This Ain't A Love Song

I’ll sing you a song about two lovers,
Who from Lichfield town they came, 
The young man’s name was William Taylor,
The lady’s name was Sarah Gray

So begins one version of the ballad ‘Bold William Taylor’ in which William leaves Lichfield to go and fight a war.  Sarah doesn’t get on well with her parents and so decides she too will become a soldier in order to be reunited with her true love. She disguises herself as a sailor but after suffering a wardrobe malfunction aboard the ship she is working on, it becomes apparent to the captain of the ship that she is in fact a woman. Understandably curious, the Captain wants to know what she’s doing on board his ship and Sarah explains that she’s there looking for her lover. The Captain gives her the devastating news that William Taylor has gone off and married a rich young lady but tells her that if she rises before the break of day she’ll find him out walking with his new wife. Sarah does just that and, on spying the happy couple together, calls for a sword and pistol and shoots William dead. In this version, the Captain is so impressed he puts Sarah in command of the ship and all his men. All’s fair in love and war? There’s a great performance of the song by Jim Moray here on YouTube.

As I’m quickly discovering, establishing the origins of folk songs and ballads is nigh on impossible. It seems this may have originated in Lincolnshire but why Lichfield was chosen as the home town of the unhappy couple is a mystery and to confuse matters further, in some versions, Lichfield isn’t mentioned at all. Of course, I wanted to know if there were any more songs or ballads that mentioned Lichfield. I found that the Bodleian Library has a huge, searchable archive of over 30,000 broadside ballads. According to them, ‘Broadside ballads were popular songs, sold for a penny or half-penny in the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. These songs were performed in taverns, homes, or fairs — wherever a group of people gathered to discuss the day’s events or to tell tales of heroes and villains’.  I was really pleased to find that the collection includes several political ballads relating to Lichfield elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Apparently, these broadside ballads didn’t have their own music, but came with a suggestion of a well known tune that they could be sung to. I’m reading them with an image in my head of people stood around in the Ye Olde City’s pubs and taverns rowdily joining in with lines like,

With the help of Dick Dyott
We’ll keep ’em all quiet
And soon cool their Courage, and Fire:
If I give up this place
May I ne’er show my face
Till I’m hang’d by my Toes on the Spire

The above lines come from a sheet dated 1799 (it has the year handwritten on it). However, this can’t be right as on the same page is the story of Sarah Westwood, a Lichfield woman was executed for murdering her husband, a nailer from Burntwood, in January 1844. If you want to read the full story of the case it’s well documented elsewhere, especially as Sarah was the last woman to be executed at Stafford Gaol. The inclusion of scandals and sensations such as this, along with the songs have led to many describing them as the tabloids of their day. You can search the Broadside Ballad archive yourself here.

King's Head

As I’ve said before, we often focus on the visual changes of places, but the sounds change as well. I’m thinking that with its mixture of traditional songs, contemporary folk songs, drinking songs, ballads, humour, monologues and poems, the Folk Singaround at the King’s Head looks like a great way to get an idea of what our pubs may once have sounded like and hope to get down there for one of the sessions soon.

Battle Ground

One Lichfield place name I’ve always been curious about is Bunker’s Hill. Most people will probably know the name from the car parkin between Lower Sandford Street and the football pitches at Beacon Park, but how did it come about?

Looking towards Bunker’s Hill car park, Beacon Park

According to Howard Clayton’s ‘Loyal and Ancient City’, it’s recorded that during the Civil War, parliamentarian leader Sir William Brereton erected a mount, described by the VCH as a raised defensive position, in the Sandford Street area.  Mr Clayton suggests that the mound known as Bunkers Hill could be the location and in John Shaw’s ‘The Street Names of Lichfield’, the author suggests that the name derives from these earthworks. I’d be really interested to know if there are any relevant archaeology finds from this area of the park. I wanted to see if I could find any more information about the site. I knew that in the 1800s there had been a farm around here and also one of the old lodges to Beacon Place, the mansion which once stood on what is now Seckham Rd (demolished in the 1960s). The original Walsall Rd must have passed nearby too, before the route was altered in 1837. Records show that there were six cottages here by 1883.  In 1901, Mr George Watts, a bricklayer and his family lived in one of those cottages – 5, Bunker’s Hill. By 1916, youngest son Albert was serving in the Motor Transport Section of the ASC and had an account of his experiences in France published by the Lichfield Mercury. He described his first experience of being under fire as ‘terrifying’, but said that one got used to it. After being taken ill, he acted as a clerk in a convalescent home where one of his jobs was writing out ‘Blighty” tickets. How hard it must have been for him that he wasn’t able to write one out for himself. I wonder if he did make it home to Lichfield?  Nowadays, the area has changed considerably. The lodge and farm are long gone, although there is a water tap which seems to correspond with the site of a pump on OS maps. I wonder if this was originally a community pump for those living in the cottages? I haven’t found much else on Lichfield’s Bunker’s Hill specifically, other than in September 1905, Lichfield City Council’s Streets and Highways Committee discussed a proposal to have it enclosed. In the end, it seems that they decided to have Bunker’s Hill levelled and sown with grass seed. However, whilst searching I have found references to other ‘Bunkers Hills’. In his book on Worcestershire place names, local historian and etymologist William Henry Duignan of Walsall wrote that ‘There are numerous ‘Bunkers Hills’ throughout the kingdom, but having met with no early forms, I conclude that it is a mere fancy name conferred after the victory at Bunkers Hill, US in 1775.’. A good example are the cottages at Bottesford in Leicestershire, which were named ‘Bunkers Hill’ after this battle. It’s also interesting that the 38th Regiment of Foot, raised by Col. Luke Lillingston at the Kings Head in Lichfield in 1705, fought at this battle. So, Bunkers Hill may have got its name from the English Civil War, but could there be an outside chance that it may instead relate to the American War of Independence? Perhaps it refers to something else altogether! Any thoughts? Notes 1 – I’ve seen the name spelt with an apostrophe and without Sources Lichfield: From the Reformation to c.1800, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 14-24. Loyal and Ancient City by Howard Clayton The Street Names of Lichfield by John Shaw

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