Taking the air

Almost a year has passed since a group of us got together in St Stephen’s Church, Fradley to talk about how we could record and tell the stories of RAF Lichfield, Staffordshire’s busiest World War Two airfield.

One of the most interesting challenges for me is sifting out fact from fiction. People may think the realms of folklore with its fantastical beasts and quirky customs is a whimsical world away from stiff upper lips and smart uniforms, but airfields have their own rich mythologies. I’d no idea until recently that the RAF even had their own monsters – gremlins were mischievous creatures who hung out in hangars, ready to wreak havoc with aircraft and cause all kinds of technical trouble.

Taken from Wikipedia

In an RAF twist on legends of buried treasure, parts of old aircraft are rumoured to be buried beneath the fields of Fradley. At one of the recent meetings we heard a story from a villager about a plane losing control and hitting an oak tree before crashing into farmland, its engine still supposedly embedded in the ground. We’ve tried (and so far failed) to identify the oak tree and even if we were to, is it likely that this kind of debris would have just been left to rust in a field? After a bit of reading, I’m leaning towards maybe. Earlier this year, a Danish teenager decided he’d investigate a story told to him by his grandfather about a German plane which had crashed on moorland in December 1944. Using metal detectors, Daniel, his friends and his Dad discovered the remains of the aircraft, including its Daimler-Benz engine, and the remains of the pilot with condoms, ammunition, a diary, ration coupons, cigarettes and a wallet emblazoned with a swastika in his jacket pocket. The full story is here. Regarding Fradley specifically, I found an interesting comment on the Airfield Research group forum, which I hope the person who posted it doesn’t mind me sharing here.

“As a member of 1206 Sqn back in early 70’s we had a talk from one of our civvy instructors who had been at the base during the war. He told us of a Wellington that had crash-landed just outside the field and had blown up early next morning killing several fire crew members. We visited the spot and found a large crater, in the bottom of this there were large amounts of RAF related debris, on digging deeper we found a Wellington seat, control column, various instruments….. we came back on the Midland Red bus lugging the seat with us. The items formed part of the relic collection we set up in the ATC hut in Cherry Orchard…….. All this material was apparently thrown away by later C.O. during some tidy up campaign…
My father was stationed at RAF Fradley in early 50’s and he told me the site of the crater was used as one of many rubbish tipping places around the base….. as MT driver he would have known where these were. It explained a lot of the RAF pottery and other debris we found on the surface. The site was close to the Go-Kart track and unfortunately the crater was filled in sometime back in the late 1980’s……..
As for buried aircraft parts on the field……….. those rumours were about in the early 70’s, I talked to a lot of locals and ex-RAF from the base who set up home in Lichfield area…….. never met anyone who had ever seen such pits being dug or items being sent there. Spent hundreds of hours as a kid scouring the area, never found anything apart from the crater site and what I believe was a jet crash site in some woods with aircraft cockpit parts scattered around

It is a fact that after the war, RAF Lichfield was used to break up aircraft including 900 Typhoons, 500 Liberators and 150 Fortresses. I found an article in the Lichfield Mercury on 14th April 1950 about a scrap dealer from Upper Gornal who had been charged with stealing four Oxford aircraft fuel tanks and two engine cowlings, whilst contracted to removed scrap from eight Mosquitos. ‘For security reasons’ (such as?), the latter had to be burned before the metal scrap was collected. The crime had been committed in the area of the airfield known as ‘the graveyard’, but did this literally refer to a place where craft were buried? And if so, are they still there?

Another story about RAF Lichfield is that one pilot overshot the runway and landed in the Trent and Mersey Canal. I’ve heard it from three separate sources but did this actually happen here or is it a story that has been transposed to Fradley? We know at RAF Wheaton Aston,  a P-47 Thunderbolt of the 495 Fighter Training Group crashed into the Shropshire Union Canal as there is photographic evidence but to illustrate how unreliable local stories can be, the banks of the Shroppie canal between bridges 20 and 21 are said to be haunted by the pilot who lost his life in the crash. Except he didn’t –  the only fatalities on this occasion were two cows because they, ahem, didn’t moove out of the way quick enough.  I love stories but we have to take our oral history with a pinch of salt for that very reason – so does everyone else! There’s a book called ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathan Gottschall that I’ve just found out about which puts forward theories about why humans like stories and why we favour are those which stretch the truth. Perhaps I’ll come back to this once I’ve read it but I’m veering wildly off course myself, and so back to Fradley, and something a little more tangible.

