Shrewsbury’s [first?] Fire Engine

I have been meaning to write about Shrewsbury’s seventeenth-century  fire engine for some time now, but have been prevaricating. I discovered it quite by chance, and in small pieces. I wasn’t really sure how best to convey the story, and how to justify my childish excitement over it. If what follows is muddled, I apologise in advance. The discovery itself was literally a bit ‘disjointed.’

Back in October last year, whilst cataloguing the Shrewsbury Borough Accounts at the Shropshire Archives, I was intrigued to find a receipt from 1680 which detailed a payment for ‘carrying the engen twise’ at 12d each time. ‘Engine’ was a term that applied pretty broadly to all things mechanical during the period, but right from the start I had a suspicion this was a fire engine being referred to. Something to do with having a three-year old son obsessed with Fireman Sam at home, perhaps? There was definitely a romantic appeal to this solution, in any case. The same receipt indicated that the engine had its own dedicated ‘house’, and that it required plumbing of some unspecified description.

I didn’t have to wait long before further receipts appeared, offering tantalising additional detail. On 12 November 2012 I found a receipt detailing carpentry work and a quantity of leather supplied for its maintenance, ‘2 buckell clipp for the whells’, pipes ‘for peeceing of the pype of the engene’, and ‘sprigs’ – all dating to 1678. I was becoming more convinced that I had found a fire engine, but still didn’t have anything definite.

The following week, something happened that (in my limited experience) very rarely ever does in archives. I found exactly what I was looking for. A receipt in the Shrewsbury Borough clearly records ‘Rec the 10th June 1655 […] the summe of thirty eight poundes in full for an engine to quench fire’. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know how pleased I was with this  – piece by piece a fire engine had emerged from the archive, and this receipt confirmed its identity.

I went on to muse via Twitter how lovely it would be to be able to find some information on where the engine had been kept, not really expecting to come across many more references to it. The next few relevant manuscripts added more detail to physical appearance of the engine. An ‘axiltree’ required fixing, bells were purchased, new wheel shrouding was added and ‘mending of irons’ carried out, all in 1656. It also transpired that a named individual was employed to ‘keep’ the engine. In 1657 John Folliatt was paid ‘for looking to and keepeing the engine in order for 6 monethes’. Then, on 14 January I found a reference to ‘worke done at the Engin howse in ye corne markett’. I couldn’t quite believe that I had the right engine. How likely would it be to have found exactly what I was looking for a second time around? A few manuscripts further down the box, however, and there was no doubt. A 1656 receipt stated that a payment had been made to Thomas Jones (a local carpenter) ‘for worke done […] in makinge a house at the Corne Markett to place the water Engine’.

So, in the space of four months, I had slowly uncovered increasing amounts of detail about the Shrewsbury fire engine. It was made predominantly of wood, with leather featuring heavily in its construction. Buckle clips, axle trees, pipes and sprigs were all essential parts of its design. It had wheels (with shrouding!), but needed hauling to the site of fires. Bells were included in its design, presumably to aid in the raising of alarms. It had a dedicated individual responsible for its upkeep. It had its own wooden ‘house’ roofed in lead, with bars on the windows and doors that locked, and which was situated in Shrewsbury’s corn market.

I think it probably looked something like this


I have no idea how common fire engines are in the collections of Local Record Offices in the UK. I suspect not that common. The Shrewsbury Borough Accounts are an amazing resource. The seventeenth-century manuscripts from this collection that I have catalogued offer a wealth of detail about the town during the period. The Borough authorities made payments for road maintenance, building works, sewer cleansing, entertaining visiting dignitaries, setting up court rooms, distributions to poor travellers, maintaining the costume of town officials, book purchases and much, much more. The truth is that the bulk of payments were made for paving, and unless you are embarking upon an exhaustive study of the street fabric of Shrewsbury in the period these probably won’t inspire you too much. However, tucked away among these are gems such as the fire engine. It is only because I was systematically working my way through the boxes (though not necessarily in date order) that I noticed these receipts, and only because the idea of a fire engine seemed romantic and exciting that I kept looking for more.

