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