Still curious about the old church of St John the Baptist at Shenstone, I did a bit more reading. Inevitably, I’ve ended up even more curious than I was before.
In 1890, the Lichfield stone mason and sculptor Robert Bridgeman was appointed by a restoration committee to carry out work on the now disappeared pinacles of the tower. (You can see how the old church used to look, pinnacles and all, from drawings of the church in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century here on Staffordshire Past Track). At the time Mr Foulkes, an architect living at The Ivy House, in Shenstone, wrote to the committee saying,
I am anxious to assure the Restoration Committee how fully I concur in the steps they have taken to preserve the old tower, for both on practical and sentimental ground it should be upheld. The appointment of Mr Bridgeman as restorer is the best your Committee could make, and I know he will thoughtfully and carefully carry out the work entrusted to him.
Mr Foulkes then goes on to give some of the history about the old church saying,
The old tower so called is really not very ancient, except perhaps the internal base; the upper part boasts of no architectural feature of note, the details being of a debased character, and early in the present century there evidently existed a kind of central beacon flag-pole and vane combined. There were also diagonal shaped dials upon the tower. One other feature worthy of mention, and of which I fear no trace remains, was a stone hollowed out in the Romish times, for the reception of holy water. It formerly stood near the north door and over it was carved the figure of a lamb’.
It took a while for the last line to click but eventually I remembered reading about a carved stone in the report of the excavation of the old church in 1973 by Dorothy and Jim Gould of the South Staffordshire Archaeolgical and History Society. A note by Mr J W Whiston, appended to the SAHS report says that there is no reference to the carving in any published description of the church, but that, ‘although mutilated, the carving can be identified as the arms originally granted to the Merchant Taylors Company of London before, in the time of Elizabeth I, the chief of augmentation was added (a lion passant and guardanty). These arms were frequently used by provincial merchant-taylors’. It also mentions that there is a similar carving on the porch of St Michaels in Lichfield. When I checked back on my photos of St Michaels from last spring, I found it (which saved me a trip). Funny how you see things that you don’t realise the significance of at the time, but fit into the big jigsaw eventually.
Not knowing anything about the Merchant Taylors’ Company I looked them up and found that their patron saint is St John the Baptist. As you can see from the above (sort of), their coat of arms features a pavilion with a mantle either side, with the Holy Lamb within a sun. Perhaps this is the lamb to which Mr Foulkes was referring? You can read more about the company here.
According to William Whites Directory of Staffordshire (1834), the annual feast or wake at Shenstone was held on the Sunday after St John the Baptist’s day. Something that’s not mentioned in the archaeology report, or the newspaper report as far as I can see, is the existence of a holy well somewhere in the churchyard. On the saint’s day (or Midsummer if you prefer), St John’s Well was believed to be a place of healing and of miracles. I can’t see it on any of the old ordnance survey maps but I am hoping it’s still gurgling away and hasn’t dried up. On the subject of St John and Midsummer, I know I probably shouldn’t speculate about the place name Shenstone – bright/beautiful/shining stone or rocky place – but the idea of the sun and bonfires associated with the festivities of St John’s Eve and Midsummer has popped into my head and now I can’t get rid of it. Feel free to shoot me down in flames.
I’ll try and distract myself with another example of pieces of the jigsaw fitting together eventually. In an account of ‘ Ancient Shenstone’ by Madge Rogers in the Lichfield Mercury in the late 1940s that I was reading, she mentions, ‘A Peat Moor once stretched highly polished stone was erected in the churchyard, and was the tomb of 25 year old Richard Burgess of Leicester who journey by stage coach to the Welsh Harp in Stonnall and there took his own life’.
I don’t really understand the bit about Peat Moor but the story of Richard Burgess sounded familiar. I remembered that a while ago, when trawling the newspaper archive for something to do with pubs, I had read a story from the Derby Mercury, June 1754, about a young Gentleman who was travelling with the Chester Stage Coach, on his way to Ireland to be married. Apparently, en-route he had received a letter from his fiancee’s Father, telling him not to pursue his journey, as she would not marry him. When the stage coach stopped off at Noon at the Welsh Harp near Lichfield, the young man took his own life. Surely this must be the same tragic young man?
To think up until recently the only place I’d ever visited in Shenstone was the Tesco Express. What a fascinating place it is, and I haven’t even started to read about the prehistoric and Roman connections yet.
The History and Antiquities of Shenstone in the County of Stafford, Henry Sanders
South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions XV
Derby Mercury Archive
Lichfield Mercury Archive