Far From the Madding Crowd

Once, when Cuthbert Brown was a boy and the circus came to town (sorry, city), one of the elephants died and was buried on Levett’s Fields. Mr Lichwheeld and I had joked that we should organise a community archaeological dig to look for Nelly but with work starting on the demolition of Lichfield’s Fire Station recently, this may prove unnecessary.

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, Levett’s Fields January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Welephant wins 2011 Lichfield Pancake Race. Image from Lichfield Live

Nelly is not the only elephant with links to Lichfield Fire Station. Image from Lichfield Live

In the pre-Friary Road days, the Big Top also used to pitch up at the Bowling Green fields. Presumably at that time the Bowling Green pub was still a seventeenth century timber framed building. The only image of this I can find online is included in the 1732 engraving of the south west prospect of the city, as seen here on Staffordshire Past Track (zoom in and it’s the building in the foreground, beneath the central spire of the cathedral). The pub was rebuilt in the 1930s but the Victoria County History mentions that a clubhouse still in existence in the 1980s may be the same one which existed in 1796. Definitely worth a trip to the pub.

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas' (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas’ (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

One of the best things about looking through old newspapers is that you come across stories that you wouldn’t even think to look for. Whilst searching for more information on the Bowling Green, I came across the following obituary from March 1820.

At Lichfield, aged 67, John Edwards, the Hermit of the Bowling Green in that city. He came to the neighbourhood in the prime of life – a perfect stranger, retiring with disgust or disappointment from other and brighter scenes of life; but further particulars have never transpired respecting his history. The subscriptions of the benevolent have contributed to shed a comparative comfort on his latter days. A short time previous to his decease, he published a short “Essay on Freemasonry”. The medical gentlemen gratuitously attended his during his illness.

So many questions about Mr Edwards arise from this small snippet but I suppose if further particulars respecting his history had not transpired back then, the chance of uncovering anything now is fairly slim. Is it fair to say that Mr Edwards’ attempts to distance himself from society seem to have inadvertently made him into a celebrity of sorts? I wonder what became of his Essay on Freemasonry?

Whatever Mr Edwards’s reasons for preferring a life a solitude, it seems that in the eighteenth century it could be a career choice. Of sorts. Apparently, always on the lookout for opportunities to impress or outdo their friends and neighbours,eighteenth century land owners employed professional hermits to sit and be mystical amidst their fake temples and other follies. I found an example in the form of Mr Powys of Morcham (Morecambe?) near Preston, Lancashire, who advertised an annuity of £50 per annum for life to,

…any man who would undertake to live seven years underground, without seeing anything human, and to let his let his toe and finger nails grow, with his hair and beard, during the whole time.

Board and lodging was provided in the form of apartments said to be, ‘very commodious with a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the occupier pleased, and provisions served from his (Mr Powys’) own table’.  By 1797, it was reported that the ‘hermit’, a labouring man,  was in his fourth year of residence, and that his large family were being maintained by Mr Powys. Just what quality of life must a man with a family have been leaving behind to agree to live like this? If this was about showing off to others, it’s curious that Powys stipulated that his ‘hermit’ was to live without seeing anything human.

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

In August 2002, around two hundred years after this dark appointment, notices appeared in The Guardian, The Stage, The London Review of Books and the Staffordshire Newsletter, advertising for an ‘ornamental hermit’ to take up residence at the Great Haywood Cliffs near the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire, as part of an exhibition called ‘Solitude’. The Shugborough Hermit would be required to live in a tent near to the cliffs (living inside them was deemed too risky) and only had to commit to the weekend of the 21st and 22nd September 2002. Out of  two hundred and fifty enquiries from all over the world,  artist Ansuman Biswas was chosen and I’d love to hear from anyone who visited him at Shugborough that weekend. Mr Biswas went on to spend forty days and forty nights alone in the Gothic Tower at Manchester Museum in 2009, with the aim of becoming, ‘symbolically dead, renouncing his own liberty and cutting himself off from all physical contact”‘.

