Senory Seekers and Senory Avoiders

Autism in Museum: Accessibility for All

As April is National Autism Month and the 2nd April was world Autism Day, we thought this would be a great time to inform all our visitors and users about some of the amazing things we are trying to achieve for when we are officially open to the public once again.

Haden Hill House and Old Hall

Wherever possible Sandwell Museums have tried to offer an inclusive accessible offer to all our visitors who have a wide range of needs or disabilities.  However, due to the conservation, protection and preservation of our listed buildings and the nature of those buildings (wobbly staircases. low lighting, small spaces etc) and the nature of our resources and capacity we have found that sometimes this can be challenging, and difficult to achieve as well or comprehensively as we would like.  We are unable to install a lift in the Oak House due to its size and importance or into Bromwich Hall at the moment.  

Bromwich Hall

Oak House

We have, however, adapted how we run some of our brilliant events, by hosting them on ground level, developing pathways for visitors to move around the grounds and buildings and where possible we offer ramps to help visitors access at least some of the building and virtual tours of upper floors or less accessible spaces so visitors can see as much as possible. We do however ,want to do more, where we are able.

One of the many projects that Sandwell Museum and Art Service is working on right now is to make our main museum sites more accessible to those with invisible disabilities. We all know many of the things needed in terms of accessibility for physical disabilities: lifts and ramps for wheelchairs, hearing aid loops, staff awareness. However, there’s far more that can be done for those who have invisible disabilities.  Our focus for the start of this project is to work on accessibility for those with Autism or Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC).   In October 2019, two members of staff attended the official “Welcoming Families and Young People with Autism Training” at the Jewish Museum in London.

Locally and nationally, museums and other heritage sites are recognising that people with ASC and their families need unique circumstances and support to be able to enjoy, access and engage with these places in the same way as others. This is confirmed by the National Autistic Society who have found that 70% of families who have a child with ASC feel socially isolated and that 28% of similar families have been asked to leave a public place because of their child. The last statistic shows that there’s still quite a lot that people don’t understand about Autism or ASC. 

At the beginning of the year all of Sandwell Museum staff who deal with the public attended Autism Awareness training provided by Autism West Midlands.  Staff found the training useful and thought provoking, and went away thinking about how they can develop or change certain things to make the buildings they work in, accessible for those with autism and their families!

Autism can best be summarised through three issues: difficulties with social communication and interaction, restrictive and repetitive patterns of behaviour and limited flexibility of thought. There are many misconceptions around Autism and in general those with ASC.

 Those who are sensory seekers may love that the Richard’s Gallery at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery it is a wide-open space with lots of different colours. However, sensory avoiders may be completely put-off by even the hint of an echo. That’s why we are creating special resources for the project; it’s not about making the museums the perfect environment but doing as much as we can to allow someone with ASC or their family to decide whether a trip to one of our buildings would be suitable or not.

With the help of a graduate trainee we are in the process of completing several aids and guides that would help us support visitors who have autism and their families.  These include developing sensory maps, visual journey videos and adapting our events to introduce a quiet hour.

Please keep an eye on our social media for announcements and details of our developments and information concerning our Invisible Disability programme.

Alex, Arts and Projects Officer

For Art’s Sake

Perhaps this blog should actually be called ‘for people’s sake’ as what has become clear over the years we have been running our community art groups is that it is as much about the social interaction, experiences, developing skills, building confidence and meeting new people as it is about painting. Catherine, our art group leader showcases what the groups get up to and some of the things that happen in museums that you might not know about!

Some of the groups’ work on display

Sandwell Museums Community Art Groups.

How our lives have changed the last few weeks. Everything is different for most of us; routines, social life, daily habits, seeing family and friends, and a big one for a lot of us, WORK. Everyone is struggling in their own way and what I’m missing most, after my family, is my day to day routine which revolves around running painting groups quietly behind the scenes at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery. Actually thinking about it, it can be quite raucous at times! So what’s it all about?

some of the painters work on display

This is how it goes. Sandwell Museums run oil painting sessions over three days with a different group participating on each day. The groups are open to anyone and interested participants are kept on a waiting list until an available space becomes available. You don’t need to have any experience or have painted before and anyone can join. Most members are retired, ‘persons of leisure’, or for whatever reason can’t work at the moment or perhaps the session falls on their day off. The sessions are informal, cost £5.35 which includes all the materials ,tea, coffee, the odd biscuit or cake (hence my waistline!) and we’ve even been known to have hot buttered toast! What a bargain you may say. And why oil paint? Isn’t that REALLY difficult?

The group was started by an now retired colleague who was, and still is, a talented amateur oil painter. He suggested starting the group after chatting with visitors at our Galton Valley Heritage site where sometimes he would sit and paint industrial scenes to engage with visitors. There are many watercolour classes running but not many oil painting groups. Most people will use water colours or acrylics at home because they are cleaner and easier to use and dry quickly. So ‘hey!’ learn how to use oil paint with us, make a mess and leave it for us to clear up! The group started with one session and, when we vacated the larger premises and moved the visitors centre into Galton valley pumping station, the group was moved to Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery where there was more space and sessions increased to three days. After all his hard work our ‘founder’ retired and that was where I took over nearly ten years ago after working for the museum service on a casual basis for nine years. And for those who know me, yes I know I can’t be that old but thank you all the same!  And why me? Well many moons ago I completed a fine art degree specialising in painting and had mentioned it, although I hadn’t painted for years, (other than the sitting room wall!! ) so I took up the challenge and applied for the job.

So what happens in the ‘day in the life’ of the painting group? The sessions run from 10am-2.30pm but people can come anytime between those hours. Some do the whole session and bring their lunch. Some come early and leave early. And some come late …. yes you know who you are!… and stay till the end. It’s very informal and there can be as much chatting as painting. But that’s ok. That’s what it’s about.

I’m not a trained teacher and it isn’t a taught lesson, but I can ‘facilitate’ our members to start painting, show them how to use oil paint, mix colours, use different brushes and pallet knives, show them different techniques and styles. We have painters who love landscapes, seascapes, abstract and figurative work, animals, trains, boats and planes! Starting to sound like a song! The most important thing is it’s about the individual painter and everyone is unique. Everyone helps each other if they are struggling and, not wanting to sound too ‘arty’, I have always thought that the most important part of painting is the process and act of ‘doing’ it not the end result. I really feel anyone can paint because of this and that’s what we promote in the group.

Our members all have different reasons to join. A life long  talent or interest which was left a long time ago to get a ‘proper’ job and revisited in older age. The learning of a new skill and the social aspect of being part of the group. A way to invest in some ‘me’ time and have a break from the responsibilities of normal life. A way of coping with illness, bereavement and other personal issues. Painting allows you to be you and unique and have a weight lifted off your shoulders and ‘loose’ yourself for a few hours. I think we can all see the good in that.

A project the group got involved with exploring textures which they could later introduce into their work. The project was delivered by a university student studying art.


practising with and exploring using textures
A finished experimental piece

Now we know why people love to be part of the group and why we offer the sessions but what else do we get involved in? Over the years our members have sold their work to raise money for charity. One of our talented members has raised nearly £1000 for the Multiply Sclerosis charities and much more outside of the group. We have a collection at Christmas and donate to a different cause every year. We have drawing classes and we’ve even had life drawing sessions which was a new experience for many of our painters. Workshops and projects in photography, printing, large scale painting of murals on the gallery walls which was great fun!

Gallery take over exhibition, where the group created a Parisian scene on the walls of the gallery.
the group created a Parisian cafe in the gallery and enjoyed a Parisian style event in the space.

Trips to galleries, university art departments and even a barge trip on the canal. That trip was my favourite. Blessed with a sunny day, wildlife, photography, a bit of local history, lots of tea and biscuits and plenty of chat. Some of us even had a go at steering the barge . And the best bit was it was accessible for all our painters including one in a wheelchair who thought they would never be able to go on a barge trip. We have regular exhibitions of the groups work which some of our visitors may have seen over the years.

A trip out to see sculpture before undertaking a sculpture project.
A trip on the canal followed by stopping to sketch.

Students and professional artists have joined us for one off projects or for a few weeks as we’re such a friendly bunch. We’ve had parties, meals out and many of the painters have made life long friends through the group and socialise outside of the sessions. I’m finding it hard to stop ‘going on’ about the painting groups as they’ve all achieved such a lot over the years. But I will stop now.

Art group showcase at Wednesbury Museum

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this insight into one of the many activities Sandwell Museum and Art Service run. The reason why I’ve popped up on our Blog page is because during current conditions the groups are cancelled until it is safe for normality to be resumed and our sites open to the public again. While we are waiting for this to happen reach for a scrap of paper, a pen, a pencil, and have a little go at some art yourself, There’s no rules, no right or wrong. Just like music everyone has there own taste and it doesn’t matter what you do, how you do it or what it looks like. Paint on your fence if you have a garden. Yes one of members is doing this and it looks great! Do some colouring, make something, do something creative. The painting group have found their little haven for a few hours a week so find yours in music, nature, TV and film or give art a go. These are the things that will help us cope and ‘get through’ this strange time. Do one of the challenges on our Facebook page and share it with us. I will if you will. And don’t forget, stay safe. 

Catherine – Art Group Leader and Visitor Services Assistant

An art group exhibition going onto the community wall at Wednesbury Museum

Being a Museum Apprentice

A study visit during the January closed season to Dudley Museums’ Glass Cone

A bit of a different blog today as Alex our museums business administration apprentice reflects on what she has been doing, learning and what skills she’s been developing while working at Sandwell Museums.

Alex is the first admin apprentice we have had – in fact she is the first specifically administration person we’ve had at all within the museums! However when you think of administration work you may think of all sorts of clerical tasks which Alex does, but there is so much more she’s been doing too!

An apprenticeship with Sandwell Museums gives apprentices a lot of skills and the opportunity to develop in lots of ways. So far we’ve sent 5 apprentices back into the world with lots of new skills and experiences and it has been brilliant to watch them grow and gain confidence. We’ve also hosted university and teaching student placements, work experiences and other placements through other projects and programmes.

Showing off some of our shop stock – makes great presents.

