Monday, 1 September 2014

Ludschurch and the Lollards

Ludschurch is a fascinating if somewhat forbidding place. Some months ago I revisited the place and even in bright sunlight it still has an all pervading gloomy atmosphere. In 1680 the historian Dr Plot described” the stupendous cleft in the rock... the sides steeped and so hanging that it preserves snow all summer”.  It is alleged the deep ravine proved useful when hiding cattle from marauding Scots during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745

The place has strong spiritual connotations and people remain drawn to it today as our ancestors once were. The name Ludschurch might have derived from Lugh the Celtic deity honoured in the festival Lughansa on 1st August. There are stories that sacrifices took place to appease the God as well as visiting sacred areas linked with water. Or the name might come from Llud who appears with his wife Llefelys in the collection of Welsh myths  called the Mabinogion. Their son was Gawain. The link between the writer of the medieval allegorical poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Ludschurch was first made by Professor Philips in a letter to the “Times” in 1958.

 In other accounts the chasm is connected with the Lollards the heretical group who first came to prominence in the 14th century as followers of the radical priest John Wycliffe who believed in a simpler faith. The Lollards, whose  name is thought to originate from an early Dutch word meaning to mumble, attacked the wealth and luxury of the Church. They believed that the Bible should be in English and disapproved of the veneration of images or pilgrimages. The movement was considered by the powerful as a direct attack on their authority and they sought to suppress it. It has been called an early form of Protestantism.

The local story dates from the reign of Henry V who was zealous in his attempts to root out heresy. A local group led by landowner Walter Lud Auk held religious meetings at Ludschurch. They were attacked by soldiers and Walter’s granddaughter named Alice was killed  and then buried near the entrance. The earliest record of the incident was in the 1550s during a period of repression directed against Protestants, so the story could be simply be a myth. However, Lollards were supported by sympathetic aristocrats such as John Oldcastle of Herefordshire( and a model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff)  who rebelled against Henry V in 1414 . He had backing in the remote country areas of the Welsh borders and across the North Midlands. Some support for the rebellion existed in Derbyshire and Burton on Trent and there is an account that Oldcastle took refuge in Lollard supporting communities along the Staffordshire and Derbyshire border. (Nothing however, suggests a Ludschurch connection with Oldcastle). He was eventually caught and executed and the movement lost support among the aristocracy and the middle class as it was now tainted with revolt.

One striking aspect and that is the influence of women , a distinction it shares with another medieval heretical movement the  Cathars. Among the Suffolk Lollard heretics investigated in the 1420s were a number of women. Joan Broughton who was burned at the stake in 1494 was so stout in her opinions that “all the doctors could not turn her from use of them”.

A shooting at Grindon

Any violent death has an impact upon a community even, it seems, after the passage of time. When I chatted to a person from Grindon sometime ago he said that although the event happened nearly 90 years ago and could not possible be in anyone’s living memory it was never discussed in the village. I imagine that what made it the more shocking was that they were  carried out by a leading member of the community and in a very  deferential society like  the Moorlands of the 1920s then there would have been consequences that would have reverberated down the years.

The tragic story was told in newspapers around the country in block headlines that  a Vicar was involved in a shooting incident in a remote, rural area. John Alexander Smith had been Vicar of Grindon, a parish of around 300 souls for 24 years by 1926. He was ordained in 1887 and had been Vicar of Handsworth in Birmingham for 5 years and then Rector of Rodington in Shropshire from 1893 for another 5 years before coming to the Staffordshire Moorlands. In his youth Rev Smith had a reputation as a keen sportsman and in his years at Grindon was well regarded for his pastoral work. His kindness was frequently remarked upon. His wife fell ill and he spent many years nursing her. Eventually Hannah Smith died in February 1926. The Vicar was badly hit by his loss. Smith confided with friends that he was suffering from depression and insomnia. He contemplated drowning himself and told his doctor that he had a desire to smash things. The clergyman apparently suffered a reaction to the medication he had been prescribed by his doctor. He went away on holiday for a period, but found no relief from his anxieties.

