Onn the Hoof

Today I was going to look for a cursed stone imprinted with a cow’s hoof, after she kicked it in fury on realising she’d been tricked into being milked dry by a witch. However, as it appears the local petrol stations have now been milked dry I am not sure I can afford to go on a fifty mile round trip right now. Curse them.

Image (c) NLS

I would have been heading over Church Eaton way, where old maps show a ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross’, marked at a crossroads just outside of the village. A lovely email I had recently had asked if I knew who Joan was, as there were rumours she had been a witch. Snippets in local newspapers confirm this to be a long-standing local legend, although there was an interesting suggestion from an article in the Staffordshire Newsletter that she may have actually been the village’s patron saint. As one of those rare creatures, a woman whose name appears in the historical record of a place, she was always going to be sanctified or demonised wasn’t she? This small triangle of grass at the junction of the roads to Little and High Onn is said to be either her grave or the site of her execution, possibly both. The name ‘Joan Eaton’s Cross‘ suggests there may have once been a marker of sorts here but if there ever was it’s long since been replaced by a ‘Give Way’ sign.

Given Joan supposedly had a habit of stealing the milk from the neighbourhood cows, if her bones do lie beneath that patch of grass they’re surely going to be in pretty good nick thanks to all that calcium.

The story that I’ve pieced together from several accounts is that it was an encounter with the Dun Cow, a mythical creature the size of a bus, which ultimately led to Joan’s downfall. The owner of Redhouse Farm in Little Onn challenged her to have a go at milking it and Joan tricked the magical beast by using a sieve. When the cow realised it had been milked dry and done dirty, it kicked off and ran from the field leaving one of her hoof prints on a stone at the gate. Joan warned the farmer that if the stone were ever to be removed, Very Bad Things would happen. This pretty much confirmed the villagers’ suspicions that Joan was a witch and so she was taken to the crossroads where she was burned at the stake.

The Dun Cow was about the same size as this bus

Now, as much as I love a classic witch/magical cow/cursed stone bit of folklore, I need to separate the curds from the absolutely no whey did that happen. The appearance of the Dun Cow is obviously the first red flag that there’s a fair bit of bull in the tale. That’s not just because huge and magical heifers don’t exist but also because a very similar version of the story is told in Warwickshire. Except they have the heroic Guy of Warwick slaying it and went as far as displaying one of its ribs (which was actually the tusk of a narwhal, a huge and magical creature which really shouldn’t exist given that it’s essentially a sea unicorn) at the castle for many years. These South Midlands counties are so extra. Secondly, the part where Joan was burned at the stake for being a witch is a ropey old trope given that witches in England were hanged. One element of the story for which there does seem to be some sort of evidence however, is the existence of the stone.

At some point, it was moved from its original location at Redhouse Farm to the gates of Little Onn Hall and, as Joan warned, a Very Bad Thing happened as all of the cattle in the area died. This new location seems to have made things even worse as became apparent when a man was thrown from his horse and killed, after being spooked by the stone. Greeting guests with a cursed rock at your gate is not particularly welcoming and so the hall’s owner tried to move it. Sixteen horses failed to pull the it from the ground and each one of them was dead within a fortnight. A local chap was then employed to dig away the soil from around it and beneath it in an attempt to bury it. He succeeded in sinking it a yard or so, but found himself six feet under within a week. From then onwards, the fate of the resident family at Little Onn Hall became forever bound to the cursed stone. If it sank further into the ground, it followed that their fortunes would founder. Intriguingly, one writer relaying the story described how the house was once owned by a well-know family whose name began with a ‘C’ (that’s the original writer being cryptic, not me). I’m fairly sure I know which family he was referring to and, for me, there is something uncanny about a family whose fate was supposed foretold by a sinking stone being onboard RMS Titanic when it sank. However, we will return to unearth that story another day as incredibly it isn’t the only curse connected to the family.

Cursed image from Google Maps

The stone was still there in August 1956, when the ‘Old Stafford Society’ visited and described it as being covered in marks resembling a cow’s hoof prints. I think I may have found it on Google Earth but obviously can’t make out any marks on it from here. Once this petrol nonsense sorts itself out, I’ll go for a closer look although I suppose I could always dig out my broomstick if things get really desperate…

Sources:

Staffordshire Newsletter 18 August 1956

Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 25 November 1846

Raiders of the Lost Bark

There’s a little village in Staffordshire called Aston. Well, officially it’s called Aston-by-Stone as at some point they clearly got fed up of people not having a clue where it was and always having to explain ‘by Stone’, and just incorporated it into the name. Around fifty years ago, this tiny place hit the headlines of the local press on the basis that it was thought to be hiding a big secret. As a media circus descended upon the village, some may have been wistfully nostalgic for those days when no-one knew where it was.

Throughout much of its history, the Aston Hall estate had Catholic connections and since 1961, has been owned by the Birmingham Archdiocese and used as a retirement home for priests. Apart from five-a-side football, possibly, life was quiet and uneventful here until one day it was noticed that one of the trees in the grounds was in a dangerous condition. This was not just any old tree though but an ancient acacia with a legend attached. The tale told how there was treasure buried beneath its branches but that any riches at its roots would be revealed only if the tree fell down of its own accord, rather than being felled.

