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)

Acting the Goat

After posting about the Unicorn Inn, someone asked if I knew anything about the Goats Head as they’d seen an old photograph of it. Well, I kid you not, it turns out it’s yet another old Lichfield boozer that’s still there. Sort of. 

In June 1969, the Mercury reported that the Goats Head would become a branch of Barclays Bank to meet increasing demand for services. The New Year chimed the bells of doom for the inn and also, the end of an era for licensees Horace and Maud Wilson. The Wilsons were born in the city and had run four Lichfield pubs in the course of their careers. They cut their teeth at the Angelesey in Curborough Rd, now a Co-op, and then went to the Kings Head for nine years, followed by the Swan for a further nine, before spending twelve years at the Goats Head. Mr Wilson had been born at the Royal Oak on the Walsall Rd, which had been kept by his grandfather, a cooper.

At the New Years Eve party, old aquaintances were not forgotten as 65 year old Fred Matthews of The Parchments, who had worked at the hotel as a hostler recalled a Mrs Lyons from the Roundabout at Handsacre who was apparently six foot tall and strong as a bull and had, ‘carried a bag of ‘taters under her arms from The Old Crown to this yard where she used to have to stand on an empty crate to get into the float or the ‘oss and cart would-a tipped up’.

I’d read that on one of the corners of Bore Street and Breadmarket St, Father John Kirk was installed as the priest of a new chapel established above a bakery when Pipe Hall in Burntwood, which had become established as a centre for Roman Catholicism in the area, was sold. Whilst this must have been handy for daily bread, directly above a baker’s oven was not a good place for a congregation to gather and the heat at times must have been too much like the bad place for comfort. In 1802, Father Kirk bought land in Upper St John St and built a new chapel and presbytery there, originally known as St Peter and Paul but later called Holy Cross.  I was praying the chapel was located in the building that became the Goats Head purely so I could make a reference to the father, son and holy goat. However, in The Gentleman’s Magazine it says it was ‘that known in present as the Dolphin public house’ which is that known in present as White Stuff on the opposite corner.

Holy Cross church and ATTACHED Presbytery
This reminds me that I think the old Goat was rebuilt at some point, replaced by a new kid on the block. The photo that originally started this off is on Staffordshire Past Track and shows the Goats Head Tavern, apparently in the early 20th century (although it must be earlier as the sign outside shows the landlord as TA Carter, but the license was transferred from him to William Hill in June 1890) and the building in the picture looks significantly different to the one currently occupying the site.

You’ll have to look at the photo via this link as I have totes failed to embed it. https://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/Details.aspx?ResourceID=6841

Talking of signs, I found a lovely article in the Lichfield Mercury from September 1970 on the Bower Brothers – Eric, John, Ted, Malcolm and David – whose dad Sydney, the son of a stonemason, had established a sign painting business in a 1920 in the backyard of a big Burton Brewery. The brothers had painted a sign for the Goats Head Inn but also the Bowling Green, The Malt Shovel, The Nelson, The Nag’s Head and many other pubs in the Lichfield and Burntwood area. Thirty hours of work produced one double sided sign, each one a unique piece of art which began with research into the name, and then a small watercolour painting submitted for approval, before being scaled up and transferred to wood. Eric kept a book of the designs from around Lichfield which would be a a wonderful thing to see, as would have been the exhibition of pub signs at the Bowling Green Inn in February 1949. The Bowling Green’s own sign back then showed Francis Drake finishing off his game before defeating the Spanish Armada and the article in the Lichfield Mercury says a new sign at the Three Crowns in Breadmarket Street depicted three warriors wearing their crowns (which sounds suspiciously like a reference to that old Lichfield legend of the three Christian kings buried up on Borrowcop) was also on display.

The Three Crowns was closed in the 1960s and converted to offices. At the time Mr Winterton the auctioneer whose firm were moving into the building said the emphasis was on renovation rather than reconstruction and so, like its neighbour the Goats Head, it’s yet another old Lichfield pub which is still there in body if not in spirits.

I’m really keen to do more on the pub signs of Lichfield and the surrounding area over the Christmas break, but even though I would really, really like to, I’m not going to be able to get round all of our fine hostelries before the end of the year. So if you are out and about enjoying festive frolics this Yuletide, and you spot an interesting sign, please do share a photo, either on Twitter @lichfieldlore or on the Lichfield Discovered FB page, or by emailing thelichfeldian@yahoo.co.uk. What do you think – anybody inn?

