Staffordshire History Day 2017

Staffordshire History Day 2017
Staffordshire History Day 2017

It seems that most weeks there’s a conference, meeting or seminar I’d like to go to. Why? Well they are either out of personal interest or its relevant to Enrichment’s work. This week it was Staffordshire History Day.  The event was held at the Riverway Centre in Stafford and I was accompanied by Elspeth Walker from Peeling back the Layers as we had a stand to display what the project had been up to over the past two years. There was a good range of topics covered, and I’ll try to give you a flavour or the day!

Flood and drought in Staffordshire – Alice Harvey-Fishenden & Helen Houghton

First up were Alice Harvey-Fishenden & Helen Houghton, PhD students at the University of Liverpool. They outlined a fascinating new multidisciplinary project which is researching how the people of Staffordshire managed their water and responded to the challenges of both flood and drought over a 200 year period between 1550-1750. They’ll be looking at a lot of material, including, surprisingly you might think, field names. Field names often include information about the origin of the field, such as ‘hey’, ‘close’ and ‘dole’. Its still early days, but it sounds like they have a lot of work to do. They have a blog where you can keep up with them, and of course they are looking for volunteers. So if you have some free time you don’t know what to do with . . .

Walsall Parks – Ken Worley

Ken Worley gave an account of the development of public parks in Walsall in the 19th century. As in many other towns in the 19th century, the good people of Walsall were subject to pressures of increasing urbanisation. Among these pressures were the evils of drink and prostitution. Most towns had more than their fair share of both gin palaces and brothels. The more civic minded citizens of many of these boroughs sought to improve the moral, spiritual and social welfare of less fortunate members of society. Among the responses to these challenges public parks were seen as a way of introducing a number of benefits. What could be more pleasant than a stroll through a park for example, enjoying the sun and fresh air?

Of course, there was more to it than this, but that’s another story. Walsall it seems was little different to other towns, and Ken Worley’s paper told the story of the relatively long and tortuous route by which the town acquired its first parks. There were twists and turns and seemingly charitable donations of land that dogged the efforts of the council. No change there you might think. In short, it was some 50 years between the first suggestion of the need for public parks until they were created. You can read up on one element of the story – Walsall Arboretum.

Smethwick politics – David Hallam

So, what of Smethwick in Staffordshire History Day? Well, did you know that the borough was at the heart of post-WWI politics and women’s suffrage? No, neither did I. In 1918, after the Qualification of Women Act became law, Smethwick was amongst the first constituencies nationally, to have a woman candidate – one Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter. The world of political struggle was little different back then from what we were told, and although she was unsuccessful in her bid, it was interesting to hear how parties maneuvered themselves to make way for a new age.

 Princes End industrialisation and its impact – Dr Ian Abbotts

Staying in the south of the county, near Tipton as you ask, Dr Abbots presented us with the fruits of his work which had looked at the impact of the industrial revolution and urbanisation in one corner of Staffordshire. Drawing on census data, the area had a population of just 50 by 1817, mostly farmers and agricultural workers. By 1841, the hamlet had grown to a small village with perhaps a dozen streets and was home to 1,000 people. Ten years later this had doubled and by 1871 3,000 lived there. This was followed by a decline back to 2,000 by 1911. So what is the story behind the numbers?

Well, the local geology and the absence of surface deposits it seems. The Staffordshire coalfields are such that those at princes End were not able to be mined until mining technology had developed to allow deeper mining. One it had, then Prince’s End ‘bloomed’ if that’s the right phrase, but it seemed to have been something of a ‘frontier town’. It attracted migrants from coalfields such as Shropshire and South Wales. When it became unprofitable to continue mining, the village slipped into a long decline – just have a look at the Wikipedia page, indeed, only a single 19th century building is still standing – the Tilted Barrel.

Archaeological News – Stephen Dean (Principal/County Archaeologist)

Highlight of the day for me, and the chance to catch up with an old colleague who I worked with when I first started out in archaeology! Stephen is now what in some places is called the County Archaeologist, and this was his chance to give us a whistle-stop tour of some of the events of the past year.

Branston near Burton-upon-Trent was the location of an excavation which revealed a nice multi-period site, with a Palaeolithic flint scatter, Neolithic pits and post holes and some traces of Bronze Age activity too. Also evident was that the site had been used during the Roman period, and that it appeared to have been used as a crop processing area during the 2-3rd centuries AD. In addition it had high status ceramics among the finds, which begs the question of what was this site processing crops for? Close to a major Roman road, there are a number of possibilities, so watch this space as work continues!

Urban archaeology in Newcastle and Litchfield also featured. In work near the A34, archaeologists had unearthed among other things, a medieval toilet and walls around one metre thick. With evidence of at least two episodes of burning, the centre of Newcastle seems to have seen some action in the 17th century. Over in Litchfield at St John’s hospital, a small cemetery was excavated.

There were mixed burial and all except one buried in the same style. The odd one out was one that was almost ‘crouched’, with the body laid in a foetal position. There were more surprises in store, with half the burials being identified as adolescents or children, somewhat unexpected in 13/14th century cemeteries. The biggest surprise was the finding that 5 of the individuals buried there had African ancestry, as revealed by isotopic analysis of tooth enamel! Little more can be said as yet, but more research is underway.

More recent archaeology in the form of WWI camps and training trenches on Cannock Chase came next. As part of the HLF funded Chase Through Time aerial and LiDar surveys had revealed more of the remains of how the chase was utilised during the First World War.

The stars of this year’s Staffordshire History day however, were the four gold torcs now known as the Leekfrith Hoard. Found by metal detectorists in December 2016, these objects have helped to re-write Staffordshire History. Since being found the torcs have undergone extensive examination and analysis, both locally and at the British Museum.

This has revealed that they have continental sources, with one pair coming from France and the other from southern Germany. They date to between the 4th-2nd centuries BC, though to  be something of a ‘gold draught’ in Britain. The torcs are items of dress used by women in this case, and far from being new, they show a degree of wear on the underside, which associated with frequent use. On each torc there are 3 small dots close to the terminal decoration, and one interpretation is that they may be maker’s marks.

Archaeologists also examined the site where they were found, and think that the torcs were deliberately deposited, not lost or accidentally dropped. The place they were found sits between two springs/streams, and it may be this held some significance for those who deposited these beautiful artefacts. Beyond that, we are left to ponder why . . .

Archive and Heritage News – Joanna Terry (Head of Archives & Heritage)

Last but by no means least for this blog on Staffordshire History Day, the head of the Staffordshire Archives & Heritage services, Joanna Terry, outlined the developments taking place that will radically change the service.

After a successful bid to the HLF, the service was awarded £4m and will be delivering a new, up-to-date service as a result. There will be new storage facilities which will allow 25 years growth and a new access centre to be built in Litchfield with display, archive and performance areas. More digitization of archives will be funded and there’ll be integration with existing databases and projects such as the Minton collection. Of course, all this takes time, and the project has 2021 in mind as an opening date for these new facilities. It all sounds very exciting, and I look forward to visiting!

In conclusion

All in all a good day, especially as we lots of visitors to the Peeling back the Layers stand and interest in coming to the open day on July 16th! Some really interesting work has been and is being done in the county, and already looking forward to next year’s Staffordshire History day and making a presentation!

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