Understandably, it was decided that safety rather than superstition had to come first and in April 1974, the tree was cut down. A supposed conversation between one of the nuns and a former owner of the hall together with promising results from a metal detector suggested there may actually be some substance to the story and there was speculation amongst the priests that the subterranean secret may be some sort of sacred chalice. Disappointingly, when the tree was toppled, there was no holy grail or anything else in the hole. Despite this, the Sister Superior still had faith that the story still had some roots in reality and was quoted by the assembled press as saying ‘There must have been some grounds for the legend….’.

I’m with Sister O’Sullivan on this. I’ve read enough myths and legends to believe that on the (w)hole, even the most fanciful folklore does not just materialise out of thin air. For me, it’s not so much about whether spectres and secret tunnels exist but rather why the stories about them do, and why they persist. I do have theory about the treasure of Aston Hall and it relates to a bona fide discovery made here in 1838, although perhaps given the the nature of what Father Benjamin Hulme found beneath the altar of the hall’s chapel, bone fide would be a more fitting description. Inside a velvet-covered box and wrapped in silk were some of the relics of St Chad, smuggled out of Lichfield by Canon Arthur Dudley during horrible Henry’s reformation. Their three hundred year journey had taken them to the homes of a number of Catholic families in the Midlands for safekeeping, including that of Henry Hodgetts who kept them above his bed. The bones were enshrined in Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral when it was consecrated in June 1841, in a casket designed by Pugin which he based on the Venerable Bede’s description of the original at Lichfield Cathedral. In the mid-1990s, they were examined by scientists who dated all but one of the bones to the 7th century which fits in time-wise with Chad’s death in 672. However, the presence of two left femurs amongst these means that there are the remains of three individuals here in total. It’s widely accepted that one of them is Lichfield’s patron saint but, barring some miracle, the identity of the other two will forever remain a mystery.

The shrine of St Chad at Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral

At this point, I think it’s worth noting that Lichfield Cathedral once held a whole host of relics. In 1345, these included some of the bones of St Lawrence, plus part of the gridiron he was martyred on, some of Mount Calvary and Golgotha, a piece of the rock standing upon which Jesus wept bitterly and wept over Jerusalem, some of the bones of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, part of the finger and cowl of St William, some of the bread of St Godric and some of the wood of the cross of St Peter. Is it possible Canon Dudley managed to lay his hands on more than just the arm and leg bones of St Chad perhaps? And were these hidden relics the source of the story that there was booty buried here at the hall? As, um, Captain Jack Sparrow once said, ‘Not all treasure’s silver and gold, mate’.

Stained glass windows at St Chad’s Cathedral tell the the story of how St Chad’s relics made the three hundred year journey from Lichfield to Birmingham. I think chances of a new one showing a nun sat on an excavator next to an acacia tree being added in are slim to be honest

As a footnote, in the boundary wall at Aston Hall there is supposedly a cross commemorating a monk who was struck by lightning. I never managed to find it but then we all know that X never, ever marks the spot. But then neither does an ancient acacia tree apparently…

Sources:

HT to @stymistress on Twitter for inspiring the title!

https://lichfieldlore.co.uk/tag/relics/

Staffordshire Newsletter April 12th 1974

Birmingham Post 6th April 1974

Cope, N. Stone, the history of a market town

http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2020/06/how-saint-chads-relics-were-removed.html

Pipe Lines

The traffic lights at Pipe Hill crossroads are haunted. Let’s just put that out there right away. Ever since this was pointed out to me by Deb from Melbourne in Lichfield, I’ve often found myself on red, sat waiting for something that I can’t see to pull out of Fosseway Lane. I’m imagining this spectral vehicle to be a Roman chariot because that’s the way to Wall and all of us good classical scholars know that ‘fosse’ is a Latin word meaning ditch. We also all know that ‘Caecilius est in horto‘ but we’re going up Pipehill not Up Pompeii.

Yes that is snow on the ground. Yes this has taken me a while to write.

The Walsall Road was once owned by the Lichfield Turnpike Trust who had built a toll house and gate on it by 1787. In November 1879, the Trust held an auction at the Three Crowns inn, to dispose of them. The Victoria County History suggests the house was probably demolished by 1909, although the person who lives in it assures me that it probably wasn’t. The supposition most likely arises from a parish meeting at Hammerwich in 1909, where an old minute notebook from Pipe Hill parish (which by then had joined up with Wall) was produced, saying that the tollhouse had been sold to the Marquess of Anglesey on the condition it be taken down. At the time of the meeting the building was still standing but encroaching significantly on the footpath and the matter was referred to the overseers of Wall.