Sources:
‘Lichfield: Roman Catholicism and Protestant nonconformity’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 155-159

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Lichfield Safari Park

Yes I know I promised we were going on safari and we’re at yet another car park but bear with me. Whilst I was perusing some old history books looking for some information on Oxenbury Field, I found a number of other creatures featuring in the long list of lost places names. Golding’s Heron, Eagle Square by Gresley Row and Bird in Bushes up at Curborough. The latter was almost reinstated by the Housing Committee in 1957 but the suggestion ruffled a few feathers in the city council, with Cllr Wesley Hines chirping up to say ‘Accept this and we might as well have a Toad in the Hole Street too’. Was Cllr Hines was referring to the documented Toadshole Piece over at Christian Fields or just being a silly sausage?

I can’t resist a bit of whimsy and so it was a fantastic beast which leapt out at me and I was pretty sure I knew where to find it. And that is how I came to be standing in Sandford St car park looking for a unicorn. Until the middle of the last century and perhaps even more recently than that, the space behind what is now S&J Music on Bird St was known as Unicorn Yard. We know a little about some of those who lived there, particularly the ones who misbehaved. Percy Bolt, a cab driver employed at the Swan was fined a shilling for being drunk in charge of a horse and cab in Bird St on 9 April 1889. In January 1912, Arthur Osborne was summoned and fined for being drunk in Unicorn Yard. Later the same year, in July, he was back in court on charges of aiding and abetting Ellen Keenan who was charged with indecent conduct in a lane leading to Pipe Green. If ever the council are looking to name this lane, might I suggest calling it Toad in the Hole Street in their dishonour?

The remains of Unicorn Yard. Thanks to Steve from S&J Music for letting me take a look

The name Unicorn Yard came from a pub of the same name, described in 1933 by local historian JW Jackson as a very old and extensive inn standing next to the present Kings Head. It seems it had ceased to trade as an inn even by 1819, when Lomax and Newling wrote that the house next to the Kings Head Inn was a considerable inn known by the sign of the Unicorn and the large court surrounded by houses retains the name Unicorn Yard. Until fairly recently (although not quite as recently as the 1990s feel they should be), the yard was accessible from Bird St via an entry. It was only when I was stood outside S&J Music looking for signs of where this had been blocked up that I had a mental breakthrough. Was I actually looking at what had once been the Unicorn Inn? I checked the listed building description and given that it says that 23 Bird St probably dates to the 15th century with 18th century alterations, I realised that I probably was. Even more compelling was the Staffordshire HER description that beneath layers of modern plaster, 23 Bird St is a rectangular timber framed building, once probably jettied.

Bradshaws, once the Unicorn, now S&J Music. Pre-1991 alterations. Photo from Lichfield District Council collection

At this point I need to pop next door to the Kings Head for a minute which is easy enough to do as there is a door connecting the two buildings. No I hadn’t ever noticed it either.

Something I had noticed however was a plaque on the wall claiming that the entrance was part of the original timber framed building. As there was no mention of this in the listed building description which says the Kings Head was rebuilt as a coaching inn in the mid to late 18th century, I’d always taken this with the same pinch of salt as the story the pub was haunted by a laughing cavalier who had been murdered as he left the premises. The Staffordshire HER however, suggests that it shares a timber framed wall with the Unicorn (yes, that’s what I’m calling it now) which would make this plaque more accurate than I’d arrogantly given it credit for.

