Hard Labour

Gnosall’s lock-up dates to 1832 and was designed and built by local architect James Trubshaw of Great Haywood. It’s one of only four remaining in Staffordshire (1). Originally it stood at the junction of High Street, Brookhouse Road and Stafford Street but in the 1960s, Staffordshire County Council suggested that the building be moved to the county museum at Shugborough in order that the junction could be widened. Understandably, the Gnosall WI were keen that the lock-up remain in the village and set about securing a piece of land where it could be re-erected. As if to prove the council’s point about the road being a bit narrow, a lorry ran in to it in 1969 but fortunately didn’t cause enough damage to prevent it being rebuilt on its current site on Sellman St in 1971.

Gnosall lock-up

Gnosall lock-up

Why was the lock-up built in Gnosall in the first place?  The English Heritage Listing says ‘…as a result of rising unemployment and low wages, Gnosall was plagued by unrest and poaching…. with the threat of the Swing Riots, a widespread uprising by agricultural workers in southern England, spreading northwards, it was decided to build a lock-up’. In Stafford Borough Council’s Conservation Appraisal of the area, they attribute it to ‘rising unemployment, poaching and agricultural riots in the south’.

The arrival of canal navigators in the village may also have influenced the decision to build a lock-up.  In November 1829, Aris’s Birmingham Gazette reported that two thousand labourers employed on the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal were living in the village (2). The Gazette suggested that the navigators were responsible for a spate of sheep and poultry thefts in the area and also reported that they ‘advanced from acts of midnight depredation to proceedings of a tumultuous and riotous description in the open day’. The most serious incident that I can find involving the navigators at Gnosall took place in March 1830 when it was reported that a labourer working on the canal was attacked in the Horseshoes pub at Gnosall by two men described as ‘navigators’, as they tried to steal his watch. A judgement of death was recorded against the prisoners, but their lives were spared (2). Apparently, these proceedings so alarmed the inhabitants of Gnosall and the neighbourhood that they applied for the appointment of a large body of special constables and were also ‘desirous that a small military force be stationed in the parish’.

Whilst some navigators may have found themselves on the wrong side of the law at times, the Truck System operated by some of their employers was nothing short of criminal. According to a report in the Staffordshire Advertiser in February 1830, ‘none of his Majesty’s subjects are more imposed upon by the infamous ‘Truck System’ than these said ‘navigators’ who are ostensibly earning large wages under their gaffers but instead of money they receive a ticket to a Tommy (3) shop where they are charged 8d per lb for cheese (which they might purchase with money in Stafford Market for 4d) and bacon, butter, beef, bread and coffee at extravagant prices. The master of the Tommy shop returns the gaffer five percent on the gross amount of his monthly bill’.

Sometimes it was not crime but death which brought the names of the navigators to the pages of the local press. Richard Barnett was injured by a quantity of earth falling on the lower half of his body and died as he was being conveyed home on a cart. In December 1830, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported on ‘The Navigator’s Funeral’. James Wheeler was helping to cut a tunnel through the solid rock when he fell to the bottom of Cowley Quarry in Gnosall and later died of his injuries.  One hundred of his colleagues each contributed one shilling to ensure he had a decent burial and when they discovered his coffin had already been nailed shut, demanded the lid be removed to check nothing was amiss.  Six of the men were under-bearers and the wives of six men supported the pall. Six overseers of the works followed as chief mourners and behind them came one hundred fellow navigators, two abreast. The report noted that whilst the mourners were not wearing black, they were decently attired and looked clean and respectable. The women wore their brightly coloured clothes, the men wore smock-frocks. During the burial, some of those assembled at the graveside expressed anxiety about the security of the corpse and assisted the sexton in filling up the grave. Afterwards, the mourners held a wake at the Roe Buck and the Advertiser expressed sorrow that many of them had stayed out until late and ‘finished up the solemnities of the day with a fight’. However, it also commended the navigators for their praiseworthy practice of not only subscribing towards the funeral expenses of their colleagues but of also clubbing together something out of their wages every week to support the sick amongst them.

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire  © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We are all familiar with the canals that run through our towns and villages, but what do we really know about the men that worked on the Shroppie in Gnosall and elsewhere?  Where did they live? Did they rent rooms or live in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the village? One of the newspaper reports shows that the men were accompanied by their wives, but what role in the community did these women play? Did any stay on after the completion of the canal? How much of what appeared in the papers was based on fact and how much was based on rumour and reputation? The navigators are part of our history but for the most part we seem to have cast them in a peripheral role as hard-working, hard-drinking, trouble-making outsiders. We need to dig deeper than that.

Notes

(1) The others can be found at Alton, Stafford and Penkridge. References to other lock-ups in Staffordshire appear in documents and newspaper reports but without further research it’s unclear whether these refer to purpose built structures such as those at Gnosall, or rooms in other buildings used as lock-ups. I understand that sometimes rooms were attached to public buildings such as the town hall and in other places there were rooms in some public houses which were used as lock-ups. This is not to be confused with lock-ins.

