The Depths of Winter

Something happens to me once the clock strikes 12 on 25th December.  Maybe it’s a response to the sugar rush that comes from stealing the kids’ selection boxes, but my thoughts turn away from those Christmas lights to the darker side of local history.

Ooops

I always take my ghost stories and legends with a decent pinch of salt and if they’re served with a measure of good humour too, so much the better. As such, I was delighted to discover a story in the Lichfield Mercury from Friday 2nd September 1932, called ‘The Haunted Secret Passage of Lilleshall’.

In what sounds like my ideal night out, a group of archaeologists and diviners congregated in a candle lit vault next to the so-called dungeon at Lilleshall Abbey. As they waited to hear if diggers had located an underground tunnel, ‘the sounds of the shovels and picks ‘awoke eerie echoes in the leper’s cell above’.  The reason for the gathering, according to the BBC’s Domesday Reloaded site, was that in 1928 a caretaker and his family had moved into a cottage on the site and heard ghostly moaning from beneath the Abbey. At first, they attributed the sounds to the men working at Lilleshall Colliery. However, when it was discovered that the mine didn’t extend as far as the Abbey, and the son reported seeing a shadowy figure and the sounds of the pages of a book being turned, they began to suspect a more unearthly cause. A £50 prize was promised by the estate agent to anyone who could locate the subterranean passage the noises were believed to be coming from and people began turning up to try and solve the mystery in a variety of idiosyncratic ways. These included a man with a hazel twig he manipulated between his fingers, a white bearded professor, who refused to communicate with anyone and ‘went around the ruins with a little toffee hammer, sounding the ground at various places’ and an old tutor of the Duke of Sutherland, whose family owned the Abbey until 1917, who was relying on his memory to tell him where the entrance to the tunnel was.

The ruins of Lilleshall Abbey

A psychic dental surgeon from Birmingham agreed to spend a night in the dungeon. Surely if anyone was going to find an old cavity, it would be him? However, as dawn broke the following morning, he was nowhere to be found, having fled in terror. Two young men who spent the night in one of the old Abbey cells reported ghostly footsteps and ‘a monk with a high-pitched voice saying prayers in a foreign language’. Although to be honest, that could just have been the frit Brummie dentist running away.

Lilleshall Abbey

The shenanigans also involved a Mr Noel Buxton, a member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, who declared he was prepared to stay on-site until the tunnel was found. I didn’t see him when I visited with friends last summer, so perhaps that means it was… The reports at the time are ambiguous – in the Birmingham Gazette on Friday 26th August 1932 it was reported that in a vault next to a dungeon, a diviner received a violent shock which led to the discovery of an underground passage. However, the estate agent said it had not yet been decided whether or not it was the tunnel they were looking for.

Diviner: OMG I did it! I found an underground tunnel!
Estate Agent: Yes…but is it the right underground tunnel?
Diviner: Yes. It is a tunnel and it is underground. Now give me my £50.
Estate Agent: Yes but if it was the right tunnel it would have ghostly monks in and as you can see, this one is phantom friar free. Sorry old chap, better luck next time. Um, please put the stick down…

So, whilst the competition and the talk of haunted dungeons were a clever bit of marketing to attract tourism, it’s fair to say that the notion of a underground tunnel at Lilleshall was not entirely without foundation. As well as the diviner’s discovery, in June 1886, in Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales, a correspondent writes that his mother, then aged 75, visited the Abbey as a girl and remembered stories of an underground passage said to run from the Abbey to Longford Church, or Longford Hall,  and that once a heavy cart passing over Longford Fields broke into it, but ‘it was not explored on account of the air in it being so foul’. Was this the same tunnel that tuned up in the 1930s?

Lilleshall Abbey

I am genuinely fascinated by the idea of secret tunnels and subterranean passages because everyone else is so fascinated by them! As we’ve discussed before on the blog, Lichfield is apparently riddled with them (as is pretty much every city, town and village in the country) if the stories are to be believed. And that’s the £50 question – are they?

