A while ago, the Highley Initiative was given a grant to produce an enhancement scheme for New England. The oldest and most striking feature of the site is the “Donkey” or “Horse” bridge: a narrow, humpbacked structure made largely from the local stone with very low parapets on either side. For generations, local tradition has always maintained that this is a packhorse bridge. In fact, its history may be somewhat more complicated than this. However, it does have the classic shape and form of a packhorse bridge and I am inclined to believe the tradition. In this article I want to say something about the history of packhorses in this part of Shropshire.
Most people will be familiar with stories of how bad roads were in earlier times. These stories were certainly accurate as far as South Shropshire was concerned. Anyone who regularly tries to walk local footpaths in winter, especially those also used by horses, will appreciate how they quickly turn into quagmires. Ironically, New England is a fine example of this in its present state. Moving goods by waggons along deeply rutted and muddy roads was a very arduous process. The alternative was to use trains of small horses or ponies, each with panniers on either side full of goods. These could pick their way through the ruts and mud much more effectively than a cart. Each horse could probably carry about 2 cwt, but a team of 10 or 20 horses could carry as much as a waggon across ground no wheeled vehicle could cross. The horses had bells attached to their collars; the sound of the bells helped to guide the horses and keep them together. Typically a packhorse would be under 14 hands high with a short back. The weakest part of a horse is the region of the back between the rib cage and the pelvis, where there is nothing to support the backbone; in a good packhorse, this would be as short as possible.
The packhorses were operated by specialist horsemen called “crickers” in Shropshire. I do not know of any such men who lived in Highley or Kinlet, but they certainly existed in the vicinity. In the early 18th century, Samuel Haycox of Charlecotte was such a man. He combined working as a farmer with acting a cricker. His horses carried coal, lime and ironstone off the Clee Hills to the forges, kilns and furnaces of the Rea valley. He also carried finished goods to the River Severn, for sale downstream in Bewdley, Worcester and Gloucester. One of the major wharves used by Haycox was at Hampton Loade. To reach this, his horses would need to cross the Borle Brook. The Donkey Bridge would have been well suited for this and it is possible to trace a series of deeply sunken lanes leading from Hampton Loade to the Donkey Bridge and beyond. In all likelihood, these were part of the old packhorse route. Haycox worked for 30 or so years, carrying goods to and from Charlecotte Furnace in Aston Botterell. In all probability, Haycox himself was a manager, leaving the supervision of the packhorses to others. Indeed his son, also called Samuel, was a specialist cricker and may have been the man who rode with the train.
I know of only one local contemporary account of packhorses at work. This was recorded in the 1890’s, based on the memories of an old man who spoke of “crikin” horses serving a forge at Cleobury during the Napoleonic wars, carrying charcoal on their backs. Similar accounts also come from the Ironbridge area.
With some imagination, it is still not too difficult at New England to hear the distant tinkle of bells in the wind, as the last of the packhorse trains climbs out of the valley…
The heavy horses
(Horses at Manor Farm, Middleton Scriven.
Mare and foal on the farm, around 1910.)
Mention of working horses to most people conjures up images of the majestic shire horses, perhaps as seen at a summer fair or the Morville Heath ploughing match. Indeed, for much of history, the farms in Highley relied on horse power.
Horses were not always the main motive power on farms. In the middle ages, the ox was the draught animal of choice. The use of oxen in Highley continued on one farm into the Victorian era, although by then it must have seemed a throw-back to far remoter times. On light soils, horses started to replace oxen in the 17th century, although on the heavy coal measure clays in Highley and surrounding parishes the main changeover may have been in the 18th century. By then, improvements in breeding, often using animals imported from Low Countries, meant that sufficiently powerful animals were available.
Farm sales give little clues as to the exact nature of the heavy horses at work on Highley’s farms in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are normally referred to as “draught” horses. Thus in 1813, four such horses were sold at the Heath Farm (now demolished, but very close to the railway by Coomby’s Farm), as well as a “four year old pony, a very good goer”. The horses were all “proved and good workers”. Later in the century we start to get some details of the animals. In 1859 there was a 4 year old bay mare at Woodhill. In 1864 a sale at Greenhall farm included a brown cart gelding. It is not clear if these were the only horses on these two farms; Woodhill at this time was very small but cart gelding would have struggled single-handed with the “several ploughs, harrows [and] scuffles” that were also part of the stock of the farm.
