The Wayside and the Wilderness

On the Derbyshire and Staffordshire border, a lonely spot has two possible stories attached to its poignant place-name. Many believe that Lads Grave, close to the crossroads just outside of Coton in the Elms, is the final resting place of Phillip Greensmith, a soldier hanged during the Civil War for desertion. The parish registers of All Saints Lullington, record the execution as being carried out, ‘upon a tree at the Green of Coton (in the Elms)’ and note that afterwards, the tree died by degrees. Perhaps it was ashamed of its part in the sorry affair? The other story, as told to the Lichfield Mercury cycling correspondent Maurice Purser in 1997, suggests the lad was a young traveller boy buried at the crossroads.

OS Map 1902

A quick look at the county’s tithe maps suggests that there are a number of these unorthodox burials scattered across the Staffordshire landscape. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a Dead Lad’s Grave in Penn, Deadman’s Lane in Wednesbury, Chit’s Grave and a Dead Knave Farm House in Sedgley, Old Woman’s Grave in Stanton, a Wilkinson’s Grave in Rolleston, Knock’s Grave (now Knox’s) in Hints, a Beggar’s Grave in Rocester, Dod’s Grave in Standon and a Mare’s Grave in Hopton. Some places are still known by these names although others have faded from maps and memories.

In South Staffordshire, members of the local history society have put up a sign at Dead Woman’s Grave in Codsall Wood. Perhaps we should do the same here in Lichfield to mark the spot once known as Bessy Banks Grave, which according to Anna Seward was, ‘a silent glade that childhood fears, where the love-desperate maid of vanish’d years’ was buried?

OS Map from 1815

Unusual burials aren’t always found at crossroads or by the wayside. In 1728, in a building in the Close called the New College and occupying the site opposite the Cathedral’s south door, the skeleton of a female was found placed upright in a stone wall, a silver bodkin which her hair had been wrapped around on her skull. The author says that recently (the book was written in 1811), another was found in a similar position on moving other old foundations. Who, why, when and where are they now? Nobody seems to known.

One of Staffordshire’s most infamous burials can be found at St Lawrence’s at Rushton Spencer. Well, in theory it can be found if you aren’t a scaredy Kate like me. After a considerable hike to reach it, I can confirm that this 13th century timber framed church encased in 17th century sandstone definitely earns its epithet of ‘The Chapel in the Wilderness’. However, my search for the grave of poor Thomas Meakin, re-buried here after his body was exhumed from the churchyard at St Michael’s, Stone showing evidence of having been poisoned and buried alive, was brought to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was my imagination but when I heard the churchyard gate squeaking, knowing I was the only living person within a mile of the place, I decided I’d had enough of braving the wilderness and legged it. Turns out this girl can run when she’s frit.

Rushton Spencer was originally known as Hugbridge which sounds quite nice and cuddly right? Wrong. Both the old and the new names for the villlage are taken from the name of the local lords of the manor, the dreadful Despensers and this gives us a connection to two more interesting interments. Hugh Despenser the Younger was a favourite and possible lover of Edward II which made him very much not the favourite of lots of other people. Some of his enemies even approached a magician in Coventry to kill both Hugh and the King using witchcraft and wax effigies. However, as Queen Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer discovered, hanging, drawing and quartering him for treason proved a much more effective way to dispense with Despenser. After his execution in Hereford in 1326, Hugh’s head was stuck on the gates of London and his arms, legs and torso dispersed to Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol for display. Four year later, his widow was given permission to gather his remains for burial but she only managed to retrieve the head, thigh bone and a few vertebrae. In February 2008, a skeleton which had originally been uncovered by archaeological work at Hulton Abbey in the 1970s was identified by Dr Mary Lewis of the University of Reading as being likely to be the rest of Hugh, given it was missing all of the above body parts, showing signs of a post-death dismemberment, matched the age Despenser was when he died and was discovered on land which would have been owned by his brother-in-law at the time. Even more than half a millenium after his disgrace and dismantling, Despenser remained unpopular. In 2006 he was voted one of the ten worst Britons in history and it’s also rumoured that he ate big dinners.

The execution of Hugh le Despenser the Younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart.

It’s not the only surprise in a sepulchre at Hulton Abbey. When a medieval tomb belonging to Lady Elizabeth Audley was opened in 1886, her body had decomposed but her two plaits had been preserved giving rise to the hair-raising legend that her locks had continued to grow after her death.

The remains of Hulton Abbey.   © Copyright Brian Deegan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Talking of locks, close by to Rushton Spencer is Rudyard Lake, which gave its name to Mr Kipling (the writer, not the one who makes cakes as my son thought) and has a bridge adorned with examples of a 21st century ritual, adored by some but possibly considered by others to be the most unsettling thing within this entire blog post. I can however assure you that ‘honour’ goes to the sight of me running

Sources

Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire by John Charles Cox

A short account of the ancient and modern state of the City and Close of Lichfield and the Cathedral (1818) by Thomas George Lomax

https://www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-ML-hugh-despenser.aspx

Journal of the British Archaeological Association Volume 2

Staffordshire Sentinel 15th January 1986

Lichfield Mercury 23rd January 1997

The Grave of Poor Bessy Banks

I spotted a place labelled Bessy Banks’ Grave on the 1815 Ordnance Survey drawing of Lichfield by Robert Dawson 1815.

Immediately, I thought of the story of Kitty Jay on Dartmoor. A little investigation has revealed a few details. In ‘History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield’ by John Jackson (1805), I found the following;

“…of Betsy Banks grave* once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy is said to have fallen victim to hapless love.

*there is a spot in a field in Lichfield still distinguished by that name”

Anna Seward wrote to her friend Honora Sneyd about the place in a letter dated May 1772, that she described as ‘Written in a summer evening from the grave of a suicide’. I’ve only included the first part as its quite long.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

Another reference can be found in one of David Garrick’s letters.  He wrote that “the name Dimble is given to a sunken road leading north from Lichfield past a spot, supposedly haunted called Betty Honks Grave. Two sister trees form an elegant arch over a stream”.

By 1791, it was found that the sister trees had been recently cut down.

So who was Bessy Banks, did she really exist? If so, is her grave still there, now unmarked and unremembered?

Edit 5/9/2011

I recently had the St Chad’s tithe map (1849) out in Lichfield Record Office, looking for something else. A whole plot of land is listed as ‘Bessy Banks’. Born a Lichfeldian has kindly worked out where the stream in this area would have been. Taking into account this and the tithe map it seems that ‘Bessy Banks’ was somewhere in the region between Dimbles Lane and Greencroft.
John Jackson’s description suggects that in 1805 the story is already an old one. It does seem a fairly well-known tale, to have actual places on maps marked after it, as well as being mentioned by Garrick (albeit with the name Betty Honks!) & Seward.  Was it just a made-up story, or did it arise from actual events? I wonder when (and why?) the people of Lichfield stopped telling the story? Or could there even still be people who could tell us the tragedy of Lichfield’s ‘love-desperate maid?’

Edit: 15/4/2012

A notice in the Lichfield Mercury 20th February 1914 lists a lot for sale as garden land, known as Bessy Banks, adjoining a plot of arable land let by T Chapman and located next to Gaiafields House and Gaia Fields Cottage.