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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com
THE PAINTED PANELS IN ST MICHAELS
Everyone who has ever been inside the church will be familiar with the painted panels which form the reredos of the High Altar. They are acknowledged to be rare and important survivals of mediaeval English art. A chance enquiry in early 2019 led to the first of a number of visits by Professor Julian Luxford of the University of St Andrews and Dr Lucy Wrapson of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University. They have produced a learned article on the panels which has added to our knowledge of these artefacts. What follows is a summary of that article:
These are two fragments of a screen painted c. 1500. Although now mounted on a modern reredos after conservation in the 1980s at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the panels were made for use in the church and probably formed part of the rood screen. Unusually, they were painted on the interior, east-facing sides of the screen they occupied: this can be established by analysis of their structure and handling. The subject matter is unusual in various ways. Notably, one of the panels is devoted to a cycle of images which constitute the so-called seven sheddings of Christ’s blood. While the seven sheddings is a recognised phenomenon of late medieval
English devotional literature, no other image cycle of the sort is known from England. The way the artist handled his subject matter is an illustration of the fact that an aesthetically undistinguished work (to modern eyes at least) was perfectly acceptable for solemn imagery at the ritual heart of an imposing church. In all probability, the Hamstall Ridware painter was a local man, summoned from no further away than Lichfield – examination of the materials used suggests a professional painter.
Interestingly it is the opinion of the authors that the fragments of religious paintings in Hamstall Hall were made around the time of the Reformation but are by a different artist altogether, and the composition they indicate was originally too large to have belonged to a conventional church screen.
A brief summary follows of what is shown on these panels (more details available): Whilst badly defaced, enough remains of the artist’s work to allow us to see and follow the Biblical stories on both the panels. The subject matter is particularly relevant to this season when we mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
This panel (now mounted on the left side of the reredos) depicts the seven sheddings, of Christ’s blood, which occurred at his circumcision, agony in the garden (where he sweated blood), flagellation, crowning with thorns, disrobing, nailing to the cross, and when the lance was thrust into his side.
This panel (now mounted on the right side of the reredos) shows the deposition of Christ from the cross and Christ carrying the cross.
The Fitzherbert Family and Recusancy1in Hamstall Ridware
The Fitzherberts were a Norman family who came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest and were held in high regard by the Crown for several centuries.
Sir Anthony Fitzherbert of Norbury, Derbyshire, married Maud Matilda Cotton in 1511 and thus the manor of Hamstall Ridware passed to the Fitzherberts of Norbury as there were no surviving male heirs of the Cotton family. Sir Anthony and Maud lived at Norbury but would have visited Hamstall Hall from time to time and certainly did not neglect their duties there.
It was the Fitzherbert’s staunch adherence to the Roman Catholic faith that was to be their downfall. Whilst it was King Henry VIII who began the break with Rome and Catholicism in 1530s, it was in Queen Elizabeth I reign that England could truly be called a Protestant country and that the Church of England became the established Church. All her subjects of any rank were expected to acknowledge her as the Supreme Governor of the church by swearing the Oath of Allegiance and to give up Catholicism by obeying the Act of Uniformity which made adhering to any Catholic practices, especially the saying and partaking of the service of Holy Mass, a crime.
Although the final establishment of the Church of England was still 21 years away, on his death bed in 1538, Sir Anthony Fitzhebert exhorted his children to remain true to the Catholic faith. The promise was kept, but two of his sons and possibly a third, were to pay dearly for it with their lives. His will stated that his heirs should,
“Find a priest forever at Ridware [and the other estates] to pray for us and our ancestors forever and our successors, and I have left them lands enough for that intent, and if they perform this intent I doubt not but that the heirs males of Fitzherbert shall the lenger continue.”
The next generation of Fitzherberts were to live in even more precarious times than their parents under the reigns of four Tudor monarchs with opposing religious beliefs; firstly Henry VIII, then strongly Protestant Edward VI, zealous Catholic Mary I and finally Protestant Elizabeth I.
It was Sir Anthony and Dame Maud’s eldest surviving son, Thomas, who had most links locally. He was born in 1514. In 1535 he married Anne Eyre daughter of another strongly Catholic family and by marrying Anne, Thomas added the Padley Estates in Derbyshire to his possessions, although it was his brother John who lived there. Thomas inherited Norbury, from his father in 1538, which is where he resided, and Hamstall Ridware Manor in Staffordshire, from his mother, Maud, in 1551. Thomas and Anne had no children and this was to be the cause of the ‘great family tragedy’.