Further along towards Muckley Corner is Pipe Place, a mid-eighteenth century farm house. When owner Mr Bradburne was in horto he made a fascinating discovery that, like so much of our local Roman history, has never been acknowledged enough in meam humilem opinionem. As he was digging a drain, Bradburne discovered the trunks of several oak trees deliberately driven upright into the ground. Some had rotted away above the surface, but others were still whole, each with, ‘a cavity four inches wide and three inches wide from the top cut down its middle’. The structure was traced for about a quarter of a mile and was surrounded by a ‘fosse’ filled with peat.

From ‘A Topographical History of Staffordshire by William Pitt (1817)’

According to the Heritage Environment Record, this could still be seen as a linear feature on aerial photos in the 1990s but my amateur eyes can’t make anything out on Google maps. The Georgian gents who originally found it thought it must have been a military barricade erected by the Romans to defend Letocetum but more recently it has been suggested by archaeologist Jim Gould that it may have been an aqueduct built to provide the settlement with water. If you think about it logically, the water for that big bath at Wall must have come from somewhere. Two lengths of lead piping were discovered on the bath house site in 1874, last seen in the Lichfield Museum in 1961 but long since vanished with much else of the collection. In a later excavation, deer horns, a number of dogs’ skulls and the thigh bone of a teenage boy were discovered. Unfortunately, as yet I can’t find anything else about the context in which they were found although the pony skull discovered at the bottom of a nearby well may well have been a votive offering. It probably belongs to that one pulling that spectral chariot up at Pipe Hill cross roads.

Image from Lichfield Mercury. It was definitely a long term policy…

Let us now gallop 1,500 years forward in time from possible pagan practices to Victorian values. The Misses Topham opened an establishment at Pipe Hill for young ladies in 1856 and I’m sure there were definitely some good classical scholars amongst them. In 1882, a tiny chapel was built at Pipe Hill, as a mission room to the church at Wall and during the First World War, a street shrine listing the names of those from the local community who were serving their country stood outside it. These shrines were different to the later memorials we are all familiar with in that they were as much about praying for the living as remembering the dead, and were often bestrewn with offerings of flowers, flags and photographs. Perhaps we didn’t come all that far from those pagan practices after all….The Pipe Hill Mission Church didn’t quite last a century and after laying disused for several years it was bought by Staffordshire County Council and demolished in 1971. One other institution which warrants a brief mention is the Pipe Hill and Farewell Association for Prosecuting Felons who advertised in the Staffordshire Advertiser in November 1817 a list of rewards they offered for the apprehension and conviction of those committing offences such as ‘highway robbery’ (£21), ‘wrongfully milking any cow’ (£5 5s) and ‘maliciously pulling up turnips’ (£2 2s).

Finally, how can I write about Pipe Hill and not mention Lichfield’s creepiest cottage? The property has been empty and decaying ever since I moved here in 2004, intriguing us all with its mysterious ‘Not for sale or rent’ notice. I drove past earlier and saw this is no longer the case. Much of the wilderness surrounding it had been cleared and for just under £300,000 cash, it can be yours. I strongly suspect the traffic lights won’t be the only thing changing at Pipe Hill in the near future…

Sources

Staffordshire Advertiser 29th November 1817 and 30th January 1915

Gould, J. (1998) Letocetum

https://www.lichfielddc.gov.uk/downloads/file/1849/hammerwich-neighbourhood-plan-submission-version-march-2021

Lichfield Mercury 31st October 1879 and 3rd November 1916

‘Townships: Wall with Pipehill’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 283-294. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol14/pp283-294 [accessed 25 July 2021

The Hauntings of Ravenhill House

I say this with nothing but affection but, for me, Rugeley is the creepy capital of Staffordshire. Never mind the drama of the Moorlands with its mermaids or our fancy phantoms from the Civil War here in Lichfield. If you google, ‘What is Rugeley famous for?’, the answer is a murderer. If you google, ‘What else is Rugeley famous for?’, the answer is another murder. I may return to these infamous events at some point but for now it’s one of the town’s lesser told stories I want to share as further paranormal proof of my bold claim.

Spotted in a garden in Rugeley. I rest my case m’lud.

At the turn of the 19th century, William Hewitt was a young man who had recently entered into the employment of a titled gentleman at Ravenhill House. Hewitt recalled how the house and its grounds were scenic in summer but that come winter, it turned into a dark and dismal place with scarcely a light to be seen. The owner would disappear for months at a time and it was during one of these absences that speculation that a spectre had been spotted in the area arose. The ghost was first seen at the top of Redbrook Lane, by a man returning from a night at his local and two nights later, another man returning home from the pub was startled when the supposed spook sprang out at him. Several more appearances of the apparition followed to the point that there was genuine sense of fear in the community with many people choosing not to venture out after dark.