I think I’d rather run away and join the circus.

Sources:

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Gordon Campbell,  Oxford University Press 2013

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2205188.stm

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Prior Engagement

Yesterday, I visited Hawkesyard, a place known to previous generations by a variety of names including Le Hawkeserd in Hondesacre, Armitage Park, Spode House and Hawkesyard Priory. The first house known to have existed here was a moated manor owned by the Rugeley Family, who appear to have had a variety of spellings for their own name. According to an article in the Lichfield Mercury on February 3rd 1950,  a document describing the funeral of Richard Rugeley, who, ‘…departed this mortal and transitory life on Saturday night, the 5th July 1623 at his house at Hawkesyard’, was signed by Symn Ruggeley, Thirkell Rugeley, Henry Rugley and Thomas Rugsley.

Information on the early days of Hawkesyard is sketchy but it’s thought the original hall, pulled down in 1665, was much closer to the River Trent, about half a mile to the west of Armitage Church. Nothing is thought to remain and nothing much more is known about Hawkesyard until 1760, when the estate was renamed ‘Armitage Park’ by Nathaniel Lister, who built a gothic style mansion on the sandstone hill above the site of the original hall. Beneath Lister’s new house was a plaque recording that, ‘These cellars were cut out of the rock by Richard Benton and Sons, anno Domini 1760, for Nathaniel Lister, Esq.’ Perhaps it’s still there?

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

From the 1840s, Hawkesyard was home to Mary Spode and her son Josiah, the fourth generation of the Stoke on Trent pottery dynasty, and the first not to work in the family business. Mary died in 1860, and Josiah’s wife Helen died eight years later. Both are buried at St John the Baptist in Armitage, the Anglican parish church where Josiah was the organ player and warden. Despite these strong links to St John’s, Josiah Spode converted to Catholicism in 1885, along with his niece Helen Gulson, who lived with him at Hawkesyard. On his death in 1893, Spode requested that Helen should continue to live at Hawkesyard until her death, after which the estate should be passed to the English Dominican Order of Friars. However, Helen decided to move out of the hall and into a cottage on the estate, allowing work on the new Priory and Church to begin almost immediately. Some say that this decision was inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing to Helen in the grounds of the estate, and that the altar of the new Priory Church of St Thomas Aquinas was supposedly erected over the site of this apparition.

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by JAson Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jaosn Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

The Dominicans left Hawkesyard in 1988, but their benefactors and some of their brethren remain. Josiah Spode and Helen Gulson are interred in a small chapel within the Priory Church, and outside in the gardens, are the simple concrete crosses marking the graves of monks.

Monks' Cemetery, Hawkesyard

Monks’ Cemetery, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

As beautiful as the church is, it’s the gardens at Hawkesyard with their subterranean features, which have captured my imagination. They appear to have had the same effect on this reporter from the Lichfield Mercury, who visited in the Summer of 1935, and wrote the following description:

Down weather-worn and feet-worn steps, through charming little rockery glades, rich with lichens, ferns and its more wild brother – bracken- time and nature has made this wonderful spot more beautiful in its wildness. Some pathways lead down through fine old arches, gloriously hewn or erected deep into the bowels of the earth, or so it appeared; while others lead gradually upwards through narrow passages. Opening into a small glade we suddenly came across the entrance to the well-known underground passage which, descending steeply, rises just as abruptly in another part of the rockery, far remote from each other. Today this passage is awesome in appearance, the ground underfoot being feet deep with decaying leaves, and only the most venturesome pass out of the light of day into its unknown blackness. It was a curious and certainly thrilling experience to traverse this maze of paths. Another similar grotto housed a large shelter, carved in stone and the actual rock; a sort of summerhouse with a double archway entrance. In another we discovered some beautiful carving in white stone of three saintly figures, obviously beautifully carved, but decaying and rotting with age. We could not discover their identity or purpose, although they surmounted what could easily have been a small natural altar, secluded in the quiet of this wonderful grotto.