No one knows the chain of events that led to the tragic outcome in August 1926. Miss Poyser called into the rectory on the evening of Thursday 12th to deliver milk. She found the dying Hannah Austin the 37 year old house keeper who had been shot twice . Hannah had worked at the rectory for some time and was said to be happy and contented with her lot. It later transpired that Rev Smith had left her a large legacy. Miss Poyser called the landlord of the “Cavalier” Mr Derbyshire and Mr Walters the village school teacher who found the Vicar unconscious in an upper room. He had shot himself in the head. The police arrived and put the Vicar under open arrest, but the clergyman succumbed to his wounds at the North Staffs Royal Infirmary a few days later. The inquest the following month recorded an open verdict of suicide whilst temporarily insane. Reverend Smith was buried in the churchyard by his wife.

 Suicide rates after the First War increased up to the early 1930s especially among unemployed older men who probably had the after effects of involvement in the war to come to terms with. I wondered how the Rev Smith had been buried in consecrated ground?  It seems  the law concerning the burial of suicides changed in the 1880s although suicide attempts remained illegal until 1961. Even in the 1950s people were sent to prison for attempting to kill themselves. Thankfully in 2014 we are more sympathetic to the plight of the desolate.

Dieulacres Abbey and the power of Dreams

2014 is the 800th anniversary of the founding of Dieulacres Abbey near Leek. How the Abbey was established in Leek is a fascinating story. It is a story of how a dream caused a medieval baron to build a monastery beside the Churnet. Ranulph the Earl of Chester dreamt that his grandfather Ranulph de Gernon visited him one night. He told his grandson to found an Abbey on the site of a former chapel to the Virgin Mary which the Earl did. He was a generous benefactor providing the monks with ample funds. The spirit told the Earl to transfer monks from a settlement in Cheshire on the Welsh border. The monastery at Poulton had suffered from Welsh raids, although only established about 50 years earlier. The monks welcomed the invitation of Ranulph to move to Staffordshire. How the Leek monastery got its name is equally an interesting story. When Ranulph told his wife about his vision and the proposed foundation she exclaimed in French: 'Deux encres'— 'May God grant it increase'. Ranulph then fixed the name of the place as 'Dieulacres' and gave it this name when he laid the foundation stone of the abbey in 1214. Dieulacres was a central part of the local community for the next three hundred years.

To the medieval mind a dream could either be interpreted as a message from God leading the recipient on a spiritual path or more darkly an attempt by a night demon to invade sleep. The Anglo Saxon word “mare” in nightmare means “demon”.

 Dreams continued to interest commentators into  modern times although we had to wait for Freud to attempt a systematic analysis. I was drawn to a recent article in New Scientist on the ability to manipulate dreams. In the 1950s a researcher at Chicago noticed Rapid Eye Movements during sleep signifying a time of intense brain activity when dreaming occurs. When people were awakened during this time they were able to tell researchers of their dreams. Taking this a step forward a psychologist as devised an app on a smart phone that could control dreams. The subject sets an alarm and a soundscape, such as walk beside the sea and then falls asleep. The app detects when the person is in deep sleep from breathing and movement patterns and plays the chosen soundscape. Once awake the individual recounts the dream and there is usually a strong correlation between the soundscape and the dream.

Further analysis has revealed that most dreams involve a playing out of some anxiety. They are the result of the mind attempting to deal with everyday worries by reinterpreting incidents. Scientists have found an interesting insight into the dreams of those diagnosed with depressive illness. These dreams are frequently negative and on waking the individual feels sad and dispirited, but those depressives who could alter the direction of their dreams to result in a more positive outcome recovered and eventually recovered their wellness.

Drawing together Ranulph’s experience of a dream that led him on a path of spiritual fulfilment and the modern hope that dreams can be influenced to improve well being it seems that they can play a role in determining our sense of completeness.