One group of residents decided that they weren’t afraid of no ghost and took to patrolling the streets at night. One evening, a gang of twenty men headed to the shadowy spot where the ghost had been known to materialise but there was no sign of the shade to be seen and over the next few weeks sightings subsided. Then, one night, Mr Hewitt was returning from Rugeley town with two friends, when they caught sight of something white standing in the gateway to Ravenhill House. One of them lashed out at it with a stick and it fell to the ground with a very earthly thud. In proper Scooby Doo fashion, the friends pulled the white sheet from the now prostrate phantom but before they could reveal its identity, they noticed a considerable amount of blood on the sheet. Finding themselves in the unusual position of thinking they’d killed someone who until two minutes prior they’d believed to already be a ghost, they panicked and ran off. A few days later, Hewitt, Fred and Shaggy heard a rumour that an employee of Ravenhill House was in bed with a nasty crack on the head, having apparently caught his foot on the carpet and fallen downstairs. Yes, that’s right. The butler did it and what’s more, he would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Actual footage of events on Redbrook Lane

The irony here is that Ravenhill House did actually have a genuine ghost, as far as any ghost can be genuine. An apparition of an elderly woman dressed in blue was witnessed by residents and guests on several occasions, her main haunt being a chair in the drawing room as, like all ladies of a certain age, she enjoyed a nice sit down. The lady in blue was such a feature of the house that when Harry Thornton drew a map of the house in the 1980s, based on information supplied by Major T. Gardener, whose parents lived in the house from 1920 to 1936, she was included albeit it as the ‘Grey Lady’. Perhaps she, or possibly Major Gardener’s memory of her, had faded over time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is map-of-ravenhill-house-from-staffs-pasttrack.png
‘Here be ghost(s)’. A map of Ravenhill House from Staffordshire Past Track website

Sadly, Ravenhill House was demolished in 1993 with its final moments captured in a series of photographs which can be seen on the Staffordshire Past Track site here.

Sources:

Rugeley Times Archive
https://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/details.aspx?ResourceID=29614&ExhibitionID=29552

Love Street Love

My first post of 2021 was going to be about a murder in Yoxall but things are grim enough at the moment and so I thought I’d write about something nice for a change.

They say love can be found where you least expect it and under the floorboards of a house on Beacon Street surely qualifies as unexpected. In 1980, a bundle of letters between William Davis and Ann Bayley of Longdon were discovered by Mrs Sheila Paterson when she was replacing her stairs.

In one of his letters, William wrote, ‘Some people, like me now, fall into love even as a fly falls into a honey pot. What can be sweeter? Indeed, love is a pretty pleasant thing’. Then there’s a bit of drama because William complains, ‘You would not speak to me when you came from the church which gave me a great deal of grief till I came before your pretty face’. At the end of the letter he writes, ‘I hope I shall love you to my end. I hope you will take this in good heart’. In Ann’s letter to William she says, ‘ You say my company is sweet to you and yours is to others no doubt; if your pen and your heart agree I shall be glad, but if not you won’t lose your time or me mine for I keep all others at a distance for your sake and I hope you will do the same’, signing off ‘Your constant lover’.

The Lichfield Mercury report on the discovery of the letters say they were undated but thanks to a brilliant bit of detective work from Baddiley Ram (on Twitter and Instagram) we now know that they were written in the mid-eighteenth century. It also gives us an answer to the did they live happily ever after question the Mercury was unable to answer.

Reader, she married him.

The registers at St James the Great record the marriage of Ann Bayley and William Davis on 2nd April 1768. I can’t help wonder whether Ann would have touched the Bride’s Hand in the church porch at Longdon as she arrived on her wedding day.

The ‘Bride’s Hand’ Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

The unsolved parts of this staircase are who hid the letters and why? And where are they now? If you do know anything more, do drop me a line.

Sources

Thanks to the person who first contacted me about this story

Lichfield Mercury 5 December 1980

Christmas Tree

Just before Christmas, I went to meet an old tree called Noddy. As I was driving over to see him, I was listening to the radio. It was safe to do this since I’d been recently been Whamageddoned when delivering a tub of Heroes. A careless wispa indeed. Slade were playing en-root, and though singing along felt a little hollow this year, given that everybody is probably not having much fun this year, I enjoyed the nominal coincidence.

I’ve been to Colton twice before. Once to show my Mum the erratic boulders that mark the four corners of the bridge over Moreton Brook and once for the slightly more rock and roll reason of a party at Ye Olde Dun Cow.

There’s a joke about Noddy Boulders here I’m sure

On the latter occasion, I was having a look at the memorabilia the pub had about the local area. You can find some really interesting things on display in old pubs. I even found a blog post from this amazing local history blog called Lichfield Lore printed out and framed once….Hanging on the wall of the Dun Cow I found a drawing of a massive old chimney stack but more about that later.

Chim chim cher-ee

The Dun Cow is at the edge of the village and Noddy lives up a nearby country lane called Newlands, an old name dating back to 1339. As I started walking up there, I was almost run over by a delivery driver but he smiled and waved cheerfully and it was a novelty to interact with someone from outside my bubble. On reaching a huge puddle and contemplating how best to cross, I became aware of three men without a boat on the opposite shore. Yes, this puddle was that big. After much ado, Staffordshire’s answer to Compo, Clegg and Foggy reached my side. I decided to play the part of Batty and told them I was looking for a tree. An lo! Glad tidings of great joy they bought as they told me they’d just passed him a short ago. In fact, from this moment hence, they shall be known as the Three Wise Men of Colton.

