All Alongside the Watchtower

At the church of St Michael’s and All Angels, in Hamstall Ridware I was greeted by four arms waving (a sword) at me from a tomb. It belongs to the splendidly named Thomas Stronginthearm, who left this small village for the bright candles of Chicago in 1803, before making a final journey back home home to rest in the Staffordshire soil which his family had toiled upon – according to the church booklet, the Stronginthearms were yeoman famers.

Stronginthearm

The name appears several times in the Hamstall Ridware parish registers, available online here, recording all those who were baptised, married and buried here between 1598 and 1812. There are also other snippets of information on life in the village, including an entry in June 1806 when the Rector Edward Cooper led twenty five parishioners on a procession around its boundaries, beginning at Gallows Green, going along the Yoxall Rd as far as Sutton’s Farm, and then proceeding towards the Trent. Later that Summer, Edward’s cousin Jane Austen came to stay with him for five weeks, and it’s believed that she may have used Hamstall Ridware as inspiration for the fictional ‘Delaford’ in Sense and Sensibility. http://www2.lichfielddc.gov.uk/hamstallridware/about/

font 1

 

font 2

On the subject of baptism, there are three fonts here. Inside the church is the one that is currently used, which dates from nineteenth century and there’s the lovely Norman bowl which was relocated here from the church of St James at Pipe Ridware. Outside, and being used as a flowerpot, is the third, also said to be Norman. At the time of the Burton Scientific Society’s visit to the church in 1924, this font was on the vicarage lawn. One of the society members, a Mr Noble claimed that it was the relatively recent work of an Armitage mason who did a good trade in producing mock ancient stonework, for people with antiquarian tastes. However, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland seem happy that the font is twelfth century, and presumably they know what they are talking about.

churchyard

There’s also the base of a medieval churchyard cross here to which a much later shaft and cross have been added, although a fragment of the original shaft remains nearby.  It was while I was having a look at this, that I noticed the ruins of a brick building, looming up behind the church tower.  This is the late 15thc/early 16thc watch tower, once part of the now derelict manor house, Hamstall Hall. When the Burton Scientific society visited, they climbed a wooden staircase to the roof where they enjoyed ‘a good view of the surrounding area’ – it’s said that you can see four counties from the top. Given that that the hall features on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ List and is considered to be at risk of collapsing, it’s probably best to take their word for it. There are other remains of the hall here too, which I missed, including a Tudor gateway, and the porch to the old hall.

watch tower

 

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.   © Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.
© Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In June 1939, the Derbyshire Times did a feature on a ninety three year old woman known as ‘Grannie Shelton’, who worked as a parlour maid and nurse at the hall, and married her husband on 19th March 1863 at St Michael’s. She told the paper that she had never seen a ghost but had once, ‘been down amongst the dead men’ – when a member of the Squire of Hamstall Hall’s family died she entered the family vault to have a look around and saw six coffins inside, each covered by a black cloth but with the white face of each of the corpses visible through the glass. Mrs Shelton also once dressed up as a ghost to scare the pantry boy that she suspected of stealing fruit from the Hall, causing him to run for his life shouting ‘The Devil is in the pantry!’ The devil may not have been in the pantry, but apparently he was found in a small hollow compartment in one of the bedrooms of the old manor house in the form of a stone image, complete with horns, depicted as ‘shaving a pig with red skin’ (I swear that I haven’ t made this up!). The report suggests that the Hall was formerly a Nunnery, and this hollow would have been somewhere nuns would carry out penance for breaking the rules. I can’t see any reference anywhere else to hall being used as a convent and I can’t help but wonder if it could have been a priests’ hole?  The hall belonged to the Catholic Fitzherbert family from 1517 to 1601. Sir Thomas Fitzherbert was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirty years until his death on 2nd October 1591. All pure speculation on my part.

Feel like I’ve only just dipped my toe into the (holy) water when it comes to the history of Hamstall Ridware…

A Grave Matter

Recently, someone told me that there were some interesting gravestones at Holy Cross Catholic church on Upper Saint John St. As David Moore is on the lookout for examples of symbolism in the city’s churchyards for his upcoming Lichfield Discovered talk on the subject in September, I went to take a look.

Initially, I thought there had been a mistake as I couldn’t see any gravestones at all, but tucked around the side of the church I found just the three of them, side by side.

