History

So what is the connection between Hamstall Ridware and the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ author Jane Austen?

Read on to find out …

The small, rural village of Hamstall Ridware is situated about four miles north-east of Rugeley in the Blythe valley. Pipe Ridware, Hill Ridware and Mavesyn Ridware are situated nearby, giving rise to the local collective description of The Ridwares.

Early History

By the time of the Hearth Tax assessment of 1666, a total of 35 households were assessed as liable for the payment of the tax, with a further 12 households considered too poor to pay. The largest dwelling, Hamstall Hall, had 30 hearths while the rector’s house had five hearths. By the time of the census of 1851, there were 391 inhabitants.

The parish church is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels and dates from the Norman period. There were substantial additions in the 14th century, notably the tower, chancel and chapel. Among the clergy who have served at Hamstall Ridware are the Reverend Edward Cooper, who wrote religious works and was rector for 34 years from 1799-1833, and the Reverend John Octavius Coussmaker, rector of the parish for 37 years from 1884 to 1921. A paten and chalice dating from the 14th century were dug up in 1817 at Hamstall Hall Farm. The theory is that is was buried by the rector at the time of the Civil War in order to protect it. An earlier rector, Everard Digby, was dismissed in 1603 for not being in sympathy with the Puritan doctrine.

The mediaeval lords of the manor of Hamstall Ridware were the de Ridwares. Later the estate was owned by the Cotton and then the Fitzherbert families. It was acquired by the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire in 1601. They owned the estate until 1920. In that year the estate was sold off piecemeal, largely to existing tenants. Hamstall Hall itself dates from the early 17th century and may have been built following the purchase of the estate by the Leighs. The brick hall is very largely demolished, although there is still a courtyard with a range of buildings and the gatehouse, with its two polygonal turrets, still stands. Associated with the Hall were a number of relics including a scold’s bridle, a metal device to stop a nagging woman from speech.

Recent History

Hamstall Ridware has always been an agricultural village, although farming has declined substantially of late. In the 19th century the usual agriculturally-related trades, such as wheelwrights and blacksmiths, were also to be found.

A school was first built in the village in 1809 by Thomas Leigh and was rebuilt to provide larger premises in 1906. It later became the Blythe Valley County Primary School and was closed in July 1983.

You can find out more about the history of the four Ridwares by looking on the website of the Ridware History Society.

Did you know…

Jane Austen, the great English novelist spent about five weeks in the late summer of 1806 with her cousin, Edward Cooper, at the rectory in Hamstall Ridware.

Jane’s mother before her marriage was a member of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Abbey. The Leighs also owned the manor house and its estate at Hamstall. Edward Cooper, the rector, had married one of Jane’s cousins on her mother’s side.

In the late summer of 1806 Jane Austen, her mother and sister, travelled up to Hamstall from Bath, visiting family at Stoneleigh en route. She was not yet known as a novelist, none of the three novels written by this time having been published. However, recent researches have shown that Hamstall Ridware almost certainly features in “Sense and Sensibility” which came out in 1811.

In the book, the fictional Delaford is set in Dorsetshire but many of the features match quite well with what the novelist found at Hamstall:

“Delaford is … a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit trees in the country… Then there is the dove-cote, some delightful stewponds,* and a very pretty canal …. it is close to the church … a butcher hard by in the village, and a parsonage-house within a stone’s throw.”

And it was in this idyllic setting that Jane Austen chose to settle her heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, one in the manor house, the other in the parsonage.

*fishponds

Find out more at the website of the Jane Austen Society.

The Ancient Office of High Sheriff

Sarah Elsom has written a piece about the history and duty of the High Sheriff of Staffordshire which is quite intriguing, and probably much else too. Read it here.

THE HIGH BRIDGES: A BRIEF HISTORY Part 1: The Stone Bridge

The ability to cross the Trent, which was formerly a wider and more complex river, punctuated with islands and inlets, was essential from earliest times.  Communication and trade between the people of Ridware and Handsacre necessitated some form of river crossing, and by the Roman period, this was probably the direct route between Wall to the south and Uttoxeter and Rocester to the north.