I suppose what I really wanted to share was my wonder at the way this emerged. From one receipt and a hunch, I have a rich and fascinating collection of documents that can be used to tell a story about Shrewsbury that no-one has heard before. 1655 is quite early for a fire engine. We really are talking the dawn of the fire service here. The first fire engine arrived in England in about 1625, and between the late 1620s and early 1660s a man named William Burroughs produced about sixty engines ‘for City and Country’ [ Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven, p.50]. Was the Shrewsbury engine one of these sixty or so early Burroughs models? The cost of the Burroughs engines was around £35. Shrewsbury paid £40 for their engine to a man named Bartholomew Bewley. I believe Mr. Bewley was probably acting as an agent for Burroughs, and taking a hefty commission – but of course, only more manuscripts evidence could confirm that supposition.

That is all, really. I just wanted to tell you how fabulous I thought the seventeenth-century Shrewsbury fire engine was, and to share the fact that one existed. If you would like to take a look at it for yourself, you will need to pop to the Shrewsbury Archives and call up the manuscripts listed below. They aren’t catalogued to item level (a quirk of the Borough Accounts cataloguing history), but all the relevant manuscripts have a brief outline noted in the description section of the folder number in which they can be found (and I know this, because I am the one who catalogued them)!

Shrewsbury Borough Accounts:



3365/604/40, 3365/604/55, 3365/604/63, 3365/604/85, 3365/604/87


3365/623/38, 3365/623/42, 3365/623/46



3365/629/27, 3365/629/29

3365/630/4, 3365/630/12

*there are probably a lot more relevant manuscripts – these are just the ones I can guarantee you will find a fire engine in!


Spare a Thought for the Archivist

Have you ever been frustrated by an archive catalogue? Perhaps what you were looking for didn’t show up, or showed up in an unexpected place. Perhaps you found what you thought you were looking for, but the entry was so basic you could make nothing of it. Perhaps you have called something up, only to find that the catalogue entry was very misleading – the date was incorrectly recorded/it was actually a later printed copy of the manuscript you wanted/it was written in Latin (of which the catalogue made no mention)/it was not available to view due to conservation concerns/it was simply not in the box where it should have been, and the staff are unable to locate it… or perhaps it was another reason, of which I am sure there are many.

In my time researching, all these situations have presented themselves to me, and I have generally rolled my eyes when the staff weren’t looking, and sworn silently under my breath. It can be very frustrating when a promising manuscript turns out to be incorrectly described, or appears to be missing. In a digital age, we have very high expectations of search engines – and we are very quick to criticise when things don’t go our way. Research time is limited, after all, and a catalogue should be just that, a catalogue.

A list, register, or complete enumeration; in this simple sense now Obs. or arch. […] Now usually distinguished from a mere list or enumeration, by systematic or methodical arrangement, alphabetical or other order, and often by the addition of brief particulars, descriptive, or aiding identification, indicative of locality, position, date, price, or the like. (OED)

The trusty OED tells us that our catalogue should be complete. That it should be systematic. That users expect more from it today than they ever have done before. In theory, perhaps, the first two points are very laudable. The last one, however, is probably the only one that all archive catalogues share in common.

Having worked my way through a few (ten now, only another 80 uncatalogued MI boxes to go!) of Shropshire Archives MI boxes (miscellaneous small accessions), adding catalogue entries and tidying up some of the storage, I have come to ponder a few archive-related questions. I have also glimpsed the complexity facing by the people who brave the task of preserving these records and making them available to the public.

One document in particular helps to illustrate some of my thoughts. It is an apprentice indenture dating to the late nineteenth century, and is not particularly noteworthy. It was deposited with six other manuscripts, and doesn’t seem to have any close relationship with any of its fellows other than sharing the same depositor, being of approximately the same date, and from the same geographical area. What is striking about it, though, is how difficult it is to read. It is a printed document with spaces alloted for the addition of handwritten details. Whilst those words that are printed are still clear, the handwritten text has faded badly. Of course, it is the handwritten details that make it unique. An empty standardised form is of relatively little value. Until names, dates, and individual details can be ascribed to such a document its history is (generally speaking) unremarkable.