Thomas fared reasonably well under Henry VIII and was appointed to the office of Sheriff of Staffordshire twice, the first time was in 1543 and the second in 1546 and he was also appointed a member of the last parliament of Henry VIII, from 1545–1547. His continued employment in the reign of the Protestant King Edward VI implied that he was capable of adjusting to change. Edward’s reign lasted just six years and had the fervent Catholic Mary’s reign lasted longer, he and the Fitzherbert family’s future would surely have been secure. He was knighted in 1553 during the year of her coronation and for a third time was appointed High Sheriff of Stafford in 1554. However, Mary’s reign was even shorter than Edward’s and she died in 1558.
With the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne Sir Thomas and his family’s fortunes changed dramatically. In 1559, the first year of her reign, an Act of Parliament was passed compelling everyone of any rank or position to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging her position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and renouncing any other spiritual or ecclesiastical authority. To anyone refusing to take the oath, the penalty was loss of all offices
1 Recusancy from the Latin ‘recusare’ ( to refuse) as in those who refused to attend Anglican services and civil rights. At the same time the Act of Uniformity made the Book of Common Prayer the only authorised manual of worship, prohibited any Catholic rites and meant that the Holy Sacrament of Mass had become a crime and those who refused to attend services of the Church of England were thereby committing a statutory offence of Recusancy. For those who decided to stand firm and suffer the penalties, there immediately arose the necessity to procure the services of a Priest to say Mass and administer Sacraments and a place in which to do this. All had to be done in the utmost secrecy thus Catholicism became an ‘in-house’ religion, literally. Hamstall Hall was one such house. Persecution for these ‘crimes’ was particularly severe between 1561 and 1563, notably in Derbyshire and Staffordshire with Hamstall Ridware, under the governance of their Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Fitzherbert, being regarded as a hotbed of disobedience. Many of his household and tenants were to suffer harsh punishments, either monetary or deprivation of liberty for their adherence to their faith.
Because of his continued refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy, which would have forced him to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth as the Supreme Head of the Protestant Church and renounce his Catholic faith, Sir Thomas was arrested in 1561, and imprisoned in London and spent most of the next thirty years of the rest of his life being dragged from prison to prison, first in the Fleet, then the County Gaol at Derby, then Lambeth, Broughton Castle near Banbury and finally the Tower of London, with only three short intervals of freedom.
Naturally imprisonment had a detrimental effect on Sir Thomas’ health and at a meeting of the Privy Council, on May 2 1574, a letter was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking for Sir Thomas to be freed for two months in respect of his sickness and to dispose of some land and goods. The latter motive probably carried more weight with the Council, as even an imprisoned knight had to pay for his weekly needs such as food and wine, his room and also still had to pay the crushing fines levied on Recusants. It does not appear that his wife, Lady Anne Fitzherbert suffered any deprivation of liberty and until her death in 1576, she had continued to harbour Marian2Priests and protect Catholic tenants and servants at both the Norbury and Hamstall Ridware Estates. After her death this role was taken on by her brother-in-Law, John Fitzherbert of Padbury.
There was increasing concern that too many people were flouting the new laws so in 1577 the Privy Council required the bishops to make returns of Recusants in their dioceses. Having made a return in November, Bishop Bentham of Coventry and Lichfield, followed it with a more detailed return for Staffordshire in February 1578. It was noticeable that the place with the highest number listed was Hamstall Ridware. Besides Sir Thomas and two members of his family and their five servants, thirty three recusants, all tenants or servants, were listed, including Martin [or Thomas] Audley, Sir Thomas’ faithful body servant, a native of Hamstall Ridware.
In 1578, on April 1, Sir Thomas, being then a childless widower, made settlement of the manors of Norbury, Padbury, Hamstall Ridware and other properties, on his brother John’s son, Thomas Fitzherbert on the occasion of his marriage to Elizabeth Westby, daughter of John Westby of Mowbrick, Lancaster. The lands
“Were settled to the use of Sir Thomas for life. remainder to his brother John Fitzherbert, father of said nephew, Thomas jnr, for life; remainder to his younger brother, Richard Fitzherbert of Hartsmere; remainder to Thomas jnr. and his heirs male by Elizabeth Westby”;
In the words of Dom Bede Camm,
“Now the great tragedy of Sir Thomas’ life was about to overwhelm him”.