Notes

  1. Fascinating article here from November 2017 about how ten out of twelve water companies in the UK use water dowsing to find leaks and pipes https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/21/uk-water-firms-admit-using-divining-rods-to-find-leaks-and-pipes
  2. I am available for secret tunnel hunting – you do not have to pay me £50 and I can supply my own toffee hammer too.

 

 

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Walsall Legends

My husband grew up in the Highgate area of Walsall, where the malty aroma from the local brewery used to hang in the air and the local kids would tell stories about the mysterious ruined windmill. Thought to have been built in the late 1600s to grind corn, Highgate windmill has a fascinating history which you can read more about here in this article by Walsall historian and writer Stuart Williams. If you want to go and have a look yourself, go sooner rather than later. Once spring gets properly underway, it’ll be hard to see the mill for the trees.

Highgate Windmill

Highgate Windmill, Walsall

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Sadly, there’s not even a whiff of brewing in the air at the moment – the Grade II Listed Highgate Brewery hasn’t been operational since 2010 and stands unused behind the locked centenary gates (purchased and installed by the Friends of Highgate Brewery in 1998), its future uncertain at present.

Highgate Brewery

Highgate Brewery

Yesterday, as well as visiting the family, we went to have a look around the Art Gallery and the town. On the way back we passed the pub that we once knew and loved as the Brewery Stores & Vaults. Back in the late 1990s, it was one of the liveliest places in town but now, like the brewery whose name it bears, it stands empty, expect perhaps for the hooded figures and disembodied heads said to lurk in the cellars

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We continued our way back over the limestone hill where the church of St Matthew’s has dominated the Walsall skyline since at least the thirteenth century (although it has only been know by that name since the eighteenth century – it was previously ‘All Saints’). The first time we walked up this hill together, Mr Gomez told me that it was paved with medieval cobbles. I’m not sure if that is true but it’s something that has fascinated me ever since, as has the arched passage on the east end of the church, covered in graffiti and with curious niches on the east side.

As well as this overground passageway, there are supposedly underground tunnels running from here to the White Hart Inn at Caldmore, Barr Beacon and Rushall Hall.  In a history section of the Walsall Council website, there’s a quote from a Mr G of Bath St who in the 1950s said one of the entrances to the tunnels was located at the bottom of some steps of a toilet which once stood on Caldmore Green. He also added that he had been told by some old women that during the reformation, some priests went down the tunnels to escape and were killed after they were filled in.

St Matthew's Walsall

St Matthew’s church, Walsall

Wasall from the Art Gallery.

St Matthew’s Walsall as seen from the Art Gallery.

Medieval cobbles

Medieval cobbles leading up the hill?

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew's

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew’s

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Niches in St Matthews passageway

Niche interest

One of my favourite stories about St Matthew’s and Walsall is one I read recently in a book of Staffordshire folktales.  Apparently, the church was originally supposed to have been built on a meadow at the ‘Churchery’, now known as the Chuckery. However, this was where the fairy folk danced and so, naturally, they objected to the plans and took matters into their own tiny hands, moving the foundations of the new church up the hill to the site where it stands today. In another version of the story, the church was moved by witches who had transformed themselves into white pigs.

We walked up a good appetite in Walsall and so we finished our day at the legendary Hargun’s Sweet Centre on the Caldmore Rd, intending to take some goodies back to Lichfield, although they never actually made it past Walsall Wood in the end. Anyway, what I learned today is not only that you can eat a lot of baklava in a twenty minute car journey, but also that once in a while, it’s good fun to explore what’s on someone else’s doorstep.

