Stonnall People and Places
The Lost Stonnall Hoard MysteryA Bronze Age Discovery at Gainsborough Farm in 1824
by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
This is the story of the Stonnall Hoard. It is based on some intensive research that was conducted by David Coombs on behalf of Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society in the late 1960s.
The sequence of events that followed the discovery of the hoard presents a fairly complex narrative of mislaid, or even lost, letters, documents and relics and, therefore to avoid excessive references to detail, the information presented here should be viewed as a synopsis of Mr Coombs' research that, hopefully, will provide the reader with the basic facts.
If you would like to know more about all the known circumstances surrounding the hoard's discovery, Dr Nigel Tringham of SAHS has kindly given the society's permission for Stonnall History Group to republish in full Mr Coombs' original article. It was first published in the society's Transactions, Vol IX 1967/68, pp 1-17 and will be featured at this website early next year.
However, described as lying a few inches away to the west of the grave in some loose sand, several items were recovered, including twenty bronze objects, a lump of lead and a lump of copper.
At that time, Gainsborough Farm - or Greensborough Hill Farm as it was known in some quarters - was part of Little Aston Estate, which was owned by William Tennant, Esq.
Gainsborough Farm (from Alan Heywood's 1971 drawing).
Image © Keith Heywood
An antiquary, William Hamper FSA, of Birmingham Archaeological Society, was invited to Gainsborough Farm to assess the discovery. He arrived, probably early in the following month, accompanied by a friend, Shirley F S Perkins. Mr Hamper and Mr Perkins interviewed the labourers and examined the grave and relics. They also looked around the farm to see if they could detect any signs of ancient habitation, such as enclosure walls, but nothing was found.
Following his examination, Mr Hamper wrote from Deritend, Birmingham, on March 25 to another, very highly regarded antiquary, Dr Samuel Rush Meyrick, to alert him of the discovery. It appears also that, at the same time, Mr Hamper sent the relics to Dr Meyrick, of which more later.
Mr Hamper's letter
The drawings were said to have been placed in the hands of Captain Tennant RN, who was, presumably, William Tennant's son. Elsewhere in the Coombs article, it is stated that the drawings may have been sent to the Society of Antiquarians.
Mr Hamper's list of items
Following receipt of Mr Hamper's communication, Dr Meyrick notified the Society of Antiquarians in London of the discovery in a letter dated March 30, 1824. The secretary of the society at the time was Henry Ellis.
Dr Meyrick's letter to Henry Ellis
Perhaps most importantly, Dr Meyrick drew some small sketches of the relics below his signature.
Dr Meyrick's sketches of the relics.
Image courtesy of Lichfield Records Office
Another question is also raised: what did Dr Meyrick make his sketches from? Did he copy them from the original drawings or did he actually have the relics in his possession? The former seems most unlikely, because it would have been another pointless duplication of effort, especially if the originals had been sent to the Society. If the latter, then it must mean that Dr Meyrick had the relics in sight.
That Dr Meyrick had the relics at hand is indicated by the fact that he wrote of several features of the relics that Mr Hamper had not mentioned at all in his letter.
Publication of the discovery
A sorry tale of loss
Mr Hamper's letter was reproduced in the book History of the Forest and Chase of Sutton Coldfield by Agnes Anne Bracken, 1860, pp 3-4. Incidentally, Miss Bracken was a notable painter and historian and has a blue plaque dedicated to her memory in Sutton Coldfield.
Mr Hamper's drawings remain unaccounted for. As we have seen, it seems most unlikely that the Society of Antiquarians ever received them. We might conclude that they remained in the possession of the Tennant family.
Dr Meyrick's letter certainly reached the Society because there is a record of it having been read out to a meeting. It seems that it was then borrowed and never returned by the borrower. However, the good news is that it was discovered in the collection of a deceased clergyman and was eventually returned to the Society in 1934. Even more good news is that it contained his sketches and now these are the only images of the relics that are known to exist.
That we know as much as we do beyond that which was published in Archaeologia is down to several eagle-eyed researchers. Information about them can be found in David Coombs' SAHS article.
Modern scholarship informs us that the relics originated in the Bronze Age. The Coombs article gives information as to where in the British Isles certain of the items were manufactured. Other questions remain however. Were the relics deposited as grave goods? Or were they co-incidentally buried on or near a grave?
Bearing in mind that Mr Hamper described them as having been found in loose sand a few inches to the west of the grave, I am of the opinion that they were indeed grave goods. The labourers had been digging down through what must have been fairly heavily compacted material and had not realised that with certain shovelfuls, they were displacing and putting to one side some unexpected metalwork which was covered in sand. That is how the relics ended up in loose sand a few inches away from the grave.
The farm and rickyard.
Image courtesy of Lichfield Records Office
Finally, in view of the foregoing, it may not come as too much of a surprise to the reader that the relics have disappeared. The last time we have any degree of certainty of their whereabouts is when Dr Meyrick appeared to have them in his possession in order to draw sketches of them. But what then?
I suspect that, as well as the drawings, they were never sent to the Society of Antiquaries, but were returned to the Tennant family. This seems to be a logical conclusion because, after all, William Tennant was the rightful owner and he would probably have wanted to retain possession of some valuable relics.
Would his descendents know anything? In 1957, Mr J T Gould FSA contacted a William Tennant great-grandson, Admiral Sir William Tennant, to be told that he knew nothing about the discovery and neither did his cousin, Sir Charles Buchanan. An explanation for this may be found in the fact that the Tennant family sold up and moved away from the area within a few years of the discovery. The relics might have been mislaid in the chaos of moving household.
What of the then occupants of the farm in 1957? Prompted by Mr Gould, Mr Harold Foden stated that he knew nothing of the discovery and that nothing similar to it had been found during his family's 60 years of occupation.
Is it really a situation in which these relics have been lost without any possibility of recovery? Of course it might be the case that somebody made the crass mistake of throwing them out or selling them as a few bits of valuable scrap metal.
On the other hand, it is just possible that they are sitting somewhere in a curio cabinet, a box, a tea chest or whatever, forgotten, ignored or unrecognised for what they really are. It is also possible that the publication of this article might enable somebody, somewhere to put, both literally and metaphorically, two and two together.
One last note of sadness: it seems regrettable, to say the least, that the names of the labourers who found the relics went unrecorded. They were, indeed, the unsung heroes of this story.
Many thanks to Lichfield Records Office.
© Julian Ward-Davies 2016
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