Here is Alex’s story in her own words

Being a big history fan, museums and historical sites have always been interesting to me. I have been lucky to visit many castles, palaces and galleries around the world. Having the opportunity to work in these museums and heritage sites has been brilliant and I have really enjoyed getting to know the history and the way they work. Although my role is based in admin, I have had a go at many different things while working with the service, which has been fantastic and challenging equally. These opportunities have hopefully given me a variety of stories and skills for the future.

I have had a go at a few everyday tasks at the museums, which has helped me have a better idea of how each site is run. This has included testing fire alarms, banking processes, serving refreshments, cleaning and helping with routine building checks. This has helped me with being able to multi- task as you have to be able to do many things at once! It has been interesting to see how there is a lot of work that goes into making sure the buildings are maintained to be able to serve the public.

helping to organise and deliver family craft activities is all part of the job!

The admin work I have completed has included a few lengthy data entry tasks. For example, I had to create spreadsheets and obtain data from visitor figures across the sites to income trackers allowing the service to look at which areas they are doing well in and how they can effectively use their resources in the future. These tasks are important as they help with future planning and allow a retrospective look at how things were done and how the budgets could be used in the next year. It is interesting to note trends and give feedback on this, as discovering why certain sites do well with some activities or events.

I have been involved in helping with museum collections (looking after the objects) as well, which has been interesting. This has involved looking at the objects, cross referencing the items on the database and making notes of where the accession numbers may need to be updated. I have helped find objects for exhibitions and handle them when putting them out on display, which I feel privileged to have done. From spears to jewellery and personal artefacts- the collection is diverse, and it is fascinating to see these objects up close. Helping to display and observe paintings and other artefacts has made me realise how essential conservation and documentation work is.

Helping with collection and object documentation and paperwork is also part of a museum admin apprentice job!

A lot of the work the museum service carries out is related to the programme of events and activities that happen throughout the year. This requires a lot of preparation on the run up to them, from initial planning of what events are happening and where (trying to make sure there are no clashes) to booking suppliers, organising activities, risk assessments, then finally setting up the event on the day. I have taken minutes of meetings for multiple purposes as well, but my favourite being events planning meetings.  It is an interesting skill to learn, as it involves keeping up with what everyone is saying and making sure you have got it all down! I have also helped to make posters and quizzes for events, such as Halloween quizzes and signs to direct visitors to events. We also have a lot of leaflets to organise and drop off to schools and other community groups and buildings to let them know about what the service does – hopefully I will get the hang of the photocopier eventually!

Setting up the events requires a full team effort- moving around lots of chairs and tables, up and down stairs, and setting up activities, which can be tiring but rewarding when it is finally complete. These can be for anything from meetings, family events, paranormal evenings and weddings. It has been interesting to see how versatile these places can be, and how it can serve lots of different communities. My favourite events have included the Halloween ones, as the old buildings definitely make the events atmospheric. It makes you think about all the people and stories of the past, and how lucky we are to be standing in the same place hundreds of years later.

During the events, it can get incredibly busy – meaning that you can get involved in everything. This includes everything from answering the phone, giving out tickets, working the tills and greeting visitors- sometimes all at once! It is great being able to engage with the people who come and visit the sites and find out if they are new or regular visitors, and why they enjoy visiting. The families often get the chance to come and look around the sites, have a go at a craft activity and follow a trail around the grounds. I like how there is something for everyone.

Community event at the Oak House which apprentices help to set up and deliver

You have to be prepared to dress up on occasion – with all sorts of weird and wonderful activities. I have worn a purple wig, face paint, hats and capes which was hilarious! The Halloween and Christmas events are particularly busy but enjoyable – it has been a highlight to decorate the sites ready for these events- cobwebs for Halloween and decorating the Christmas trees, and they look so brilliant when they are done. (It’s interesting when we have to pack it all back up again- a real sketch show in the making!) Helping the Living History team (education delivery team) has also been fun, as the children really enjoy being able to dress up in a historic house and get involved with activities, encouraging them to use their imagination.

One of our previous apprentices Zoe talks about her apprenticeship.

I’ve also had the opportunity to go on a few study visits around the country and get involved with conferences. This has opened my eyes to how other museums and historical sites work and in turn how it can improve our own offering. One of the other best things about this has been the people I work with. They have been the most lovely and supportive people you could hope to work with- which has made my experience even better. They have allowed me to have a go at things, help me if needed and always valued my opinion which is great- so thank you! 😊

Delivering activities at the Halloween event.

Send in the Clowns

In our last circus and fairground blog “Keeping the Flag Flying”, I promised to bring you instalments about the birth of the British circus, and the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.  These snippets are intended to tease and provoke curiosity in the hope that you would visit one of our museums when we all open to see this fantastic exhibition.  This post will look at one of the most famous sights in the circus, both nationally and internationally; the clown.

Now I know that, to some people, clowns are “scary” and “creepy”, and I understand that they do not have a great image – with the likes of “Pennywise” “Captain Spalding” and “The Joker and Harley Quinn” or IT causing chaos and fear.  But don’t let these characters put you off!  What we intend to do is highlight the clown’s origin, how they became a face of the circus, their make-up and costume and finally their acts and performances.

Stupid fools and scurrilous morons

Comedy has always been a major part of the circus, and before the clown entered the ring it was presented with comic horse riding and equestrian acts.  The clown that we know today is linked closely with the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and the pantomime Harleyquinade (you’ve seen the characters associated with the Venice Carnivale like Harlequin, Columbine and Punchinella; Punch and Judy and pantomime has its origins in this too). 

Right through ancient history there have always been men and women who have had the ability to make people laugh.  Ancient clowns did exist, although they were not known as clowns – the word clown not coming into use until the 16th Century.  The word clown (referring to that of the circus) originated from the Icelandic word “klunni” meaning a clumsy person.

5000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians used to keep African Pygmies known as Dangas to amuse the royal family and Pharaohs.  They used to dress in leopard skins and masks, telling tales of the gods.  Ancient Greece had clown-like characters that wore short tunics, which were padded out at the front and the rear and were accompanied by an exaggerated artificial phallus strapped around the loins.  Greek clowns would act out the great myths and stories of the time.

Ancient Rome had several types of clown or fool. The most famous were the Sannio, who were popular mimes. Then there was the Stupidus – from which our word stupid originated (from the Latin word meaning mimic fool). These clowns usually mimicked the more serious actor in the troupe, and often wore a mask. Another was Scurra (scurrilous), with his physical oddities, who often performed on the streets for passing members of the public.  Finally, there was Moriones (moron), who often had disabilities and were usually uneducated- their main skill was clumsy, slapstick humour.

You probably know of the court jester.  His job was to entertain the court, with songs, riddles, stories and physical comedy routines.  Mary Queen of Scots had a female fool at her court. The very last jester in employment in England was Dickie Pierce, a fool to the Earl of Suffolk, who died at 63in 1728. 

 Clowning around

Portrait of Joseph Grimaldi as Scaramouch

Clowns today look back and associate Joseph Grimaldi as being the start of the modern clown tradition in circuses today.  He was an English actor-clown of the early 1800s whose father was involved with Hughes Royal Circus in London.  As a boy, Joseph appeared as a monkey on a chain in his father’s act in the circus, it was when his father died that his own career started. 

Grimaldi became a performer in theatres across London. Mainly, he performed in pantomimes as a variety of different characters such as Scaramouch from Don Juan (performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre).  It was these pantomime costumes and performances that inspired the stereotypical ideas of a clown’s costume and make up.  The exaggerated outfits, rotund trousers, large shoes and geometrical make up, are thanks to aspects of the many characters, including Harlequin, who Grimaldi often played.  Joseph died at the age of 30 in 1832.

Jack Fossett’s Clown shoes – On display at Haden Hill House loaned from The National Fairground and Circus Archive

Clowning was, at first, one of the all-round skills of circus performers. Along with tumbling and riding, clowning has been applied to almost all kinds of circus act – either part of it or a parody of it.  They were performed in between the feature acts of the circus. So, as the clowns were performing, the crew or “circus hands’ would set up the next act behind them.  Much of the comedy of the clowns was verbal and directed to the audience.

Victorian Clown – Image from the National Circus and Fairground Archive

Smell of the grease paint

The white-faced clown is what most people think of when they hear the word clown.  The ‘white-faced clown’ is the most intelligent of all the clowns and is typically at the top of the pecking order.  Usually the ringleader, he orders the other clowns around, but soon has his own “clownishness” revealed, either by his own stupidity or by his “under-clowns”. 

White-face Clown, with acrobat clown troupe – image courtesy of The National Circus and Fairground Archive

“Under-Clowns” often donned simplified make up

There are two styles of white faced clown and the difference is down to the make-up.  The first, detailed above, consists of a white base and subtle make-up to define the eyes and mouth.  The second is a bit crazier.  Still a white base, but the additional make-up is meant to exaggerate the face and nature of the clown.  Both styles may be seen with a bald cap, with wild hair, or with partial hair. The clown takes his or her natural facial features and exaggerates them, either subtly or outrageously, so that they are more defined for the audience.

Every professional clown has their own make-up design, and there is an unwritten rule that no clown should copy another style.  The world’s oldest clown society “Clowns International” keep records of clown’s faces, which have been painted on ceramic eggs.  This tradition started in 1946 when Stan Bult began painting famous clowns faces on hen’s eggs as a hobby.  Clowns applied for clown eggs, and after Clowns International screened the applicant, a professional artist would paint the faces on ceramic eggs. Only those working clowns with developed visual identities can have their faces painted on eggs. New clowns, young children, and non-performers do not make the cut!

Clown Face Eggs

Why not have ago at decorating your own egg, and show us your creation?

Silly shoes and baggy trousers

Traditionally, the white face clown would wear a one-piece outfit, decorated either snazzily or outlandishly, depending on the clown’s character. Today, this is no longer the case. The white face clown can wear virtually anything that fits in with his character.  Likewise, with make-up, costumes were used to add emphasis and exaggeration, as well as aid the comic performance or routine they were performing.  There are number of costumes on display at Haden Hill House museum for you to enjoy once we open again, including Billy smarts great granddaughter’s costume, and trapeze performer Rebecca Truman’s stilt and aerialist outfits. 

A selection of clown images on display at Haden Hill House for you to enjoy when we are open again.