Costa del Colton

I was originally introduced to Noddy by an absolute star who helped to fight and win a battle against HS2 to save him. The destruction of old roots for this new route is a huge tragedy and although many other battles have been lost, there is some comfort in knowing that this eight hundred year old oak has survived. Stood beside him, it’s just possible to see the chimney tops of Little Hay Manor House. The current house is relatively modern, built in the 19th century but remember the big old chimney stack I mentioned earlier? It’s all that remains of the Tudor manor house, demolished in 1846 due to the decayed state of its floors. Incredible to think that Noddy would already have been around 450 years old when it was built. According to Frederick Perrot Parker, the Rector of Colton who wrote a history of the village in 1897, on the third day of December each year, the boundaries of the manor of Little Hay were perambulated. I understand that Noddy was part of that boundary and thankfully still is.

Noddy

I’m reading the rest of the Rev Parker’s history at the moment and it gives such a detailed account of the family trees of Colton gentry that I now feel I know them better than my own relatives. Mind you there are also some interesting snippets such as this intriguing sentence,

‘Hamley House, now belonging to Lord Bagot, is mentioned as Mr Webb’s new house in a vestry book of the year 1707; it has undergone considerable alteration from time to time, and there was probably an earlier dwelling on the same site; traces of an old window remain blocked up in the wall of one of the outbuildings, and the well is said to be curious‘.

I confess that I would have liked a little more about the curious well and a little less of the dry geneaology but the Rev Parker is in my good books for including a drawing of the Tudor incarnation of Little Hay Manor. Besides, it’s good to have some Spring explorations to look forward to…

Sources

http://www.coltonhistorysociety.org.uk/

Parker, F.P. (1870), Some Account of Colton and of the De Wasteney’s Family

The Place of Spades

All pubs are closed at the moment but one that’s highly unlikely to ever reopen is the Malt Shovel Hotel on Conduit St. Closed in 1971, the pub became an electrical retailer and is now ‘Fat Face’. The current building is around 142 years old and the original building is shown here on the Staffordshire Past Track site. It seems to have been demolished circa 1878 when a Samuel ‘no, not that one’ Johnson took out an advertisement in the Lichfield Mercury asking for ‘persons desirous of tendering for the pulling down of the old Malt Shovel Public House, Malthouse, Stables, and other old places and for the erection of a Wine and Spirit Vault, Club Room, Stabling’ to send their names to him.

The Malt Shovel, Conduit Street,  Lichfield
Source: @St Mary’s Lichfield from the http://www.staffspasttrack.org.uk/ website

After the pub closed, then owners Ansells discovered a bundle of deeds and other documents in their basement which they presented to Hubert Appleyard, the curator of Lichfield Museum, along with the wooden malt shovel which hung above the bar. The earliest documents relate to Thomas Glacier who ran his butcher’s business there in 1592, possibly one of the reasons Conduit Street was known by an alternative name of ‘Butchers’ Row’ until the mid-19th century. Other records show that in 1774 it was occupied by a maltster and baker and by 1801, deeds refer to a ‘Thaynes, publican’, suggesting links to the beer trade for at least a couple of hundred years. The documents are now at Staffordshire Record Office and the shovel is part of Lichfield District Council’s collection, which I believe is currently shoved in an attic. There’s a lot more I could say about Lichfield’s lack of a museum but rather than dig myself into a hole here, I will instead be positive and say that foundations are being laid for a number of alternative ways to fill this hole in our heritage.

(c) Lichfield District Council

Looking back in the newspaper archive it’s clear that looking back in the newspaper archive has always been a thing. In 1903, a column called, ‘Lichfield a quarter century ago’ recalled an incident in which the landlord of the Malt Shovel had been injured when falling off a ladder whilst attending to some pigs in his loft. Thankfully his injuries weren’t too serious and he just needed some oinkment. It also turns out that making typos has always been a thing (and a tradition I am proud to continue) as a look back at the original article on the Malt Shovel mishap reveals it was pigeons rather than porcines in the loft which makes a lot more sense unless pigs actually do fly.

There was scandal in 1903, when the license of the pub was objected to on the basis that there was something irregular involving a privvy and there was card playing, bookmaking and ‘a good deal of female drinking’ on the premises. It was re-issued after the landlord promised that ‘he would be extra careful that nothing of that sort went on in the future’. Seems the subsequent landlady was not even slightly careful however, and under Florence Slater’s tenure in 1922, an illicit gambling venture was uncovered in police raid. Things seems to have calmed down after that as the most exciting thing that the Mercury reported about the Malt Shovel between then and its closure was that at the Lichfield, Brownhills and District Victuallers Association meeting in September 1942, ‘biscuits were the main topic under review’.

(c) Lichfield District Council

Fast forward to 1997, when the building was occupied by camcorder merchants Dixons and the Lichfield Mercury reported that the old Malt Shovel may be haunted. The store’s manager revealed, ‘There have been lots of unexplained smells and sounds but no-one has actually seen anything’, before going on to make the bold claim that he believed it could once have been used as a brothel which makes you wonder exactly what kind of strange noises he was hearing? To be honest, my money is on any unexplained sounds and smells having something to do with the pigs in the loft and the irregular privvy. Is there anybody out there who has a connection with this building that can tell us more?

