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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Know Your Boundaries

I’d wondered about this curious sandstone block, embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird St, but it wasn’t until I read a newspaper article on the unveiling and dedication of the war memorial that I learnt that it is apparently an ‘ancient’ boundary stone. The article in the Lichfield Mercury, dated October 22nd 1920, describes how a high wall running along Bird St was demolished and replaced by the stone balustrade that now runs along the edge of the garden. Prior to its demolition, the boundary stone was originally incorporated into this wall, but whether that was its original location, or was an earlier effort to preserve the stone, I don’t yet know. It seems to be marked and I’m wondering whether this is deliberate or not (or if I’m imagining it!). Also, just how ancient is ancient?

Boundary stone embedded in lower part of right gate pier of Lichfield’s Garden of Remembrance

Close up of the ‘ancient’ boundary stone

A newspaper report from May 1936 describes how the Cathedral Choristers observed the tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ each Ascension Day. Accompanied by members of the clergy, the boys would start opposite St Mary’s Vicarage and stop off at places were there was, or had been, a well – ‘midway between the pool and Gaia Lane’, the Bishop’s kitchen garden, the Dean’s kitchen garden, Milley’s Hospital, the boundary stone on the Minster Pool Bridge and the Verger’s house in the corner of the Close before finally gathering at the old pump to the North West of the Cathedral, to which water from the Conduit Heads up near Maple Hayes once flowed along a lead pipe. The boys would carry elm boughs, and at each of the stop off points there was a reading from the scriptures and a verse of a hymn was sung. In 1936, the elm boughs were brought inside the Cathedral and laid on the font. An account from 1910 describes how choristers would collect boughs from the Dimbles and then return to the Close where they would decorate the houses before commencing their perambulation. I understand that these days Ascension Day is marked by the choristers singing from the roof. It’s interesting that elm boughs used to play a part in the custom; it makes me think of old traditions related to the Lichfield Bower which takes place in the same month.

‘Beating the bounds’ apparently dates back to a time before maps and was a way of ensuring that the knowledge of where the boundaries of an area, or a parish, lay was passed on. The tradition in The Close seems to have been centred around wells and water, but in other places boundaries were also marked by other natural features.  A Gospel Tree is marked on OS maps of Gentleshaw up until the 1930s and Gospel Oak is a common place name, found all over the country.

On the subject of maps, there’s a great version of John Snape’s 1781 map on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog here. I think that the boundary of the Close, similar to that described above, is shown clearly on this map in the form of a dotted line running around the Close.

There’s a lot more to be said on boundaries and their markers, including the exciting possibility (for me at least!) that if this one is still here, there just might be others preserved somewhere in or around the city. In fact, we may even have located a couple, purpose as yet unknown.

Edit: Just had one thought myself actually! In many places it seems boundary stones and trees were actually hit with sticks (as can be seen here in Oxford) or physically marked in some other way, as people passed by them on their perambulation. Is it possible the marks on our boundary stone are evidence of it being ‘beaten’ over the centuries?

 

 

 

A Dance to the Music of Time

Hot on the hooves of Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride comes another ancient Staffordshire tradition – the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. No one knows just how ancient though. The earliest written record of the dance seems to be from Dr Robert Plot’s ‘Natural History of Staffordshire’ in 1686, yet the reindeer antlers themselves have been carbon dated to around one thousand years ago.

The Horn Dance c.1900. Apparently the splendid costumes are a Victorian invention. The original costumes were made by the vicar’s daughters from old bed curtains! The latest set of costumes were created at the turn of the millenium. On the subject of costumes, I love that the man dressed as a woman is wearing his shirt and tie beneath his!
Image from Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures – Festivals, Ceremonies and Customs. Published by Cassell & Co. London. 1906 (taken from Wikipedia)

Last night, we arrived as the dancers were weaving their way around the back lanes of Abbots Bromley, and so we settled for a while in The Crown and awaited their return to the village green. Outside the crowds were entertained by the Lichfield Morris Men and the Beggars’ Oak Clog Dancers amongst others. Sitting there in the pub I saw horns everywhere – antlers on the village sign, antler inspired light fittings and, sitting on a bench opposite, a man wearing furry antlers. We rejoined the crowd, as the dancers made their way up the High Street, taking up their position outside the Crown to applause. At first it’s the horns that command your attention – they’re enormous (apparently, the largest set weighs over 25lbs). Then gradually your peripherary vision kicks in and you spot the other characters – a man dressed as a woman, the young boy shooting the hobby horse, over and over again and the musicians accompanied by a child playing the triangle. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the Fool and his pig’s bladder…

In ‘England in Particular’, the authors describe the dance as both unsettling and reassuring. I know what they mean. What you’re watching has a significance that is no longer makes much sense to our modern eyes, its symbolism like some long forgotten language. Yet there’s also something very British and familiar about the occasion in the scout tent set up over on the green, selling curry to the beer drinking crowds chatting together beneath umbrellas.