Towards the end of the 19th century, there were moves to further improve the nature of draught horses with the formation of both national and local breeding societies. With systematic breeding and careful recording of pedigrees, some very fine animals were produced. Whilst these no doubt did help raise the standard of farm horse, it would be a mistake to assume that every farm now had pedigree shires. As far as I can tell, the heavy horses on the village farm remained a very mixed bunch, some closer to the classic shire than others.
A survey of village farms in 1940 paints a picture of horse husbandry just before it was seriously challenged by the tractor. The 14 farms and small-holdings in the survey kept 51 horses. Of these, 8 were not yet broken in, 5 were foals and 3 were ponies, meaning that on average each farm had about 3 working horses. Mares outnumbered geldings by over two to one. There were no stallions in the survey; the farmers who did breed their own horses presumably used the services of travelling stallions and I suspect many bought their animals from dealers.
On the large village farms, the head waggoner would be in overall charge of the horses; on the smaller farms the farmer himself probably had to do the work, perhaps with the help of a part-time assistant or a family member. The horsemen worked long hours, preparing the animals before work, doing a days work in the field and then feeding and grooming the animals at the end of the day. The term “farm labourer” hardly does justice to the skill required to work a team of horses, perhaps ploughing straight and even furrows on a heavy clay soil or springy turf.
By the 1940’s, the writing was on the wall for the heavy horses. Already several farms had tractors. Frank Breakwell has described to me his first encounter with a tractor. He was working with horses at Crumpsend Farm in Kinlet; the neighbouring farmer had just purchased a tractor and was trying it out. He drove it over to the fence and called out to Frank, “hear her tick over, my boy”. It was the sound of the future. The last farm in Highley to use horses was Coomby’s and by the 1960’s it too had switched over to a tractor.
The light horses
(A visit from the Armstrong family to William Page at Manor Farm, Middleton Scriven; left to right, Mrs Bert Armstrong, Alan Armstrong, Marjorie Webster, Mr Armstrong, William Price, Bert Armstrong and Mrs Armstrong. Mr Armstrong was the headmaster at Deuxhill School, where the local children were educated. Note the neat and tidy farmyard: always the mark of a good farmer.)
In the previous article I looked at heavy horses and the part they played in village life, chiefly on the farms. However, at the start of the 20th century it is likely that they were outnumbered by light horses. Before the internal combustion engine, these drew the traps, delivery vans and carts belonging to traders, business men and the well-off. The humble coal cart and the squire’s pony and trap equally relied on horses.
As with their cousins working on the land, it is rare to get a glimpse of individual horses. Sales sometimes provide a few details. In 1813 on the Heath Farm there was a 4 year old pony “a very good goer”. Ten years later the stock on the same farm included a chestnut galloway. A galloway was a light horse, sometimes used as a pack-animal but here presumably used for drawing a light cart around the farm or on the roads. At the top end of the scale, the Shropshire Hunter had a national reputation for quality and no doubt the better-off set great store by the appearance and breeding of their horses. A horse could be an important advertisement for its owner. On the other hand, many would have to put up with what they could get, regardless of age or deficiencies.
The better-off would own a pony and trap; they included almost all the farmers, the “squire” (a member of the Beddard or Jordin family in Highley), the vicar and other such tradesmen. A photograph exists of Mr and Mrs Staley, posing in their immaculately turned out trap, outside their home in Church House. Mr Staley was the engineer at Highley Colliery until the 1920’s. A number of the more affluent miners also owned traps. Others either had to borrow or avail themselves of the village carrier, who owned a wagon and went on regular trips to Bridgnorth and other places. In the 1870’s this individual was Mr Billingsley who lived at the White House. He was remembered “with his shabby old spring cart drawn by an equally worn-out old mare... his old horse took well over an hour to travel the seven miles [to Bridgnorth]”.
Some of the tradesmen would have used their traps for delivery, if required, as well as personnel transport. Others had specialised vehicles. The accounts of the village wheelwright and blacksmith refer to the float of Mr Lester, the butcher, the bread cart of Swifts, bakers and the fish van of Mr Shaw, fish and fruit merchant. Then there were the numerous milk floats and coal carts. In the 1930’s there were something like 10 each coal and milk rounds serving Highley. Some were particularly memorable. Francis of Billingsley employed a Shetland pony. The pony employed on the milk round by Burgess’s of Chelmarsh would never go past the Castle. Wiggan’s used a strawberry-coloured animal for their milk cart.
