A Lichfield Tragedy

Years ago, when I first moved to Lichfield, I went on the ghost tour around the city. One of the stories we were told was that of a Catholic family who died in a fire at their home on Breadmarket St. There was apparently an issue regarding burial because of their religion and, unsurprisingly given the nature of the tour, it was said by some that their presence was still felt at the building in some way.  Recently, this story came up again when I was chatting to a colleague. A book about ghosts happened to be nearby and caused our conversation to turn to the supernatural. The colleague in question mentioned the story, wondering if there was any truth in it.

I searched the newspaper archive, and found that the story was essentially true.  I’m not going to transcribe it, as I personally think it’s too graphic and upsetting. However,the facts are that in January 1873 there was a fire at the Breadmarket Street premises of a Lichfield clock and watch maker. Three generations of a family lost their lives and their bodies were laid out on the pavement before being taken to the Guildhall where a Catholic Priest read the burial rites. The family were then taken directly to the graveyard at St Michaels where the Rev J Sejeantson carried out a burial service – they were not taken inside the church. There are reports that no rescue effort had been made, as initially it was thought that the family has already escaped.  The Mercury reports that everyone was at a loss what to do. According to the County History, it was this tragedy that led to the council taking over the responsibility for fire fighting in the city, buying an engine and establishing a brigade, with a building in Sandford Street being used as a fire station.

I am interested in the question as to whether there is any value in ghost stories beyond the obvious ‘entertainment factor’. The mention of ghosts and haunted places can cause the rolling of eyes and mutterings of, ‘There’s no such thing’. Perhaps there’s not, but does that mean that these stories have no interest for us?  If we look beyond the shadowy figures and disembodied footsteps in such tales, can we find something real? Does telling these stories in this way ensure that otherwise forgotten people and events are remembered or is it just an excuse to be ghoulish?

 

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13 thoughts on “A Lichfield Tragedy

  1. No doubt the fact that this tragedy is still talked of today owes a lot to its association with ghosts! Behind most ghost stories, it seems, there is something unusual about the events that occurred.

    In 1873 fires were rare in Lichfield and therefore created quite a stir; confusion seemed to delay a rescue attempt. It cast “a gloom over the city”. Large crowds were outside at the inquest and at the funeral. The Royal Society found that were no fire escapes in Lichfield.

    I am not familiar with the Ghost Tour story, but Kate says that the victims of the tragedy were Catholics and “there was apparently an issue regarding burial because of their religion.”

    But was this was the case? The bodies were laid out on the pavement and then taken to the Guildhall. This could be regarded a fitting place, many of the mining fatalities were taken to a back room of a local pub for the inquest to proceed. As their religion would be known the Catholic priest would attend to administer the last rites.

    The tragedy occurred on a Tuesday and the bodies were taken to the churchyard on the Thursday afternoon, accompanied by a large number of people. I presume the people of Lichfield were showing solidarity by paying their respects to the three generations that lost their lives. The fact that they did not enter inside the church would probably in respect of their Catholic beliefs. Is there any evidence that Catholics had difficulty in finding burial grounds?

    Around the same time in Witton, Birmingham, there were serious explosions at the munition factories of Kynock and associates, which caused numerous fatalities. Many were buried in Witton Cemetery where there were separate sections for CE, Catholics and Jews. Services were said at the graveside, and one one occasion as a coffin was lowered someone stopped the service to point out that the victim was a Catholic and may want to be burried along other members of her faith. The familily asked that the service be continued as she would have wanted to lay in rest with the friends that she worked with.

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    • Really interesting comments thanks Peter. I imagine that the ‘no-one would bury them’ part of the story could be an embellishment, to make the story even more tragic & to give it a ‘lost souls’ feel. I wonder if there is any info about the Guildhall being used in this way at other times?

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      • Interesting question. Can’t find another inquest at the Guildhall, but some at the local Inns!

        Have come across letter from the Bishop to the Diocese in 1880, concerning the new Burial Act. Takes some reading, and seems controversial. It appears that before this date no one could be buried on consecrated ground without the service of the church service. It may shed some light on the situation existing before this date

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  2. Why do folk agonise over this?

    Of course there’s no such thing as ghosts.

    However, folklore does exist, and ghost stories are part of that lore. As such, they should be recorded and treated as just what they are – folk tales. As long as a distinction is made, that’s fine, isn’t it?

    You can’t record the history of a place without the mythology, half-truth and flights of fancy. Often they’re the only really interesting bits.

    Cheers
    Bob

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  3. A further and rather twisted extra to the story is the consideration that the building would make an “excellent fire engine and fire escape station” with its central location.
    An odd choice within days of the fire, but at least it was reported.

    The engine that initially appeared was lodged in Tamworth Street as part of the Lancashire Fire Office, though the engineer resided in Bird Street. Conduit Lands also had an engine and this was based in Sandford Street

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    • So after the fire, they had it earmarked as a fire station? That is a twist. I think the history of the Lichfield fire brigade(s) would be really interesting, and hopefully something that’s going to be covered at one of the upcoming history meetings. Thanks a lot John, fascinating stuff as ever.

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  4. I agree with Bob .. ‘Spin’ has always been used through out the ages, everybody loves a good ghost story ! Woooooooo =) lol =) =(

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  5. Pingback: A Grave Matter | Lichfield Lore

  6. Don’ t think this has been mentioned before, the fire at Stowe House in January of 1857…

    2300 hours citizens alarmed by the cry of “Fire, Fire!” at the mansion called Stowe House, late residence of Mr Richard Greene, and now belonging to Dr Holland….flames issuing furiously from the two central windows and raging within….the north wing was then attacked by the devouring element, and just before the first engine (the Birmingham) arrived the roof of the centre and north wings fell in with a tremendous crash……the whole of the upper story, and nearly the whole of the second, are a wreck…

    …The fire is supposed to have originated from the overheating of the hearth stone in the room where the gardener was to have slept, and the consequent ignition of the timber, upon which it was laid in the old fashioned plan.

    (Staffs Advertiser)

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    • That’s interesting thanks. One to follow up. Never done much on Stowe House, apart from bit about awful Thomas Day renting it out to train his perfect wife.

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