Every time an archive item is called up it suffers damage – no matter how carefully handled. Simply opening a book can cause irreparable decay to the paper and ink on which it was produced. Even with the best of conservation, items deteriorate simply sitting in storage. Next time someone pulls this indenture out of the box it will probably be harder to read. Generally speaking, the parameters of the catalogue are to give an indication of date, persons involved (in the writing of, or the import of the document), type of item, perhaps noteworthy points and a brief description. A catalogue rarely gives a complete transcription, and is an indication of what the item is – not an ‘edition’ of it. This particular document is not of devastating importance. However, in this case I chose to add to the description.

My catalogue entry is still pending approval, so it may still be edited. If it remains as I typed it, anyone searching for apprentice indentures in Shropshire in the 1880s will learn that ‘Richard Harry Gotobed, an infant, by the consent of his Grandfather William Pugh of Richards Castle of the County of salop does put himself apprentice to Edmund Philip Thomas of Ludlow Draper etc. […] from the twenty fifth day of March 1882 for 4 years.’ Not a massive rebellion – all I have done is to add a couple of the defining details that the document offers. However, I have transcribed every handwritten word on the page. Hopefully, if it cannot be read when it next sees light, whoever looks at it can refer to the catalogue entry and fill in any gaps (assuming I haven’t made any fundamental errors).

I am a volunteer, so to some extent I can choose how I spend my time at the archives. If something genuinely interests me I have the freedom to pore over it. There is no expectation placed upon my output, so I have all the time in the world to compose my catalogue entries. On the other hand, if a document doesn’t excite my interest, I am perfectly at liberty either to skip it or to to give it only the briefest attention. (In case my supervisors are reading this, I hasten to add this is never the case in actuality!). I try to be fairly consistent, at least with what the minimum details that I enter are – but if I really like a document it is treated to a very thorough recording! Permanent staff employed in local record offices don’t have this privilege to the same extent. They have targets, policies, budgets, and a queue of people demanding access the documents in their custody. They must prioritize, and they must compromise.

The truth is, that all local record offices have a large amount of uncatalogued material in their storerooms. In some cases it takes many years before it is organized, preserved and catalogued. Until it is catalogued it is not available to the public. To give you some idea, the MIs that I have been cataloguing, (a paltry ten boxes), are from a run of over one hundred similar boxes. The ones I have looked at so far were deposited in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As I work my way through I gradually meet ‘younger’ deposits. I assume that if ever I made it to the end I would meet the present day. (Though, of course, only in the sense of the deposit date – the documents are not necessarily contemporary to their accession date, and the manuscripts deposited yesterday could very well trump those deposited in the 1960s in terms of their age).

Record Offices in the UK struggle to meet tight budgets, and have many more documents to catalogue than staff or resources for the work involved. Well known documents, or those that are popular (parish registers etc.) will be prioritised. It is only right, after all, to deal first with the material in highest demand. Less well-known material falls lower down the pecking order, and will be dealt with as and when time and money are available. One of the most successful strategies for combatting this is to apply for blocks of funding for specific projects, with circumscribed aims and limited remits. If a large estate collection is deposited, it is often possible to put together a project to get it conserved, catalogued, and probably (in order to attract the funding) facilitate some outreach/public engagement with it. While this is a good thing in some ways, it leads to problems in others. Each project is run by a new team, frequently with different working practices and different priorities. Funding will usually have tight time constraints, with little leeway for (time-consuming) discoveries en-route. Often an element of volunteering is involved, and there is a limit to the existing skills that volunteers bring to a project, and to the amount of training that can be provided.  Catalogue entries can vary wildly in their detail and their format as a result. In addition to this, when a new project attracting funding arrives at an archive, other cataloguing and conservation work slips down the priority list.

Shropshire Archives’ MIs (miscellaneous small deposits) are not a nice coherent collection. They are not an easy ‘sell’ for project funding, and for the most part no-one is very sure what they contain or what potential they have. Because of their variety they take more time than many other documents to sort, conserve and catalogue. Hence they are more likely than most manuscripts to remain at the bottom of the pile, and have done for a good many years.

Volunteering for Shropshire’s Heritage is a project with a bit if a difference, as its main focus is upon volunteer involvement. Whilst there are ‘headline’ manuscript collections that it aims to cover, there is plenty of scope for other, smaller projects under its umbrella. It runs for three years, so time constraints are less of a factor. Thus I am cataloguing MIs, alongside three other volunteers (not literally alongside, mind, some of us are in on different days – PC space is at a premium!). I am human, and make errors. Some of my work follows my own whims. I am also not an archivist, but I am quickly learning some of the difficulties they face and beginning to understand just why the information in Local Record Office electronic catalogues doesn’t always meet my expectations as a researcher.

