Here be a Dragon

I had an email from Charlotte who told me she’d always been curious about a grave at Christ Church in Burntwood. It belongs to Dragon Franciszek Kempa, who was born in September 1919 and died aged 25 on 12th November 1944. Why is a member of the 10th Dragoon Regiment of the Polish 1st Armoured Division buried here?

Documents relating to the Polish Armed Forces are kept in an archive at The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. However, there’s currently a waiting list for postal enquiries of around 6 months and so it would probably be quicker to pay a visit to that London in person. In the meantime, I’m hoping that someone out there might be able to help us piece together the story of Burntwood’s Black Devil.

My best guess at the moment is that Franciszek was a military patient at the Emergency Hospital, set up at St Matthew’s between 1940 and 1947, who sadly succumbed to his wounds sustained during the unit’s Normandy campaign, or its subsequent action in Belgium and Holland. For a bit of background reading, Ethel Lote’s account of being a nurse at the hospital during this time is here. I also found a letter published in the Lichfield Mercury, from James Gantley of The King’s Regiment (Liverpool), just a few weeks after Franciszek died.  He wrote:

Sir – I would like you to publish this letter in your paper as it is the only way I can show my appreciation for the good the local people did and still do for the soldiers at Burntwood Hospital. I have only recently left Burntwood EMS Hospital and though I was only there a short while, I think that the best I can do is to thank the local people from the bottom of my heart for the attitude they show to the wounded soldiers of the Hospital. I know that almost every day there is an outing for the boys who are fit enough to go. I have been on these outings myself and was delighted at the reception the people gave us, and I’m sure that many of them went out of pocket just for the sake of giving us a good enjoyable evening. Food was plentiful for us, also cigarettes and at many places we got some cash. It beats me as to how these good natured people managed to do this for us.

The miners must not be forgotten either, because they did everything in their power to give us a good time, and I must say that is exactly what we had when we were invited to their clubs. The boys who went to the Lido Club will verify that.

Also, I must not forget the people of Burntwood, who supplied us with some very good entertainment in their school hall. There is also Hercules, Lucas’s and St John’s of Birmingham who helped to make us soldiers happy. These are a few of the places who have helped but there are many more.

We must also remember the Nurses and Staff of the Hospital who make it possible for us to enjoy these occasions. They must be heartily thanked for the tough work they do, and which they have been doing through the dark years of the war. Many don’t realise how hard their work is but they deserve as much praise as the men on the battlefield.

I will now conclude with my letter, but before I close I must once again thank all those local people on behalf of myself, and I’m certain the other boys of the Hospital who have enjoyed their hospitality feel the same as I do. England is worth fighting for, even if it’s only to keep up this good sociable spirit that Englanders have always had. These things will never be forgotten even when this war is over and the world is once more a peace.

Information or thoughts from anyone who can help to shed any light on how this corner of a Burntwood field became for ever Poland would be very welcome.

Lichfield Mercury Friday 24th November 1944


A Hole Nother Story

Remember at the start of the year there was a petition from some residents living in Bell End in the Black Country who wanted to change the name of their street because they said it was a bit rude and made those living there a laughing stock? Their limp attempt ended up with about 50 signatures whilst a counter petition, by a woman who found it far more offensive that a historic place name should be changed because of a a few, yes I’m going to say it, snowflakes*, ended up considerably larger with close to 5,000 supporting it.

A similar thing had happened here in Lichfield back in the 1930s and 40s. In December 1934, at the first meeting of the new Lichfield City Council year, the Town Clerk submitted a petition dated 22nd October 1934 signed by 23 residents of Hobshole Lane asking that the council rename it. At the first council meeting of the actual new year, on Wednesday 9th January 1935, it was agreed that it would be altered to ‘Valley Lane'”, and it has been known by this name ever since (officially at least).