Images on loan from the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

The tears of a clown

“To run away with the circus is to enter a close-knit world where traditions, skills, language and superstitions have been passed down for generations”

Douglas McPherson – Circus Mania

It can be a hard life in the circus.  Every member of the troupe, joins in with promoting the show, building the tent, setting the seating, fixing and repairing costumes etc. They also perform a number of times a day, and sometimes twice in the evening, which can often take its toll. After a gruelling couple of days, circus life can make the happiest of clowns a little miserable and sad.  As promised, here is a bunch of the saddest looking clowns you have ever seen.  This troupe, according to the archive, were part of a German circus, and this was photo was taken after a solid week of sell out performances.

In the next circus blog, we will be looking at the wild side of the circus – performing tigers, trampolining lions, sea lion brass bands and fortune telling pigs. 

Stay tuned for the next instalment, and stay safe everyone.

Alex- Arts and Projects Officer

Keeping the Flag Flying!

Following on from the successful “All The Fun Of The Fair” Arts Trail last year, Sandwell Museum and Arts Service have recently been working on a big exhibition that we were going to launch in April of this year.  We had formed partners with the National Circus and Fairground Archive and Pat Collin’s Funfairs, who kindly loaned us several original, unique and some unseen items that we could showcase to the communities of Sandwell.

The exhibition unfortunately has had to be postponed due to the current Covid-19 pandemic and we have sadly closed our buildings until further notice.  The exhibition was going to be hosted across Sandwell Museums buildings, with each building exploring a different aspect of the fairground and circus.

But fear not!  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we aim to bring you little snippets, facts and blogs about our exhibition, for your entertainment and interest. To borrow the Collin’s family motto we intend “to keep the flag flying”.

The main attraction….

Pat Collin’s Funfairs at the Nottingham Goose Fair – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Fairs originally started off as hiring fairs (to hire workers) or “Mops”, which can be traced to the fourteenth century with the Statue of Labourers being passed by Edward III.  These “Mops”, as they were referred to in the Midlands, continued until the end of the 19th century.

Mop fairs were the original “Jobs Fair”.  Labourers, farm workers, servants and craftsmen would usually take yearly contracts with their employers, from October to October. At the end of the employment contract, the workers would attend the Mop Fair to find a new employment carrying an item signifying their trade.  A servant with no skill would carry a mop head!

These fairs ran alongside the Royal Charter Fairs.  During the 12th century, English towns applied to the crown to hold an annual fair that would last two or three days.  A Charter Fair was a street fair or market and gave the chance for businesses to sell and trade with the community of the town. Livestock, food, cloth and tools were common items sold.

The fair, as we know it, evolved from the Charter Fairs.  Showmen brought rides and entertainment to encourage more visitors to the fair, which increased the footfall of people buying goods. It is believed that the first fairground rides appeared in the 1700s.  These rides were small, made from wood and physically powered by the children of the travelling families. 

Restored 1890s dobby roundabout, Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

In “Seventy Years a Showman” Lord George Sanger describes how his father manufactured his own “dobby” early in his career. Crude in construction, the horses ‘were enlarged examples of the rough penny toys … their legs were simply round sticks. Their bodies were lumps of deal rounded on one side. Their heads were roughly cut from half-inch deal boards and inserted in a groove in their bodies, while the tails and manes were made of strips of rabbit-skin’.

Dobbies were the first merry-go-rounds, but without the gilding and ornate carving as we are used to seeing.  Frederick Savage was one of the country’s first people to begin the transition from manufacturing agricultural equipment to commercial fairground rides.  His early fairground equipment included dobby horse roundabouts with simple hanging animals, that were operated by a couple of workers pushing the roundabout when patrons had taken their seats.  Savage then developed the crank system, which meant one person could operate the ride, freeing up other workers to attend to the other rides.  The invention of steam powered rides, turned the simple crude dobby into the classic galloper we know today.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret) – British gallopers have all their animals face left and travel in a clockwise direction.  Mainland Europe and American Carousels have their animals facing right, and travel in an anti-clockwise direction.

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Black Country Showman Pat Collin’s inherited his father’s dobby and swing boat yacht, which would hold around 20 people.  His father John was a horse dealer and his rides were a side line business at the time, which he used to take to horse trading fairs.  Pat and his brothers would hold a rope on either end of the yacht and pull and release it making the yacht swing back and forth. 

Who’s that fresh faced young thing? Swingboats 2010 by Alex Howell.

When he took over the yacht, Pat came up with an idea to get local children from the town or village he was working in, to do the hard work. Instead of offering payment, he would give them a free go on the rides, when other children lined up to have a go on the ride they took over, from the children already powering the rides.  Soon the dobby and swing boat yacht were accompanied by swinging gondolas (which is where the name of the Pat Collins’ Ltd yard Gondola Works came from).

He also had a velocipede, which was a bicycle powered merry-go-round, where “punters” paid to cycle on a round-about, powering their own ride.  The faster you pedalled, the faster the ride.

Bicycle Round-about, velocipede. – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Originally, a fair would have several market stalls and traders, selling various items from farm produce and objects of curiosity to international spices and medicines.  They also presented small theatrical performances and peep shows. Paying audiences would watch tales of Greek myths, bible stories and historical events brought to life, or on the darker side of the fair, “beautiful, enchanting women from around the world”.  George Sanger writes a lot about his early life travelling the fairs with his father, who created his own peep show. 

“This was nothing more than a large box carried on the back, containing some moveable and very gaudy pictures, and having six peep-holes fitted with fairly strong lenses.  When a pitch was made, the box was placed on a folding trestle and the public were invited to walk up and see the show.

My father was an excellent talker.  He could ‘patter’ in the most approved style, especially about the Battle of Trafalgar, scenes of which formed one of the staple features of his little show”

Seventy Years A Showman by Lord George Sanger (The Fitzroy edition)

Peepshows soon became a popular sight at fairs, especially travelling fairs.  Not only did they continue to tell classic tales of old, they also were used to display exciting and “up to date” news and bring the highly illustrated penny dreadfuls to remote communities.  James Sanger (George Sanger’s father) capitalised on notorious murders and spun tales to attract paying customers to approach and see the murder unfold.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- Travelling funfairs went from town to town, coast to coast, with some taking permanent residency on piers at local sea side towns.  Peepshows were still incredibly popular and developed in the “What The Butler Saw” machines, which became a fixed and incredibly popular amusements (especially with the gents visiting the sea side).  A reel of erotic film depicted a woman partially undressing in her bedroom, as if a voyeuristic butler was watching through a key hole.

As the fair became even more popular over time, they naturally got bigger and bigger- presenting new acts, rides and exhibitions to attract swarms of people to come along.  Theatrical booths, waxworks “freak or wonders of nature” shows, wild beast shows all started to join the fairs, promising audience’s thrills, excitement and fun. 

The fairground shows of the early to mid-nineteenth century are perhaps the most documented of all the amusements that appeared on the fairground until the introduction of steam powered roundabouts. The first fifty years of the 1800s showed how popular the fair was, with menageries, circuses, ghost shows, exhibitions and waxworks all on display and shaping the showgrounds.

These fairgrounds brought the likes of Lord George Sanger, Tom Norman and Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, household name fame.

Fairground shows and attractions such as the boxing booths, parading booths, ghost shows, and exhibitions, led the way for the modern fun houses, ghost trains and other rides we see now.

The Boxing Ring

Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Boxing rings used to be a common feature at fairgrounds.  Showmen would invite members of the public to enter the ring and challenge one another, or the fair strong man.  The fairground boxing show was a common sight in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries even up to the late 1960s. The last boxing booth open on the fairgrounds in the UK was Ron Taylor’s, following the retirement of Mrs Esther McEwon in the West Country. The decline of the boxing booths on the fairground is linked to the decision by the Boxing Board of Control in 1947, to make fairground boxing booths out of bounds to all licensed members of the Board.

Pat Collins Funfairs Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service by Ned Williams
Cockerel – Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- some fairgrounds had several secretly advertised events and attractions, which brought in punters after closing.  You had to look around the fair during the day to find these adverts.  It is said that if you spotted a cockerel figure on a galloper, it was an advert for a cock fighting ring in the evening and cock fighter trainers, would turn up and make some money through the illegal fights.  This also made a little extra income for the fair as the showmen charged entry.

In the next instalment we will be looking at the birth of the circus, so keep your eyes open for lions, tigers, bears, trapeze and possibly the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.

Alex – Arts and Projects Officer, Sandwell Museums and Arts.

Shutt Up! – Quarantine and preventing plague in the 1600s.

self isolating at the Oak House.

Firstly if you are alive today (which you are as you are reading this blog) it is possible that you have some resistance to the plague as your ancestors were those that survived it when it decimated the population in the past. As such none of the measures mentioned below are necessary and Sandwell Museums strongly suggests you don’t try this at home!

Quarantine and isolation was perhaps the only effective solution to infection in the 1600s. Isolation had been used since the 1100s for leprosy in particular, and the Venetians introduced a 40 day quarantine (from quarantenaria literally 40 days) years before the English did.

The wealthy could as always follow the old medical advice ‘cito longe tarde’ (fly quickly go far return slowly) – not an option available for the poor, but one that helped immensely in ensuring the widest possible spread of disease, as the rich took infection out into the countryside with them.

The plague outbreak in 1635-6 was mainly confined to a number of ports and to London – as far as we are aware the West Midlands was not badly affected – but it was the first time that quarantine as an official, government, policy was implemented. It was a requirement of the parish to carry out the measures, with the local constables principally responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations. There was some flexibility in enforcing the rules; if an infected person was discovered other members of the household not exhibiting symptoms might be allowed to move out, or sometimes an infected individual would be moved to a communal ‘Pesthouse’, with other infected people. People not showing signs of infection could be quarantined in their home.

At other times an entire household would be quarantined, leaving empty houses when everyone had died! Particularly when, as was often the case, the Pesthouses were full to bursting.

Bring out your dead

Constables were required to board up the doors, paint a big red cross on the front and the message’ Lord have mercy on us’. A watchman would be employed to stop anyone entering and leaving – and the quarantine started again if anyone else died. Any breaches of the quarantine rules resulted in those breaching the rules, and often their families, being placed in quarantine, even if they showed no sign of illness.

People quarantined ceased to be economically active. The parish identified chargeable, partially chargeable and not chargeable households. Chargeable households , those that could not support themselves, were granted 4d per day per person from the parish to support themselves. Many people were subsequently required to pay back some, if not all, of this parish support.

