LHS trip to Birmingham Coffin works and Tipton Cemetery

Shiny new Birmingham is in your face, but look carefully, starting at Snow Hill station cheaply rebuilt after an inept closure in the Beeching era.  You can spot little bits of the old station walls and, most joyfully, the old cast iron toilet still sitting under the old railway arches.

We dived down under the modern road system to follow the Birmingham and Fazeley canal to Newman Brothers coffin works.

The last owner was a lady, who joined the firm’s office as a young girl and worked her way up to the top.  When the market for expensive elaborate coffin fittings dwindled, she decided in 1998 that, rather than make a small fortune by selling the site, she would help set up a trust to keep the building and much of the stock and machinery intact.

The Victorian industrial processes were explained to us and some demonstrated.  Much of the work was difficult and dangerous.  The working day was 12 hours long and woe betide any worker whose concentration lapsed – it was very easy to lose the odd finger.  When a worker had to leave his machine before his fellows, he had to disengage the mechanism as a safety precaution by knocking the leather drive belt off hence the phrase ‘to knock off work’.

Steve and Liz listen to Cornelius explaining the metal press used by women workers

There were baths filled with heated sulphuric and nitric acid into which young lads dipped the metal products- very gently to minimise the chance of splashing the body or clothing, all the while holding their breath to avoid the noxious fumes.

The Shroud room had rows of old sewing machines at which up to 17 girls made these strange garments, some still displayed awaiting a sale.  Our guide explained that the products of this factory were bought for the very wealthy, (Princess Diana and Winston Churchill for example).  The poor were buried in the ground, the rich with their expensive fittings and shrouds, were laid above ground in mausoleums.  Not so hygienic we’re told- hence ‘The stinking rich’. We were also told that the deceased poor have left us another ghoulish phrase – relatives of the dead would burn their old wooden clogs.  The wood went pop, pop as they burned, hence ‘Pop your clogs.’

We ate our lunch in the Victorian pub on the corner nearby and got back on the train to Tipton.  The Victorian civic authorities sited Tipton cemetery well away from most of the population to avoid the ‘harmful miasmas’ thought to emanate from the newly dead. The cemetery is still in use and is a fascinating monument to changing fashions, with some very poignant memorials including the 19 girls, one only 13, who were killed in an explosion.  They were taking old shells apart.  The metals were to be sold as scrap, the gunpowder discarded in a pile on the floor.  The weather was very cold, and the brazier was lit.  A spark flew out and ignited the powder.

JC (pictures EK)


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‘How the Other Half Lived’ : Health & Housing in Ludlow

Talk by Dr Derek Beattie

50-60 Society members were present

Dr Beattie described the changes from 1850 to 1960 in some of the social conditions in Ludlow, particularly in relation to health & housing. He noted that most of the poor people had left no direct evidence of their lives & living conditions behind them. In his recent book and in his talk he wished to ‘bring these back to life’. Conditions for the poor had been very hard; they aged prematurely – particularly women.

In the 1800s spring water was provided by 4 to 5 conduits brought to the centre of town. This was relatively clean water for drinking & the conduits were in use through to the 1860s. However, due to increasing demand in 1820 water was pumped from the river. Because this was a polluted source it was meant to be used only for washing etc. In 1875/76 there was a serious outbreak of typhoid. In Corve St. alone there were 95 deaths. It was recognised that this may have been due to sewage polluted water from the river so from 1884 to 1901 a new single water supply system was made available to Ludlow.

Sewage systems were very primitive. There were many cess pits in the yards behind properties, some up to 20 ft. deep. When full the solids were dug out. The fluids seeped into the ground but many overflowed. Some of the seepage entered cellars. Between 1862-66 a sewerage system was installed which discharged into the R. Corve. Households were encouraged to connect to this but at a price so only the rich responded. The River Pollution Act [1897] called for the introduction of water closets. However progress in Ludlow was slow & in 1907 there were still 500 privies in the town. The number of privies slowly reduced but 12 were still in use in 1920. The privy solids were removed by ‘night soil men’. Nevertheless the introduction of water closets led to some improvement in community health.

In the mid to late 1800s mortality rates in Ludlow were very high. There were only 11 towns in England & Wales with higher death rates than Ludlow. The housing conditions for the poor were dreadful because of serious overcrowding. In Ludlow there was a boom in the glove-making industry with the work being outsourced. To accommodate the inflow of workers property owners built poor quality dwelling cheaply in rear yards/gardens of their larger houses. These brought increased rentals for the landlords. Such developments happened all over Ludlow. These cramped buildings with small or no windows admitted virtually no sunlight. Due to the large number of children & extended families [old without pensions & young members] there was gross overcrowding leading to extremely unhygienic conditions. Dr Beattie gave several examples of 8 or more children sharing 2 bedrooms with parents. Some landlords did not even provide a privy so from such households chamber pots were emptied into the street.