SAM_2123

The inscriptions are worn but the names are still legible. Names that I recognised at once. Around this time last year,  I wrote about the Corfield family who lost their lives when a fire swept through their home and business premises in Market Street in January 1873 (see here) and how rumour and legend had grown up around the tragedy.  It’s not so much the symbolism that is interesting here but the additional inscription on the middle stone – ‘Refused admission into St Michael’s Churchyard’. What does this mean exactly? It seems to contradict the Lichfield Mercury report from January 18th 1873 that,

‘The remains of the seven members of the family were conveyed in three hearses to St Michael’s Church-yard on Thursday afternoon and laid together in a square grave. The whole of the burial service was read at the grave by the Rector, the Rev J J Serjeantson; the burial service according to the Roman Catholic ritual, to which community the deceased belonged, had been read over the bodies by the Catholic priest at the Guildhall on Wednesday evening. The bodies were not taken in the church’.

All I can think is that it was these memorial stones which were not admitted into the churchyard at St Michael’s? Any thoughts or comments would be welcome.

SAM_2124

SAM_2125

A Study in Orange

The fascination for all things Fisherwick Hall continues. Recently, I discovered that the Marquess of Donegal’s Orangery once sported a rather fine portico supported by four carved pillars. Although the Orangery itself is still miraculously standing in the grounds of what is now Woodhouse Farm, despite being struck by lightning and used as a cow shed for decades, the portico has disappeared. We know it was still there in July 1935, when the Lichfield Mercury ran their, ‘The Beauty that is England’ feature on local country houses past and present, and included both a description and a photograph of it. However, it was gone by January 1947 when an article by ‘A Contributor’ suggested that the portico had been made use of at Moor Hall and Shenstone Court before eventually being purchased by the Lichfield Corporation in the 1930s to mark the entrance to the public gardens on the site of the old Friary opposite what is now the Library and (not for much longer sadly) the Record Office. However, although the portico at the Friary is thought to have come from Shenstone Court I think its highly unlikely that it started out at Fisherwick.

Much more convincing is the detective work carried out by Patti Wills.  Patti contacted me last week to say she knew of a farmhouse in Elford with a portico. Although locally it had been suggested that the structure originated at Elford Hall, Patti noticed the similarity between the portico at Upfields Farm and the old photograph of the Fisherwick Orangery portico. What’s more, the listed building description for Upfields says, “The porch is reputed to have come from Fisherwick Hall (demolished) by Capability Brown”. I think Patti is right but have a look below and see what you think.

Upfields Farm, Elford. Photograph used with kind permission of Patti Wills

The Orangery, Woodhouse Farm, part of Fisherwick Estate taken from the Lichfield Mercury

The Orangery, Woodhouse Farm, part of Fisherwick Estate taken from the Lichfield Mercury

I’m very grateful to Patti for this information and so pleased that another piece of the Fisherwick jigsaw puzzle has been found.  It’s not over yet though! It’s said that a staircase from Fisherwick was taken to a house on Beacon Street known as Ardmore, solid mahogany doors were made use of at 15, Bird Street and various bits and bobs can be found in Tamworth, including monogrammed wrought iron gates at Bole Hall On a slightly more macabre note, the location of the remains of the Marquess of Donegall and other members of his clan is also a mystery, after the family mausoleum was destroyed during work on St Michael’s church in the mid nineteenth century. The Fisherwick treasure hunt continues….

Sources:

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Parishes: Bolehall and Glascote’, A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4: Hemlingford Hundred (1947), pp. 248-249.

Signs of Spring

Every visit to the churchyard of St Michael’s leaves me wondering about the significance of this ancient place in the early chapters of Lichfield history. Thanks to archaeology, some answers have been provided over the years and landscape features such as the natural springs beneath the churchyard may give further clues as to what first drew people to this site thousands of years ago.  Nigel Johnson from Lichfield Lock and Key had told me that the water still flowed, and could be seen seeping out near to the steps up to the churchyard before trickling down Greenhill (except last week when I visited and the water had frozen!)

This natural spring has flooded the church’s crypt in the past.

Last Tuesday’s visit – frozen spring water on a freezing Spring morning

The churchyard was once used as pasture (1) but now the cattle and sheep are long gone and wildlife has been allowed to reclaim much of the churchyard. Bird song fills the air and along the paths and amongst the graves are clusters of spring flowers. Snow drops are still hanging on in there, and primroses and daffodils are now well on their way. During my recent visits, I’ve also met several dogs (and their owners!) and some of the neighbourhood cats.

I noticed that Georgia Locock, a young wildlife enthusiast who has her own blog on Lichfield’s wildlife has also been along to the churchyard on the lookout for Spring recently and you can see her lovely photographs here.

