In search of
The Lost Chapel of Stonnall
This study is intended to identify the location of St Peter's Chapel, Stonnall, Staffordshire. It will adduce all the documentary, historical, circumstantial and archaeological evidence that has so far been collected in an attempt to pinpoint the whereabouts of the site of the chapel with, I believe, 100% certainty. We will examine all the evidence item by item.
© Julian Ward-Davies
In 1769, the former Curate of Shenstone, the Reverend Henry Sanders compiled his History and Antiquities of the Parish of Shenstone 1. At that time, Stonnall was a component part of the parish and thus his account contains a considerable amount of detail relating to the village and its neighbourhood. Moreover, this document contains the earliest known references to there having been a chapel and a chapel-yard in Stonnall. As we will see, Rev Sanders never saw the chapel, having relied on commonplace anecdotes about its existence. However, as we will see also, he did see the chapel-yard and, therefore, his account represents a primary documentary source with regard to that feature.
The 1838 Tithe Map of the Parish of Shenstone 2 and its associated Book of Awards 3 provide us with secondary documentary evidence. Although these documents contain no direct reference to the chapel, various details contained within them directly support the evidence relating to the chapel's existence and location provided by Rev Sanders' account.
The location of the site
The site is located on the side of an eminence formerly known as Chapel Hill, to the immediate north of and directly adjacent to the structure known as the pinfold, between Church Road and Church Lane. The pinfold itself has one or two curious features which, as we will see, point to its having had a function that predates its undoubted use as a place where stray animals were impounded.
© Julian Ward-Davies
How the site came to light
Some time ago, I suggested that the discovery of building debris on the surface of soil at a credible location would point to the remains of the chapel. Co-incidentally, a chance remark was made by a local farmer, Alan Ramsell, while I was interviewing him in early February 2012 for source material for another article in the Memories of Old Stonnall series. At this time, in an off-the-cuff remark, he said that he had ploughed up brick fragments at the site now under investigation. I went to the site immediately and found brick and pottery fragments on the soil surface. I then checked the documentary evidence and found that this location conformed in every way with all the available information.
The documentary evidence for the chapel's existence and location
We will now examine, one by one, all of Rev Sanders' statements relating to the chapel's existence and location. The first is as follows:-
Over-stonall, soon after the Conquest, was the property of the D'Oyleys, of which noble house lord Robert Fitz Nigel D'Oyley, in 1129, gave it to the abbey of Osney in the county of Oxford, by the name of one of the two 'Stonhala's, with their chapels; but, as other places are passed in the same charter, I am not perfectly satisfied that this town or hamlet [ie Upper Stonnall] had any chapel, that of Stonall inferior lying so near as half a mile, and therefore such a place of public worship seems unnecessary in Over-stonall.
Here, Rev Sanders tells us that, according to a charter, Upper and Lower Stonnall, together with their two chapels, passed into the ownership of the D'Oyley family soon after the Norman Conquest and hence in 1129 to Osney Abbey. He then expresses his scepticism that Upper Stonnall ever had its own chapel, stating that the chapel in Stonall inferior (Lower Stonnall) was situated "so near as half a mile" thus rendering a chapel in the upper part of the village as unnecessary. On the other hand, he clearly has no reservations concerning the existence of the chapel in the lower part of the village. For him, St Peter's Chapel, Lower Stonnall had been a reality.
He goes on to state:-
Not only the people of this hamlet [ie Stonnall], but all the parishioners of Shenstone, have a tradition of a chapel in old times, situate in the upper part of it towards Thornes and the road leading to Upper-stonall, but mixed with fable.
In this passage, Rev Sanders makes two points. The tradition of a chapel was common throughout the parish and, secondly, he gives us more locative information. Unfortunately, this passage is somewhat opaque because he does not refer to any road by name. Careful reading, however, reveals what he intended to convey. In fact, he gives us two reference points. All we need to do is understand them.
At this stage, it is as well to remember that Thornes is, for the most part, a constituent area of Lower Stonnall. Also, it contains some of the highest ground in either of the two Stonnalls. Only Castle Hill exceeds Chapel Hill, Pit Hill, Church Hill and Grove Hill in altitude.
Thus, when Rev Sanders says that the chapel's location in Lower Stonnall was: "situate in the upper part of it towards Thornes", he is indirectly referring to an approach along Church Road which, by the way, used to be called Thornes Road in his day.
