Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Book Review: Lichfield Then & Now

Lichfield Then & Now ... a delightful introduction to Lichfield past and present

Patrick Comerford

The historian must constantly ask whether history shapes us or we are shaped by history. Have we been shaped in our values and our self-understanding by what has gone on before us, or do we explain ourselves by looking back on the past and finding an explanation for our self-understanding by identifying with people, places and events in history?

What we ignore and what we emphasise in the past often tells us more about ourselves that about how people in the past understood what was happening in their own time and their own place. Where we feel at home is often less to do with where we were born or where we live, but where we find a consonance with our own narrative.

I have been blessed with feeling at home in more places than one, especially Cappoquin, Lichfield, Wexford, Rethymnon and Dublin. They have happy memories for me at different stages in my life, but I am happy too that they are the places they are today, without wanting to pour than back into the shape of my memories from the past.

To make a holistic link between past and present, so that the past is relevant but never relativised, is the true task of every historian. And Dr Annette Rubery of the University of Warwick has achieved this with her new book on Lichfield’s history, Lichfield Then & Now, published by the History Press last November.

Annette, who is Facebook friend, is an inveterate collector of old postcards, seeking them out at sales and barrows, and in second-hand shops up and down the length of England. Now she has matched 45 carefully chosen photographs from archives, postcards and her private collections with 45 contemporary colour versions of the same views, providing a fascinating visual chronicle of the Lichfield over the centuries.

She brings us to Lichfield’s cathedral, churches, streets, hotels, pubs, shop fronts, parks, gardens, pools, canals, shopping centres, hospitals, golf courses, racetracks, and railway stations as they were in the past and invites us to compare them with the Lichfield of today, with photographs she has worked on assiduously with her husband Richard Bratby.

We begin the journey on Beacon Hill on her beloved Beacon Street and are brought through the centuries as she brings us on a subtle march of time.

She tells the story of the library that almost sank into oblivion and she explains away the Victorian fashion for mock Tudor dressing on the fronts of houses and shops in Vicars’ Close and Bore Street. She explains the names of streets and introduces the former inhabitants and proprietors, and has cleverly reconstructed the story of the long-lost Beacon House, showing us the modern houses on the site where this elegant house once stood.

The secret of good editing is what is left out rather than what is included. It must have been very difficult to leave out many of the places she enjoys blogging about.

If there was a second volume, which buildings would I include? The statue to the captain of the Titanic, as safely inland as you can get in England? Miley’s Hospital? The Hedgehog with its associations with Mozart? The King’s Head? The Queen’s Head? I think it would be an envious task, but if there is ever a complementary volume, these might be some of my choices:

1, The former Regal Cinema, 23-27 Tamworth Street.

The former Regal Cinema in Tamworth Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Until a few years ago this was a Kwik Save supermarket, but plans to turn it into an hotel seem to have collapsed.

The Regal Cinema opened on 18 July 1932 with Maisie Gay in The Old Man and Shirley Dale in The Beggar Student. It was designed by the Birmingham-based architect Harold Seymour Scott, who was also one of the directors of the independent operating company.

It was designed in what has been described as a “delicate” Egyptian-Art Deco style, with seating in the auditorium for 1,000 in the stalls and 300 in the circle. The ABC chain ran the Regal Cinema until July 1969, when the Star Cinemas chain took over, and bingo was introduced several nights a week. The Regal’s last film, Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss, was screened on 10 July 1974. The cinema then became the Star Bingo Club.

In the late 1970s, the Regal was sold and became a Kwik Save supermarket, with a snooker club in the former cafĂ© area. But it was put up for sale around 2008. There were plans three years ago to demolish the auditorium and build a hotel on the site, retaining the cinema’s facade as the entrance.

Letters to the Lichfield Gazette this month are calling for the preservation of the former Regal Cinema

This was once an ornate and impressive cinema, but the building is now in a sad state of disrepair, and this fine example of 1930s art deco architecture could soon be lost as part of our architectural heritage. The campaign for its preservation has received much support in letters to this month’s edition of the Lichfield Gazette, and there is a Facebook campaign to save the Regal Cinema:

2, The former Angel Croft Hotel, 3 Beacon Street:

The Angel Croft Hotel at the end of Beacon Street is decaying before our eyes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Angel Croft, opposite the entrance to the Cathedral Close, has been described often in the past as the “Faulty Towers of Lichfield.” But the hotel has been closed for a number of years. This is a listed building, but the building, the front railings and gates, dating from ca 1750, are regarded “at risk” according to English Heritage.

The hotel is now decaying and neglected, and has become one of the saddest architectural sights in Lichfield. The railings are rusting, the glass in fanlight over the main door is broken and shattered, and the garden at the front is broken.

The house was first built in the mid-18th century by George Addams, a Lichfield wine merchant, who also built Maple Hayes House. No 3 was a fine Georgian house and may have been built on the site of the Angel Inn on Beacon Street, and that in turn may have stood on the site of the Lamb Inn.

The house became the Angel Croft Hotel around 1930, and for decades was an elegant hotel. But by the 1980s its reputation was slipping. It was still being advertised as recently as 2008, although by then its AA rating had slipped to one star.

The Angel Croft Hotel closed in recent years, although reports say the place was bought by the Best Western chain, which also owns the George Hotel, an historic coaching inn in Bird Street where the playwright George Farquhar was supposed to have stayed.

Renovation work resumed a few years ago, but nothing has been done to repair the building since then. Although there is no sign outside to say the hotel is closed, it lies empty once again. This is Grade 2* listed building, and its front railings and gates, which date from ca. 1750, are now regarded as “at risk” by English Heritage.

As a Grade II* listed building, the property is exempt from non-domestic rates. Around 2008, the new owners began refurbishing the hotel, but the property was broken into soon after, the pipes were stolen and the building was flooded.

Since then, some of the window panes – over the main front door and at the rear – have been broken and the rear gate is open. Compared to its former days, the Angel Croft Hotel is now a sad sight. Although a conservation team from Lichfield District Council is said to be monitoring the situation and is in regular contact with the owners, no work has been carried out for some years.

It is a shame that at a time when the number of homeless people in Lichfield is rising and tourist numbers are said to be increasing this property cannot be put to good use. The car park beside the hotel is an eyesore, yet is obviously generating some income. But, unless the current owners and the local authority pay greater attention, this historic Georgian building and its elegant gates are not going to be here for much longer.

3, Vicars’ Hall, Beacon Street:

Vicars’ Hall, Beacon Street ... often overshadowed by Darwin House and Vicars’ Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Vicars’ Hall in Vicars’ Close also has a rear frontage or elevation to Beacon Street, beside Erasmus Darwin House. This is a brick building with a two-storey gabled range, coped gable with plaster eaves band and blind keyed roundel; a terrace with an early 20th century brick lozenge parapet; and an entrance with canopy and half-glazed door. There are segmental-headed windows: 16-pane sash to ground floor flanked by narrow windows with eight-pane sashes, eight-pane and 16-pane sashes to the first floor flank blocked window, formerly an oriel, 12-pane and nine-pane sashes to left return; and a stack to the of ridge.

The rear facing Beacon Street has a stone plinth, sill bands, a projecting ground floor window with cornice and a tripartite sashed window in eared architrave and flanking Venetian-form sashes. The small first floor windows have rubbed brick flat arches over six-pane sashes.

The building is often overlooked when people are visiting either Darwin House next door or the timber-framed houses that make up the rest of Vicars’ Close. But this building is worth seeing on its merits.

4, Old houses in Lombard Street:

A terrace of houses in Lombard Street, listed as 18th and 19th century houses, but with earlier interiors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nos 1, 3, 5 and 7 Lombard Street are Grade 2 listed 18th and 19th century houses, but they incorporate earlier timber frames. In some of the houses, the first floors have gabled half dormers with three-light small-paned casements.

Part of this terrace on the north side of Lombard Street includes the 1709 Brasserie at No 3-5 and a Chinese restaurant at No 7. The 1709 Brasserie is named after the year that saw the birth of Lichfield’s most famous son, Dr Samuel Johnson. Inside, it is a quintessential Lichfield mediaeval building, full of creaky floors and timber-framed.

5, Nos 9 and 11 Bird Street:

No 9 and 11 Bird Street ... the birthplace of the Newton brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lal Bagh, an Indian restaurant at No 9 Bird Street, and Temple Tree, a hair salon at No 11, share a plaque commemorates Bishop Thomas Newton (1704-1782), who was born here, and his brother, Andrew Newton, the founder of Newton’s College. The plaque above Nos 9 and 11 reads:

Bishop Newton (Bristol) was born here. Born 1704 Died 1782 He was the brother of Andrew. The founder of Newton’s College in the city. Educated at Lichfield Grammar School.

No 9 and No 11 Bird Street are Grade II listed buildings. These two were originally one two-storey house, built in the early 18th century. Forty years ago, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in his guide to Staffordshire (1974) noted that at the back of No 11 here was a domed room with a shell mosaic, but I have never yet seen this.

Thomas and Andrew Newton were the sons of a Lichfield brandy and cider merchant who lived at No 11 Bird Street. Thomas Newtown was born here on 1 January 1704, and was educated at Lichfield Grammar School before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was later elected a fellow.

A Biblical scholar and author, his published works include his annotated edition of Paradise Lost, with a biography of John Milton (1749). In 1754, he published a large scholarly analysis of the prophecies of the Bible, Dissertations on the Prophecies. In 1761, he published yet another extensively annotated edition of Milton’s works, including Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

Newton was consecrated Bishop of Bristol in 1761 and in 1768 he became the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. He died in London on 14 February 1782.

6, No 17 Bird Street

The former offices of the Lichfield Mercury on Bird Street, now the Ma Ma Thai Restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No 17 Bird Street now houses the Ma Ma Thai restaurant, and this Grade II listed building remains an important part of Lichfield’s architectural heritage.

This three-storey house was built in the early or mid-18th century in the Early Georgian style, with a symmetrical five-window range. The entrance has a door-case with architrave with triple key, panelled pilaster strips and a consoled pediment, and paired two-panel doors. The two shop windows have panelled pilaster strips and consoled cornices, while the first floor has windows with panelled sills and shaped aprons, and shaped lintels with keys and cornices over 6/9-pane sashes with thick glazing bars.

Inside, in what was the front room of a once-elegant residence, there are end fireplaces, each with panelled pilasters and lintel with fluted key, breast with fluted angle pilasters. There is some tall fielded panelling with a panelled dado rail. The dog-leg staircase has cut string with column-on-vase balusters and a ramped handrail, with dado panelling.

This beautiful building was lovingly mentioned by the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1974 in his Staffordshire, in which he talks of its “nicely enriched window lintels and rather a wild door surround.”

By then, the Lichfield Mercury had gone over to what we called “photo-type-setting,” – an early form of computerised production of newspapers. I was welcomed back in 1974 to see the process, and to learn about how the pages of the newspaper were designed and made up. I probably thought then that I was going to find a fulltime position with the Lichfield Mercury and return to live in this cathedral city. I never did, but I was always grateful for those opportunities and that generous sharing of skills and insights – they later proved useful when I was with the Wexford People and The Irish Times.

7, Lichfield Grammar School, Saint John Street

Lichfield Grammar School … now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The former Grammar School, a Grade II listed Georgian building on Saint John Street, now houses the offices of Lichfield District Council.

The buildings include the former schoolmaster’s and boarders’ house, with the former school room to the rear. The building dates from1682, with an 18th century rear wing, school room and a front wall built ca 1849 by Thomas Johnson and Son of Lichfield, and an18th century wall to the right return.

The Grammar School was founded as part of the Hospital of Saint John in 1495, and moved across the street to this site in 1577. In its day, it is said, the school ranked alongside Eton and Winchester. Many famous Lichfield figures went to school here, including the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the actor David Garrick and the essayist Joseph Addison.

The school room was built on the site of one erected in 1577. In 1903, Lichfield Grammar School moved from Saint John Street to Upper Saint John Street. To cater for the growing population, in 1971, the Grammar School merged with King’s Hill secondary modern school to become the current King Edward VI School.

Meanwhile, the buildings became the offices and the council chamber of Lichfield Rural District Council in 1920.

8, The interior of the chapel, Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street:

The interior of the chapel, Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street, with an Easter theme, last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Annette provides interesting photographs of the corner of Saint John’s Hospital, on the corner of Saint John Street and Birmingham Road. But the oldest part of Saint John’s is the Chapel, which played a keep role in my own faith development and made Lichfield my spiritual home. Apart for a brief time in the 17th century when it was in a ruinous state, the chapel has been used continuously as a place of worship since 1135. It was originally a simple rectangular stone building. The original lancet windows did not permit much light and were developed during the ages.

In 1829, an aisle was built on the north side, when the former wall was replaced by a three-bay arcade. There was a further major restoration in 1870, when the walls of the nave were raised and a new high pitch roof was built, and buttresses were added to the outside of the south wall.

In 1984, magnificent stained glass by John Piper, representing Christ in Majesty was placed in the east window. Other recent additions include the sculpture “Noah and the Dove” by Simon Manby, commissioned for the Courtyard in 2006.

Canon Andrew Gorham has been the 49th Master of Saint John’s since July 2011.

Lichfield Then & Now, is published by the History Press (November 2012, Hardcover, 96 pp, ISBN-10: 0752461133, ISBN-13: 978-0752461137, £12.99 + £2.00 p&p). This is a beautifully designed and produced book and will delight all local historians and awaken memories for all who have lived and worked in Lichfield.