The Water Gypsies of Foxt

I have always had an interest in canal boats and boatmen. It probably derives from a childhood spent living near the Trent and Mersey canal in the 1960s when barges were still being used to transport materials such as clay, coal and flint to factories and potbanks but it was an industry in decline

One hundred years ago the industry was still thriving although inroads were being made into it by the railways. In the 1861 national census taken to ascertain the population of the country we receive a glimpse into the self contained lives of the people who manned the craft. In Foxt by the Caldon Canal 16 boats were moored up on the March night the census was taken. The occupants would have lived in cramped conditions as the boats were about 10 feet long and 7 foot wide with only a tiny cabin as a living space.

 One family the Tobeys had 6 people, four of them teenage girls. Matilda Tolley a 1 year old was the youngest person and Joseph Greenhall of Worcester aged 62 the oldest. All the adults were illiterate marking the register with a cross. The boat people were not locally born, most were from the Black Country. They were carrying ironstone for smelting in the foundries of Staffordshire. It would have been a filthy business and the wives of the boatmen would have been hard pressed to keep the boats and their possessions clean, fresh water was always at a premium. The women and the children like 7 year old John Parret or Elizabeth Firkins aged 6 were expected to work. One job that was important was to look after the horse that would pull the barge. The children would often walk the horse which was usually looked after and kept in canal side stables. Consequently the education of bargee children was neglected as families moved around.
Canal people were also called “Water gypsies”  lived isolated lives. They did not mix with the general population and married other boat people. I am sure that the Stokes, Ward and Wond families of Brierley Hill would have been related to each other.

 Boatmen had a fearsome reputation for drunkenness and lawlessness . One newspaper of 1839 describes them as a “ wretchedly debased part of the population”. This charge arose out of a murder that took place in June 1839 in Staffordshire when 37 year old Christina Collins was raped and murdered by two boat men James Owen and George Thomas. She was a passenger on a barge between Liverpool and London where her husband had moved to find  work. They attacked and drowned her at Brindley Bank. The following year the two men were found guilty and hanged at Stafford. (The story was used by Colin Dexter the creator of Inspector Morse in “The Wench is dead”.

The outrage that resulted in the trial and conviction of Owen and Thomas focused on the immorality of the lives of the boatmen heightened by the lack of religion as some would believed. During the Victorian period clergymen sought to bring God to the lives of the “ water gypsies”. One clergymen in Foxt in the early 20th century attempted to address the lack of education of the children of the bargees by opening a school.

Oldest Pub in Leek

What is the oldest pub in Leek? There are a number of candidates including the Green Dragon, the Roebuck and the Wilkes Head. It is often thought that the Green Dragon has the record for the oldest pub in the town with evidence that the Green Dragon as the Swan was called prior to the 18th century having a landlord running the pub at the end of the 17th century. However the esteemed local historian John Band showed me a document that shows the existence of another “Swan” at least 100 years before the pub locals called the “White Swan” until its name change to the “Green Dragon” last summer.

John Band, a collector of 17th century pamphlets and letters concerning the Moorlands during the Civil War, let me have a letter that complained about the behaviour of two early law officers in the town who in 1638 spent too much time in the “Swanne” and not enough time maintaining law and order in Leek. Their drunken condition had in fact led to a near riot in the town

“Andrew Simpson and Henry Whitticars seldom have kepte true watch but when they should have been watchinge in the streets have been drinkinge in the Alehouse, and burgulary hath byn committed in the towne and parties have escaped by reason of the neglecte of the watche. Francis Hulme a boy about sixteen beeinge sent on some business about eight of the o’clock by the mother of the said Francis unto the Swanne and the said Francis meetinge with the watchmen, beinge as it seems drunke, laid hands on Francis as hee was goein on his business and drawing him in and giving hem a Flagon of Ale which he refusing and goein about his business, the said Watchmen gave him opprobrious words and blowes.

