Sweet Bells

One Saturday morning, as I sat reading in Lichfield Library, I heard a clip clopping in the street outside. Standing up to look out of the window, I saw a horse and carriage making its way up Bird St. It occurred to me that this was a sound and a sight that people would not have batted an eyelid nor an eardrum at in previous centuries, yet to my twenty first century ears, it was something so out of the normal it warranted me putting down a good book to have a shufty.

More often than not, when we explore the way our towns and cities have changed, it’s the visual changes that we concentrate on – old photographs, old maps, landscape features etc. Yet the sounds of places change too e.g. the pools at Leomansley are quiet and still now that the waterwheel of the mill no longer turns, the sounds of animals at the Smithfield have been replaced by those of cars and shoppers and Beacon Street hasn’t heard a blacksmith hammering metal in a long time. However, amidst the changes, there is also consistency in the sounds that surround us.

The tower at St Chad’s church houses four bells. Three of them were cast in the seventeenth century and the oldest of these three dates to 1625 with the inscription ‘DOMINO CANTICUM CANTATE NOVUM’. The second is from 1664 and declares ‘GOD SAVE THIS CHURCH AND REALM THE KING IN WAR, I.C.1664. Even the youngest of the three, featuring the names Ralph Low and Richard Grimley, is from 1670 meaning that the people of the parish and those who are passing by have heard these bells ring out for well over three hundred years. The fourth bell is even older still, although no one can agree on just how old. An article in the Lichfield Mercury in August 1936 described it as ‘England’s Oldest Bell’, and gives it a date of 1033. As it stands, the country’s oldest inscribed bell is believed to be the Gargate Bell at Caversfield Church, Oxfordshire, dating to c.1215AD and the country’s oldest dated bell (1245AD) is at Lisset Church in Easy Yorkshire. Therefore if this date of 1033AD were true, we would probably have a another Lichfield Entry in the Guiness Book of Records (to go alongside the largest curry ever, cooked by Abdul Salam of Eastern Eye on Bird St). Yet, the St Chad’s website itself casts doubt on this claim as there wasn’t a tower to put a bell in at the church at this time! Another date suggested for the bell is 1255 but the County History also disputes this and says that it was probably cast at Nottingham c.1500AD. There is an inscription on the bell +O BEATE MARIAA.A.R. and some numerals that no-one can read, hence the enigma. I’d love to see it. Not that I would be any help at all in solving the mystery but you know I’d just like to have a look at it. See I’m not satisfied with simply hearing it – there’s that visual dominance of history taking over again.

I have actually been at the other end of the bell rope. After I stumbled upon a practice session on another Saturday morning, I took up a kind offer to have a go at ringing one of the St Chad’s bells myself. Whilst at the time I was too terrified of having a campanology related mishap to fully appreciate the moment, afterwards I thought of all the people that had rung those bells in the past, and all those who had heard them and the message they were conveying. Next time, you’re passing, stop for a moment and listen too.

Sources:

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

http://saintchads.weebly.com/the-bells.html

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Know Your Boundaries

I’d wondered about this curious sandstone block, embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird St, but it wasn’t until I read a newspaper article on the unveiling and dedication of the war memorial that I learnt that it is apparently an ‘ancient’ boundary stone. The article in the Lichfield Mercury, dated October 22nd 1920, describes how a high wall running along Bird St was demolished and replaced by the stone balustrade that now runs along the edge of the garden. Prior to its demolition, the boundary stone was originally incorporated into this wall, but whether that was its original location, or was an earlier effort to preserve the stone, I don’t yet know. It seems to be marked and I’m wondering whether this is deliberate or not (or if I’m imagining it!). Also, just how ancient is ancient?