Thanks to Ransford for letting me take a look around. If we just painted over that number one… 😉

I shall therefore be generous with regard to the other sign in the entrance, pronouncing it to be ‘The Oldest Pub in Lichfield Circa 1408’. So generous in fact that I have put my scepticism aside to look into whether the Kings Head could in fact be the oldest pub in the whole of this sceptred isle (let us not concern ourselves with claims that it isn’t even the oldest pub in Lichfield). We know the Kings Head has at least 15th century origins, albeit under its original name of ‘The Antelope’ which is recorded as standing alongside the Unicorn in 1495. Some of the claims to be Britain’s oldest pub are based on similar documentary evidence, others seem to be based on the fact there is a sign outside saying that it is. So I have a cunning plan for getting the Kings Head crowned as the oldest pub in Britain. We could spend ages hunting through the archives for an earlier reference but let’s be honest, that would be wasting valuable drinking time. Why don’t we just make a new sign that says it dates back to 408? Sorry, what’s that Norwich? You have a pub which started as a brewhouse run by monks in 1249? Pah, we had Romans coming here when the Mansio in Letocetum closed after the fall of the empire. Would you Adam and Eve it, eh? Also, how many spires has your cathedral got? If enough of us repeat something enough times someone will write it down and then it’ll become a fact. Isn’t that how local history works?

I jest of course. We don’t need to make stuff up. The Kings Head is the proud home of the Staffordshire regiment and, serendipitously for a pub known as The Bush for a while, in 1830 was home to a gooseberry bush which became famous for cropping twice in one year. Before I call closing time on the subject for now, let’s just head back to the Unicorn for a moment. The Staffordshire HER suggests that at one time the building was used as an annex to the Kings Head and the idea of the two neighbouring inns effectively becoming one around the time that the Kings Head was transformed into a coaching inn seems to make sense. Which is probably more than can be said for most of this blog post…

Parks and Wreck Creation

This is the final part of my car park trilogy and I know you’ve all been desperate to find out where this multi-story ends. Will it be Bunkers Hill, with its supposed civil war connections or the Friary Inner or Outer which always makes me think of bellybuttons? I felt it only right to end at the home of civic car parking in Lichfield. Buckle up, we are going to the Council House Car Park (Saturdays and Sundays only).

Back in 2008, there was an article in the Birmingham Mail about how archaeologists investigating the car park had discovered part of the ditch which ran around the city from around 1130AD. The section they found here contained broken medieval pottery, leather and animal bones, including a medieval dog’s skull, confirming anecdotal accounts that it had doubled up as a public tip. Rather than being a defensive structure, the ditch is believed to have been dug to stop traders entering the city without paying a toll at one of the five gates – Bachunneswich (Beacon St), Sandford St, Stowe, Tamworth St and Culstubbe (St John’s St). It’s ironic that that the excavations which uncovered the section of the ditch which has been used as the town dump, were undertaken as part of the preparation for Friarsgate, which was of course intended to bring traders into the city but ended up being a load of rubbish.

The Old Grammar School was once a highly regarded establishment which prided itself on wisdom and knowledge. It is now home to Lichfield District Council

This section of the structure was known as the Castle Ditch. Back in the early 1800s, when digging the foundations for long disappeared cottages in Gresley Row, another section of it was discovered filled with the horns, skulls and bones of large quantities of cattle. Local lore has it that these are the remains of the two thousand oxen supposedly enjoyed by Richard II and guests during his Christmas food festival at Lichfield Castle in 1197. I’m guessing the bones are still there? We may not have kings under our car parks but we might have the remains of their dinner under the local branch of Argos.

In their ‘Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield’, Lomax and Newling noted land adjoining this newly erected street was known as Oxenbury field, which may or may not be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to find out more about Oxenbury, including where exactly it was. Well, still is but we just don’t know it by that name any more. There are a few clues to be found. One account by J W Jackson in the Mercury in December 1945 describes it as being to the south of St John Street and stretching as far as Aldershawe and on John Speed’s 1610 map, he has drawn two giant Oxen on what I think must be the site of Oxenbury Field, which may or may not be a coincidence.

John Speed 1610 map of Lichfield

According to the Staffordshire HER there is documentary evidence of a cross of Bishop Walter (Langton?) in the area to the south of St John’s Hospital which I think might be the same one referred to in Harwood’s History and Antiquities as, ‘a cross in the hand at the end of Aldershaw or St John’s Lane, anciently Schoolhouse Lane’. The same HER entry also says there is documentary evidence of a duelling ground in the same area and so it seems that Oxenbury, or at least part of it, may have been used as a tournament field in medieval times. According to an article on Lichfield place names in the Mercury in September 1972, an area of land near to Chesterfield Rd was known as Soldiers’ Field and a John Jackson article from June 1944 says Oxenbury was used for military exercises and was also where archery was practised. I’m fighting to resist making too much of all this until I’ve managed to put a bit more flesh on the bones of it all but it’s certainly worth a bit more digging.