It is unsurprising that infant mortality in the 1890s was so high in Ludlow – well above the national average. There was a turning point in 1923 when Shropshire County Council opened a Child Welfare Clinic & this halved infant mortality.

Diphtheria & scarlet fever were 2 of the main killers. In 1921 88 deaths from diphtheria & 66 from scarlet fever were recorded. The only solution at the time to contain these diseases was isolation but Ludlow Borough Council would not send patients to an out of town isolation hospital because of the cost. It was only in 1923 the Ludlow isolation hospital was built. Tuberculosis was also a killer, with unpasteurised milk the main source. No cure was available until after the 2nd world war. The suggested treatment before this was sunshine, rest & fresh air but what chance of this for the poor living in dark overcrowded dwellings.

In 1931 there was a major housing debate & an investigation into the squalor that lay behind the elegant frontages of Ludlow. The Housing Act, 1931, allowed rehousing of slum dwellers into council housing but it was only after the 2nd world war that Ludlow authorities responded fully to this.

The situation improved greatly with the introduction of the NHS & council housing. However there were not enough council houses but availability of up to 100% government grants to bring existing properties up to modern standards made a major contribution to social welfare.

In view of the present level of affluence in Ludlow Dr Beattie’s excellent presentation of its social history in the 19th & early 20th century was an eye-opener to most of the audience, There were many questions & contributions from members.


WBW 29.04.18

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Derek Martin LHS Chair 2015-2019

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Derek Martin after a short illness.  Derek was our chair for almost four years.  He engaged in the role with enthusiasm, bringing a gentle calm leadership to the committee.  Two of his major achievements were the completion of arrangements for the transcription of Parish registers and the commissioning of a model of Roman Leintwardine which has already become a significant local attraction.  We offer our sincere condolences to his wife, Maggie and their family.

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‘Who do the English think they are?’: From Anglo-Saxons to Brexit, a talk by Derek Taylor

Derek Taylor is a former ITN correspondent who has been our speaker before and came to summarise the substance of his latest book. Many copies were snapped up at the end of his talk.

He began by expressing the confusion that exists between the terms ‘English’ and ‘British.’ Even as far back as Lord Nelson who sent a signal that ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ quite omitting the Welsh!

So who are the English? Does British identity exist?

After the departure of the Romans c410 the remaining inhabitants sought help and according to legend the brothers Hengest and Horsa arrived at Ramsgate in longships and then overwhelmed the Ancient Britons. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought the names of their gods into the days of our week, and Anglo-Saxon words which tend to guttural monosyllables. Then in 793 AD Vikings invaded and settled in the north-east, bringing place name endings such as ‘wick.’ And then, of course, the Normans invaded in 1066. By 1199 England was a backwater in a French empire, governed from Anjou. All those in power were French and spoke French; it was questionable whether the English and their language would survive.

The turning point was the reign of King John (1199-1216) who lost Normandy to the French and thus the barons, owning allegiance to both their Norman and English lands, had to decide which side to support when the kings on both sides of the channel were at war. They decided for England, the monarchy became exclusively English, and the English nation was reborn! The language itself was reformed with French and Anglo-Saxon mingling and producing dual phrases, such as ‘rack and ruin,’ ‘will and testament.’ In later centuries Henry Vlll established the English church, rejecting Papal rule. Over time, we established our own traditions and distinctive characteristics eg eccentricity and inventiveness, a ‘stiff upper lip’ and tenacity, a love of democracy and the rule of law. Some might say there are less attractive traits: arrogance, snobbishness and being straight-laced. Each of these Derek traced to a period in our history. For example, reverence for law stems from Magna Carta, love of democracy from de Montfort’s demand for a ‘parlement.’and he argued that the most important was being able to laugh at ourselves.

In the question time after Derek averred that people who come to live here must subscribe to our distinctiveness.  His statistics regarding DNA evidence for English origins were also discussed, as one study, of 200 English people whose grandparents abode in the same area, showed that 45% of their DNA was from France, not from the Normans, but from the Ancient Britons before the last Ice Age. And if we wished to know more, we should buy the book!