So what am I really saying? Archives, and particularly local authority archives, are perhaps not as good as we would all wish them to be. Nonetheless, all the staff that I have met working behind the scenes are dedicated and passionate about their work. They really do care, and do their best. Added to them are a whole raft of unpaid volunteers beavering away to make searchable catalogues possible. Next time you are tempted to roll your eyes when the catalogue throws you an error message or provides nothing but nonsense – don’t! (Someone working in that archive will be looking, even if you think they are not). Take a deep breath, be creative with your search terms. Talk to the staff. Make (constructive) suggestions. Consider volunteering yourself. But most of all, spare a thought for the archivist. Not everyone who entered data into that catalogue was paid to do it, and if you happen to be in Shropshire, it may well have been me.

War Courts and Martial Law in Shropshire

It was with some surprise that I opened a folder in an MI box (miscellaneous small deposits) the other day to discover a series of six documents that detailed the provision for martial law in Shropshire in the 1940s.

So far I have catalogued five MI boxes. They contain small collections of manuscripts not destined to fall within Shropshire Archive’s main run, deposited over a fairly long period but with some of the material far pre-dating the deposit date. This means that their content can be very mixed. The boxes I have been looking at arrived at the archives in the 1960s, but I have so far seen material ranging from medieval deeds to 1950s election propaganda leaflets. Each small group of documents has its own story to tell, and forms a sort of ‘archive in miniature’.

The six 1940s documents that I found in this particular box are a lovely example of this.  Shropshire Archives MI997/1-6 rest in a folder of their own, but the box that contains this also holds (amongst many other items) a series of postcards from approximately 1900, aerial photographs of Ludlow from the 1950s, and some eighteenth century deeds.

The War Court mini archive, as I can’t help but think of these six manuscripts, consists of four letters, a leaflet, and a car windscreen label. The first letter was the one that really caught my eye. Above the sender’s address in the top right corner is the word ‘SECRET’, capitalised and underlined.

Typescript Letter with 'SECRET' Stamped Above the Address Panel

There is something about that word that just makes reading further irresistable! The text of the typescript letter that followed was this

Sir, If the necessity to proclaim Martial Law should arise it will be necessary to set up Military Courts at various centres and a Summary Court in each Petty Sessional Division to try offences against Martial Law.

The Summary Courts will consist of one Justice of the Peace sitting alone, who will have power to award a sentence of 2 years imprisonment and a fine of £200.

Your name has been suggested as suitable to hold the Summary Court for the Petty Sessional Division of PONTESBURY [handwritten].

It is now desired to know if you would be willing to act in that capacity. I trust that as this is a most important and responsible duty you will not refuse for other than the most pressing reasons.

Information as to offences and procedure will be given to you as it becomes available.

Please treat this communication as strictly personal and secret.

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant [illegible signature] Brigadier, Commander, North Wales Area.

The letter was sent to Capt. Sir Offley Wakeman, Bt., and is dated 20 June 1940.

Now, it could be that I am being a bit ignorant and naive, but I hadn’t heard of War Courts in England during the Second World War prior to straying across these letters. I did study history at school, and it was even a modern world history course, but for some inexplicable reason the syllabus skipped both the world wars. My studies since have taken me to earlier epochs, and I haven’t picked up a lot of Second World War knowledge in my everyday life. So, in fairness, it is perhaps no surprise that I am no expert. However, a quick trip to Google seems to suggest that I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about this aspect of home-front defence planning.

The second letter, dated 12 December 1941, informs Captain Wakeman that an order made by the Secretary of State had been issued via the Home Office appointing him to the panel of advisory members for the War Zone Courts of the Midland District. Should a War Zone be declared, not only would he be responsible for the Summary Court of Pontesbury, but he was officially signed up as an advisory member for the War Courts of the Midland District.

