Exploring the history of Rugeley’s lost hall

It’s always a pleasure to feature the work of other historians here and this has been a longstanding tradition since the very start of this blog over a decade age: Today, I’d like readers to welcome a new contributor to the Brownhills Blog community, Kim A. Osborn whose article below on a lost great house in Rugeley is fantastic stuff and hints at some terrific material to come.

1884 OS 1:10,000 mapping overland on modern Google Earth imagery to give the location of Hagley Hall. Click for a larger version. Image from the National Library of Scotland Archive.

Hagley Hall (not to be confused with it’s more famous namesake) has an interesting history and I must say I was utterly unaware of it at all. The inimitable Kate Cardigan from Lichfield Lore has covered the matter previously in her wonderful way, and apart from that there’s nothing much out there on a house that was only lost relatively recently.

I ‘d like to thank Kim for this, and my apologies for not publishing it sooner; it really is a terrific and beautifully researched piece of work. It reminds me very much of Stuart Cowley’s explorations of Hilton Park which remain popular.

If you have anything to add to the history here, please do – you can comment on this post, mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com or tap my shoulder on social media.

Kim Osborn wrote:

Hagley Hall, Rugeley

Hagley Hall was a large country house within Rugeley— or more accurately originally on the outskirts of Rugeley at the time of construction. Gone today, but still much remembered and celebrated, I’d like to give a little discourse on the history of the hall which was quite unique in ways from other such estates in Staffordshire, or indeed, the country.

1884 OS 1:10,000 mapping showing Hagley Hall. Click for a larger version. Image from the National Library of Scotland Archive.

The original Hagley Hall was situated upon the small ‘island’ that is now in the centre of Elmore Pool, within the towns park. ‘Hall’ may be a bold term, as the site is much smaller than what one many consider conventionally ‘a hall’.  The ‘island’ is a deliberate construction, as the brook was diverted at the time to form a moat around the hall which is the reason the pool exists in it’s current form. It is uncertain why the owners of the land chose to do this, or indeed if this was a later construction than the hall itself, but it is evident that it would be purely decorative in nature and would not be designed as any sort of serious defensive structure – the pond is neither deep enough or large enough to warrant such an explanation.

Records indicate the original ‘moated hall’ was constructed around 1392 by Thomas de Thomenhorn, at the time the Keeper of the Royal Forest of Cannock Chase. Indeed it is suggested he “felled over 100 oaks [within the] bishops chase of Cannock’ according to extracts of the Plea Rolls of Richard II. It was primary a timber framed construction that was so typical of the time and as such little evidence remains of the site other than brick footings and some foundation stonework. Due to the park’s current status, natural erosion, (and health and safety legislation) no significant archaeological survey has been done of the island. But, at the time of writing (Jul 2019) the island has recently has the vegetation cut back [in an effort to combat the goose invasion] and some of the afore mentioned brickwork is now clearly visible. More brickwork exists at the sides of the pool, evidencing the nature of the diverted stream, and is clearly visible in the summer when the water levels drop.

The pool, looking at the former hall site:

Image from Staffordshire County Archives.

However, the better known Hagley Hall was a later construction, located on a small rise some 300 yards to the west of the park. This rise now forms the north-eastern boundary of the playing fields on the other side of the Western Springs Road. The hall building itself [and some surrounding stable blocks etc.] is sadly now demolished but several fascinating structures still exist. Many of these are not accessible to the general public but can still be safely seen from the boundary fences.

[sources: ‘A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 5, East Cuttlestone Hundred’. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.]

[note: The Western Springs Road is a much later 20th C construction which bisected the lands into the ‘park’ and the ‘playing fields’ at that time, historically they were one and the same.]