Thomas Fitzherbert, [the nephew], probably at the time that he himself was imprisoned in Derby gaol for Recusancy in 1583, fell into the hands of one of the most feared and hated men of that time, Richard Topcliffe, the priest-catcher. Thomas was duped into conforming to the Church of England
A Marian priest was a Roman Catholic priest who was ordained in or before Catholic Queen Mary’s reign and survived into the reign of Anglican Queen Elizabeth and turned informer. He was persuaded to plot against the life of his father, John and his uncle Sir Thomas, in order that he might retain their estates. Topcliffe persuaded him that if he did not take speedy steps the whole property would be forfeited for Recusancy so that he would never enjoy it.
Being made aware of this Sir Thomas sought to take legal steps to cut young Thomas out of his succession, by conveying to his brother Richard, despite his living abroad, the manors in trust in order to deprive his nephew Thomas, of his inheritance, which he finally managed to do, only to have Bishop Whitgift, a strong supporter of Protestantism, nullify the new will. Richard was styled ‘of Hartsmere,’ an estate in Staffordshire belonging to Sir Thomas. [Was this Hartsmere at Hamstall Ridware?]
In August, 1586, Sir Thomas was at Norbury, very sick. He was therefore graciously permitted to remain at any of his houses either in Derbyshire or Staffordshire. He had had just a year of comparative liberty. For about nine months from March 1589 to early 1590 he was incarcerated at Broughton Castle, near Banbury before being sent back to the Tower of London.
After the defeat of the Armada in 1588, measures against Recusants were again intensified and some of these were felt by the inhabitants of Hamstall Ridware. Marian Priests were sheltered by the Fitzherbert family, one such was Thomas Collier – deprived as vicar of Uppingham in Rutland who came and secured a farm in Hamstall in 1560. He was still there and convicted of Recusancy in 1885 but was a supposed fugitive in 1589. Walter Barlow, another priest, chaplain to the Fitzherberts was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison in 1582 and then Stafford gaol in 1586. In 1589 Agnes Knowles, a widow in Hamstall Ridware had goods and two thirds of her land seized, while two labourers and two husbandmen had their goods seized.
Topcliffe, felt that Staffordshire Recusants had been let off lightly with the connivance of the Clerk of the Peace of Staffordshire, Nicholas Blackwell, who held that office from 1586 – 1587 and lived in Hamstall Ridware. He was examined by the Privy Council in 1588 on several counts of devising ruses that enabled his neighbours there to escape the full force of the law, all of which he denied, although he admitted to using his influence with the Sheriff to secure their release.
Acting on the young Thomas’ insinuations, there followed active efforts to find further grounds on which to incriminate Sir Thomas, in treasonable practice with which he could be charged. The Interrogatories contained the most absurd charges. They sought to involve him in the Rising of the North, so far back as 1569, even though he was incarcerated then, as well as in Babington’s conspiracy of 1586. Doubtless it was hoped that Richard Arnold, a young priest, son of one of the tenants, Thomas Arnold, at Ridware, Alice Royston, the housekeeper at Norbury, Thomas Coxon, the keeper of his park at Hamstall Ridware, his bailiff and other tenants, as well as Sir Thomas’ brother, Richard Fitzherbert of Hartsmere, would give valuable evidence at his trial in return for some leniency. It was obviously desired to bring the old man to a traitor’s death at Tyburn. He was examined under torture, if not on this occasion, at least during the following months which he was to spend in the gloomy dungeons of the Tower. To inflict the extremity of torture on a Catholic was Topcliffe’s highest joy. But the attempts to indite Sir Thomas as a traitor, failed. It is no wonder his health broke down under the strain, and that he died a ‘natural’ death in less than nine months on Dec 1591 in the Tower of London. One thing that had never been in question was Sir Thomas’ loyalty to the Crown.
For a spell of at least six years, Thomas Fitzherbert, the traitor, did come into possession of Norbury and Hamstall Ridware Manors as life tenant. He died intestate and childless in 1600. His younger brother Anthony was able to have the Fitzherbert lands restored and very shortly after, in 1601, the Manor of Hamstall Ridware was sold to Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh.
So could the small room within the hollow wall alluded to by Mary Shelton, nee Handy, when recalling her time as a servant at Hamstall Hall, really have been a place in which to secrete a Catholic Priest?