The rules required that ‘the master of euery house assoone as any one in his house complaineth, either of Blotch, or Purple, or Swelling, shall giue knowledge thereof to the Examiner of health within two houres after the said signe shall appeare’.

An Oak House plague victim in Master Turton’s best bed

Court records demonstrate frequent attempts to conceal plague and causes of death, and particularly cases of bribery where attempts were made to bribe parish officers to hide the truth and thereby prevent quarantine. Shopkeepers in particular were anxious not to have their building quarantined, as this would result in a total closure of their business and often for grocers etc. a total loss of perishable stock.

There was also considerable religious opposition. Many preachers preached that the plague was God’s punishment on a Godless and sinful people, and attempts to mitigate the impact was an attempt to thwart God’s will. Plague, they argued, should be allowed to run its course. That was the godly way.

Don’t try this at home!

In the 17th century there was a great and morbid fear of the plague, spread by infected rat fleas and in suspension in cough and sneeze droplets. So given the lack of any current vaccine or cure for the Corona virus we thought we would take a look in one of our favourite books, Gervase Markham’s ‘An English Housewife’ and see what advice he might have on self-medication.

A virtuous, patient 17th century housewife of stout courage with her familiar – I mean pet rat!

His introduction on the necessary virtues of the housewife (she should be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent . . .etc) was not particularly helpful or useful, but on page 2 he launches into a whole series of concoctions for various forms of fever.  He doesn’t touch on Corona virus, but there are a variety of potions for various fevers as well as bubonic plague.

The ingredients for his plague prevention concoctions were all those that a middling sort of housewife (such as Elizabeth Turton of the Oak House) would have in her store cupboard or be able to pick herself in her garden or local woods and fields.  

The preservative starts with a quart (1.13 litres) of old ale, which should be heated until it foams, and then any solid matter or scum skimmed off. 

To this is added half a handful of angelica (the herb was used to flavour some liqueurs), celandine (also known as pilewort – I’ll let you work out what that was used for!) and aristolochia longa, one of the pipevine family. Although pipevines have been used in medicine since Roman times, they can cause kidney damage so I’m going off this recipe already!

After boiling this all up together and filtering off the vegetable matter you should next add a dram (3.697ml) of mithridate.  Now this is difficult to get hold of today but it was a key ingredient in many medicines in the 1600s, named after Mithridate King of Pontus who live around 100BC and is said to have taken a small amount of poison every day to build up his resistance to it.  We don’t advise you try this at home!

There were as many different recipes for it as there were 17th century apothecaries (the equivalent of our modern pharmacists – well apart from the lack of modern medical knowledge and training).

This plague prevention version is difficult and expensive to make at home, requiring between 30 and 60 different ingredients, including many expensive perfumes such as frankincense and myrrh, a dash of opium and maybe some fly agaric mushroom (known to cause hallucinations and organ failure – not ideal).  As well as some lizard scales and the wonderfully named ‘troches of squills’ (dried lily stems if you didn’t know). 

Now add a dram of powdered ivory (that’s illegal to buy now!) and six spoonfulls of dragon water, which isn’t nearly as exotic as it sounds, being a thickening agent made from the goats thorn bush.

This should, if you’ve done it properly, give you a runny jelly. 

Take five spoonfulls of this per day, then chew on a dried root of angelica. Sorted. 

Other well known plague preventative measures included hanging pomanders around your person or around the house (these were sweet smelling and consisted of dried fruit, herbs and spices) to make the air smell sweet. People believed as disease smelt awful then sweet smells would keep disease away. Smoke would also be used to ‘purify’ the air or you could shove sponge or cloth soaked in vinegar up your nose to prevent the disease getting in. People placed pots of blood around the house which they hoped fleas would jump into to try and keep their house flea free (not that people really realised that fleas were helping to spread the disease). Putting up red curtains could also help if you got the disease.

Fly Agaric Mushrooms at Oak House

Perhaps you don’t need any preventative measures against plague – as we mentioned earlier if you are alive today it is very likely that you’ve inherited a high level of resistance to bubonic plague from your ancestors in the 1300s and 1600s who were among the 33-50% of people who didn’t die from it!

I’m not sure just how useful some of Markham’s actual treatments for plague sufferers would be against corona virus as he focuses on treating the buboes which gives bubonic plague its name. These are swellings usually on the neck, under the armpits and between the legs and could be fairly purple/black and unpleasant. Thankfully this doesn’t appear to be a symptom of our current infection.

If anyone is suffering from purple pus-filled golf-ball sized swellings in your armpits, on your face, neck or arms – that’s not corona virus! Get yourself a live chicken or half a a wood pigeon and contact Sandwell Museums for instructions as to what you need to do with it!

A plague doctor wore a mask with a long beak with sweet smelling herbs and flowers in it. This would prevent him for getting plague as because disease smelt awful then anything smelling nice would keep disease away – or so they thought!

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Did the idea for the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries' start in Sandwell Valley?

Hilary Mantel’s new novel, The Mirror and the Light, her third about Thomas Cromwell, is about to be published, all 970 pages of it, and I’ve got my copy ordered (you may have seen the recent TV adaptation- Wolf Hall)

Thomas Cromwell, for those of you who don’t know or need reminding, was Henry VIII’s chief fixer, the man who drove through the English reformation, the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, who revolutionised how English government worked and who in his spare time also served as matchmaker to the king.

Bromwich Hall – the Manor House – nothing really to do with the story but it is pretty and one of our museum buildings. It was however around when Cromwell visited and one of the best houses in the area so maybe Cromwell stayed there?

I was however disappointed that neither of the earlier novels featured what may have been some of Thomas Cromwell’s most memorable journeys. I refer of course to his two visits to Sandwell, in 1524 and 1530. 

In 1524 Cromwell was working for Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, chancellor of England, who had been granted permission by Henry VIII to build a grand new college, to be known as Cardinal College, at Oxford University. Wolsey had also been granted permission by the pope to close a score of small English monasteries to provide a foundation endowment for his new college. Sandwell Priory, at that time home to just two monks, was one of the religious establishments selected for closure. It was to arrange the closure, move the monks and set up a new management regime for the land that brought Cromwell to Sandwell in 1524. This visit is 10 years before the famous ‘dissolution of the monasteries’. Sandwell Priory was effectively closed by the Pope, not King Henry. 

The Priory owned most of the land we now see as Sandwell Valley Park, and had a few farming tenants and various other sources of income. The surplus had been the Prior’s to spend, but following the closure of the Priory an annual income of around £30.00 was delivered to Cardinal College every year. This at a time when an unskilled labourer might earn 2d (2 pence) per day. (This is old money with 240 pennies, not 100, to the pound!). Thomas was back in West Bromwich in 1530, this time working for king Henry. Wolsey had fallen from favour (he’d not been able to sort out Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon) and died, and Henry had decided to close Cardinal College and liquidate all of its assets for himself and his favourites. Over the course of 5 days, Cromwell arranged the sale of goods and chattels for £21.00, the priory bells for £31.00, and arranged for the lease of the priory estates to Lucy Clifford. He then left, and as far as I can tell, he was never to return.

Click the link to see a portrait of Thomas Cromwell https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02128/Thomas-Cromwell-Earl-of-Essex?LinkID=mp01490&role=sit&rNo=1

Sadly for Cromwell, like many at the court of Henry VIII he eventually fell out of favour and was executed – rather brutally it seems as the executioner kept missing his neck! Although evidence suggests Henry later regretted the loss of his minister.

Frank – Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage

Museum Muses: Celebrating the fabulous, inspirational, creative, bright, well rounded, feisty, intelligent, determined women of Sandwell Museums for International Women’s Day

I was at a meeting once with our senior manager and a load of other people from other departments and someone mentioned needing some more feisty women – ‘Come to the museums’ said our boss ‘ there are loads of them!’

An event from around 14 years ago!

I’ve written plenty of blogs about what we do, our events, activities, projects and exhibitions, the history of our buildings and the people who lived and worked in them. So I thought for International Women’s Day I would write a blog about the women who work for Sandwell Museums, their motivations and how hard they have worked to get to where they are -and also why they love what they do. In fact everyone has written their own mini-biog! Hopefully this will inspire other Black Country women out there to aim for what they want even if it doesn’t come straight away. I haven’t used any of their names and the pictures are in a random order, but if you have ever visited our buildings you will have encountered these women!

Halloween is always big at Sandwell Museums across our sites.

I think many of us came to Sandwell Museums as we were interested in history, heritage, old buildings and the stories of the lives of people who lived long ago, However in working for Sandwell Museums we have discovered there is so much more to the job, to working in the cultural sector, to engaging with local audiences in all sorts of ways and to museums. We do all sorts of things and history is only a part of it. Everyone does different jobs although there is a lot of overlaps and all of us do many things from cleaning and gardening and painting walls, to organising events and activities, running events and activities, developing and running school groups, producing displays and exhibitions,  becoming characters, organising weddings, taking tour groups as well as writing reports,loads of general admin, and business planning and looking after our historic buildings, premise management, doing promotional activities to name just a few of our roles.

So enjoy these 14 stories!

Offering hands-on family tours.

Ordinary beginnings to toadstool obsession

My father’s family moved from Shropshire and Herefordshire in the 1870s to Birmingham and settled in Smethwick in the 1890s. My father was born in Halfords Lane West Bromwich in 1931. I started working for Sandwell Museums in 2016.

I grew up in a working-class family, partly in Halesowen and partly in Tewkesbury. None of my family went to college or university and doing well at school wasn’t something that was encouraged.

I became a mother at nineteen years old and was a stay at home mom whilst my partner went to university.  I began making historical inspired jewellery and other crafts from home and started my own business selling my work in shops, at craft fairs and also eventually online. During this time I also trained for four years as a massage therapist.

After a life threatening illness aged 35 I decided to do something I was passionate about. I was envious of my daughter studying medieval history for her degree, so in my 40s I decided to go to university to study history, with my particular interest being medieval and early modern. I graduated last year.

My ideal day out is roaming around old churches looking for medieval art and ancient graffiti, rummaging around old bookstores and then finding somewhere to eat that has good vegetarian and vegan food. I’m a hoarder and have cabinets full of vintage beads and buttons and a large collection of niche/indie perfume oils made from natural ingredients. I’ve got an obsession with toadstools, love folklore and I’m a keen amateur genealogist. I’m a mom to a greyhound and several rats.  I’m also about to train as a blacksmith.

