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The first Vicar of Stonnall - a biography
Reverend James Downes BA

by Eric Fisher
Transcribed from St Peter's Parish Magazine of March 1984
Edited by Julian Ward-Davies

The first we learn of Revd James Downes is from A History of Walsall Wood by Arnold Merrett. The Governors of Queen Mary's Grammar School, Walsall had caused to be built a schoolroom in Walsall Wood, to which in 1829, James Smart had been appointed Master. Sunday services were held in this schoolroom and we are told that Revd James Downes travelled from Burton-on-Trent to conduct these services in the early 1830s. At this date, James Downes would have been 26 or 27 years old and a journey from Burton to Walsall Wood would have been taken on horseback or by pony and trap.

In 1823, the chapel at Stonnall was built and consecrated and in the early years was serviced from Shenstone Pariish Church, the Vicar of Shenstone arranging the services.

It was in 1840 that James Downes, at the age of 37, was instituted as Perpetual Curate of Stonnall and we realise from his earlier association with Walsall Wood, that he was no stranger to the district. We can assume that when he came to Stonnall, he was already married to Anne and they had been blessed with a daughter.

Stonnall at this time was a thriving farming community and James would have been welcomed by two local farmers who were the churchwardens, John Owen and James Brawn.

In the excitement of a new incumbency, no doubt James worked hard but this new appointment was to be marred in 1842 by the death of his wife Anne.

In 1842, he became chairman of a committee formed in Brownhills to raise the funds to build a church in that town. Ogley Hay, which formed the greater part of Brownhills was extra-parochial and a part of Shenstone Parish. At the same time in 1842, a faculty was applied for to extend Stonnall Chapel by building a new chancel.

The plan for the new chancel. Later, it would be modified to include a choir vestry to the south.

This new chancel was to be built at the expense of William Leigh, Lord of the Manor of Little Aston, with grant aid from two societies. This William Leigh had, in 1834, together with the Vicar of Shenstone, built a schoolroom and master's house adjacent to St Peter's Chapel. One of the duties of James Downes was a responsibility for this school.

In 1845, Stonnall became a separate parish. This would have pleased James Downes, as from that date there would have been less influence from Shenstone Parish Church.

James Downes continued as chairman of the Brownhills fund-raising committee and it was in 1850 that the foundation stone of St James Church, Brownhills was laid and celebrated with a luncheon provided by the ladies of Stonnall, Ogley Hay and Hammerwich.

Just below the church, the schoolroom and schoolhouse, somewhat obscured by foliage. The schoolroom was demolished in the 1960s.

In 1851 at the consecration of St James Church, the luncheon was enhanced by gifts of game and fruit given by the Earl of Anglesey. The kneelers for the altar rails were given by Mrs and Miss Owen, the Misses Downes and Miss Oakley.

This part of the story introduces Mrs Downes and the Misses Downes – James is now remarried. In the electoral roll in Lichfield Library, the entry for Stonnall Vicarage in 1870 reads:-

Three servant girls are also listed.

The second Mrs Downes would have been Maria Parson Downes and outside the west door of the church in Stonnall are found two tombstones – one to Anne Downes, died 1842 aged 34 years and one to Maria Parson Downes, died 9th January 1892, aged 82 years.

St James Church, Brownhills, which was consecrated in 1851, was without a minister and James Downes is recorded as the Officiating Minister up to 1857, when Revd T Jackson was instituted.

Certainly with this responsibilty in addition to being Vicar of Stonnall, James Downes led a very busy life.

There is a brass plate in Brownhills Church which records:-

Revd James Downes BA, 1803 – 1893
Vicar of Stonnall
Chairman of the Building Committee

The Education Act of 1870 laid the foundation for cumpulsory education. James Downes and the churchwardens reviewed the existing school building and decided it was not big enough for an influx of additional pupils, nor was the site suitable for extension. They decided to call a meeting of all residents interested in education and by general agreement it was decided to build a new school. James was elected aas chairman of the building committee and after completion of building, was elected chairman of managers and correspondent.

Revd James Downes was to serve Stonnall for a further 23 years. He died on the 7th of April, 1893, having been Vicar for 53 years.


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