Tunnelling through the folklore

The Goodall Street end of Walsall High Street in the 1960s, which I think Brian might recognise as captured by Council Preservation Officers and now depicted in the Historic England Archive.

I’ve had a really interesting email in from the Brownhills Blog Canada Correspondent Brian Edwards who relates a very interesting tale concerning Stonnall, and the discovery of a tunnel there in the late 1960s.

The story is familiar but sounds like a conflation of two to me – the Lost Hoard of Stonnal, where remarkable historical artefacts were found near Grange Farm over a century ago – the finds from which have mysteriously been lost, and the recurring tale of the tunnel from the Old Irish Harp to… Castlehill.

I’m not going to reiterate my view here on this too much, but tunnel folklore is recurrent and this one (although not here) frequently connected with bad boy Dick Turpin. I know lots of places with similar tunnel folklore – Willenhall is said to have a tunnel between the Marketplace Clock and Church; I’ve heard similar for other local villages.

I commend anyone interested in the Turpin connection locally to read this at Wikipedia. The trouble with Turpin legends for me is that for a rum cove operating in cloak and dagger style, he didn’t half seem to make his presence felt…

When considering tunnels and stories of them, consider the following points.

  • Tunnels are hard to construct – laborious, dangerous and something has to be done with the spoil.
  • The bigger diameter a tunnel, the harder it is to dig by hand.
  • Consider the ground a tunnel is alleged to be going through – soft, sandy soils don’t support tunnels and have to be lined. Rock is clearly difficult too.
  • A tunnel is hugely costly. If someone built it, why, at what cost was it worth doing?
  • Usually, tunnels are alleged to be relics of pre-Victorian times, when mining was so poor, we were still digging bell pits. Tunnelling technology was not great then. How much of an engineering feat in the time of construction would this have been?

When considering tunnels, remember there are many difficult and challenging practicalities.

None of this is intended to denigrate Brian’s tale which is fascinating, but I just want folk to consider it carefully. Many people have mentioned this tunnel over the years (some alleging it was big enough to get a man and horse though) yet proof seems scant, and all written material I’ve seen is speculative.

If anyone has records from the historians or geological societies who might have been concerned with this, I’d love to see them.

I’d really like to thank Brian for a great, thought-provoking and high quality article like so many he’s contributed to the blog over the years. Come on, out me as a doubting Thomas… Please do comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at googlemmil dot com.

Brian Edwards wrote:

Did a tunnel run from the old house centre right up the hill towards the White House on the left? Imagery from Apple Maps.

I was reiterating this story to a History teacher friend of mine when I thought it best to also share this with you before it is lost in time.

This is a short story I should tell before it is lost from memory.

When I was attending the Art School of Walsall on Goodall Street back in 1968 by chance I met up with an old high school master of mine and his wife. Alan Lord was the Master of Careers at Shelfield Secondary Modern School. Upon our meeting on the near top of the high street on market day just past the old courthouse we decided upon taking tea at Lil’s Café. The café was just a little farther up the hill from Goodall Street on the left side. Conversation began with a sharing of the general interests in one and other before leading onto the story I wish to share with you.

I am not exactly sure as to which house Alan was talking of but I know that it is a large house situated in the triangle of land that lies beside Main Street where it meets with the Chester road. 

Alan had decided that part of the floor in one of the rooms that was laid with flagstones required levelling somewhat so both his son and he began the task of correcting this. It was on the lifting of the third flagstone that their first discovery was made. As the earth below was dug so as to replace it with sand it gave way somewhat and as they removed more flagstones a tunnel entrance was revealed. The son entered the first few feet of the tunnel before returning for safety reasons but he did not return empty handed. He was carrying both a sword and a helmet. The correct authorities were called and both geologists and archaeologists were brought up from the London Museum of Natural History. It was discovered that the tunnel went as far as the Chester road but from that point on it had collapsed, most probably from the construction of the road. Excavation on the other side of the Chester road was not entered into but it was believed that the tunnel might have run up to an area nearing the old fort at the top of Lazy hill. More artefacts were removed and also a fresco was removed from one of the rooms. It was discovered that the subject of the fresco was a depiction of the local surrounds. The painting was framed as if looking through a window and after more investigation it was discovered that there had been a window near to where the painting was executed. The walls had previously been covered with layer upon layer of wallpaper and it was the removal of these layers and also paint layers below that when the fresco was discovered.

