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The Lost Stonnall Hoard Mystery

Julian Ward-Davies

November 2016

This is the story of the Stonnall Hoard. It is based on some intensive research that was conducted by David Coombs on behalf of Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society in the late 1960s.

The sequence of events that followed the discovery of the hoard presents a fairly complex narrative of mislaid, or even lost, letters, documents and relics and, therefore to avoid excessive references to detail, the information presented here should be viewed as a synopsis of Mr Coombs' research that, hopefully, will provide the reader with the basic facts.

If you would like to know more about all the known circumstances surrounding the hoard's discovery, Dr Nigel Tringham of SAHS has kindly given the society's permission for Stonnall History Group to republish in full Mr Coombs' original article. It was first published in the society's Transactions, Vol IX 1967/68, pp 1-17 and is now featured on this website.

The discovery
On February 12, 1824, while digging away some earth in order to extend a rickyard, some labourers came across a grave at a depth of 6 feet that had been fashioned out of the sandstone subsoil. The grave, which was orientated north-south, contained very little, yielding some bone fragments and some decayed wood.

However, described as lying a few inches away to the west of the grave in some loose sand, several items were recovered, including twenty bronze objects, a lump of lead and a lump of copper.

At that time, Gainsborough Farm - or Greensborough Hill Farm as it was known in some quarters - was part of Little Aston Estate, which was owned by William Tennant, Esq.

Gainsborough Farm (from Alan Heywood's 1971 drawing).
Image © Keith Heywood

An antiquary, William Hamper FSA, of Birmingham Archaeological Society, was invited to Gainsborough Farm to assess the discovery. He arrived, probably early in the following month, accompanied by a friend, Shirley F S Perkins. Mr Hamper and Mr Perkins interviewed the labourers and examined the grave and relics. They also looked around the farm to see if they could detect any signs of ancient habitation, such as enclosure walls, but nothing was found.

Following his examination, Mr Hamper wrote from Deritend, Birmingham, on March 25 to another, very highly regarded antiquary, Dr Samuel Rush Meyrick, to alert him of the discovery. It appears also that, at the same time, Mr Hamper sent the relics to Dr Meyrick, of which more later.

Note that there are eight volumes of William Hamper's letters and papers in the Birmingham Reference Library (Nos. 125542 and 117630) and a catalogue of the sale of his household furniture, etc. 20-24 June 1831 (No. 214510), including: 'Lot 216 A very rare collection of articles of very great antiquity, in suitable lots.'

Mr Hamper's letter
This letter contained a description of the circumstances of the discovery, a list of the items recovered and a description of Greensborough Hill. There were a few further items of information: a skeleton of what appeared to be a pig was found close to the surface, but that this was considered to be a recent burial; drawings had been made of the relics.

The drawings were said to have been placed in the hands of Captain Tennant RN, who was, presumably, William Tennant's son. Elsewhere in the Coombs article, it is stated that the drawings may have been sent to the Society of Antiquarians in London.

Mr Hamper's list of items
The items were described in Mr Hamper's letter as follows:-

  1. Sword, broken in two pieces
  2. Sharp sword or dagger
  3. Spearhead
  4. Spearhead fragment
  5. Ferrule
  6. Ferrule
  7. Ferrule
  8. Ferrule in two pieces, accidentally broken when dug up
  9. Spearhead fragment
  10. Cylinder
  11. Cylinder
  12. Ring
  13. Ring
  14. Ring
  15. Pommel for sword handle
  16. Pommel for sword handle
  17. Celt
  18. Celt
  19. Celt
  20. Not recorded
  21. Lump of copper found in number 10
  22. Lump of lead

Following receipt of Mr Hamper's communication, Dr Meyrick notified the Society of Antiquarians in London of the discovery in a letter dated March 30, 1824. The secretary of the society at the time was Henry Ellis.

Dr Meyrick's letter to Henry Ellis
Dr Meyrick acknowledged that he could add little to Mr Hamper's letter with regard to the grave and relics. However, he provided his own list of the recovered items with his own fairly detailed descriptions. He also expressed a view that the relics were of Ancient British origin rather than Roman or Anglo-Saxon. Interestingly, Dr Meyrick does not mention the location of the discovery.

Perhaps most importantly, Dr Meyrick drew some small sketches of the relics below his signature.

The drawings
That Dr Meyrick thought it necessary to include drawings of the relics in his letter to the Society raises a question: why would he do that if the Society was in possession of Mr Hamper's drawings? The answer seems to be that the Society did not possess the original drawings, otherwise Dr Meyrick's work would be a pointless duplication of effort.

Dr Meyrick's sketches of the relics.
Image courtesy of SAHS

Another question is also raised: what did Dr Meyrick make his sketches from? Did he copy them from the original drawings or did he actually have the relics in his possession? The former seems most unlikely, because it would have been another pointless duplication of effort, especially if the originals had been sent to the Society. If the latter, then it must mean that Dr Meyrick had the relics in sight.

That Dr Meyrick had the relics at hand is indicated by the fact that he wrote of several features of the relics that Mr Hamper had not mentioned at all in his letter.

Publication of the discovery
A record of the discovery was published in Archaeologia XXI, 1827, pp 548-9 Appendix. The entry was fundamentally a restatement of Mr Hamper's letter.

A sorry tale of loss
Now we come to the extraordinary situation in which Mr Hamper's letter, Mr Hamper's drawings and Dr Meyrick's letter were all lost. How is it possible, then, that any of the details presented above are accessible at the present time?

