28 June 2022

A summer visit to the Moat House and
the Comberford Chapel in Tamworth

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, in last week’s summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During our recent two-day visit to Lichfield and Tamworth, two of us caught a glimpse of Comberford Hall from the train, and visited both the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, and the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street in Tamworth.

Comberford Hall, the ancestral home, can be seen from the train between Tamworth and Lichfield. I spoke in the Comberford Chapel in 2019 on the myths, stories and history of the Comberford and Comerford families.

The monuments to the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House in the chapel include one that is almost 300 years old and that perpetuates the age-old stories of the links between the Comberford family of Comberford and Tamworth and the Comerford family of Ireland.

The Moat House and its gardens are being carefully restored by its new owners who moved into the house in 2018 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Moat House and its gardens are being restored since the new owners moved into the house in 2018, showering it with tender, loving care in abundant measure.

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, which has Grade II* listed status, is a beautiful Tudor building that was built by the Comberford family in 1572, the site may have been owned by the Comberford family before 1391. The house has been described by one local historian as ‘Tamworth’s Elizabethan treasure’ and has recently been listed as a ‘stately home.’

The Moat House was visited in 1619 by the future King Charles I when he was a guest of the Comberford family as Prince of Wales. During that visit to Tamworth, his father, King James I, stayed at Tamworth Castle. Later visitors included the Beatles in 1963, I first visited the Moat House when I was in my teens.

The Moat House stands on the banks of the River Tame, and must have been of ancient foundation, for the name ‘Motehallzende’ appears in mediaeval records.

Walter Harcourt bought the site in Lichfield Street in 1572, and there he built a fine Tudor mansion with mullioned windows and fine chimneys. He married Mary Comberford, and when the couple died the property passed to her family. William Comberford made the Moat House his principal family home.

The oak panelling in the Moat House hid more than one ‘priest’s hole’ in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In those Tudor years, the Comberfords were Catholics and it was whispered that the oak panelling inside the house hid more than one ‘priest’s hole,’ allowing a furtive escape route down to the River Tame for visiting priests.

At the time, a rare family of black swans also lived in the grounds and in the River Tame, and the family claimed manorial rights in the Staffordshire half of Tamworth and exercised burial rights in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church.

When Charles I visited the Moat House as the Prince of Wales in 1619, the ceiling of the Long Gallery was decorated with heraldic cartouches telling the genealogical story of the Comberford family, illustrating how the Moat House and Wednesbury estates were inherited, and emphasising how the Comberfords were related to the royal family through the Beaumont family.

This decorated Long Gallery may have inspired Pugin’s decorations in Alton Towers over two centuries later, depicting the family tree of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, in a similar style.

Within a generation, another William Comberford was a royalist and from the Moat House he declared for the king, who had been a guest at the Moat House in Lichfield Street. Charles I had fled London and in 1642 raised his standard at Nottingham, defying the parliamentarians at the beginning the Civil War.

The Comberfords pledged their support to the king, sent £10,000 to the royal cause and garrisoned Tamworth in the name of the king. But the people of Tamworth, it appears, favoured Cromwell and the family paid dearly for this loyalty to the crown. After only a year, Tamworth was captured by the Parliamentarian army.

The desecrated and defaced Comberford effigy in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

William Comberford escaped, but the Moat House was ransacked from its gabled roof down to its walled garden, and the Comberford effigy in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church was desecrated and defaced. Out in Comberford, the Comberford manor at Comberford Hall was ransacked.

When the royalists lost the civil war and the king was beheaded, the Comberford family was forced to sell the Moat House. Ironically, it was bought for £160 by Thomas Fox, a roundhead captain and one of the most bitter enemies of William Comberford.

The Comberford family never recovered from those times and a monument erected in the Comberford Chapel almost 300 years ago in 1725 says the family then moved in exile to Ireland and to its estates in the Champagne district of France.

The Comberford family monument erected in Saint Editha’s Church in 1725 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

For 300 years or so, the Moat House passed through the hands of a number of families, one after another, including the Boothby, Littleton, Wolferstan, and Abney families, and then to the Marquess of Townsend, who also owned Tamworth Castle.

When Lord Townsend died, Dr Robert Woody bought the Moat House and in 1863 he opened it for a local horticultural show. Over 2,000 people trooped down the avenue of lime trees to admire the display of flowers, fruit and vegetables. There was archery, dancing to the strains of the Warwickshire Militia Band and a fleet of pleasure boats on the waters of the River Tame at the foot of the gardens.

After that, the house became a Victorian private nursing home for people who had mental health issues. They people were often well-to-do or eccentric old ladies, who went out in the landau round the streets of Tamworth, shopping and bestowing their largesse on the shopkeepers and errand boys of the town.

The geraldic decorations of the ceiling in the Long Gallery tell the genealogical stories of the Comberford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In the 20th century, the Moat House passed to another well-known practitioner in Tamworth, Dr Lowson. When he retired, he offered his former nursing home as a free gift to Tamworth Corporation. But the council unwisely decided it could not afford to look after the Moat House and declined his offer.

A highly indignant doctor sold the stately home and since then days several restaurants have operated from the Moat House. In recent decades, the Moat House has been a Berni Inn and a Schooner Inn, and the house has occasionally been used for filming.

In the intervening years, I have inherited some of the family papers and correspondence about the ownership of the Moat House and the family rights in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church.

Some of the 19th centuries papers relating to the Comberford family Moat House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Moat House came into the hands of new owners and new management in Summer 2018, and since then they have been engaged in extensive restoration and refurbishment. The Moat House opened as an event and function venue for birthday parties, wedding receptions in 2019, and now describes itself as ‘Tamworth’s Stately Home.’

It was recognised in 2020 as a Real Ale Pub in 2020 and a gin bar, and the cocktail bar came last year (2021).

As two of us were brought around the Moat House in recent days, we heard how the house and the gardens are being restored, with careful attention to every little detail.

The Library is one of the many rooms in Moat House now available for functions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Moat House can be hired for corporate events, functions, parties and wdding receptions. The historic function rooms, including the Long Gallery and the Library, make it an ideal venue for events such as wedding receptions and birthday parties.

The Long Gallery is a function room ideal for 70-120 guests, with its own bar, buffet, DJ and dance floor. The Library Room is ideal for 12-45 people, with buffet, music and lighting. The gazebo or summer house in the beer garden behind the house is also a Grade II listed building.

Today, the Moat House is welcoming guests and visitors once again. The public bar is open on Fridays from 5 pm to midnight, on Saturdays from noon to midnight and on Sundays from noon to 8 pm. The Moat House is at Lichfield Street, Tamworth, Staffordshire, B79 7QQ.

The gazebo or summer house behind the Moat House is also a Grade II listed building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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