The later hall was constructed by Sir Richard Weston in 1636, was extended several times – most extensively in 1752 by Sir Assheton Curzon and again in the 19th C by adding more structure to the east side. The former remodelling included the planting of the gardens and lands below the hall which are the primary above-ground evidence of the hall today. Also an ornamental bridge over the Rising Brook was constructed, which has been kept in good condition by the land owners to date despite recent vandalism. It was about this time the site became known as ‘Hagley Park’. In the more modern age, by extension, the playing fields and nearby high school [renamed later and then closed recently] adopted the same name and are commonly referred to as such today.

[sources: Research done by CCDC for the heritage trial, Historic England]

Steel engraving of the Hall circa 1831:

Image from Staffordshire County Archives.

The ornamental bridge:

Ornamental Bridge, Hagley Hall, Rugeley

Ornamental Bridge, Hagley Hall, RugeleyThis ornamental bridge was built in the 1790s for Assheton Curzon in the grounds of Hagley Hall, Rugeley. It spans the Rising Brook as it runs from Cannock Chase, through Hagley and Rugeley to the River …View Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track

 

Apparently, parts of the hall were designed at this time by the much noted architect, James Wyatt. Sadly however I was not able at this time to cite such sources or find further evidence of such – existing sources have been disputed. On the west of the hill was an 18th Century stable block, later converted to cottages, as well as a cylindrical ice-house sunk into the hillside. Also several ranges of brick outbuildings with stone dressings and founding existed as part of the Hagley Farm which utilised much of the lower ground beyond the gardens, now the playing fields.

[sources: ‘A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 5, East Cuttlestone Hundred’. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

A notable resident of the hall in the 19th Century was the Honourable Robert Curzon, a captain of the local volunteer regiment. During his tenure, the hall was used as their offices and the grounds were used for parades as well as open for the leisure of local residents. This link with local military would continue for some time – up to World war One when the hall was used as a centre for the Officers Training Corps. Later the hall came into the hands of the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company – in line with many other structures along the Rising Brook even up to the nearby hamlet of Slitting Mill to the north-west.

[sources: Alan Roderick Haig-Brown – the O.T.C and the great War, p 39]

A good image of the hall at about this time (1900 ish) can be found here:

Image from Staffordshire County Archives.

The Home Guard stationed at the hall:

Image from Staffordshire County Archives.

Image from Staffordshire County Archives.

It was during this time that the hall came to the most severe of neglect and the structure was deemed to be unsafe and unsound. Over a period of time, most notably in 1932, successive demolitions of parts of the hall left little of the original structure remaining by 1967—when ownership passed to the Town Council. Most of the impressive decorations of the hall, both internal and external were gone by this time, as were the extensions built in the 18th century. Plans available during the 1932 demolition show gabled wings at the rear which may have represented portions of the original 17thcentury house before the later remodelling.

[sources: In addition to the above, mainly local parish/town council records]

This remaining part saw various community uses for a time, housing the local ruby club and even as an arts centre, until the remaining surface buildings were demolished entirely in the eighties. The site is now developed for housing, the cul-de-sac road that would formerly been the main approach to the hall being named ‘Bank Top’.

A now sadly much reduced hall, shortly before final demolition:

Hagley Hall, Rugeley

Hagley Hall, RugeleyIn 1941, Hagley Hall was bought by Mr C.J. Whieldon, proprietor of the Green Bus Company, Rugeley. Due to the War effort, he could not occupy the Hall until the Military had exited the property in 1945. …View Full Resource on Staffordshire Past Track

As much of the hall, even neglected, was still extant within living memory, many accounts exist amongst long-time residents of the town about the hall. And due to the grand status of the hall in it’s time, many pictures and photographs exist on the Staffs Past Track website which clearly highlight what a loss to local history and architecture the demolition of the hall has been.