The numerous horses required to draw all these contrivances had to live somewhere. Many premises had a stable as one of the outhouses at the back. One of the last survivors is the stable at Waroona, on the main road just before Garden Village. This was built at the start of the 20th century for the village doctor and the complex includes a waiting and consulting room (many will remember Dr Wilkins holding surgeries in here!) with a stable and cart shed attached. Few could afford the services of a full-time groom and so the job of looking after the horse was either shared amongst the family or a lad would be paid a few shillings a week to help. There was no shortage of these as many would be driving horses underground for a living. A job perhaps on a coal cart was a useful way of earning extra money.
The first motor car in the village arrived a little before the First World War, owned by one of the local doctors, but it was after the war that lorries and cars started to challenge the horse. By the end of the Second World War there were only a few working horses left and the internal combustion engine reigned supreme.
The Charming Molly, a Severn Trow
Until the middle of the 19th century, the River Severn was one of the most important commercial waterways in the country. Towns such as Bridgnorth and Bewdley were important inland ports; the river was linked to other towns by means of its tributaries or by transhipment at Gloucester or Bristol into sea-going boats.
Highley, as a riverside settlement, benefited from the river trade. Local produce or goods such as stone and coal could be loaded on to barges and sent downstream to places such as Worcester or beyond. For many years, Stanley, that part of Highley by the river, was a distinct community with the Ship Inn in particular benefiting from the passing barges. A number of Highley men earned their living on the river, as skippers or owners of barges. The most prominent of these were the Wilcox family. Edward Wilcox owned a boat called “The Charming Molly” in 1758, valued at £300. The Wilcox family flourished in Stanley for about 100 years, owning quarries, the Ship Inn and Coomby’s farm.
Recently new records have become accessible that allow us to learn more about Edward Wilcox and his boats. Registers were kept at Gloucester of all boats that passed through and these contain several references to Edward Wilcox. He first appears in 1756, as a merchant associated with a boat called “Prosperity”. He was sending “pot clay” down to Bristol. This was used to make crucibles for melting metals such as brass. The clay may have come from the Ironbridge area or (perhaps more likely) Stourbridge. In December 1758 he changed boat to “The Charming Molly” using it to 1761 before changing to the “Happy Return”. “The Charming Molly was by this date something of an old lady, as she is first mentioned under another merchant in 1733.
Edward Wilcox sent his last cargo in 1763 on the “Happy Return” and died the following year. However, he was succeeded in the family business by Samuel, his son. In 1764, Samuel made two voyages to Bristol with pot clay, each time in the “Charming Molly”; what happened to the “Happy Return” is not clear. Whilst Edward only ever appears in the records as a merchant (i.e. the owner of the cargo), Samuel was not only merchant but also the master of the boat. This suggests that Samuel may have been a practical waterman who actually sailed the boat down to Bristol. Indeed, in 1765 he made two further voyages simply as master. By contrast, in Edward’s day “The Charming Molly” was always skippered by Thomas or William Poole.
Unfortunately the records end in 1765, so it is not possible to trace “The Charming Molly” any further. She must have been broken up at some point; and Samuel’s son seems to have owned a boat called the “Alliance”, perhaps the successor of “The Charming Molly”. Samuel himself did well, as did his sons. The Wilcox Memorial is a prominent feature of the churchyard; a miniature stone pyramid on the east of the path to the porch. Perhaps the most impressive memorial is the Ship Inn. This may well have had its origins in a house built by Edward and probably expanded by Samuel; much of the present building must date from Samuel’s day.
(A Mann Steam wagon, originally purchased by Tom Brick of Highley. This shows it around 1930, outside the Malt Shovel public house in Highley.)