Along with the rest of the heritage group, earlier this month I was lucky enough to have been given access to several old airfield buildings which survive on the site of Palletways, at the industrial estate now known as Fradley Park. There are also two underground bunkers nearby, almost invisible beneath vegetation but winter should reveal more and a return trip may be in order. I featured some of the other surviving buildings of RAF Lichfield, including bomb stores, in this post here.

Entrance to the guard room. Interestingly, this is where the scrap metal dealer who took the Oxford parts was taken for questioning

Entrance to HQ office

Inside of of the surviving hangars, now used by Palletway

The door says messroom but it’s in the building described on maps as the Guard Room – was this usual?

I’ve seen this described both as the mortuary and also, as a gas decontamination building. Perhaps it had a dual purpose?

As at so many other airfields, there are some that say ghosts walk here. I don’t believe they do, but that doesn’t mean that the presence of those who lived, and those who died here isn’t felt in other ways.  Our group is committed to continuing to record the stories of this place and its people. We meet on the third Monday of each month at 7.30pm at St Stephen’s Church in Fradley, and our next meeting is Monday 20th November, and anyone with an interest in the history of RAF Lichfield is very welcome to come and get involved.


Pictures of who?

A box of photographs arrived in the post. Discovered in a house clearance down south somewhere, they were sent to me on the basis that there appeared to be a Lichfield connection. The clue came from a photograph of the Friary School, that at a very rough guess appears to date to the mid-twentieth century.

Sifting through the photographs reminded me of the days spent as a little girl, looking through the mostly colourless snaps of my own family. They were kept in an old biscuit tin, and the faint smell of its original contents would waft out each time the lid was removed. ‘Who is that?’ I’d ask, and my Grandad would tell me the stories of the people in the tin, as I sipped tea made with sterilised milk.

I’ve joked before that every old family photo album includes a picture of men sat in deckchairs in their suits, a young man in uniform, a matronly lady holding on to her skirt on the promenade of some windswept seaside town and people standing proudly by a new car that’d now be displayed at classic vehicle shows. However, looking through this box, the poses might be familiar but the faces are not. This is not my family, and so I’d really like to find it a proper home.

We have a possible connection the to Friary School and Lichfield District Council. The two photographs of the building have ‘Frosts Shop, Wednesfield, August 15th 1954’ written on the back, and our final piece of evidence is an ID card for ME Price who worked for Staffordshire Police.  If anyone can help with my enquiries, please do get in touch.





Hospital Round

A short and sweet post this evening. Which is kind of apt given it has a link to the Cadbury family.

I found myself at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham today. After dropping my patient off, I spotted this intriguing building. It’s part of a house known as The Woodlands, donated to the institution by George Cadbury in 1907. It’s such an unusual structure and whoever compiled the listing building text agreed. It describes it as being a later addition to the main house, which dates to around 1840, and an ‘…unexplained circular painted brick structure with circular windows with leaded lights, dentilled brick frieze and low conical roof’.

The Woodlands, Royal Orthopaedic

I think it’s quirky and fascinating but I can’t tell you much more about it! I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on it though – did it have a specific purpose do we think, or is its design purely aesthetic? Maybe the city of Birmingham just has a thing about buildings of this shape….





Pills ‘n’ Chills and Deli Bakes

Yesterday I was in Tamworth for the summer food festival, enjoying excellent locally produced pork pies, sausage rolls and blue cheese.

After a gentle stroll around the town, I hopped back into the car and headed to Hopwas for a forage. For once, my walk took me along the canal in the opposite direction to the woods, a decision which may have been influenced by having read about a disused and reputedly haunted cemetery on Hints Road.