On the south (I think!) side of the church itself, I noticed stone heads, very similar to those at Christ Church. A couple of years prior to working on Christ Church, Thomas Johnson, the Lichfield architect, carried out an extensive restoration here at St Michael’s in 1842/1843 and presumably these heads are one of his additions. Whilst his work at Christ Church is generally applauded, Johnson’s work at St Michael’s has been criticised by some, as much of the original medieval fabric of the church was destroyed during his renovation. (I don’t know much about architecture, and so am not really in a position to comment. However, there does seem to be a certain irony in removing original features, and adding new ‘medieval style’ ones, such as these heads.) Again, as at Christ Church, I wonder who these faces captured in stone belong to and who carved them?

Looks like someone was inspired to create their own head alongside the carved ones….

Many of the  headstones and memorials that surround the church feature the names of the stonemasons that created them – Joseph Johnson of St John St (was this any relation to Thomas?), John Winslow of Tamworth St, John Hamlet of Dam St, James and George Lamb of Sandford St amongst others. Did any of these craftsmen also work on the church itself?

It seems Joseph Johnson may have ended up in a debtors prison. His name appears in the London Gazette, in a section entitled ‘Pursuant to the Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors in England. The following PRISONERS, whose Estates and Effects have been vested in the Provisional Assignee by Order of the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors, and whose Petitions and Schedules, duly filed, have been severally referred and transmitted to the County Courts hereinafter mentioned, pursuant to the Statute in that behalf, are ordered to be brought up before the Judges of the said Courts respectively, as herein set forth, to be dealt with according to Law’.  Mr Johnson is listed to go before the Judge of the County Court of Warwickshire, holden at Coventry, on Monday the 21st day of June 1852, at Twelve o’Clock at Noon and is described as,

Joseph Johnson, formerly of the city and county of the city
of Lichfield, Stone Mason and Builder, afterwards of the
same place, Stone Mason, Builder, and Licensed Victualler,
and at the same time of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, Stone Mason and Builder, and late of the city
and county of the city of Lichfield, Stone Mason, Builder,
and Licensed Victualler

 

The Edinburgh Gazette of January 16th 1863, notes that John Hamlet, listed as an architectural draughtsman and stonemason of Dam St, Lichfield, has been awarded bankruptcy. How did they fall upon such hard times?  I’d like to find out more about these craftsmen whose job it was to record the lives of others in stone.

Notes:

1 – I was surprised to read in the county history that the churchyard was once let as pasture, although in 1801, the grazing of cattle was deemed inappropriate due to the ‘damage and desecration’ caused and it was decided that only sheep should be allowed. However, this was ignored, with tragic consequences – in 1809, there is an entry in the church register for the burial of a child, Joseph Harper, who was killed by a cow in the church yard.

Sources

Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155.

http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/21325/pages/1619/page.pdf

http://www.edinburgh-gazette.co.uk/issues/7293/pages/92/page.pdf

History, Gazetter and Directory of Staffordshire  (1834), William White

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/STAFFORDSHIRE/2001-04/0986182998

 

Christ Church Open Day

I’m delighted to see that Christ Church, Lichfield is having an open day. On Saturday 9th March, between 10am and 4pm, visitors will be able to explore this wonderful Victorian building and its architectural features, including the lovely chancel ceiling, original Minton tiles and stained glass, with the help of local history enthusiasts.

The grounds are lovely at this time of year, and a quick check of my photographs from last March tells me that the wild garlic and daffodils should be coming through in the lane alongside the church, so don’t forget to have a look outside as well as in.  There are also the intriguing stone heads around the inside and outside the building, that I wrote about back in January and am still none the wiser about (although I did see some very similar ones at St Michael’s –  a church that Thomas Johnson the architect was involved in restoring a few years before her started work here at Christ Church)!

The open day is being run by the new Friends of Christ Church, a group whose aim is to support the preservation, conservation and enhancement of the church and its grounds. I understand that anyone who becomes a member will receive an annual newsletter with details of upcoming events and projects to get involved in, and also a copy of the excellent book “Christchurch: A History”, which tells the story of the church, and the associated buildings in the area such as Christ Church School, The Old Vicarage, the cottage in the churchyard and Beacon Place (gone but not without a trace….).

More information can be found at www.christchurch-lichfield.org.uk/events or by email friendsofccl@btinternet.com.

 

Elegy Written in a Lichfield Churchyard

Many churches dedicated to St Michael are found on hills. Lichfield’s St Michael’s of course is at Greenhill, on a sandstone ridge 104 metres above sea level.   It’s thought a church has been on the site since 1190, but that the surrounding churchyard is older. There are hints as to this earlier history of this site, but as far as I can see things are still very much at the questions, rather than answers stage. Many people believe the position of the church on a hill, and its dedication to St Michael may indicate a previous pagan site.   I hadn’t realised until reading that the crypt was liable to flooding, that there are natural springs on the hill. Is this relevant to the story, and if so, how?