In 2012 I started to volunteer in the Staffordshire Hoard and pre-Raphaelite galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, this lead to various volunteer roles and jobs at the Back to Backs, Blakesley Hall, Soho House, The Museum Collections Centre, Birmingham Library, The Canal and River Trust, the Birmingham Society of Genealogy and Heraldry and eventually Sandwell Museums.

Working at the Oak House is never dull or boring and I feel extremely lucky to be able to work in a building that I love and being able to talk to people about a period in history that I’m passionate about.

We do loads of school holiday activities at Sandwell Museums, with all sorts of themes.
Our sites look fabulous at Christmas and we offer loads of festive events, from candlelight nights to Santa’s grotto, family events, music concerts and more.

That whole ‘culture thing’ is not very working class is it?

Living on the border between Sandwell and Dudley I always felt a bit in limbo. Not a part of one thing or the other. The same could be said for how I grew up there. Not fitting in that well, but close enough. Being interested in books or history meant you were usually seen as a little bit odd. That whole ‘culture thing’ is not very working class is it?

I was always into prehistory rather than history and living in the heart of the Black Country meant I couldn’t be further removed from it. Apparently, nothing happened here until the Industrial Revolution (so we’ve been often told), and if you ever wanted to talk about history that was all you got.

That wasn’t really for me and I didn’t take history as an option at school and I left with no qualifications. I got a job as a painter and decorator on a government YTS. My mother had always said I was quite artistic and I was bringing money in. After that I had a few more ‘no skills’ jobs but when I had my own family I found I had a bit more time for reading and those weird history books started appearing on the bookshelf.

I went back into education and studied archaeology, then English. By this time, I had developed a keen interest in fiction, some literary but mostly horror. To cut a long story I went back into full time education and graduated with a first-class honours degree in English. Not bad for someone who didn’t bother going back to school to get their exam results. I spent a year working on various writing projects and got a couple of short stories published.

I started working for the museum service a year after graduation. At first I was part of the education team working as a living history leader. I really enjoyed seeing how much the children got out of the experience. I still find this very rewarding, but as I moved more into the visitor service role I really enjoy talking to our visitors about what history and heritage means to them and how it is all connected.

Inspired by a muddy ditch

When I was born in the mid 1970s my parents lived in a council flat in Smethwick. My dad was a carpenter and my mum worked part-time for Chances glass when I was little. We soon moved to a house in Oldbury where I grew up near Warley Woods. I think I was about 9 when I discovered a love of history and it was often me dragging my parents around castles during our Welsh holidays (luckily my parents quite liked history and castles too).

I remember my dad taking me to Warwick Castle (in the rain) and loving it and Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford. One day my dad mentioned a house close by that he thought I would like and one Sunday afternoon he took me to Oak House. I couldn’t believe this was so close to where we lived and I immediately fell in love with the place! It was a trip to Carew castle in Pembrokeshire that sealed it for me though – where archaeologists were digging up the moat and one of them was talking to visitors about what they had found. I think it was then I realised you could work in heritage and that is what I wanted to do!

 I attended Perryfields High school and then Rowley Regis College before going to Nottingham university to study Archaeology and History. Getting your foot on the first rung of the heritage ladder is not easy. Me and my uni friends had rang around a lot of heritage sites and museums asking the best ways of ‘getting in’ -the answer was always the same, loads of volunteer work and a post-graduate diploma (which costs a load of money to do, which I couldn’t afford). Undeterred (well maybe a bit disheartened) I decided there had to be a way forward.

In the meantime I got a job as a shop manager and then moved into the civil service – I also got a weekend job in a museum and I had was volunteering for Sandwell Museums -particularly at Oak House.

In those days the Civil Service had a pot of money to do training for personal development – so this could be flower arranging or dance classes or something that enhanced you as a person. I decided to apply to see if they would agree to pay for at least some of a museums post-graduate course (I didn’t hold out much hope) but they agreed to fund 50% of my Museum Studies Masters Degree – by distance learning as i certainly couldn’t afford not to be working. I scraped up some money and my parents helped out too. So I found myself studying in my spare time, while working full time with my weekend museum job.

I then got my first proper heritage job – it was an admin job but it was for English Heritage which I was mega excited about. I got to do some really interesting things, going up scaffolding to have a look at restoration work, climbing up church towers and I even got to stand on the roof of Curzon street station. There was a lot of very dodgy ladders and hard hats involved.

In 2004 I saw the job advertised for Education and Exhibitions Officer for Sandwell Museums and immediately applied, my volunteering and part-time jobs had told me I wanted to work in the learning and education side of museums. I didn’t hear anything for months but eventually after a rather gruelling interview I got the job and I’m still here although my job has evolved and changed and expanded quite a bit over time.

I think I’ve stuck around so long as the job is so varied and has developed over time and we’re always doing new things and experiencing new challenges.

I am so proud of the huge variety of things and experiences we offer our visitors and the amazing buildings and stories attached to the historic buildings and objects we look after. Our days are very full and very busy but we get to work in and enjoy these fabulous buildings and share them with others and I feel very lucky to have such an exciting, interesting, creative, varied job and have fantastic colleagues to work with and fantastic visitors to help to enjoy our spaces.

I’m a huge historic buildings fan and am fascinated by old churches and old houses and the stories behind them. I get very excited about medieval floor times and wall paintings. I also love the great outdoors and enjoy a good hike and a bit of wildlife spotting too…. oh an the odd gig with loud guitars!

Christmas sees lots of evening events and museum staff also do the real greenery arrangements at Oak House and lady volunteers do them at Haden Old Hall!
We welcome lots of school children at Sandwell Museums undertaking creative learning activities across the curriculum including creative writing, drama, literacy, history and art.

A Journey from Sandwell hospital to Oak House.

I was born in Sandwell Hospital in 1990. I grew up in Rowley Regis with my mom and dad, in a house midway between my dad’s parents and my mom’s parents.  It’s true what they say about people from the Black country, we never seem to fly far from the nest! 

I blame my parents for my love of history and the great outdoors. I remember being dragged around National Trust sites and museums from a very early age, (usually on one of our camping holiday in Dorset).

I always enjoyed learning about history at school but ended up falling in love with Archaeology while studying for my A-levels at Halesowen college. I enjoyed being a historical detective, piecing together stories from the past by looking at ‘real’ artefacts, rather than just reading about history in textbooks. I think this is probably why I enjoy visiting museums and heritage sites so much, there is just something special about ‘objects’ and ‘real places’.

I decided to do a degree in Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Worcester University (I chose Worcester because It was far enough to move away from home that I wouldn’t get a surprise visit from my family; but I could still get back to mom and dads with my laundry every weekend.)

It was during my time at Worcester that I decided I wanted to pursue a career within the heritage Industry. I suppose a month spent carrying out Archaeological excavations in the Mendips during the ‘Great British Summer’ helped me to make this decision. Following university, I worked in libraries for a while, while I continued to seek employment in the museum sector. I was lucky enough to get a part time job in museums in Droitwich (I don’t miss that daily commute down the M5) and went on to study for an MA in Museum Studies via distance learning- I worked 3 jobs to pay for my MA and my social life disappeared for a while!

I started working for Sandwell Museums in 2016 and have enjoyed every minute of it. I really care about the beautiful building I work in. Working in museums means that no two days are ever the same. Whether you’re preparing activities for the school holidays or larger family events, planning paranormal events, supervising contractors carrying out on site work, paying bills and replying to e-mails, taking bookings, supervising groups on site… the list goes on, including cleaning toilets! But despite the hard work, and the balancing act I play daily, it’s true what they say, ‘choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’.

A member of one of the 3 art groups which run at Wednesbury Museum run by one of our female members of staff.

Campervans and charity shops

I was born and grew up in Sandwell, along with at least 6 generations before me. As a child, I would spend hours listening to stories of my grandparents younger lives, telling me the mischievous things they would get up to in the local area, all of the dance halls they would visit and places they would court. They all lived, worked and started families in Sandwell, leading happy lives.

My mom has worked in a museum setting since I was about 7, she passed on her passion of historical buildings to me and then all I ever wanted to do was follow in her footsteps.
I began volunteering in Sandwell Museums at the age of 15 and working in them as a casual at the age of 16 then became part of the front of house team and now manage a building. Working in historical buildings is all I have ever done, and all I ever want to do.

A few years ago myself and partner built a campervan from scratch. Since then, we have travelled around the UK with our little dog, seeing the coasts and lots and lots of grassy fields. On our travels, I love to visit as many quirky charity shops as possible, looking for little treasures that will sit on my shelf collecting dust for years to come! I also love to visit (however morbid it may be) old churches and their cemeteries, scanning gravestones, reading aloud the names and imagining the lives of the people they once were.

I love working in our buildings because it gives you a sense of being part of a bigger picture. We spend a lot of time imagining the lives of the people who once lived here, and now we get to become part of this history too. I feel very proud of my work place, to be able to walk down the driveway and see a 750 year old building stand before you, see the sun glistening off the moat, and hear families of birds talking to each other as they fly over the roofs from one tree to another, there’s no other place quite like it. I also love seeing the look on people’s faces as they walk into the great hall for the first time and their jaws drop at the beauty of it, you can’t help but feel smug that this is our office. And for the visitors who come back again and again, once with babes in arms, and now with happy go lucky children growing up so quickly, it’s an amazing feeling knowing that our museum service has had an impact on their young life, and hopefully they will continue to use and love our buildings for years to come.

Creating characters for a murder mystery activity – here is Burlington Bromwich
Doing the cleaning
Working with community groups – including working with a local dementia group undertaking reminiscence sessions

I swam the English Channel…

I was born in Sandwell hospital in 1978 to a working-class couple originally from Wednesbury and Tipton.  I lived just over the border in Walsall until I was 6 and then moved to Wednesbury, where my parents ran a local newsagents for many years.  I have remained in Wednesbury for the past 36 years.  Educated from age 3-16 in Sandwell schools, I can honestly say I loved school!  History was never my favourite subject until year 9 where a new teacher taught us about the Industrial Revolution.  This ignited a passion and interest that has remained with me.

My hobbies include gardening and swimming.  I swam the English Channel (in the local Pool) with my eldest daughter in 2015.  We swam 22 miles (1416 lengths) to raise money for Diabetes in their Swim22 Challenge.