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16 Responses to Tunnelling through the folklore

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    firstly a big thankyou to Brian for this interesting article. I have looked..briefly, through Stonnal History group website but so far have not found any reference. Also, the Lynn and Stonnall Conservation and Historical Sociey published a book, Discovering Stonnall, in 2012. Again, there does not appear to be a reference to this event. Perhaps local newspaper archives, if now open to researchers, may yield something…and even Museum archives etc
    with my best wishes to Brian
    kind regards

  2. aerreg says:

    on the subject of tunnels in my arkives i have an article written years ago regarding tunnels which led from halls and large properties to near bye churches and towns he derived some of them were sanitation points this was due the fact that what they had in coman they all collapsed at the end a soak away they were high enough to for a wheel barrow to be used to carry away the drained sewer another aspect many years ago we were working on over head service electricity line just

    outside lichfield whilst ercecting the poles in the middle of a field a pantry type room was exposed with a tuunel running from it a case of food for thought and all behind god bless

  3. Brian Edwards says:

    Thank you for adding the photograph Bob. Deveys was the place where our shoes were bought; reason being, they accepted Provident Cheques. Many on this blog surely remember the Provy Cheque.

  4. Brian Edwards says:

    To add to this story. Alan Lord said that the entrance to the tunnel had been blocked over after the team from the museum had left. Other frescoes that had also been discovered had been covered over after a layer of preservative had been applied. Mr. Lord was a very genuine and truly sincere person. Remember that this was also reiterated to me by his wife. Maybe a search of records could possibly pinpoint this residence. Have fun.

  5. Brian Edwards says:

    By the way Bob. It is truly brilliant the way you have compiled this story with a view for thought and speculation. Thank you.

  6. Brian Edwards says:

    “Just a thought”, as Bluebottle would say. Maybe someone will remember Alan Lord around the village from his appearance and lead us to where he lived. Alan’s one characteristic that was surely visible was that he had a glass eye.

  7. Tell me more everyone !!!
    Dave (Eddy) Edwards

  8. Neil says:

    As a kid living in stonnall in the 70’s and 80’s I remember the story about the tunnel well. The version I heard was that the tunnel went from the “Manor House” at the top of the village to the church. Realistically that would be too far and fairly pointless. “Evidence” was a long gone strip of different coloured tarmac on the road (presumably from roadworks) that pointed towards the church. I’m sure a more feasible tunnel would’ve been from the “Manor House” under the Chester road and into the field beyond. Wasn’t the house in question a former coaching inn? All interesting stuff. Thanks Bob.

  9. Brian Edwards says:

    A mention for the photograph at top. A friend of mine has just informed me that the building with the cupola is the old Walsall Theatre.

  10. Brian Edwards says:

    Thank you to Neil. You have brought a memory back to light by mentioning of the Manor House. I believe this is a possibility. Also I do remember now that it had been said that there was a tunnel that ran toward a field. This tunnel branched off from the main tunnel. When talking of the Manor House previously as a Coaching Inn, this is also feasible because In Mr Gould’s book, “The Men of Aldridge” there is a map showing that a “Toll Gate” was situated at the junction of The Chester Road and Main Street of Stonnall or there about.