Typescript Letter

The letter goes on to inform him that

The Courts will not be set up until the Midland District is declared to be a War Zone by Order of the Minister for Home Security

Note the terminology. ‘Until’, not ‘if and when’. There is a sense that the provision for these courts was a pressing necessity, not a fallback plan to cover unlikely developments. Reading this letter brings home the sense of impending danger felt by the author and recipient (and, indeed, many people living in Britain at this time). It is hard for me, in 2012, to really grasp what that felt like. I know that (unless I really have missed some crucial 1940s history) Shropshire was never invaded or declared a War Zone, and that Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would never actually be called upon to carry out these duties.

He did not know this. August 1940 had seen the Battle of Britain, and the following months saw Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and London bombed. The new year saw major London landmarks destroyed by enemy bombs, and in July 1941 Liverpool was again targeted. This was a war that took place on home soil in a way that nothing in my lifetime has. The Germans did, in fact, have plans for a full land invasion. Had they won the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion would have proceeded and Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would truly have been involved in the proceedings of War Zone Courts of the Midland District.

To underline this sense of urgent necessity, enclosed with this letter was an ‘E.L’ label for Wakeman’s car.

Beige Cardboard Label with 'E L' and the Royal Crest Printed on it

for affixing to the windscreen of your car, to enable you to get quickly to Court in your County where your attendance has been requested by one of the Presidents

The label still survives, and can be found in Shropshire Archives alongside the letters. Wakeman was admonished to take care not to let this label be lost or fall into ‘other’ hands. He was also given information on acquiring additional petrol coupons, and failing that, assured that the police or military would provide transport if necessary.

I rather get the feeling that Captain Wakeman was unhappy with his appointments. No letters written by him appear in this mini archive, as it seems that it is his possessions that have been deposited. All the surviving letters are addressed to him. However, a letter dated 18 December 1941 gives a sense of what he must have written. The Clerk of the War Zones wrote to assure him that

I would say, for your information, that quite a number of magistrates within the five Counties forming the Midland District, who have been appointed Advisory Members of the War Zone Courts, will have active duties to perform in the event of invasion.

As, However, a comparatively large number has been appointed to the Panel to serve the County of Salop, to enable a selection to be made at the appropriate time to suit the convenience of members, I do not think that you need worry unduly about the dual functions which you have to perform.

In any event I certainly agree with you that your first duty would be to the Home Guard.

Did Captain Wakeman attempt to wriggle out of this potentially onerous responsibility? Perhaps that is too harsh a reading. Nonetheless, he must have mentioned his Home Guard service – and this letter certainly seems to suggest that he had reservations about serving on the War Courts.

Having read the last document in the series, which is a leaflet entitled ‘War Zone Courts; General Exlanatory Memorandum’, I can empathise with his reticence. This small twelve page booklet gives the details for how and when War Courts could convene, what jurisdiction they had and the extent of their sentencing powers. It makes for rather chilling reading. Once an area was declared a War Zone, the War Courts effectively had jurisdiction within that area. The sentencing is the bit that caught my eye, though.

A War Zone Court may sentence any person convicted of an indictable offence to any punishment he might have been sentenced by a Court of Assize or Quarter Sessions if he had been convicted on indictment; and it may sentence any person convicted of any offence to any punishment to which he might have been sentenced by a Court of Summary Jurisdiction on Summary Conviction.

Before passing sentence the Court is required to take into consideration any representations made by an officer of His Majesty’s Forces as to the gravity of the offence having regard to the military situation.

Rather wide ranging then, given that a War Court consisted of a President, with two advisory members and no jury.

Sentence of death will, in the abscence of direction to the contrary, be carried out by shooting as in the case of a sentence of death passed by Court Martial. Where, however, the person sentenced to death can, without undue difficulty, be conveyed to a prison equipped for the carrying out of sentence of death by hanging, […]he shall be dealt with in like manner as a person convicted on indictment of murder. [The Secretary of State] may charge either a Sheriff or the Governor or other person having charge of the prison with the execution of the sentence.

In 1941 the death penalty was still a real possibility in English courts for crimes such as murder, so this is not as shocking as it might be. Nonetheless, I would be uncomfortable being tried without a jury for these stakes.

Times of war are very different to times of peace, and perhaps I shouldn’t be at all surprised that there was provision for Martial Law in Shropshire during the 1940s. It was never (to my knowledge) invoked, so it is a by-line to the ‘main’ historical narrative. There is something about having a name, having some letters, having ‘SECRET’ stamped on a document that brings it home though. I didn’t know about any of this until I catalogued these manuscripts. I think it is worth knowing. Something of Captain Wakeman’s concern survives in these documents. The extent of official plans, and their potential impact, are there to be read for anyone interested.