My working background has generally been sales orientated, working up to National Sales Co-ordinator, where I trained sales staff for a National Foodservice company.  In 2007, I started my family of 3 children and was lucky enough to become a stay at home mom for several years.  

I have always had a passion for people and their backgrounds so when I started work for Sandwell Museums in 2017, it allowed me to indulge in this and explore and share our local history.  I love being part of the museum team, no one day is ever the same.  I am privileged to work with the Living History team, the look on school children’s faces when they see their history come to life is truly amazing and inspiring!

Proms in the park
Discussing business planning, strategies and key priorities at our museum conference

My job is my weird hobby!

I was born and bred in Smethwick in the 1960s. Home birth where the doctor sat downstairs with my nan and the midwife lay on the bed next to my mom (it was a long labour-but I was worth it!!) until I was ready to pop out.

Educated in Smethwick, through the comprehensive school system and local 6th form college until I left home to do a degree in Fine Art. Upon completion I returned to Smethwick where I had my own studio in the jewellery quarter of Birmingham for a few years while working in retail in Birmingham city centre until I became a manager. After many long years of selling ‘stuff’ and after the birth of my second child I applied to work as a living history leader at Oak House (Living History leaders deliver our schools sessions) as the hours were more ‘child friendly’. That was nearly 19 years ago!!! Since then I have moved around our museum sites, performing a wide range of job roles including running art groups, greeted, entertained and educated thousands of visitors and made many friends. I love the engagement with the public, the wonderful buildings we work in and the sense of pride I have for our achievements within the service. Our visitors make the job special and interesting and challenging sometimes! I love the variety, I learn something new every day, and it allows me to be creative and think ‘outside the box’. I don’t have time for hobbies ….my job is my weird hobby and allows me to share my skills and ,annoying for some, my opinions. See you in another 19 years 😊

Punk to the CBSO

I have lived in Sandwell, in Bearwood, for nearly 27 years. I love where I live with its diversity of friendly people, strong community spirit, green spaces and local amenities. But I’m not from ‘round here’ being born and growing up in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. My first childhood home was a teeny, tiny nail maker’s cottage, with the original forge in the back yard.

I volunteer with Bearwood Action for Refugees, enjoy getting out into nature, spending time in my garden and on the allotment. I have been in various bands and music groups ranging from a punk band to the CBSO Chorus and now a Blue Grass folk band.

I gained a degree and postgraduate qualifications with the intention of working at a museum or gallery however, things took me in a slightly different direction up until now. I have worked for The University of Birmingham, Information Services, as a lecturer in Further Education, as Education Officer with the CBSO and as a freelance artist, musician and arts facilitator. Having the opportunity to work at Haden Hill House Museum for Sandwell Museum Services is pretty much a dream job for me! I feel so lucky that I get to work with such a fab team in this beautiful historic house and park.”

Some of our talented creative staff, put together and deliver arts and crafts workshops for adults

I must admit I’ve struggled with this.. !

Like many women I find it hard to talk about myself like this…

Anyway here goes!

I was born & bred in the Black Country, living & going to school in Tipton. Both my parents came from Dudley, my Nan worked in factories and then aspired to becoming the vegetable cook at the Queen Mary Ballroom on Dudley Zoo, she took her children & very often other people’s children on holidays in the distant climbs of sunny Worcestershire where they spent their time hop picking.

My mom raised 4 daughters, ran a home, worked in the evenings, then became a nursery nurse & later studied & gained enough O levels to be able to qualify as a Social worker, at the same time instilling in to us that we could be anything we wanted to be!

I have worked for Sandwell MBC all my working life (sad I know!) I started work at Tipton Library at the tender age of 17 despite having been told by our careers officer that I wasn’t clever enough to get a job in a library! I spent the next ten years working at various libraries including the mobile library service.

I remember attending a course at Haden Hill House way back in the day & saying to a colleague how lovely it would be work here, little did I know my fate was set!

After a particularly horrendous day on the Housebound library service, I knew I couldn’t carry on in that role, but the fates intervened & I spotted a part time job at Haden Hill House advertised & the rest as they say is history…

I love my job, the amazing people I work with & our wonderful buildings, no two days are ever the same. It gives me a real sense of satisfaction when people come & enjoy the events we put on. I am very proud of everything we have achieved, particularly in the challenging times we find ourselves in.

I discovered Zumba a few years ago & now take part in regular classes, I currently act as our instructors “legs” after she underwent surgery on her knee. I have also been known to take part in the odd Mud run!

Teddy bear making work shop

Jazz and yoga

I was born and raised in Rowley Regis. I went to Rowley Hall Primary and Rowley Regis Grammar school.

I started my working life in the Civil Service in Birmingham City Centre at the age of 16 working in lots of different offices and departments until leaving in 1995 to look after my daughter. I worked with some wonderful people and learnt to deal with the public especially in my last job in a Black Country Job Centre.

I go to as many live music gigs as I can including attending a regular jazz venue. I do a yoga class and run an evening craft class every month. I am involved in voluntary work at my Church and am often found wondering the charity shops of Blackheath.

I started working at Haden Hill House Museum on an eight-hour contract which fitted in with a part time job I had at the time. The museum job soon overtook my other job and the rest they say is history!

I love my job at the museum for many reasons. I count myself very lucky to be able to work in a picturesque environment with such lovely colleagues. No two days are ever the same as the work is so varied. I even have the opportunity to help couples book their weddings and sometimes be on duty on their special day. We receive lots of positive comments from the public about the work we do and that makes it all worthwhile.

Staff travel back to the 1970s in our Nostalgia Rooms gallery

Born in Birmingham

I was not born in Sandwell but Birmingham.   At the age of 12 my family went to live in Georgia USA.  Although I came back to the UK and Birmingham at the age of 19 I did not move to Sandwell until I married in 1979.  When I first moved here I found quite a difference in attitudes to education, women’s roles and the closeness of families.  I do think this has changed a bit over the 30 something years I lived in Sandwell.  I now live in Worcestershire.

I am lucky enough to have had quite a few interesting jobs over the years and have always agreed to do any training I was offered.  I have worked in a bookshop, various offices, banking, teaching post 16s and education in museums.  I have always been interested in museums and my husband had been a casual member of the living history team for a few years, I heard they were looking for casual visitor service assistants, that was nearly ten years ago and I’ve also worked with the living history team delivering schools activities.

I have many hobbies a lot of them relating to folk music and Morris dancing.  I also enjoy sewing, knitting and many different crafts.  I am also a member of a community choir.

One of our previous apprentices who gained lots of skills and confidence from her time with us.

I made cough sweets

My father’s family lived in stone cross and were black country born & bread spending their lively hood was mainly from collecting scrap metal etc from the local area & tip. My father met my mother who was from a working-class family of 4 children who lived in Telford and my father initially decided to move to the Telford area to be close to my mother. However, after a few years my father could not settle and moved back to the Sandwell area where he got a job as a bin man working for Sandwell council as a refuge collector.

I was born in December 1966 at home in Marsh Lane, stone cross & I am the oldest of 4 children & the only girl. Life was difficult in our household as my father was closer to his sons and spent most of his time with the boys, fishing etc. he spent the rest of the time in the pub and finally succumbed to alcohol abuse, he was an alcoholic. My mother was like my sister and we had a very healthy relationship whilst growing up and still are very close to this day. I attended the local schools Hargate primary school & Churchfields High School.

Once I left School I got a place on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) as it was called then at sealer coughs making sweets. Did not like it as I kept burning my arms so left a got a position as a cleaner at Sandwell town hall where I worked for many years leaving to get married & have children with the love of my Life. Following the birth of my 2 children I got a job with the local school to fit in with my children’s school hours. During this period my mother used to work at the Oak house as the cleaner but had to reduce her hours as a consequence of my father’s poor health so I applied to take up her reduced hours until she retired & I took over her role at the oak house where I have been ever since, now as a visitor services assistant as we don’t have cleaners anymore – we just all muck in!.

I have no real hobbies other than socialising with close friends, fitness training & renovating my forever home. I recently learned to drive which frightens the life out me so have no idea why I did it  

I like working at the Oak House for the people I work with from day to day. Each day brings new challenges, dealing with the public & making sure they enjoy their visits to the Oak House. The events during the summer months can be quite hectic, but very rewarding when all goes to plan.    

I knew it was meant to be

I was born at Sandwell Hospital in 1990, and all my family have always lived in the West Bromwich area. I was brought up here and attended Menzies High School. In 2009 I went to The University of Chester, studying History. After taking a few years out to have my daughter I decided to get back into work. I had been using Sandwell Museums for years, taking my daughter to many of their children’s events and family fun days and it always seemed like a great place to work. It had been my dream since I was a young child to work in a museum, I knew this is what I was meant to do!

When I got my job working for the museum service, it was amazing and seemed to be that all the hard work I had done had finally got me where I wanted to be. I love my job working for Sandwell Museums, every day is different, and it is very rewarding. The building I work in is 750 years old, and has seen generations of families come and go, to be a tiny part of its history is a privilege, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to work doing something I love.

I have visited many many castles

 I was born and brought up in Wolverhampton as one of three siblings, and I have been lucky to have a great supportive family.

I studied History and Sociology at university and have been fortunate to have travelled many places, which has inspired me to want to see more of the world.

I’m a huge history nerd, I have visited many many castles and history sites!

I have volunteered and completed placements in the heritage industry previously, and came to this role as an apprentice recently which has been great.

I love being able to interact with all of the visitors, and being able to share the amazing history of these sites and the important work the service does. It has helped me to become more confident within myself and has made me love history and heritage more.

lady nailmakers

Final thoughts…

I hope you’ve enjoyed these stories. From me a huge thank you for all their dedication, hard work and going above and beyond. Also a huge thank you to all the fantastic lady volunteers we have who help us garden, run tearooms, help out at events and help raise funds.

You are all truly inspiring and fabulous!

Ladies of the Manor – International Women’s Day

Sarah – ready to read you the letter to her husband

In October 1633 a group of women were brought before the court in the great hall at Bromwich Hall (the Manor House Museum) accused of gossiping. You may be thinking this is hardly a crime, but gossiping was a term specifically associated with women. It was first used in late medieval times to describe women’s chatter around the bed as a friend or neighbour gave birth. By the 1600s it referred to women’s conversation more generally, particularly if they were discussing or arguing with men. Richard Shilton was the Lord of the Manor at this time and it seems was probably a Catholic. The local area was very much influenced by the Puritan (strong Protestant) Turton family (one branch of the family lived at Oak House). So it is likely that the women were probably heard talking about politics or religion or other matters that it was considered did not concern women.