As to a second reference point, Rev Sanders' text can be interpreted in two ways: either he was referring to Church Lane as "the road leading to Upper-stonall", that is, from Thornes, or he was referring to Main Street, that is, from where it meets Church Road. Either way, the conclusion must be the same: the enclosure that is adjacent to those roads is the 3½ acre triangular field that we have identified above.
Rev Sanders goes on to give us a clue as to where there may be further, as yet undiscovered, documentary evidence relating to the chapel:-
Assuredly some charters, dated in the reigns of Henry I. and Stephen, take notice of such chapel or chapels in Stonall.
At this point, we note the word assuredly: in Rev Sanders' mind, once again, there was no doubt that the chapel existed because he was aware of references to it in various charter documents. He then goes on to say:-
There is, as a farther evidence of it, a piece of land called the Chapel piece, consisting of three acres and an half, divided into two parts, one the property of Thomas Stanley, of Thornes, the other of Thomas Adcock, of Lyndon [ie Lynn]. Around this are several enclosures, called by the names of the Chapel field, Chapel hills, Church fields, and Church leasows, which, most probably, were lands formerly appropriated for the maintenance of the clergymen who officiated at Shenstone church, or this chapel of ease to it, at Nether Stonall.
Here, Rev Sanders is invoking place and field-name evidence together with family ownership and, as we will see, we will be able to cross-check this information with our secondary documentary evidence. Rev Sanders then goes on to mention the chapel-yard for the first time:-
In the upper part of Nether Stonall, near the chapel-yard, stands a very handsome new erected mansion, built by Thomas Dickenson, gent. of a family of some note, and long settled here.
Remembering that, in the Old Days, Thornes was considered to be in Lower Stonnall, in 1769 there were very few buildings in that hamlet.
© Julian Ward-Davies
Thus, this mansion is certainly a reference to Thornes House, which is only a few yards away from the pinfold. Probably, the most important and significant aspect of this passage is that he refers to the chapel-yard as though it still existed.
Rev Sanders then goes on to mention various pieces of land that were sold at some stage:-
...nine closes called the Flatts, also Pit-close, Hillclose, Chapel-yard-close, Hook-close, lying near the lands of' Henry Dolphyn and Thomas Dickenson, gent.
Here we note a reference to Chapel-yard-close. This would be the piece of land, or field, that enclosed the chapel site and chapel-yard. We note also this land was near the lands of Thomas Dickenson who, it seems, built Thornes House, which is just a few yards from the pinfold.
This documentary evidence may be summarised as follows:-
- The chapel was mentioned in several charters.
- Knowledge of it was firmly entrenched in local custom.
- The chapel was located about ½ a mile from Upper Stonnall.
- The chapel was located in Thornes on a road that we now refer to as Church Road.
- It was located close to Thornes House.
- The chapel-yard still existed in Rev Sanders' lifetime.
- The chapel imposed itself on the name of Chapel Hill and the names of various fields such as Chapel-yard-close.
The secondary documentary evidence for the chapel's existence and location
We will now turn to the Tithe Map and its associated Book of Awards. In the latter, we note that the two fields referred to by Rev Sanders as Chapel Hill were still marked as such in the early 19th century, some 70 or 80 years after Rev Sanders' account was compiled. One of them, property B44, had passed to Thomas Caddick, whereas the other, property B45, was still in the ownership of the Adcock family, belonging to one Samuel Clarke Adcock. A public footpath, of which more later, passed through one of the fields. This information provides us with solid evidence as to precisely where Chapel Hill was located.
Source: Lichfield Records Office
Turning now to the Tithe Map, we note that the area around the pinfold was exceedingly well served in terms of access by five converging routes: the upper part of Church Road, the lower part of Church Road, Church Lane, the footpath from Main Street and the footpath from Lower Stonnall (now lost).
The secondary evidence may be summarised as follows:-
- The location of Chapel Hill can be positively identified.
- The area around the pinfold was very easily accessed from many directions.
The historical evidence relating to the fate of the chapel
Rev Sanders provides us with an insight into the fate of the chapel, as reproduced here:-
The very year when the chapel was taken away may in part be known from this circumstance...
He then goes on to explain that, following an Act of Parliament in the reign of Henry VIII as an attempt to make church administration more efficient and in accordance with a fairly complex legal formula, any chapel could be closed if its rateable value was below the value of £6.
He goes on to say:-
As the abbey of Osney was dissolved in the year 1539 all its lands and rights seized and passed to the crown, we may naturally conclude, there was little or nothing left for the support of the minister at Nether Stonall, if, indeed, he was a different person from the vicar of Shenstone.