(2) I understand that this seemingly confusing sentence handed out by the judge related to the Judgement of Death Act 1823, where judges were given the discretion to pass a lesser sentence on the two hundred or so offences which carried a mandatory death sentence but still had to record a sentence of death.

(3) Tommy was a word for food.

(With thanks to Cllr Kenneth Ingram, Norman and Sheila Hailes and the other residents of Gnosall for their warm welcome and for showing us around the village on such a cold and damp day, More to follow!).

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Blue Sunday

My second ‘starting off at pub, and exploring the surrounding area’ type walk of the week, but this time with real life swans with just the one neck.

The sunny beer garden at the Red Lion was busy and I couldn’t help but feel that those who chose to remain inside the pub were missing out.  They were, and it wasn’t just the just the sun but also the wonderful sight of a pair of swans gliding down the canal with their eight cygnets. At one point the young ones were startled by a barking dog on one of the moored boats and darted back to huddle around one of their parents.

We began our walk by crossing the Lichfield Road Bridge (aka the Tummy Bridge in my house) to get to the towpath on the opposite side of the canal to the Red Lion. The next bridge along is the Hopwas School Bridge. As the name suggests it is near to the village school, named after founder Thomas Barnes. A lovely example of the local lad made good story, Thomas is said to have been abandoned as a baby, and discovered in a barn by villagers who gave him a surname to represent his humble beginnings. Educated and cared for by the villagers, Thomas became a successful London merchant. Had I walked a little to the right of the school, I would have seen the original schoolmaster’s house with a plaque reading ‘This house was built at the charge of Mr Thomas Barnes native of this place and a citizen of London in the year of our Lord 1717 for the dwelling of a person to teach the children of this village to read English’.

Instead, we kept on walking under the bridge and along the tow path. Something I did wonder about but couldn’t think of any explanation for at the time was the small door in the bridge itself. After doing a bit of post-walk googling it seems it might be a storage place for stop planks, used to block off part of the canal when maintenance work needs to be carried out. I think.

There was also some machinery on the other side of the tow path that looked interesting but again, I’m not quite sure of its purpose.

This, however, I did recognise to be one of the well documented pillboxes that stand in this area, defences against an invasion that thankfully never came.

Growing alongside the pillbox was a hint of what was to come in those infamous and ancient woods about which I’ve heard so much but seen so little, only ever passing by in the car. I’m pleased to say that Hopwas Woods lived up to my expectations, with a display of bluebells that put even my beloved Leomansley Wood in the shade. I attempted to capture it in photos, although they could never do it justice.

From then on I saw blue everywhere – the boats, the sky over the distant towers of Tamworth, a piece of pottery by the side of the canal and, after a big lunch and this short walk, a hammock at the water’s edge that looked very inviting indeed….

 

Tow Bone

As I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen, I went to Manchester at the weekend. One of the highlights (or should that be lowlights?) was a tour beneath one of the city’s warehouses to see the remains of the Manchester and Salford Junction canal.

Standing in the canal! Tow path to the left.

I’m not going to say any more about it,  writing about a place 82 miles away is stretching it even for me (but for anyone interested, there’s some more of my photos and a bit about the  experience here). So, I’ll say a bit about the Lichfield canal instead…

I imagine most people know that there is an ongoing project being carried out by the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust and you can read about and see photographs of the sections of the Lichfield Canal that are already under restoration on their website. A while ago, I was at the bridge on the London Rd, and decided to walk home following the route of the disappeared canal, down to Sandfields. I know there was a section of canal here, because I had read about it in a post Annette Rubery did about Sandfields Pumping station. Here are some photos of the walk, featuring one of my favourite things – bits of old brick hinting at a trace of something long gone!

I think somewhere around here was Gallows Wharf. The gallows were apparently located somewhere near to the Shell Garage on the London Rd.

 

The obvious route of the canal finished about here on Shortbutts Lane.

Then I mistakenly went up Fosseway instead of taking a right onto the Birmingham Rd and lost the canal route altogether but I did find a nice plaque!

Plus some interesting but I think non-canal related bricks at the junction of Fosseway and Shortbutts Lane with the Birmingham Rd.

I knew that if I got to Sandfields Pumping Station, I’d manage to pick the canal back up!

I noticed on an 1834 map of Lichfield that the canal in this area passed something called ‘The Bone House’. The county history says ‘There was a bonehouse evidently on the north side of the Wyrley and Essington Canal west of Chesterfield Road by 1806. The miller, Thomas Wood, was ordered that year to stop production following a complaint by the vicar of St. Mary’s that the works was ‘a noisome and offensive building and a great nuisance to the inhabitants of the city’. He was still in business in 1818 and the bonehouse remained there in 1836′.

I imagine it was used to grind down animal bones to make fertiliser, but if anyone knows any different, please let me know!

The idea of exploring the impact that the presence of water had on the surrounding landscape is something that really interests me. I think walking alongside our streams and canals, around our pools and millponds gives you the chance to look at a places from a different perspective. Next time though, I might take a map!

Sources:

Lichfield: Economic history’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield(1990), pp. 109-131