Mr Hamper's letter was reproduced in the book History of the Forest and Chase of Sutton Coldfield by Agnes Anne Bracken, 1860, pp 3-4. Incidentally, Miss Bracken was a notable painter and historian and has a blue plaque dedicated to her memory in Sutton Coldfield.

Mr Hamper's drawings remain unaccounted for. As we have seen, it seems most unlikely that the Society of Antiquarians ever received them. We might conclude that they remained in the possession of the Tennant family.

Dr Meyrick's letter certainly reached the Society because there is a record of it having been read out to a meeting. It seems that it was then borrowed and never returned by the borrower. However, the good news is that it was discovered in the collection of a deceased clergyman and was eventually returned to the Society in 1934. Even more good news is that it contained his sketches and now these are the only images of the relics that are known to exist.

That we know as much as we do beyond that which was published in Archaeologia is down to several eagle-eyed researchers. Information about them can be found in David Coombs' SAHS article.

We now come to the interpretation and fate of the relics.

Modern scholarship informs us that the relics originated in the Bronze Age. The Coombs article gives information as to where in the British Isles certain of the items were manufactured. Other questions remain however. Were the relics deposited as grave goods? Or were they co-incidentally buried on or near a grave?

Were the relics grave goods?
Bearing in mind that Mr Hamper described them as having been found in loose sand a few inches to the west of the grave, I am of the opinion that they were indeed grave goods. The labourers had been digging down through what must have been fairly heavily compacted material and had not realised that with certain shovelfuls, they were displacing and putting to one side some unexpected metalwork which was covered in sand. That is how the relics ended up in loose sand a few inches away from the grave.

The farm and rickyard.
Image courtesy of SAHS

What happened to the relics?
In view of the foregoing, it may not come as too much of a surprise to the reader that they have disappeared. The last time we have any degree of certainty of their whereabouts is when Dr Meyrick appeared to have them in his possession in order to draw sketches of them. But what then? It seems to me that there are only a few possibilities, summarised below.

The fate of the relics
I suspect that, as well as the drawings, the relics were never sent to the Society of Antiquaries. These are the hypotheses that might explain what actually happened:-
1. They were returned to the Tennant family. This may seem to be a logical conclusion because, after all, William Tennant was the rightful owner and he may well have wanted to retain possession of some valuable relics. Furthermore, the Tennant family sold up and moved away from the area within a few years of the discovery. The relics might have been mislaid in the chaos of moving household. There is yet another possibility, which is that, to a very rich family, the relics were regarded as mere trinkets or bric-à-brac and were sold readily (see 2). Certainly the discovery seems to have been of little interest to the family because no information about it was passed down through succeeding generations (see below).
2. Mr Hamper took possession of them. As noted, it does appear that the relics were in Mr Hamper's possession, at least for a time, because he handed them over to Dr Meyrick to enable him to describe and draw sketches of them in his letter to the Society of Antiquarians. Assuming Dr Meyrick handed them back after his examination, did Mr Hamper keep hold of them, possibly because he had purchased them from Mr Tennant? We know that he was a very keen collector of antiquities and we can remind ourselves of the sale of his personal effects after he passed away: 'Lot 216 A very rare collection of articles of very great antiquity, in suitable lots.' Were the relics amongst this collection? There is a very strong possibility that they may well have been.
3. Dr Meyrick took possession of them. This is also possible but unlikely because Mr Hamper was in a better position to purchase them from Mr Tennant.

Dr Meyrick's letter
Earlier, we wondered why Dr Meyrick had gone to the trouble of describing and sketching the objects in his letter to the Society of Antiquarians. The answer to that question must be that he knew that neither the relics nor the original drawings were ever going to be sent to the Society.

Tennant descendants
Would Mr Tennant's descendents know anything? In 1957, Mr J T Gould FSA contacted a William Tennant great-grandson, Admiral Sir William Tennant, to be told that he knew nothing about the discovery and neither did his cousin, Sir Charles Buchanan. This may well indicate that the discovery was only of passing curiosity to the family initially and interest in it did not persist for very long.

The occupants of the farm in the 20th century
What of the then occupants of the farm in 1957? Prompted by Mr Gould, Mr Harold Foden stated that he knew nothing of the discovery and that nothing similar to it had been found during his family's 60 years of occupation.

Forever lost?
Is it really a situation in which these relics have been lost without any possibility of recovery? Of course it might be the case that somebody made the crass mistake of losing them, throwing them out or selling them as a few bits of valuable scrap metal.

On the other hand, as a result of the sale of Mr Hamper's collection, it is just possible that they are sitting somewhere in a curio cabinet, a box, a tea chest or whatever, forgotten, ignored, their true significance and antecedants unknown. It is also possible that the publication of this article might enable somebody, somewhere to put, both literally and metaphorically, two and two together.

The farm labourers
One last note of sadness: it seems regrettable, to say the least, that the names of the labourers who found the relics went unrecorded. They were, indeed, the unsung heroes of this story.

I am going to make a wild guess. Was at least one of them a Broadhurst? They were a family of farm labourers who lived nearby in tied cottages that were actually located just inside the Parish of Aldridge. A look at the early 19th century tithe awards of that parish might shed some light. The family was also represented in Stonnall, Lynn and Hilton.

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© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGCert, 2016, revised January 2019.

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