By the mid-16th century, Oxenbury Field became known as Castle (Ditch) Field. We know this because Leyland visited Lichfield and said something like, ‘There hath been a castle of ancient time but no part of it standeth. The place of the ditch is seen and it is yet called Castle field’. In an advertisement in the Mercury in June 1888, building land known as ‘Castle Ditch Ground’ or ‘Cherry Orchard’ was to be sold at auction at the Smithfield Hotel or as it became known a hundred years later, the Sozzled Sausage. Sadly I never got around to visiting to sample the boozy bangers before it was closed. The building has now been demolished but stood near to where the entrance to Tesco car park (two car parks for the price of one you lucky things!) and, as you may have guessed from the name, it was connected to a livestock market. Wonder if they sold oxen?

Understandably, place names such as Castle Ditch and Castle Field have given rise to speculation over the centuries that Lichfield did have some sort of castle on the south of the city in addition to the Cathedral Close, fortified by Bishop Clinton in the 12th century. A little further afield, we have Castle Croft near Chesterfield and the Roman settlement at Wall and I’m starting to suspect that the legendary Lichfield Castle may in fact be Letocetum.

D Horovitz suggests that ‘Ancient names with castle often mark what was, or was thought to be a castle in the conventional sense (e.g. Castle Church referring to Stafford Castle and Castle Croft near Chesterfield, named from substantial walls of Roman date), but often a prehistoric or later earthwork, from OE and OF castel, but sometimes from OE ceastel, ‘heap of stones’, often with archaeological interest. Hang on, a heap of stones with archaeological interest? That brings us nicely back to the car park and the Friarsgate, sorry, Birmingham Road site.

If you enjoyed the trip please do join me next time when inspired by Christopher Biggins and some old charity records (the archives kind, not the “Is this the way to Amarillo?’ by Tony ‘I was Waitrose’s most famous customer called Tony until someone saw that bloke from Spandau Ballet in there’ Christie & Peter Kay kind), we will be going on safari.

Sources: ‘Lichfield: The 19th century’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990) Lichfield Mercury Archive https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/archaeologists-find-historic-ditch-in-lichfield-60115 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield, Rev T Harwood A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield, Lomaz and Newling Staffordshire HER Records A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, LL. B https://www.thecaterer.com/archive/not-such-silly-sausages

Car Parkaeology

Amongst the slightly more leftfield Lichfield Discovered ideas me and a comrade have had, is lurking at various places where there is a wondrous story to be told, and regaling unsuspecting passers-by with it. However, we thought people might think we were a bit creepy if we did that and so we put the brakes on that idea. Instead you’ll have to hear about how fascinating one of Lichfield’s car parks is from the safety of your own home, rather than have me leap out at you from a pay and display machine whilst you are trying to remember your registration number.

Cross Keys. Ye oldest evidence for ye olde city?

So, if I haven’t driven you away yet, then let’s head over to Cross Keys car park. Or is it Lombard Street? To be honest, we probably all still call it Carol’s anyway because ‘the superstore with a whole lot more’ was only demolished about two years ago, and I still hear Bird St car park being called Woolies when it’s been gone for at least ten. Anyway, evidence of Lichfield’s oldest building was uncovered here and I call that momentous. The time between the last days of Letocetum, abandoned in the 5th century and the arrival of St Chad in Lichfield in the 7th century and the relationship between the two sites has always intrigued me. The ‘stone-built post-Roman structure’ discovered at Cross Keys during excavations in 2007/8 incorporated masonry from a ‘substantial Roman building’ and this along with a construction date of 5th to 7th century, seems to provide a link between the two times and places. The Cross Keys building is believed to have been continuously occupied from AD 400 to AD 950, with the post Roman structure later being replaced by a sunken feature building known as a Grubenhaus when it burned down.

