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The Wake, the Stone Cross and the Chapel

Julian Ward-Davies

March 2014

This study presents a theory that seeks to establish links between three features of Stonnall history that are all now lost. These are: Stonnall Wake, which was an annual village festival that was still functioning in the 1880s; a stone cross, which was located somewhere in the middle of the road, presumably Main Street, in Upper Stonnall; and St Peter's Chapel, which was Stonnall's late-mediæval place of worship. It will also explore and attempt to explain the village's relationship with its patron saint, St Peter.

Thornes Hall and St Peter
Saint Peter seems to have had a very long association with Stonnall. In his book, The History and Antiquities of Shenstone published in 1794, Reverend Henry Sanders reported anecdotal evidence of a mediæval chapel of ease in Stonnall that was dedicated to the village's patron saint. Over 150 years later in his essay describing the history of the church in the village, Reverend T J Ward-Davies, the fifth Vicar of Stonnall, described the chapel as:-

...the chapel of ease to Thornes Hall.

This historical snippet might give us an insight into how and why St Peter became Stonnall's patron saint.

The location of Thornes Hall in the grounds of the Old Vicarage.
© Julian Ward-Davies

Thornes Hall was a mansion that, for several hundred years, had occupied a plot of land situated somewhat to the south of the Old Vicarage. It was huge. When the Hearth Tax was levied in the mid-1600s, this structure had more chimneys than any other house in Stonnall and Lynn. Incidentally, one of its principal businesses was the cherries of Cherry Orchard (the field immediately behind the Old Vicarage). Harvesting this fruit would have brought in substantial returns annually - and that was in addition to the mansion's other trading activities.

For Stonnall folk in the Middle Ages and later, going to church involved a fairly long trek to St John's in Shenstone. It seems that, based on Rev Ward-Davies's historical observation, the proprietors of Thornes Hall could afford the self-indulgence of building their own chapel to save time and trouble. Of course when the chapel was built, the matter of a patron saint for the new place of worship would have arisen. From Thornes Hall's perspective, who could have been a better choice than St Peter? Did its proprietors select him because he was none other than the Patron Saint of Harvesters?

The location of Thornes Hall, the property designated B26 in Church Road, according to the 1838 Tithe Map of Stonnall.
Note Thornes Hall Farm on the opposite side of the road.
© Julian Ward-Davies

Eventually, according to Rev Sanders, the chapel of ease was lost, allegedly dismantled at its original location and then re-erected as the south transept of Shenstone Church, where it was referred to as St Peter's Chapel or the Stonnall Chapel and used habitually by Stonnall residents. However, as we know, Stonnall's link with its patron saint remained, marked principally by the dedication of the village's church. As we will see, there was yet another manifestation of this relationship.

The Stonnall Chapel, otherwise known as St Peter's Chapel, as the south transept of St John's Church, Shenstone (from an early 19th century engraving).
Note that this is the old church in Shenstone, ie the building of which only the tower now remains.
Note also St Peter's keys inscribed in the brickwork of the transept.
© Stonnall History Group

The Stone Cross
In his History, Reverend Henry Sanders also referred to the following:-

In the middle of the street at Upper-stonall [sic] stood a stone cross; the base of stone in which the pillar was fixed yet remains.

He then goes on to say:-

When the parishioners examine their bounds in their processioning, the Gospel is read at this stone, and the usual ceremonies repeated;

What is he telling us exactly and what can we deduce from it?

The first part is straightforward enough: there was once a stone cross in the middle of the road at Upper Stonnall and that, in his time, only the base of it remained in place. But where exactly was it located? Careful reading of the second part, together with a cross-reference to a long-lost annual Stonnall event, could solve this particular mystery.

The terms bounds and processioning are the keywords in this text: "When the parishioners examine their bounds in their processioning...". This undoubtedly is an oblique reference to Stonnall Wake, in which the villagers took part an annual procession around the boundaries of the village.