Rev Sanders then tells us about what was done with the remains of the chapel:-
The South chancel of Shenstone church was built, it is said, of materials taken from Nether Stonall chapel, which is not unlikely, being different from the rest of that structure, and chiefly of brick-work ; and, as that chapel was dedicated to St Peter, there is a memorial of it in the work, namely, the keys which are generally given him, and of large proportion, with. two crosses, one in the form of that on which our Saviour suffered, the other a common one, framed of bricks burnt of a blue cast. In this chancel the lords of the scignory, named Fryths, had their seats, and in general the inhabitants of Thornes and the Stonall districts.
St John's Church, Shenstone as it appeared in 1784, the church that Reverend Sanders knew intimately - and a long time before it was rebuilt at a different location in 1850.
The south chancel is pointing towards the observer, roughly in the centre. It was clearly made of bricks and different from the oldest part of the church, the nave and steeple, which appeared to have been made of sandstone blocks. This fully accords with Rev Sanders' description. Moreover, if the window parts of the Lost Chapel were recycled along with the bricks, this image may well present us with an insight into the appearance of the original structure in Stonnall.
In other words, the site was cleared at some stage and some of its bricks were used to construct the south chancel of the church in Shenstone, which was used habitually by people from Thornes and Stonnall. Also, St Peter, to whom the chapel had been dedicated, was commemorated in this new piece of work.
Source: from an early 19th century engraving, artist unknown.
The historical evidence in summary
- The chapel's fate was sealed as a result of King Henry's Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century.
- The remains of the chapel were cleared away and recycled as part of St John's Church, Shenstone.
- The new chancel was the preserve of church-goers from Thornes and Stonnall.
- St Peter was commemorated in the new chancel.
- Bricks "burnt of a blue cast" were used.
Other circumstantial evidence summarised
- The pinfold area is about ½ a mile from the centre of Stonnall, as noted by Rev Sanders.
- It is more-or-less equidistant from Upper Stonnall, Lynn and Lower Stonnall.
- The shape of the area is useless with regard to agricultural productivity and hence a building at that location would not encroach on farming activities.
- Despite the shape of the area, there was plenty of room for a small chapel.
- It was easily accessible with five converging routes.
Putting it all together - the Hypothesis
From all the foregoing, it is possible to build a hypothetical timeline relating to St Peter's Chapel.
At an unknown date, a chapel dedicated to St Peter was built in Stonnall. With a high degree of certainty, because all the documentary evidence points to it, we can postulate that it was erected at the location now under investigation. We know that it was built to some extent from bricks because Rev Sanders says so explicitly. The structure now known as the pinfold had once had an earlier function as the chapel-yard. The chapel was closed as a result of the Reformation in the mid-16th century. The chapel was demolished at some stage and the site was cleared, the remains being recycled at the church in Shenstone. The pinfold was improvised from the chapel-yard.
It is now necessary to turn to archaeology in order to confirm this hypothesis.
On Saturday, March 3rd, 2012, Barry Carpenter, Gill Goodwin, Scarlet Goodwin and I went to the site to investigate. The investigation had two objectives:-
- To determine whether a building had once occupied the area.
- To find good dating evidence.
As we will see, both of these objectives were attained.
© Julian Ward-Davies
It should be noted here that we did not attempt to investigate the pinfold physically. It is a monument and we could not and would not do anything to compromise its structural integrity.
Between 9am and about 10.30am, we conducted a metal detection investigation of the site. A number of finds were made and these are listed below.
We then dug a test pit. The soil was approximately 40cm deep and the lower 15cm or so of it was highly compacted, indicating that it had not been disturbed for very many years. There were many fragments of brick in the soil.
The subsoil at 40cm was very sandy and, lying on that, we found two large blocks of sandstone and one smaller such block. These were surrounded by a lot of brick debris along with lime mortar.
A further three stones were uncovered. These were very flat and smooth river cobbles and not at all like the cobbles commonly found in the soil around Stonnall.
© Julian Ward-Davies
Pieces of coloured glass and various fragments of pottery and tile were recovered from the pit.
We metal detected in the pit periodically and a number of nails were recovered. A shoe buckle was also recovered during this operation and this would be our primary dating evidence.
Source: Barry Carpenter
© Julian Ward-Davies
- There can be no doubt that a building once stood at this location, given all the construction material debris.
- The building seems to have been of quite sophisticated construction, with sandstone footings, brickwork, tiles, timber and glazed windows, probably with stained glass. The river cobbles may well have been used as flooring material or as a pathway surfacing.
- The location matches that of St Peter's Chapel as indicated in the documentary evidence as presented by Rev Sanders.