Eighty years later, there are no saints to be found in this wild part of Hawkesyard. Time and nature have now ravaged its beauty but have not diminished its curiosity. Several theories exist as to who carved these grottos and tunnels out of the rock and why, but as an investigation into the overgrown site in the mid 1990s concluded, ‘the function of all the above is not clear’. Any ideas?

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

 

Sources

Photos by Jason Kirkham

http://www.hawkesyardestate.com

Hawkesyard, Armitage, Staffordshire: A Documentary and Field Assessment. Chris Welch

Staffordshire Parks and Gardens Register Review (1993-96). Parts I and II. Staffordshire County Council

http://www.armitagewithhandsacre.co.uk

http://www.staffordshiregardensandparks.org/images/Newsletter/Issue40

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Waterfall

I’d heard from enigmatic Lichfield news satirist Five Spires Live that there was a waterfall near to the newly re-opened Horns Inn in Slitting Mill. When I read that there were also several boundary stones nearby, I raced from the hole I call home* to have a look.

I understand that the waterfall isn’t a natural force but the remnants of an industry reflected in the village’s name and in the surrounding waters. Horns Pool (sometimes known as Dutton’s Pool) behind the pub was a mill pond for what is thought to have been the first slitting mill in the Midlands, dating back to the 1620s. Iron arriving here from forges in North Staffordshire was split into rods using the power of water. Between 1694 and 1710, ironmongers from the Midlands brought around an average of 600 tons of iron rod each a year.  I wonder if any found its way to Burntwood where I found the nailers’ stones in the churchyard?

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Other than the pool, and the sluice gates along Rising Brook, no other traces of the mill are thought to remain. I understand that it was pulled down to make way for the South Staffordshire Waterworks electrically operated pumping station, built in 1932. There’s an interesting story about the demolition of the mill – the British Numismatic Society Journal notes that, “An uncertain number of coins, said in one report to date from the seventeenth century, and in another to be of both that and the following century were found ‘in the walls’ of the Old Mill House when it was pulled down to make way for a new pumping station for the South Staffs Waterworks Company. It is not absolutely certain that these constituted a hoard; they may have been a number of stray coins.”

According to the information board which appears alongside the brook (part of the Cannock Chase Heritage trail), there was also a cottage on the site.  The last inhabitants were Mary Sant and her husband, a blacksmith, who lived there until the cottage was demolished in the 1930s, around the same time that the pumping station was built.. The part of the brook which ran past their home became known as Sant’s Brook, and you can see a photograph of Mary outside the cottage here.

Pumping Station

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I’ve been reading for two hours now and information on exactly how many mills were along the brook seems a little hazy (to me at least!). Archaeological investigations continue to try and establish more information about the extent of the industry here. You can read about the latest discoveries made near to Horns Pool by the Stoke on Trent Museum Archaeology Society in May 2011 here.

Boundary Stones

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There are three boundary stones that I could see – a pair either side of the brook behind Horns Pool, and nearby, another on the path. Thought to date from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century they are made from local stone. None of them have any kind of markings or lettering, and the pair on the brook are facing different ways. Together with the brook, they appear to mark a border of some sort but according to their listed building description don’t appear on any maps. Curious.

I’m even more curious about why a bridge over the stream as it flows towards Rugeley is called Father Cannock Bridge on maps. Where does this name come from?

Is this Father Cannock Bridge? Where does the name come from?

Is this Father Cannock Bridge? Where does the name come from?

Rising Brook Bridge

Whether this is Father Cannock bridge or not, its ornamental nature makes me wonder whether it’s a leftover relic from the days when this area was part of the Hagley Hall estate. Few traces of the estate remain today. I believe the hall itself was demolished in the 1980s. However, a little further downstream there is one remarkable feature which has survived and you’d never even know it was there, until you looked a little deeper…

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*It’s a bit messy as we’re having a carpet fitted.