Rev Sanders goes on to say: "...the Gospel is read at this stone, and the usual ceremonies repeated". In other words, the villagers assembled at the cross - and later at its base when the cross was lost - for bible readings prior to "the usual ceremonies", that is to say, setting off on the procession.

In summary
To summarise at this stage, we can see how the villagers had a tradition of assembling at the stone cross before proceeding on their yearly processional journey around the village. So strong was this tradition, in fact, that they continued to assemble at the structure's base even after the cross was lost. This raises another question.

Was this tradition so deeply entrenched that they met at the same place even after the structure's last remnant - its base - was also lost? This seems to be a virtual certainty because there was no reason to change what had been a long-standing tradition that had been repeated annually over very probably hundreds of years.

It follows therefore, that if we can identify where the villagers assembled for the wake, we can identify where the cross was located. But, other than Rev Sanders' all too brief mention of it, what is known about this annual event?

Another view of the old St John's Church, Shenstone (from an early 19th century engraving).
St Peter's Chapel, otherwise known as the Stonnall Chapel is on the south side of the church and St Peter's cross keys are visible on its nearside wall.
© Stonnall History Group

Stonnall Wake
We know from various 19th century records that Stonnall Wake was celebrated on the first Sunday after St Peter's Day (June 29) and this is, of course, another connection of the saint with this village to which we alluded earlier. As we will see a little later, this fact may be of great significance with regard to the origin of the event.

Stonnall Wake ceased at some point, it seems, in the 19th century, probably as the result of the standardisation of public holidays in the late 1800s.

The purpose of the wake
Now what exactly was the wake all about? Was it simply a good excuse for a fun day off with a few pints of beer, a carnival atmosphere and a fair? But what of its origins, which may well have occurred in remote antiquity?

An attempt to answer these questions should first recall that, probably at a point in the Bronze Age when agriculture commenced in Britain, the community that arose in what we now know as Stonnall was primarily agrarian in character. People lived off the land and were completely dependent on its crops and cattle.

Thus, it should be of no great surprise that, at some time in the remote past, a communal procession was devised, based on pagan ritual practice, for the purpose of conferring good fortune on the farms and fields within the village neighbourhood. This would also explain why the procession involved a circuit of the village.

We cannot even guess as to the identity of the pagan deity who was invoked during this ritual, except that we can be certain that he or she was some kind of god of fertility and productivity. This might give us a further insight into the selection of St Peter as the village's patron saint. Was he, as the Patron Saint of Harvesters, the successor of the pagan God of Harvests when Christianity arrived in the area? Early Christian activists and evangelists are known to have tolerated pagan practices as long as they were adapted and realigned to conform to their message. This would in turn explain why passages of the Bible were read at the procession's assembly point.

Stonnall Carnival
From contemporary newspaper reports, we know that an attempt was made to rekindle an annual procession in Stonnall in 1935, this time styled as Stonnall Carnival. Indeed, the carnival continued from then up to and including 1939, but ceased afterwards because of the war and was never recommenced.

Stonnall Carnival, assembling outside the Royal Oak on the 1 June, 1936
© Stonnall History Group

The new carnival was organised by a committee based at the Village Institute. In 1935, it was quite possible that the old wake was still within living memory of some of the village's elderly residents. If so, it is a near certainty that they would have informed the committee of the old wake's assembly point and processional route.

This brings us neatly back to the next stage of our detective story.

The location of the cross
We know from our eye-witness accounts and photographic evidence (shown above) that, long after both the cross and its base had been lost and forgotten, the crowd for the new carnival assembled outside the Royal Oak. Was this the traditional assembly point of the original wake? If so, a simple deduction informs us that Stonnall's stone cross must have been located in the middle of the road nearby.

Can we place the position of the cross even more precisely? To answer that question, we first need to consider this: what exactly was the cross doing there?

