Walsall Legends

My husband grew up in the Highgate area of Walsall, where the malty aroma from the local brewery used to hang in the air and the local kids would tell stories about the mysterious ruined windmill. Thought to have been built in the late 1600s to grind corn, Highgate windmill has a fascinating history which you can read more about here in this article by Walsall historian and writer Stuart Williams. If you want to go and have a look yourself, go sooner rather than later. Once spring gets properly underway, it’ll be hard to see the mill for the trees.

Highgate Windmill

Highgate Windmill, Walsall

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Last Summer I could barely see the windmill but did spot this painted board through the trees.

Sadly, there’s not even a whiff of brewing in the air at the moment – the Grade II Listed Highgate Brewery hasn’t been operational since 2010 and stands unused behind the locked centenary gates (purchased and installed by the Friends of Highgate Brewery in 1998), its future uncertain at present.

Highgate Brewery

Highgate Brewery

Yesterday, as well as visiting the family, we went to have a look around the Art Gallery and the town. On the way back we passed the pub that we once knew and loved as the Brewery Stores & Vaults. Back in the late 1990s, it was one of the liveliest places in town but now, like the brewery whose name it bears, it stands empty, expect perhaps for the hooded figures and disembodied heads said to lurk in the cellars

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We continued our way back over the limestone hill where the church of St Matthew’s has dominated the Walsall skyline since at least the thirteenth century (although it has only been know by that name since the eighteenth century – it was previously ‘All Saints’). The first time we walked up this hill together, Mr Gomez told me that it was paved with medieval cobbles. I’m not sure if that is true but it’s something that has fascinated me ever since, as has the arched passage on the east end of the church, covered in graffiti and with curious niches on the east side.

As well as this overground passageway, there are supposedly underground tunnels running from here to the White Hart Inn at Caldmore, Barr Beacon and Rushall Hall.  In a history section of the Walsall Council website, there’s a quote from a Mr G of Bath St who in the 1950s said one of the entrances to the tunnels was located at the bottom of some steps of a toilet which once stood on Caldmore Green. He also added that he had been told by some old women that during the reformation, some priests went down the tunnels to escape and were killed after they were filled in.

St Matthew's Walsall

St Matthew’s church, Walsall

Wasall from the Art Gallery.

St Matthew’s Walsall as seen from the Art Gallery.

Medieval cobbles

Medieval cobbles leading up the hill?

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew's

Passageway under the chancel of St Matthew’s

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Niches in St Matthews passageway

Niche interest

One of my favourite stories about St Matthew’s and Walsall is one I read recently in a book of Staffordshire folktales.  Apparently, the church was originally supposed to have been built on a meadow at the ‘Churchery’, now known as the Chuckery. However, this was where the fairy folk danced and so, naturally, they objected to the plans and took matters into their own tiny hands, moving the foundations of the new church up the hill to the site where it stands today. In another version of the story, the church was moved by witches who had transformed themselves into white pigs.

We walked up a good appetite in Walsall and so we finished our day at the legendary Hargun’s Sweet Centre on the Caldmore Rd, intending to take some goodies back to Lichfield, although they never actually made it past Walsall Wood in the end. Anyway, what I learned today is not only that you can eat a lot of baklava in a twenty minute car journey, but also that once in a while, it’s good fun to explore what’s on someone else’s doorstep.

Sources

Walsall: Economic history’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part) (1976), pp. 180-208.

http://www2.walsall.gov.uk/History_Projects/Caldmore/A_Walk_Around_the_Green/18.asp

http://www.stmatthews-walsall.org.uk/info/mainhistory.shtml

http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk/TALE-WALSALL-PARISH-CHURCH-FAIRIES/story-20122807-detail/story.html

Staffordshire Folk Tales by The Journeyman

Review of the Year…1884

Around this time, we seem to get the urge to look back and reflect on the events of the dying year. However, as I’m sure memories of 2013 are still fresh in your mind, let’s imagine instead that it’s the year 1884 that is drawing to a close and take a tour of the ‘Chronological List of the Principal Local Events’ of that year, courtesy of the Lichfield Mercury.