Please feel free to correct me on points of World War II history – or let me know if you know more about War Courts than I do – I freely admit I am no expert and would love to hear anyone more knowledgable.

Guncotton, Trespass, and Extending the Plot

Bear with me on this one. I promise there are explosions further down, but you do need a bit of background first.

As a part of my volunteering at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, I have elected to conduct a research project into the life of Robert Lightbody (approx. 1800-1874). Lightbody was an amateur geologist, and an early member of the Ludlow Natural History Society. This society went on to become the founding body behind the establishment of Ludlow museum, which is part of the reason that the Museum Resource Centre is keen to learn more about him. Lightbody is also credited, along with a man named Lee, with the discovery of the first known Pteraspid in the Welsh borders. This find was important, and means that his contribution to British geological knowledge was significant. So far, so good.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet got very far with this project. I have been rather distracted by the Ludlow Natural History Society Archive. It is not yet catalogued, and there are papers there that I would love to include in my work – so first I am cataloguing them. In the meantime, I have looked for records of Lightbody that exist outside the confines of the Museum Resource Centre. One document, (which I didn’t hold out too much hope for when I initially located it) has turned out to be a gem. It will only serve as an aside in my final biographical account, but it has caught my imagination enough that I wanted to write something a bit more comprehensive about it here.

National Archives C16/357/L167 has a fairly unprepossessing catalogue entry. ‘Lightbody v Hodges. Documents: Two bills. Plaintiffs: Robert Lightbody. Defendants: Chaplin Hodges.’ It is a Chancery case, so I had a fair idea that it was most likely to be something to do with land or inheritance. Without more detail, I ordered it in the hope that it would tell me a bit more about Lightbody and his life in Ludlow.

And it did. In 1866, Robert Lightbody instructed his solicitors, to whom I believe he was related by marriage, to enter a Bill of Complaint in Chancery against Chaplin Hodges, another local solicitor and businessman. Lightbody contended that Hodges had been ‘blasting’ property belonging to Lightbody’s Ludlow home without permission. The two men shared a boundary, but it was quite an unusual one. Lightbody’s property was close to Ludlow Castle, right in the centre of Town. The border that he shared with Hodges was at the end of his garden. Lightbody’s property was a good thirty feet above Hodges, being built at the top of a cliff where Hodges plot sat at the cliff’s base. The rock face, or cliff, was in fact a part of the old town walls.

The Chancery document is written in a beautifully regular hand, and in formal language throughout – but as the story unfolds something of the passions that were aroused come through. On 28 November, 1866 ‘the Defendant without any previous notice or application to the Plaintiff commenced to blast a portion of the said wall of rock at a height of 12 or 15 feet from the level of his own land and at a part of the rock immediately under [the summerhouse]’. Lightbody’s principal objection to these proceedings was the threat they posed to his summerhouse, a solid brick construction situated within a foot of the cliff. The following day, Lightbody, accompanied by his solicitor, approached Hodges in his garden at the base of the cliff. He ‘informed him that he the Defendant [Hodges] had no right to interfere with the face of the said rock and requested that he desist at once.’ That Lightbody waited a day and then only approached Hodges with the aid of legal counsel speaks volumes for the pre-existing relationship between the two men.  Admittedly, Lightbody’s solicitor was a family relation. Initially he may have enlisted his help with moral support uppermost in his mind. Nonetheless, this visit was made distinctly more formal by the solicitor’s prescence. I rather imagine that it got quite heated. Hodges, afterall, was prepared to use explosives close to his own and others property in a town centre. I’m not sure that any of his other neighbours were likely to approve of his actions, let alone Lightbody.