The graveyard once belonged to Hopwas Chapel, built in 1836 and dedicated to St John, and its resident ghost is said to be a small boy who can be seen by children (but not by a childish 39 year old it seems). The chapel was pulled down in the 1880s, as it was ‘full, small and inconvenient’, and replaced by the gorgeous St Chad’s Church up on the hill. A drawing of the old chapel can be seen here on the Stafforshire Past Track site. The old font survived and stands outside the new church, and the chapel’s bell still tolls in St Chad’s tower.  According to a report in the Tamworth Herald on Saturday 16th April 1898, the holy table from St John’s was made use of in the new Workhouse chapel.

St Chad’s, Hopwas, dedicated and opened in 1881

The old font from St John’s Chapel

Nearby, I found a cottage with the best name ever, which fitted in perfectly with the theme of the day, followed by a pill box in a field alongside the River Tame.

Too well guarded by nettles to even attempt to take a look inside, I plan to return as part of a much longer pill box walk along this section of the Western Command Stop Line Number 5 in winter. If I eat as much as I did at the summer festival, on the way home from the Tamworth Christmas food festival would probably be a good time….





Been catching up on messages (I’m sorry if I still owe you a reply!) and saw I’d recently received a lovely email from Claire who leads a volunteer group called the Heritage Gardeners in Glenside, New Zealand. Claire told me that the group had recently planted a tree in honour of Joan, their longest living gardener. The tree is a copper beech, chosen as Joan has fond memories of one in Lichfield at The Friary, where she attended school between 1938 and 1948. On the Glenside blog, it describes how Joan recalled the school being next to an ancient hairpin shaped path known as the Monks Walk and having to pass a huge and beautiful copper beech tree on a lawn to get there. Joan also recalled how the tree’s catkins were painted gold and silver and used as decorations at Christmas. You can read the full blog post here

Of course, Claire was wondering whether Joan’s original copper beech was still standing 70 years on and 12,000 miles away, and if anyone knows the history of it. The first question I could answer immediately. Well, after a five minute drive to the Friary anyway.

Copper Beech, The Friary

The lawn is now a car park but from Joan’s description this seems to be the right tree. I will send the photographs to Claire and Joan to be sure, as there was another beech tree at the edge of Monks Walk which was lost to a fungus known as Meripilus Giganteus back in 2011, and replaced by a walnut tree.


The remains of the diseased beech tree in 2011

As to the history of the tree, it was surely planted by one of the former owners of the Friary, which had become a private estate following the dissolution of the Franciscan Friary in 1538. In 1920, the estate was gifted to the city by Sir Richard Cooper and the following year, a girls’ school took up residence.  It was renamed the Friary in 1926, and the school was based at the site until 1975, when the school relocated to Eastern Avenue, and there are some wonderful memories of the school on the comments on this post.

Mysterious photos!

According to my daughter, receiving a mysterious box of photographs in the post, ‘is how horror films start’…

By coincidence, I received a mysterious box of old photographs in the post a couple of weeks ago. They’d been found during a house clearance and though there are very few clues as to who the people in them are, there are a few which suggest there is some connection to Lichfield, including an school photograph of The Friary which looks as though it dates to the mid-twentieth century.

It’s proving incredibly difficult to photograph, probably because it’s been rolled up in a box for half a century, and so I’m just posting a couple of sections here, to see if anyone can date it more accurately or add anything at this stage. It really would be quite a coincidence if it dated to Joan’s time at the school! When I have better light and more patience, I will post the whole thing, along with the other mystery photographs as I’d love to be able to find a proper home for this box of memories. At the moment however, I’m stumped…

Friary School 1Friary school 5

Friary school 3

Human Remains

What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually, Juliet bab. The authors of ‘England in Particular’, a book that has been one of the biggest influences in my wonderings and wanderings over the years (second perhaps only to the Ladybird book of castles) describe it perfectly. Names carry resonances and secrets.

I’ve got an urge to do something that combines my love of linguistics and local history by exploring the Midlands via its place names. I want to know why there is a Snailbeach in landlocked Shropshire, how an Anglo-Saxon god clung on in Wednesbury in the West Midlands, and whether Foul End in Warwickshire was as bad as it sounds.