The purpose of the cross
As we have seen, at some time in the past, a stone cross was placed in the middle of the road at Upper Stonnall, quite possibly near a plot of land that would eventually accommodate the Royal Oak. We can also say that, without any real doubt, the cross was not placed there as some sort of decorative piece of street furniture. Nor was it placed there as a marker for the wake's assembly point, which would have been a lavish extravagance for what was only an annual event.

Given the expense of commissioning and erecting it, it would have been placed there for a particular purpose. But what was that exactly? Could it possibly have been pointing the way to something special, principally for the benefit of people who might not have been very familiar with the village?

As we have noted, Stonnall had been an agrarian community for hundreds of years. But it had yet another speciality - and that was hospitality. Situated on a road that extended into the heart of England and beyond, the village benefited substantially for centuries from traffic on the ancient highway that we now call Chester Road.

To illustrate this observation, we can point out a well-documented ancient feature of the village that still exists: the Stockhold Fields (also known as Stockhole, Stockhol' and Stockhoult). Conveniently close to Chester Road and providing a ready supply of drinking water from Pen Brook at their eastern boundary, these enclosures provided, as their name implies, overnight accommodation for cattle en route to the lucrative markets of southern Britain.

Their human attendants would also, of course, have needed accommodation, whether on their outward or return journeys, or indeed both. And what better a place for that than an establishment where the roasts and ale were plentiful? We know of at least three Upper Stonnall inns that cashed in on the trade that passed on Chester Road.

Almost inevitably, many such visitors found themselves waking up on a Sunday morning with a bit of a sore head - and what better a way to clear it than a short walk to a place of worship that offered the additional benefit of absolution for the excesses of the previous evening?

St Peter's Chapel
The difficulty with this was that St Peter's Chapel was not central to Upper Stonnall, but rather it was central to the whole neighbourhood, including Thornes and Lynn as well as the two Stonnalls. Very conveniently situated a couple of hundred yards down the road from where its financiers lived at Thornes Hall, it had been built deliberately on land that was more-or-less equidistant from the four main centres of population. Thus, the way to the chapel from Main Street was not immediately obvious to anyone who was not familiar with the village's network of roads and footpaths.

Realising that this might be a problem and intending to be as helpful as possible to visitors who were approaching from Main Street - and no doubt mindful of the need to maximise collections - somebody had the brainwave of placing an unmistakable marker on the road just where it was necessary to turn into the ancient footroad that extends from Main Street to Church Lane, where the chapel was immediately visible. That marker was the stone cross.

So the question:"Where is the chapel?" could be simply answered with "Walk down the road and then turn right along the footpath by the cross. You'll see the chapel a short distance away". Thus we can identify precisely why and where it was erected and note that its position was only a matter of a few yards away from where the Royal Oak would be built eventually.

As to who went to the expense of commissioning the cross, we can guess that they were the same people who had paid for the building of the chapel - the affluent proprietors of Thornes Hall.

What actually became of the cross and its base? By the time Rev Sanders had become familiar with the area in the mid-1700s, the cross had already disappeared. The chapel been dismantled and removed at least 50 years previously and had been closed down at least 100 years before that. Thus, any marker had ceased to have any real function a long time before the good Reverend became familiar with the area. As obstructions and at different intervals, the cross and its base would have been dragged to the side of the road where they would have presumably broken up over time.

A photo of Lower Farm taken just before its redevelopment. Some stone fragments were captured in it.
Were these the broken up remains of the stone cross and its base?
© Steve Parkes

In 1992, Stonnall resident Steve Parkes took some photos of Lower Farm just before it was sold off for redevelopment. The one shown above displays several stone fragments and they were lying on the side of the road only a few yards away from the entrance of the footpath to Church Lane. They have now disappeared, but they couldn't have been something to do with what we have been discussing, could they?

The end
Well, that's the theory and it all seems to fit together nicely. The problem is that we'll only be able to test it one way or another when somebody gets round to inventing a time machine.

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© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGC 2014

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