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Noted for Narcissus, The Marches’ Daffodil Decades 1907-1964, a talk by Catherine Beale

Nobody knows where our native daffodils originate but it is suspected they come from the Iberian Peninsula. It was Pliny the Elder who first used the name. The bulb was so toxic that it was used by Roman soldiers as a ‘cyanide’ pill in the event they felt the need to terminate their own life. The ones considered as natives to our island are the Tenby daffodil and the Lent Lily. There is no agreement on the number of species but RHS currently says there are 64, with 13 different cultivars. They were not bred until the 19th century and the Midland Daffodil Society was formed in Birmingham in 1898. The original list of daffodils was a slim paper compiled in 1884, but nowadays the same catalogue is doorstop-sized.

In our area, there were four Presteigne breeders. They were Gwendolyn Evelyn, Dr Nynian Lower, Sir John Arkwright of Kinsham Court, and Alexander Wilson of Middlemoor. In 1909 Presteigne was a very small society and all these were connected in some way.

Miss Evelyn was born at Kinsham Court and moved to Corton when her father died. During WWI Corton was variously a home for Belgian refugees and then a VAD hospital where Miss Evelyn nursed and Dr Lower was the medical officer. Stephanie Arkwight, wife of Sir John, and Miss Evelyn’s aunt was a nurse there, and Mr Wilson was a benefactor.

These four contributed 470 varieties of new daffodils. Consider that it takes between 3 to 6 years from pollination to producing a new flower, and this is a considerable achievement. Plants wore muslin bonnets to prevent cross-pollination.

Dr Lower (1872-1926) lived at St David’s House in Presteigne and amongst the 66 varieties he produced were some with local names, like ‘Beauty of Radnor’ and he gained 5 Awards of Merit. His son, who followed his father as president of the Midland Daffodil Society, gave a cup in his father’s memory.

Sir John Arkwright  (1872-1954) was visited by a Dutch bulb grower who recorded his visits to the miniature daffodils at Kinsham Court, and Sir John’s own servant wrote from the trenches to thank him for the gift of a daffodil seedling, which ‘brought him a little nearer home.’. After his war service (including writing the remembrance hymn) Arkwight returned to Presteigne and began cross-breeding in earnest. Kinsham Court is still open annually to show its 60 daffodil varieties.

Mr Alec Wilson of Middlemoor (1863-1953) previously grew bulbs in Devon valued at £12,000 until they were unfortunately diseased with eelworm. Moving to Presteigne he produced 371 varieties and raised a cut-flower business. The daffodil production was extensive with fields of flowers grown and packaged and sent by train overnight from Presteigne to Covent Garden, until the closure of the branch line in 1964. His collection was given to his daughter Helga Gourlay (mother of Sir Simon). His most famous cultivar was ‘Snipe’ and he had many with local names of which only ‘Felindre’ survives.

There were two more producers in our area. Firstly, Sarah Backhouse of Sutton St Nicholas who spent her life trying to breed a flower with a pink trumpet and white petals; she bred 600 new varieties plus snowdrops and lilies.

And lastly, Major Habershon ( 1887-195) of Hesterworth in nearby Hopesay who had one of the finest amateur collections in the country. These people who bred, showed and judged daffodils, together contributed 10% of daffodils known in 1950. Nowadays, galanthamine, found in daffodils, is being used to slow the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.


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Residents of Hergest Court, a talk by Allan Lloyd

Allan began by showing us photographs of the site at Hergest which includes Castle Twtts (Tumps) an extensive Norman motte and bailey built about 1078. Both buildings are in a bottleneck by the river Arrow, and Hergest Court itself is on a natural mound. The geographical position in the Marches is significant too.

The earliest known resident was Hywel ap Meurig who was supported by the Welsh as he was related to their hereditary princes. He supported the English however, in the person of Edward I and acted with him against the Welsh, and their leader Llewellyn ap Griffith. He was the first to build at Hergest in 1267 and married Martha, the daughter of Sir John Clanvowe. Hywel’s eldest son Philip took this surname of Clanvowe which was more English and therefore acceptable, although Allan Lloyd believes it has a Welsh derivation.

In 1320 the Solar was built, the most significant Welsh domestic building of its era. It has a huge fireplace identical to one in Ludlow Castle with stone seating and glazed windows, denoting wealth. In 1341 Sir John Clanvowe, a crusading knight, died in Constantinople. He was a friend of Chaucer and some of that poet’s work is now attributed to Clanvowe. Allan also tentatively suggested he was influenced by the Lollard leader, John Oldcastle of Almeley.

