Every Object Tells a Story: Artefacts from the Lichfield Museum

We welcomed the husband and wife team of Carol and Peter Griffiths for our November meeting at Wade Street Church. Volunteers at St Mary's Heritage Centre, they brought along a number of historic artefacts, around which they wove some fascinating tales. First came some pieces of medieval leather. At first glance, something not very exciting you might have thought. These pieces, along with many others, were rescued from a council rubbish tip in Lichfield, where they had been dumped back in the 1970s, along with silt and soil from works associated with Minster Pool. Experts duly dated the leather to the thirteenth or fourteen centuries. Fortunately, immersion in the damper ground conditions in the vicinity of Minster Pool had ensured preservation. One fine survival clearly showed that it was a mostly intact sole of a shoe. This leather came from shoes which, incidentally, were assembled inside out and then turned the correct way round. They were known as "turnshoes". Delving into poll tax records, Carol and Peter's detective work revealed that there were a couple of cobblers working in Lichfield in 1380, as well as a healthy glove making trade - as perhaps would be expected from a prosperous cathedral city.

Next came a memorial brass plaque to Sir Thomas Tyldeseley. "He is not a well-known Lichfield person", I hear you say. Yet again, Lichfield's depth of history astounds. Born in the Parish of Leigh, near Wigan to a wealthy local family, Sir Thomas was an ardent loyalist who supported King Charles throughout the Civil War. He fought at Edge Hill and was entrusted with the safe passage of the king's wife, Henrietta Maria, from Hull (where she had landed) to Oxford. He was captured and imprisoned in Stafford Castle for a year by the Parliamentarians. Rejoining Royalist forces, he was present at the three month siege of Lichfield Cathedral Close, commanding the Royalist forces for part of that time. By 1651 he was present at the Battle of Wigan Lane in Lancashire, where he was killed. In 1679, the citizens of Wigan erected a stone memorial to his memory, attached to which was the said inscribed brass plaque. In 1886, the wording on the plaque was transferred to the memorial and the plaque then disappeared for many years before mysteriously turning up at a newspaper office in Hertfordshire. Rescued, it has found a home at St Mary's Heritage Centre.

Producing a small, well constructed wooden box, Carol explained that it was made by one of the French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic period who were lodged at Lichfield. This particular box had been presented to the City Council in 1943. Over 80 prisoners were brought to the City in January 1798. Forty more arrived in 1809 and a final batch of 17 came in 1810. These men, if officers, were often accompanied by family and servants. Imprisonment was not contemplated for any of these so-called "prisoners". They occupied local housing, the quality of which varied with their status. They were allowed to move about freely in Lichfield. Local residents did not take to them, despite, by all accounts, their new guests being most law abiding. Lichfield's own Anna Seward was particularly exercised by the rude manner in which they were treated. Nevertheless, some settled into the local community permanently, church records showing instances of marriage. So some of our longer term resident families may have French blood in their veins!

Peter concluded with the gruesome Victorian tale of a Norton Canes murder, commemorated by Edward Buckley of Heath Hayes. Buckley was a well known woodcarver and the Centre holds one of his carved walking sticks, duly inscribed with details of the murder.The victim was young farmer William Masfen, who on 1st July 1893 was found shot and beaten in a ditch. Police soon arrived (possibly through a tip-off from a George Pearce in an attempt to avoid arrest himself for other crimes) at the home of 19 year old poacher Thomas Hewitt, who quickly confessed to the crime. Hewitt was under age and should not have been sentenced to death, as he was at Stafford Assizes. Asquith, the Home Secretary, turned down the appeal for clemency and Hewitt was duly hung on 15th August 1893 at Stafford Jail. So, we ask, did his father commit the crime and did Thomas volunteer to take the blame, thinking that he was too young to be hung? We shall never know.

The exhibits brought by Carol and Peter show just how rich a heritage we have in Lichfield. We heard that many more exhibiits (all with equally fascinating stories to tell) are held by the Heritage Centre. There are far too many to display. With the radical reorganisation of the Centre as a consequence of the relocation of the library to St Mary's, we hope that Lichfield's varied and colourful history will remain accessible to both its residents and visitors and not find itself hidden away in store.

Roger Hockney
November 2016