Off the wall

It seems unlikely there were ever tunnels under stoical. But wait up… Drone imagery by Pete Cummings.

Following the revisiting of the Stonnall tunnel legend a few weeks ago, sparked by a great enquiry from our Canada correspondent Brian Edwards, I had some great reader submissions, and a bit of local history news archive gold from Kate Cardigan over at Lichfield Lore, one item of which I’ll hold back for another article.

First up with this, I’d just like to say I welcome and very much appreciated the open discussion on this. I must say, I’ve always been very sceptical about the tunnel, as construction would have been very hard, expensive and protracted, so I’ve always been curious as to who’d go to all the effort for seemingly very little benefit – but I have to say my personal view didn’t affect the discussion too much and it was good to see a whole variety of opinion.

One of the most remarkable contributions come in from new reader Steve Lord, who spent his childhood at Marlais House, one of the buildings commonly implicated in the tunnel legend. I’ll repeat his comment here as it deserves a wide exposure.

Wordsley/Marlais house is an imposing presence on Main Street and the subject of much legend. Archive image from 365days.

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’.

Stonnall gives up it’s secrets sparingly. Archive image from 365days.

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
Steve

The other question raised by Brian’s enquiry was that of the uncovered paintings. Now this does, remarkably have a confirmed root – but not in Marlais House, Wordsley House or The Manor.

Searching around, I found the following passage in the article ‘Memories of Old Stonnall’ by the late Gordon Mycock, which I’ve mentioned here before. The article is published on the Stonnall History Group’s website here.

In this, Gordon intriguingly said:

The House with the Castle Hill Mural

The first building on the right was a house that was occupied by my uncle and aunt and their children, the Wright family. Mrs Elizabeth Wright (nee White)  was my mother’s oldest sister. I would visit to play with my cousins.

The house was very special to me because there was a mural on the gable end bedroom wall which faced up Main Street. There were no windows in this wall. This mural depicted Castle Hill as seen from the bedroom window that overlooked Main Street. In the foreground of the mural, a blackbird was depicted sitting on a branch. The painting was done with oils and, in my opinion, of very high quality.

From a map snippet in the article, it seems that the cottage in question is long gone and  has been replaced by new housing. It’s the one ringed in this 1884/Google Earth overlay:

1884 Ordnance Survey mapping overlaid on modern ogle Earth imagery, showing the location of the ‘Mural Cottage’. Click for a larger version.

The cottage would have been where the two modern red-brick, gabled houses are today, facing the camera, central. I’d welcome any contribution on when the original cottage was lost, and why or indeed, if I’m wrong, which is entirely possible and very likely.

Augmented satellite imagery of Stonnall, showing what I believe are the replacement houses (Red brick, gabled, centre) on the site of the Mural Cottage. Imagery from Apple Maps. Click for a larger version.

Well, it just so happens that Kate Cardigan from the Lichvegas history and real ale collective found the following article in the Lichfield Mercury of Friday, 23rd February 1934. It’s fascinating. Note the name and descriptions correlate.

Please, I welcome further discussion – there must, surely, have been images of this artwork? It’s absolutely fascinating.

Please do comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com – cheers.

CENTURY-OLD OIL PAINTINGS IN COTTAGE.

OCCUPIER’S DISCOVERY.

Interesting Find at Stonnall.

DECORATED WALL HIDDEN BY COLOUR WASH.

AN extremely interesting discovery has been made at Stonnall, where decorations in a cottage bedroom executed in oils, which have been hidden under numerous coats of colour-wash for probably a century, have just come to light.

The cottage is occupied by Mr. Herbert Wright and is a very old building.

Some little time ago he happened to scrape some colour-wash off this particular bedroom wall in preparation to paper it, when he noticed something dark underneath, and, becoming curious, chipped off the colour-wash and then rubbed the surface with linseed oil.

