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Heritage Under Our Feet – Week 36 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

What were you doing in the summer of 1977? In between watching Star Wars and mourning the deaths of Marc Bolan and Bing Crosby, a keen band of Oswestry volunteers were assisting Professor Barri Jones excavate a Roman marching camp at Rhyn Park. The excavation was a great success – not only did it add to our knowledge of Roman military and frontier archaeology in Britain, but it was the catalyst for the founding of Oswestry’s own archaeology and local history society.

The Oswestry and Border History and Archaeology Group (OBHAG) grew out of the enthusiasm sparked by the excavations at Rhyn Park. It brought together local people in and around Oswestry who were not only interested in archaeology and local history – but also interested in doing original archaeological and historical research. Since then, the group has worked on range of surveys, excavations and restoration projects in and around Oswestry, Trefonen and the Morda valley. They now support the Oswestry Castle Research Project and the annual excavations at Oswestry Castle. In addition to research, OBHAG sponsors regular talks, lectures and presentations by local, national and international academics and researchers on a wide range of archaeological and historical topics (even on heritage comics!).

OBHAG is forty years old this year. Social media, crowdfunding, open research and new scientific techniques have changed the practice of archaeology and local history significantly in those four decades – and OBHAG, too, is changing. The group is looking for members who can bring experience of new media and new technology. Perhaps you’ve got ideas about an Oswestry history app – or thoughts about how to use Kickstarter to fund a local history research project. It’s ideas like this – and changes like this – that will help keep interest in local archaeology and history alive, and groups like OBHAG going for another forty years.

If you’d like to be part of this change, then get in touch!


The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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Why Was It Called Park Hall? Week 35 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Local history is often hidden in plain sight. We get so used to hearing seeing particular historical places in the landscape, or hearing particular historical names, that we sometimes forget to ask: what are they? Where do they come from? Park Hall is, I think, a case in point. Most people around Oswestry know that the exhibition and show ground we see today is the remnants of an army training camp. That is certainly true – and the long, old wooden exhibition halls there are a physical reminder of that camp. Some people will also know that it used to be a farm – the old Victorian brick barns, dairy and sheds are a physical reminder of the Park Hall Home Farm. The replica WWI trenches and the petting zoo of farm animals are both ways of bringing that history of Park Hall back to life. But why was the farm or the camp called “Park Hall” in the first place?

One has to look a bit further afield to find the answer that that. The “Park” in the name refers to the parkland that had been created at the edge of lands attached to Whittington Castle. The Castle was originally a Norman fortification of some kind (although little, if any, evidence of it survives now), and played a small part in the wars between Empress Matilda and King Stephen during the 1130s. The lands were then given by King Henry II to Roger de Powys in the 1160s, and the lordship eventually passed to the FitzWarin family. The castle was rebuilt in stone in the 1220s, following various attacks by the Princes of Gwynedd. The castle was an important border fortification during the turbulent years leading up to the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr in 1404, but itself was never captured.

By the late 1500s, however, neglect had taken its toll: the castle was partly in ruins, and the owners and tenants increasingly plagued by debt. It was probably this that prompted the selling-off of a portion of the castle parkland to Thomas Powell in 1563. A decade later, around 1571, Powell had built a large, spectacular half-timbered hall – Park Hall – named after the parkland on which it stood. Over the next three hundred years, the house passed through many owners, but remained in good condition. In 1864, the house is described as:

[a] singular and interesting timbered mansion… built about the year 1543; few such edifaces are now remaining in England, and perhaps none in so perfect a state of preservation, or exhibiting so true a specimin of the domestic architecture of bygone days.

The document notes the many fine and well-preserved architectural features of the house, including “exquisitly fine carved oak chiminy peaces; and a ceiling of unparralled workmanship” as well as “a beatiful little chapple abutting on the west wing of the house, the windows are of stained glass, the interior in wainscoted, and the whole arched over with oak panneling”. What a great shame then, that in 1918, an electrical fire – apparently starting in this chapel – burned the whole building to the ground. A few photographs of the hall werew taken during the early 1900s, and these show us that it was, indeed, a beautiful building; its destruction was a great loss. But it was to the army’s gain – the destruction of the house allowed the camp to expand during WWII, and to continue as a National Service training camp into the 1960s.