It’s also important because it’s evidence of an early settlement of some sort at Lichfield and it has been suggested that St Chad came to Lichfield as there was already a church or religious community here. We know that there was Christianity in the area based on the discovery of a 4th century bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol in a grave at Wall. There is something else too, something that I’ve been avoiding for years because, frankly I thought it was as bonkers as my idea to recreate all of the statues in Lichfield using plasticine but it turns out it isn’t. There is a seventh century poem called ‘The Death Song of Cynddylan’ which recalls three battles fought by Prince Cynddylan of Powys. One of these was at a place called ‘Caer Luitcoed’, which translates to ‘the fortified grey wood’ or, as everyone, including proper historians, who has translated the poem calls it- Lichfield. Here’s the relevant extract:

My heart burns like a firebrand.
I enjoyed the wealth of their men and women.
They could not repay me enough.
I used to have brothers. It was better when they were
the young whelps of great Arthur, the mighty defender.
Before Lichfield they caused gore beneath the ravens and fierce attack
Lime-white shields were shattered before the sons of Cynddylan.
I shall lament until I would be in the land of my resting place for the slaying of Cynddylan, famed among chieftains.
Grandeur in battle, extensive spoils
Moriel bore off before Lichfield
1500 cattle from the front of battle,
80 stallions and equal harness.
The chief bishop wretched in his four-cornered house
The book clutching monks did not protect
those who fell in the battle before the splendid warrior.

So, if the poem is to be believed, Cynddylan’s mate Moriel plundered Lichfield, taking 1,500 cattle and 80 horses. The bookish monks were no match for the Welshmen (sometimes the pen just isn’t mightier than the sword unfortunately) and I think we can deduce from ‘gore beneath the ravens’ that this was a bloody affair. There is some debate around who the battle was actually between given that Cynddylan was a Mercian ally but that’s probably one for discussion in front of a fire over a goblet of mead. For now, let’s just focus on the fact that there appears to have been a battle at or near Lichfield in which religious men were slaughtered. Am I clutching at straws (eco friendly paper ones obvs) or does this not sound a bit like it might be where the Field of the Dead legend may have originated? You, know the one where early converts to Christianity were massacred by pagans and their bodies ‘left unburied, a prey to the birds and beasts of the forest’, an image that it doesn’t take too much imagination to get to from ‘gore beneath the ravens’. And what about those finds over at Toads Hole Piece (a meadow adjoining Christian Fields, near Pones Mill) in the early 19th century which included ‘a considerable quantity of human bone’ and ‘various piece of earthenware, some of which are Roman’? Yet I keep reading that there is no evidence that a massacre ever took place and it’s just a legend. It seems to me that this might just be a bit too dismissive and actually, maybe Robert Plot wasn’t just making it up after all but the story had become confused, as they often do. Or maybe I’ve just become confused as now I’m not quite sure how I got from Cross Keys to Christian Fields. Please do tell me if I’m losing the plot…

The Martyrs Plaque in Beacon Park is one of several places you can see an interpretation of the city shield which features the legend of the massacred martyrs

In the meantime, I’m off to the Fuse festival. Don’t worry, I won’t jump out on you and try to tell you the history of Bunker’s Hill cark park whilst you are waiting in the queue for the beer tent. Promise.

Sources:

https://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/alexjones
Lichfield EUS Report Final

Some Place-Names in the Immediate Area of the Staffordshire Hoard Mattias Jacobsson (Jönköping University)

Shrouded in Mystery

Waking up to a blanket of thick fog this morning put me in the mood to share an update on the lost chapel of Longdon Green and, in particular, the mysterious gravestone which seemed to appear out of thin air.

You may recall that the chapel had been built in the late 17th century and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the A51 flyover. You may also recall that in Summer 2018, my attempt to see if anything was left of it was thwarted by vegetation (and if you don’t, the original post is here). Whilst waiting for it to die off, I read that three years after the chapel had been torn down, a lone gravestone had inexplicably turned up at the site. A week after reading that, my mate ‘Betsy’ and I inevitably turned up at the site to see if it is still there. It is.

Investigations by the Birmingham Daily Post in June 1969 failed to discover who had erected the stone and why. The Vicar of Longdon said he only knew that it had appeared by the A51. Staffordshire County Council thought it might have been something to do with the construction company who had damaged a tombstone whilst carrying out the demolition of the chapel but a spokesman for them said, “I don’t know anything about it”.

