From time to time, I like to feature articles out of old gazetteers here on the blog – they are a great love of mine, and they help shine a new light on old, familiar places, as well as giving a neat insight into the times they were written in.
My favourite gazetteer writer has to be Arthur Mee, who wrote the immense ‘King’s England’ series, covering every county in England, one book at a time. Each book, published progressively in the mid-1930s contains potted, neat reviews of places the author thought noteworthy, and a little history thrown in for good measure. It’s not impartial, has some very odd takes on society and history, and is often just plain incorrect. But I do love it so.
The curiously English work of Arthur Mee has haunted me since I discovered it as a teenager. Arthur was a writer and journalist of the late Victorian and interwar period, who was known for writing The Children’s Encyclopaedia, Children’s Newspaper and for his a series of English county Gazetteers. Arthur was very much a man of Victorian values, and it shows in his writing and judgement.
Today, I feature Wednesbury, Shenstone and Burntwood. I picked these three specifically, as today, they’re totally different places as they would be in Mee’s day, but they all have hidden, notable histories. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago, when looking for something relaxing to read before bed, I pulled the Staffordshire book off the shelf, and dipped into it.
Kate Cardigan of Lichfield Lore recently did a fantastic article on Burntwood. Do read it if you have time.
If you have anything to add, please feel free: comment here or BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.
WEDNESBURY. A large town playing its part in the age of iron and steel, yet with a memory older than Christianity in England still lingering in its name. It is believed that on this hilltop where St Bartholomew’s church now stands was once a heathen temple to Woden, the great Norse god, the god who received heroes into Valhalla and had two ravens to keep him posted with the news of the day. It is thought, too, that Wednesbury is the place referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the scene of a fierce battle between Saxons and Britons in 592.
The modern Christian temple on the hill is a fine place. Its interior is enriched with a wealth of beautiful decoration, carved screens, alabaster panelling, and lovely stained glass. And there are ancient treasures too. The lectern is older than the Reformation and is believed to be unique in England. It is a gilded fighting cock made of plaster on an oak pedestal. The great picture shielded by curtains is a Descent from the Cross by Jean Jouvenet, a French artist of the 17th century. Several of his big canvases are in the Louvre, among them another Descent from the Cross. The carved oak pulpit of 1611 is one of the finest in Staffordshire.
On the sanctuary wall are the kneeling figures of Thomas and Eleanor Parkes of 300 years ago, with six children below them. Someone has written here of Thomas that he was
His countrys lover.
His church’s beautifier,
His poor’s benefactor.
On an altar tomb lie the figures of Richard Parkes (who died a few years later) and his wife Dorothy who gave the church a beautiful chalice. Carved here with a huge head, Richard was ‘much wanted, and lamented when he died.’
On the wall is a memorial to Isaac Clarkson, a 19th-century vicar who served for 35 years. We see his portrait again in the Art Gallery in Holyhead Road, where, as well as pictures, there are collections of ironwork, pottery, tapestry, and woolwork. Among the treasures of this museum we found the side of an embroidered silk waistcoat of the 18th century, a Buddhist prayer-wheel, a uniform, sword, and spurs worn at the charge of the Light Brigade, and a piece of the earhest gas-piping known, from the floor of William Murdock’s house at Handsworth
SHENSTONE. On a windy hilltop, below two towers, sleeps the last of Nelson’s captains, Admiral Parker. He was a middy at 12, commanded his own ship when he was 21 and took part in the famous chase of Villeneuve, the man who lost Trafalgar. By 1812 he was rich enough to buy Shenstone Lodge, where he lived for 15 years as a country gentleman, but he answered his country’s call in 1827, and 14 years later sailed to China, where he captured many towns and won a knighthood. In the 30 years which followed he did much to establish a high standard of discipline in the navy.
The old church he knew was pulled down in 1852, but the 13th-century doorway and the old tower are here. In the churchyard, a magnificent view-point, is an old font. The new church has in its own tall tower an oak reredos with a panel of St George and the Dragon, and a wheel window in memory of the Admiral.
BURNTWOOD. It has illustrious names in its story, names such as Darwin, Johnson, and Peel. It may be that Literature owes it thanks for an ingratitude, for it permitted one of the greatest of Englishmen to languish in neglect where he might have prospered in inglorious obscurity; it let him fail and wander in poverty to build for himself a temple of immortal fame.
The church was built soon after Waterloo, on ground given by the father of Sir Robert Peel. Two miles away, behind a belt of lofty trees, stands Maple Hayes, a fine house with the famous Botanic Garden laid out by Erasmus Darwin, and celebrated by him in verses famous for their prediction of steam locomotion and mechanical flight.
It is a more enduring place in literature that Burntwood owes to its neighbour Edial, where still stands the 18th-century hall regarding which the Gentleman’s Magazine published the famous advertisement in 1736:
At Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young gentlemen are boarded and taught the Latin and Greek Languages by Samuel Johnson.
Here he came, a bridegroom of 27, with Tetty as his bride, a widow of 47. He was ‘lean and lank, so that his immense structure of bones was hideously striking to the eye,’ deeply scarred, his hair ‘straight and stiff and separated behind,’ and given to convulsive starts and gesticulations that excited surprise and ridicule; she was stout, florid, and painted, flaring and fantastic in dress, and affected in speech and in behaviour.
Only three pupils answered the advertisement, David Garrick, his brother George, and a boy named Offley, but for 18 months Johnson kept the school going for them, little dreaming that his Davy would one day tell the story of his ‘tumultuous and awkward fondness’ for the wonderful Tetty, and mimic the gait and gestures of the weird genius who was to make him a great master of elocution and enable him to restore Shakespeare unmutilated to the stage.
Convinced that schoolmastering was his great chance, Johnson formulated a system of teaching the classics which he thought must eclipse all its predecessors, yet he found time to write here nearly the whole of his tragedy Irene. It was with this as his sole literary asset that in March 1737 he closed the door of the house behind him, and, with Garrick for his companion, set out for London, ‘when I came with twopence-halfpenny in my pocket, and thou, Davy, with three-halfpence in thine,’ as he used fondly to recall.
Who shall say that if Staffordshire had sent her sons here to be educated by him Dr Johnson might not have missed his immortality? She neglected him and drove him to the pitiless capital to live on eightpence a day when he had it and to starve for 48 hours at a time when he had not, but in spite of all to write and talk his way to fame.