However, when the women were found guilty the punishment was to be drawn through the area on a cart – this was so that people could throw insults and possibly rotten vegetables at them and was supposed to be generally humiliating. The court commented that there were no carts available and then fined the whole village. This suggests that community had responded by saying there were no carts available, they were all broken or there just weren’t any. This seems incredibly unlikely in a farming community so were the locals sticking up for the women or just making a rude gesture to the Lord of the Manor, or both?

Cecily Stanley was acting as Lord of the Manor in the early 1500s. She had inherited the Bromwich estate from her uncle John Frebody (well technically she didn’t inherit, she and her husband were running it on behalf of their son). After her husband’s death (and maybe even in his lifetime as he doesn’t seem that interested in Bromwich) Cecily was clearly taking the lead in running the Bromwich estate.

Cecily had married John Stanley in Lichfield in about about 1495.  John was well connected as his uncle had been the man who had crowned Henry VII on the Bosworth battlefield. 

It is believed that Cecily did quite a bit of building work at Bromwich Hall probably adding the oriel window and the dais hood which would both enhance the prestige and power of the owner (ie herself) at a time when there were political upheavals in England and she is trying to reinforce the power of the Lord of the manor. Cecily tried to enforce rather outdated rules, as well as medieval rights and privileges of the Lord of the Manor

Women can be found taking on these sorts of roles when they were acting on behalf of their husbands or sons when their son had inherited while still a child.

Bromwich Hall Museum

When we talk about buildings like Bromwich Hall -the Manor House, castles or large houses we usually say it is the home of a Lord of the Manor or some other great man. However quite often the male owners of these homes were away fighting or doing other jobs away from their estates such as working for the government. So it was actually their wives who would run houses and estates on a day to day basis taking the every day decisions. The stories of these women, along with many day to day activities of life are often footnotes in the story or just simply forgotten.

This spring at Bromwich Hall we we will be redressing the balance by installing two new displays ready for visitors to enjoy this summer. The displays will see two women once associated with this 750 year old building brought back to life by projecting real faces onto blank faced models. The dummies will then be able to talk to visitors and tell their stories of the everyday goings on at Bromwich Hall, as it would usually be the Lady of the Manor you would find at home dealing with the everyday administration and running of the estate rather than the Lord. They would have to deal with tenants and suppliers, disputes, rents and contracts, repairs and a whole host of other activities. The manor estate would be full of activity from farming, smithy and forges, milling, tree felling and mending roads and bridges.

Bromwich Hall, Great Hall

The first of the two women to tell her story will be Sarah De Everiis (later spelt Devereaux). It is Sarah and her sister Margaret’s story which leads to Bromwich Hall being built in the first place! So for this story we travel back to the 1260s.

The Bromwich estates were inherited through Sarah and Margaret d’Offini from their father. Sarah married Walter de Everiis usually referred to as Walter de Bodenham in about 1252.  Walter was a powerful military leader and Lord of Bodenham in Herefordshire.  He was, along with other members of his family, one of the powerful, ‘Marcher Lords’ responsible for securing the English border with Wales and for putting down any rebellions or uprisings by the Welsh. 

Following Sarah and Walter’s wedding, Walter went with King Henry III to Gascony (part of English-occupied France) to put down a rebellion. It is probable that Walter was injured during this campaign, as he was granted an exemption by King Henry in 1256 from carrying out public duties or service on behalf of the crown. Sarah gave birth to a son in 1257 also named Walter.

Walter senior went back to war in 1264 when he fought for Henry III at the battle of Lewes, which Henry lost.  Walter then changed sides, was made Sheriff of Herefordshire by Simon de Montford and fought and died with him at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.  His lands at Bodenham were confiscated by the King.

Margaret d’Offini complained that she had been held a virtual prisoner to ensure she did not marry and her half of the Bromwich Manor go to any heirs she might have. This actually went to court but as Walter didn’t turn up, the hearing was postponed. However now the de Everiis money was tight, a wealthy husband, Richard De Marnham was found for Margaret.  Richard was a merchant by trade, so for him he was buying a position in a gentry family and gaining important family connections. For the de Everiis he would bring money into the estate and build the Hall (Manor House) we see today. 

So for Margaret, like many women, marriage was where you gained status and some freedoms and often influences but women were at the same time little more than their husband’s property.

The second story is that of Lettice Shilton. Richard Shilton was Lord of the Manor of West Bromwich from 1626, when he bought the Hall, extensive farmland and the title ‘Lord of the Manor’, from his cousin William Stanley. Richard owned the Bromwich estate until his death in 1647. 

Richard spent little time in the 1630s in West Bromwich as after training as a lawyer he was elected to Parliament as MP for Bridgnorth in 1626.  From 1629 he served as Solicitor General to King Charles I, one of the King’s most senior legal advisors, and on a number of Royal Commissions, including the Commission Investigating Catholics in ‘The North’, the London Sewers and new Buildings Commission, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (which heard treason trials and trials for offences against the majestie of the king) and as chair of the Commission for Rebuilding and Repairing St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Richard had married Lettice Fisher, daughter of the prominent royalist and Warwickshire landowner Sir Robert Fisher, in the early 1620s.  It was left to Lettice and Richard’s steward, Robert Flint, to manage the West Bromwich estates.  At a time when it would take at least 3 days to send a letter to London from West Bromwich and at least 3 days more to get a reply, it is likely that Lettice and Robert took most of the important day to day decisions themselves.

Richard retired from public life to his West Bromwich estates in 1642.  Lettice died later that year, and Richard died in 1647.  His will specified that he should be buried beside her in the parish church however no trace of any memorial to them remains today.

It is interesting to note that there is almost the same amount of time between the life of Sarah Devereaux and Lettice Shilton then there has been between Lettice and ourselves.

Visit Bromwich Hall to learn more about its fascinating 750 years of history at one of our open days in 2020 on the first Sunday and following Monday from the beginning of April 1-4pm Entry free or check out our varied events programme at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums

You’ll be able to see the talking models of Sarah and Lettice at Bromwich Hall by the summer.

Why isn’t it a pub any more?

This is a question staff sometimes get asked at the Manor House Museum. The simple answer is that the brewery no longer wished to run the building as a pub and felt it was no longer viable for them to do so. Therefore the Manor House pub closed in 2009. Other commercial options were considered at that time but for a variety of reasons including the age and nature of the building, it was decided it should be run by Sandwell Council’s museum service as a heritage attraction and community resource. The building has been owned by the local authority since the late 1950s and after its restoration was leased to be opened as a pub and restaurant in the early 1960s.

However, if we left the answer at this it would be a very short blog and so this blog is really about why this amazing building is far more than just a former pub that now hosts a variety of family, schools and community activities. So prepare to be amazed that this building is right here in West Bromwich!

A postcard of the Manor House as a pub in the 1960s/ 70s. You can see the moat dug why the TA in a weekend.

Bromwich Hall

The Manor House Museum (for most of its life known as Bromwich Hall and we are starting to use this name again) has been in the guardianship of Sandwell Museum Service for a decade now as we opened the building for the first time in May 2010 with a large community event and guided tours. Since then research has unearthed lots more stories and information about the people associated with the site and the significance of the building itself.

You may have walked along Hall Green Rd and seen this fantastic building or enjoyed one of our events or activities, you may even remember this building as a public house and restaurant or have relatives that lived here when it was tenements up until the 1950s….

…however what you won’t remember is the other 700 years that this building has sat in the landscape as the world has changed around it. Altogether that’s around 750 years of human lives lived in this amazing building and 750 years of stories and adventures (and sometimes misadventures).

You may remember the pretend medieval stencilling on the wall, fake medieval wall hangings and the knight on his plastic horse as you supped your pint when the building was a pub. But it seems that not everyone realised that behind the medieval theme was actual real medieval stuff!

It does seem that unlike our other historic house museums such at Oak House and Haden Hill House, local people don’t always see the building for what it really is, it is still associated by many with being a former pub and a space where they can come and enjoy school holiday activities or other community events (don’t get me wrong we love that thousands of people come along and enjoy our activities each year). People don’t always realise the significance and history surrounding the site. We do endeavour to get those stories told on site, provide guided tours, information, replica furnishings, history events and re-enactments but unlike our other buildings, Bromwich Hall- the Manor House isn’t furnished all the time and our information about the site isn’t on display all the time, due to how we use the building. We are always moving furniture and making space and moving it back again to accommodate our variety of activities. So in this special year when the building is 750 years old (well approximately) and the 10th anniversary of it becoming a museum and community venue, we are going to shout about this fabulous, fascinating and very long story and we have some exciting new developments happening on site too showcasing a few of the interesting stories associated with the building!

I’m not going to go through 750 years of history in detail in this blog as we’ll be here all day, but I will highlight a few things which we think show why this building is so important and why we love it so much. It also underlines how its life as a pub has been just a very small part of this building’s story.

750 years in one hour

If the 750 years of the building’s history were represented by an hour of time then…

  • for the first 36 minutes the building was the home of the Lords of the Manor, centre of local administration and law court
  • for the next 10 minutes the building was still the home of fairly wealthy people but the concept of Lord of the Manor was no longer really that relevant and it was now just a smart home for the fairly wealthy and anyway the Earl of Dartmouth bought the title just for the prestige.
  • for the following 9 minutes the building was tenements, housing for up to 8 families
  • Following that for the next 4 minutes the building was a pub and restaurant
  • …and in the final minute the building has become a museum and community resource

Beorhtwine’s Anglo-Saxon Manor

The manor or estate of Bromwic is an Anglo-Saxon manor and is known to have existed before the Domesday Book. Domesday refers to the estate being held by a Saxon called Beorhtwine before the Norman Conquest of 1066 and it is probable that the boundaries of West Bromwich parish and ‘manor’ were well established by the early 900s. Discussion about the location of an earlier manor hall is now suggesting a possible Saxon manor site in Friar Park where earthworks (that’s humps and bumps in the ground) and documentation suggest some significant building that later became the grange or farm for the land belonging to Halesowen Abbey, which was given to the Abbey by the Lords of the Manor perhaps around 1220.

