-14. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp4-14 [accessed 23 June 2018].

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/assembly/Checklist

‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz

Lichfield Mercury Archive

The English Hundred Names Olof S Anderson

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=306519

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Shed some light?

I have a huge backlog of things to write about including the dead (an old burial road) and circuses (the greatest show-woman) because when I’m looking for one thing, I inevitably seem to find another. Case in point: Last week I went to see if there was anything left of a burial mound known as Offlow and ended up at Shenstone pondering 19th century funerary art.

Offlow

Offlow: the short answer is there is nothing left.

Shenstone gravestone.jpg

Shenstone: So much going on with this 16 year old woman’s grave. Look at the tiny tools!

To summarise my predicament using a popular meme like the cool kids do:

distracetd meme

I have no idea why my kids are ashamed of me and have me blocked on Twitter.

To show solidarity with my GCSE-sitting son, I have decided to show my working out. Or not working it out, as is probably more accurate as I want to share the things that have me stumped, the dead ends and the ‘not quite sure about this but maybe someone else will be able to help’ type stuff. Whether it’ll lead to quantity over quality or prove that a picture is worth a thousand words remains to be seen.

With that in mind, I have two sheds for your consideration and comments. Firstly, one spotted in a field on a walk around the lanes of Fradley, in the village proper rather than the site of RAF Lichfield. My best guess is that’s where it originated though, with the windows suggestive of an accommodation block. I imagine it was relocated here after the airfield closed in 1958 and re-purposed, although what for I’m not sure.

Fradley shed 2Fradley shed

Tonight’s second shed is this ramshackle affair spotted alongside the disused Walsall to Lichfield railway line in-between Sandfields Pumping Station and Fosseway. My best guess for this one is that it’s a platelayers’ hut where chaps working on the track would store tools and take shelter. As with the rest of the line, it’s slowly being reclaimed by nature which is sadly ironic given that the platelayers were responsible for keeping their stretch in good working order and free of vegetation.

Railway shed 2Railway shed

I’m hoping this new approach will be as effective at reducing the amount of draft blog posts I have as GDPR is at reducing the amount of emails I get. In the meantime however, shedloads of comments on this, or any other subject, are always welcome!

 

Hot Spring

Apparently, this is likely to be the hottest early May bank holiday on record. It’s so warm that even the birds in my garden were sunbathing yesterday. It’s something they do to keep their feathers healthy  but I think this one might have needed a bit of factor 30, as it seemed a bit red in places.

Sunbathing robin

This beautiful weather coincides with the blooming of the bluebells at my beloved Leomansley Wood. The trees which are now coming into leaf are relatively youthful but the soil here is ancient. Along with lesser celandine and wood anemones, those bluebells signal that this is a plantation on a much older site. In England, the definition of ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600. Given that the name Leomansley pre-dates England and indicates that there were once elm or limetrees here, this site could have been continuously wooded, well, since forever.

Leomansley Wood bluebellsWood anemones

Leomansley Brook trickles around the edge of the wood, into Leomansley Pool in the grounds of what once was Leomansley Mill, and out again through a culvert on Pipe Green.

Mill culvert

Leomansley Mill culvert, Pipe Green

Once upon a time, on hot days like these, the brook would be full of kids paddling as can be seen in this clipping from a 1937 edition of the Lichfield Mercury.

Lichfield Mercury 1937 Pipe Green paddling

I’ve been paddling there with my kids (and without them!) but I’m seemingly in the minority, something I’ve always found strange given the close proximity of a primary school. With the exception of the occasional hot dog, the brook is usually as calm as the millpond it once flowed out of.

Leomansley Brook May 2018

Those still waters run deep however. To the right of the pipe, you can see some of Lichfield’s many springs emerging from the sandstone aquifer far beneath the brook’s bed.

IMG_20180505_094853328

The pipe itself is currently the source of speculation between myself, the fantastic Jane Arnold of the Pipe Green Trust and others. Local historian J W Jackson talks of a pipe which ran from the well at Maple Hayes, which emptied its icy-cold water into the brook. He recalls how people would take bottles to be filled as the water was said to be highly beneficial for bathing eyes. Presumably this is the pipe he mentions but which well at Maple Hayes? Could he have been referring to Unetts Well, said to be the coldest water in Lichfield, where Sir John Floyer built a bath in 1701, later incorporated into Erasmus Darwin’s botanic garden?

I’ve always thought of natural history as having not much to do with local history but I’m beginning to see more and more how the former shapes the latter. Think its time to go and contemplate this a little more in the sunshine over a glass of water to which barley, hops and yeast has been added. It’s what Mr Worthington the brewer who once owned the Maple Hayes estate (which appears to have incorporated most of Leomansley at one point) would have wanted.