Park Hall now has a number of walks throughout the grounds, but I don’t know whether anything remains to be seen of where the house once stood (Does anyone know – is there a sign up somewhere in the grounds, or evidence of foundations, etc?). Perhaps the name “Park Hall” is the only reminder of this once elegant piece of our Tudor heritage – sadly gone, but not entirely forgotten.


The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

 

 

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Blowing Up Oswestry Castle – Week 34 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Plucky George Cranage! The full story of his exploits would make a perfect Hollywood movie – in fact, the whole of the siege of Oswestry would make a great film!

The spring of 1644 was not a good time to be in Oswestry. The town was held by Royalists, under Colonel Edward Lloyd of Llanforda. But in June, General Thomas Mytton and the Earl of Denbigh arrived with a 2,000-strong Parliamentarian army and siege cannon and, on the 23rd of June, began to bombard the town. The Royalists razed most of the buildings outside the town walls, but it was then that George Cranage first sprung into action. According to some accounts, he ran up to the New Gate (where Gilhams and Booka are) and cut the chains (or ropes) of the drawbridge and enabled the Parliamentary army to charge into the town. Abandoning the walls – and then losing the battle for the town itself during fierce fighting – the Royalist forces abandoned the town to its fate and took shelter in the castle. The townspeople of Oswestry offered a ransom of £500 to the Parliamentarian forces not to ransack and loot the town, and the army then took up positions near the castle. Despite the field guns – and despite sappers working to undermine the walls and towers – the Parliamentarian army could not break the Royalist hold on the castle, and the siege dragged on. But now George Cranage sprang into action a second time!

The order was given by General Mytton for a party to fire the gates of the castle with pitch – but the exhausted soldiers couldn’t do it. Recalling, no doubt, his display of bravery at the Newgate, Mytton and the Earl of Denbigh now approached George Cranage. They got him drunk on sack – a very strong wine that later evolved into what we call ‘sherry’ – and convinced him to sneak up to the castle gate and put a bomb called a petard against it. A petard was basically an iron pot packed with gunpowder, with a fuse at the rounded end and the flat open mouth of the pot propped up and tied against a door or gate. When the gunpowder went off, the petard acted like a miniature cannon, blowing a big hole in the door or gate. A dangerous mission (even worse with a sack hangover!), as petards were notoriously apt to go off early, blowing up the unlucky bomber (hence the expression hoist with your own petard, meaning to be caught up in your own plot). But Cranage placed his petard, retired safely, and the gates were blown up. The Parliamentarians captured the castle, and the banner of the Earl of Denbigh flew over its battered walls.

At this point – exhausted, covered in gunpowder soot and hungover – George Cranage disappears from our history books. We know he survived the siege of Oswestry, but not what happened to him after that. The Cranage family was later well-known in Shropshire as innovative iron-workers and foundry men. Did George Cranage’s experience of explosives at Oswestry lead him into a new profession after the end of the Civil War – who knows? But poor Oswestry’s black spring continued. Just three days after the blowing up of the castle gates, a Royalist army from Shrewsbury – about 1,500 cavalry and 3,500 infantry – under Sir Fulke Hunke and Colonel Marrow besieged the besiegers, and fierce fighting once again broke out around the town. This lasted until July 3rd, when a second Parliamentary army under Sir Thomas Myddleton arrived and defeated the Royalists at Whittington – pursuing the remnants back towards Felton Heath near Shrewsbury. Oswestry was burned, bruised and battered by war – despite the bribe they had paid to Mytton’s army. But although the Civil War raged around Shrewsbury for the next few years, Oswestry’s part in the war was mostly ended. In 1648, Parliament issued an order that the castles at Oswestry, Boncroft and Dawley be “reduced” so as to render them unusable. By January 1649, King Charles had been arrested, tried and finally beheaded – and the First Civil War had come to its dramatic end.


The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Yesterday evening I was invited to the celebratory dinner marking the 40th anniversary of the Oswestry & Border History and Archaeology Group. This society came together in the wake of the excavations at Rhyn Park Roman marching camp in 1977. The organisation quickly attracted a large membership of not just those interested in local history – but actual local archaeologists and historians.

So it was with great pleasure yesterday evening that I finally got to meet, in person, none other than John Pryce-Jones himself: the historian of Oswestry. And it was also a pleasure to discover that he not only knew of the comics, but was extremely complimentary about them (including their accuracy!) – praise indeed coming from someone with such a breadth and depth of local knowledge. It was also a pleasure to be introduced to musician and historian Chris Symons, whose book on Sir Henry Walford Davies (Master of the King’s Musick, 1869-1941, and Oswestry’s most famous musical son) I have just purchased. Chris gave a dinner talk on Oswestry’s musical heritage – a theme and approach worthy of the Oswestry Heritage Comics!

An argumentation is, apparently, the collective noun for a group of historians. But despite our different interests in local history, the three of us could not have been in more agreement on three crucial points:

  1. Local history, archaeology and heritage research must be meaningfully interconnected. Too many researchers and groups still use language and approaches which are exclusive, elitist and divisive. It has made the study of the local past seem particularly intimidating, parochial and riven with petty rivalries. This is, to say the least, not helpful – and it does not have to be this way. Bringing together different “branches” of local interest is, in fact, the key to good local heritage scholarship.
  2. Local history, archaeology and heritage can be usefully approached “episodically”, whether as short articles – and John Pryce-Jones did originally in the 1970s and 1980s; or as short talks – as Chris Symons demonstrated that evening; or as comics. This both allows readers to “dip in” and read up on a single subject in appropriate detail at one setting – and allows the writer/speaker/artist to engage on a much larger project in manageable, bite-size chunks. Interestingly, this approach elides well with the Facebook post history of Oswestry emerging via sites like Hidden Oswestry.
  3. Local history, archaeology and heritage isn’t static. It is worth reminding ourselves that the work of canal preservation societies in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were focusing on the heritage of only a generation or two back. Just as new approaches are needed – new perspectives are also needed.  The study of local history needs to embrace “as history” the 1980s, the 1990s – even the millennium! This history may be more relevant and more interesting to a new generation of local historians, too.

I count it as a privilege to have met both John and Chris. As a result of our meeting, I hope that both of them will feature in upcoming Oswestry Heritage Comics. More importantly, this meeting has given me new confidence in what I have been doing with the comics, and in significant ways validated the underlying approach I have been using. As the Oswestry Heritage Comics move towards their conclusion – and I now begin to engage with academics and students interested in the outcomes of the project – yesterday evening’s Argumentation has given me plenty of food for thought!

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One Love Oswestry! – Week 32 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

In the middle of a long, cold Shropshire winter, summer seems a long way away – and so does summer music. When there’s snow on the ground and it gets dark at 3:30 in the afternoon, “chilling out” takes on a very different meaning. But Oswestry has a special and historical relationship with chilling – and with summer music.

Bob Marley was a distinctive – unique – musician. Born and raised on Jamaica in the 1940s, he performed with his reggae band, The Wailers, until the late 1970s, when he moved to Britain and released a solo album. Reggae music developed on Jamaica in the 1960s, and grew out of complicated roots in mento and calypso – Caribbean folk music traditions that blend call and response, innuendo, social – and political – commentary. Marley’s reggae followed in this tradition, and was anti-colonialist, anti-racist and anti-materialist. His lyrics – his music – were an expression of his deeply-held Rastafarian beliefs, and his music was about raising racial, religious and political consciousness in his listeners. Millions around the world listened to Bob Marley as much for his music as his message. By the time he died in 1981, Bob Marley – through his work – had become an international musical, cultural, political and spiritual icon.

It’s kind of extraordinary that someone like this has a connection with Oswestry – okay, so it’s kind of tenuous. By all accounts, Bob Marley’s father really didn’t enjoy his time at Park Hall, and his time there was admittedly extremely brief. Norval Sinclair Marley was a peripatetic soul – his journey through Oswestry appears to have started in Jamaica by way of Cuba before heading on to Africa and ending up back in Jamaica; his family were apparently originally Jewish emmigrants from Syria. Perhaps those itchy feet were something Norval’s son inherited – prompting him not to explore the world, but his own sense of self.

