Grave Digging

I recently visited the Staffordshire village of Colwich. It’s a lovely place but as is my wont, the outcome of the outing is a tale of murder and mystery.

We start our story in May 1977, when a member of the congregation of St Michael’s and All Angels took a walk through the churchyard and almost disappeared into an unmarked vault. The vicar at the time was the daring David Woodhouse who decided to descend into the dark depths to discover what, or who, was down there. Inside the vault, he found two skeletons and whilst there is nothing unusual about bones beneath a graveyard per se, there was something not quite rite about these burials. Skeleton One lay in a coffin and Rev Woodhouse mentions two odd things about it. Firstly, a small hole in the skull and secondly, the finger bones were disarticulated suggesting that this may have been a victim of both murder and grave robbery. The strangeness doesn’t stop there though as the remains of Skeleton Two are described as surrounding the coffin containing the first. One of the keywords for me here is ‘remains’, suggesting to me that this corpse may not have been complete when it was interred here.

The vicar’s theory was the vault was built for a wealthy family who fell on hard times and were then unable to afford a memorial to the two individuals resting in peace (or more aptly in one case, pieces) within it. Everyone seemed satisfied with this explanation, the hole was bricked up and, as far as I am aware, no-one has ever thought anymore about it until I read about the mysterious vault and started doing a bit of digging that is…

Back now to 18th July 1773 and a woodland just outside of Stone, Staffordshire where John Challenor and his son, also John, are working together. The two men have just eaten lunch when an argument flares up and John Jnr throws the iron cooking pot at John Snr’s head. It’s thrown with such force that once of the metal legs pierces the older man’s skull. He dies three days later and his son is sent to gaol for parricide. On 23rd August 1773 John Challenor Jnr is executed and his body taken down and hanged in chains at a spot near to the scene of his crime.

I don’t think you need to be DCI Barnaby to work out the links between this high-summer murder and the skeletons below ground at Colwich. The hole in the skull of Skeleton One clearly corresponds with the fatal injury sustained by John Challenor Snr. What’s more, the lack of a coffin together with the seemingly jumbled and incomplete nature of Skeleton Two is in keeping with a body that’s been gibbeted and later cut down and hastily buried, although not seemingly not quickly enough to prevent time, the weather or macabre souvenir hunters from starting to take their their toll. Perhaps it was the Challenors, who not only had a very literal reminder of the skeletons in their family closet displayed for all to see at a spot near Stone, but who may also have been concerned that without a Christian burial of sorts, their relative would not be resurrected to heaven but condemned to eternal damnation. Was it enough to save John Challenor’s soul though?

Thanks to information provided by Fulford Parish Council I believe I have located the place where his body was hung in chains. On their website they say ‘On the left of Hilderstone Road when travelling towards the ‘Wheatsheaf’, and just a short distance from Spot Acre cross roads, is a stand of Beech trees known locally as ‘The Rookery’. According to local lore the gibbets used to stand here, hence the overgrown lane which runs down past Idlerocks to Moddershall being called Gibbets Lane’.

Now, as regular readers of the blog will know, I love ghost stories but if you Scooby Don’t, then stop reading now as the next part of this story requires a little belief in such matters. You see, Stone lore also tells of a boggart which haunts these parts. And what on earth is a boggart I hear the non-northerners amongst you ask? Well, you know us Lichfield people love a dictionary and so I’ve looked it up in the OED and found the following definition: “A spectre, goblin, or bogy; in dialectal use, esp. a local goblin or sprite supposed to ‘haunt’ a particular gloomy spot, or scene of violence”.

Could the the boggart be the unquiet spirit of John Challenor? I mean it doesn’t get much more gloomy than having your corpse displayed on a gibbet does it? If the naysayers are still with us at this point I’m sure they’re saying, well, nay way but I’m tempted to head over there to see if I can find any more answers. In 1933, a Mr P C Dutton of Stone told members of the North Staffordshire Field Club that the boggart took the form of a dog or a calf and so this may involve me quizzing the local cows and canines to see if they’re the spectral incarnation of an 18th century murderer. More Doctor Doolally than Doolittle I know.

On a slightly more serious note, I am increasingly keen to not only share the stories which give us a sense of place but to bring something along to the party as well. I hope my version of events has given people some food for thought but as we know from the iconic Marmite, when it comes to a Staffordshire legend there is always a risk that some people might hate it 🙂


Aris’s Birmingham Gazette – Monday 23 August 1773

Rugeley Times 21st May 1977

Staffordshire Sentinel – Friday 19 May 1933

Kill Bill

The run up to Halloween feels like the right time to resurrect the blog and, in keeping with the spirit of my favourite season, it’s my intention to share some of the more sinister stories that I know about Staffordshire and the surrounding area over the course of the coming week. However, 2020 hasn’t quite gone to plan and it’s entirely possible that I could fall victim to an attack of the mutant crayfish clones by Friday and so whether my bad intentions will materialise or fall by the wayside remains to be seen.

Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a Staffordshire thing per se but something I’ve noticed about the churches in our area is their habit of juxtaposing the mundane with the magnificent. By way of example, I once found the tomb of Richard Samson, Bishop of Lichfield between 1470 and 1554 underneath a tea tray and a packet of hobnobs. I am also starting to think that the eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt have a stack of plastic chairs behind thy font’.

I suspect Pevsner would not approve but I think it gives churches a nice lived-in feel and exudes an eccentric sort of charm and therefore, I make no apologies for failing to remove the carton of milk and bottle of spray from my photograph of the remains of this stone cross in Tixall Church.

The cross stood on Kings Lowe, a Bronze Age Bowl Barrow on Tixall Heath before what remained of it was removed to the church for safe keeping. Its exact provenance is a mystery but in 1818 Sir Thomas Clifford of Tixall described it as having been placed there in around 1803, it being, ‘a very antique stone cross, which once stood before the gate of a ruined mansion in South Wales…It is of very hard moor-stone; the shaft, which has eight unequal sides, supports a tablet of an hexagonal form, adorned with very rude carvings; on one side, a crucifix, on the other, the virgin with the child in her lap. On the edge of the tablet is also a figure thought by some experienced antiqueries (sic) to be St. John the Evangelist’. The cross was said to mark the spot where Sir William Chetwynd of nearby Ingestre Hall was assassinated in 1494, although you might think that after 309 years the moment for a monument to a murder had passed. Who erected it and why they did so after all that time is not recorded.

In 1825, Alexander Wilson wrote a travelogue called ‘Alice Allan, The Country Town etc’ and appears to have had some sort of down the rabbit hole experience, proclaiming that, “When I entered Staffordshire, my straight-forward, regular travelling was at an end”. After insinuating that the residents of God’s own county used to get up to some Summerisle-esque unpleasantness involving wicker, Wilson relays the story told to him by an old countryman whilst driving across the heath. Sir William Chetwynd of Ingestre and Sir Humphrey Stanley of Pipe Ridware were both vying for the favour of King Henry VII, and so Sir Humphrey decided to rid-ware himself of his rival. A letter purporting to be from the Sheriff of Staffordshire was sent to Sir William requesting his attendance in Stafford at 5am the following morning. As he crossed Tixall Heath at dawn, accompanied by his son and two servants, he was ambushed by twenty men, several of whom were members of the Stanley family.

Despite a petition by the widowed Lady Chetwynd, Stanley literally got away with murder. Or did he? According to the story told to Alexander Wilson, some years after he’d killed Bill, Sir Humphrey was thrown from his horse at the same spot on Tixall Heath, breaking his neck. Official records show he died in 1505 and is buried amongst the great and also probably not very good at Westminster Abbey. As of yet, I can’t find a record of where or how he died and so perhaps that old countryman was right and karma did catch up with him in the end. Interestingly, it seems with the Stanleys, the rotten apple did not fall from the tree. An effigy in Lichfield Cathedral immortalises the disgrace of Sir Humphrey’s son, John, a man who committed a misdemeanor so grave that he was excommunicated and had to agree to spending the rest of his death being depicted as paying penance in order to be granted a Christian burial inside the Cathedral. There is no record of his specific wrongdoing but in 1867, the Very Rev Canon Rock suggested that Stanley’s offence may have been that he had spilled blood inside that sacred space. A 17th century drawing of the effigy by William Dugdale shows the stone Stanley bareheaded and bare chested, flanked by two bucks’ horns, wearing a skirt decorated with heraldic arms and armour on his legs. It’s a strong look to carry off for eternity although during the Civil War, the Roundheads did make some alterations in their own unique style… The much mutilated monument can still be found in the Cathedral so do go and see what’s left of him. I bet you there will be a stack of plastic chairs somewhere nearby too…

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engraving

Lichfield Cathedral - Effigy of Captain Stanley: engravingShowing a print of the Stanley effigy.   Anonymous.View Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track


Norton, E (2011) Bessie Blount: MIstress to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing: Gloucester

The Cathedral Church of Lichfield By AB Clifton

Handbook to the Cathedrals of England by Richard John King

Alice Allan, The Country Town etc by Alexander Wilson

Some remarks on the Stanley Effigy at Lichfield by The Very Reverend Canon Rock

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.