The answers we do have were, of course, mostly provided by archaeology. Evidence suggests there may have been activity here in the mesolithic era. In 1978, an excavation in the South East corner of the churchyard discovered five flints (albeit not in a primary context).

Four years earlier, the building of a new vestry at the church gave archaeologists the opportunity to open a trench. Unsurprisingly for a churchyard they discovered human remains – forty nin complete or partial skeletons. Of these, all but two were buried in the customary Christian manner, with their head to the west. However the head of ‘Skeleton 21’, was to the east. Apparently, this can sometimes suggest that the remains of a Christian priest have been uncovered. By being buried with their feet to the west they were ready to rise and face their flock on judgement day, as they had done in life. However, the archaeologist noted the absence of a chalice and patten, objects that priests were often buried with (as was the case with the remains of the priest near the old leper hospital in Freeford).  ‘Skeleton 58’ also differed from the others being buried with his/her knees tucked under the chin. This crouched burial style is apparently more associated with Pre-Norman conquest burials, although I’m still doing some background reading to try and shed more light on what exactly this kind of burial is thought to signify in this context.

The archaeology report also mentions skeletons 2 and 8,  those of an adult, and a baby placed on the adult’s shoulder, and speculates this may be a woman who died in childbirth. It’s discoveries like this, I think, that remind you that these were real people with real lives (that were all too short in many cases).

By the mid 16th century, church records are kept (I’ve used those transcribed by Harwood), and begin to tell us a much more detailed story of the churchyard,  enabling us to gives names and identities to those laid to rest here. For example, this is the entry for 1560

– Recevyd for the ffyrst grasse of the Churche Yarde
– for the later Grasse of the Churche Yarde
– of gatherynge in Easter Wyke
– for light at the buryall of Jamys Bywater’s Wyffe and her Chylde
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roberte Walker
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roger Walker
– for light at the buryall of a Chylde of the Walle
– for light at the mynnynge of Mr Swynfen
– for light at the buryall of Roberte Cowper’s Wyffe

The church records also records costs for ‘killing molldiwarps’ in 1597, bestowing ‘on the workmen at several tymes in beare and ale’ in 1602, and money ‘payd for catching urchins’ in 1612 (urchins meant hedgehogs. I hope!).

While some things never change – a footnote tells how a person named Hollingbury was tried at Lichfield in 1612 for stealing lead from the church, others thankfully have – ‘William Key of Bliffeld and Nicholas Hatherton of Lichfield two prisoners condemned according to the Laws of this land and executed here at this Cittie were both buryed in one grave the 17th day of October 1592’.

There are still those buried at a later date whose names are not specifically recorded. An entry in the register says that for ‘From April 14 1642 to Feb 19 1645 were buried twenty five soldiers’, and I’ve either read or been told that victims of the plagues that struck Lichfield (51 per cent of Lichfield’s population died of plague in 1593-4, and 32 per cent, in 1645-6) were buried in pits here.

The majority of headstones seem to date from the 18th century onwards, although there may be earlier memorials here. I have seen examples of gravestones dating back to the early 1600s in other churchyards, such as this one at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.

Examples older gravestones at Southwell Minster

Of course, some people, presumably those wealthy citizens of the city, even erected monuments like this well known one belonging to Chancellor Law, which used to have a clock in the centre.

As with many places, we might never get definitive answers about the origins of St Michael’s churchyard, but who knows? As we’ve seen before, one discovery can change everything. And in the meantime, it’s a fascinating part of the city to keep asking questions about!

Sources

Gould, Dorothy & Gould, J 1974-5 `St Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, Staffs’ Trans S Staffordshire Archaeol Hist Soc 16 58-61 

The history and antiquities of the church and city of Lichfield by Thomas Harwood

 

Potholes

After visiting the Christian Fields Local Nature Reserve, it seemed a good time to revisit the story that gave a name to the immediate area, and according to some, to the wider city as well.

Legend has it that in around 300AD, one thousand (or 999 depending on which version you read) Christians were massacred by a Roman army and their bodies left unburied in a place that would become known as the ‘Field of Corpses’ aka Lichfield (from the OE lic – body/corpse).   From 1548, versions of this story were depicted on the city seal, examples of which can still be seen in several places across the city, including the Martyrs Plaque at Beacon Park, 19thc police badges on display in the City Gaol, and in the main hall at the Guildhall.

