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The Wake, the Stone Cross and the Chapel

by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
Interpreting history in and around Stonnall
March 2014

This paper will seek to establish links between three features of Stonnall history that are all now lost. These are: Stonnall Wake, which was an annual village festival that seems to have been abandoned in 1939; a stone cross, which was located somewhere in the middle of the road in Upper Stonnall; and St Peter's Chapel, which was Stonnall's late-mediæval place of worship. It will also explore and attempt to explain the village's relationship with St Peter.

Thornes Hall and St Peter
Saint Peter seems to have had a very long association with Stonnall. In his book, The History and Antiquities of Shenstone published in 1794, Reverend Henry Sanders reported anecdotal evidence of a mediæval chapel of ease in Stonnall that was dedicated to the village's patron saint. Over 150 years later in his essay describing the history of the church in the village, Reverend Ward-Davies, the fifth Vicar of Stonnall, described the chapel as:-

...the chapel of ease to Thornes Hall.

This historical snippet might give us an insight into how and why St Peter became Stonnall's patron saint.

The location of Thornes Hall

in the grounds of the Old Vicarage.

© Julian Ward-Davies

Thornes Hall was a mansion that, for several hundred years, had occupied a plot of land situated somewhat to the south of the Old Vicarage. It was huge. When the Hearth Tax was levied in the mid-1600s, this structure had more chimneys than any other house in Stonnall and Lynn. Incidentally, one of its principal businesses was the cherries of Cherry Orchard (the field immediately behind the Old Vicarage). Harvesting this fruit would have brought in substantial returns annually - and that was in addition to the mansion's other trading activities.

For Stonnall folk in the Middle Ages and later, going to church involved a fairly long trek to St John's in Shenstone. It seems that, based on Rev Ward-Davies's historical observation, the proprietors of Thornes Hall could afford the self-indulgence of building their own chapel to save time and trouble. Of course when the chapel was built, the matter of a patron saint for the new place of worship would have arisen. From Thornes Hall's perspective, who could have been a better choice than St Peter? Did its proprietors select him because he was none other than the Patron Saint of Harvesters?

The location of Thornes Hall

the property designated B26 in Church Road, according to the 1838 Tithe Map of Stonnall. Note Thornes Hall Farm on the opposite side of the road.

© Julian Ward-Davies

Eventually, according to Rev Sanders, the chapel of ease was lost, allegedly dismantled at its original location and then re-erected as the south transept of Shenstone Church, where it was referred to as St Peter's Chapel or the Stonnall Chapel and used habitually by Stonnall residents. However, as we know, Stonnall's link with its patron saint remained, marked principally by the dedication of the village's church. As we will see, there was yet another manifestation of this relationship.

The Stonnall Chapel, otherwise known as St Peter's Chapel, as the south transept of St John's Church, Shenstone (from an early 19th century engraving).

Note that this is the old church in Shenstone, ie the building of which only the tower now remains.

Note also St Peter's keys inscribed in the brickwork of the transept.

© Stonnall History Group

The Stone Cross
In his History, Reverend Henry Sanders also referred to the following:-

In the middle of the street at Upper-stonall [sic] stood a stone cross; the base of stone in which the pillar was fixed yet remains.

He then goes on to say:-

When the parishioners examine their bounds in their processioning, the Gospel is read at this stone, and the usual ceremonies repeated;

What is he telling us exactly and what can we deduce from it?

The first part is straightforward enough: there was once a stone cross in the middle of the road at Upper Stonnall and that, in his time, only the base of it remained in place. But where exactly was it located? Careful reading of the second part, together with a cross-reference to a long-lost annual Stonnall event, will solve this particular mystery.

The terms bounds and processioning are the keywords in this text: "When the parishioners examine their bounds in their processioning...". This undoubtedly is an oblique reference to Stonnall Wake, in which the villagers took part an annual procession around the boundaries of the village.

Rev Sanders goes on to say: "...the Gospel is read at this stone, and the usual ceremonies repeated". In other words, the villagers assembled at the cross - and later at its base when the cross was lost - for bible readings prior to "the usual ceremonies", that is to say, setting off on the procession.

In summary
To summarise at this stage, we can see how the villagers had a tradition of assembling at the stone cross before proceeding on their yearly processional journey around the village. So strong was this tradition, in fact, that they continued to assemble at the structure's base even after the cross was lost. This raises another question.