Then, in October 1946, Mr Percy Laithwaite gave a talk to the Lichfield Women’s Institute on ‘The Why and Wherefore of Lichfield names’, and the Lichfield Mercury reported that many members had expressed regret that old names were being allowed to die out. The example cited was “the enchanting name of ‘Hobs Hole’ which means ‘Goblin’s Meadow’ being exchanged for the very ordinary one of ‘Valley Lane’ and it was decided to send a petition to the City Council asking it not to discard these ancient names which help give Lichfield its special character. It’s something I’m quite passionate about myself as place names tell stories and behind even the most seemingly prosaic ones, tales of sex, death and magical creatures lie waiting to be discovered. Look up Union Street in Wells if you don’t believe me.

Anyway, as Mr Laithwaite explained, the name Hobshole may have a folkloric origin. According to David Horovitz’s study on the place names of Staffordshire, similar place names in the vicinity (including Hobs Hall Lane at Aldridge) are made up of the Middle English ‘hob’ meaning ‘sprite, elf, hobgoblin’ and ‘hole’ referring to ‘a hollow, dingle or small valley’. It goes on to say that pits, holes and ancient earthworks were often associated with hob, sprites and goblins. I’m not sure whether this was because of an actual belief that a supernatural creature was in residence or whether stories of supernatural creatures were invented as a way of keeping curious children away from dangerous places. Perhaps a combination of the two?

What was it about having Hobshole as an address that residents objected to? The area seems to have been developed in the 1920s when council houses were built and I wonder whether it was something about people looking forward to the future and leaving the past and its unsophisticated ways behind? It wasn’t Hob’s hole anymore, it was their home. Perhaps the area had a reputation, for being haunted by hobgoblins or otherwise, that people were keen to disassociate themselves from?

About six months ago, I was having a conversation with someone who once lived on  Valley Lane in Lichfield and he told me the deeds to his house had had a map attached. A landscape feature called ‘Hob’s Hole’ was actually marked on this but I suspect whatever it was has long been lost. However, the past hasn’t been entirely discarded and I’m sure that the WI and Mr Laithwaite would be pleased to know that there is a Hob’s Lane off Valley Lane, even if it doesn’t quite tell the (w)hole story.

*weather joke. Ignore if reading in July.


Lichfield Mercury Archive

A Survey and Analysis and of the Place Names of Staffordshire by David Horovitz LL.B

Head Scratching

Last weekend, I went to take photographs of the restored medieval conduit head up at Pipe Hill and what I thought was the 18th century conduit head which replaced it for a short time between circa 1780 and 1821. It had always confused me as to how or why someone had carved 1755 into the stonework of the latter, and I had assumed that perhaps the date it was brought into use was slightly earlier than thought.

Conduit Head

Conduit Head 2

Well you know what they say about assuming…actually, talking of equidae I did come across some unexpected donkeys in someone’s garden whilst I was up there but I wasn’t brayve enough to take a photo. Anyway, I’ve gone off my watercourse – back to the conduit heads.  I’d taken some nice photos of the two structures and I was heading for the car, dreaming about which Instagram filter I was going to use, when a thought popped into my own head about walking along the route of the conduit to see where it ended up.

Conduit course

So I went back and did it and about 100 metres away from the medieval conduit head was this.

Conduit Head 3

Brick Conduit Head

I have been here many times and this is the first time I have ever since this. Other regulars at Pipe Hill have said the same. Some have suggested that it must be magic but as much as I like the idea of brick structure that mysteriously appears and disappears like a Burntwood version of Brigadoon, I thought I’d look to the historical sources, rather than sorcery to try and solve The Mystery of the Three Conduit Heads. In light of the ‘new’ discovery,  I took another look at the Victoria County History of Staffordshire:

The Close was supplied with water from springs at Pipe, in Burntwood, from the mid or later 12th century. Between c. 1140 and c. 1170, in return for 15s. 4d. paid by the canons, Thomas of Bromley granted the cathedral two springs for making a conduit…About 1259 William Bell of Pipe granted a third spring next to the conduit head for 12s. The pipes ran from to the conduit head near Maple Hayes to a conduit in the Close, a distance of 1½ mile. (1)

I’m now wondering whether the structure with 1755 carved on it is actually part of the original medieval set up, or possibly connected to the granting of the third spring in 1259 and the ruined brick structure further down is the short-lived 18th century conduit head? The County History goes on to say:

A brick conduit head was built at Maple Hayes c. 1780 to replace the existing head, which probably dated from the 13th century. It remained in use until 1821 when the old head was brought back into operation in order to improve the supply (1)

These are the positions of the three structures on a very basic map (the black X is a the medieval one, the red X is the one with ‘1755’ carved onto it and the purple X is the ruined brick one).

