Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Colourful Victorian decorations on a railway bridge in Lichfield

The colourful coats-of-arms on the railway bridge at Upper John Street, Lichfield, display a decorative combination of engineering, architecture and Victorian art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

One of the interesting combinations of engineering, architecture and Victorian art in Lichfield is the colourfully-decorated Victorian railway bridge in Upper John Street, just west of Lichfield City rail station.

Upper John Street is crossed by this colourfully-decorated Victorian railway bridge, which is built of ashlar and cast-iron. The bridge, close to the junction with Saint John’s Hospital, was first built for the South Staffordshire Railway in 1849, and was later altered in 1882 and 1969.

On each side, the bridge is decorated with brightly-coloured heraldic insignia that encapsulate the story of the cathedral city and the arrival of the railway in Lichfield in 1847.

The railway came to Lichfield in 1847 with the opening of the Trent Valley Railway from Stafford to the Birmingham-London line at Rugby. The first station was in Streethay, over a mile from the city centre. Two years later, a second station was built in the centre of Lichfield when the South Staffordshire Railway was opened from Walsall through Lichfield to the Midland Railway at Wychnor, in Tatenhill.

The coats-of-arms on the bridge were selected by Richard Green of Stowe House, who paid for their carving. He was originally Chairman of the Lichfield Railways Committee, and a partner in the firm of Palmer Greene Bankers.

On the north side of the bridge, there are two pairs of relief armorial bearings below the frieze and one large one to the parapet.

The royal arms of England on the north side of the bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The upper shields represent the old borough seal of Lichfield and the three lions passant guardant or leopards of England. These two shields were originally placed in the centre of the parapet, on the north and south sides of the bridge.

Lichfield’s ancient city seal displayed on the north side of the bridge perpetuates a mediaeval myth about martyrdom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Lichfield’s ancient city seal shows three Christian knight martyrs, Lichfield Cathedral and a ring of trees. In the mid-13th century, a story developed that the name Lichfield meant “the field of corpses” and local lore said the name recalled the martyrdom of Saint Amphibalus, a follower of Saint Alban, and 1,000 of his disciples in Lichfield in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian ca 300.

There is no evidence of any cult of the martyrs, and the story is not mentioned in the cathedral chronicles. However, in 1549 the new City Corporation chose to incorporate symbols the mythical martyrdom in the design of its seal. The macabre seal depicts severed limbs, shields, swords, the cathedral and a grove of trees.

A century later, in 1651, the story of the martyrs, as told by local people, explained the vision of the Quaker George Fox, who said he saw blood flowing through the streets of Lichfield as he walked barefoot in the snow outside Saint Mary’s Church.

The lower shields on this side of the bridge are the coats of arms of four bishops of Lichfield:

The coats-of-arms of Bishop John Hackett and of the Diocese of Lichfield, representing the arms of Bishop Roger de Clinton, two bishops who rebuilt Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

John Hackett (1592–1670): he became Bishop of Lichfield in 1661, immediately after the English Civil War. Following the destruction of the cathedral in successive sieges of the Close in the civil war, he had the task of restoring Lichfield Cathedral. Bishop Hackett’s arms are similar to those on his monument in Lichfield Cathedral .

Roger de Clinton (died 1148): he rebuilt Lichfield Cathedral in the 12th century and was responsible too for introducing the medieval grid street plan for Lichfield that survives to this day. However, he was bishop in a pre-heraldic age and the arms attributed to him are those of the Diocese of Lichfield. These arms are in red and white, with a large cross in the centre between four smaller crosses: Party per pale, gules and argent, a cross potent and quadrate in the centre, between four crosses patée, all counter-charged.

The coats of arms of Bishop William Hayworth and Bishop John Lonsdale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

William Hayworth (died 1447): he was Bishop of Lichfield from 1419-1447, and was the original founder of Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, which he endowed in 1424. He gave the site in Beacon Street on condition that a rose was given to the Bishop of Lichfield on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June), a custom that was revived in 1987. The arms ascribed to Bishop Hayworth show eight bishops’ mitres against a blue background.

John Lonsdale (1788-1867): a former Principal of King’s College, London, he was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867) when the railways came to Lichfield in 1847, and his vision that led to the foundation of Lichfield Theological College. Bishop Lonsdale’s arms are quartered in blue and white, with the second and third quarters displaying a black bugle. A gold band engraved with three amulets runs from the top right to the bottom left.

