Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Ghosts of Staffordshire Moorlands- Halloween Special

A couple recounted to me a curious episode when they were driving on the A53 near Flash. It was early in the morning and on the road they saw dressed in a very old fashioned way a rider on the road. The man was wearing a long brown cloak with an unusual design at the neck and a pipe stove hat, in short he was dressed for a person from the early 19th century. The couple were driving towards Buxton and were passing a path on the left which the horseman was turning to use. After only a few yards down the track the man and horse disappeared in mist in front of their eyes. The couple told me emphatically that they had seen something unexplained. They later carried out research which suggested the sighting was well known.

It is nearly Halloween and people will be out looking to see if they can experience a ghost. I have never seen anything although I did hear something odd in a Georgian house in Lancaster- it was the sound of a child skipping on bare floorboards in an empty carpeted room. I have frequently been told very strange incidents that have happened to local people. A Farmer told me that his dead father called to him over some fields at Rushton. A man claimed that a well in his house near Ipstones was haunted. A work colleague was clear that she saw the ghost of a child at a house in Leek. Locals in Bradnop claim that a ghostly dog haunts the grave of a dead Highlander. A friend researching a 19th century murder in the Peak District got the uneasy impression that he was being watched when taking photographs of the scene.

People seem to believe in them and in increasing numbers, both in Britain and in the US. In the case of the later over 50% and the proportion has gone up markedly since the Second World War. And women are more likely to believe than men. The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn't want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren't looking out for us, or with us in our times of need?.

But I shall end by recounting another Moorlands ghostly horseman- the Headless Horseman- who rides the hills around Onecote. It is a well established legend which many locals will know. I was talking to a local woman whose grandfather farmed at Onecote. One autumn evening he recounted the story of the Horseman to his young grand daughter. As he finished the tale they could hear in the lane leading to the farm the clip clop sound of a horse getting closer and closer to them. The sound unnerved the old man as he feared that the spectral rider was near. Fortunately it was a van with a flat tyre making the “trotting” sound.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Crime watch 1642

Mr John Band of Leek has showed me a fascinating collection of documents dating from the 17th century concerning Leek at a time when the country was caught up in the Civil War. The collection is made up of journals, newspaper accounts and letters which gives a real flavour of the time- and a really turbulent time it was.

A letter signed by the prominent citizens of Leek and dated early 1642 is indicative of how law and order was breaking down before the onset of the war which started in October. The period was a very harsh one. The late 16th century and the first decades of the following one saw a series of harvest failures, the possible result of climate change, food price rises and inflation hitting the poor hard. Famine conditions frequently occurred. Roving bands of impoverished were a common sight in England and the response of the authority was one of panic as the example from Leek shows.

The letter was addressed to King Charles 1st representatives complained about riotous disturbances in the town especially on market days.

“ Unto which said markets and ffairs there have usually come and repaired divers misbehaved, deboyst and felonious people not only to the disturbance of his Majesty’s peace committing many felonious acts amongst said inhabitants, but also among other of the said majesty’s liege people”.

(“Deboyst” means corrupt or depraved and appears in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and “King Lear”}

According to the writer of the letter the answer to the bands of vagabonds and beggars was the construction of a cage and stocks. But Leek being Leek was that no one would pay for the work hence the need to go cap in hand to the authorities in Stafford.

“Accordingly whereby the saide worke beinge a thing of soe great necessity & consequence is likely to bee neglected & utterly loste of unlesse by yor hono worships yor petitioners may be herein relieved”

Of course, England was not the only part of Europe where disturbances occurred. In 1642 the Thirty Years War which had convulsed Central Europe was coming to an end with approximately a third of the population of Germany dead and the countryside ruined. Ireland had been in rebellion the previous year with atrocities recorded.

And in Holland the problem of fecklessness was addressed in a unique way. Simon Schama in his book on the 17th century Dutch Republic describes, not quite believing, the existence of a “water house” in Amsterdam which ne’er do wells were tethered and put in a cell which filled with water and were forced to work a pump to stop from drowning.

I am sure there are people who would agree with such a contrivance existing now!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Carlos Trower- African Blondin

October has been for several years now been designated Black History Month. The Black existence in the Staffordshire Moorlands has not been  marked although the occasional account indicates that there were people of colour passing through the area from the 18th century onwards. I subscribe to the British Newspaper Archive and some time ago I read of a visit made to Rudyard Lake by Carlos Trower the “African Blondin”  so called after the French tightrope walker who was the first to cross Niagara Falls who Trower admired..

Trower was born in the late 1840s in New York and began tight rope walking at an early age. He appears to be a natural performer who worked on perfecting and developing  his craft. He first performed at Rudyard in 1861 while still a teenager.

 By the 1870s he was well known in the country and regularly performed at various venues around the country. In June 1878 he made a triumphant return to Rudyard Lake.