Conduit heads map.jpg

Looking at this, I now wish I’d explore the area above where there appears to be another spring, as this may yield further clues but that’s one for another day. In the meantime, any thoughts folks? I do find it strange that only the restored medieval one is listed and that there is no reference to the other structures on the Staffordshire Historic Environment Record. Perhaps to get a clear picture of  what we’ve actually got here, we need to put all of our heads together…

(1) ‘Lichfield: Public services’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 95-109. British History Online


On Pointon

Last year, Dr Bethany Hughes did an interview for English Heritage on the subject of why women were written out of history and perhaps more importantly, what we can do to redress the balance. Dr Hughes rallies, ‘We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t’.

So, people of Lichfield, does the name Priscilla Pointon mean anything to you? No? Nor to me either until a few weeks ago. Eight years of reading about this place and writing this blog and it’s a name I’d never come across. Yet Priscilla Pointon was a daughter of Lichfield, born here around 1740. At the age of 13, she lost her sight after a violent headache and in 1770, published a book,  ‘Poems on Several Occasions’, paid for by over 1,300 subscribers from Lichfield and other areas, following an advertisement in the Birmingham Gazette on 12th September 1768. Some of those names will probably be more familiar to you than Priscilla’s – The Earl of Anglesey, Thomas Anson of Shugborough and The Earl of Donegal amongst them.  On Thursday 10th August 1780, Priscilla married James Pickering, a saddler from Chester and in 1794, after her husband’s death, a second volume of work entitled, ‘Poems by Mrs Pickering’ was published.

I’m no poetry critic, but those who profess to be have questioned the quality of the actual verse itself. In Notes & Queries January 1866, ‘AG’ wrote:

“As to the merit of the poetry, it will not entitle the authoress to a very prominent niche among her surroundings and the interest which produced a subscription upwards of 1300 (including a few nobles of the land) was rather prompted by to their charity for a poor blind woman than to foster a poetical prodigy in petticoats”.

To me, PP was no poor blind woman and her poetry wasn’t written for the likes of AG to discuss its merits a century later. It was written to earn a living and also had the added benefit of providing a platform from which Priscilla could flatter her audience whilst calling out those who she felt had disrespected her or treated her badly. It might not be literary genius but it is pragmatic, shrewd, feisty and very, very clever.

In ADDRESS TO A BACHELOR ON A DELICATE OCCASION, she writes about visiting friends, and needing the toilet after drinking tea, wine and punch. However, there are no maids around, only a group of men:

Tea, wine and punch Sir, to be free,
Excellent diuretics be.
When at your house last night with you:
Blushing I own to you I said,
‘I should be glad you’d call a maid’.
‘The girls,’ you answered, ‘are from home,
Nor can I guess when they’ll return’.
Then in contempt you came to me,
And sneering cried, ‘Dear miss, make free:
Let me conduct you, don’t be nice
Or if a basin is your choice
To fetch you one I’ll instant fly’.
I blushed but could not make reply,
Confused to find myself the joke,
I silent sat silent till Trueworth spoke:
‘To go with me, Miss, don’t refuse,
Your loss the freedom will excuse.’
To him my hand reluctant gave,
And out he lead me very grave;
Whilst you and Chatfree laughed aloud
As if to dash a maid seemed proud.
But I the silly jest despise,
Since well I know each man’s that’s wise
All affectation does disdain,
Since it in prudes and coxcombes reign:
So I repent not what I’ve done:
Adieu – enjoy your empty fun.

In the 18th century, Priscilla Pointon made a name for herself by sharing her experiences of being a woman with a disability, yet 250 years later that name appears to have been largely been forgotten, even her in her home city. She may never become a household name, but surely Priscilla Pointon deserves at least a mention in Lichfield’s historical narrrative?



Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology
edited by Roger Lonsdale, Roger H. Lonsdale

Voice and Context in Eighteenth-Century Verse: Order in Variety
edited by Allan Ingram, Joanna Fowler

Bridge under troubled water

Sometimes you don’t have to look too deep into your past to find the parts of it that have shaped you. On a childhood trip to Cardigan Bay, I remember my imagination being captured by the story of a lost kingdom beneath the waves and sitting at the water’s edge hoping to hear the peals of its sunken bells. I didn’t really know what folklore was back then but something about the story obviously chimed with me.

These memories came flooding back as I read about how Blithfield Reservoir had been created in the 1940s by South Staffs water on land belonging to the Bagot family. Farmland, trees and lanes were submerged along with a mill and bridges.  It might not be the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod  but Blithfield has it’s own legends. A local history book, ‘Around Rugeley from Old Photographs’ by Joan Anslow has a picture from the late 1940s of three women and a man stood on Kitty Fisher’s Bridge, one of the structures that has now disappeared below the water.’s%20bridge&pg=PT141&output=embed

According to local folklore, Kitty Fisher’s bridge (and the brook it spans) was named after a young woman who threw herself from it. Of course I knew Kitty Fisher as the character in one of my childhood rhymes but until now had no idea that it was probably referring to a famous whore. This came shortly after another nursery rhyme related revelation – I was rocked to my foundations when I read a theory that in the verse about a much more famous bridge, ‘my fair lady’ might been a human sacrifice. We shall return to this anon.

Kitty Fisher and parrot by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1763/4
(Taken from Wikipedia)

As I was trying to wade through the folklore with my friend Patti, what should pop up on Facebook but a post from Staffordshire Past Track saying that photos of Blithfield Reservoir during the drought of 2002 had recently been added to the online collection. Amongst the structures which re-emerged is a bridge, much dilapidated but still identifiable by its arch. Comparing this with the photo from ‘Around Rugeley’, I would suggest this might be what remains of Kitty Fisher’s Bridge.

Blithfield Reservoir in drought conditions

Blithfield Reservoir in drought conditionsView Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track

Sadly however, any hard evidence for the origins of its name seems to have sunk without trace.


Many thanks to the folks at South Staffs Water Archive

Around Rugeley from old photographs by Jean Anslow

The Depths of Winter

Something happens to me once the clock strikes 12 on 25th December.  Maybe it’s a response to the sugar rush that comes from stealing the kids’ selection boxes, but my thoughts turn away from those Christmas lights to the darker side of local history.


I always take my ghost stories and legends with a decent pinch of salt and if they’re served with a measure of good humour too, so much the better. As such, I was delighted to discover a story in the Lichfield Mercury from Friday 2nd September 1932, called ‘The Haunted Secret Passage of Lilleshall’.

In what sounds like my ideal night out, a group of archaeologists and diviners congregated in a candle lit vault next to the so-called dungeon at Lilleshall Abbey. As they waited to hear if diggers had located an underground tunnel, ‘the sounds of the shovels and picks ‘awoke eerie echoes in the leper’s cell above’.  The reason for the gathering, according to the BBC’s Domesday Reloaded site, was that in 1928 a caretaker and his family had moved into a cottage on the site and heard ghostly moaning from beneath the Abbey. At first, they attributed the sounds to the men working at Lilleshall Colliery. However, when it was discovered that the mine didn’t extend as far as the Abbey, and the son reported seeing a shadowy figure and the sounds of the pages of a book being turned, they began to suspect a more unearthly cause. A £50 prize was promised by the estate agent to anyone who could locate the subterranean passage the noises were believed to be coming from and people began turning up to try and solve the mystery in a variety of idiosyncratic ways. These included a man with a hazel twig he manipulated between his fingers, a white bearded professor, who refused to communicate with anyone and ‘went around the ruins with a little toffee hammer, sounding the ground at various places’ and an old tutor of the Duke of Sutherland, whose family owned the Abbey until 1917, who was relying on his memory to tell him where the entrance to the tunnel was.