On the south side of the bridge, there are four armorial bearings representing local families:

The coats of arms of the Anson and Dyott families on the south side of the bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Anson: From 1831, the Anson family held the title of Earl of Lichfield. In 1847, the first earl’s son, Thomas George Anson (later the second earl in 1854), was the Liberal MP for Lichfield, while the earl’s younger brother, General George Anson (1797-1857), was Chairman of the Trent Valley, Midland and Grand Junction Railway and MP for Staffordshire South. Later, another member of the family, Bishop Adelbert John Robert Anson, was Master of Saint John’s Hospital, opposite this bridge. The arms of this branch of the Anson family are: Argent, three bends engrailed gules, and in the sinister chief point a crescent gules. However, this display omits the red crescent.

Dyott: Richard Dyott (1808-1891) of Freeford Hall, south of Lichfield, He was a director of the South Staffordshire Railway and MP for Lichfield from 1865 to 1880. When he died at Freeford, he was buried at night in the family vault in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, following a centuries-old family tradition. The arms here are also shown on many family monuments in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s: or, a tiger passant sable, armed and langued gules.

The coats of arms of the Forster and Bagot families on the south side of the bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Forster: Sir Charles Smith Foster, a Walsall banker, lived at Lysways Hall, Longdon, outside Lichfield. He was Chairman of the South Staffordshire Junction Railway, and later of the South Staffordshire Railway. In 1849, his daughter, Ellen Catherine Foster, married Captain Richard Dyott, who was also instrumental in bringing the railway to Lichfield.

Bagot: The Bagot family of Blithfield, near Rugeley, about six miles north of Lichfield, kept the famous Bagot herd of goats. Colonel Richard Bagot was a Governor of Lichfield Close during the English Civil War until he died on 7 July 1645 at the age of 26. Two days later, he was buried in the south aisle choir of Lichfield Cathedral. The Bagot arms on the bridge are: ermine, two chevronels azure.

Two of my early features in the Lichfield Mercury in the early 1970s told the stories of the Anson and Dyott families. It was interesting to be reminded of these beginnings in journalism last week.

Additional sources:

Howard Clayton, Cathedral City: a look at Victorian Lichfield (Lichfield, for the author, 4th ed, 1992).

Michael Greenslade (ed), A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (Oxford, 1990).

Chris Upton, A History of Lichfield (Chichester: Phillimore, 2001).

‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks ... All went lame; all blind’

‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent (1918). Imperial War Museum

Patrick Comerford

We held our annual Remembrance Day service in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this morning [13 November 2011].

During the service, I read the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by the English war poet Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) is one of the greatest war poets in English literature. Owen, who was brought up to be a deeply committed Christian and active Anglican, wrote out of his intense experiences during World War I.

Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, on 18 March 1893, and was educated in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. From the age of 19, he wanted to be a poet, but he wrote almost no poetry of importance until he saw action in France in 1917.

He was a committed Christian and became a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading from 1911 to 1913, when he taught Bible classes, led prayer meetings, and assisted in pastoral visits.

Owen had moved to France, where he was working as a private tutor, when World War I broke out in 1914. Initially he was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. But he returned to England and volunteered to fight on 21 October 1915. He was sent to France on the last day of 1916, and within days was facing the horrors of the frontline.

He saw much frontline action, and was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock. In hospital in Edinburgh, he faced the difficulty of conflicting principles: his role as a soldier and patriot demanded one thing; his Christian faith demanded another. Knowing and believing Christ’s teaching, with absolute clarity he felt compelled to act in complete contradiction to his convictions.

There too he met Siegfried Sassoon who inspired him to develop his war poetry. He returned to the trenches in September 1918 and in October was decorated with the Military Cross for bravery in battle.

He was shot and killed near the village of Ors on 4 November. Seven days later, the war was over. Church bells rang throughout the country. As they were ringing in Shrewsbury, Susan and Tom Owen received a telegram with the news of their son’s death.

All Owen’s great war poems were written in a mere 15 months. Some of his poems feature in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and he is commemorated in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The title of this poem is taken from the first words of a Latin saying – “Dulce et Decorum Est, It is sweet and right” – found on an ode by Horace. The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of World War I, and the full quotation ends this poem: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country.”

The poem describes a mustard gas attack on a group of war-weary soldiers. Owen’s painfully direct language combines gritty realism with an aching sense of compassion. His despair at the crumbling of the moral order are expressed in phrases such as “froth-corrupted lungs,” “sores on innocent tongues” and his description of the dying man’s face “like a devil's sick of sin.”

This short poem is just 28 lines, but the poet’s vivid imagery creates a lasting and disturbing impression on the reader.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, are dedicated to the 49,400 Irish soldiers killed in World War I and recall the 300,000 Irishmen who fought in that war (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Soldier’s Dream, by Wilfred Owen

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Anthem For Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute