Crime Scenery

I know. It’s been a while. You don’t know what I did this summer but I’d quite like to confess. There have been visits to gibbets, wells, shrines, mausoleums, derelict churches, ruined abbeys, tunnels and places with names which sound a bit rude. It’s less about serious history and more about a series of stories told by the landscape that surrounds us. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear them (especially over the sound of my friend Jacky eating crisps), sometimes they shout in your face via an interpretation board funded by the parish council.  If you’re sitting comfortably*, then I’ll begin by sharing** evidence from some of the crime related activities we’ve been getting up to.

*unlike another friend Eddie the time we visited an old priory and had to stick him in the back of a van
**unlike Jacky with her crisps

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Katie. When she grew up she wanted to be Mavis Cruet from Willo the Wisp. For a short while, she lived in Coleshill in North Warwickshire and almost everyday she’d walk past the town’s pillory. At the time she didn’t realise that it was a rare example combining three methods of corporal punishment i.e. stocks, a pillory AND a whipping post, and was last used in 1863, but she was curious all the same.

coleshill-pillory-michael-garlick

Coleshill Pillory by Michael Garlick from geography.org.uk http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Many years passed and in August 2016,  Katie was visiting her parents in Stone in Staffordshire when she turned off too early towards Hilderstone. This was in no way down to her lack of navigational skills, there was a tree obscuring the ‘Hilder’ bit of the sign. Around the corner was a patch of grass with a set of stocks.

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone

Despite extensive research (doing a google search), she couldn’t find any information on them. Katie hadn’t grown up to be Mavis Cruet, but she had continued to be curious. How many more sets of stocks were there around the country? Had anyone ever recorded them? Who had been publicly humiliated and punished here and what were the reasons? Our towns and cities are filled with monuments to the so-called great and good of society. Are these our monuments to those considered petty and bad who lived on its fringes? And so, after musing over these thoughts with friend Patti who already had a knowledge of and interest in this area, they decided to set up a discussion group called ‘Offending Histories’, with the aim of finding remaining physical evidence of crime and punishment across the Midlands and telling the sort of stories in which no one lives happily. Ever after or otherwise.

In just a month, we’ve already started to record a fascinating range of sites and objects. Here are some samples of the more local examples.

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a Scold's Bridle or brank on display. There's an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here - http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/…/object-of-the-mo…/). Of particular interest is the following reference,

The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a scold’s bridle or brank on display. There’s an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here. Of particular interest is the following reference, “In 1789, the brank was used in Lichfield. A local farmer enclosed a woman’s head “to silence her clamorous Tongue” and led her round a field while boys and girls “hooted at her” “Nobody pitied her because she was very much disliked by her neighbours.”

Outside St Michael's church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word 'hanged' appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others who were executed and buried e.g. John Wilson Sept 23rd 1583 and John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others e.g. John Wilson on Sept 23rd 1583 and, John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door in Elford church, dating to circa 1450AD. By touchin the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time. If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book 'Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages' tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who 'killed the gaoler's attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church'. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church'. Another example comes from Colton History Society - in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl; he fled to the church and took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was abolished 1623.

At St Peter’s in Elford, Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door dating to circa 1450AD. By touching the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time (this seems to have been forty days which is a nice biblical number) . If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book ‘Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages’ tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who ‘killed the gaoler’s attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church’. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church’. Another example comes from Colton History Society – in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl and fled to the church where he took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was officially abolished in 1623.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attemping to murder his step- daughter. Massey's headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attempting to murder his step- daughter. Massey’s headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.

Unable to find much on this pillor outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley, but it does appear to have been relocated here at some point.

Pillory outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley. Appears to have been relocated here at some point as not shown on early 19thc photographs of the pub

It is a dark subject at times but there are lighter moments too. Currently providing wry amusement is the question of how, and indeed why, was a seventeenth century cucking stool stolen from the church of St Edward at Leek? A meta-criminal mastermind at work? It’s very much an ongoing exploration and if you are interested or better yet, have something to contribute, and aren’t offended by an element of gallows humour, please do join our Offending History group here

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Signs of Spring

Every visit to the churchyard of St Michael’s leaves me wondering about the significance of this ancient place in the early chapters of Lichfield history. Thanks to archaeology, some answers have been provided over the years and landscape features such as the natural springs beneath the churchyard may give further clues as to what first drew people to this site thousands of years ago.  Nigel Johnson from Lichfield Lock and Key had told me that the water still flowed, and could be seen seeping out near to the steps up to the churchyard before trickling down Greenhill (except last week when I visited and the water had frozen!)

This natural spring has flooded the church’s crypt in the past.

Last Tuesday’s visit – frozen spring water on a freezing Spring morning

The churchyard was once used as pasture (1) but now the cattle and sheep are long gone and wildlife has been allowed to reclaim much of the churchyard. Bird song fills the air and along the paths and amongst the graves are clusters of spring flowers. Snow drops are still hanging on in there, and primroses and daffodils are now well on their way. During my recent visits, I’ve also met several dogs (and their owners!) and some of the neighbourhood cats.

I noticed that Georgia Locock, a young wildlife enthusiast who has her own blog on Lichfield’s wildlife has also been along to the churchyard on the lookout for Spring recently and you can see her lovely photographs here.

On the south (I think!) side of the church itself, I noticed stone heads, very similar to those at Christ Church. A couple of years prior to working on Christ Church, Thomas Johnson, the Lichfield architect, carried out an extensive restoration here at St Michael’s in 1842/1843 and presumably these heads are one of his additions. Whilst his work at Christ Church is generally applauded, Johnson’s work at St Michael’s has been criticised by some, as much of the original medieval fabric of the church was destroyed during his renovation. (I don’t know much about architecture, and so am not really in a position to comment. However, there does seem to be a certain irony in removing original features, and adding new ‘medieval style’ ones, such as these heads.) Again, as at Christ Church, I wonder who these faces captured in stone belong to and who carved them?

Looks like someone was inspired to create their own head alongside the carved ones….

Many of the  headstones and memorials that surround the church feature the names of the stonemasons that created them – Joseph Johnson of St John St (was this any relation to Thomas?), John Winslow of Tamworth St, John Hamlet of Dam St, James and George Lamb of Sandford St amongst others. Did any of these craftsmen also work on the church itself?

It seems Joseph Johnson may have ended up in a debtors prison. His name appears in the London Gazette, in a section entitled ‘Pursuant to the Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors in England. The following PRISONERS, whose Estates and Effects have been vested in the Provisional Assignee by Order of the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors, and whose Petitions and Schedules, duly filed, have been severally referred and transmitted to the County Courts hereinafter mentioned, pursuant to the Statute in that behalf, are ordered to be brought up before the Judges of the said Courts respectively, as herein set forth, to be dealt with according to Law’.  Mr Johnson is listed to go before the Judge of the County Court of Warwickshire, holden at Coventry, on Monday the 21st day of June 1852, at Twelve o’Clock at Noon and is described as,

Joseph Johnson, formerly of the city and county of the city
of Lichfield, Stone Mason and Builder, afterwards of the
same place, Stone Mason, Builder, and Licensed Victualler,
and at the same time of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, Stone Mason and Builder, and late of the city
and county of the city of Lichfield, Stone Mason, Builder,
and Licensed Victualler

 

The Edinburgh Gazette of January 16th 1863, notes that John Hamlet, listed as an architectural draughtsman and stonemason of Dam St, Lichfield, has been awarded bankruptcy. How did they fall upon such hard times?  I’d like to find out more about these craftsmen whose job it was to record the lives of others in stone.

Notes:

1 – I was surprised to read in the county history that the churchyard was once let as pasture, although in 1801, the grazing of cattle was deemed inappropriate due to the ‘damage and desecration’ caused and it was decided that only sheep should be allowed. However, this was ignored, with tragic consequences – in 1809, there is an entry in the church register for the burial of a child, Joseph Harper, who was killed by a cow in the church yard.

Sources

Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155.

http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/21325/pages/1619/page.pdf

http://www.edinburgh-gazette.co.uk/issues/7293/pages/92/page.pdf

History, Gazetter and Directory of Staffordshire  (1834), William White

http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/STAFFORDSHIRE/2001-04/0986182998