A Lichfield Tragedy

Years ago, when I first moved to Lichfield, I went on the ghost tour around the city. One of the stories we were told was that of a Catholic family who died in a fire at their home on Breadmarket St. There was apparently an issue regarding burial because of their religion and, unsurprisingly given the nature of the tour, it was said by some that their presence was still felt at the building in some way.  Recently, this story came up again when I was chatting to a colleague. A book about ghosts happened to be nearby and caused our conversation to turn to the supernatural. The colleague in question mentioned the story, wondering if there was any truth in it.

I searched the newspaper archive, and found that the story was essentially true.  I’m not going to transcribe it, as I personally think it’s too graphic and upsetting. However,the facts are that in January 1873 there was a fire at the Breadmarket Street premises of a Lichfield clock and watch maker. Three generations of a family lost their lives and their bodies were laid out on the pavement before being taken to the Guildhall where a Catholic Priest read the burial rites. The family were then taken directly to the graveyard at St Michaels where the Rev J Sejeantson carried out a burial service – they were not taken inside the church. There are reports that no rescue effort had been made, as initially it was thought that the family has already escaped.  The Mercury reports that everyone was at a loss what to do. According to the County History, it was this tragedy that led to the council taking over the responsibility for fire fighting in the city, buying an engine and establishing a brigade, with a building in Sandford Street being used as a fire station.

I am interested in the question as to whether there is any value in ghost stories beyond the obvious ‘entertainment factor’. The mention of ghosts and haunted places can cause the rolling of eyes and mutterings of, ‘There’s no such thing’. Perhaps there’s not, but does that mean that these stories have no interest for us?  If we look beyond the shadowy figures and disembodied footsteps in such tales, can we find something real? Does telling these stories in this way ensure that otherwise forgotten people and events are remembered or is it just an excuse to be ghoulish?

 

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Trading Places

In June 1945, local historican Mr Jackson contributed an article to the Lichfield Mercury in which he shared his memories of the shops and businesses that surrounded him as a young boy growing up in the city during the 1870s. I’ve summarised the article below so settle yourself down with a bottle of herb beer and a bag of toffee nobs and have a read!

In Breadmarket St, Mr Bartlam had a tinsmith business and Mr Marshall ran a dairy in the premises next to the old watchmakers and jewellers owned by Mr Corfield. Mr Corfield’s shop burnt down in 1872 – a tragedy that resulted in the entire Corfield family losing their lives (1). In 1872 there were three breweries – Griffith’s, the Lichfield Brewery Co. and Smith’s on Beacon St (the City Brewery and the Trent Valley Brewery came later). Mounsden and Sons was a wine and spirit business, according to Mr Jackson, one of the oldest in the city. There was Mr Nicholls, a photographer who also had a fancy goods shop on the site of what was to become the Regal Cinema (but has since been the Kwik Save and a nightclub, with plans to turn it back into the Regal Cinema again!).

Regal Cinema Lichfield. Late 1960s? Taken from Gareth Thomas’s Pinterest site http://pinterest.com/FieldOfTheDead/old-photos-lichfield/

A little shop in Tamworth St was kept by the Misses Wilcox who sold fancy goods and toys. Mr Jackson remembers that the shop was well below the pavement (why would this be?) and stocked everything from pins to rocking horses! He recalls buying yards of elastic for making catapults, along with marbles, tops and hoops.

Mr Young, a whitesmith, lived in the old Frog Lane School House and his workshop was in the same street. There were several ironmongers including Mr Crosskey on Market St, Sheriff of Lichfield in 1863 and Mayor in 1868. Next to the old Victoria Nursing Home at 15 Sandford St was Mr Tricklebank’s tin-ware business.

On Market St, was Mr Caldwell’s hardware business (Frisby’s Boot and Shoe store in 1945).  Over on Church St, Mr Platt made rope, twine and string (Mr Jackson believes he was the only one in the district at the time) and C W Bailey had an agricultural implement depot.  Blacksmiths were in demand – Gallimore on Lombard St, Mr Salt on Sandford St, Mr Sandland on Beacon St (later taken over by Mr Goodwin who, as you may remember from a previous post featuring Mr Jackson’s memories of Beacon St, was said to have shod a dancing bear).  Apparently, the smithy on Beacon St was the oldest in the city, dating back to the mid 1800s.

I believe that this building on Lombard St was once a blacksmith’s forge.

Wheel wrights producing traps, carts and wagons and well as the wheels to put on them could be found on Church St (Mr Davis) and Beacon Hill (Mr Horton).

This advert for John Simms shows that at some point the business moved to Church St. Image taken from Gareth Thomas’s http://pinterest.com/FieldOfTheDead/

John Simms had his mineral water works on Stowe St opposite St Chad’s School, and Mr Jackson remembers that when he was a pupil at this school in 1869, nearly every other cottage in Stowe St sold bottles of home made herb beer during the summer (was this actual proper beer or more like the ginger beer of Enid Blyton books?). Perhaps of even more interest for the little ones were the sweet shops – ‘Suckey’ Blakeman and ‘Suckey’ Perry in Market St and Mr Giles on Gresley Row with his ‘super’ toffee nobs.  When Mr Jackson moved up to the Minors School on the corner of St John St and Bore St, he recalls taking it in turns with his fellow students to fetch not just mere ‘super’ but ‘luxury’ toffee nobs from Miss Hicken’s (and later Miss Hobby’s) shop in St John St opposite the back entrance to the school.