Sir John Clanvowe was buried with Sir William Neville in a joint tomb discovered in 1913 in Istanbul’s Arap Mosque in a way,(helmets facing each other as if kissing, shields overlapping, impaled coats of arms),  which would suggest a close relationship between the two men.

Image courtesy of Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London

Later residents were the Vaughans of Bredwardine. Their forebear was Moreiddig Warwyn the second son of a Prince of Breconshire who lived at Llangorst Lake. The name Warwyn was given at his birth and means ‘white neck.’ His coat of arms has the unusual image of three boys with a snake about the neck. There is a bizarre legend as to its origin, but Allan surmised more prosaically that Moreiddig was born with the umbilical cord around his neck.

The Vaughan name originates in the Welsh form as ‘Fychan’ or second-born, as Moreiddig was. He died at Agincourt in 1415 and is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V.’ Glydwr destroyed part of Bredwardine castle and the stone from it was used to build Moccas Court.

Kington Church has effigies of the first Vaughans at Hergest Court in 1422 – Thomas and Ellen. Thomas is known as Black Vaughan to this day. He was beheaded after the Battle of Banbury in 1469, his headless body being buried at Kington. This made local people superstitious and disasters are still blamed on Black Vaughan. His hound too is said to haunt the house and area and, Allan believes, led to the story of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ the latter being a local family related to Conan Doyle. Ellen, Black Vaughan’s wife, avenged the death of her brother by killing her uncle in an archery contest.

The East Wing at Hergest Court was built in 1422. The first floor had a library of 362 vellum folios from the Cistercian Abbey near Neath. They comprised the Red Book of Hergest, myths and legends of Ancient Wales, and are now in the Bodleian library. Some of it was written by a travelling Welsh bard who visited Hergest three or four times a year, named Lewis Glyn Kothi (Cothi) (1420-1490). There was also a White Book of Hergest but this was destroyed by fire when it was sent to be rebound in 1808.

The last male heir Sylvanus Vaughan died in 1706. Female heirs kept the name until in 1820 Roche Vaughan married the Bishop of Hereford, a Harley. Their son was the 5th Earl of Oxford and Mortimer and he took over the estate. His daughter Lady Langdale was the last of the family and owned land in Leintwardine. The present owners are the Banks family.

A tour to Hergest has been arranged in the summer, so that we can see the various parts of the building for ourselves.

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Writing Networks: A Literary History of the Welsh Marches c1180 – 1350 by Matthew Lampitt.

Matthew is a 3rd year student at King’s College, London and the title of his talk was also the subject of his PhD, in French. He pointed out that although the Marcher regions of Britain were thought to be peripheral to the royal court in mediaeval times, and hence subordinate to the French court, his researches cast doubt on this impression.

For example, Hereford Cathedral was a scholarly centre, even including Arabic learning. In the years 1195-1200 Canon Simon de Fresne wrote a life of St George and there were links to the writers Gerald of Wales and Adam of Dore whose literary disputes were conducted via poems. There are texts connected to the area which include Adam de Ross’s ‘La Vision de St Paul’ and Wigmore Abbey’s Anglo-Norman chronicle ‘Ancrene Wisse (1200-25), (a copy of which is in the LHS archive) and refers to anchorites’ solitary living in religious buildings. It was perhaps written by Bryan of Lingen, as the language is local and moreover it was given to the church of St James, Wigmore.

The mediaeval scribes of the Marches were multilingual, employing Latin, French and English. Hue de Rotelande, whose quote ‘in Credenhill, at my house’ places him locally, wrote romances set in the Mediterranean, full of disguises and monsters. He also referred to one named Walter Map who was proud of his Marcher heritage, and is known to have studied in Paris, London and Hereford and was in the service of Henry II.  Similarly, the manuscripts of the time which reference our area have been found in places far away, implying that tales from here had a wide audience.

Ludlow in 1310-1350 was a centre for such manuscript writers, and Buildwas Books is the largest surviving UK collection. However, the Shropshire collection of the ‘Harley Scribe’ produced the most works. These were devotional works, one even earlier than Chaucer, whose writers copied out in the three languages others’ compositions. Their patrons were possibly Mortimers, Fitzwarrens and Hereford Bishops, all cosmopolitan figures. Lawrence of Ludlow, for example, was a scribe and a wool merchant who may have garnered his stories on his travels, and which have an Italian influence.

This all demonstrated that our area was not an insular, secluded, monolingual area but was in touch with extensive literary sources.

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