So when summer does finally arrive, and the sun is shining and you’re sitting in Cae Glas park listening to Bob Marley’s music while you’re properly chilling out, think about Oswestry and the heritage we share with this extraordinary musician.

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The Walls of Willow Street – Week 32 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Like most mediaeval towns across Britain, Oswestry was protected by its town walls. Few reminders of these walls survive – and the most obvious is one which hides in plain sight.

Oswestry historian John Pryce-Jones, in his excellent book Street-Names of Oswestry, relates how the word “willow” in the name of Willow Street is actually an anglicisation of the Welsh word walia (or, with the soft mutation, gwalia) meaning “wall”. The word itself being a reference to the fact that the road once led up to the gate that originally stood around the junction with Castle Street. Pryce-Jones makes the linguistic connection with “Wyle Cop” in Shrewsbury, the name of which might also refer to the town’s walls.

But there are other possibilities. “Willow” (and, indeed “Wyle”) might be derived from the Welsh word hwylfa, which means “a road leading up a hillside” – a term which could describe Willow Street quite well, particularly as it climbs away from Oswestry up towards the racecourse. The word might also derive from the Welsh word gwylio, meaning “to watch” – referring to the watchmen, or the half-tower that might have once stood flanking the gate (the poet John Ceiriog Hughes favoured this interpretation, incidentally). Pryce-Jones notes too that the process of anglicisation resulted briefly – around the early 1600s – in the name of the district around the street being referred to as “Wool” rather than “Willow”. Pryce-Jones himself, applying a sort of linguistic and antiquarian Occam’s Razor, favours the walia/gwalia interpretation, which I have followed in the comic.

“Willow”, as an English synophone to walia/gwalia, appears fairly early on. Pryce-Jones lists some of the English references to the street from as far back as 1337:

  • Wyliastret (1337)
  • Stryd Wylyw (1530s)
  • Williho Gate (1560)
  • Walliowe Street (1631)

Speak these names out loud and I think you can hear why he favours the walia/gwalia interpretation over gwylio or hwylfa. By as early as 1706, the name finally settles as “Willow Street” – the name we know it as today.

Oswestry’s town walls were finally pulled down following the Civil War – sometime after 1652 or so; certainly before 1660. Short lengths of wall around the gates were left standing; Derrick Pratt suggests interestingly that this was to facilitate the control of trade through tolls and tarriffs (a theme locally that goes back as far as the construction of Offa’s Dyke). However, these surviving portions of wall were also in bad repair, and between 1772 and 1782 these last remnants were torn down. Around Black Gate (near Sainsbury’s) this allowed Salop Road to be widened to allow the passage of carriages and stagecoaches into town from the new toll road (now the A5).

There is a plaque which commemorate the old gates of Oswestry up at the end of Willow Street – and you can follow the line of the old walls around town if you know where to look; there are patterns in new brick by Hermon Chapel, a map which shows the line of the walls at the entrance to the Castle, and a memorial down opposite Booka to the old gate which once stood there. Oswestry’s town walls are gone – but if you know where to look, they are not forgotten.

Oh, and the pun about the financial district I made on Facebook? Oswestry’s “Wall Street”, of course!

John Pryce-Jones “Street-Names of Oswestry” is available (reference only) in the Oswestry Library’s local history collection. If you’re interested in local history, these are great resources. Ask the members of the Oswestry Local & Family History group for help finding this and other books by the same author.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Shropshire’s Mammoth – Week 31 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The story of the discovery of the Condover Mammoth is interesting for many reasons – not least of which because it sheds important light on the way local heritage discoveries happen.