Boundary stone embedded in lower part of right gate pier of Lichfield’s Garden of Remembrance

Close up of the ‘ancient’ boundary stone

A newspaper report from May 1936 describes how the Cathedral Choristers observed the tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ each Ascension Day. Accompanied by members of the clergy, the boys would start opposite St Mary’s Vicarage and stop off at places were there was, or had been, a well – ‘midway between the pool and Gaia Lane’, the Bishop’s kitchen garden, the Dean’s kitchen garden, Milley’s Hospital, the boundary stone on the Minster Pool Bridge and the Verger’s house in the corner of the Close before finally gathering at the old pump to the North West of the Cathedral, to which water from the Conduit Heads up near Maple Hayes once flowed along a lead pipe. The boys would carry elm boughs, and at each of the stop off points there was a reading from the scriptures and a verse of a hymn was sung. In 1936, the elm boughs were brought inside the Cathedral and laid on the font. An account from 1910 describes how choristers would collect boughs from the Dimbles and then return to the Close where they would decorate the houses before commencing their perambulation. I understand that these days Ascension Day is marked by the choristers singing from the roof. It’s interesting that elm boughs used to play a part in the custom; it makes me think of old traditions related to the Lichfield Bower which takes place in the same month.

‘Beating the bounds’ apparently dates back to a time before maps and was a way of ensuring that the knowledge of where the boundaries of an area, or a parish, lay was passed on. The tradition in The Close seems to have been centred around wells and water, but in other places boundaries were also marked by other natural features.  A Gospel Tree is marked on OS maps of Gentleshaw up until the 1930s and Gospel Oak is a common place name, found all over the country.

On the subject of maps, there’s a great version of John Snape’s 1781 map on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog here. I think that the boundary of the Close, similar to that described above, is shown clearly on this map in the form of a dotted line running around the Close.

There’s a lot more to be said on boundaries and their markers, including the exciting possibility (for me at least!) that if this one is still here, there just might be others preserved somewhere in or around the city. In fact, we may even have located a couple, purpose as yet unknown.

Edit: Just had one thought myself actually! In many places it seems boundary stones and trees were actually hit with sticks (as can be seen here in Oxford) or physically marked in some other way, as people passed by them on their perambulation. Is it possible the marks on our boundary stone are evidence of it being ‘beaten’ over the centuries?

 

 

 

Ooh La La

When old buildings at the back of the Bolton Warehouse Company’s shop on Bird St (1) were being demolished in December 1960, a large circular room containing murals created with shells and pebbles, was found above a ceiling. One mural depicted the Cathedral, another a tree and the third was some kind of summerhouse on top of a hill (2).

The murals are thought to have been created by French prisoners of war, on parole in the city.  According to the County History, Lichfield had long been used as a place to quarter French prisoners, due to its position on a main road (and I have also read that it had something to do with us being about as far from the sea as you can get!).  On 7th January 1747, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported that a party of seventy four passed through Stafford on their way to Lichfield, where they were to be put on parole. It also mentioned a house on Bore St, where there was a cooper’s shop at the back used by prisoners (3). Eighty arrived in Lichfield in 1797 during the Napolenic Wars and in 1809, forty officers were quartered here. It seems that Dr Johnson’s birthplace was also occupied by a prisoner –  in The European Magazine for 1810, a contributor called ‘TSW’ wrote, “The house in the market place in which our great lexicographer born still remains nearly in its original state. It is now inhabited by Mr Evans a brazier and a part of it, believed to be the very room in which he first drew his breath is now let to a French prisoner of war”. According to their website, Pipe Hill House on the Walsall Rd also hosted some of the prisoners.

As well as spending their time creating enigmatic artworks, some of the prisoners gave French lessons to the city’s residents.  If the fragment of a page of French exercises, found in the same room as the Bird St mural was discovered, is anything to go by, the teachers had their work cut out. The sentences on the fragment of paper had been heavily corrected, with the comment ‘very bad’ at the end! Perhaps the Darwin and Wedgewood children who were taught French by one of the prisoners at Darwin’s house on Beacon St were better students?

The old clinic on Sandford St? Is it me or can anyone else see numbers in the brick work on the second storey?

In September 1951, the author of the ‘Round and About with Clock Tower” section of the Lichfield Mercury visited the site of the mural accompanied by the caretaker, Mrs Disney, and reported that the ‘pictures’ were still in existence in the dome-like roof of a derelict outbuilding behind the Sandford St Clinic (4). One side featured ‘a perfect replica of Lichfield Cathedral, made entirely from small stones, bits of glass and sea shells’  and other pictures included a ‘mosque-like building’, (which the reporter failed to recognise (5)), several ‘beautifully executed trees’ and a map of Lichfield. The outbuilding was in a poor condition, described as being encased in a mass of creepers, with two gaping holes in the roof. There was also a large hole in the floor, and as if things weren’t exciting enough already, Mrs Disney told the reporter that there were two passages running beneath the hole – one leading to the rear of the property and one believed to connect with the old ‘monk’s passages’ beneath the Friary.