Heath Land

I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that you don’t have to travel far from your doorstep to find stories and traces of the past. Even if you live on a spanking brand new estate there will be stories in the soil on which your new build was built. In more recent years, developers seem to have moved away from giving pretty but vacant names to the roads they create and instead are looking to local history and the disappeared landscape for inspiration. Good local examples of this include Fradley where street names honour those killed whilst serving at RAF Lichfield, and the Darwin Park estate in Lichfield where old field names have been preserved in the naming of new roads.

More recently, I’ve decided that when looking for those stories, I should make an extra effort to seek out those which tell us something about the women who lived in this old city and the lives they led.

This story starts at the end, in the graveyard at Christ Church which is currently strewn with primroses. Victorians once planted clumps of these flowers on the graves of children but here and now they cover the final resting places of both young and old.

Primrose graves Christ Church

At the edge of the churchyard is the grave of Edith Mary Heath and the matching monuments of members of her family. Edith died on 27th February 1952 at the age of 78. In her will she left £35, 365, a large proportion of which was left to Christ Church where she had served as vicar’s warden for twenty years, for the creation of ‘The Martin Heath Memorial Fund’. As part of this, a New Year’s gift of £1 was to be paid to 12 deserving poor persons (six men and six women) aged 60 and over in the parish.

Edith Mary Heath graveHeath graves

In 1964, the fund was use to build ‘Martin Heath Hall’. It might surprise those coming to the hall to vote or to Brownies or to yoga classes, that it’s not named after a man called ‘Martin Heath’ but a local woman’s maiden and married names.

Martin heath HallMartin Heath Hall 2

Edith lived at Angorfa, a house built on the Walsall Rd in the early 20th century and demolished in the 1960s, with flats and houses were built on the site. I had assumed for years that apart from the name ‘Angorfa Close’ (well done 1960s developers!), no trace of the original house remained. However, as I found out in a booklet produced by Richard Paulson for an open gardens and local history event in Leomansley back in 2015, two gate posts from Angorfa survived and can be seen from Christchurch Lane. Leomansley is a lovely place to live apart from the local weirdo who takes photos of her neighbours’ garages.

Angorfa CloseAngorfa gateposts

Edith’s father George Martin had lived at Sandyway on the Walsall Rd and he was a benefactor of the Lichfield Victoria Nursing Home which had opened at 15 Sandford Street in 1899.

sandyway farm

Remains of Sandyway Farm, Walsall Rd 2013. Now demolished and houses built on site.

On his death in 1908, he left an adjoining house on Sandford St to the Trustees who converted it into nurses quarters and offices. The institution became known as the ‘Lichfield Victoria Nursing Home and Cottage Hospital’ and moved to the Friary in the 1930s.

old-clinic-sandford-st.jpg

Site of the Nursing Home on Sandford Street.

Despite opposition from many, the Victoria Hospital was demolished in 2007. In a blog post which discusses both street names and women, it would be remiss of me not to mention that on the Victoria Place development, built on the site of the hospital, there is a Mary Slater Road, named after a woman who left money in her will to help found The Lichfield Nursing Institution & Invalids’ Kitchen which later became the Victoria Hospital.

(I should insert a photo of the Victoria Hospital here but to my shame and annoyance, I did not ever take one! Take more photographs of your surroundings people – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…)

The only physical trace of the hospital that survives on the site is the foundation stone which incorrectly states that it was laid by Mrs Swinfen Broun of Swinfen Hall, Lichfield, on Empire Day 1932. In fact, Mrs Swinfen Broun was too unwell to attend the occasion and so the honour of laying the stone instead fell to her husband. The stone also incorporated a time capsule of sorts, containing copies of the Lichfield Mercury, coins and other ephemera. I wonder if it still does?.  At the time of the ceremony, the President of the Hospital was Edith Heath, a position which she retired from in June 1947 having served on the committee for 32 years.

Victoria Hospital Plaque location.JPG

The foundation stone may be the only part of the old Vic that survives onsite. However, there’s another bit of medical evidence of its existence elsewhere. In a twist of fate, as a result of a twisted ankle (that actually turned out to be a fractured tibia) and a broken toe, in-between taking the photos for this post and getting around to writing it, I’ve found myself at the Victoria’s successor, the Samuel Johnson Community Hospital, twice in the last two weeks. Whilst in the treatment room, I spotted the famous old chair from the Vic’s casualty department.  I may be lacking in the ‘having a photograph of the hospital building’ department but I was determined to furnish the blog with a photo of the chair so that you don’t have to injure yourself in order to see this bit of hospital history. As a result of this public spirited act, someone should probably name a street after me. Anyone suggesting it should be a dodgy back alley will be escorted from the premises.