Sources:

Lichfield Mercury Archive

The Wayside and the Wilderness

On the Derbyshire and Staffordshire border, a lonely spot has two possible stories attached to its poignant place-name. Many believe that Lads Grave, close to the crossroads just outside of Coton in the Elms, is the final resting place of Phillip Greensmith, a soldier hanged during the Civil War for desertion. The parish registers of All Saints Lullington, record the execution as being carried out, ‘upon a tree at the Green of Coton (in the Elms)’ and note that afterwards, the tree died by degrees. Perhaps it was ashamed of its part in the sorry affair? The other story, as told to the Lichfield Mercury cycling correspondent Maurice Purser in 1997, suggests the lad was a young traveller boy buried at the crossroads.

OS Map 1902

A quick look at the county’s tithe maps suggests that there are a number of these unorthodox burials scattered across the Staffordshire landscape. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a Dead Lad’s Grave in Penn, Deadman’s Lane in Wednesbury, Chit’s Grave and a Dead Knave Farm House in Sedgley, Old Woman’s Grave in Stanton, a Wilkinson’s Grave in Rolleston, Knock’s Grave (now Knox’s) in Hints, a Beggar’s Grave in Rocester, Dod’s Grave in Standon and a Mare’s Grave in Hopton. Some places are still known by these names although others have faded from maps and memories.

In South Staffordshire, members of the local history society have put up a sign at Dead Woman’s Grave in Codsall Wood. Perhaps we should do the same here in Lichfield to mark the spot once known as Bessy Banks Grave, which according to Anna Seward was, ‘a silent glade that childhood fears, where the love-desperate maid of vanish’d years’ was buried?

OS Map from 1815

Unusual burials aren’t always found at crossroads or by the wayside. In 1728, in a building in the Close called the New College and occupying the site opposite the Cathedral’s south door, the skeleton of a female was found placed upright in a stone wall, a silver bodkin which her hair had been wrapped around on her skull. The author says that recently (the book was written in 1811), another was found in a similar position on moving other old foundations. Who, why, when and where are they now? Nobody seems to known.

One of Staffordshire’s most infamous burials can be found at St Lawrence’s at Rushton Spencer. Well, in theory it can be found if you aren’t a scaredy Kate like me. After a considerable hike to reach it, I can confirm that this 13th century timber framed church encased in 17th century sandstone definitely earns its epithet of ‘The Chapel in the Wilderness’. However, my search for the grave of poor Thomas Meakin, re-buried here after his body was exhumed from the churchyard at St Michael’s, Stone showing evidence of having been poisoned and buried alive, was brought to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was my imagination but when I heard the churchyard gate squeaking, knowing I was the only living person within a mile of the place, I decided I’d had enough of braving the wilderness and legged it. Turns out this girl can run when she’s frit.

Rushton Spencer was originally known as Hugbridge which sounds quite nice and cuddly right? Wrong. Both the old and the new names for the villlage are taken from the name of the local lords of the manor, the dreadful Despensers and this gives us a connection to two more interesting interments. Hugh Despenser the Younger was a favourite and possible lover of Edward II which made him very much not the favourite of lots of other people. Some of his enemies even approached a magician in Coventry to kill both Hugh and the King using witchcraft and wax effigies. However, as Queen Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer discovered, hanging, drawing and quartering him for treason proved a much more effective way to dispense with Despenser. After his execution in Hereford in 1326, Hugh’s head was stuck on the gates of London and his arms, legs and torso dispersed to Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol for display. Four year later, his widow was given permission to gather his remains for burial but she only managed to retrieve the head, thigh bone and a few vertebrae. In February 2008, a skeleton which had originally been uncovered by archaeological work at Hulton Abbey in the 1970s was identified by Dr Mary Lewis of the University of Reading as being likely to be the rest of Hugh, given it was missing all of the above body parts, showing signs of a post-death dismemberment, matched the age Despenser was when he died and was discovered on land which would have been owned by his brother-in-law at the time. Even more than half a millenium after his disgrace and dismantling, Despenser remained unpopular. In 2006 he was voted one of the ten worst Britons in history and it’s also rumoured that he ate big dinners.

The execution of Hugh le Despenser the Younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart.

It’s not the only surprise in a sepulchre at Hulton Abbey. When a medieval tomb belonging to Lady Elizabeth Audley was opened in 1886, her body had decomposed but her two plaits had been preserved giving rise to the hair-raising legend that her locks had continued to grow after her death.