Investigations by me in February 2019 have failed to uncover any further details about the life of William Edwards, and the story of why someone chose to quietly erect this monument to him two hundred years after his death and three years after the demolition of the chapel where he had served as a clerk remains shrouded in mystery. The explanation may lie buried somewhere in the archives somewhere but fifty years on, I suspect that it has most likely been lost in the mists of time.

Unless you know any different….

Death Wish

One of the best known landmarks on Cannock Chase is the the 318ft high telecommunications tower at Pye Green, one of 14 built across the country as part of the Cold War ‘Backbone’ network. However, recent discussions based on my previous post revealed that another lesser known landscape feature lay somewhere nearby.

Pye Green Communications Tower cc-by-sa/2.0 – © John M – geograph.org.uk/p/2899217

Like its more famous but less whimsical neighbour the Glacial Boulder, the Wishing Stone appears to be an erratic.  However, unlike its more famous neighbour, nobody has thought to put it on a plinth or named a car park after it making it a lot harder to find. The only clues I had to its location was an old postcard someone posted for me on Facebook, a description on Staffordshire Past Track, describing it as being sited on, ‘an old packhorse route known as Blake Street Road and near the possibly medieval St. Chad’s Ditch’ and a reference in the modern classic that is the ‘Adopted Development Brief for Land to the West of Pye Green Road, Hednesford’.

Wishing Stone, Pye Green

Image via link to Staffs Past Track website

Ok, I’m going to cut to the chase. I went to have a look and didn’t find it. I know it’s still there however, as I’ve just seen a photo of someone stood on it on Facebook. Let me tell you though, this is probably the worst time of year for doing a search in a Facebook group for the word ‘Wishing’. A Happy New Year to all you good folks too.

Once I get out of my Christmas onesie I will go for another look. What I have found in the meantime though is an intriguing reference to the grave of a local highway man called John Deacon. The local legend is expanded upon in the Cannock Chase Guide from 1957, which Brownhills Bob very kindly scanned and uploaded to his blog with a little help from his friends a couple of years ago. It says that Blake Street was frequented by a notorious highwayman known as John th’ Deacon who evaded capture for many years by dressing as a cleric, hence the name. The story paints him as a do-gooding baddie – he may have robbed from the rich but he looked after the poor and needy of the countryside. Bless him. Eventually, th’ Deacon met his maker when he met with a coach-load of Bow Street Runners and he was buried on the spot where he was killed. That spot was somewhere near to the Wishing Stone which frankly, I feel he could have made better use of in this situation. Perhaps he couldn’t find it either.

Blake Street, Pye Green

Understandably, there is lots of scepticism around the tale, with suggestions that the place name of Deacon’s (or Deakin’s as it has sometimes been recorded) Grave is actually a corruption of the word ‘grove’. Whilst it’s tempting to write the story off as nothing more then a folk etymology, I have good reason to think there is more to it than that. An 1817 Ordnance Survey plan of the Penkridge area shows that there was a place called ‘Deadmans Grave’ in the vicinity and in May 1951, the Lichfield Mercury published the recollections of a Brocton resident called Mrs Holmes who had spent her life living on the Chase. One thing she remembered was a mound of earth, which local people referred to as ‘Dead Man’s Grave’.

Part of Ordnance Survey plan 1817. Taken from British Library collection http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/ordsurvdraw/p/002osd000000010u00170000.html

In Mrs Holme’s version of the legend, the deadman in question was not our Blake Street bandit Deacon, but one or more Mercian monarchs who hunted on the Chase. On the day an excavator came to clear the mound away in preparation for the construction of sewage beds for the military camp, some of the locals skived off work to watch. Although nothing of interest was discovered on that occasion, a much more fruitful exploration of the mound was described by two chaps called Cherry at the start of the 20th century. In their book, they described how ‘the opening of this ‘bury’ afforded a remarkable instance of the confirmation of oral tradition by modern research. Such tradition had from time immemorial described the Milford bury as the as the grave of three Kings slain in a great battle fought on the spot. At the base of the mound were found three separate and distinct layers of human bones, all showing the action of fire and surrounded by a few coarse fragments of ancient British pottery. As confirmatory of the tradition, it is of course noteworthy that no other remains were found and that apparently no previous disturbance of the tumulus had taken place’. Getting into their poetic stride, Cherry & Cherry suggest that the three warriors had found ‘the sleep that lies among the lonely hills’, lying undisturbed as the centuries rolled by whilst an old wives tale kept their memory green’. Indeed it did. Thank you Mrs Holmes.

