Walsall Legends

My husband grew up in the Highgate area of Walsall, where the malty aroma from the local brewery used to hang in the air and the local kids would tell stories about the mysterious ruined windmill. Thought to have been built in the late 1600s to grind corn, Highgate windmill has a fascinating history which you can read more about here in this article by Walsall historian and writer Stuart Williams. If you want to go and have a look yourself, go sooner rather than later. Once spring gets properly underway, it’ll be hard to see the mill for the trees.

Highgate Windmill

Highgate Windmill, Walsall

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Sadly, there’s not even a whiff of brewing in the air at the moment – the Grade II Listed Highgate Brewery hasn’t been operational since 2010 and stands unused behind the locked centenary gates (purchased and installed by the Friends of Highgate Brewery in 1998), its future uncertain at present.

Highgate Brewery

Highgate Brewery

Yesterday, as well as visiting the family, we went to have a look around the Art Gallery and the town. On the way back we passed the pub that we once knew and loved as the Brewery Stores & Vaults. Back in the late 1990s, it was one of the liveliest places in town but now, like the brewery whose name it bears, it stands empty, expect perhaps for the hooded figures and disembodied heads said to lurk in the cellars

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We continued our way back over the limestone hill where the church of St Matthew’s has dominated the Walsall skyline since at least the thirteenth century (although it has only been know by that name since the eighteenth century – it was previously ‘All Saints’). The first time we walked up this hill together, Mr Gomez told me that it was paved with medieval cobbles. I’m not sure if that is true but it’s something that has fascinated me ever since, as has the arched passage on the east end of the church, covered in graffiti and with curious niches on the east side.

As well as this overground passageway, there are supposedly underground tunnels running from here to the White Hart Inn at Caldmore, Barr Beacon and Rushall Hall.  In a history section of the Walsall Council website, there’s a quote from a Mr G of Bath St who in the 1950s said one of the entrances to the tunnels was located at the bottom of some steps of a toilet which once stood on Caldmore Green. He also added that he had been told by some old women that during the reformation, some priests went down the tunnels to escape and were killed after they were filled in.

St Matthew's Walsall

St Matthew’s church, Walsall

Wasall from the Art Gallery.

St Matthew’s Walsall as seen from the Art Gallery.

Medieval cobbles

Medieval cobbles leading up the hill?

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew's

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew’s

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Niches in St Matthews passageway

Niche interest

One of my favourite stories about St Matthew’s and Walsall is one I read recently in a book of Staffordshire folktales.  Apparently, the church was originally supposed to have been built on a meadow at the ‘Churchery’, now known as the Chuckery. However, this was where the fairy folk danced and so, naturally, they objected to the plans and took matters into their own tiny hands, moving the foundations of the new church up the hill to the site where it stands today. In another version of the story, the church was moved by witches who had transformed themselves into white pigs.

We walked up a good appetite in Walsall and so we finished our day at the legendary Hargun’s Sweet Centre on the Caldmore Rd, intending to take some goodies back to Lichfield, although they never actually made it past Walsall Wood in the end. Anyway, what I learned today is not only that you can eat a lot of baklava in a twenty minute car journey, but also that once in a while, it’s good fun to explore what’s on someone else’s doorstep.

Sources

Walsall: Economic history’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part) (1976), pp. 180-208.

http://www2.walsall.gov.uk/History_Projects/Caldmore/A_Walk_Around_the_Green/18.asp

http://www.stmatthews-walsall.org.uk/info/mainhistory.shtml

http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk/TALE-WALSALL-PARISH-CHURCH-FAIRIES/story-20122807-detail/story.html

Staffordshire Folk Tales by The Journeyman

Thirsty Work

My efforts to find out more about the City Brewery (Lichfield) Co were rewarded this week when I came across the work of Alfred Barnard. Between 1889 and 1891, Mr Barnard toured more than 100 breweries recording his visits and research across four epic volumes known as ‘The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland.

Happily, Mr Barnard considered two of our breweries here in Lichfield to be noted – the aforementioned City Brewery Company, and the Trent Valley Brewery Company (which I shall cover in another post). Although by and large, both breweries have disappeared, we can still take a look at these buildings through Mr Barnard’s eyes (though sadly not his tastebuds).

And so to the City Brewery in 1891, seventeen years old and,

‘a stately block of red-brick buildings, five storeys high…..built on the Company’s own freehold land, facing the South Staffordshire Railway, from which a siding has been planned, and will shortly be constructed. Immediately at the back of the brew house there is a small harbour on the Birmingham Canal, together with a wharf and warehouse, so that the brewery possesses every convenience for land and water carriage’.

The malt house (which survives today) is about to be built to the right of the West Brewery Yard and on-site there is also:

– a well, 70 feet deep from where water is pumped up to a reservoir in the roof of the brew house.

– a washing out shed, where the casks are cleaned, next to a cooperage employing four men

–  a horse-chop room (just to clarify this was where food for the horses was prepared!)

– new model stables with six stalls, each with a Staffordshire blue-brick manger and across the yard, the head horse keeper’s house and old stables with eighteen stalls (plus a further three for travellers ‘nags’)

– a dray shed that accommodates twelve drays

–  the  brewery foreman’s house and other cottages for workers behind the cask washing department

–  a store for maturing old ales, a blacksmith’s shop and a carriage house on the wharf

–  general offices near the main entrance, just past the engine-room (with a horizontal engine of fifteen horse power and two Cornish steel boilers).

– a bottling department where ales and stouts are bottled for the firm’s public houses (there is a further bottling store at St Mary’s Chambers in the city).

– the manager’s house with an adjoining two storey building containing a counting-house, cashiers office, a manager’s office and a board-room.