Sources

Walsall: Economic history’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part) (1976), pp. 180-208.

http://www2.walsall.gov.uk/History_Projects/Caldmore/A_Walk_Around_the_Green/18.asp

http://www.stmatthews-walsall.org.uk/info/mainhistory.shtml

http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk/TALE-WALSALL-PARISH-CHURCH-FAIRIES/story-20122807-detail/story.html

Staffordshire Folk Tales by The Journeyman

A Burny Inn

The King’s Head is one of the oldest pubs in Lichfield (1) and somewhere I’ve spent many a happy evening.(2) The sign across the entrance and John Shaw’s legendary ‘The Old Pubs of Lichfield’ date it to 1408, when it was known as ‘The Antelope’. By 1650, it had been renamed as The King’s Head.  I’ve been reading the old papers again, and it seems that in the 1930s, we nearly lost this fine old drinking establishment to fire…twice!

Which window did Mrs Shellcross climb out of I wonder?

On the night of June 27th 1932, landlady Mrs Shellcross went to bed in the King’s Head for the last time, leaving a small fire burning in the dining room grate.  The following day new tenants were arriving, and she would be leaving the King’s Head. Yet as she climbed the wooden staircase to her room, she would never have imagined that she would not be leaving the pub via the door but through a first floor window!

In the early hours of the morning, one of the hotel’s residents, Mr Corbett, was awoken by the sound of falling crockery. After discovering that the building was on fire, he raised the alarm. However, the five occupants of the pub found the staircase ablaze and their escape route blocked. They were left with no choice but to escape from upstairs windows. Mr Corbett jumped from the first storey and flagged down a passing motor van and trailer. The van driver positioned his vehicle close to the wall of the hotel, beneath a third storey (4) window, enabling Mr Dunmow, a commercial traveller to break his fall by jumping on top of the van.  Landlady Mrs Shellcross managed to climb through a first floor window onto a wall bracket but this gave way and she fell fifteen feet down onto the pavement. Another resident, a Mr King of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, escaped using his bedclothes as a makeshift rope.

Although Mr Dunmow was admitted to the Victoria Hospital with shock, the others luckily suffered nothing more than cuts and bruises. However, the building itself had not been so fortunate. The dining room was destroyed, and the upstairs function room severely damaged. Several valuable paintings and ornaments were also lost. The ‘buff regalia’ was damaged by water (does anyone know what this refers to?).  It was said that the prompt turnout from the Lichfield Fire Brigade had saved the building from being burnt to the ground.

New tenants, the Evans family, arrived at the King’s Head to find ‘a charred mass of ashes, a ruined dining room, scorched and blackened walls, and everything soaked with water’.  There can barely have been time to make good this damage when just eighteen months later, an old oak beam in the chimney in the dining room and clubroom caused another major blaze at the pub. In the early hours of a December morning in 1933, Major Evans was awoken by the smell of smoke. This time, there was just time for the Evans family and the five hotel guests to escape down the staircase, which according to the Mercury was ‘a mass of flames’ immediately afterwards. The Major led his family and other guests to safety before returning to the burning pub to telephone for the fire brigade. There was no response as one of the hotel guests had already alerted the brigade who were now on the scene. It took two hours to put out the fire, and although the front of the building was saved, the dining room and clubroom were ‘burnt beyond recognition’. Apparently, the properties on either side of the pub were also at risk for a while.

Perhaps a little opportunistically, there is an advertisement for the Prudential Assurance Co. beneath the story asking readers ‘If this had been your property would it have been adequately insured? Don’t wait until you have to call the Fire Brigade before answering this question.’

On the Lichfield Ghost Walk, we were told a young woman working as a maid had died in a fire here and that sometimes her candle could be seen flickering in one of the upstairs windows. Perhaps this story harks back to an earlier blaze. It would be interesting to do some research and see if there is any truth in this. After all when it comes to ghost stories, there’s usually no smoke without fire….

Notes

(1) The Kings Head is said to be the oldest pub, the Duke of York over the other side of the city at Greenhill is said to be the oldest inn. I’m just glad they are both still open and serving beer!

(2) A particular highlight was the folky carol service I attended here in 2010. I hope they do it again this Christmas.

