Public benches can be found all around our parks and along our city streets. As well as being places to sit (or lie down, although I’ve never found them that comfortable) and rest, read, drink, chat, canoodle, sleep, picnic or daydream, they are also often places where people choose to commemorate a loved one, a group of people or an event, via a small plaque or inscription.
On the current Google street view there is a chap with a stick having a rest on this bench on the corner at St Michael Rd. I suspect he, like most other people, hasn’t even thought about why it’s there. Why would he? It’s just a bench. You may not have even have noticed it is there. There’s no plaque reminding you to sit a while and enjoy the view of Aldi and the churchyard, and facing onto the busy Trent Valley Rd, it’s not the most serene of spots.
I probably wouldn’t have taken any notice of it either had it not been for Bob Houghton (of the Burntwood Family History Group) telling me about a conversation he’d had with a woman who had lived all of her long life in the Trent Valley Road area. She remembered a time before the NHS, when St Michael’s Hospital was still the Workhouse (officially known as the Lichfield Public Assistance Institution from 1930s, but no doubt still known by the majority by its former name and reputation), and told Bob how some of the elderly residents would take a stroll around the area (according to ‘This Won’t Hurt Much’, in 1937 the Master, Mr Standing had put forward a recommendation that male patients over sixty should be allowed out between 6 and 8pm on summer evenings). Apparently at some point, the authorities decided to provide a bench for them to rest their weary legs and although the Workhouse and its successor the Public Assistance Institution are long gone, this bench (not the original bench sadly) still remains in that position. Perhaps it’s still well used by folks making their way to and from appointments at the new Samuel Johnson hospital opened near the site of the old Workhouse in January 2007?
From now on, I’ll always think of this story when I pass, and share it if I happen to be with someone. Perhaps there should be a plaque here to tell people of its origins? Maybe, but I imagine that plaques require permission and money. Sharing stories with each other costs nothing but it keeps them alive. There’s no paperwork to fill in either. If even the position of a bench has a story to tell us, then who or what else could?
This Won’t Hurt: A History of the Hospitals of Lichfield, Mary Hutchinson, Ingrid Croot and Anna Sadowski
With thanks to Bob Houghton for sharing this story with me