Mr Barnard doesn’t record the names of those who live and work at the City Brewery, together with their families, but of course the census helps us with this (the one below is for 1891, the year of the visit).

As discussed in earlier posts, most of the brewery was lost to a fire in the early hours of an October morning in 1916. After burning for ten hours, all that was saved the malt house and the manager’s house and offices (I think this is on the left of the picture. Today it is divided into three houses). Seventy men lost their job, and possibly some of them lost their homes.

I’ve been thinking about the visual differences of the scene today, but of course the sounds and smells have also disappeared. Would there have been a malty aroma mingling in the air with the smoke from the chimneys, and the trains? The sound of horses hooves and the noise of the engine room? As for a taste of the City Brewery, all that’s left now are the empty bottles that turn up in collections across the world, and so we shall have to take Mr Barnard’s word for it that the East India Pale Ale was ‘pleasant to the taste, bright and invigorating, and well-flavoured with the hop’, that the bitter ale was ‘clean to the palate, of light-specific gravity, sparkling as champagne, and highly suitable for family use’, that the XXX old ales were the most suitable drink for a working man, and the stout, although heavy was wholesome and nutritious. Cheers, Mr Barnard!

Notes

This was Mr Barnard’s follow up to his earlier tour of every whisky distillery in the UK – 162 in all.

The remaining houses and offices together with the malt house can be seen from the Birmingham Rd, next to Magnet.

Huge hat tip to Steve Williams and his blog here as this is where I discovered that the four volumes were available on line.

I have only included a fraction of the information given by Mr Barnard. Anyone who wishes to read the accounts for themselves (there is a lot more detail on the brewing process for example), or to look at some of the other breweries included, can find it here on the Ask About Ireland website

Concrete Evidence

Due to a vague notion I had that canals had to follow a straight line, my previous attempt to follow the route of the Wyrley & Essington canal from the London Rd bridge to Sandfields Pumping Station had not been a resounding success. Determined to find the stretch of the Curly Wyrley (the canal’s nickname derived from the way it, ahem, doesn’t follow a straight line) that I’d missed,  I had a walk along the Birmingham Rd. Near to the Duke of Wellington, half a canal bridge and two modern street names – ‘Wyrley Close’ and ‘Essington Close – confirmed that this had once been part of the route of the canal between Shortbutts Lane and Sandfields.

Canal where?

Essington Close and Wyrley Close to the left as you look at the photo.

Standing in Essington Close looking back up the line of the canal towards the bridge.

In fact, I’d already been over the bridge plenty of times before but just never taken any notice of the clues staring me in the face. My excuse is that my head is always turned the other way, ready to look out for the old Maltings on the other side of the road.

Lichfield Maltings

One of my first friends in Lichfield used to live on the site.  One of our favourite topics of conversation, inevitably, was the history of the building we could see from her house, especially on those occasions when my friend had chatted with one of the employees and was able to regale me with tales of burning buildings, footsteps and orchards.  Through these chats and a bit of reading, we discovered that the malthouse had belonged to The City Brewery Company (Lichfield). In October 1916, a fire destroyed most of the brewery leaving only this building, and the red brick brewery manager’s house and offices (see my earlier post on the fire here). Shortly afterwards, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries took over the site.

What we didn’t appreciate enough at the time is that as we were scouring the archives for events that took place nearly a century ago, history was also happening right there under our noses – in 2004, this was one of only six remaining operational floor maltings in the country.The following year, it closed and the building was eventually purchased by a propery developer. Thanks to a Historic Building Assessment and photographs from urban explorers, the architectural features of the building have been documented. However, I wish we’d have talked to more people and asked more questions and recorded the first hand experiences of people doing a job that would very shortly cease to exist, in a building that would soon no longer be used for its primary purpose. You live and learn….

After standing unused for several years, scaffolding now surrounds the malthouse, and the adjoining modern shed has now gone. This could be an indication that the building’s transformation from industrial to residential use is now underway.  It seems to me that giving new life to an old building like this is a good way to balance the need to protect the past and the need to look to the future.  I hope that wherever possible the old features that tell the story of the building’s old life are retained, as recommended by the Historic Building Consultant’s assessment.

On the opposite side of the road to the Maltings, I followed a drive that lead under a railway bridge to some rusting gates. Until I got home and looked at an old map, I had no idea that this had formerly been a concrete works. Back in 1986, the Domesday project recorded that this was once the site of Bison Concrete. Unlike the canal and the maltings, I can see no reference to the site’s recent history. Maybe the time when we celebrate concrete is still to come…

I think that those of us that don’t have the nerve to explore & photograph the inside of derelict buildings or the necessary funds to pay for the physical restoration of a building, do have another weapon that we can employ in the defence of our history – the ability to listen.

The three places I visited above are all a part of Lichfield’s industrial heritage. On my way over to them, I passed a fourth – Sandfields Pumping Station. David Moore is gaining a lot of support for his campaign to safeguard this overlooked yet important part of our social and industrial history. You can listen to what he has to say by visiting his blog here!

Notes

I think my research could also be described as a bit ‘curly wurly’ as I never seem to be able to resist taking the scenic route instead of going from A to B. When I was on the Domesday site, I read some of the other entries for the Birmingham Rd area and the one that especially caught my eye was ‘Shire Horses – Lichfield’, with an accompanying photograph of said horses emerging from stables on the Birmingham Rd. Does anyone know anything about these in addition to the short description here?

On a final curly wurly note, this tree on the Birmingham Rd looks like it has teeth.  The one next to it doesn’t, so I’m not sure why…

Bark worse than its bite?

Sources:

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/maltings