Soul Sister

Friend and well hunting expert Pixy Led described Nun’s Well at Cannock Wood as being, “…perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated”, and it was only thanks to his post about the site on his brilliant Holy and Healing Wells blog that this well hunting amateur was able to locate it. Between Pixy’s and my visits, it appears the site has been tidied up considerably and this is my attempt to do the same historywise, purely to satisfy my own curiosity.  It’s much more appealing than sorting out the cupboard under the stairs. Or cleaning for the Queen.

nuns well board

Nun’s Well is a spring rising in a chamber cut from rock with a sixteenth century Tudor style brickwork arch. Legend has it that the well has healing powers, specifically for sore eyes, and takes its name from a nun who was murdered there. Centuries after she was pushed to her death, two farm labourers discovered her earthly remains in the sealed up well and her ghost materialised before them. As Pixy points out on his blog, however, two of the best known works on Staffordshire folklore don’t even mention the well let alone its resident spirit.  I have found a reference in Robert Garner’s 1844 Natural History of the County of Stafford, which also doesn’t mention the ghost story but does offer an alternative explanation of how the well got its name,

“To descend to more recent times we lately visited a spot where one of our early monastic institutions was placed, Redmore, from which the nuns were soon removed to Polesworth because the gay cavaliers riding that way to hunt on Cannock Chase spoiled their devotions. With some trouble we found the solitary quadrangular site not far from Gentleshaw in some low ground embosomed in a wood through which a brook flows now ochrey from the scoriae of an ancient smelting place above and here also is a well considered medicinal and still called the nun’s well”.

It’s still not an entirely satisfactory version of events though (although there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing something described as being embosomed in a wood. Must be the logophile in me).

nunswell sign

There does appear to have to have been a monastic institution near to the well. Records show that in 1141, King Stephen granted land at Radmore or Red Moor to two hermits called Clement and Hervey and their companions. Frequent disturbances from passing foresters, rather than gay cavaliers, interrupted the quiet contemplations of Clement, Hervey and co, causing them to ask Empress Matilda if she could find them somewhere a bit quieter. It’s recorded that she agreed to this on the condition that their religious house be converted to the Cistercian order. It seems the hermits kept their part of the deal, and the retreat became a Cistercian abbey but according to the History of the County of Warwick, the foresters continued to cause problems. As soon as Henry II ascended the throne in 1154, the now Cistercian Monks petitioned him to transfer them to his manor at Stoneleigh. Henry did so and traces of the original abbey can still be found at Stoneleigh Abbey, now a grand country house.

Whether anything of the original abbey remains at Radmore is where things get really messy. Ordnance Survey maps of the area from the 1880s onwards show the site of a priory near to the well (see the 1949 map incorporated in Brownhills Bob’s post on Gentleshaw Reservoir here). According to Walsall place names expert and tricycle rider Duignan this is actually a muck up on behalf of the surveyors who, “… have mistaken furnace slag for ancient ruins (of the abbey)”.  What he found on the site was, “heaps of furnace slag, evidently of great antiquity, with 300-400 year old oak tress standing on and beside the slag”. It seems from the description of the site given by Historic England that that these could mark the site of a medieval bloomery or iron furnace. A medieval moated site also exists in the vicinity and there are suggestions that this is the site of a royal lodge established by Henry II shortly after the monks moved on to pastures quieter. As Staffordshire County Council’s Historic Environment Character Assessment report says, ‘the precise location of the abbey is unknown, but it is believe to have stood near Courtbank Coverts near Cannock Wood where a scheduled moated site and bloomery survive’.

nuns well fence

So, in the area we have a moated site, a hunting lodge, iron working and a short-lived abbey (somewhere) but how and where does the nun fit in to all this? Duignan suggests the name arose as the land was owned by the nunnery at Farewell. I read an interesting line in the History of the County of Stafford’s section on the Abbey at Radmore which says, ‘King Stephen granted Radmore, probably between 1135 and 1139, to Clement, Hervey, and their companions as the site for a hermitage…Bishop Roger de Clinton confirmed this grant and gave the hermits permission to follow any rule they wished and to receive and instruct any holy women who came to them after adopting a rule”. That suggests to me that there may have been holy women here at Radmoor…nuns? Hardly the most watertight of etymological explanations I know but then I don’t think Duignan’s is that convincing either. Is it? Although Nun’s Well is not technically a wishing well, please do feel free to throw in your two pence worth.

nunswell water

 

Sources:

G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Radmore’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), p. 225 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/p225 [accessed 4 March 2016].

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003750

‘Parishes: Stoneleigh’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6, Knightlow Hundred, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1951), pp. 229-240 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol6/pp229-240 [accessed 7 February 2016].

http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/stoneleigh.php

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Elephant Stone

At the end of a long week of exams, assignments and driving backwards and forwards to Wolverhampton, I needed to refresh my tired eyes and mind. Others in my situation may have headed for a spa but I headed for Lichfield bus station. The plan was to jump on the first bus that came, get off a certain number of stops later, and to explore wherever it was that I ended up.

Image (c) Central Buses

Image (c) Central Buses

The first bus to turn up was for Route 66 and, as I was in a fatalistic kind of mood, I took this as a good omen. However, the driver was reluctant to let me buy a day ticket, pointing out that not only did the bus only go as far as Burntwood, it stopped running about 4 o’clock. Not quite the epic journey I was hoping for, so I took his advice and decided to get my kicks on Route 62 instead. It winds from Lichfield to Cannock. More than eleven miles all the way. Well it goes past Sandyway, Pipehill and Boney Hay. And Cannock Wood looked oh so good.  Plus you can change at the bus station for Tamworth. All for £6.20.

I had planned to get off after an arbitrary ten stops but I was enjoying looking out of a window rather than at a screen so much, I stayed on the bus for an hour. As the clock struck two we arrived in Hednesford. On first sight, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d been miraculously transported to Lourdes instead.

Our Lady of Lourdes, Hednesford

Grotto hednesford

hednesford grotto mary

Hednesford’s first Roman Catholic priest, Dr Patrick Boyle, made frequent pilgrimages to the shrine in France.  Concious that many in the Diocese hadn’t a prayer of being able to visit themselves, he conceived the idea of bringing the experience of Lourdes to them but died long before the thirteenth century style church and replica grotto were completed in 1934.

Due to mining subsidence in the area, the concrete church is built on an adjustable concrete raft. Standing alone in the grotto, all I saw was an architectural curiosity, although the floral offerings hint at how much more this place is to others.  Perhaps, if I were to come back in July to join the nine hundred or so pilgrims from across the Archdiocese of Birmingham, or in August for the annual Polish rally, which at one point attracted almost ten thousand people (1), I too would see it in a different light.

For now though, back on the bus and to Cannock and something I feel much less guilty about labelling an architectural curiosity. Meet Khushi.

cannock elephant

Khushi the elephant is a replacement for the vandalised Canumbo (a.k.a Nocky), a fibreglass elephant  commissioned by WH Smith Do-it-All in 1989. No-one seems to know why.  Was it inspired by Walsall’s infamous hippo I wonder? A lady sitting nearby didn’t know either, but she said she thought she knew of a rhinoceros statue in Birmingham. It turned out she was in fact thinking of the Bullring Bull but she did make me wonder what other beasts are lurking out there? I’ve started to draw up a list, and it’s a work in progress, but so far, in Staffordshire alone, we have a surprised looking white cow on a flying carpet, a lion in a pensive mood,  a panther influenced by the geometric forms of Cubism and a bronze stag and hind, won by a woman from Cannock on the Price is Right and donated to the High Court shopping centre in Cannock. Forget the road trip, next time we’re going on safari (2).

Notes:

1) The rally was established in August 1948 by Father Mieczyslaw Bossowski, who I believe came to England with the II Corps at the end of the Second World war and became the resident priest at the Wheaton Aston Polish Resettlement Camp.

(2) That one is especially for you Matt R.

Sources:

http://www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/2014/09/hednesford-pilgrimage/

http://www.polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk/wheatonaston1.htm

http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2009/02/09/elephants-name-is-khushi-little-number/

Shiver Me Timbers

Where there’s an old wooden beam, there’s often a rumour that it originated on an old ship. It’s a bit of folklore that I keep encountering time and time again, even here in landlocked Lichfield and Staffordshire. Back in 2011, I visited St John’s Hospital during the Lichfield Heritage Weekend and heard that the Master’s House, which was originally the canons’ and pilgrims’ hall and enlarged by Bishop Smythe in the late fifteenth century, was built using beams from galleons. On the ghost tour earlier this month, we were told that that wooden beams in an entry running alongside the Walter Smith butcher shop on Market Street came from old ships and when researching the Four Crosses Inn in Cannock for a piece in the Chase Gazette, I once again came across claims that the oldest part the building, dating to 1636, made use of timber from ships.

Alongside butcher shop on Market St. Beams are covered in stripy plastic on this photo unfortunately, but every now and again the alley is open for you to go and take a look...

Alongside butcher shop on Market St. Beams are covered in stripy plastic on this photo unfortunately, but every now and again the alley is open for you to go and take a look…

Last night, a discussion on Twitter about those other two old inn regulars – ghosts and Dick Turpin – moved onto the subject on the use of old ships’ beams and a quick google search revealed yet more old Midlands buildings making the claim including the Ye Olde Gate Inn in the Derbyshire village of Brassington and the appropriately named Old Ship Inn in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Could there be any truth in any of these claims? As someone unfamiliar with the world of carpentry, I was interested to read a discussion between some experts on the matter which you can read here. Just as I was sure that this myth was pretty much busted I clicked on the link in the penultimate comment, which took me here – a website telling the story of the lost Brig Elizabeth Jane, launched in Nova Scotia in 1817 and abandoned off the Yorkshire coast in 1854. Incredibly, the name board and the port of registration board were discovered in a ceiling in Robin Hood’s Bay in 2003 leaving no doubt that this was one case where the rumours were true.

A one off perhaps? It seems not as shortly aftewards I came across the website of the Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire, where the beams, joists and floors are all said to have been constructed from the United States frigate ‘The Chesapeake’. On a slightly gory note, an extract from ‘The Navy and Army Illustrated’ in 1898, included on the  mill’s website, describes the joists as ‘covered with the blood of the men who were killed and wounded in action, and many bullets are embedded in them; in fact a good many of the timbers seem quite soaked with blood’.  You should read the full story on their website here it’s a fascinating place!

Closer to home, I found an article on Graiseley Old Hall in Wolverhampton which says that some of the purlins (now there’s a word I didn’t know existed until today!) in the roof came from old ships. What’s also interesting about this article is that it acknowledges that similar claims are made about many buildings, but that hard evidence to support it only exists in a few and then gives us a possible explanation for this, suggesting that often it could be a reference to the quality of the timber rather than where it came from.

I’d really like to hear of any more examples that people know of where old ships timbers are said to have been used, proved or otherwise.  When it comes to myths and folklore, we shouldn’t always believe everything we hear, but we should definitely listen in the first place. You never know where a story will lead.

 

 

 

Albert and Percy

Ron Myatt of the Great Wyrley Local History Society has been back in touch with the names of the other two members of the Staffordshire Yeomanry pictured here with a young Frank Halfpenny at some time during the First World War.

Frank Halfpenny, later Sheriff and Mayor of Lichfield (left), Albert Handley (centre) and Percy Johnson (right)

In the centre of the photograph is Albert Handley, and Ron has very kindly passed on to me the following information given to him by Albert’s son.

Albert Handley was born in Bridgtown in 1893. He was the second son of Jairus and Elizabeth Handley (formerly from Willenhall) and brother of Charles, Ellen, Ethel and Maud.  The family moved to moved to Landywood (part of Great Wyrley) and Jairus Handley worked in several pits. Albert was educated at Great Wyrley Council School and left aged 14. Afterwards he went to the Evening Institute where he learnt mathematical skills and secretarial techniques. Albert worked in brickyard in Bridgtown before taking a clerical post with Siemens Electrical, Stafford. Although Albert was employed in a ‘reserved occupation’, in 1915 he managed to enlist in the Staffordshire Yeomanry, where he served until 1919.