 The Sentinel of the 28th June 1878 carried a full account of his show in which he performed before a crowd of 10,000 admirers. The lowest admission price was 1/6.  Special trains ran from Manchester, Macclesfield and  the Potteries. There was a grandstand erected for the wealthier spectator and the audience were grouped on three sides of the lake. A tower was erected and a rope strung 100 feet above and for 200yards over the water. Additional weights  were added steadying  the rope. The weather had been hot and fortunately by the evening a cool wind began to blow although this added to the danger for Trower. A band struck up “ See the Conquering Hero Come” to announce the start of the demonstration. The crowd cheered as he began to walk slowly over the 6 inch rope adjusting his balance to suit the breeze. He made his way to the centre of the rope and sat down acknowledging the applause. He returned to the tower and reappeared with a stove and cooked and ate a meal on the rope. Carlos finally was blind folded as he walked above Rudyard Lake one more time

The Sentinel concluded “ At the close of his performance a hearty cheer attested the satisfaction almost universally felt at his gallant performance”

Trower returned to the States in 1878 appearing at a Coloured Persons Celebration in Brooklyn, Connecticut and Coney Island which indicates that he was sensitive to the  changes that had effected the black population since Emancipation.

As can be imagined his occupation was risky and he fell or was injured on several occasions. Early in his career he fell and was badly injured at Beverley and in 1886 he was receiving hospital treatment in London following an accident. By this time his career was in decline and he was having increasing bouts of ill health. He died penniless in an Asylum in Bow in 1889. His great grandson Ron Howard of Essex who helped me with this article visited Rudyard some years ago  to see the site of his ancestor

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Buxton Rock Festivals 1972-4

I was looking through the 1974 archive of the Post and Times when I was staggered to see an advert for the Buxton Rock Festival which featured a billing for the “New York Dolls” appearing with the likes of Mott the Hoople, the Faces and Lindisfarne. The thought of the “Dolls” one of the founders of punk playing in a muddy farmer’s field near Hollinsclough was bizarre to say the least.

In the week of the Leek Blues and Americana Festival which was held in various pubs around the town perhaps it is timely to reflect on the hardy souls who for three years camped out on wind swept, rain lashed moors to listen to some world renowned rock bands.  This was a Glastonbury with flairs and Afghan coats at an altitude of 1500 feet. Perhaps a campaign medal ought to be struck? The 72 Festival had “Steppenwolf” whose “Born to be Wild” featuring in the cult film “Easy Rider” was an anthem to disaffected youth. Apparently they played an excellent set. The following year top billing was shared between Canned Heat and Chuck Berry who spent some of his act showing a drunken Hell's Angel how to duck walk before leaving quickly allegedly without being paid. The Angels engaged in a drink fuelled mud fight while Canned Heat played on- imagine a sort of Peak District Altamont.  The bar was provided by Samanthas of Leek. In 1974 the festival was held over two days in July although the weather was worse. It rained more or less continuously. Ronnie Wood playing with the Faces complained that it was so cold that his fingers were numb and he could not play. Over the weekend a number were treated for hypothermia although the sun did break out momentarily to ironic cheers when Roger Chapman formerly with “Family” sang “My friend the Sun”. It is rumoured that Rod Stewart did not get paid and who knows looking down on the sea of mud under a leaden sky might have persuaded him to move to LA.

I never went to the Festival, I may have been put off  by the cold and the real prospect of looking like Jack Nicholson at the end of “the Shining”, The truth , however, was  that I could see many of the bands in the comfort of Trentham Gardens or Vicky Hall. I saw groups like Mott the Hoople, Groundhogs, the Faces, Curved Air, Lindisfarne and Wishbone Ash and many others in the Potteries over this period. As for the “Dolls” they did not appear. Anyway, perhaps they might drop into the Wilkes Head soon fulfilling their contractual obligation of nearly 40 years ago?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Harrying of the North- William I and the Moorlands

I visited Pickering Castle in Yorkshire in August. Its a Norman Motte and Bailey structure constructed as a result of the Anglo Saxon uprisings in the North and the Midlands against the rule of William the Conqueror. First to revolt were the Mercians who joined forces with the Welsh under Eadric the Wild and went on the rampage along the Welsh border. William came north and defeated this Saxon/ Welsh alliance near Stafford. In retaliation Staffordshire and Cheshire were put to the sword. Discontent continue to  simmer especially in the North which exploded in 1069 when Norman officials were murdered. William  ensured that the Danes were bought off who had sided with the rebels in Yorkshire and then began the systematic strategy which became known as the “Harrying of the North”. The Normans slaughtered  ,destroyed crops and livestock and burned down towns and villages. The ground was salted to ensure nothing would grow and the survivors left to starve.

 A chronicler wrote “ there was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses, cats and dogs. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword or famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of beasts and savage robbers”.

I was chatting with an archaeologist in York who told me that it has been calculated that over 100,000 people died as a consequence of William's actions. Interestingly from the size of skeletons discovered in the Anglo Saxon period and for hundred years after William's the average height of the peasantry fell by 3 inches. He felt that it was the consequence of the Feudal System.

As far as the Staffordshire Moorlands the immediate impact of the “Harrying” were catastrophic. Many communities were abandoned  The Doomsday Book established by William to survey the wealth of the country 20 years after Hastings demonstrates this poverty. Several villages are registered as having no population such as Endon, Sheen, Rudyard and Grindon. Leek had 28 households and Cheadle 11. The Norman  invasion saw also a radical transformation of land ownership in Caverswall, for instance, prior to 1066 the land was possessed by Wulgeat of Madeley, in 1086 the owner was Arnulf of Hesdin originally from Picardy and a friend of  King William. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellions only 4% of land was in the hands of old Saxon aristocracy and I am guessing that the population of the upland areas was lower than before the Roman occupation of Britain. It took many years to recover.