Was this tradition so deeply entrenched that they met at the same place even after the structure's last remnant - its base - was also lost? This seems to be a virtual certainty because there was no reason to change what had been a long-standing tradition that had been repeated annually over very probably hundreds of years.

It follows therefore, that if we can identify where the villagers assembled for the wake, we can identify where the cross was located. But, other than Rev Sanders' all too brief mention of it, what is known about this annual event?

Another view of the old St John's Church, Shenstone (from an early 19th century engraving).

St Peter's Chapel, otherwise known as the Stonnall Chapel is on the south side of the church and St Peter's cross keys are visible on its nearside wall.

© Stonnall History Group

Stonnall Wake
We know from an early 19th century record that Stonnall Wake was celebrated on the first Sunday after St Peter's Day (June 29) and this is, of course, another connection of the saint with this village to which we alluded earlier. As we will see a little later, this fact may be of great significance with regard to the origin of the event.

From a couple of eye-witness accounts dating from the early 20th century, we know also the route taken by the procession: from its starting point - of which more later - an assembly of horses, carts, pedestrians and cyclists would move up Main Street, turn left at Chester Road, turn left at Gravelly Lane, turn left at Church Road, bear left at Church Lane and then enter Main Street once again, where it would terminate (according to one witness at least) in one of the fields in central Stonnall, where a fair would be held. (See below for a map of the route and a map of the traditional village field names.) This route, to all intents and purposes, represented a circuit of the village boundaries, as reported by Rev Sanders.

The Purpose of the Wake
Now what exactly was the wake all about? Was it simply a good excuse for a fun day out consisting of fancy dress, a few pints of beer, a carnival and a fair? This is certainly how we would characterise it in its latter days at least. But what of its origins, which may well have taken place in remote antiquity?

An attempt to answer these questions should first recall that, probably at a point in the Bronze Age when agriculture commenced in Britain, the community that arose in what we now know as Stonnall was primarily agrarian in character. People lived off the land and were completely dependent on its crops and cattle.

Thus, it should be of no great surprise that, at some time in the remote past, a communal procession, based on pagan ritual practice, was devised for the purpose of conferring good fortune on the farms and fields within the village neighbourhood. This would also explain why the procession involved a circuit of the village.

Eye-witness and photographic evidence.

Top left, Dot Smith (b 1923) and right, Gordon Mycock (b 1929). Both attended the Wake in the 1930s and can recall the route that the procession took around the village. Gordon dressed up as a Red Indian, as shown, before going to the assembly point moments after this photo was taken. Dot dressed up as a nurse for the event when she was 11.

Below, villagers assembling for the procession outside the Royal Oak.

© Stonnall History Group

We cannot even guess as to the identity of the pagan deity who was invoked during this ritual, except that we can be certain that he or she was some kind of god of fertility and productivity. This might give us a further insight into the selection of St Peter as the village's patron saint. Was he, as the Patron Saint of Harvesters, the successor of the pagan God of Harvests when Christianity arrived in the area? Early Christian activists and evangelists are known to have tolerated pagan practices as long as they were adapted and realigned to conform to their message. This would in turn explain why passages of the Bible were read at the procession's assembly point.

This brings us neatly back to the next stage of our detective story.

The Location of the Cross
We know from our eye-witness accounts and photographic evidence (shown above) that, long after both the cross and its base had been lost and forgotten, the procession assembled outside the Royal Oak. A simple deduction informs us that Stonnall's stone cross must have been located in the middle of the road nearby - and it was at that point where the procession had assembled, at least from the time when the cross had been placed there.

The route of the Stonnall Wake procession

according to Gordon Mycock's eye-witness account. The procession commenced at the Royal Oak, then completed somewhat more than a single circuit of the village boundaries and finally terminated in the Pease Croft field, as shown above, where a fair took place. Dot Smith's account differs only in terms of where the procession terminated, which in her experience was at one of the village's public houses.

It is unlikely that the Pease Croft field represented a permanent termination point for the procession because, more often than not, crops would have been growing in that enclosure at the time of year when the carnival took place. The Stockhole field was a meadow (for reasons stated below) and was thus better adapted for use as a fairground. It is likely that the fairground location varied from year to year, depending on the prevailing circumstances of the time.

