Friday, 11 June 2010

Staying at ‘The George’ in Lichfield

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... began as a coaching inn hundreds of years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Having spent a few days at the USPG conference in Swanwick in Derbyshire, I am back in Lichfield this evening, and staying for the weekend at the George Hotel in Bird Street, which is one of the oldest hotels in the cathedral city.

The main entrance is on Bird Street, close to the building where the Lichfield Mercury was produced when I freelanced for it in the early 1970s. A side entrance on Market Street leads into a delightful courtyard, and from my room and others on thus side of the hotel there are views across to Lichfield Cathedral, where I attended the Choral Eucharist this evening for Saint Barnabas’ Day.

Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the waters of Minster Pool this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The George is first mentioned in 1704, but it stands on the site of a much older coaching in. George Farquhar, who wrote his play The Recruiting Officer when he was staying at the George in 1707, was stationed in Lichfield at the time as an army recruiting officer. His best known play, The Beaux’ Stratagem, has a scene based on life in the George in Lichfield at that time.

In the play, the George becomes Boniface’s Inn, and the character of Boniface is based on John Harrison, who was the landlord of the George Inn. The play includes the line: “I have heard your town of Lichfield is most famed for ale; I think I’ll taste that.”

As an 18th century coaching inn, the George had a central archway through which the coaches passed to reach the inn-yard beyond, and it was rebuilt in its present shape later in the mid-18th century. The building would have been galleried, and Snape’s map of 1781 shows it as a compact square of buildings around a courtyard, with the entrance on Bird Street.

At that time, the George was an important coaching house with stabling for 54 horses, and more at a site in Saint John Street, opposite Saint John’s Hospital – the site is now the Tempest car salesroom. In an age before office suites and office blocks, businessmen used the coaching inns as meeting places, coroners held inquests in them and official bodies such as turnpike trusts met in them for assemblies – even the George had its own Assembly Room. The coaching inns were busy in the evenings as social venues, and there was a stream of coaches and private carriages coming and going, 24 hours a day.

Thomas Webb, who was the proprietor of the George from 1800 to 1820, was one of the largest horse-keepers in the Midlands. He supplied horses for the coaches and post-chaises running from the George and for many other hostelries in the city. He started his career as a footman with a local family, but went on to bring the George to the peak of its importance.

He was a Whig and went on to become Mayor of Lichfield. Understandably, therefore, the George was also a centre for political activity in Lichfield at that time. The balcony over the archway was used at election times for candidates to address people gathered in the street below. The George was always associated with the Whigs, while the Swan further along Bird Street was staunchly Tory. The two inns were the headquarters for their respective parties at election times and the post-boys always wore jackets of the appropriate colour: blue for the Swan and buff for the George.

The commercial and political rivalry was expressed forcibly, blows were frequently exchanged, and during the 1826 election all the front windows of The George were smashed in.

When the railway system was established in 1838, travel by stage coach disappeared and The George was rebuilt and reinvented as an “hotel,” catering for visitors who wished to stay for more than a day or two.

The central archway would have been blocked in soon after the coaches stopped running and now forms the main entrance to the hotel. In the 19th century, the hotel’s sign depicted Saint George and the Dragon. Despite changes over the years, the name has been retained.

The restored Garrick Room in the George today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In January 1865, a Masonic Lodge, calling itself Saint John’s Lodge of Lichfield, was founded in the George and met on a monthly basis in what is now called The Garrick Room, for 100 years. Under private ownership, the manager was always invited to join the lodge, but when the hotel taken over by a group, the masons were told to leave and re-established themselves at the Tamworth Masonic Rooms.

Ten years ago, The George was bought by Michael Webb, a great-great-grandson of Thomas Webb. In recent years, The George has been restored to its former glory – all the existing bedrooms have been completely refurbished and nine new bedrooms have been added, making a total of 45.

The delightful Regency Garrick Room, once home to Lichfield’s masons for over a century, is now used for meetings, receptions and banquets, and is being used for a wedding reception this evening.

Across the street from the George is the King’s Head, the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating back to 1408. It may have acquired its present name in 1650 after the execution of Charles I a year earlier in 1649, but today its sign displays the face of King Edward VII. When he was staying at the George in 1704, George Farquhar must have been familiar with the King’s Head too for a regiment of foot was raised there in 1705.