The history of the High Bridges goes to the very heart of the history of Ridware.  Margaret Gelling, in “The West Midlands in the Early Middle Ages”, says that the name Ridware is a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Welsh (i.e. British or Celtic) elements: Ridware, though now attached to four settlements, must originally have been the name of a group of people, formed with Old English ware ‘dwellers’.  The Ridware were the dwellers near a feature called Rhyd, from the Welsh word which means ‘ford’. The settlements are in wet country between the Rivers Blithe and Trent, an area where river-crossings may well have been particularly important.

The name implies that the Anglo-Saxon settlers saw the ford across the River Trent as the most important feature of the area.  In fact, it has been suggested that the people of Ridware not only dwelled by the Trent crossings, but may have controlled them in some way, perhaps through levying a toll.

We do not know when a bridge, probably made of wood, replaced the ford.  Place name evidence suggests that there was a bridge at least from the Norman period, as one of the three open fields of Mavesyn Ridware is named Bridge Field.  There is a 13th century reference to Ridware Bridge, and later, the crossing became known as the High Bridges.  This consisted of a series of bridges, crossing islands and inlets, across the river itself and a wide expanse of marshy ground.  The word high, in this context, almost certainly means most important, as in High Street or High Court.

Until the end of the 17th century, parts of the High Bridges were built in wood, while the main bridge over the river was of stone.  Stebbing Shaw describes this bridge at the end of the 18th century:

High-bridge is an old erection of stone, seventy-four yards long, and about eleven feet wide between the parapets, it having seven pointed arches, with angular recesses over the piers, and a very low parapet…

In 1839, the Staffordshire historian William Salt commissioned two artists, T.P. Wood and John Buckler, to make drawings of the old bridge, after it had been replaced by the cast-iron bridge. To view these, please visit the Staffordshire PastTrack website. The deterioration of the bridge is very noticeable, with the road surface abraded, and the stone work of the parapets broken and decaying.  All in all, it looks like a very dangerous structure.  During the course of the 18th century, road traffic had increased enormously, and it was decided to replace the stone bridge with a modern cast-iron structure.

THE HIGH BRIDGES: A BRIEF HISTORY Part 2: The Cast-iron Bridge

In the course of the 18th century, vehicular traffic increased enormously.  Road surfaces were normally of clay, surfaced with gravel, and were frequently impassable.  Theophilus Levitt JP of Lichfield stated that the road from Lichfield to Uttoxeter over the High Bridges was ‘impassable in winter’.  In 1729, the road from Lichfield was turnpiked as far as the High Bridges; in 1766 this was extended through Hill Ridware to Abbots Bromley and Uttoxeter. 

For one hundred years after the road from Lichfield to High Bridges had become a turnpike, the stone bridge continued to carry increasing traffic.  Efforts were made to improve it.  Not only was the bridge narrow and dangerous, it also took a tortuous cross-country route, which was probably dictated by the earliest inhabitants crossing this marshy river valley by using whatever fords and islands they could.  The old bridge stood downstream of the current bridges, with the road leading off from Common Corner, behind Mavesyn Nurseries.  It crossed close to Willow Cottage and followed that track down to Kings Bromley road.  It then followed a line roughly parallel to the modern road, which it joined between Marsh Barn Farm and the Trent & Mersey Canal. Sometime before 1830 the County took the decision to straighten the road between Hill Ridware and Handsacre, and to replace the old stone bridge with modern cast iron.