I never did get around to arranging that New Year's Eve party at the Friary Clock Tower...

I never did get around to arranging that New Year’s Eve party at the Friary Clock Tower…

In January, we have the adoption of fish dinners in the Lichfield Union Workhouse and a local government board enquiry into the affairs of Walsall Workhouse.  Whatever those affairs may have been, the next entry informs us they were concluded and moves on to the conviction of Thomas Skelton, a Lichfield Jockey and Trainer, fined £5 for assaulting a commercial traveller at Nottingham. The Trent Valley Brewery Company were in trouble too, alleged to have illegally seized the goods of a Southwell brewer. There was yet more excitement towards the end of the month with a ‘daring till robbery’ at Mr R Cleaver’s shop on Tamworth St.

Sports news in February when Lichfield Cricket Club decided to rent the ground previously known as the County Ground, to raise funds for a pavilion and to obtain the services of a professional cricketer. Over at Hednesford, the Poultry and Pigeon show took place over two days. Mrs Scott’s annual sale of work in Lichfield (who Mrs Scott was and what she was selling is tbc). More seriously, there was an inquiry into the sanitary conditions at the Birmingham Road Barracks in Lichfield, and a railway accident at Sutton Coldfield left an engine and guard’s van wrecked. As the month progressed,  the Brethren of St John’s Masonic Lodge decide to present a statue of Queen Victoria to fill in one of the niche’s on the Cathedral’s Western Front and the Lichfield Board of Guardians decided not to extend the workhouse. The month ended on a high with the Lichfield Old Fair.

March began with trouble on the railways –  a ‘slight accident’ at Lichfield and the commitment for trial of a Cannock Chase miner for attempting to wreck trains near Lichfield, both of which events warrant further exploration. Sir Arthur Scott at Great Barr passed away, as did Lichfield Workhouse Master, Mr Winkely, replaced almost immediately by Mr and Mrs Williams.

At the beginning of April, there was a meeting at Rugeley to condemn the ‘Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill’, and the sad discovery of a soldier found dead in an entry of Rotten Row in Lichfield. The inquest, unable to determine a cause of death, simply returned a verdict of ‘Found Dead’. In the middle of the month, the Lichfield Spring Races took place and the Sister Dora Memorial Convalescent Hospital at Milford was opened. On the 22nd, the Bishop of Lichfield said goodbye to the Derbyshire Clergy, as the county left the Diocese. and over at Brownhills, William Henry Wombwell was convicted of non-delivery of voting papers in the Local Board of Brownhills elections.

May 1884 was a grim month.  Two miners were committed for trial for shooting a man at Gentleshaw and the trial of the seventeen year old miner who attempted to wreck at train on the Trent Valley Line concluded with him being convicted and sentenced to seven years penal service. There was more trouble at Walsall Workhouse when the Master, William Pritchard, was accused of embezzlement and there was a tragic accident on the Walsall Rd, when a young man shot himself. One positive thing that took place this month was the rededication of the restored Western Front of Lichfield Cathedral.

Festivities in the month of June included the Court of Array and the Greenhill Bower, and the decoration of Dr Johnson’s Statue by the Staffordshire Yeomanry who were assembled in Lichfield for a week’s training under the command of Colonel Bromley-Davenport. Yet within days, things had taken a sour turn with a disturbance between the Yeomanry and Lichfield civilians and then the sudden death of Colonel Bromley-Davenport in St John St. In the days that followed, an inquest into the Colonel’s death, returning a verdict of ‘death by natural causes’, was held, as was a Military Court of Inquiry at Yeomanry House on St John St into the disturbances which had taken place.

July brought with it the closing of Fair Oak Colliery, a ‘Great Temperance Fete’ at Hagley Park, Rugeley and a guilty verdict for Mr Pritchard, the Walsall Workhouse Master, who was sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment for fraud.