I would probably bet my money and my life that a highwayman dressed as a man of the cloth did not come riding-riding-riding up and down Blake Street but I’m also confused that the area marked as ‘Deadman’s Grave’ on the 1817 map appears to be a good five miles away from Milford and the mound which was known by this name.  I’ve heard so much about Saxon warriors recently, I’m starting to feel like I’m living in a Bernard Cornwell novel. Were three of them really killed and buried on the Chase or is this just pye in the sky? I wish I knew….

Sources

Historical Studies Relating Chiefly to Staffordshire by JL Cherry and Karl Cherry (1908)

Lichfield Mercury Archive

A Portrait of Cannock Chase published by The Association of Friends of Cannock Chase (1957)

Rock and Roll

My friend thinks glacial boulders are rubbish and that this one on Cannock Chase is Staffordshire’s answer to Craggy Island’s stone of Clonrichert. She isn’t alone.  Some years ago, the Express and Star included it in a list of top ten terrible attractions describing it as ‘just a medium sized rock on a plinth’.

A medium sized rock on a plinth

Surely, though a landmark as well known as the Chase’s Glacial Boulder must have a story or two to tell? There’s often a lot of mythology connected to lithology. The Gilbert Stone in Birmingham was taken there by a giant to mark his territory and the Webb stone in Bradley was nicked from the church by Old Nick who wanted to use it to rebuild hell and women who take it a (rock) cake on Halloween get to see their future spouse.

A medium sized rock not on a plinth (aka The Gilbert Stone)

Well I have found this….The boulder was found in a pit in Brocton around 1950 and was originally placed at the top of the wonderfully named Pudding Hill at Milford by the Association of the Friends of Cannock Chase. In September 1954, it was pushed off the hill by a gang of wrong ‘uns and so the friends group decided to cement it to the top of Spring Hill, which at 450ft above sea level was a fair bit higher than Pudding Hill. This did not prevent the boulder from going roly-poly again though. In May 1958, it was found at the bottom of Spring Hill having been chipped from its concrete base. Five men from the area were later arrested and fined £13 9s 2d each. The Birmingham Post and Gazette reported that they had, perhaps unsurprisingly, come up with the idea in the pub. “We only did it because it was a challenge and they said it could not be moved”. Apparently it took them four hours.  It’s now located in a car park not on a hill which makes it easy to visit but do try not to get as excited as the couple spotted getting erotic on top of the erratic one boxing day.

I don’t think I’ve quite succeeded yet in my own challenge to convince my friend that Cannock Chase’s rolling stone is a rock star, but I’ll keep chipping away.

Witchfield Gore

I have always been fascinated by folklore, superstition, ghost stories and all that kind of hocus-pocus. Growing up on a new housing estate in suburban Birmingham is perhaps not the most obvious place to have become acquainted with the old ways but they made their presence known from time to time. My Dad would never allow new shoes to be put on the table and a bird in the house was very bad news indeed.  Whilst working in a fast food joint in Sparkhill one Saturday afternoon, a woman ordered some southern fried chicken and read my palm. My brother’s rogue of a mate swore he saw an elderly neighbour doing the gardening a couple of weeks after she’d died and apparently there was a horse buried under a small hillock in our local park. I must google that one actually.

I’m well aware that such matters are a bit Marmite (and it just so happens that I know of an urban myth about that particular food stuff and Dartmoor Prison) and so I shall try and keep this kind of thing to my other blog here, which I write with my bad friend Betsy. However, as it’s Halloween and fast approaching the witching hour, indulge me briefly to mention a few local stories that I’m fascinated by, and which Mavis and Betsy may well be exploring further.

First up, a few tales of fangtastic beasts and where to find them (although given that seeing them is said to bring misfortune, I’d advise you not to go looking). The Black Dog of Brereton roams the lanes of, well, Brereton, terrifying all those who encounter it before vanishing into thin air. Demon doggos have also been witnessed locally by young Ivan Vinnel on Woodhouses Road in Burntwood in the 1930s and, more recently, by a number of motorists on the M6 toll road who reported a wolf-like creature bounding around Junction 10A. The Black Dogs of Brereton and Burntwood and the M6 Toll road. 666/10 would not pet.