If this is a pagan fertility ritual, it seems to get along well with Christianity these days. The horns are kept in St Nicholas’s church for 364 days a year, and before the horns are taken out on their annual excursion around the village there is a short blessing. The dance is performed outside the Abbots Bromley throughout the year but I understand that a second set of horns are kept for this purpose, these original horns never leave the village. There is a great story in a book on the dance by Jack Brown of the English Folk Dance and Song Society that I bought from the Oxfam bookshop. Apparently, in the 19th century, the dancers took a set of elk horns dancing in Burton and having consumed quite a lot of rum, managed to lose them. Some say the horns were stolen; others say the dancers decided they were too heavy and deposited them into the River Trent so they didn’t have to carry them all the way back to Abbots Bromley!

It’s fantastic to have such a unique tradition taking place just ten miles or so up the road from Lichfield and although I’ve popped a few (rubbish) photos on here to give you an idea, it goes with out saying that there’s nothing like going along and experiencing it for yourself. So, put it in your diary for the next Monday after the first Sunday after the fourth of September 2014!

Note – I could claim that the blurriness of the dancers and musicians on the following photographs is an artistic statement on the passage of time or something, but in actual fact they’re just really BAD photos! Anyway, the chap with furry antlers is on one of them which warrants its inclusion.

Sources:

England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance by Jack Brown

Refusing to Bough Down

I didn’t spend as long as I normally do at the Bower yesterday, but I did wander around the busy streets, catching the end of the procession on Dam St, and I was glad to hear that the day had been a success. Something that I’ve always been interested in is the traditions associated with the event and today I found an interesting story from the 1950s about one of those customs.

At dawn on Bower Day in 1952, some of the male residents of Lower Sandford St were gathering elm branches near to Beacon Farm, on the edge of what is now Beacon Park. Apparently every year, for as long as anyone could remember, the boughs had been cut from the trees and used to decorate the houses in ‘Old San’ as the street was known. However, as the men gathered the boughs, a police officer arrived and instructed them to stop, on the orders of the Town Clerk and the Estates Committee of the City Council, as it had been reported that in previous years the trees had been damaged.

The residents of ‘Old San’ were angry that their ancient privilege was being threatened and sent a message back to the Town Clerk and the Mayor, Cllr. C Bridgeman, that if no further boughs were allowed to be cut, then those that had already been collected would be used to barricade Sandford St and prevent the Bower Procession from entering. As tensions rose, the Town Clerk and the Mayor arrived at the scene and gave their permission for residents to continue collecting boughs, providing that no trees were damaged in the process. The boughs were then used to decorate the houses of old Sandford St along with bunting, balloons and slogans, with prizes awarded for the best decorated properties.  One lady, born in Sandford Street in the late nineteenth century, told the reporter that when she was younger the boughs had been taken from the old brook near the Bowling Green Inn. In her opinion,  “When ‘Old San’ finishes, so has the Bower”.

What’s also interesting is that the incident seemed to awaken a fighting spirit within Sandford St. At the start of June, a committee was formed following a outdoor meeting held on some waste ground in the street. With Mr Frank Halfpenny, the former City and County Councillor, as chair, the committee asked Lichfield City Council to address not only the issues that had arisen during Bower Day, but also other matters affecting them. The wanted Sandford Street to be regularly swept and cleaned, the sites owned by the council on the street, described as being in a ‘neglected and disgraceful condition’ to be ‘cleaned up, fenced in and, at the earliest possible opportunity, built on’ and recreation facilities, such as a playground to be provided in the park. The committee also planned to organise the street’s coronation celebrations for the following year, and to send parcels to local men serving in the forces.

I usually watch the Bower procession from outside the Police Mutual on Queen St, not far from Sandford St. As far as I know, the houses are no longer decorated and I’d be interested to know more about this tradition and the Sandford Street community, who clearly had their own strong identity within the city.

Source:

Lichfield Mercury Archive