Pills ‘n’ Chills and Deli Bakes

Yesterday I was in Tamworth for the summer food festival, enjoying excellent locally produced pork pies, sausage rolls and blue cheese.

After a gentle stroll around the town, I hopped back into the car and headed to Hopwas for a forage. For once, my walk took me along the canal in the opposite direction to the woods, a decision which may have been influenced by having read about a disused and reputedly haunted cemetery on Hints Road.

The graveyard once belonged to Hopwas Chapel, built in 1836 and dedicated to St John, and its resident ghost is said to be a small boy who can be seen by children (but not by a childish 39 year old it seems). The chapel was pulled down in the 1880s, as it was ‘full, small and inconvenient’, and replaced by the gorgeous St Chad’s Church up on the hill. A drawing of the old chapel can be seen here on the Stafforshire Past Track site. The old font survived and stands outside the new church, and the chapel’s bell still tolls in St Chad’s tower.  According to a report in the Tamworth Herald on Saturday 16th April 1898, the holy table from St John’s was made use of in the new Workhouse chapel.

St Chad’s, Hopwas, dedicated and opened in 1881

The old font from St John’s Chapel

Nearby, I found a cottage with the best name ever, which fitted in perfectly with the theme of the day, followed by a pill box in a field alongside the River Tame.

Too well guarded by nettles to even attempt to take a look inside, I plan to return as part of a much longer pill box walk along this section of the Western Command Stop Line Number 5 in winter. If I eat as much as I did at the summer festival, on the way home from the Tamworth Christmas food festival would probably be a good time….

 

Sources:

http://www.stedithas.org.uk/A%20Look%20Around%20St%20Chads.pdf

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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

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?

 

Kindred Spirit

I’ve referenced J(ohn) W(alters) Jackson several times in this blog and really wanted to find out a bit more about him. So here we go….

Mr Jackson was 2 years old when he came to Lichfield in 1864. He was a music teacher and the organist at Christ Church. He lived at 81, Walsall Rd until he left the city to live with his son in Newport,  Shropshire in October 1940 at the age of 78. During his time in Lichfield he was ‘City Librarian’. The Lichfield Mercury reported that after his appointment the number of readers increased from 70 a week to 500.

In the 1930s and 40s, Mr Jackson had a local history column in the Lichfield Mercury in  which he answered readers’ queries and shared an assortment of historical facts, folklore and transciptions from old documents. Each ‘subject’ is given a paragraph at most, so if one snippet didn’t interest, the next one wasn’t far behind!

I thought I’d share one of my favorites with you, to give you a flavour of Mr Jackson’s work. I like this one especially because the ancient manor of Abnalls is one of my favourite places in Lichfield and I love a good ghost story (this one has the added bonus of an intrepid one-man paranormal investigation as well). So I’ll hand you over to Mr Jackson…..

“The Abnalls dates back to the time of Edward I. The present hall has taken the place of the ancient manor. Many years ago it was said to be haunted. Half a century ago considerable alarm was caused by reports of a spectre being seen by various passers-by at belated hours. The writer personally visited (at midnight when ghosts are said to appear) on several occasions but after patiently waiting saw nothing of a spectral character further than weird forms in the trees and bushes in the dim light, and on one occasion the gentle waving of a white nightgown pegged on a clothes line.”

The site of the old manor off Abnalls Lane. I know it doesn't look it from the photo but it is very intriguing place and a scheduled ancient monument.The aerial view from googlemaps reveals a lot more but I'm having trouble adding it to the post at the minute, so in the meantime, maybe do your own investigation & see if you can find it!

 This kind of history might not be to everyone’s taste (but then what is?) but it sure is to mine –  I think it’s entertaining, accessible and a great source of information. If you get the chance I highly recommend that you have a look at the Lichfield Mercury archives (warning – give yourself plenty of time as you’ll be engrossed).  

I love the way that us humans,  no matter what age we belong to, are curious about the stories of the places that surround us and the people that came before us (well, most of us are anyway). Investigate the blog list to the right of this post and you’ll find a lot of curious* & entertaining souls. I like to think that if Mr Jackson was around today, he’d be doing a blog. I hope he doesn’t mind being included on this one!

 *curious in the inquisitive sense, not in the strange sense. I think 😉

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.