The remains of Hulton Abbey.   © Copyright Brian Deegan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Talking of locks, close by to Rushton Spencer is Rudyard Lake, which gave its name to Mr Kipling (the writer, not the one who makes cakes as my son thought) and has a bridge adorned with examples of a 21st century ritual, adored by some but possibly considered by others to be the most unsettling thing within this entire blog post. I can however assure you that ‘honour’ goes to the sight of me running

Sources

Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire by John Charles Cox

A short account of the ancient and modern state of the City and Close of Lichfield and the Cathedral (1818) by Thomas George Lomax

https://www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-ML-hugh-despenser.aspx

Journal of the British Archaeological Association Volume 2

Staffordshire Sentinel 15th January 1986

Lichfield Mercury 23rd January 1997

Kill Bill

The run up to Halloween feels like the right time to resurrect the blog and, in keeping with the spirit of my favourite season, it’s my intention to share some of the more sinister stories that I know about Staffordshire and the surrounding area over the course of the coming week. However, 2020 hasn’t quite gone to plan and it’s entirely possible that I could fall victim to an attack of the mutant crayfish clones by Friday and so whether my bad intentions will materialise or fall by the wayside remains to be seen.

Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a Staffordshire thing per se but something I’ve noticed about the churches in our area is their habit of juxtaposing the mundane with the magnificent. By way of example, I once found the tomb of Richard Samson, Bishop of Lichfield between 1470 and 1554 underneath a tea tray and a packet of hobnobs. I am also starting to think that the eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt have a stack of plastic chairs behind thy font’.

I suspect Pevsner would not approve but I think it gives churches a nice lived-in feel and exudes an eccentric sort of charm and therefore, I make no apologies for failing to remove the carton of milk and bottle of spray from my photograph of the remains of this stone cross in Tixall Church.

The cross stood on Kings Lowe, a Bronze Age Bowl Barrow on Tixall Heath before what remained of it was removed to the church for safe keeping. Its exact provenance is a mystery but in 1818 Sir Thomas Clifford of Tixall described it as having been placed there in around 1803, it being, ‘a very antique stone cross, which once stood before the gate of a ruined mansion in South Wales…It is of very hard moor-stone; the shaft, which has eight unequal sides, supports a tablet of an hexagonal form, adorned with very rude carvings; on one side, a crucifix, on the other, the virgin with the child in her lap. On the edge of the tablet is also a figure thought by some experienced antiqueries (sic) to be St. John the Evangelist’. The cross was said to mark the spot where Sir William Chetwynd of nearby Ingestre Hall was assassinated in 1494, although you might think that after 309 years the moment for a monument to a murder had passed. Who erected it and why they did so after all that time is not recorded.

In 1825, Alexander Wilson wrote a travelogue called ‘Alice Allan, The Country Town etc’ and appears to have had some sort of down the rabbit hole experience, proclaiming that, “When I entered Staffordshire, my straight-forward, regular travelling was at an end”. After insinuating that the residents of God’s own county used to get up to some Summerisle-esque unpleasantness involving wicker, Wilson relays the story told to him by an old countryman whilst driving across the heath. Sir William Chetwynd of Ingestre and Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe Ridware were both vying for the favour of King Henry VII, and so Sir Humphrey decided to rid-ware himself of his rival. A letter purporting to be from the Sheriff of Staffordshire was sent to Sir William requesting his attendance in Stafford at 5am the following morning. As he crossed Tixall Heath at dawn, accompanied by his son and two servants, he was ambushed by twenty men, several of whom were members of the Stanley family.

Despite a petition by the widowed Lady Chetwynd, Stanley literally got away with murder. Or did he? According to the story told to Alexander Wilson, some years after he’d killed Bill, Sir Humphrey was thrown from his horse at the same spot on Tixall Heath, breaking his neck. Official records show he died in 1505 and is buried amongst the great and also probably not very good at Westminster Abbey. As of yet, I can’t find a record of where or how he died and so perhaps that old countryman was right and karma did catch up with him in the end. Interestingly, it seems with the Stanleys, the rotten apple did not fall from the tree. An effigy in Lichfield Cathedral immortalises the disgrace of Sir Humphrey’s son, John, a man who committed a misdemeanor so grave that he was excommunicated and had to agree to spending the rest of his death being depicted as paying penance in order to be granted a Christian burial inside the Cathedral. There is no record of his specific wrongdoing but in 1867, the Very Rev Canon Rock suggested that Stanley’s offence may have been that he had spilled blood inside that sacred space. A 17th century drawing of the effigy by William Dugdale shows the stone Stanley bareheaded and bare chested, flanked by two bucks’ horns, wearing a skirt decorated with heraldic arms and armour on his legs. It’s a strong look to carry off for eternity although during the Civil War, the Roundheads did make some alterations in their own unique style… The much mutilated monument can still be found in the Cathedral so do go and see what’s left of him. I bet you there will be a stack of plastic chairs somewhere nearby too…

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engraving

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engravingShowing a print of the Stanley effigy.   Anonymous.View Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track

Sources:

Norton, E (2011) Bessie Blount: MIstress to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing: Gloucester

https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=77400

http://www.tixall-ingestre-andrews.me.uk/tixall/elytxhs.html

The Cathedral Church of Lichfield By AB Clifton

Handbook to the Cathedrals of England by Richard John King

Alice Allan, The Country Town etc by Alexander Wilson

Some remarks on the Stanley Effigy at Lichfield by The Very Reverend Canon Rock

Good Omens

This latest post has taken a while to write and not just because I’ve been binge watching the complete adventures of Dogtanian but because, just like my New Years Eve outfit following a week bingeing on cheese and Baileys, there’s a lot to squeeze into it.

