5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #5


For the final post in this Hidden Wenlock series I thought I’d show you Ashfield Hall, one of the most impressive houses on the High Street. Yesterday I said how many of the town’s ancient timber-framed buildings had become hidden within later stone exteriors. With this house it was rather different.

The left-hand wing with the arch was built some time between 1396 and 1421 by one William Ashfield, a town resident. The impressive timbered wing was added in the 1550s for Richard Lawley. He and his brother, Thomas, were members of a leading local family, and it was they who, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, bought the Priory and its estate from Henry VIII’s physician, the Venetian, Augustino Augustini.

Augustino seems to have been a slippery type, always short of money. He had been Cardinal Wolsey’s physician before Wolsey lost royal favour. He then became embroiled in the intrigues of King Henry’s ‘fixer’, Thomas Cromwell, who had also been  a Wolsey retainer. One of Augustino’s missions was to go to Germany to lobby support for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Priory was thus his reward for services rendered. He wasted little time in selling it off, and the Lawleys paid him £1,606 6 shillings  8 pence for it. On the proceeds of the deal he then headed home to Italy.

In the 17th century Ashfield Hall became the Blue Bridge Inn, named after the bridge that crossed the malodorous stream, the town’s open sewer that ran down the main street, and was known for good reason as the ‘Schet Brok’.

Despite the insalubrious quarter, legend has it that King Charles I stayed at the Blue Bridge in 1642, en route for Oxford and the Battle of Edgehill. Thereafter, the place went seriously downhill, and became a lodging for itinerant labourers.

But there are earlier stories than these relating to Ashfield Hall. The High Street used to be called Spital (Hospital) Street, and it is believed that the archway probably gave access to the Hospital of St. John whose existence is first documented in 1267. In 1275 an appeal went out for the Master and Brethren of the hostel “to which lost and naked beggars are frequently admitted for their relief, the house being in great poverty.” Merchants coming to town with grain and other goods to trade were called on to give some assistance. By 1329 the Priory was taking over the premises, although it is not known if they continued to run the charity.

This reminds me, though, of a statistic I read years ago in an economic history of Medieval Europe. It shocked me at the time, but it seems it was the norm pretty much everywhere in the Middle Ages for 20% of the population to be beggars (professional or otherwise) and living off lordly charity. Giving to the poor was apparently an important means by which the rich got over their guilt at being rich, and so gained grace. It was how society worked.


By the 18th century, we have a different story. Much Wenlock has some of the most comprehensive pre-1834 English Poor Law records still surviving. The dismal picture they paint is more about local bureaucrats trying to save the town from the expense of supporting any more poor than it absolutely has to.  The destitute were mostly women and children. The women, often no more than girls who had been sent off as apprenticed labour and returned, impregnated by their overseers and masters, were subjected to pre-birth, and post-birth bastardy examinations to determine their right to stay in the parish. If churchwardens and overseers found against them, they were subject to removal orders. Pauper children were sent as indentured apprentices to anyone in need of cheap labour. I have a copy of a Much Wenlock churchwardens’ indenture of 1805 which places

Thomas Williams aged eight years or thereabouts, a poor Child of the said Parish ~ Apprentice to James Barker of Madeley Wood, Whitesmith…with him to dwell and serve…until the said Apprentice shall accomplish his full Age of twenty one years ~

In return, James Barker is to train the lad in the business of a whitesmith (tin working), and give him “sufficient (the quantity is unspecified) meat, drink, apparel, lodging, washing and other things necessary and fit for an apprentice.”

It’s a sobering glimpse of life for the powerless and underprivileged. It shows, too, the disparities between rich and poor, the respectable and socially unacceptable in a small, but  largely prosperous town like Much Wenlock.

Which rather brings me back to the Schet Brok, the town’s once infamous open sewer. In fact it was not until Victorian times that the stream was finally enclosed and culverted, and a proper sewerage system installed. These improvements were down to the town’s good physician, Dr William Brookes, he who also masterminded the Wenlock Olympian Games and inspired the modern Olympic  movement.

The brook still causes the town problems, even though (mostly) we can no longer see it. Come heavy storms on Wenlock Edge, and the culvert has been known to cause terrible flooding, the last event being in 2007. But that, as they say, is another story, although I’ll leave you with some pictures courtesy of Much Wenlock’s Flood Action Group. It is a good example of how the doings of the past, hidden though they may be, can be very much with us.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell



5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

Pauline at Memories Are Made of This nominated me to take up this challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Anke at Life in Baku. She has been living and working in the capital of Azebaijan since 2012. Her blog is an on-going quest to reveal in words and photos, places and people, their ways of life. Join her on this fascinating journey. 

P.S. To those who are taking up my challenges, I gather from Jo at Restless Jo (who is also doing it this week) that it should be ONE photo. Oh well.

Hidden Wenlock #1

Hidden Wenlock #2

Hidden Wenlock #3

Hidden Wenlock #4


Reference: W F Mumford Wenlock in the Middle Ages

35 thoughts on “5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #5

  1. ‘Schet Brok’ ~ how descriptive. Could well apply to some of our rivers polluted by run off from dairy farms. And I sometimes think Governments and officials haven’t changed much in their attitude towards the poor. There is still an attitude of giving only to the deserving; we still assess and judge and determine who gets what; and right now our Government is trying to hand over its social housing stock to private charities and developers.