You may have noted that I referred several times to ‘surface’ buildings. This deliberate remark is due to a very specific curiosity of the hall site. Underneath the hall are a series of interconnecting passages and small rooms, often collectively known as ‘the catacombs’ [though strictly speaking they do not qualify such a moniker]. Local legend and tales vary wildly as to their purpose, as does indeed historical and archival descriptions of their construction and possible purpose. Dismissing the completely ridiculous suggestions still leaves many questions as to why these were built. Some have dismissed them as a folly. Some claim they served as war-time storage. But there is little ‘hard evidence’. While they are blocked off from access today due to safety and vandalism — a local team did get permission to enter by the local authorities and took many photos showing a fascinating range of architecture as well as the impressive size of the tunnel network. If this article proves interesting, I shall attempt a second about these tunnels alone.

Another interesting piece to mention is the aforementioned grounds. These have been subject to recent vandalism and the elderly owners of those ground have struggled to pay for repairs or maintenance. A local group has been set up to support those efforts and many seek to open them up to the public for future generations to enjoy.

[Disclaimer: I am not part of these groups and were not asked to promote them.]

Please note that at the time of writing (Jul 2019) that much of the usually publicly accessible site is off-limits due to the recent construction of flood defences under the playing fields.

An ideal visit would be in the autumn or winter months where a lack of vegetation allows clear views of the gardens and ‘catacomb’ entry portals from beyond the boundary fence.

The site itself is private land and in the writing of this article I do not wish to encourage trespassing upon these grounds.

Written by Kim A. Osborn in July 2019, using various local sources and texts. Authors have been cited where possible. Please feel free to redistribute but please leave original credit to the sources in the interests of those respective authors. Not to be published for profit. Copyright is held respectively by the content creators where appropriate. All sources were used with permission

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Exploring the history of Rugeley’s lost hall

  1. Stuart Cowley says:

    Brilliant! So much history in our area if we just take time to uncover it.

  2. Pedro says:

    Ah, now I remember a reference to Hagley Hall in the iconoclastic article “electoral deformity” that had appeared on the Blog, and is mentioned below the article. The Harrison dynasty had acquired Hagley Hall in 1864 from the Curzon family, and sold it around 1879 to the Trustees of Lord Anglesey, a short time after the death of William Harrison around 1877.

    The family had moved from Stafford Street in Walsall to Norton Hall around 1850.

    https://brownhillsbob.com/2014/06/15/an-electoral-deformity/

    I thought that I had recorded information concerning ‘the catacombs’ but can’t find it on the Blog. I will dig it out and post later

  3. Pedro says:

    Having re-read the article I see that Kim may have another post concerning the “cavern”, so I will not steal her thunder and will comment when it is submitted.

    In 1950 there was considerable interest in a huge cavern, 40ft underground at Hagley Hall. Description is given in the Lichfield Mercury of March 1950.

    • Kashi Commodore says:

      Hello! I’m the author, Kim (and a male, tee hee) and I’d love to see your article. You wouldn’t be stealing any thunder at all – please feel free to submit your own work.

      I’m also fascinated by your research into the other occupants of the hall. Never found those sources myself at the time – nice work uncovering that!

      It’s a bit of a shame that the history of this place isn’t promoted in the town anyplace. Perhaps by uncovering more of it, we might spark a little local interest in getting it recognised somehow.

      • Pedro says:

        I made the same mistake with the Black Country historian Bev Parker! My interest in Hagley Hall came from research into the Harrison dynasty of coalowners in Brownhills and thereabouts. In the searching I had come across their short ownership of Hagley Hall and mention of the “catacombs”.

        There was an article in 1950 and the Lichfield Mercury.

        Archaeologists were curious about a huge cavern carved out of solid stone 40ft underground at Hagley Hall. They wanted to solve the origin of what appeared to be a strange “Roman Temple.” The owner at the time believed that the buildings may have been used for by some religious sect for rites which they dare not practice in public.

        The entrance to the cavern is through a maze of low, arched passages leading to a square antichamber, carved out of solid rock. A narrow tunnel connects this with a large hall, about 30ft long and 12ft high, it comprises of a central portion with four massive semi-circular arches constructed of sandstone blocks on each side opening into aisles.