Firstly, glad tidings of great joy I bring, the Angel Croft is at last now off the Heritage At Risk Register, thanks to the work of Friels who have been renovating the former hotel since Spring 2017. Friels are now seeking planning permission to develop the adjoining Westgate House and Cottage plus the surrounding land to create a small spa hotel, houses, apartments and a new pedestrian route which connects Beacon Park to the Cathedral Close. For more information on the proposals and to see a walkthrough of how the site might look, take a look at https://youtu.be/4fEyzXbSLV0

It seems like a good time to remind people that change has to happen and that the places where we live are not preserved in aspic, like no doubt so many things on the menu at the Angel Croft were. Actually, I’ve just had an epiphany about how best to illustrate this. Let’s take a look at how the site has changed over the last 500 years.

The Angel Croft was built at the end of 18th century for a wine merchant called George Addams and was converted to a hotel in 1931. Some of the features from the time this was a house have been uncovered during the recent renovations, including a fragment of wallpaper which an expert has declared to be one of the oldest examples in the country.

Other discoveries include smoking ephemera, a collection of bottles, drawings, old newspapers and most interestingly of all, for me at least, a mismatched pair of boots. When I was shown a photo of the latter, I had one of those moments that thrills my sole. ‘Were these found under floorboards?’, I asked. ‘Yes they were!’ came the reply. I can’t be sure but I suspect they didn’t come to be there by accident. The Northampton Museum and Art Gallery keeps an index which has at least 2,000 examples of concealed shoes or boots being discovered up chimneys, in rooves or indeed, below floors (ironically, Lichfield no longer has a museum and keeps its entire collection hidden in an attic). The exact reason for this isn’t known but it’s thought to be a folk magic ritual designed to protect a property and its occupants from malevolent forces. I had thought it was the first example of this apotropaic custom to be uncovered in Lichfield but there is at least one other recorded discovery in the city. A 16th century house in Lichfield (not sure where. Yet.) had a shoe hidden up the chimney along with a chisel and a bunch of flowers (not sure why. Yet). There are also examples of more sinister discoveries concealed in the city’s walls and foundations (not sure if I’m ready to share these. Yet).

The Angel Croft was built on the site of an inn known as the Talbot. We know the pub dates back to at least 16th century Lichfield thanks to The Bawdy Courts of Lichfield blog, a fantastic Staffordshire Archives and Heritage project sharing quirky and scandalous stories emerging from the church court case papers of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry. By coincidence, at the start of December, I’d been asked if I knew where Christopher and Ann Hill’s house, also known as the Sign of the Talbott, was in Elizabethan Lichfield, as it was where Tamworth woman Grace Spooner called Ellen Allen ‘a whore, an arrant whore and a common strumpytt and whore and not worthie to be talked of’ leading to a defamation case. You can read the post about the case here. A later incarnation of the Talbot stood at the corner of Bore Street and Bird St and is mentioned in various books about Lichfield pubs including John Shaw’s classic Old Pubs of Lichfield and Neil Coley’s more recent Lichfield Pubs. Intriguingly, records now held at Stafford Record Office show that at some point the Beacon Street Talbot was known as the Three Crowns. Of course, this too had a later incarnation and The Three Crowns on Breadmarket St is famous for being frequented by Dr Johnson, as marked by a plaque on the early 18th century building.

The Angel Croft takes its name from another inn, the Angel, which stood to the south of the site and was in existence since at least 1498, when it was listed as the prebend of Freeford’s property. Harwood’s history of Lichfield describes it as being in what was known as Cardon’s Lane, later Guard Lane. It seems it was destroyed during the Civil War but again the name was resurrected when The Angel opened on Market Street in the 18th century, where it still remains, despite a spell in the wilderness as Samuels.

The third inn in our holy trinity is the Lamb, a baa owned by the Vicars Choral in 1592 where Westgate Cottage now stands. Presumably the former was demolished to make way for the latter as the Lamb shows up on Snape’s 1781 map of Lichfield and the listed building entry for Westgate Cottage describes it as being built in the 18th century. The adjoining Westgate House, was built on the site of another ancient building known as Pool Hall, again thought to have been destroyed by fire during the civil war and later rebuilt, before being replaced by the current Georgian building.

Time never stands still and neither should it (although it once seemed like it did waiting to be served in a pub which shall remain nameless). We’ve gone back five hundred years but I could take you back further still to where a Roman goblet or Neolithic tools were found (and perhaps next year I will). The past should shape us but not limit us and I think this bit of Lichfield deserves something more imaginative than a resurfaced car park (I always get back to car parks these days somehow). Development for me is about constructively building on the foundations of what’s gone before and adding the next layer. Making sure you incorporate an old shoe in there somewhere of course. Chisel optional.

Sources:

Lichfield: Manors and other estates’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990)

A – Z of Lichfield, Jono Oates (2019)