The steam engine transformed 19th century Britain. From the middle of the century, steam engines became common sites in villages and farms, with the development of the traction engine. For the most part, the type of small farmer or haulier who lived in Highley and the surroundings did not own traction engines. These were normally the preserve of specialist contractors, who would own engines that they would hire out for specific jobs. In 1881, the census provides a snap-shot of the crew of a steam ploughing outfit staying in a caravan near Hook Farm in Billingsley. There were two engine drivers, one man to look after the plough, a foreman and a boy who was the cook. Probably the most common time a traction engine would be seen locally was at threshing time, when the engine both drove the threshing box and then hauled it to the next farm. However, by the 1890’s at least one threshing contractor was using a steam engine for general haulage. Thomas Parton seems to have started in 1890, with a 6 ton engine, hauling 6 to 7 tons of coal from Billingsley Colliery to Bridgnorth, Burwarton and other villages. In 1891 a bad winter resulted in the engine leaving ruts 2’ wide and 18” deep in the Bridgnorth to Billingsley road. Undaunted, come the spring, Parton brought out a 10 ton engine, with further unpleasant consequences for the local roads. Whilst Parton persisted for at least a few more years, it is possible that the poor state of the roads discouraged other hauliers from following his example. On the odd occasion heavy plant needed at the local collieries had to come by road hauled by traction engines, but most hauliers stuck to horses.
Steam technology was however advancing. From the start of the 20th century, the steam lorry became popular. These were lighter machines than traditional traction engines and could go much faster; they were better suited to road haulage. One of the contractors who was using horses and carts to move materials for Clee View was Tom Brick of the Rhea Farm, the largest haulage contractor in Highley. In 1914 work began on the construction of Garden Village in Highley, again requiring the movement of huge quantities of bricks from Billingsley. This seems to have been the cue for Brick to invest in the new technology, for records show in that year he started using a steam lorry. This was probably used especially for Garden Village; Brick retained a sizeable number of horses for other work. His driver was Edward Bright of Newcastle Buildings. In 1916 the steam lorry was the subject of a bizarre accident. Bright was assisted by a youth, Fred Ingram. Ingram fell out of the lorry, somehow slipped beneath the wheels and was killed. Although work on Garden Village finished by the end of the Great War, it seems that Brick maintained the lorry. He went bankrupt in 1922 but was able to continue his haulage work on a reduced scale. He sold his lorry to two other village men, who worked it for a while. It was used for general work, including Sunday School outings. It ended its days outside the Malt Shovel and seems to have been scrapped in the 1930’s.
Very recently a photo has come to light of the steam lorry outside the Malt. It appears to be a Mann Steam Lorry; the firm of Mann of Leeds were pioneers of the steam lorry. Very few of this make now survive; the photo is particularly valuable as it rescues this part of our history from obscurity.
The building of the Billingsley railway
As part of the Local Heritage Initiative grant for New England, the history of the site is being documented. This month I want to deal with the railway that ran by it. Strictly speaking, the railway is outside the area of study, as it is on the Billingsley and Kinlet banks of the brook. However, it has played a very important part in shaping the history of the site.
One of the problems over the ages that has faced any local coal mine has been how to get its coal away to the markets. In the late 19th century, that required a rail connection. Thus, when there were attempts in the 1870s to open a large coal mine at Billingsley, it is not surprising that it included a railway line running up the Borle Brook and so to the colliery. Although this was planned in the early 1870s, financial problems meant that nothing was done until October 1880. In that month work was started by the Staffordshire firm of Drew and Pickering on a railway connection from the Severn Valley just past Brooks Mouth Viaduct up to New England and beyond. The first sod was cut with some ceremony, as befitted most Victorian railway schemes and, within a few months, the contractors had completed earthworks as far as New England. Then they realised the Billingsley Colliery Company had no money to pay them. Work stopped and in October 1881 the contractors appear to have sold off all the materials of the uncompleted line in an effort to get some of their money back. For the next thirty years the redundant earthworks stood as a monument to the dubious dealings that so often marked the history of mining in Billingsley.
In 1910 a new company invested large sums of money in Billingsley Colliery. Initially the idea was to build a railway west to the Cleobury Mortimer and Ditton Priors line, picking up on a scheme that had been authorised a few years before. However, this fell through and so the Borle Brook scheme was revived, albeit with some modifications. This time the contractors were Messrs Caffin & Co. The company set up their offices at Borle Mill, where huts were built for the navvies. The first work was probably to make good the old earthworks and work up from the connection with the SVR at Brooks Mouth. This seems to have been in September 1911. However, by January 1912, the contractors had a presence at New England as local craftsman started delivery to that site. Two bridges needed to be built to send the line back and forth over Bind Brook on its way to Priors Moor in Billingsley. The main sandstone quarry for the line was also opened just south of New England; this would have been needed for all the bridge abutments and it may have been opened in late 1911, connected to the rest of the railway by a temporary track. Another office was opened at New England.