When this bridge was constructed, with a span of 140 feet, it was one of the largest single-arched, cast-iron bridges in Britain.  It was designed by Joseph Potter, the County Surveyor, who had also built the Chetwynd (or Salter’s) Bridge over the River Tame, near Alrewas, in 1824.   Building took place between 1829 and 1832, when it opened to traffic.  The Coalbrookdale works of Ironbridge produced the 500 tons of ironwork at a cost of £3,782.  We believe that the iron was brought from Ironbridge to Handsacre Wharf by canal, loaded onto horses and wagons, and then assembled at the bridge site.  The masonry for the abutments was supplied by William Frith at a cost of £3,005, probably from quarries at Tixall and Weston.  The total estimated cost of the bridge was £9,493.

We can easily imagine the new bridge being a source of wonder and civic pride to the inhabitants of Ridware and Armitage, who were used to travelling across the rickety and rambling old stone bridge.  However, a contrary opinion was expressed by one Michael Turnor, who wrote, ‘The Bridge itself is the most preposterous thing that can be imagined – it is by speculations of this kind that our County rates are kept so high.’

As part of the work to construct the iron bridge and straighten the turnpike from Hill Ridware to Handsacre, a tollhouse was erected north of the bridge.  The house is now Mavesyn Nurseries. 

THE HIGH BRIDGES: A BRIEF HISTORY Part 3: The Bus Accident of 1952 and the Modern Bridges

In the parishes of Armitage and Mavesyn Ridware on the evening of 18 December 1952, the River Trent was in flood and the fields icy, as people returned from work.  Around 6 p.m., Alan Hammond, who farmed at Pipe Place Farm, on the Handsacre side of the Trent, heard screams coming from the direction of the river.  He found a bus standing, right way up, amazingly, in 9 feet of fast-moving water.  It was a Whieldon’s Green Bus, the 5.10 from Uttoxeter. He was soon joined by a group of contractors, one of whom was dispatched to summon the emergency services.

There were nine passengers on board, including Olive Sammons of Hill Ridware.  Hammond and the others managed to get ropes to the passengers, who had climbed to the top dock, free of the water.  Two were hauled to the shore and Rock swam back to rescue a severely injured woman.

When the Police and Fire Brigade arrived, a 20-foot extending ladder was used as a bridge and all the remaining passengers were taken off.  Olive Sammons was not among them.  A crowd of about 200 had gathered, among them Percy Sammons, the husband of Olive, and a desperate search along the riverbank was made.  To add to the strangeness of the scene the lights of the bus remained on and its horn blared continuously.  At about 10 p.m. the bus was winched up.  The body of Olive Sammons was discovered on the lower deck.  The inquest found that she had died of a fractured skull.

It was eventually determined that the bus, approaching the bridge, had met a 7-ton Maudsley BRS lorry pulling a heavy anti-aircraft carriage trailer to Sudbury Camp.  It is suggested that the bus did not realise that the lorry had a trailer, and that it either hit the trailer or swerved to avoid it.  The steering may have locked or the driver lost control and it careered through the railings and into the river.

The Modern Bridges

By 1980 the brittleness of the cast-iron in the High Bridge was causing concern.  Several bolts had snapped, due to overloading.  There were further concerns about damage that might be caused by mining subsidence.  In 1982 the road was diverted onto a Bailey bridge, and the cast-iron bridge was safeguarded by reducing its weight by about two-thirds. In 1996 it was decided to replace the Bailey bridge with a permanent steel and concrete structure and to restore the cast-iron bridge.

Stand on the restored walkway of the cast-iron bridge and you will see the whole history of the High Bridges: the functional, modern road bridge; the 19th century turnpike running straight from the tollhouse to Handsacre; and the line of the old road coming down from Common Corner to the original ford and later stone bridge.  Members of Ridware Study Group who researched the history of the High Bridges loved discovering this ancient and beautiful landscape, and we hope you will too.

This article about the High Bridges is based on the Ridware History Society publication, The High Bridges: Crossing the River Trent between Handsacre and Ridware.  Phil White researched and wrote the story of the bus accident. For more information about this publication, or about Ridware History Society, please contact Marty Smith: Tel: (01543) 307456; email: martyanddavid@care4free.net