The ruins of Lilleshall Abbey

A psychic dental surgeon from Birmingham agreed to spend a night in the dungeon. Surely if anyone was going to find an old cavity, it would be him? However, as dawn broke the following morning, he was nowhere to be found, having fled in terror. Two young men who spent the night in one of the old Abbey cells reported ghostly footsteps and ‘a monk with a high-pitched voice saying prayers in a foreign language’. Although to be honest, that could just have been the frit Brummie dentist running away.

Lilleshall Abbey

The shenanigans also involved a Mr Noel Buxton, a member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, who declared he was prepared to stay on-site until the tunnel was found. I didn’t see him when I visited with friends last summer, so perhaps that means it was… The reports at the time are ambiguous – in the Birmingham Gazette on Friday 26th August 1932 it was reported that in a vault next to a dungeon, a diviner received a violent shock which led to the discovery of an underground passage. However, the estate agent said it had not yet been decided whether or not it was the tunnel they were looking for.

Diviner: OMG I did it! I found an underground tunnel!
Estate Agent: Yes…but is it the right underground tunnel?
Diviner: Yes. It is a tunnel and it is underground. Now give me my £50.
Estate Agent: Yes but if it was the right tunnel it would have ghostly monks in and as you can see, this one is phantom friar free. Sorry old chap, better luck next time. Um, please put the stick down…

So, whilst the competition and the talk of haunted dungeons were a clever bit of marketing to attract tourism, it’s fair to say that the notion of a underground tunnel at Lilleshall was not entirely without foundation. As well as the diviner’s discovery, in June 1886, in Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales, a correspondent writes that his mother, then aged 75, visited the Abbey as a girl and remembered stories of an underground passage said to run from the Abbey to Longford Church, or Longford Hall,  and that once a heavy cart passing over Longford Fields broke into it, but ‘it was not explored on account of the air in it being so foul’. Was this the same tunnel that tuned up in the 1930s?

Lilleshall Abbey

I am genuinely fascinated by the idea of secret tunnels and subterranean passages because everyone else is so fascinated by them! As we’ve discussed before on the blog, Lichfield is apparently riddled with them (as is pretty much every city, town and village in the country) if the stories are to be believed. And that’s the £50 question – are they?


  1. Fascinating article here from November 2017 about how ten out of twelve water companies in the UK use water dowsing to find leaks and pipes
  2. I am available for secret tunnel hunting – you do not have to pay me £50 and I can supply my own toffee hammer too.



Never now to grow old

On 28th December 1943, John Russell Faulkner of 504 Squadron was killed aged 21. What caused his death and whether there is a connection with the death of fellow squadron member Philip Dawkins Bailey on the same date is not known. Whilst Flying Officer Bailey is buried in Dorking Cemetery, with 61 other identified casualties from the First and Second World Wars, Pilot Officer Faulkner was interred at Christ Church in Lichfield and is the only war grave in the cemetery.

John’s short obituary in the Lichfield Mercury on the last day of 1943 reads:

On Active Service
FAULKNER – On December 28th 1943, Flight Sergeant Pilot John Russell, RAFVR, most dearly loved only child of Mr and Mrs GA Faulkner, Lloyds Bank House, Handsworth and dear fiancee of Diane Combe-Robinson, aged 21. No letters please. Funeral at Christ Church, Lichfield, Saturday 3.30

Why was John buried at Christ Church given that his parents were in Handsworth? The connection soon became clear after finding an announcement in the Lichfield Mercury relating to John’s birth in April 1922 and giving his mother’s maiden name – Tuke. This led to the discovery of a further announcement relating to George Arthur Faulkner, eldest son of Mr and Mrs Faulkner of Beacon Street marrying Majorie Frances (Madge) Tuke, second daughter of the late Herbert H Tuke and Mrs Tuke of the Walsall Road in November 1917 at Christ Church.

On July 12th 1948, Madge Tuke died at her home in Handsworth and was buried alongside her boy at Christ Church.

When I think of John Russell Faulkner, and so many like him, I think of the opening lines from this anonymous poem:

Not – How did he die? But – How did he live?
Not – What did he gain? But – What did he give?

Christ Church, December 2017