Version of the City Seal from 1688, Main Hall, Guildhall

Several fairly obvious locations in the city have been mooted as possibilities for the specific location of the massacre, including Borrowcop Hill, St Michael’s Churchyard and the site of the Cathedral. However, what was it about this parcel of land, a mile north of the Cathedral that convinced people to such an extent, that it was given the name ‘Christian Fields’?

The image below is an aerial view of the area from 1971. Christian Fields is south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Rd.  (Shortly afterwards, a new housing estate was built on the field. Perhaps as a nod to the site’s legendary history, the streets were named after saints. Funnily enough, one of these new houses was my husband’s childhood home – I must ask my in-laws if they ever found anything of interest in the garden!)

An aerial view of Christian Fields, 1971. Reproduced with thanks to Gareth Thomas, Lichfield District Council

Lichfield District Council’s information on the site says,

In the 17th-century the antiquarian Robert Plot declared that the area, now known as Christian Fields, had been the site of the martyrdom and it has born the name ever since. Needless to say Robert Plot’s claim has never been substantiated and no archaeological evidence has ever been presented in its support.

Looking at John Speed’s 1610 map of the city, I wonder whether the idea that the massacre took place at Christian Fields actually pre-dates Robert Plot? At the end of a road leading north from the Cathedral (possibly Dimbles Lane?), in the vicinity of Christian Fields, is an illustration depicting a scene that looks like a representation of the legend, similar to that found on the city seal.

John Speed’s 1610 map of Lichfield

In the early 1800s, local historians wrote about a series of discoveries near to the site, that persuaded them that the legend was true. The pastscape record has the following description, taken from a history book of the time,

In a meadow adjoining CHRISTIAN FIELDS, known by the name of the TOAD’S HOLE PIECE, have been recently found a considerable quantity of human bones, various pieces  of earthenware, some of which are Roman, a stone bowl or dish perhaps used for grinding corn, a stone ball, fragments of weapons including the head of a pike or halberd and several horseshoes  pierced for nails at the top as well as the sides. The objects  were discovered nearly four feet below the surface in a peaty soil, amongst and covered by great quantities of roots and decaying branches.

I found the book (1) on googlebooks and found it contained illustrations of the objects.

 

A letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1817 gave a little more information,

The articles of which I have sent you drawings were found near some land known by the singular names of Hic Filius and Christian’s field so called, according to tradition, from having been the place where the early converts to Christianity had used to assemble  and where the massacre from which Lichfield derives its name took place.

The letter goes on to describe what I think are these drawings from the Staffordshire Past Track site. – “a stone dish one foot diameter used perhaps for grinding was placed in the earth as a cover for a smooth red earthenware broken by the eagerness of the workmen to examine the contents (proved earth only). The black spots arc metallic. Also, the head of a weapon in preservation the wooden staff was broken off near the head, the iron is 21 inches in length.  There are also weapons found in 1817 in the foundation of one of the canons houses on the North side of the Close with some bones and broken armour”.

I’m not suggesting that the objects are proof of the legend, which along with the ‘Field of the Dead’ explanation of the place name of Lichfield is generally accepted to be untrue (the current favoured explanation of the name is ‘the common pasture in or beside the the grey wood).  However, and I may be reading into things too much here, I do think it’s a little curious that these items seem to almost be a tick list of props for the martyrs’ story…. Bones? Check. Horses & weapons? Check. A link to the Romans? Check.  The question I’m finding it hard to find an answer to is, if it’s agreed that these objects aren’t part of the story of the Christian Martyrs, in some way, shape or form, then whose story or stories are they part of?

Edit 6/10/2012

A further reference from the same book says the following,

About three quarters of a mile from (St Chad’s Well) are Hic filiius and Christians Fields where the converts of Ampbibalus are said to have been massacred; a considerable quantity of human bones have been found in the adjoining fields a few feet beneath the surface.

It has been the custom of civilized nations to collect and burn or bury the bodies of those slain in battle here fragments of bones are found scattered through a space exceeding half a mile and in one place only have they been met with under the appearance of having been buried which was in a field near Pones mill on the east side of the brook these had probably been dug up and thrown into an excavation as were several cart loads found in the field adjoining to that in which the earthen ware before noticed was discovered which were thrown into a marl pit near the spot. Tradition says the bodies of the massacred christians were left unburied a prey to the birds and beasts of the forest.

On maps from the later 1800s, there is a marl pit in the corner of the field marked as ‘Christian Fields’.

Sources

(1) A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield by Lomax, Woodhouse & Newling (1819)

(2) Derbyshire Record Office Online Catalogue

(3) Holinshed’s Chronicles ofEngland, Scotland & Ireland

http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/index.php

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42340#s1