Far From the Madding Crowd

Once, when Cuthbert Brown was a boy and the circus came to town (sorry, city), one of the elephants died and was buried on Levett’s Fields. Mr Lichwheeld and I had joked that we should organise a community archaeological dig to look for Nelly but with work starting on the demolition of Lichfield’s Fire Station recently, this may prove unnecessary.

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, Levett’s Fields January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Welephant wins 2011 Lichfield Pancake Race. Image from Lichfield Live

Nelly is not the only elephant with links to Lichfield Fire Station. Image from Lichfield Live

In the pre-Friary Road days, the Big Top also used to pitch up at the Bowling Green fields. Presumably at that time the Bowling Green pub was still a seventeenth century timber framed building. The only image of this I can find online is included in the 1732 engraving of the south west prospect of the city, as seen here on Staffordshire Past Track (zoom in and it’s the building in the foreground, beneath the central spire of the cathedral). The pub was rebuilt in the 1930s but the Victoria County History mentions that a clubhouse still in existence in the 1980s may be the same one which existed in 1796. Definitely worth a trip to the pub.

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas' (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas’ (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

One of the best things about looking through old newspapers is that you come across stories that you wouldn’t even think to look for. Whilst searching for more information on the Bowling Green, I came across the following obituary from March 1820.

At Lichfield, aged 67, John Edwards, the Hermit of the Bowling Green in that city. He came to the neighbourhood in the prime of life – a perfect stranger, retiring with disgust or disappointment from other and brighter scenes of life; but further particulars have never transpired respecting his history. The subscriptions of the benevolent have contributed to shed a comparative comfort on his latter days. A short time previous to his decease, he published a short “Essay on Freemasonry”. The medical gentlemen gratuitously attended his during his illness.

So many questions about Mr Edwards arise from this small snippet but I suppose if further particulars respecting his history had not transpired back then, the chance of uncovering anything now is fairly slim. Is it fair to say that Mr Edwards’ attempts to distance himself from society seem to have inadvertently made him into a celebrity of sorts? I wonder what became of his Essay on Freemasonry?

Whatever Mr Edwards’s reasons for preferring a life a solitude, it seems that in the eighteenth century it could be a career choice. Of sorts. Apparently, always on the lookout for opportunities to impress or outdo their friends and neighbours,eighteenth century land owners employed professional hermits to sit and be mystical amidst their fake temples and other follies. I found an example in the form of Mr Powys of Morcham (Morecambe?) near Preston, Lancashire, who advertised an annuity of £50 per annum for life to,

…any man who would undertake to live seven years underground, without seeing anything human, and to let his let his toe and finger nails grow, with his hair and beard, during the whole time.

Board and lodging was provided in the form of apartments said to be, ‘very commodious with a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the occupier pleased, and provisions served from his (Mr Powys’) own table’.  By 1797, it was reported that the ‘hermit’, a labouring man,  was in his fourth year of residence, and that his large family were being maintained by Mr Powys. Just what quality of life must a man with a family have been leaving behind to agree to live like this? If this was about showing off to others, it’s curious that Powys stipulated that his ‘hermit’ was to live without seeing anything human.

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

In August 2002, around two hundred years after this dark appointment, notices appeared in The Guardian, The Stage, The London Review of Books and the Staffordshire Newsletter, advertising for an ‘ornamental hermit’ to take up residence at the Great Haywood Cliffs near the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire, as part of an exhibition called ‘Solitude’. The Shugborough Hermit would be required to live in a tent near to the cliffs (living inside them was deemed too risky) and only had to commit to the weekend of the 21st and 22nd September 2002. Out of  two hundred and fifty enquiries from all over the world,  artist Ansuman Biswas was chosen and I’d love to hear from anyone who visited him at Shugborough that weekend. Mr Biswas went on to spend forty days and forty nights alone in the Gothic Tower at Manchester Museum in 2009, with the aim of becoming, ‘symbolically dead, renouncing his own liberty and cutting himself off from all physical contact”‘.

I think I’d rather run away and join the circus.

Sources:

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Gordon Campbell,  Oxford University Press 2013

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2205188.stm

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Gathering Moss

Walking around the edge of Beacon Park, I noticed a pile of moss covered stones in the undergrowth that I’d never seen before.  To me, they look like part of an old building, possibly pillars? It’s a long shot I know, but does anyone recognise them or have any idea as to where these pillars (if that’s what they are!) may have come from?

Whilst on the subject of ‘parts of old buildings found in unexpected places’, I have to mention my old favourite Fisherwick Hall. Back in January, I wrote an article for the Lichfield Gazette which mentioned that the hall had been demolished, but that parts of it had been reused elsewhere. After lying around for some years covered in moss, the pillars from Fisherwick went to the George Hotel in Walsall – you can read the great post written about the hotel by Stuart Williams of Walsall Local History Centre here. However,  I had no idea what had happened to the pillars, following the demolition of the hotel in the 1930s. Therefore, I was delighted when Paul (the editor of the Lichfield Gazette) told me that someone had contacted him, saying that some years ago he had seen them lying on a patch of ground near to the cricket ground in the Highgate area of Walsall. The gentleman described them as lying in pieces and covered with moss and lichen. Sounds familiar! Coincidentally, the site the gentleman described is a stone’s throw from where some of my relatives live, and so the next time I visited I went to take a look, but I had no luck in finding them. So near, yet so far….

