Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sir Laurence Tanfield

Such was the popularity of a recent post covering one of the many ghost stories in my (to date) four books, I offer up another chilling tale from my book Paranormal Cotswolds. The following story comes from Burford in Oxfordshire. I selected this narrative as it was so well received when I was invited by BBC Radio Oxford to record five stories to be broadcast in the week leading up to Hallowe’en in 2009.

Sir Laurence Tanfield’s career encompassed lawyer, politician and landholder, a highly prominent figure in the country between 1583-1625. Born around 1551, his earlier years are something of a mystery but we do know he was admitted to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1569 and his success enabled him to purchase an estate at Burford in 1583 and later lands at Great Tew. Burford Priory was built at his behest on his lands where a mental hospital had previously stood.

In 1584 he entered parliament as MP for New Woodstock, twenty years later he was returned for the county of Oxford and knighted by James I. The king had been a guest of Tanfield's en route to London in the autumn of 1603 and clearly enjoyed an excellent rapport with Tanfield. In 1607 Sir Laurence was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, a position he held until his death.

However, while his professional career was undoubtedly successful, in Burford and Great Tew the inhabitants had a revealing story to tell. By 1617 as Lord of the Manor of Burford, he and his wife were involved in a number of disputes with both the inhabitants and the local administration. Indeed the reputation of Lord and Lady Tanfield for being greedy and corrupt remains a part of Burford folklore. Having stripped Burford church of every valuable, purported to be in settlement of a dispute with the then vicar, although the circumstances regarding the dispute and the supposed agreement are suspicious, the people thereafter saw him as 'the very devil among us'. So reviled was he that the people of Burford celebrated his death by burning an effigy of Lord Tanfield around the anniversary each and every year and continued to do so for over two hundred years.

It was probably unwise for his widow, who herself died three years later, to return to the church of St Catherine's and erect a quite astonishingly outlandish monument to her husband, which also allowed for room for her when her time came. The craftsmanship of the sculpture is unquestionable, the design ugly and clearly not the result of anyone with the talents to produce such work but undoubtedly produced exactly to the orders of the widow. However perhaps the sculptors, embarrassed by the work they had likely charged an exceptional sum of money to produce, made their own comment on the memorial. Bending down to look underneath the carving one will see a frail skeleton, invisible to the casual observer and unlikely to have been part of the widow's thoughts. Is it suggesting that, in death, no money and power can save any from the same inevitable end?

Yet the story does not end there, for Sir Laurence is still said to be about today. He has been seen driving a coach pulled by four impossibly black horses in a number of places around his former estates. It is claimed that each and every one of these witnesses suffered bad luck following the sighting of the phantom coach and its notorious driver, although how the vision of the coach and horses is identified with Sir Laurence is unclear.

Furthermore it has been suggested that the skeletal carving beneath the sculpture was not created by mortal hand but a warning added by the lord of the manor announcing his return to this world after his wife's death.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Devizes in Wiltshire

A snippet from one of the forthcoming books on the origins of place names. This time it is the county of Wiltshire and the town of Devizes.

Recorded as Divises in the 11th century, this name is one of the very few places in England of Old French origin. Here the name is from devise to describe the '(place at) the boundaries'.

Locally we find Dunkirk, a common minor name in England referring to the Flemish town which was an English possession during the 17th century. The Brittox describes its location near the castle gates, this being fortified by stockades, and Castle Street is of obvious derivation as indeed is Long Street. Trafalgar Place, too, is clearly a reminder of one of the pivotal battles in history.

Hillworth Road speaks of its destination, Wharf Street was cut alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal, Morris's Lane remembers a prominent local family, and Estcourt Street was named after Thomas Estcourt, MP for Devizes from 1835 who served as Home Secretary in the Earl of Derby's government of 1859.