It was immediately apparent that there were decorations underneath the distemper, and with much care he cleaned all the walls of the room, to reveal decorations and borders the whole way round, all executed in oils, while on one side near the window, was a large painting of a castle.

This window looks right out on to Castle Hill and Castle Chapel, and the painter evidently painted this from “still life” out of the window.

STAG-HUNTING SCENE.

This picture is a very effective picture of a castle on Castle Hill, and the chapel, while in the foreground is a stag-hunting scene and a huntsman whose dress would be about the end of the seventeenth century.

The other decorations consist of large baskets of fruits, hollyhocks, fox-gloves, roses, etc., and run right the way round the room.

When a ” Mercury ” reporter and Mr. J, Smith (the Lichfield oil-painter) visited the cottage on Wednesday. Mr. Wright traced the occupiers of the cottage back, these in rotation being Mrs. Voyse, Mr. White. Mr. lngley (now in British Columbia), Mrs. Wall,  ” Fiddler ” Atkins,
and Mr. Stevens, the latter being there approximately a century ago.

Nobody in Stonnall. he said, had any idea of whom had carried out the oil paintings, and even the very old people had no idea of their existence, this being the first time they had come to light.

MYTHICAL CASTLE.

The work, although not exceptionally good from an artistic point of view, is interesting historically, and is in all probability the work of a scenic artist. Possibly he was working at one of the country houses in the district and just lodged at Stonnall for a time, idling away his spare moments by decorating his own room.

Whoever it was, his successors showed scant respect for his abilities when they daubed colour-wash over it. But it has been an excellent preservative.

The castle in the picture appears to be a flight of imagination engendered by the name “Castle Hill.” however, for there was certainly no castle there a century ago. and we have no trace of there ever being a castle there. Perhaps some readers can enlighten us on that point?

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6 Responses to Off the wall

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    this is an amazing article in every sense. What immediately catches my eye is the location of the cottage and its description. Was this building etc used as a builder’s yard and office in more recent years?
    a huge thanks to all concerned in bringing this to light, and to yourself for the precision and presentation
    kind regards
    David

  2. Graeme Fisher says:

    Excellent stuff!
    The location of the cottage is correct. I suspect it was demolished in the early 1960s. A surgery was built on the site soon after, around 1965, the gift of Miss Edith Spears, who also funded its’ maintenance for the next quarter century. It was built, I understand, as a memorial to her late mother.

  3. Paul Brayford says:

    Hi Bob
    I lived a few doors away from 1960 to 1977, my mom lived there until the 2000s. I remember the cottages , their demolition, the building of the wooden surgery and then after I left its demolition and replacement by the new houses. As I remember the cottages were in a L shape and were at least two of them In one was a family, and I was friends with the children. Can’t remember what they were called. My mom remembers getting water from them in March 1963 when our pipes froze. I think it must have been 1965-6 when the surgery was built. Miss Spears mother was still living with her when I was very young. All corroborates what Graeme has to say.
    The builders yard was the other side of Miss Spears house, part of a longer range of cottages. They lasted until some time in the 1970s.

  4. Hi Bob. My husband’s grandparents lived in Stonnall in the 60’s/70’s and he remembers the stories of a secret tunnel between the church and the big white house on the hill.
    Also there was a story about the field next to Stonnall , the one with a solitary tree sitting at the top of it (as shown in one of the pics above). The story was something about someone/something being buried under the tree of what then, used to look like an imaginary desert island, but years of farming have slowly eradicated it down to how it is presently.
    Any ideas or information, or was this a case of an over exaggerated story ?

    Thanks, Bob.

  5. Sheila Norris ( nee Jones) says:

    Re hill with solitary tree as shown in picture. I went there occasionally with my Mum as a child. She told me the legend was that Roman legions marched through the area and one soldier stuck his wooden stave/ spear in the ground, left it behind and it rooted and grew into the tree ( pretty old tree!). She also said the hill was supposed to be haunted and the roman legion ghosts still walked there at night!

    Best wishes,

    Sheila.

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