        At the far end is a concave recess with a pedestal resembling a Roman altar carved out of the solid stone wall. Another passage leads to a round chamber with a domed roof and classical pillars carved out of the wall. Many of the walls are encased in concrete or pebble-dash and are all devoid of inscription.

        There is a local legend that it was built by the family at the Hall as a hiding place for one of its members who was a murderer, and from that derived the name “Hermits Cave.” Another theory is that it was used for secret celebration of rituals connected with some pagan or diabolical cult. The fact that until the last century there was in existence a leaden statue of a river God may have some bearing on this suggestion. The altar in the central hall suggests that it might have been used to accommodate an image.

        The explanation most favoured is that the caverns were built to satisfy the whim of an eccentric squire, who decided to copy for his own amusement same building he had seen abroad.

        It goes on to say that with entrance is now bricked up (1950) and the caves are at least 200 years old as indicated by an old oak standing at the entrance

  4. Cariad says:

    The Catacombs under the old Hall are closed off but has by far a more interesting history and use then recorded or known openly. Research is on going by several historians and interested parties and will one day be revealed. There is an octagonal rose garden sunken into the ground now covered . Which was located just outside the recently demolished hall due to the dangers of people fallen into it. The history of The Halls is far reaching as have been the previous owners to which as noted have been many. The fields that the have now been Taken for a supposed flood defence were alleged to have been gifted to the town for recreation purposes however this doesn’t seem to have stopped them being used recently and no thought at the time of change for any vehicle access to the fields now they have high embankments BAD PLANNING by the governing council at present stops any Fairs being held there. Again Robbing this Town of an area used for recreation in its long past history . Hopefully plans to change this problem and rectify the situation will hopefully be made by those that created the problem in the first place .

    The History of this Town is well documented by many and is very interesting its lovely to witness interest being shown in Our Lovely Town long may it continue.

  5. Pedro says:

    Looking at the period 1864 to 1879, when the ownership was with the Harrison dynasty, there is an advert in 1866 for the Hall to be let. There is also a report in 1873 that Hagley Hall was undergoing extensive repairs in preparation to being occupied by Colonel Harrison. This may suggest that Harrison family at first saw the Estate as an investment until 1873 when the elder son of William Harrison, being Colonel John Harrison, was considering to move in.

    William Harrison died in 1877, and was living at Eastlands in Leamington, and may never have actually taken up residence there. Obviously after the old man’s death in 1877 the family decided to cash in.

  6. Bev says:

    Fascinated! will await the article on the underground portion. Thank you

  7. Pedro says:

    STOP PRESS.. Having looked again in the Newspaper archives I have found a clip that states…

    “John Harrison Esq. the purchaser of Hagley, in this place (Rugeley), has given the Rev. TD Atkinson, the vicar, the liberal sum of £20…”

    This suggests that it was John Harrison, the eldest son of William Harrison, who actually purchased Hagley Hall in 1863 and sold it in 1879. John Harrison has been referred to as Colonel and Lieutenant-Colonel, a title gained by association with the Volunteers. His younger brother, William Bealey Harrison would often be referred to as Captain Harrison for the same reason.

    John Harrison was the academic of the family, while William Bealey was very much the “coal” man. William Bealey’s son, WE Harrison would also be referred to as L Colonel due to association with the Territorials.

  8. Helen Cutler says:

    Excellentt and fascinating article – thankyou !

  9. Steve Povey says:

    Very interesting story. I believe the builder of the more recent Hagley Hall (Richard Weston) also built Weston Hall; as well as the Stonehouse which was once owned by my late and great friend Alex Kolacovic, and stands opposite the road into Slitting Mill from Penkridge Bank, on the sharp corner.

  10. Hilary Woodjetts says:

    I remember going to Hagley Hall in the late 60s – I think there was a youth group which met there. I only went the once. It seemed a sadly neglected building even then, and I don’t think the town’s youth had been particularly kind to it. I would have love to investigate the catacombs and look forward to reading more about them, hopefully with some attendant photographs!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.