- The pinfold appears to have been improvised from the chapel-yard, or at least its original brickwork was recovered from the chapel's fabric.
- The shoe buckle has been dated to 1620 - 1720, giving us a good dating period for the clearance of the site as having taken place well before Rev Sanders' incumbency.
© Julian Ward-Davies
The following 29 September, another group of volunteers, including Ben Ward-Davies and Marcus Ward-Davies, returned to the site to extend the test pit into a trench of about 4 x 1.5 metres, in an east-west orientation longways. Gordon Mycock, Tony Horton and Graham Black also contributed to the work on subsequesnt occasions.
A large number of brick fragments of various sizes, some with lime mortar attached, were discovered on the subsoil surface, together with some more ceramic fragments. The subsoil was also speckled with charcoal particles. We considered that these features resulted naturally from the dismantling of brickwork and a burning event, probably of discarded woodwork.
As we started work on the trench, we fully expected to find some more sandstone blocks similar to the ones we had already uncovered. We believed this because it appeared that the parish had decided to invest in an entirely new set of elongated symmetrical footings before the chapel was reassembled at the church in Shenstone (see the close-up engraving above). Therefore, we had anticipated that the original rough-hewn sandstone-block footings had been left behind because there had been no point in moving them.
However, although a fairly large number of small sandstone fragments were found, much to our surprise and disappointment, no more large blocks were found. We were baffled. If the stones had not been removed to Shenstone, where were they?
Little did we realise at the time that our conclusion was actually correct. The stones had indeed been abandoned in Stonnall. Not only that, all along they were agonisingly close to where we had been working. The eventual - and completely accidental - discovery of the stones took place several years later. See Addendum April 2020 below for a description of the circumstances surrounding their identification.Conclusions
Dear reader, I present you with the site and some of the remains of the Lost Chapel of Stonnall.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the pinfold has one or two curious features, the most important of which is that its north wall is east-west orientated, as shown from the compass reading in the photograph below. This orientation is the convention for a Christian place of worship.
© Julian Ward-Davies
Addendum October 2016
While we were metal-detecting the site, we noticed that many of the brick fragments that we found gave a strong magnetic response. We assumed that the clay from which they were fabricated had a mix of naturally-occurring iron ore particles.
This was annoying initially because, in the hope of finding metallic objects that would provide dating evidence such as the shoe buckle above, we were getting a lot of false readings. However, it then gave us the idea of testing the bricks from some nearby structures to see whether they too might share this somewhat unusual property. If this proved to be the case, it might indicate a shared time and place of manufacture.
The bricks of the pound
We were aware that most of the pound's bricks were not part of the original structure. Some had been introduced when it was reconstructed in about 2000. Therefore we tested only the original courses of bricks. All these bricks gave a substantial magnetic response.
The bricks of the roadside boundary wall of the Old Vicarage
When we tested these bricks, a very large proportion of them responded magnetically.
A close look at the bricks of this wall revealed that at least three different types of bricks were used. Furthermore, it is clear that all were recycled, many of them having been damaged to some extent before the wall was built. It is obvious that the bricklayer had filled in some gaps with mortar to cover the damage.
It is also obvious that the wall has never been pointed. New mortar always has a different colouration and a different application style from the original and these factors are completely absent, indicating that remedial work has never taken place on the wall that might otherwise account for gap-filling.
Clearly, there is a link between the bricks at the three locations. What could account for this?
Thornes Hall was a mansion that was located in what was to become the garden of the Old Vicarage. We will now turn to Rev Sanders' description of it:-
Thornes hall was, no question, a mansion of some note in the reign of king Edward IV. erected by Thomas de Thornes, who laid out the lands belonging to it in those days, and, in all probability, Robert Jolliffe added to that structure...
He goes on to state:-
The Fryths erected another, which seems not older than the days of king William III. mostly of brick, and strong.
It must have been a large house from what yet remains; the two wings for offices or 2 stables in the front, and much of the back building being taken away, the present part, now a farm in the tenure of Richard Farnell, is spacious and convenient, with a handsome court in the front placed high with brick, in the style of the house itself. It had a dove-house, rookery, large walled gardens, court-yards, and orchards...
We can gather several facts from these comments:-
- There had been a dwelling by the name of Thornes Hall since at least the time of Edward IV, who became King in 1461.
- The house had been refurbished or rebuilt at several stages over several centuries.
- The house and various associated structures were made of bricks.
From this we can conclude that, because the house and other structures had been been built and rebuilt over many centuries, different types of bricks were employed at different stages of development and redevelopment.