(3) As many will know, Col. Luke Lillingston formed a regiment here in 1705, and you can read more about this aspect of the pub’s history at The Staffordshire Regiment Museum website here. Or even better go and visit the museum to find out more!

(4) Third storey window? I’m guessing this means what I would call the second floor?

Sources:

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Lichfield: From the Reformation to c.1800′, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 14-24. URL

The Old Pubs of Lichfield, John Shaw

Underneath The Arches

A stone arch stands in the grounds of the Lichfield Campus of South Staffs college and I’ve never been sure whether it is a folly, or part of the Franciscan Friary which once stood on the site. According to a book on the history of the Friary School (1), the arch was discovered in the walls of outbuildings taken down to make way for the new Friary Road in the 1920s. Apparently, it was incorporated into the staff entrance to the school, which used the buildings now occupied by the Library from the 1920s until the 1980s.  A former pupil describes the arch as standing on the lacrosse field during her time at the school. Inevitably, over the years the imagination of school children and the history of the site have combined to create legends and stories, including one about a ghostly monk that people are said to have seen passing through the arch.

Another intriguing discovery made nearby during the 1920s was the gravestone of Richard the Merchant. Actually, rediscovery would be a more accurate description, as the stone had first been uncovered in 1746, when a former owner of the Friary was laying the foundations for a garden wall.  Thankfully, sketches were made of the stone and its inscription as nowadays, its markings can be barely made out and the stone itself is even more hidden away now than when I wrote this post about it back in July 2011.

Tombstone of Richard the Merchant,now in the wall of Lichfield Library

Today I was walking between Dam St and the Bird St car park (which I still call the Woolworth’s car park despite that shop not having been there for years), when I caught a glimpse of what seems to be another arch, over a garden wall which must belong to one of the properties on Dam St. Does anyone have any information on where this arch is from, and why it is here? And of course, if anyone has any stories of ghostly Lichfield residents walking through this one, please let us know!

Notes:

(1) The History of the Friary School, Helen Mullins 1981

(2) I suppose it would actually be a friar, rather than a monk (there is a difference!) but as we’re talking ghost stories here it’s probably not the place to worry too much about historical accurancy!

A Lichfield Tragedy

Years ago, when I first moved to Lichfield, I went on the ghost tour around the city. One of the stories we were told was that of a Catholic family who died in a fire at their home on Breadmarket St. There was apparently an issue regarding burial because of their religion and, unsurprisingly given the nature of the tour, it was said by some that their presence was still felt at the building in some way.  Recently, this story came up again when I was chatting to a colleague. A book about ghosts happened to be nearby and caused our conversation to turn to the supernatural. The colleague in question mentioned the story, wondering if there was any truth in it.

I searched the newspaper archive, and found that the story was essentially true.  I’m not going to transcribe it, as I personally think it’s too graphic and upsetting. However,the facts are that in January 1873 there was a fire at the Breadmarket Street premises of a Lichfield clock and watch maker. Three generations of a family lost their lives and their bodies were laid out on the pavement before being taken to the Guildhall where a Catholic Priest read the burial rites. The family were then taken directly to the graveyard at St Michaels where the Rev J Sejeantson carried out a burial service – they were not taken inside the church. There are reports that no rescue effort had been made, as initially it was thought that the family has already escaped.  The Mercury reports that everyone was at a loss what to do. According to the County History, it was this tragedy that led to the council taking over the responsibility for fire fighting in the city, buying an engine and establishing a brigade, with a building in Sandford Street being used as a fire station.

I am interested in the question as to whether there is any value in ghost stories beyond the obvious ‘entertainment factor’. The mention of ghosts and haunted places can cause the rolling of eyes and mutterings of, ‘There’s no such thing’. Perhaps there’s not, but does that mean that these stories have no interest for us?  If we look beyond the shadowy figures and disembodied footsteps in such tales, can we find something real? Does telling these stories in this way ensure that otherwise forgotten people and events are remembered or is it just an excuse to be ghoulish?