Thomas Hulme his father came to his aid of Francis and a mass brawl broke out in the street and the watchmen “did dangerously wounde and stryke him”. Mr Ashenhurst the magistrate became involved and the pair were bound over to keep the peace. The Hulme family feared retribution from Whitticars and Simpson and the writer of the letter requested that the two disgraced watchmen be relieved of their duties.

What sort of place was a 17th century tavern? I was reading the excellent notes from a CD “ Bawdy Ballads of Old England” which paints a contemporary picture of the clientele offering a “ ripe selection of bawdy songs, filthy ballads and scurvy rhymes bellowed out in ale blown voices in detestable boldness , the lubbers roar, the people run, the Devil laughs, God lowers and good men weep”. It is not surprising that the Hulme family did not want their innocent boy enticed into such premises

But where was the Swan? Malcolm and his partner Alison make a convincing case that their pub “ Wilkes Head”(its present name was acquired in the 1780s-)was during some point in its history was called “ The Swan” and during the early 17th century would have stood on the edge of a vastly extended market square. The present market square is its size because of building encroachment during the 18th and 19th century.

Intriguingly the site of the “Wilkes” could be pushed back even earlier as documents also suggest an even earlier name of the “Phoenix” a name for a medieval tavern named after the disastrous fire that burned down Leek in 1297

Leek and the outbreak of World War One

It was a glorious summer, that summer of 1914. The people of the Staffordshire Moorlands were determined to enjoy the season in time honoured fashion by attending events, going on a trip to the seaside, or playing or watching summer sports.

An event that had been going for over 60 years in 1914 was the Endon Well Dressing held in late May. The procession was led by St Anne’s Valley band. The Rev Morris gave the service and crowned Miss Hammersley as the Queen. On the green Morris dancers performed the horn pipe. On the second day a fancy dress was held with Mr Thorley winning the males section dressed as an Indian Chief and Miss Newman the female dressed as Elizabeth 1st. Miss Grundy won the skipping race and in the Milk Churn race for farm hands S Fletcher of Rudyard triumphed.

There were concerns for the people of the Moorlands that summer. In Ireland there was resistance to the idea of granting independence to the island. The Protestant North threatened to rise in armed insurrection and politicians were unsure of the loyalty of troops. One of the MPs against “Home Rule” for Ireland was Leo Amery who attended a packed public meeting in Leek.

The period before the First World War was known as the “Great Unrest” as strike action took place in most major industries. Troops were seen on the streets of Britain.

The campaign to grant women the vote was reaching a crisis. The previous year Miss Davison had thrown herself before the King’s horse at the Derby. The debate was also played out locally. Suffragette Charlotte Despard had addressed a meeting in Leek in 1911. One should recall also the work done at a national level by Hannah Kidd of Leek.

Away from politics locals could enjoy watching cricket as Leek Highfield beat a team from Abram Colliery of Wigan (Abram had been the scene of a major pit disaster 6 years before).

There were charabanc trips out to Wales or one could stay at home and take pleasure in smoking Egyptian cigarettes supplied by Simpson’s. Again the cinema was in its infancy and the curious could see an American film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or catch Kimberley and Melbourne “two favourite comedians” who appeared at the Grand.

A real red letter event was the Leek Rose Festival organised by the Band of Hope (the temperance movement was always strong) with float after float filled with youngsters dressed in the costumes of the people of the Empire. Pride of place went to the Coronation Coach with Queen Carrie Morgan and her ladies in waiting filled with flowers and messages against the evils of drink. The weather was perfect. In the newspaper of the 4th July reporting the affair were details of an assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in a far off little known town of Sarajevo.

Later in July as Austria declared war on Serbia Vera Brittan, mother of politician Shirley Williams took her Oxford entrance exams at Leek Technical College complaining in the heat of the “odiferous” students in the hall. And as British politicians made their fateful decisions to commit the country to war in the last weekend of peace West End Crusaders cricketers played a team from Wardle and Davenport. Of the 22 players 7 would die in the bloodbath that was about to engulf the world.