Although there appears to be no surviving images of Thornes Hall, we know that it was huge. When the Hearth Tax was levied between 1662 and 1689, the house was recorded to have more chimneys than any other property in Stonnall and Lynn.
The demolition of Thornes Hall
By about 1830, Thornes Hall was untenanted and in a state of disrepair. At that time it was owned by William Leigh, who had manorial rights based at Little Aston Hall. After he had decided to demolish it, we know from White's Directory of the time that he also decided to recycle the left-over materials. As to who supervised this work, we can guess that he was John Mellor, Mr Leigh's estate manager.
We also know from the same source that much of the recovered bricks were used to build a new school and master's house at a former sandpit near the church. It is a virtual certainty that any bricks of poorer quality and thus from earlier phases of construction and reconstruction work over the previous centuries were used to build the roadside boundary wall. The bricks with the magnetic response would have been among them.
The relationship between St Peter's Chapel and Thornes Hall
Reverend Ward-Davies, the fifth Vicar of Stonnall, described St Peter's Chapel in the following terms. It was, he said:-
...the chapel of ease to Thornes Hall 4.
From all these details, we can now construct a theoretical narrative of the pivotal events relating to Thornes Hall, St Peter's Chapel and the pinfold.
By around the 15th century, business at Thornes Hall was booming and its owners could afford a few expensive self-indulgences. These included the reconstruction of the house with bricks - a relatively new and, no doubt, high status building material in the England of the Middle Ages. At the same time, they financed the building of St Peter's Chapel a couple of hundred yards down the road - and the same - and as it turns out, magnetically active bricks were used for both the house and the chapel.
At this time the Thornes Hall residents were the tenants of Osney Abbey which had owned the whole manorial estate of Shenstone since the 12th century. Following Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey surrendered its assets to the Crown in 1539. It seems that ensuing legal and financial difficulties forced the chapel to close its doors. The building remained on the landscape however. Possibly at the same time as the north transept of Shenstone Church was built or modified in 1647, a decision was made to dismantle the chapel in Stonnall and then re-erect it as St John's south transept.
When the site was cleared, it was inevitable that a certain amount of rubble and other waste materials were left behind. This is what we found when we investigated the area. And among that we found magnetically active brick fragments.
We now turn our attention to the pinfold. Rev Sanders makes no mention of it, but he notes the presence of the chapel yard at the same location as the chapel site in the present tense. We contend that the pinfold was improvised from the former chapel yard, which would have been constructed at the same time and from the same materials as the chapel. That is why many of its bricks give a magnetic response. It is also possible that the pinfold was constructed from material recovered from the chapel's fabric at the chapel-yard's location.
Addendum April 2020
How the sandstone blocks were found
On 1 May 2019, a quantity of large sandstone blocks was spotted in the garden of the property on the corner of Church Lane and Main Street, about 200 metres from the site. These were recognised as the same type as those we had exposed in the test pit. They are shown below.
© Julian Ward-Davies
A discussion took place. The owners of the property were intending to create a rockery out of the stones and they explained that they had found the blocks in their hedgerow alongside Church Lane, where there were many more of them. Some of the hedgerow blocks are shown below.
© Julian Ward-Davies
As that area of Church Lane and Main Street is part of an ancient floodplain, which still causes trouble occasionally, we concluded that the stones had been placed there to reinforce a flood barrier that was created and maintained by a person who had once farmed the field.
The only puzzle to unravel now was: where had they come from? This was an easy task as the source was obvious. Whoever had farmed the field in the past was obliged to maintain a barrier in the lower part of his field to protect his crops from floods. Originally, this had almost certainly been an earthen bank, rocks being too expensive to quarry and transport. But an earthen bank was liable to erosion by the very floods that would otherwise damage the field. It would need to be repaired regularly at a cost of significant labour.
However, when the sandstone footings were abandoned only a couple hundred yards from his problem area, the farmer of the time was presented with, perhaps literally and metaphorically, a gift from God. He was able to take advantage of moving and arranging the stones so as to reinforce his flood barrier, no doubt in the hope of avoiding more effort in the future.
1. Sanders BA, Rev Henry (1794). The History and Antiquities of Shenstone. London: J Nichols.
2. Naden, Ralph (1838). Surveyor. The Church of England.
3. Mellor, John (1838). Compiler. The Church of England.
4. Ward-Davies MA Bsc AFIMA, Rev T J (1973), Vicar, Parish Magazine, 100th Anniversary Souvenir Edition, Stonnall PCC.
© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGCert, 2012.
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