These etched copper pictures of topographical scenes were popular in the 1970s, and this one, of our local parish church, was very much appreciated by my parents, and by me, and it hung, for many years, on the wall at the top of the stairs in 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge.
We were not a churchgoing family. Few were the times we ever darkened the door of St Mary’s. I know how the first time came about – in my early childhood in the 1960s: Miss Khan, our teacher at Redhouse Infants School, got up a party of her young pupils to be shown around the lovely old building, which she rightly judged to be part of our collective heritage. My own mom volunteered to tag along to help marshall the little hoard, with, I recall, one nervous small boy in a pathetically ragged pullover doggedly clasping her protective hand throughout. The tour was conducted by the Rector, the elderly (Ronald) William Cartmel, who was white haired, quietly spoken, and, it transpires, nurtured a keen interest in extra-terrestrial beings. I refer to a particularly intimate encounter (resulting, it’s rumoured, in “issue”) that the unfortunate Mrs Cynthia Appleton was party to, in 1950s Aston.
The earliest account of Cynthia Appleton’s claimed experiences, beyond media stories comes from the British magazine Flying Saucer Review (FSR) which carried an article, “Birmingham Woman meets Spacemen” in its March-April 1958 edition. This was largely a report sent to the then FSR editor Brinsley Le Poer Trench by the Rev. William Cartmel, Rector of Aldridge, Staffordshire. Cartmel had also personally interviewed the lady……( Australian UFO researcher Bill Chalker, http://www.auforn.com)
Apart from that nearby excitement, quiet Aldridge in the 1960s looked much as it had done for many years, with timber framed cottages in the High Street, and narrow thoroughfares carrying few passing cars. By the time I heathenly graced St Mary’s with my presence for the next time – (declaiming a short reading from the pulpit during a Christmas carol service somewhat later in my school career with my parents among the audience) – the timber framed buildings in the High Street had long been (tragically) pulled to the ground. Throughout my childhood, numerous new houses sprung up around “The Village,” and the roads, – widened, re-routed, were beginning to be a menace.
Unbeknown to us, our family connections with the church of St Mary the Virgin in Aldridge, Staffordshire, were deeply rooted.
Two hundred years ago, on Monday 3rd January 1814, the body of my father’s great great great grandfather, Thomas Lees was laid to rest in its overcrowded graveyard. He was 59 years old, and had outlived his wife Mary Pott by just over a month. Were mourners numerous at the interment, taking place, as it did, before Christmas festivities ceased on Twelfth Night? Would the sonorous tenor bell have summoned his fellow parishioners Thomas and Mary Hathaway to witness their neighbour being lowered into the cold earth to join his wife? – Thomas Hathaway, at least fourth in a line of Thomas Hathaways of Aldridge, was one of my great great great great grandfathers too.
The bells in the ancient tower of the church had been cast in 1738 by Rudhall of Gloucester. All five were inscribed, the largest with this solemn couplet, thankfully re-inscribed during the re-casting in the 1970’s:
I to the Church the living call,
And to the Grave do summon all.
No doubt that this bell was the one that was rung, steadily and gravely, for the ten minutes, before Thomas Lees’ burial.
How much must the sexton have suffered in his work, blowing foggy breaths into his frozen hands from time to time as he had excavated the little pit. A severely harsh spell of weather had begun that winter on the feast of St John the Apostle, the 27th of December 1813, and was not to relent for many weeks. By the beginning of February 1814, in London, the accumulation of ice on the frozen Thames was deemed thick enough to support the last of the great “Frost Fairs.”
The difficulty of finding a vacant coffin’s-length of earth in the small graveyard – which had provided for the expiring population of both Aldridge and Great Barr until 1732 – must also have been trying for the gravedigger. Meetings of parishioners began to discuss the problem in 1825. Space had been at such a premium for so many years that the clean bones from earlier burials were exhumed and reburied together near the walls of the church to make room for more, and the ground on the north side of the building was also dug up. That area was eschewed for burials when possible, as it was feared by superstitious country-dwellers to be the shady haunt of evil spirits.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep………….
Thus described Thomas Gray in his “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” in the mid 18th century. The whole graveyard around St Mary’s is elevated from the boundary wall, but rises again, a grassy pillow, stuffed in part with the remains of some of my very own rude forefathers, demonstrating its previously small extent to the keen observer even today.
When Rector the Reverend Jeremiah Finch Smith arrived to take up his position in Aldridge in 1849, extensive renovation of the previously dilapidated church had already taken place during the time of his predecessor, Henry Harding. The Reverend Finch Smith was a diligent recorder of the details of the further rebuilding of the chancel and north aisle in his “Notes and collections relating to the parish of Aldridge in the county of Stafford,” but, valuably, he also included information relating to earlier periods.
Externally, only the medieval tower of the church remains unchanged from the time of my ancestors, the Thomases Lees and Hathaway, at the turn of the 19th century. Internally, the nave they would have known was crowded with a ramshackle collection of box pews, deemed “objectionable” in a multitude of ways by Jeremiah Finch Smith. Their occupants – important families who considered the little enclosures to be their own private property – were, in making use of them, not able to face towards the minister during services, nor to kneel properly when appropriate. This was a most undemocratic system of seating, that made virtually no provision for the poor of the parish to sit in church. The Reverend Finch Smith was delighted that the furniture he disparaged as “sleeping boxes,” was demolished, starting a low church trend which culminated in the complete replacement of pews by chairs in Aldridge church in the 1990s.
Of the domestic buildings ranged around the church in Aldridge’s Conservation Area, only the beautiful Moot House presents the same appearance as it did in the early 19th century. Both the Manor House and the Vicarage were to be entirely rebuilt in the following decades, and where the clustered buildings of the Manor Farm once stood, now lie the tarmac roadway of “The Green”, and the featureless lawns surrounding the uncompromisingly modern Masonic Hall.
A photograph from the John Sale Collection, reproduced in the 1991 “Aldridge in Old Photographs” by Jan Farrow, shows the Manor Farm yard in the 1890’s. The farmer, Samuel Robinson Bonner, posing with his womenfolk reclining on a small strawstack, are the family of Aldridge’s most famous son, Charles George Bonner, V.C. Only the wall, to the rear left of Farmer Bonner in the photograph, remains, the boundary of the garden of the old Rectory.
Our family’s copper “etching’ from Bosty Lane depicts a smaller churchyard, with the farm buildings, nestling in beside it. The perspective is a little skewed. Mom had purchased it from Hilditch’s shop in the High Street. Downstairs, was the emporium of hardware purveyed by Reg. Upstairs, Mrs. Hilditch, tall, elegant, and be-pinafored, ran a tea-room, where pictures and decorative items were displayed for sale.
“Hilditch”, first a grocery and general store, was still selling an extremely useful variety of goods when I remember it. It had been an asset and a fixture in Aldridge since Reg Hilditch’s grandfather, Joseph, had taken over the business of “Thomas Potts” in the 1930s.
Even then, most residents of the village would not be able to remember a time when the shop was not there. The industrious Thomas Potts was a very young married man indeed – only 21 years old when he set himself up as a grocer in Aldridge back in 1868.
Reg Hilditch retired. He died in 2001. The Hathaway girl, and the Lees girl, both married Horton men, and moved away – just a little way, to Stonnall.