    1. That sounds like the UK with mega cuts in social support in the offing. The view suggested is that it’s people’s own fault that they are poor – as if they aren’t like anyone else. I’ve just been watching (and just in fact discovered on YouTube) the erstwhile Lakota activist Russell Means in the US – and suddenly had a reinforcing vision of how ugly and cruel and feckless is industrialised-patriarchal society. And so smug and self-satisfied too. Phew. The metaphorical wind is definitely in the east this morning here in Sheinton Street. As to Schet Brok – it has been subjected to recent council interference, (the culvert made smaller) which has made it more likely to back up in times of heavy rain. The same council is now supposed to be building at great expense an attenuation pond upstream to curb flash floods, but now for some reason this well-named brook is called Shilte Brook in official docs. But truly there are some things you just can’t disguise 🙂

      1. Had a wee peek at Russell Means. Very interesting. And I wonder who there is to continue his activism. Certainly needed. Hmmm…sounds like someone is trying to muddy the waters, by suggesting that Schet is actually some sort of refined silt. 😉

  2. If the building of that ‘townhouses(?)/development – can’t recall exactly – goes ahead as planned, won’t this also impact the ”Brook”.

    Flooding often has a dreadful impact on certain informal settlements over here, as I am sure you can imagine – what with there being limited ablution facilities in such places and many people build thee shacks right next to rivers.

    A nice read as always, Tish.
    When I eventually get round to visiting I won’t feel one bit like a stranger.

    1. Yep. Any development will have some impact, though the one proposed at present will affect another brook that runs out of the town towards the Severn. It’s not just the brooks though; its the field and road run-off, the town being at the lowest point below the Edge. The 2 proposed attenuation ponds above the town will possibly relieve matters, but not if we get a big storm directly on the Edge as happened in 2007 on top of a lot of wet weather. Oh, I could bore you to death about our drainage, or lack of it. And don’t get me started on the sewage works…:)

      1. A married man should know how to read the signals and when to leave the wife alone … even someone else’s wife

  3. Agreed with Frizz on his comment in another post of yours this week, about the similarity in the half-timbered homes in England and Germany, I thought the same. I dug into that Tom Tiddler thing and discovered it was a kids’ game, featured in Dickens stories, and also: ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground is also used in modern English as a euphemism for having an uncertain status, for example, “I asked her why her performance review was late and I could tell she was on Tom Tiddler’s Ground”.’ (Wikipedia)

    1. The old-time game figures, Bill, but I’ve never heard the more recent usage. It’s rather obtuse, but maybe relates back to the game – like being caught out between posts. Isn’t language fascinating. And yes, there does seem to be a similarity between German and English timber construction. I can’t think of a reason for that offhand, unless the basic techniques go back to Saxon times.

      1. Yes, I really find language fascinating, alright. One of my first, favorite German words was Fachwerk. I think I just like putting the emphasis on the FACH, and that it means framework…what some call those half-timbered homes, and how they used a mixture of urine and grass to help seal it together (wattle and daub), remarkable.

  4. I’m sad that this series has ended. I’ve loved my forays into the secret places of Much Wenlock, and your exhilarating brew of history, social commentary, past-and-present, and photos. Glad you didn’t stick to one photo. You obviously really know your place.

  5. I do love your history. We got near you when we were there, but not THERE. We missed you by not much, but a miss is as good as a mile. If we were coming back, you can bet we wouldn’t miss it this time.

  6. Another great set of history notes for all to see. I do not know this area but you wrote so well that it was easy to get a great feel for what passed with time. A great series! Thank you!

  7. All the buildings look to be in immaculate condition. Do you have any run down areas of town Tish? I sense a great deal of civic pride in Much Wenlock. I have enjoyed visiting the secret past of your lovely village. Thank you for an interesting series.

    1. You are most welcome, Pauline. We do have one very run down building – it’s a grade 2* listed one too, and once inhabited by Dean Cranage, a famous architectural historian in his day. Its dilapidation has been causing a lot of angst. The owners can’t seem to sort themselves out. But otherwise, we’re quite a tidy lot. 🙂

  8. Came to this at the end so I shall now work backwards to discover more about this interesting little town that I have driven through more times than I can guess, but have still to have a good wander through! I am sure this series will prompt me to do so! And I have no objection to the extra photo or two 😀

  9. This is a fascinating read, Tish. 20% beggars does not seem that different from today at least here where I live with growing unemployment rates.

  10. enjoyed this Tosh = and really surprised by this too:
    “in the Middle Ages for 20% of the population to be beggars (professional or otherwise) and living off lordly charity. Giving to the poor was apparently an important means by which the rich got over their guilt at being rich, and so gained grace…”
    and the different flood photos are crazy – oh and I do not think it has to be “one” photo – ha! especially not when the pics connect so well. have a nice day

  11. This was a sobering glimpse into the history of the underprivileged, indeed. And a reminder that history most often is not about great mansions and feather hats at the races… Great post, Tish

    1. Ironically,one of the things that services cuts in UK archives has given rise to, is specifically focused volunteer groups working on given sets of documents with an aim of putting them all on line. E.g. OUr county town of Shrewsbury, a medium sized market town, has 5 miles of archives, including a very large section of early medieval court rolls etc. Suddenly the lives of once invisible people are being glimpsed. It is fascinating and horrifying by turns.

  12. The UK is so rich in history – when we get home we always try and see a little bit more, we’ll be in Bath this summer so plenty to check out. Shropshire isn’t somewhere I know very well. Thanks for tour and the fascinating, if saddening, history lesson.

    1. You are most welcome, Andrew. There’s lots to see in Shropshire, and not too far from Bath. The Shropshire Hills around Church Stretton are well worth a visit, and for history, Ludlow is definitely a must.

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