Old vic chair Samuel Johnson Community Hospital.jpg

The pile of crutches is significantly smaller now thanks to my two children

Sources:
Lichfield Mercury Archive
http://www.burtonhospitals.nhs.uk/history-of-the-hospitals.htm
‘Lichfield: Churches’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990)

Here be a Dragon

I had an email from Charlotte who told me she’d always been curious about a grave at Christ Church in Burntwood. It belongs to Dragon Franciszek Kempa, who was born in September 1919 and died aged 25 on 12th November 1944. Why is a member of the 10th Dragoon Regiment of the Polish 1st Armoured Division buried here?

Documents relating to the Polish Armed Forces are kept in an archive at The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. However, there’s currently a waiting list for postal enquiries of around 6 months and so it would probably be quicker to pay a visit to that London in person. In the meantime, I’m hoping that someone out there might be able to help us piece together the story of Burntwood’s Black Devil.

My best guess at the moment is that Franciszek was a military patient at the Emergency Hospital, set up at St Matthew’s between 1940 and 1947, who sadly succumbed to his wounds sustained during the unit’s Normandy campaign, or its subsequent action in Belgium and Holland. For a bit of background reading, Ethel Lote’s account of being a nurse at the hospital during this time is here. I also found a letter published in the Lichfield Mercury, from James Gantley of The King’s Regiment (Liverpool), just a few weeks after Franciszek died.  He wrote:

Sir – I would like you to publish this letter in your paper as it is the only way I can show my appreciation for the good the local people did and still do for the soldiers at Burntwood Hospital. I have only recently left Burntwood EMS Hospital and though I was only there a short while, I think that the best I can do is to thank the local people from the bottom of my heart for the attitude they show to the wounded soldiers of the Hospital. I know that almost every day there is an outing for the boys who are fit enough to go. I have been on these outings myself and was delighted at the reception the people gave us, and I’m sure that many of them went out of pocket just for the sake of giving us a good enjoyable evening. Food was plentiful for us, also cigarettes and at many places we got some cash. It beats me as to how these good natured people managed to do this for us.

The miners must not be forgotten either, because they did everything in their power to give us a good time, and I must say that is exactly what we had when we were invited to their clubs. The boys who went to the Lido Club will verify that.

Also, I must not forget the people of Burntwood, who supplied us with some very good entertainment in their school hall. There is also Hercules, Lucas’s and St John’s of Birmingham who helped to make us soldiers happy. These are a few of the places who have helped but there are many more.

We must also remember the Nurses and Staff of the Hospital who make it possible for us to enjoy these occasions. They must be heartily thanked for the tough work they do, and which they have been doing through the dark years of the war. Many don’t realise how hard their work is but they deserve as much praise as the men on the battlefield.

I will now conclude with my letter, but before I close I must once again thank all those local people on behalf of myself, and I’m certain the other boys of the Hospital who have enjoyed their hospitality feel the same as I do. England is worth fighting for, even if it’s only to keep up this good sociable spirit that Englanders have always had. These things will never be forgotten even when this war is over and the world is once more a peace.

Information or thoughts from anyone who can help to shed any light on how this corner of a Burntwood field became for ever Poland would be very welcome.

Source:
Lichfield Mercury Friday 24th November 1944

A Hole Nother Story

Remember at the start of the year there was a petition from some residents living in Bell End in the Black Country who wanted to change the name of their street because they said it was a bit rude and made those living there a laughing stock? Their limp attempt ended up with about 50 signatures whilst a counter petition, by a woman who found it far more offensive that a historic place name should be changed because of a a few, yes I’m going to say it, snowflakes*, ended up considerably larger with close to 5,000 supporting it.

A similar thing had happened here in Lichfield back in the 1930s and 40s. In December 1934, at the first meeting of the new Lichfield City Council year, the Town Clerk submitted a petition dated 22nd October 1934 signed by 23 residents of Hobshole Lane asking that the council rename it. At the first council meeting of the actual new year, on Wednesday 9th January 1935, it was agreed that it would be altered to ‘Valley Lane'”, and it has been known by this name ever since (officially at least).

Then, in October 1946, Mr Percy Laithwaite gave a talk to the Lichfield Women’s Institute on ‘The Why and Wherefore of Lichfield names’, and the Lichfield Mercury reported that many members had expressed regret that old names were being allowed to die out. The example cited was “the enchanting name of ‘Hobs Hole’ which means ‘Goblin’s Meadow’ being exchanged for the very ordinary one of ‘Valley Lane’ and it was decided to send a petition to the City Council asking it not to discard these ancient names which help give Lichfield its special character. It’s something I’m quite passionate about myself as place names tell stories and behind even the most seemingly prosaic ones, tales of sex, death and magical creatures lie waiting to be discovered. Look up Union Street in Wells if you don’t believe me.