Cities are constantly changing places. Even though my Lichfield memories only stretch back as far as the beginning of the 21st century (with the exception of one family day trip to Beacon Park in the 1980s) a lot has changed even in that short space of time with shops and businesses coming and, as is all too often the case these days, going. Just last week the Greenhill Chippy shut. A couple of years ago my friend and I were heading to the Duke of York when we got talking to a man who was passing through Lichfield on a long journey he was undertaking on foot. He didn’t explain why, and for some reason it didn’t seem right to ask him. He hadn’t any money and didn’t ask for any, but did accept a portion of chips from the Greenhill fish shop. I often think of him, and what his story may have been when passing by there. Anyway, my point is that places have memories attached to them and I think it’s important to record them, just as Mr Jackson did. There’s some great stuff being shared on the Lichfield Facebook group and some wonderful old photos on Gareth Thomas’s blog. For a much more in depth look at the shops and businesses of Lichfield, I know that there is a great book “Trades of a City: Lichfield Shops and Residents from 1850” by JP Gallagher, (although having only borrowed copies, if anyone can point me in the direction of where to purchase my own, I’d be grateful!). I think it would be brilliant to do some walks where instead of being led by a guide, people have a stroll around the streets together sharing memories and stories with each other. Until then, if anyone can identify any of the locations in Mr Jackson’s reminisces please let me know!

(1) This is a sad but interesting story in itself and I will cover it in a separate post.

Source: Lichfield Mercury 8th June 1945

Co-operation

On the corner of Bore St and Breadmarket St is a building that I’ve never paid much attention to before. However, after hearing that someone carrying out some work there in the 1970s had uncovered a dolphin mosaic, I thought I’d fish a bit deeper into the building’s history…

The someone in question was Frank Clarke, a regular contributor to the fabulous Facebook group ‘You’re probably from Lichfield, Staffs if…..’. Frank found the mosaic under rotting floorboards when carrying out renovation work there in the 1970s. According to Frank, the mosaic was concreted over and may still be there to this day. Unfortunately, it seems that due to practicalities (involving concrete and money!) it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.

What we do know though is that the Dolphin Inn once stood on the site, demolished in 1912 and replaced by the current building in 1913 by local builders JR Deacon to house the Walsall and District Co-operative Society Ltd Branch No.13. You can still see where the lettering for this ever so catchy name used to be, as shown in all its glory here, on the Staffs Past Track site. Burtons were the most recent occupiers, but they left in March this year, leaving the property empty. (1)

Built in 1913, this was once the Co-op, more recently Burtons.

According to John Shaw and his now legendary book, The Old Pubs of Lichfield, the Dolphin is first listed in 1818. However,after finding out that the original building on the site was timber framed, dating back to the 16th century, I was hoping to find out something about the building’s earlier uses. After reading the obituary of Rev John Kirk (d.1851),  it seems that prior to becoming an inn, the building had been occupied by a baker, with some of the upper rooms being used as a Roman Catholic chapel created in 1801.(2)

Rev Kirk had been the priest at the chapel at Pipe Hall from 1788 to 1793, where Catholics in Lichfield had previously worshipped. When this chapel was closed following the sale of the property to a non-Catholic he was asked to return to Lichfield as the resident priest at the new chapel. However, Kirk found the location and conditions far from ideal – the sanctuary was apparently directly above the baker’s oven and Kirk wasn’t happy about living in such close quarters with the baker and his family. By 1803, Rev Kirk had built a new chapel dedicated to St Peter and St Paul in Upper St John St.  Due to religious sensitivities, the chapel was originally designed to look like a dwelling house, but 1834 a turret and a new entrance was added, and the name changed to Holy Cross. The congregation was relatively small, but numbers were often boosted by those passing on their way to London and French Prisoners of War.

Holy Cross, Lichfield.
Source: Dennis Blenkinsopp (http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/43370)

Back to the mosaic, which started all of this off! You would have to assume that its depiction of a dolphin is a reference to the name of the Inn. No great mystery there (although I would like to know why that particular name was chosen for a Lichfield pub!). What is more of a puzzle is how the mosaic came to be in the new building. Was it rescued during the demolition of the old one? Was it created to reference the history of the building that previously stood on the site? Or was the previous building not fully demolished, just significantly altered? I don’t know, and it seems probably never will.

I’m very grateful to Gareth Thomas for bringing the matter to the attention of the experts at Lichfield District Council, and also to the Civic Society for making enquiries as well. I think it’s great that members of the facebook group, the Civic Society, the council and even me have all been able to contribute to the discussion. This is how it should be, and I would like to see people working together more in the future, building on the great work that Gareth has done to bridge the gap between council and its residents, not least by making historic photographs and documents available through his own blog, and elsewhere.

I understand that talks are ongoing, however, the general feeling at present seems to be that without further evidence, the cost and disruption arising from trying to retrieve the mosaic (if indeed it has survived the last forty years) could not be justified. A shame, but for now it seems we shall have to let sleeping dolphins lie….unless anyone out there knows any more?

Edit 12/5/2013 Just reading about the opening of the Co-op. Apparently the builder, Councillor Deacon handed the chairman of the Co-op a walking stick made from one of the wooden beams of the old Dolphin Inn, which is quite a nice little addition to the story. No mention of a mosaic yet though 😉 

Notes

(1) Burtons previously had a branch on Market St, where you can still see the two foundation stones commemorating the opening by two of business founder Montague Burton’s sons. The post I did on this ages ago is here 

(2) So that takes us back to 1800-ish. Still three hundred years or so of the building’s history to account for though!

Sources:

Thanks to Frank Clarke for allowing me to share the story of his discovery here.

The Old Pubs of Lichfield, John Shaw

Catholic Staffordshire 1500 – 1850, M R Greenslade

The Gentlemans Magazine Volumes 191 – 192

Lichfield: Roman Catholicism and Protestant nonconformity’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 155-159

http://www.staffspasttrack.org.uk/