August was a quiet month. The cornerstone of a new mission church was laid at Chase Terrace and there were a lot of sheep sales – the Beaudesert Flock and the Freeford Flock amongst them.

September was more eventful with the opening of the Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield Railway for goods traffic and of course, the annual Sheriff’s Ride. There was a fire at Mr Williams’ chemist on Bird St and Mr Peattie, of the Old Crown Hotel died from injuries sustained after being thrown from a trap near Whittington Barracks.  There was an Autumn race meeting at Lichfield, as well as the fifth annual Working Men’s Association Produce and Poultry Show.

In October, the Mercury reported on riots and destruction of property at a Conservative rally in Aston, Birmingham and the presumably much more sober affair that was the ‘Annual Festival of the Lichfield Diocesan Church of England Temperance Society’ rounded the month off.

November saw the opening of the new Lichfield City Station, an event seemingly marked with tragedy when, ten days later, a railway porter was killed there. Councillor J H Hodson was elected Mayor and there was a dinner at the Swan Hotel for the outgoing Mayor, T H Hunt. The Lichfield Board of Guardians were back to discussing the extension of the Workhouse again.

As the year drew to a close, there was another railway tragedy when a guard was killed on a siding at Shenstone, on the same day that the new Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield Railway was opened. The year ended with Lichfield Cricket Club deciding to purchase their pavilion for £150, a performance of Handel’s Messiah at St James’s Hall, a bazaar at Elmhurst Hall to raise funds for St Chad’s Church tower and finally, on 30th December 1883, a Great City Tea.

As well as the obvious interest of following up on some of these stories, something I find fascinating about something like this is how it’s so locally orientated, but then every now and then, you get glimpses of what was going on in the big wide world outside of Lichfield, and our corner of Staffordshire. I’m also tempted to look back over copies of the Lichfield Mercury for 1884 to see if I agree that these were the ‘Principal Local Events’ of that year or just something that the writer threw together in a hurry.

Of course, as well as looking back, it’s also a time to look forward. I may not be reviewing 2013 here but do just want to mention that I am looking forward to 2014, and especially the upcoming walks, talks and workshops that we’ve got planned for our group Lichfield Discovered. More to come on that shortly.  This history lark is always more fun when you do it with others and on that note, I’d just like to say thanks for reading the blog, especially to those who contributed in some way, whether by providing information or support and encouragement along the way. A very Happy New Year to you all!

Gathering Moss

Walking around the edge of Beacon Park, I noticed a pile of moss covered stones in the undergrowth that I’d never seen before.  To me, they look like part of an old building, possibly pillars? It’s a long shot I know, but does anyone recognise them or have any idea as to where these pillars (if that’s what they are!) may have come from?

Whilst on the subject of ‘parts of old buildings found in unexpected places’, I have to mention my old favourite Fisherwick Hall. Back in January, I wrote an article for the Lichfield Gazette which mentioned that the hall had been demolished, but that parts of it had been reused elsewhere. After lying around for some years covered in moss, the pillars from Fisherwick went to the George Hotel in Walsall – you can read the great post written about the hotel by Stuart Williams of Walsall Local History Centre here. However,  I had no idea what had happened to the pillars, following the demolition of the hotel in the 1930s. Therefore, I was delighted when Paul (the editor of the Lichfield Gazette) told me that someone had contacted him, saying that some years ago he had seen them lying on a patch of ground near to the cricket ground in the Highgate area of Walsall. The gentleman described them as lying in pieces and covered with moss and lichen. Sounds familiar! Coincidentally, the site the gentleman described is a stone’s throw from where some of my relatives live, and so the next time I visited I went to take a look, but I had no luck in finding them. So near, yet so far….

Back to our Beacon Park stones, and someone from the Beacon Street Area Residents’ Association has very kindly said that he will ask the people in the know i.e. the Parks team and the Civic Society if they can shed any light on the matter. In the meantime, he’s left me pondering the fact that parts of the old bandstand and cycle track are also apparently also still around in the park somewhere…

Beacon Park bandstand c.1905
Source: Wikimedia Commons