Box made by French Prisoners of War (c) Lichfield District Council

Sadly, I think that this ‘Disney’ story doesn’t have a happy ending as the outbuilding was been demolished and the treasures inside lost (although there is the possibility that as the murals were still in existence in the 1950s/1960s someone may have been foresighted enough to photograph them?). However, there is a small consolation at Lichfield Heritage Centre in the form of a wooden box carved by French prisoners quartered in the area.

Edit 18/6/2015
A display at Lichfield Museum at St Mary’s features a photograph and a chunk of the mural together with the wooden box and some information about the soldiers themselves. St Mary’s is also staging a costume drama called ‘Lichfield’s Waterloo’ by the Lichfield Players on Friday 26th June and Saturday 27th June. More information here

Notes

(1) Does anyone have anymore information on the Bolton Warehouse Company’s shop, particularly where it was on Bird St?

(2) Could this have been a representation of Borrowcop Gazebo? The PMSA record (here) says ‘In 1694 a building called ‘the Temple’, probably stood on Borrow Cop Hill, in the 1720s an arbour was recorded, by 1750 this replaced by a summerhouse which may have been the cruciform building there in 1776. In 1756 the corporation ordered a line of trees along the path to the summit, with extra trees in 1783, possibly in connection with a fete champetre held in that year. By 1805 the building was replaced with one of brick with two arches each side and seats around to admire the view, the funds were raised by public subscription’. On the subject of Borrowcop, I just found at that an information board was installed up there in September (more about that here).

(3) Again, where would this have been?

(4) I understand that the clinic occupied the former premises of the Victoria Nursing Home which was on Sandford St until it moved to the Friary and became the Victoria Hospital.

(5) Any ideas as to what building this could be depicting?

Sources

Lichfield and Archaeological & Historical Society Transactions vol 2 1961

Lichfield: Education’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 170-184

Lichfield: From the Reformation to c.1800′, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 14-24

The European Magazine for 1810

Lichfield Mercury 21st September 1951

A Burny Inn

The King’s Head is one of the oldest pubs in Lichfield (1) and somewhere I’ve spent many a happy evening.(2) The sign across the entrance and John Shaw’s legendary ‘The Old Pubs of Lichfield’ date it to 1408, when it was known as ‘The Antelope’. By 1650, it had been renamed as The King’s Head.  I’ve been reading the old papers again, and it seems that in the 1930s, we nearly lost this fine old drinking establishment to fire…twice!

Which window did Mrs Shellcross climb out of I wonder?

On the night of June 27th 1932, landlady Mrs Shellcross went to bed in the King’s Head for the last time, leaving a small fire burning in the dining room grate.  The following day new tenants were arriving, and she would be leaving the King’s Head. Yet as she climbed the wooden staircase to her room, she would never have imagined that she would not be leaving the pub via the door but through a first floor window!

In the early hours of the morning, one of the hotel’s residents, Mr Corbett, was awoken by the sound of falling crockery. After discovering that the building was on fire, he raised the alarm. However, the five occupants of the pub found the staircase ablaze and their escape route blocked. They were left with no choice but to escape from upstairs windows. Mr Corbett jumped from the first storey and flagged down a passing motor van and trailer. The van driver positioned his vehicle close to the wall of the hotel, beneath a third storey (4) window, enabling Mr Dunmow, a commercial traveller to break his fall by jumping on top of the van.  Landlady Mrs Shellcross managed to climb through a first floor window onto a wall bracket but this gave way and she fell fifteen feet down onto the pavement. Another resident, a Mr King of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, escaped using his bedclothes as a makeshift rope.

Although Mr Dunmow was admitted to the Victoria Hospital with shock, the others luckily suffered nothing more than cuts and bruises. However, the building itself had not been so fortunate. The dining room was destroyed, and the upstairs function room severely damaged. Several valuable paintings and ornaments were also lost. The ‘buff regalia’ was damaged by water (does anyone know what this refers to?).  It was said that the prompt turnout from the Lichfield Fire Brigade had saved the building from being burnt to the ground.