But with live music in the King’s Head on a Friday night, I might just skip around the corner into Sandford Street and on to the Queen’s Head in Queen Street for a quiet drink.

Continue to dream and act

Each morning in Swanwick this week, I have awoken to the sound of birds singling around this small lake below my window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference of USPG has heard very inspiring and challenging addresses by both Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. The way they spoke and the way they were listened to was a good example of the role and mission of USPG, according to Clare Amos of USPG and the Anglican Communion Office.

But there has also been pain – and pain that has been expressed – created by both the divisions within the Anglican Communion and in reaction to decisions about the future of USPG.

The expressions of that pain reflected the measure of the love people have for USPG and for the Anglican Communion, according to the Revd Rachel Carnegie, International Development Secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who led our closing reflections on the third and closing day of the annual conference of USPG this morning.

She quoted one person who had asked her: “How do I leave this place and tell a story of hope?”

But, she said, there is hope aplenty alongside the pain. These are challenging and painful times for USPG and for the Anglican Communion, but they are challenging times too for the poor, the hungry and those suffering injustice. Yet, in the midst of pain Christ is faithful.

She spoke eloquently of the main of many heard during the conference, including the pain of church leaders, the USPG leadership, trustees and staff, mission companions, and the pain of those voices not heard.

She asked us: “Where has the Holy Spirit been working in this conference?”

Her prayer was that each of us would continue to dream and act, in dreams that are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Archbishop Makgoba is presiding at the closing Eucharist, according to the South African liturgy, in the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire. The preacher is Dr Evie Vernon, Director of the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies.

Canon Patrick Comerford is a member of the Council of USPG and a director of USPG Ireland

USPG Council expresses ‘shock and dismay’ at attack on Gaza aid flotilla

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town (left) with Irish delegates at the USPG conference in Swanwick: the Revd Ken Gibson, Kerry Giffin, Jan de Bruijn, Canon Patrick Comerford, and (in front) Linda Chambers de Bruijn; missing from the photograph is Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel and Ossory

Patrick Comerford

The Council of USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – Anglicans in World Mission – agreed last night to sent a letter should be sent to the British Foreign Secretary, Mr William Hague, expressing “shock and dismay at what happened last week when the Israeli naval forces stormed a Gaza-bound convoy carrying humanitarian aid in international waters, killing nine people and injuring many more.”

The resolution was proposed during the council meeting by the Revd Dr John Perumbalath of the Diocese of Rochester and a USPG Trustee. The letter is being sent by Canon Linda Ali, chair of the Trustees, on behalf of the Council of USPG.

The council also urged the Israeli Government “to release the journalists who are still detained by the Israeli army and return their equipment.”

In addition, the letter urges the Foreign Secretary “to bring all the pressure you can bear upon Israel to follow the UN proposal for a multinational and independent inquiry” into last week’s events.

The council associated itself with a statement on behalf of the World Council of Churches by the General Secretary of the WCC, Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, “condemning the assault” on the Gaza-bound vessels.

In that letter, he condemned “the assault and killing of innocent people who were attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, who have been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.” He also called for the reparation of those detained by the Israeli army, the release of the impounded ships, and an end to the economic blockade of Gaza. “We further condemn the flagrant violation of international law by Israel in attacking and boarding a humanitarian convoy in international waters. We pray for all those who are affected by the attack, especially the bereaved families.”

Speaking in favour of this resolution, I pointed out the people on board the Irish-owned ship in the convoy included a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, and pacifists and people committed to using only nonviolent methods. I said that the Israeli action amounted to piracy on the high seas, and that it could not be defended in international law as Israeli has not declared war on Ireland and so has no right to attack an Irish-owned ship in international waters.

Taking a quiet break during the USPG conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Earlier in the evening, the General Secretary of Michael Doe, led a discussion about “building a sustainable future for USPG,” and members of the board of USPG Ireland had a fruitful meeting with the Primate of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town.

The annual conference of USPG enters its third and closing day at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, this morning. Our closing reflections are being led by the Revd Rachel Carnegie, International Development Secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Makgoba is presiding at the closing Eucharist, according to the South African liturgy, and the preacher is Dr Evie Vernon, Director of the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies.

Looking up ... the Victorian roof of the former Fitzherbert Wright family house at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Canon Patrick Comerford is a member of the Council of USPG and a director of USPG Ireland