Crime Scenery

I know. It’s been a while. You don’t know what I did this summer but I’d quite like to confess. There have been visits to gibbets, wells, shrines, mausoleums, derelict churches, ruined abbeys, tunnels and places with names which sound a bit rude. It’s less about serious history and more about a series of stories told by the landscape that surrounds us. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear them (especially over the sound of my friend Jacky eating crisps), sometimes they shout in your face via an interpretation board funded by the parish council.  If you’re sitting comfortably*, then I’ll begin by sharing** evidence from some of the crime related activities we’ve been getting up to.

*unlike another friend Eddie the time we visited an old priory and had to stick him in the back of a van
**unlike Jacky with her crisps

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Katie. When she grew up she wanted to be Mavis Cruet from Willo the Wisp. For a short while, she lived in Coleshill in North Warwickshire and almost everyday she’d walk past the town’s pillory. At the time she didn’t realise that it was a rare example combining three methods of corporal punishment i.e. stocks, a pillory AND a whipping post, and was last used in 1863, but she was curious all the same.

coleshill-pillory-michael-garlick

Coleshill Pillory by Michael Garlick from geography.org.uk http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Many years passed and in August 2016,  Katie was visiting her parents in Stone in Staffordshire when she turned off too early towards Hilderstone. This was in no way down to her lack of navigational skills, there was a tree obscuring the ‘Hilder’ bit of the sign. Around the corner was a patch of grass with a set of stocks.

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Despite extensive research (doing a google search), she couldn’t find any information on them. Katie hadn’t grown up to be Mavis Cruet, but she had continued to be curious. How many more sets of stocks were there around the country? Had anyone ever recorded them? Who had been publicly humiliated and punished here and what were the reasons? Our towns and cities are filled with monuments to the so-called great and good of society. Are these our monuments to those considered petty and bad who lived on its fringes? And so, after musing over these thoughts with friend Patti who already had a knowledge of and interest in this area, they decided to set up a discussion group called ‘Offending Histories’, with the aim of finding remaining physical evidence of crime and punishment across the Midlands and telling the sort of stories in which no one lives happily. Ever after or otherwise.

In just a month, we’ve already started to record a fascinating range of sites and objects. Here are some samples of the more local examples.

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a Scold's Bridle or brank on display. There's an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here - http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/…/object-of-the-mo…/). Of particular interest is the following reference,

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a scold’s bridle or brank on display. There’s an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here. Of particular interest is the following reference, “In 1789, the brank was used in Lichfield. A local farmer enclosed a woman’s head “to silence her clamorous Tongue” and led her round a field while boys and girls “hooted at her” “Nobody pitied her because she was very much disliked by her neighbours.”

Outside St Michael's church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word 'hanged' appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others who were executed and buried e.g. John Wilson Sept 23rd 1583 and John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others e.g. John Wilson on Sept 23rd 1583 and, John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door in Elford church, dating to circa 1450AD. By touchin the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time. If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book 'Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages' tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who 'killed the gaoler's attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church'. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church'. Another example comes from Colton History Society - in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl; he fled to the church and took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was abolished 1623.

At St Peter’s in Elford, Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door dating to circa 1450AD. By touching the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time (this seems to have been forty days which is a nice biblical number) . If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book ‘Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages’ tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who ‘killed the gaoler’s attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church’. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church’. Another example comes from Colton History Society – in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl and fled to the church where he took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was officially abolished in 1623.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attemping to murder his step- daughter. Massey's headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attempting to murder his step- daughter. Massey’s headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

Unable to find much on this pillor outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley, but it does appear to have been relocated here at some point.

Pillory outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley. Appears to have been relocated here at some point as not shown on early 19thc photographs of the pub

It is a dark subject at times but there are lighter moments too. Currently providing wry amusement is the question of how, and indeed why, was a seventeenth century cucking stool stolen from the church of St Edward at Leek? A meta-criminal mastermind at work? It’s very much an ongoing exploration and if you are interested or better yet, have something to contribute, and aren’t offended by an element of gallows humour, please do join our Offending History group here

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Cell Mates

The Lichfield Discovered gang will be back at the old Gaol Cells at Lichfield Guildhall this coming Saturday (21st February 2015) between 2pm and 4pm, to resume our quest to record the graffiti left behind by prisoners. There’s plenty of it, but we’re up against the ravages of time and liberal applications of varnish. We did manage to pick up one definite name on our last visit. John Lafferty who, judging by the reports in the Lichfield Mercury, appears to have been a serial offender from Sandford St in the late nineteenth century, scratched his name into one of the cell doors along with the words ‘7 days’, presumably the length of his stay…on that occasion.

Gaol Graffiti 1

Lafferty graffiti

The cells officially reopen to the public in April, and will then be open every Saturday between 10am and 4pm until September.  Since 2012, over 7,000 people have visited and in order to continue to be able to give people access to this part of Lichfield’s history, Joanne Wilson, the city’s Museum and Heritage Officer, is recruiting a team of volunteers to welcome visitors to the cells, keep a record of visitor numbers, answer questions and provide information. You don’t need any previous experience just an interest in heritage, enthusiasm and the ability to smile when you hear, ‘You’re not going to lock us in, are you?’ for the twenty-seventh time that day. Each volunteer session usually lasts around three hours, but dates and times are flexible and you can do as much or as little as you are able to. It’s a great opportunity to get involved in the city’s history and to share it with all kinds of people – I volunteered a couple of years ago and welcomed local people, wedding guests, day trippers, and even someone who’d worked at the Guildhall for years without realising what was behind the red door at the end of the corridor.

Fifty shades of varnish

If you would like to know more about volunteering, please contact Joanne on 01543 264 972 or via email at sjmuseum@lichfield.gov.uk. Alternatively, pop into the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum on Breadmarket St. You are also very welcome to join us on Saturday. And yes, we promise not to lock you in.

 

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!).

Lichfield Law

Lichfield’s old gaol is open to the public once more, allowing us to see how ‘justice’ was administered in the past, and read about some of those on the receiving end of it.

I took a few photos but to get a true feel of the place you really need to visit these ‘…cells, whose echoes only learn to groan’, as Erasmus Darwin put it. 

This is a thought provoking part of Lichfield, tucked away at the back of the Guildhall.

The cells open every Saturday until the end of September from 10am to 4pm. To find out more call 01543 264972 or email sjmuseum@lichfield.gov.uk.  There’s no admission charge (although you are likely to hear at least one person quipping about having to pay to get out).