After mustering at Burton on Trent, the 3rd / 1st Staffs Yeomanry were affiliated to the 12th Reserve Cavalry Regiment at Aldershot where Albert learned to ride horses and was promoted to NCO rank. In 1916, they served in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. During his service, Albert contracted a near-fatal dose of malaria.

Back home, Albert met Winifred Sambrook ,an infant school teacher, and they were married in 1924. Between 1919 and 1949, he was employed as a clerk at a large mine but also took on additional roles including church officer, society steward and Trustee of Wyrley Wesley Methodist Church. Albert also helped to set-up the fund for first Doctor’s Practice, was the founding Treasurer of the Wyrley Branch of the Nursing Association, and set-up a branch of the Ideal Benefit Society collecting subs and making pay-outs.

In 1937, Albert was appointed clerk of the Parish Council which brought with it a large range of duties including opening libraries, supervising burials, responsibility for recreation grounds and tennis courts as well as administrative tasks. In 1949, he became a Magistrate for Cannock and Penkridge Bench in 1939, eventually being elected chair.

During the Second World War, Albert was a founding member of Civil Defence Corps in 1939, who were responsible for recruiting wardens, issuing gas masks, organising training and dealing with the arrival and billeting of evacuees from Margate. In 1949, Albert became a local Government Officer in the Rating Department of Cannock RDC. Albert died in 1975.

The third man in the photo is Percy Johnson, who Ron believes was Lichfield farmer. However, we know nothing more about Percy, and would be grateful to hear from anyone who is able to help.  I’d also be interested to know the story behind this photograph. Why were Frank, Albert and Percy photographed together, and when was the photograph taken?

If you do have any further information on any of the above, please send me an email or leave a comment below, or alternatively you can leave a message for Ron on the Great Wyrley Local History Society guestbook here.

Multi Story Huts

A while ago I wrote about the old scout hut in Leomansley, triggered by the chance discovery of an old girl guides badge in Moggs Lane (does anyone call it by that name these days I wonder? I’m going to try and resurrect it – it’s much better than calling it ‘the lane that runs past Martin Heath hall towards the football pitches’). The hut is believed to have originally been a cadet hut, from one of the first world war training camps on Cannock Chase.  There is a fantastic section on the Staffordshire Pasttrack website regarding the training camps, including a description of the huts themselves. After the war, many were sold off to towns and villages for use as village halls, workshops, and here in Lichfield, a youth club.

Colin Halfpenny sent me two photographs featuring his father, Frank Halfpenny, and other civic dignitaries welcoming the Duke of Gloucester to the hut in Leomansley in 1939. At the time it was being used at the headquarters of the Christ Church Boys Club on the Walsall Rd but was eventually taken over by the 6th Lichfield Scout Group. The hut was replaced by a new building in 2009.

Cllr Frank Halfpenny (the Sheriff of Lichfield), Alderman Tayler (the Mayor) and the Chairman of the Youth Club Committee stand on the steps of the hut with the Duke of Gloucester in 1939.

The Mayor, the Duke of Gloucester, Mrs Ballard, Mr A.N.Ballard (the Town Clerk), the Sheriff (Mr Halfpenny), the Sheriff`s Lady (Mrs Mary Halfpenny)  and the Mayoress

I have also started to read about Brindley Heath, where the abandoned huts of the military hospital were taken over by the West Cannock Colliery Company, providing homes for miners and their families until the 1950s.

Imagine the stories held within the walls of these simple wooden buildings – those of thousands of men, who called them home (possibly for some their last) as they trained for life, and in far too many cases death, in the trenches abroad.  Once peace was restored, there were new chapters in the stories of the huts themselves, with each one put to a new use amongst a different community.  As the centenary of the first world war approaches, I wonder if any of them are still around in our towns and villages, or have they all now been replaced?

With thanks to Colin Halfpenny for the photographs.

Edit: One of the huts may have been used at Snibston in Leicestershire, as a temporary residence for the Vicar whilst he waited for his new vicarage to be built. Also it appears that the memorial hall and men’s club at Glascote, Tamworth was also a former army hut.