Back to our Beacon Park stones, and someone from the Beacon Street Area Residents’ Association has very kindly said that he will ask the people in the know i.e. the Parks team and the Civic Society if they can shed any light on the matter. In the meantime, he’s left me pondering the fact that parts of the old bandstand and cycle track are also apparently also still around in the park somewhere…

Beacon Park bandstand c.1905
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Take a Bough

I’ve heard about a project called Tree Following via Gary Webb on Twitter, who is following a London Plane at Compton Verney. The project is being run by Lucy Corrander on her Loose and Leafy blog and the idea is to follow the life of a tree or a group of trees, returning at various points in the year to note the changes and what’s going on.

I love how trees reflect the changing seasons but also what they can tell us about our changing surroundings. For example, some like those at Beacon Park, are reminders of an old estate, when the buildings themselves are long gone.  I like the idea that each species of tree has a history, with its own uses and customs and also that there have been trees in the past which have been so important they have given their name to an area, such as the Shire Oak at Walsall Wood.

Which tree(s) should I follow though? Here are some contenders, in and around Lichfield.

My current thoughts are that I’ll choose a tree at Leomansley Wood and also our cider orchard at Fisherwick. I hope the comparison between a mature woodland tree and an orchard sapling will be interesting. Although, as you can see from the photo, the cider trees aren’t much more than sticks at the moment, so we’ll see!

Beacon Place Part Two

Following on from my last post about Beacon Place, here are my initial attempts to discover what’s left of the estate.

Here’s a map of the Beacon Place area from 1921. It shows the the Greenhough Rd lodge, the Beacon St lodge and the Sandford St lodge (although this isn’t indicated, it’s the building near to the PH on Lower Sandford St, in the parcel of land marked 332).  It doesn’t show the Christ Church Lane lodge, but I’ve covered this elsewhere anyway. Apart from the Sandford St Lodge, which I think would have been located near to Bunkers Hill car park, the lodges are still in existence. A lot of the trees are also still there, the line running down from the icehouse to Christ Church is still very much in evidence. The fish ponds also remain of course.

As we know the mansion no longer exists, and houses were built on the area. I think it was located somewhere in the region of Seckham Rd. What’s interesting, although I suppose it makes sense, is that the new roads in this area  seem to follow the line of the old carriage drives shown on the 1921 map. For example, if you compare the google map* below, the route of Swinfen Broun Rd is similar to the that of the carriageway from the Greenhough Rd lodge. Beaconfields seems to follow the line of the carriageway from the Beacon St lodge.

I think that the icehouse shown on the map is located between the Shaw Lane carpark and the pavilion near to the playground, where there is a definite bump in the ground which seems to correspond with the map. It doesn’t come over particularly well in the photograph unfortunately, so the next time you’re in Beacon Park, you’ll have to go and have a look yourself!

The footpath marked next to it on the map is also still in existence.

I think part of the estate’s boundary walls are between Beacon Mews and Beaconfields, on Beacon St.

There are also some walls running alongside Shaw Lane. I wonder what that gap in the wall was for? I should have taken a better picture of it!

So, these are my findings so far. I’m hoping there will be more. The map shows a couple of other buildings (e.g.two fairly near to Christ Church, some near to where the ice house), so I’d be interested to know what these were. 

If anyone has anything to add (or if I’ve made any mistakes – I’m not great with maps!), please let me know. Oh and if any one wants to see any other bits of the 1921 Lichfield map, get in touch.

*just a quick HT to Pastorm as that’s where I heard about scribblemaps from

The Lost Estate of Fisherwick

I’m really enjoying taking part in Pastorm, a new collaborative history experiment created by Mark of Tamworth Time Hikes. Here’s a link to the site, which explains exactly what Pastorm is and what it hopes to achieve.

Horseshoe carved into Fisherwick Hall gate pier

My contributions so far have focused on the Fisherwick Estate, which  was purchased by Arthur Chichester, 5th Earl of Donegall (later to become the first Marquess of Donegall), in 1761.  With the involvement of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, he remodelled the grounds and replaced the ‘fine old timbered and gabled’1  hall from the 16th century with an extravagant new mansion which left some visitors ‘at a loss whether most to admire the beauty of its proportion, or the elegance of its embellishments’2.

After the death of the Marquess, the estate passed to his second son, Lord Spencer Chichester.  From what I understand, Chichester could not afford to keep the estate and in 1808 it was put up for sale. Furniture, artwork and even some of the building itself were auctioned off. One of the items sold was a virginal belonging to Queen Elizabeth I3 and the portico of the house itself was eventually found a new home, at The George Hotel in Walsall (now also demolished)4.

The Hall was demolished by its new owner, Richard Howard, in around 1814 and what was left of the estate was split up. Today, the remnants are scattered across Fisherwick and they’re being documented over on Pastorm, where there are photographs and some more information. There’s the Walled Garden & Orangerybridges, a pair of gate piers covered in carvings, and the stables, a ha-ha and part of the estate’s wall boundary.  It’s a bit like doing a treasure hunt! On the subject of treasure, take a look here at the gold ring with a mermaid seal that someone found in one of the fields around Fisherwick.

There is still a whole lot more to discover about Fisherwick, from the Iron Age right up until the present day. If anyone has anything to contribute on this or wants to take part in the Pastorm project in a different way, here’s how to get involved.

 Sources:

  1. The Natural History of the County of Stafford by Robert Garner
  2. A Companion to the Leasowes, Hagley and, Enville with a sketch of Fisherwick
  3. The New Monthly Magazine, Vol 4 1815
  4. History of the Borough & Foreign of Walsall by E L Glew

Townships: Fisherwick with Tamhorn’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 237-252.

The Historic Gardens of England: Staffordshire by Timothy Mowl and Dianne Barre