That the term ‘blasting’ referred to explosives I am fairly confident upon (though I have taken rather a liberty with my title, as at no point is guncotton actually mentioned). Hodges refused to comply with Lightbody’s demands, and merrily continued his ‘blasting’. On 30 November, Lightbody enlisted the help of a surveyor in preparing a plan of the premises. The surveyor suggested to Hodges  ‘that possibly the Plaintiff [Lightbody] might be induced to allow the Defendant [Hodges] to face that portion of the rock upon which they were at work if pickaxes were used and no blasting was carried on’. Not only Hodges himself, then, but a team of workmen were involved in this peculiar enterprise. It seems clear that it is the use of explosives threatening the stability of his summerhouse that caused the most concern to Lightbody – the comparison with pickaxes establishes this. Despite the surveyor obtaining a promise from Hodges, later the same day, ‘another blast was fired in the face of the rock immediately under the summerhouse.’ On 1 December, Lightbody’s solicitor spoke  to Hodges and tried again to extract an agreement to ‘face’ the rock but without recourse to blasting. Lightbody claims that this offer was made without relinquishing his rights to the rock, but in the interests of avoiding litigation (which is curious, as he was the first to involve a solicitor in proceedings).

Quite what Chaplin Hodges was up to, I’m not sure. It is possible that he was attempting to clear vegetation from the face of the rock that overhung his own property – but the use of explosives for this purpose seems a bit heavy-handed even for the Victorian entrepreneurial age in which he lived. As my title suggests, I suspect that he was using ‘facing’ the rock as a cover for a rather ingenious method to expand his own plot of land. I have absolutely no corroborating evidence for this, but it certainly makes for a far racier story! Of course, I don’t have Hodge’s version of events. This Chancery pleading was entered with a view to winning a legal battle. As such I can’t wholly rely upon Lightbody’s account of what happened. It was in his interests to exaggerate as much as he was able in order to win the favour of the judge. Nonetheless, something happened that winter in Ludlow. Something very loud, that ruffled a few feathers.

I also have no clue as to how the case proceeded. Hodges was expected to answer this pleading, but I have not been able to locate any further manuscripts relating to the incident.

What I have been able to find is what I believe to be Lightbody’s summerhouse.

This is a Google satellite image of Castle Street in Ludlow, where Lightbody lived. I have marked his house, the summerhouse at the end of his garden, and Chaplin Hodges plot of land immediately behind Lightbody’s garden. Unfortunately this image gives no clue as to the existence of the cliff. I can verify that it is definitely there, and just as described in the Chancery pleading – but unless you are planning a visit to Ludlow town centre you’ll have to take my word for it.

It seems that whatever the result of the legal proceedings, the summerhouse survived. Perhaps Hodges was forced to desist. Perhaps the ‘blasting’ was an exaggeration and never posed a risk to the property. Either way, I was rather heartened to see the summerhouse still standing atop the town wall.

So what have I learned about Lightbody? Well, he certainly had problems with his neighbours, and he had family links with a local solicitor which he wasn’t afraid to use. I rather suspect that he was frightened by Hodges, and that leads me to think that his personality was not a forceful one. It is early days yet for my research into Lightbody, though. I can’t claim he was timid without a bit more evidence. I feel rather sorry for him living nextdoor to a factious pyrotechnician, and I am not sure that I would have done any differently. I do now have a clear picture of where exactly he lived, and I have seen his summerhouse. I am hopeful that there is more wonderful material like this out there to track down.

Chaplin Hodge, now, is also a man who merits further research, I feel…


As a postscript, I notice that this section of the Ludlow town wall is currently undergoing repairs. I wonder if they will find any traces of Hodge’s activity?

Vital Repairs Start for Ludlow’s Medieval Wall

Hello scary blog-world

[friendly wave] Here goes… so who am I, and why do I think you anyone would want to read my blog? I am a recently qualified PhD, currently finding my feet and place in the world. In the absence of paid work, for the time being, I am volunteering at my local archives and museum service. This blog is basically a place to record what I get up to and all the weird, wonderful, and sometimes downright baffling things I come across or learn in my time working on the Volunteering for Shropshire’s Heritage project – explained in more detail here:

The project is wide ranging, and though my specialism is seventeenth-century biographical research and manuscript letters, I have worked on some very diverse material already in my role as volunteer. (Think anything from 1399-1960, apprentice indentures to election propaganda, with a bit of photographing dead birds thrown in, and you will have a rough picture of the variety).

This is my first foray into the blogosphere. Whether anyone actually looks at this or not I will watch with interest. Comments are very welcome, but do bear in mind that I am unlikely to be an expert in most of the topics I end up covering – so please be gentle!