  11. aerreg says:

    just a little more gobbly goo on the walsall picture it got the old grey matter working i noted FOSTERS and then i began to think how mens fashion has changed over the years the shops for men in OLD WALSALL BUXTON AND BONNET HEPWORTH FIFTY BOB TAYLORSTHE LIECESTER HOUSE GREYS HENRYS DUNNS AND IN BROWNHILLS SADLER BROOKS AND CRADDOCKS you may be saying so what have i gone of my rocker no for this this was an eara of pride and manners shoose were polished ties were worn and great respect for others and tidyness was important above stage at the old central school was written MANNERS MAKETH MAN ive never forgot it god bless

  12. aerreg says:

    sorry i forgot dear old joss harding

  13. Steve Lord says:

    Hi all. I am Steve Lord and I am the son of Alan and Mary Lord that lived at Marlais House (the other half of Wordsley House) in Stonnall between 1962-1975 from age 6 to 19. I have been trying to reconnect with Stonnall and the surrounding area through a number of local social history groups. I was directed to this fascinating ‘tunnel’ debate by Graeme Fisher when he asked me if I remembered any of the events as outlined by Brian Edwards. I should say here at the start: a tunnel, helmets, swords and a fresco?…… sorry I only wish it were the case, this did not happen.
    As suggested by BrownhillsBob I think we have a conflation of two or more stories carried across almost 50 years of time by two actual events.

    Maybe I can offer some closure: When I grew up in Stonnall stories of hidden tunnels, as noted by Neil earlier, were not uncommon. Popular suggestions were: one from Marlais/Wordsley to The Manor House, another from The Manor House to the church (now that would be an amazing dig), From The Manor House under Chester road and another from Marlais/Wordsley under the Chester road plus several others. I am not saying that there are no tunnels but we found no real evidence of one anywhere in Marlais House. When I lived at Marlais House all the floors were made from broad planks of oak (no flagstone) I can remember my parents sanding them down. The cellars were constructed of brick (including the floors I think) and although some of these cellar bricks were laid in an irregular fashion suggesting different periods of construction no conclusive evidence of a tunnel entrance could be seen.

    So, where could my fathers discovery of a tunnel come from….maybe this. A concrete, stone and block drive runs alongside the house from the main road down to the stables at the back of the house. This became cracked and loose so we started to pull it up and dug down in an effort to strengthen it. We hit a large regularly shaped piece of thick slate and curiosity forced us to dig around it until we could lift it. Under it was a large chamber so being smaller and more agile than my dad I carefully got into it. Using a torch I could see the chamber was indeed a tunnel and was big enough for me to move through easily in either direction. For a moment we did wonder if the ‘hidden’ tunnel was no longer in hiding, but the truth dawned on us we had simply broken into a drainage channel built to carry the sometimes torrential floods from the farm next door. It was lined with slate and whilst it was big enough for a 11 year old to climb through it would not take a a horse and cart….. oh, and no treasure just mud. If you couple this true story with the tunnel myths and the lost treasure horde you could see how over time it has become ‘smudged’.

    Now for the fresco …. another story to tell if you are still hanging on in there. A year or two after we moved into the house my parents set about decorating the stairs and landings. The house is set on three levels and has a large oak staircase running from top to bottom. At the top of the house the landing opens up into quite a large area. My parents were ripping off several layers of wallpaper and amazing as it sounds found a door entrance under the paper. The door opening had been covered with timber and this was covered in layer upon layer of paper so just looked like the rest of the wall. There was nothing in the room and it did not have a window. The walls were covered in plaster which was in fairly good condition and painted on the walls were simple, child-like sketches, of what I cannot remember. They were not of any historical value and did not appear to be especially old. We only ever used this room for storage so the sketches were left alone and were still there when we left the house. Again a true story that may have become more glamorous over time and may explain the fresco story.

    Brian is right my father was a good man and had great integrity and never prone to exaggeration. My mother whilst equally good may have been more likely to be ‘generous’ with a story and its possible that her creative enthusiasm bled into the tale. I don’t know I wasn’t at the cafe in 1968 but to enhance the tale to the point of suggesting they involved the National museum does not sound like my mum and dad. It sounds more like them recounting several stories together and these stories becoming confused over time. It happens 😉

    Sorry to go on for so long but I hope the above helps.
    kind regards all

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