Therefore if the Lords of the Manor gave the land where the Saxon hall sat to Halesowen Abbey in the 1200s there was no hall (Manor House) until our house was built probably around 1270, so the family must have been living at one of their other manors.

(As an aside at this point – a reminder for those that know or a bit of information for that didn’t know in the first place. The house where the Lord of the Manor lived was known as the hall, which would have been one of many buildings on the site, including, barns, bakery, mills, forges, accommodation etc and the manor was the name for the estate or land which a hall controlled. So the building would not have been known as The Manor House, it was Bromwich Hall. The Manor House is entirely a pub name, google it, there are lorry loads of pubs called the Manor House. What you see on site today is just a fraction of what would once have made up the manor buildings which would have grown over the centuries.)

So back to our story, we are currently in the 1260s. At this point events unfold which leads to the construction of Bromwich Hall (the Manor House Museum).

The Bromwich estates were inherited through Sarah and Margaret d’Offini from their father. Sarah married Walter de Everiis (later written as Devereux) usually referred to as Walter de Bodenham in about 1252.  Walter was a powerful military leader and Lord of Bodenham in Herefordshire.  He was, along with other members of his family, one of the powerful, ‘Marcher Lords’ responsible for securing the English border with Wales and for putting down any rebellions or uprisings by the Welsh. 

Following Sarah and Walter’s wedding, Walter went with King Henry III to Gascony (part of English-occupied France) to put down a rebellion, evidence suggests that he was probably injured during this campaign. Sarah gave birth to a son in 1257 also named Walter (confusingly medieval families often liked to use the same few first names).

Walter senior went back to war in 1264 when he fought for Henry III at the battle of Lewes, which Henry lost.  Walter then changed sides and was against the king, was made Sheriff of Herefordshire by Simon de Montford and fought and died with him at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.  His castle and lands at Bodenham were confiscated by the king.

Meanwhile Margaret d’Offini (remember her, she was Sarah’s sister) complained that she had been held a virtual prisoner to ensure she did not marry and therefore her half of the Bromwich Manor go to any heirs she might have. However now the de Everiis money was tight, a wealthy husband, Richard de Marnham was found for Margaret.  Richard was a merchant by trade, so for him he was buying a position in an important gentry family and gaining important family connections. For the de Everiis he would bring loads of money into the estate and build the hall (Manor House) you see here today.  The great hall is the oldest part of the building, built around 1270 by Richard de Marnham.

Murder at the manor?

In 1293 a rather extraordinary incident at the newly built Bromwich Hall is recorded in the Stafford Assize (criminal court) Roll. The conflict involved two of Richard and Margaret’s sons Bertram and Nicholas; a third son, Richard and probably the eldest, appears to have had no involvement with what ensued. Bertram was arrested for the death of Nicholas and the subsequent trial records…

‘that Nicholas son of Richard de Marnham and Bertram son of Richard were sitting and drinking together with others at the house of Agnes the weaver of Bromwych in Bromwych in the dusk of the evening, and contumelious words (humiliating insults) were used between them, and the said Bertram, who was the younger and humble, out of respect for Nicholas, got up and left the house of Agnes in order to avoid the malice of Nicholas, who was vaide maliciosus; and Nicholas being irritated at this, got up and followed him with a long knife drawn in his hand, and Bertram ran away between two high hedges as far as the door of Richard de Marnham in that vill; and the door was closed so that he could not enter the house, nor could he climb over the hedges because of their height, and he could not evade Nicholas except by defending himself. In self defence he struck Nicholas with his sword on the head and in the breast. He is therefore to be given up to the Bishop as not guilty.

…..errrrrrm what! I hear you cry. What kind of ending was that? That story was building up nicely -not guilty! Well the church had its own courts so it is possible that Bertrum was a priest or said he was a priest and was therefore given to the Bishop to deal with. It is probably he spent the rest of his life in Worcester priory. But the most important question here is what were the sons of the Lord of the Manor doing at the home of Agnes the Weaver – i’ll leave that to your imagination!

Archers of West Bromwich

West Bromwich archers are referenced as being at various battles during the Middle Ages and they would have been the ordinary men who usually worked the land in Bromwich and practised their archery skills on a Sunday afternoon. They would have owed military service to the Lord of the Manor at Bromwich Hall who in turn owed allegiance to his Lord which had been the Lords of Dudley Castle and later those at Weoley Castle. So men of Bromwich could easily find themselves fighting in regional or national or even international battles.

Prince Henry

Some historians have attempted to identify the youthful associates of Henry V (he was the one who beat the French at the Battle of Agincourt) and of the 14 or so names put forward as possible friends of the young prince 3 were identified as being named Devereaux, De Bodenham and Bromwich which sounds rather familiar. These three would probably have been relatives and may have stayed at or even been born at their family lands at Bromwich when they were children. It proves nothing at all and is only a theory but it is interesting and allows the mind to wonder off thinking about which nationally known historical characters may have passed through Bromwich Hall’s doors because of family associations and connections to Bromwich manor.

Buckingham’s retinue historical group bring Bromwich Hall alive as it might have been in the middle of the 1400s

Throughout most of the 1400s the manor was held by the Freebody family. Sir William Freebody was for a while constable of Dover Castle – responsible for ensuring the castle was prepared for war and responsible for the garrison of soldiers stationed there in case of French invasion.

Buckingham’s retinue re-enactment group bring the kitchen to life with medieval dishes
Oak House, West Bromwich -The home of John Turton from 1634 until his death in the 1670s.

In this tour of Bromwich Hall highlights we move to the 1620s when Richard Shilton (sometimes known as Sheldon) was Lord of the Manor of West Bromwich. He bought the hall, extensive farmland and the title ‘Lord of the Manor’, from his cousin William Stanley. Richard owned the Bromwich estate until his death in 1647. 

Richard spent little time in the 1630s in West Bromwich as after training as a lawyer he was elected to Parliament as MP for Bridgnorth in 1626.  From 1629 he served as Solicitor General to King Charles I, one of the king’s most senior legal advisors, and on a number of Royal Commissions, including the Commission Investigating Catholics in ‘The North’, the London Sewers and new Buildings Commission, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (which heard treason trials) and as chair of the Commission for Rebuilding and Repairing St. Paul’s Cathedral (this is old St Paul’s before the Great Fire of London).

During this time it is likely that it was Richard’s wife Lettice and his steward Robert who were running the estate. Richard retired from public life to his West Bromwich estates in 1642 and remained until his death in 1647.  His will specified that he should be buried beside his wife in the parish church however no trace of any memorial to them remains today.

The evidence from local court cases and sessions held at Bromwich Hall in the late 1500s and 1600s show how involved with local administration the Turton family from the Oak House were (Oak House is now one of our other museums a couple of miles from Bromwich Hall). Various members of the Turton family are mentioned in the court rolls for Bromwich Hall as jurors, court officials or local administration officials.

About the old beams

I’ve talked about some of the significant people who were associated with Bromwich Hall but the building itself is no less important. It is grade I listed, which is the highest listing, putting it in the top 2.5% of important buildings in England. There are around 500,000 or so listed buildings in England and just 2.5% of those buildings are Grade I listed. This means that Bromwich Hall is as nationally important as Warwick Castle, Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey or Blenheim Palace.

The construction of the great hall makes this building very important and totally unique indeed. The great hall has examples of two different types of trusses (roof construction) a spere truss which is at the end of the hall, nearest the entrance doors, and a base cruck in the centre of the room. This shows a period when styles were changing from the spere truss to the base cruck designs. The construction of the base cruck allowed a wide space to be spanned and create a big hall without any pillars cluttering up the centre of the room.

Experts who have examined the great hall at Bromwich now largely feel that this is the earliest dated surviving example of a base cruck in the UK which is still in a standing building!!!!!! WOW!!

A pic from when we first took on the house in 2010 – you can see the base cruck in the middle of the roof. The spere truss is just visible in the background – more about this in another blog.

The building also has lots of stories to tell in the marks that people have left behind. As we look for them we are noticing more and more. On your arrival at the site you will go through an archway under what we call the gatehouse. In this archway are a series of apotropaic (protective) or witch marks which were put there probably in the 1500s or 1600s to protect the buildings from witches, evil spirits and spells. These marks come in a number of forms but at Bromwich Hall we have several that appear in many other buildings including Knole – which is a large house in Sussex in the rooms where King James I stayed . James was terrified of witches and a bit obsessed with protecting himself from them.

A popular protective mark is the V V mark in under the entrance archway at Bromwich Hall. This area of the Hall known as the ‘gatehouse’ is a later addition probably built in the later 1500s.

Behind the scenes.

An area not currently open to the public is the area behind the large table at the far end of the great hall. This area was the back room areas and kitchen when the building was used as a pub and currently houses store rooms, the boiler room and former toilets. Experts believe that underneath the modern fixtures and fittings these are important spaces with a unique priest’s house, an extremely unusual feature and a 15th century parlour. We hope that we will be able to uncover these areas and discover more.

Archaeologists have also examined the former pub manager’s house out in the grounds and currently believe that although it was later extended and changed into a dwelling it started life as a medieval bakery and again is one of only a few left in the country.

So here are just a few good reasons why this important, fascinating and marvellous building deserves to be a heritage space and allowed to tell its stories, the stories of the local area and its people. I’m sure it still has many stories to tell us as more research is undertaken and as the site is slowly developed and improved for public use and to tell these stories to our visitors. .

Over the coming year we will be writing more blogs which will showcase in greater depth, the history and architecture of Bromwich Hall and we will be celebrating the building’s 750 years of stories and decade as a museum. So look out for loads more online and on site at Bromwich Hall later this year, as well as our usual seasonal programme of events and activities.

Finally – we have also been asked why we call it a museum and what is it a museum of. Well that is perhaps a blog of its own for another time but all I will say on this point is why do you need cases full of objects when you have one unbelievably important object with a million stories to tell!

A taste of some of the many events and activities we undertake at Bromwich Hall – the Manor House Museum each year including school holiday activities, live music, theatre, vintage fairs, community fun days, Santa in his grotto and festive fun, creepy Halloween activities, private bookings and much much more.

http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/museums for general info

http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums for what’s on

The solar, or private space of the lord and his family – dates 1400s
Come along and discover more!

Jane – Museum Services Manager

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