The first is the unexpected nature of the discovery itself. The mammoth bones were discovered in 1986, during the excavation of a sand and gravel quarry at Condover, just south of Shrewsbury. It’s a fair distance from Oswestry, but – like the Stiperstones and Prees Heath – shares our Ice Age landscape and geology. As the climate changed and the glaciers (like the ones which shaped the Stiperstones) melted, rivers of melt water ran away from the disappearing ice sheets. These laid down huge areas of sand, gravel and mud across much of lowland Shropshire. These muddy plains were great environments for grasses, wild flowers and small shrubs (not unlike the plants now growing at Prees Heath, for example) and attracted large herds of animals moving back up into the newly thawed north of Britain. One of the animals attracted by this rich, new grazing land was the mammoth. But these fertile grazing lands held hidden dangers. Large lumps of ice, breaking off from the glacier, became buried in the sand, mud and gravel, and slowly melted – leaving a hole buried under the ground. When something as large as a mammoth stepped on top of where that hole was, the top collapsed, creating a steep-sided pit of wet earth, sand and gravel – an impossible trap for a large animal to get out of. Trapped, these animals died, and their bodies were buried with more mud and sand as the pit was filled in. At Condover, an adult and two young mammoths died this way. Quarrying in the Shropshire plain for sand and gravel was possibly started by the Romans (getting material for their roads), but became big business in the 19th and 20th century, as sand and aggregate were needed in large quantities for building construction. The quarry at Condover is one of several in the area making profitable use of this Ice Age geology! But the point here is that this discovery shows how local industry, geology and history all work together to make discoveries like the Condover mammoth possible. Once again, it demonstrates how local heritage is a network of different influences, events and synchonicities, meaning we get a much better and more complete picture of our local heritage if we try to understand as many aspects of it as possible – including things like economics, soil formation and social history.

The second is the way in which the discovery unfolded. The bones were actually uncovered by the workers at the ARC Western Ltd. quarry: Maurice Baddeley, Gary Ryan and Michael Ryan (all working for R.J. Weaver (Contracts) Ltd. of Burton-on-Trent). Maurice Baddeley put the big bones aside, but thought they were the remains of a large farm animal – a big bull or something – that had died in the quarry. Eve Roberts and her husband Glyn – local Condover residents – were walking their dogs nearby and saw the bones sitting at the edge of the quarry. Talking to Baddeley, Eve didn’t think as he did that the bones were of a farm animal: to her, they looked much bigger. When Eve got home later that morning, she phoned Geoff McCabe, the Shropshire County Museums and Arts officer. He came down within the hour, and identified the remains as probably being those of a prehistoric mammoth. He then made arrangements with ARC Western Ltd, and put in an urgent call to the British Museum for advice. The following week Russell Coope of the University of Birmingham’s Department of Geological Sciences came and positively identified the remains as an Ice Age mammoth. Local television and radio stations then put out a call for local people to help with the excavation. Even Blue Peter came and recorded a programme on-site to help raise public awareness of the importance of the discovery. For the next four days, thirty volunteers – including Eve Roberts – helped Geoff McCabe and the Museum Services staff excavate the remains of the three mammoths. Additional specialists came to help, too: Dr. Adrian Lister of Cambridge University quickly realised that the mammoth skeletons were some of the best preserved in Europe, and a team of twenty students from the University of Birmingham came to identify, clean and preserve the bones in a makeshift laboratory shed donated by the Highways Department. The bones were then sent out to thirteen research laboratories in Britain, plus labs in the USA and even the Soviet Union, for further detailed analysis by experts. They eventually determined that the mammoth remains were about 12,000 years old, making them the “youngest” in Britain – an important piece of information that has significantly changed our understanding of the Ice Age in northern Europe.

What does this tell us? It tells us that local heritage is, truly, a team effort. From the quarry workers who uncovered the mammoth, to Eve Roberts who recognised them as important, to Geoff McCabe who responded so quickly and put the expert wheels in motion, to the Soviet scientists who contributed their specialist knowledge – local heritage is a collaborative effort, bringing in engagement, experience and expertise from a wide range of people. There are no “lone wolves” in local heritage research – no one who can know everything or do everything. Local heritage discoveries are made possible when a community of like-minded people work cooperatively. And this means that we are all capable of contributing to heritage discoveries big and small, regardless of whether we’re working in a lab in Siberia or walking our dog through a field in Shropshire. The important thing is to be interested and get involved.

Who knows? Maybe the next time you’re taking the dog for a walk around Old Oswestry you’ll stumble across something as magnificent as the Condover Mammoth!

Don’t forget: you can actually see the mammoth skeleton on display at the Shropshire Hills Discover Centre near Craven Arms!

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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