The Odd Couple

According to Pevsner, the Church of St Lawrence features some of the most exciting Norman work in the county.  Here be dragons and other fantastical creatures, Saxon and Scandinavian influences, a green man and other ancient faces. There are no wolves though.

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Carving at Gnosall

Carving at Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Legend has it that the last wolf in Staffordshire was killed here in Gnosall in a pit near Brough Hall and that the effigy in the Lady Chapel is that of its slayer, Baron Brough  As much as I wish it were true, there is no evidence for this tale and no reason to believe the Baron ever even existed outside of Gnosall mythology. Several other names have been linked with the alabaster knight over the years, but his true identity remains unknown. Whilst such personal details are lacking, there is physical detail here in abundance, from the broken angel and the helmet at his head, to the lion at his now missing feet and experts have used these features to date the monument to the early fifteenth century. In recent years, the knight has been joined by the church’s only other effigy, taken from the recess on the opposite side of the church known as the Easter Sepulchre.

Two effigies at Gnosall church

Two effigies at Gnosall church

The unknown knight of Gnosall

Defaced – the unknown knight of Gnosall

Gnosall effigy belt

Even less is know about this second effigy, but due to its diminutive stature, it is often described as depicting a child. However, after visiting the church, words that I’d read in a paper by Dr Sophie Oosterwijk in relation to the famous Stanley Boy monument at Elford came back into my mind – “A small-sized tomb may deceive the beholder into thinking that it must commemorate a child, but there may be other explanations”. One of Dr Oosterwijk’s other explanations is that these tiny tombs may represent heart burials. It’s not only the size of the effigy that’s convinced me that someone left their heart here in Gnosall, but also the position of his or her hand over the chest, a feature it has in common with another example thought to be a fourteenth century heart burial at Coberley in Gloucestershire.

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Despite the abundance of surviving Romanesque architecture here, the church is missing its original font.  However, at nearby Bradley. and Church Eaton there are examples which date to the twelfth century and recall some of the patterns and themes found at Gnosall, perhaps giving us an idea of what the Norman font at St Lawrence may have looked like. Interestingly, the broken Church Eaton font was reinstated at St Editha’s after apparently being found buried in a garden, and so it’s possible that Gnosall’s is out there somewhere, awaiting discovery under someone’s lawn.

One of Gnosall’s most intriguing features can be found outside, high on the south side of the church where stonemasons (we assume) who extended the tower in the mid fifteenth century have carved a large chalice into the stonework alongside the belfry window.

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Less mysterious in origin, but still of interest, are the grooves along the wall, said to have been created by the sharpening of arrows when the grounds were used for archery practice.

Arrow grooves, Gnosall Church

Arrow grooves at Gnosall Church

There is also a rumour that this wall of the church bears the scars of target practice during the Civil War (Rodwell: 223). What we do know for certain about the church of St Lawrence and the civil war is that there are two soldiers buried here. The parish register records that on 1st October 1642, a tall young man known as John Bayne (or Bayle), ‘one of the King’s souldiers’, was buried here and that on 25th March 1643, David James, another of ‘the King’s souldiers’, was laid to rest. The date of the second may be especially significant, coming less than a week after the Battle of Hopton Heath, fought just ten miles away. Amidst the other burials and baptisms of the parish register, an interesting entry appears on an otherwise blank page. At some time between 20th March 1684 and 19th April 1685, an ‘unlettered’ hand has written the following:

Fere god and honour the King
Honor your parents at all times
Wimins tongues air like [unfinished]

Whether the writer of the verse was interrupted or simply ran out of inspiration is unknown, but we are left to draw our own conclusions on the nature of  ‘wimins tongues’. However, when it comes to singing the praises of this incredible building, I shall not be holding mine. See it for yourself on the weekend of 4th/5th July 2015, when the Church of St Lawrence, including the tower, will be open for tours as part of the G-Fest celebrations held in the village each year. Now that is exciting.

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall/

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall

With thanks to Norman and Sheila Hailes, for their tour and invaluable knowledge of the church, and to Kathleen Ingram and Cllr Kenneth Ingram and the other residents of Gnosall, for showing us around not once, but twice!

References:

Rodwell,W. (2012) The Archaeology of Churches Stroud: Amberley

Oosterwijk, S. (2010)  Deceptive appearances. The presentation of children on medieval tombs Ecclesiology Today

http://www.gnosallweb.org.uk/articles/stlawren.htm

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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!).