New tenants, the Evans family, arrived at the King’s Head to find ‘a charred mass of ashes, a ruined dining room, scorched and blackened walls, and everything soaked with water’.  There can barely have been time to make good this damage when just eighteen months later, an old oak beam in the chimney in the dining room and clubroom caused another major blaze at the pub. In the early hours of a December morning in 1933, Major Evans was awoken by the smell of smoke. This time, there was just time for the Evans family and the five hotel guests to escape down the staircase, which according to the Mercury was ‘a mass of flames’ immediately afterwards. The Major led his family and other guests to safety before returning to the burning pub to telephone for the fire brigade. There was no response as one of the hotel guests had already alerted the brigade who were now on the scene. It took two hours to put out the fire, and although the front of the building was saved, the dining room and clubroom were ‘burnt beyond recognition’. Apparently, the properties on either side of the pub were also at risk for a while.

Perhaps a little opportunistically, there is an advertisement for the Prudential Assurance Co. beneath the story asking readers ‘If this had been your property would it have been adequately insured? Don’t wait until you have to call the Fire Brigade before answering this question.’

On the Lichfield Ghost Walk, we were told a young woman working as a maid had died in a fire here and that sometimes her candle could be seen flickering in one of the upstairs windows. Perhaps this story harks back to an earlier blaze. It would be interesting to do some research and see if there is any truth in this. After all when it comes to ghost stories, there’s usually no smoke without fire….

Notes

(1) The Kings Head is said to be the oldest pub, the Duke of York over the other side of the city at Greenhill is said to be the oldest inn. I’m just glad they are both still open and serving beer!

(2) A particular highlight was the folky carol service I attended here in 2010. I hope they do it again this Christmas.

(3) As many will know, Col. Luke Lillingston formed a regiment here in 1705, and you can read more about this aspect of the pub’s history at The Staffordshire Regiment Museum website here. Or even better go and visit the museum to find out more!

(4) Third storey window? I’m guessing this means what I would call the second floor?

Sources:

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Lichfield: From the Reformation to c.1800′, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 14-24. URL

The Old Pubs of Lichfield, John Shaw

Ferry Cross the Minster

Yesterday, the second of March, was the feast day of St Chad. In 669, Chad founded a monastery near to the site where the church named after him now stands, making Lichfield the new centre of the Diocese of Mercia (it had previously been Repton). Anyone interested in learning more about the life of Chad should read Patrick Comerford’s post here.

Statue of Chad at St Chad’s church, Lichfield

Around this time last year,  I wrote about the history of the well at St Chad’s and a little about the pilgrimage route between Lichfield and Chester. This year once again I found myself possibly following in the footstep of pilgrims, when I took a walk down Bird St.

The latest incarnation of St Chad’s Well

The view from St Chad’s. A question – why was the Saxon church built to house St Chad’s bones and later to become the Cathedral, built over there, and not at the site of Chad’s Monastery and Well?

An alley (or gully or ginnel depending on where you’re from) runs from Bird St, past the George Hotel and then takes a sharp turn towards Minster Pool. In the early fourteenth century it was called Wroo Lane, a name thought to be derived from the Middle English word ‘Wro’ meaning corner. Shortly afterwards, the lane became known as Cock Alley.  According to Thomas Harwood, this ‘new’ name came from a carpenter named Slorcock who once lived there. I’ve done my best to show the route I think the lane took but please also take a look at  it on John Snape’s wonderful 1781 map of Lichfield, which Brownhills Bob very generously shared here on his blog. Although these days it’s probably mostly used as a shortcut to the car park, the Collections for a History of Staffordshire (Volume Six) suggests that this was once an important thoroughfare, leading pilgrims to the ferry which would carry them across the water to the Cathedral.

Cock Alley. Or possibly Wroo Lane.

Looking back up towards Wroo Lane. Or possibly Cock Alley.

How did the pilgrims get over those big railings?

At present, I am unsure whether the existence of a ferry for pilgrim traffic is a theory or whether it has actually been confirmed by evidence. I shall keep looking for this and in the meantime, may I suggest that when walking around Lichfield you keep looking too. Remember, it’s not just buildings that have a history, but also the spaces between them.

 Sources:

‘Lichfield: The place and street names, population and boundaries ‘, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 37-42. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42340

The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield, Thomas Harwood

Collections for a history of Staffordshire Volume 6, Part 2, Willam Salt Archaeological Society