My interest in place names associated with death was brought to life several years ago when looking at a map of Lichfield from 1815 and spotting a place called ‘Bessy Banks Grave’. I’ve written at length on this lost name and the story behind it here.

Just up the road in Tamworth is Knox’s Grave Lane. The locally accepted story behind the name seems to be that Knox was a footpad who preyed on travellers passing through the country lanes around Hopwas Woods. His criminal career came to an end when he attempted to hold up a stage coach on route to Ashby but was arrested by the four army officers who were on board. Knox was hanged three days later, and his body gibbeted somewhere at the junction of Flats Lane and Watling Street. His poor parents, in all senses of the word, cut down his body and buried it near to their cottage on the lane. Apocryphal or authentic?

In his invaluable PhD thesis, ‘A survey and analysis of the place names of Staffordshire’, David Horovitz includes a section on those which appear to be associated with corpses. These include Dead Woman’s Grave (supposedly after a woman who hanged herself in a skein of wool and was buried at crossroads two miles to the west of Codsall) and Dead Lad’s Grave at the junction of Birches Barn Rd and Trysull Rd, three miles south west of Wolverhampton. There was also a Dead Knave to the north of Sedgley, a Dead Man’s Lane in Newcastle Under Lyme, and Alice Hurst’s Grave, in the vicinity of Rolleston, near Burton on Trent.

However, Horovitz warns that popular etymology has led to that some names being corrupted, giving the example of  a place called Dimsdale near Newcastle under Lyme being altered to Deadmans Dale in the early nineteenth century. Another Dimmins Dale on Cannock Chase also seems to have been sensationalised around the same time, and was known as ‘Demons Dale’ for a while.

Lichfield was of course believed to mean ‘the Field of the Dead’ for centuries. The actual meaning is now accepted to be something along the lines of ‘the field near the grey wood’, although not by all and the field of the dead interpretation lives on. In his article on Names and Identity, Botolov Helleland of the University of Oslo says it’s possible to listen to place names as voices from the past. The British and the Anglo-Saxons are telling us that, for them, significance lay in the location of the settlement near a grey wood but it was a legendary field of slaughtered martyrs which resonated with those who came after them.

At the heart of what I want to do is to use place names as a way of trying to make sense of people’s sense of place and both real and fake etymologies, whether accidental or contrived to deliberately to change the story of a place, are a part of this human geography. I’ll be starting a new blog to cover all this after I get back from my holiday near Shitterton, which sits on a brook which flows into the River Piddle in Dorset and frequently appears on lists of Britain’s rudest place names.   Go ahead and snigger as I did when I found out, but actually it brings more to the discussion than just a bit of light relief amidst all the death. In the nineteenth century, those delicate Victorians attempted to change the name to Sitterton, which is an example of etymology that says a lot more about people than it does about a place. Although some locals apparently still prefer the sanitised version of the village name, most are proud of their earthy origins, so much so that they decided to have it set in a ton and half of stone after the ‘official’ village sign was stolen for the umpteenth time. “We thought, ‘Let’s see them try and take that away in the back of a Ford Fiesta'”, explained the chair of the parish council. Might get it in the boot of a Leomansley Tractor though….

Taken from Wikipedia


Helleland, B. Ore, C_E,  & Wikstrøm, S (eds.) Names and Identities ,Oslo Studies in Language 4(2), 2012. 95–116.

Horovitz, D. (2003) A survey and analysis of the place-names of Staffordshire, PhD thesis: University of Nottingham

King, A & Clifford, S. (2006) England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive, Hodder and Stoughton: London



Higher Education

I recently went on a school trip to Stafford Grammar and had an excellent history lesson from the brilliant Mr Bateman, whose knowledge and enthusiasm were A* (or whatever the equivalent is now the grading system has been changed).