Anyway, as Mr Laithwaite explained, the name Hobshole may have a folkloric origin. According to David Horovitz’s study on the place names of Staffordshire, similar place names in the vicinity (including Hobs Hall Lane at Aldridge) are made up of the Middle English ‘hob’ meaning ‘sprite, elf, hobgoblin’ and ‘hole’ referring to ‘a hollow, dingle or small valley’. It goes on to say that pits, holes and ancient earthworks were often associated with hob, sprites and goblins. I’m not sure whether this was because of an actual belief that a supernatural creature was in residence or whether stories of supernatural creatures were invented as a way of keeping curious children away from dangerous places. Perhaps a combination of the two?

What was it about having Hobshole as an address that residents objected to? The area seems to have been developed in the 1920s when council houses were built and I wonder whether it was something about people looking forward to the future and leaving the past and its unsophisticated ways behind? It wasn’t Hob’s hole anymore, it was their home. Perhaps the area had a reputation, for being haunted by hobgoblins or otherwise, that people were keen to disassociate themselves from?

About six months ago, I was having a conversation with someone who once lived on  Valley Lane in Lichfield and he told me the deeds to his house had had a map attached. A landscape feature called ‘Hob’s Hole’ was actually marked on this but I suspect whatever it was has long been lost. However, the past hasn’t been entirely discarded and I’m sure that the WI and Mr Laithwaite would be pleased to know that there is a Hob’s Lane off Valley Lane, even if it doesn’t quite tell the (w)hole story.

*weather joke. Ignore if reading in July.

Sources

Lichfield Mercury Archive

A Survey and Analysis and of the Place Names of Staffordshire by David Horovitz LL.B

Head Scratching

Last weekend, I went to take photographs of the restored medieval conduit head up at Pipe Hill and what I thought was the 18th century conduit head which replaced it for a short time between circa 1780 and 1821. It had always confused me as to how or why someone had carved 1755 into the stonework of the latter, and I had assumed that perhaps the date it was brought into use was slightly earlier than thought.

Conduit Head

Conduit Head 2

Well you know what they say about assuming…actually, talking of equidae I did come across some unexpected donkeys in someone’s garden whilst I was up there but I wasn’t brayve enough to take a photo. Anyway, I’ve gone off my watercourse – back to the conduit heads.  I’d taken some nice photos of the two structures and I was heading for the car, dreaming about which Instagram filter I was going to use, when a thought popped into my own head about walking along the route of the conduit to see where it ended up.

Conduit course

So I went back and did it and about 100 metres away from the medieval conduit head was this.

Conduit Head 3

Brick Conduit Head

I have been here many times and this is the first time I have ever since this. Other regulars at Pipe Hill have said the same. Some have suggested that it must be magic but as much as I like the idea of brick structure that mysteriously appears and disappears like a Burntwood version of Brigadoon, I thought I’d look to the historical sources, rather than sorcery to try and solve The Mystery of the Three Conduit Heads. In light of the ‘new’ discovery,  I took another look at the Victoria County History of Staffordshire:

The Close was supplied with water from springs at Pipe, in Burntwood, from the mid or later 12th century. Between c. 1140 and c. 1170, in return for 15s. 4d. paid by the canons, Thomas of Bromley granted the cathedral two springs for making a conduit…About 1259 William Bell of Pipe granted a third spring next to the conduit head for 12s. The pipes ran from to the conduit head near Maple Hayes to a conduit in the Close, a distance of 1½ mile. (1)

I’m now wondering whether the structure with 1755 carved on it is actually part of the original medieval set up, or possibly connected to the granting of the third spring in 1259 and the ruined brick structure further down is the short-lived 18th century conduit head? The County History goes on to say:

A brick conduit head was built at Maple Hayes c. 1780 to replace the existing head, which probably dated from the 13th century. It remained in use until 1821 when the old head was brought back into operation in order to improve the supply (1)

These are the positions of the three structures on a very basic map (the black X is a the medieval one, the red X is the one with ‘1755’ carved onto it and the purple X is the ruined brick one).

Conduit heads map.jpg

Looking at this, I now wish I’d explore the area above where there appears to be another spring, as this may yield further clues but that’s one for another day. In the meantime, any thoughts folks? I do find it strange that only the restored medieval one is listed and that there is no reference to the other structures on the Staffordshire Historic Environment Record. Perhaps to get a clear picture of  what we’ve actually got here, we need to put all of our heads together…

Sources:
(1) ‘Lichfield: Public services’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 95-109. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp95-109