Another ghost dog in Brereton. The 18thc Talbot Inn, now closed.

A google ghost hunt has thrown up Lichfield district’s very own phantom flan flinger. In January 1979, ATV Today visited The Burntwood Patisserie to interview the bakery director Steve Davies and employee Dawn Evans after paranormal activity in the building put the night shift on hold. Sadly, the video clip is not yet available on line through the MACE archive.  Elsewhere in the ATV archive is footage from May 1965, when a camera crew visited Dam Street’s ‘Little Gallery’, an antique shop run by Jack Whitney, to try and capture evidence of a monk said to haunt the 500 year old building. What are these two buildings now?

Dam St, Lichfield

It’s a mystery at one of my own previous haunts that’s really intrigued me however. Back in the summer, I wrote about the lost chapel at Longdon . It had been built in the late 17th century and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the A51 flyover. In June 1969, the Birmingham Post reported that a gravestone with the inscription ‘William Edwards. Died 6 August 1775 aged 67. Clerk to this chapel for 19 years’ had appeared alongside the site where the congregational chapel once stood, three years after it had been torn down. Everyone involved from the clergy to the constructors to the council denied any knowledge of where it came from, who put it there and why. Looking back at JW Jackson’s description of the site when he explored it in 1876, there was a small graveyard. So why was this the only memorial from it to have been replaced at the site? And another fifty years on, is it still there?

Sources:

Real Monsters, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside by Brad Steiger

The Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology by Deena West Budd

http://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-03011979-burntwood-patisserie-near-lichfield

Birmingham Post Archive

Dead End Streets

I have been dead certain for sometime that there would once have been corpse roads leading to Lichfield, bringing bodies from the surrounding hamlets and villages to be buried in the consecrated ground of their mother church.

My Scooby sense about their existence eventually translated into something a little more tangible when I found the following reference in the 1819 book,  ‘A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield’ by Thomas George Lomax, William Newling:


‘By the side of the chapel is Dove house lane once the burial road from the village of Wall now disused’.

Further evidence can be found in the rolls of St George’s Court held on 28th April 1656, which record how Michael Salt was fined 6D for “not making a stile into Dovehouse Field from the Clay Pitts, this being a church way”.

Dovehouse Fields sign

Given that Wall was part of St Michael’s parish, this surely must have been the mother church and the final destination. As to the exact course the corpse road took, I suspect the answers lie buried in old place names. Look out for references to anything church, burial, coffin or corpse related on old maps and documents.

Claypit Lane sign

Whilst you’re at it, give some thought to Shenstone too, where in October 1817 the Staffordshire Advertiser carried the following description:

…a certain road, heretofore used as a burial road, beginning at the north-westward end of a Road called the Walk, belonging to Edward Grove Esq, and extending in a north-westwardly direction over an ancient inclosure called Lower Park Field, belonging to Ann Adams, over an ancient Inclosure called New Piece, belonging to said Edward Grove, over an ancient inclosure called Over Park Field, over an ancient inclosure called Upper Park Field, and over an ancient inclosure called Near Park Field, belonging to Ann Adams, to the Birmingham and Lichfield turnpike road, then crossing the said road in a south-westwardly direction to an ancient inclosure called Bull’s Head Piece, then turning in a westwardly direction over the said Bull’s Head Piece and another another ancient inclosure called Church Piece, belonging to Henry Case, Esq.

Elsewhere in the country, numerous stories and superstitions have materialised around these paths where the dead were toted. The general flavour of the folklore associated with these roads involves rituals designed to ensure the spirit of the dead could not escape en-route nor return home. The corpse would be carried feet first and often over water as apparently ghosts can’t cross running water (although I have heard of a spectral passenger hitching a lift in a taxi as it drove over the causeway at Blithbury Reservoir). Despite these rites of passage, there are stories of the supernatural associated with burial routes –  phantom funeral processions, corpse candles and headless black dogs are just some of the shady characters to be wary of when travelling the same way as the dead did. If only we knew exactly which way that was….

wall green lane

Wall is surrounded by these ancient green ways. Could one of them have been part of the old burial road?