Pub names featuring animals are often heraldic, when a colour is specified they are always from a coat of arms. The White Bear refers to the earls of Kent, the Pelican Inn could refer to Corpus Christi College in Oxford, the Dolphin is featured in many crests and particularly those associated with the sea, while the Black Swan was a mythical creature and a symbol of a rare individual until the discovery of Australia where black swans are indigenous.

The locality would have given a name to the Bridge Inn, The Millstream, and the Southgate Inn; an association with the church is seen in the Bell by the Green and the Lamb Inn; hunting was the inspiration for the names of the Fox & Hounds and Hare & Hounds; and patriotism gave us the Queens Head and the British Lion. The Cavalier will have spawned numerous stories with suggested etymologies, when the most likely is simply it makes a splendid image for a sign, although it does also suggest a royalist and a patriot.

The message at the Four Seasons is telling us it is open all year round, while making an attractive sign usually depicting four separate images. Finally there is the Moonrakers, a name which is said to have originally come from Wiltshire. Locals tell the story of how the Customs and Excise men came looking for smugglers, finding them dredging the waters apparently to retrieve casks of brandy. However the leader of the group, pretending to by an idiot, told them they had seen a large cheese in the waters and were trying to find it. The customs men soon realised the supposed 'cheese' was in fact the reflection of the full moon.

The Three Crowns show the nations of England, Scotland and Ireland all coming under one monarch; George & Dragon clearly points to the patron saint of England and his most famous enemy.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bloody British History: Stafford

As part of the series Bloody British History, here is a glimpse at my forthcoming volume on Stafford. Not every story involves the spilling of blood and gore or even disease and pestilence as can be seen from the following excerpt.

During the nineteenth century shoemaking was among the major employers in the town. Many worked from home, for the work was mostly done by hand. Workers owned their own set of tools, keeping them in excellent condition and guarding them well. Clearly this was a significant investment and without such would be unable to work.

Thus when one Mr Singer made important improvements to the sewing machine people of Stafford had good cause to be worried. A job they had done by hand all their lives could now be mechanised and production increased greatly. This was fine for those who could afford the new technology but for the rest it spelled financial disaster. The workers could see no alternative but to take strike action.

Yet this could not be a withdrawal of labour in the modern sense but was indeed such in a very real sense for they left Stafford in their droves. Many went to Nantwich in Cheshire. Fairly close to their home town and, more importantly, somewhere the sewing machine had yet to reach. Hence they took lodgings in Nantwich, bringing with them their skills and earning much-needed cash.

Of course their former employers were suffering from a lack of quality but did manage to keep supply lines open with a smaller workforce who were able to produce shoes much faster even if of poorer quality, the new machines could stitch the uppers at some 1,500 to 1,700 stitches per minute.

Yet the manufacturers could not let this continue, poorer quality would eventually lose them business altogether. Customers would find other suppliers in Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Chester and Wolverhampton more than willing to step in. Stafford employers were at a loss to understand just why their workers refused to undergo minor retraining just to use a machine which would make their working lives much easier.

However they were not the only ones to feel the impact. Far harder hit were the families of those whose apparent move away from Stafford was simply to find work. The men found themselves work alright, lodgings were much easier to come by in those days, but the wage packets never found their way back to Stafford. Left without a breadwinner, Stafford suddenly found itself home to women with children rapidly descending into destitution. This was absolutely unacceptable and led to a Stafford shoemaker complaining of how their former workers were “taking the strike as an avenue to divorce”.

Not all shoemakers had deserted their hometown. Poaching was a common way to add to the meagre menus of the majority and, for those with the knowhow, their quarry could be sought directly. This left out the middle man and the only expense was in time and trouble. Oswald Beeman had been adding to his table for years, meaning more of his hard-earned cash as a shoemaker could be spent at the local pub instead of the butcher. With the strike he saw the opportunity to fill his pockets and simply spent more time poaching.