Burton manor

The school was founded in 1982 at Burton Manor, a Victorian house built on the site of a medieval manor, where some of the Whitgreave family (perhaps best known for their connection to Moseley Old Hall and the escape of Charles II) lived until 1720. In 1851, Francis Whitgreave bought back the ancestral home and commissioned Edward Welby Pugin to build a new house in Neo-Gothic style. Pugin junior based the new Burton Manor on his father’s house at Ramsgate and incorporated some genuine Gothic alongside his Victorian version including a stone cross excavated from the Grey Friars site in Stafford over the porch. A chancel window from the same friary is also believed to have been taken there and broken up and used in a rockery.

Burton manor cross

There was restoration work taking place so I got to see the cross close up! Or perhaps I should say close down?

We had a look around the grounds and there was no obvious sign of the broken window but after a bit of impromptu weeding, Mr Bateman did show me another interesting feature. Stonework carved with the biblical quotation ‘He who drinketh this water shall thirst again’, surrounds a spring, now covered by a metal cover. My well hunting expert friend Pixy Led has no record of a spring of any spiritual significance on this site, and so perhaps it was a practical feature given the Pugin treatment?

Burton manor spring

Spring cleaning

In Whitgreave’s day, all this was fields – a  report in the Staffordshire Advertiser in September 1866 describes how the family’s coachman, George Murray, died as a result of exasperating a bull while out picking mushrooms nearby. It was the rural setting that attracted the British Reinforced Concrete Engineering company, owned by the Hall family who wanted to relocate from Manchester and were looking to build a new factory nearer to their newly acquired estate in Market Drayton and wanted somewhere with room to create a model village for their employees.

They acquired the Burton Manor estate in the 1920s, and built their Art Deco factory on Silkmore Lane. A photograph taken just before it was demolished in 1991 can be seen here on Staffordshire Past Track.   The original plan was to provide high quality housing for workers along with a school, church and cinema but the scheme was only partly realised. Less than half of the planned two hundred houses were built and in place of the proposed leisure facilities, Burton Manor was used as a social club for workers and extended to add a ballroom with what Mr Bateman told me was once the largest sprung dance floor in the county.

As the name suggests, the company made products to strengthen concrete structures and during the Second World War assisted with the building of harbours and runways. This wasn’t their only contribution to the war effort. When the Mayor of Stafford launched the Stafford and District Spitfire Fund in August 1940,  announcing in the Staffordshire Advertiser that, ‘£5,000 is required to purchase one of these machines and I am confident that this amount will be very quickly raised in the district’, BRC managing director Mr Butler pledged that the firm would contribute £10,000 if the town met its target. The money flew in, with even the Luftwaffe inadvertently making their own contribution to the fund with £343 raised from people paying a shilling to see the remains of a German bomber on display in the meat market. In October 1940, Lord Beaverbrook wrote to the Mayor to, ‘thank the people of Stafford and District for their magnificent contribution to the strength of the Royal Air Force, which is a noble tribute to our airmen’ and Spitfires R7229 and R7263 were given the names B.R.C Stafford I and B.R.C Stafford II respectively. Spitfire AB842 was called ‘The Staffordian’.

The stories around these and the estimated 2,600 other presentation spitfires are fascinating, particularly as those contributing could name their plane. Almost every town and city raised money for at least one and named theirs accordingly, including of course Lichfield, whose Spitfire BL812 was shot down whilst being flown by John Gofton on 3rd February 1943, I believe. Other names are more intriguing and my own personal favourite is ‘Dorothy of Great Britain and the Empire’ which was paid for soley by women called Dorothy, who took part in a chain mail fundraising scheme. I’m curious about the numbers of the aircraft too – why do the BRC planes have the letter R but The Staffordian has the letters AB?

City of Lichfield spitfire.jpg

Lichfield Spitfire (from Lichfield DC collection)

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is you never quite know where things will lead. It was medieval history, in the form of the stone cross from Greyfriars which took me to Stafford Grammar but thanks to my visit, I’ve found myself learning about early examples of corporate social responsibility and crowdfunding.  I may have just finished my degree, but my education continues…

(Also, before anyone says I need a lesson in photography, my camera was broken, so apologies for the far from picture perfect images!)


Thanks once again to Mr Bateman for showing us around