© Stonnall History Group

That does not mean to say, of course, that the procession had always assembled there. There are one or two good reasons for supposing that it had not - and that is another consideration that we will return to later. For the moment however, we will decide whether we can place the position of the cross even more precisely. To answer that question, we first need to consider this: what exactly was the cross doing there?

The Purpose of the Cross
As we have seen, at some time in the past, a stone cross was placed in the middle of the road at Upper Stonnall near a plot of land that would eventually accommodate the Royal Oak. We can also say that, without any real doubt, the cross was not placed there as some sort of decorative piece of street furniture. Nor was it placed there as a marker for the carnival assembly, which would have been a lavish extravagance for what was only an annual event. Given the expense of commissioning and erecting it, it would have been placed there for a particular purpose. But what was that exactly? Could it possibly have been pointing the way to something special, principally for the benefit of people who might not have been very familiar with the village?

As we have seen, Stonnall had been an agrarian community for hundreds of years. But it had yet another speciality - and that was hospitality. Situated on a road that extended into the heart of England and beyond, the village benefited substantially for centuries from traffic on the ancient highway that we now call Chester Road.

To illustrate this point, we can point out a well-documented ancient feature of the village that still exists: the Stockhold Fields (also known as Stockhole, Stockhol' and Stockhoult). Conveniently close to Chester Road and providing a ready supply of drinking water from Pen Brook at their eastern boundary, these enclosures provided, as their name implies, overnight accommodation for cattle en route to the lucrative markets of southern Britain.

The fields of central Stonnall and their traditional names.

The western end of Town Croft is occupied by the Village Hall and the Wallong fields are occupied by Westwick Close, Thornes Croft and St Peter's Close. Well Meadow is now the playing field.

© Stonnall History Group

Their human attendants would also, of course, have needed accommodation, whether on their outward or return journeys, or indeed both. And what better a place for that than an establishment where the roasts and ale were plentiful? We know of at least three Upper Stonnall inns that cashed in on the trade that passed on Chester Road.

Almost inevitably, many such visitors found themselves waking up on a Sunday morning with a bit of a sore head - and what better a way to clear it than a short walk to a place of worship that offered the additional benefit of absolution for the excesses of the previous evening?

The location of St Peter's Chapel, Stonnall.

just north of the pound at the apex of Church Road and Church Lane.

© Stonnall History Group

St Peter's Chapel
The difficulty with this was that St Peter's Chapel was not central to Upper Stonnall, but rather it was central to the whole neighbourhood, including Thornes and Lynn as well as the two Stonnalls. Very conveniently situated a couple of hundred yards down the road from where its financiers lived at Thornes Hall, it had been built deliberately on land that was more-or-less equidistant from the four main centres of population. Thus, the way to the chapel from Main Street was not immediately obvious to anyone who was not familiar with the village's network of roads and footpaths.

Realising that this might be a problem and intending to be as helpful as possible to visitors who were approaching from Main Street, somebody had the brainwave of placing an unmistakable marker on the road just where it was necessary to turn into the ancient footroad that extends from Main Street to Church Lane, where the chapel was immediately visible. That marker was the stone cross. Thus we can identify precisely why and where it was erected and note that its position was only a matter of a few yards away from where the Royal Oak would be built eventually.

The location of the stone cross relative to St Peter's Chapel, Stonnall.

The cross was placed in Main Street as a guide to visitors, at the end of the footroad to the chapel at Church Road/Church Lane.

© Stonnall History Group

As to who went to the expense of commissioning it, we can guess that they were the same people who had paid for the building of the chapel - the affluent proprietors of Thornes Hall.

What actually became of the cross and its base? By the time Rev Sanders had become familiar with the area in the mid-1700s, the chapel been dismantled and removed at least 50 years previously and had been closed down at least 100 years before that. Thus, the cross had ceased to have any real function by the time it collapsed. As an obstruction, it would have been dragged to the side of the road where it would have broken up over time.

The fate of its base may have been somewhat different. Alan Ramsell can remember a substantial stone at the base of the stile that used to be at the Main Street end of the footroad that we have been considering. Is that where the base ended up?



© Julian Ward-Davies 2014

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