One Thursday in May, Beeman was in the grounds of Creswell Hall, his favourite hunting place. When he saw a keeper approaching he panicked and, as he attempted to unscrew his gun in order to hide the pieces in his voluminous pockets, managed to discharge his gun. Hit from point blank range, the bones in his left leg was utterly shattered above the ankle. Rushed to the infirmary he paid a high price for his illegal activities for that leg was amputated at the knee. Perhaps this was considered to be adequate punishment for there is no record of him ever being charged for his crimes.

Six months after the strike began to hit one manufacturer called a meeting with his competitors. Something had to be done to encourage their workforce back to Stafford otherwise not only would their families starve but they would soon be out of business. An agreement was reached whereby all would pay an extra penny on shoes and twice that amount on boots and welts if they return to work and accept the new technology.

As the workers came home to Stafford the businesses were saved and wives and children were no longer forced to beg for food. While no companies went out of business as a direct result of the strike, it is impossible to gauge whether their action did lasting damage either to the town or the industry.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Devil’s Churchyard

Near my home, and dominating the view to the north when travelling along the A5, is a wooded ridge. On the Ordnance Survey Map it is named the Devil’s Dressing Room, although I have never been able to discover why. Access is restricted, making close examination impossible. Yet this does not seem to be particularly ancient woodland. Thus either the name is comparatively recent, and therefore a created name, or where trees had been cleared and have regrown and thus an ancient name and one which was not recorded on very old maps.

To link the Devil to minor place names is not unusual, indeed it is surprisingly common which may be a clue how these names rarely refer to Beelzebub himself but to someone seen as wicked or known for some evil deed. Whilst I have no idea of the origin of his Dressing Room, from Minchinhampton, near Stroud in Gloucestershire comes a story which I do know. I suspect the story was told in an attempt to explain why there was no local church but this depends upon whether the story predates the name or vice versa – and that is something we will never know.

Hyde Farm gets its name from that Saxon measurement of land, the hide. Most often said to equal 120 acres, this is simply an average because the ‘measurement’ refers to productivity and not area. It is extremely difficult to quantify a hide, the reason can be seen in the accepted definition of “the amount of land required to feed one family for one year” where there are so many variables – the size of the family, quality of the soil, skills of the farmer, choice of crops, all have to be taken into consideration.

During the twentieth century Hyde Farm has been associated with flight. Today it is owned by the local gliding club but was once a base of operations for the Royal Air Force. This military presence had the effect of isolating the farmworkers as much as it did the official personal who had made it their temporary home. Even after the end of the Second World War rationing remained in force for a number of years, making life hard for all and particularly so for those who were just starting on married life.

It was a warm day when one farmworker broke for lunch. Recently married, both he and his wife worked long hours and would have looked forward to the few hours each day they spent together. Perhaps that was where the young man’s mind went when he entered a small copse away from the heat of the sun and cab of the tractor to open his lunch box. Having just taken a second bite his thoughts were interrupted by a most awful noise from the depths of the copse. Looking up he saw a mist and, as he watched, it began to gather into a most unnatural form. This was enough for the poor man who fled, leaping into his tractor and driving off as fast as the lumbering farm machine would allow.

Not being a local man he was unaware of the reputation of the copse as a place of evil. An area where no bird was heard to sing, of inexplicable darkness, where chills were felt on the warmest of days. Many years before the community, tired of trecking to neighbouring villages for Sunday worship, had asked for their own church to be built and this field had been selected. Agreement was reached and eventually work started.

Foundations were laid down and walls rose reaching half their eventual height. During the night something happened and the sight which greeted the workers when they returned next morning astonished them. Before them were no walls but a collection of stone blocks strewn around the site but not seemingly having fallen. They built them back up again but, once more, they returned next day to find the walls dismantled. Four more times this happened and the workers abandoned the site.

No reason was ever found for this act of superhuman vandalism, yet the community soon offered their own explanation. Ever since this field has been known as the Devil’s Churchyard.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.