Sources:

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-431001-boundary-stone-at-grid-reference-sk-0271/osmap

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/cannockchasedistricthea-appendix3-rugeleyareaheczassessments.pdf

The British Numismatic Journal: Including the Proceedings of the British Numismatic Society, Volume 40

Masters and Men: In the West Midland Metalware Trades Before the Industrial Revolution by Marie B Rowlands

Trent and Mersey Paradise

A beautiful ruin dating back in part to the twelfth century, with the base of a medieval weeping cross and the shrouded effigies of two sisters in the churchyard, the remains of the old church of St Augustine in Rugeley are a real treat.

three towers rugeley

Old tower, new tower, power tower

The chancel dates back to the 12thc

With the population of Rugeley rising in the early nineteenth century (in 1801 there were 2,030 inhabitants; by 1821 the population had risen to 2,667 inhabitants, many of whom were employed in the manufacture of felts and hats), the old church was outgrown and a new one was built on land opposite.

'New' church of St Augustine

The ‘new’ church of St Augustine

Consecrated on 21 January 1823, the new St Augustine’s was built on land belonging to Viscount Anson, the cost met from a variety of sources. According to some, stone from the nave of the old church was sold off to raise funds, leaving just an arcade of arches to connect the fourteenth century tower with the old chancel.

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blossom rugeley

I understand that in the 1970s the church yard was landscaped (or possibly vandalised, depending on how you look at it), and the gravestones which once surrounded the church (as shown in a photograph from the 1860s here on Staffordshire Pasttrack) were broken up and used to pave what was once the nave and north aisle, creating a mosaic of carved names and epitaphs belonging to the old inhabitants of Rugeley.

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The outline of the roof line traced by weather onto the tower

 

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Others have carved their own names into the stone of the tower where bells once rang, but doves and (slightly less romantically) pigeons now coo.

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How did H Parsons carve his name so neatly?

How did H Parsons carve his name so neatly?

Dove Rugeley

As already mentioned, one tomb that does remain in the churchyard itself is that of two women, Elizabeth Cuting who died in 1695 and her sister Emma Hollinhurst who passed away a year later. Effigies of the sisters tied into their burial shrouds are carved on top of the tomb. An information board nearby tells how this unusual monument gave rise to a local legend that that the women had been buried alive in sacks by Oliver Cromwell, despite Cromwell dying in 1658. Full marks for imagination but, if you are going to make up a story that you want people to believe, you should probably check your dates first.

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Sisters tomb rugeley

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The board also directs you to the remains of a fourteenth century cross, with a recess in one of the corners suggesting that it was a ‘weeping cross’ where penitents would once come to kneel in prayer.

Weeping Cross

As nosey as ever, I wanted to see inside as well as out and so I peeked through a a dirty window into the old chancel, and spotted some interesting looking stonework and signs that it still seems to be being used in some capacity.

Inside old church

I believe that at one time it was used a Sunday school and also a classroom for the now demolished Rugeley Grammar school which once stood next to the churchyard, where the Chancel Primary school now is. Incidentally, the school has the possibly the loveliest school library I’ve ever seen, in the form of its new Discovery Deck narrowboat, built in 2013 by Nick Thorpe in Hixon and painted over the Christmas holidays by staff and parents.

Unsuprisingly for a town with a canal running through it, this wasn’t the only narrowboat we saw.  As we crossed back over the Trent and Mersey  one was passing another of Rugeley’s ruins – an old canalside mill dating back to 1863. It seems that this part of the town’s industrial past may become apartments in the future and why not? Living in an old mill, alongside a canal, in a charming old town with the Staffordshire countryside on your doorstep? I can think of worse places to live…

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Old buildings Rugeley

Oh and finally, somewhere in the churchyard I found an Easter egg.

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Sources:

http://www.cannockchasedc.gov.uk/site/custom_scripts/HeritageTrail/old_chancel.html

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-271251-remains-of-old-church-of-st-augustine-ru

History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Staffordshire (1834) by William White

Picturesque Views and Description of Cities, Towns, Castles, Mansions, and Other Objects of Interesting Feature, in Staffordshire by William West