Work did not all go smoothly on the railway. Late August of 1912 was very wet and John Derricutt, the local wheelwright and builder, noted in a letter how “rain has taken the bridge down and smothered up the steam navvy”. It also caused embankments to slip, probably on the section between New England and Priors Moor. This was the new part of the line that Caffin had to cut. However, by January 1913 the line was present in some form to the screens at Priors Moor and it was officially opened in April. The intention was to extend northwards from New England to another mine at the Hook, but the First World War put a stop to that. The new line had cost £37,000; Billingsley Colliery closed in September 1921. The railway lasted until 1937, serving a coal wharf at Priors Moor.
David Poyner, Shropshire Mines Trust
The New England Enhancement is funded by the Local Heritage Initiative, a partnership between the Heritage Lottery Fund, Nationwide Building Society and the Countryside Agency.
The steam engine transformed 19th century Britain. From the middle of the century, steam engines became common sights in villages and farms, with the development of the traction engine. For the most part, the type of small farmer or haulier who lived in Highley and the surroundings did not own traction engines. These were normally the preserve of specialist contractors, who would own engines that they would hire out for specific jobs. In 1881, the census provides a snap-shot of the crew of a steam ploughing outfit staying in a caravan near Hook Farm in Billingsley. There were two engine drivers, one man to look after the plough, a foreman and a boy who was the cook. Probably the most common time a traction engine would be seen locally was at threshing time, when the engine both drove the threshing box and then hauled it to the next farm.
However, by the 1890s at least one threshing contractor was using a steam engine for general haulage. Thomas Parton seems to have started in 1890, with a 6 ton engine, hauling 6 to 7 tons of coal from Billingsley Colliery to Bridgnorth, Burwarton and other villages. In 1891 a bad winter resulted in the engine leaving ruts 2' wide and 18" deep in the Bridgnorth to Billingsley road. Undaunted, come the spring, Parton brought out a 10 ton engine, with further unpleasant consequences for the local roads. Whilst Parton persisted for at least a few more years, it is possible that the poor state of the roads discouraged other hauliers from following his example. On the odd occasion heavy plant needed at the local collieries had to come by road hauled by traction engines, but most hauliers stuck to horses.
Steam technology was, however, advancing. From the start of the 20th century, the steam lorry became popular. These were lighter machines than traditional traction engines and could go much faster; they were better suited to road haulage. One of the contractors who was using horses and carts to move materials for Clee View was Tom Brick of the Rhea Farm, the largest haulage contractor in Highley. In 1914 work began on the construction of Garden Village in Highley, again requiring the movement of huge quantities of bricks from Billingsley. This seems to have been the cue for Brick to invest in the new technology, for records show in that year he started using a steam lorry. This was probably used especially for Garden Village; Brick retained a sizeable number of horses for other work. His driver was Edward Bright of Newcastle Buildings.
In 1916 the steam lorry was the subject of a bizarre accident. Bright was assisted by a youth, Fred Ingram. Ingram fell out of the lorry, somehow slipped beneath the wheels and was killed. Although work on Garden Village finished by the end of the Great War, it seems that Brick maintained the lorry. He went bankrupt in 1922 but was able to continue his haulage work on a reduced scale. Latterly the lorry was used for general work, including Sunday School outings. It ended its days outside the Malt Shovel and seems to have been scrapped in the 1930s.
Very recently I was shown a photo of the steam lorry outside the Malt. It appears to be a Mann Steam Lorry; the firm of Mann of Leeds were pioneers of the steam lorry. Very few of this make now survives; the photo is particularly valuable as it rescues this part of our history from obscurity.
This work was carried out by the Four Parishes Heritage Group on a project supported by the Local Heritage Initiative and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Nationwide Building Society. I would like to thank Neville Brick for showing me his photograph.
I have been told many tales by people about local history. Some I have considered to be more plausible than others. However, I always take the view that it is worth listening; occasionally something that makes no sense at the time can fall into place years later. This particular tale was told to me by my grandfather; in fact, in its original version it was told to my mother when she was a young girl.
My great grandfather was William Mullard. He was born in 1870 in Deuxhill. The story that passed down the family was that once, whilst a young man, he was in charge of a horse and cart. As he was driving it up Deuxhill Bank, he encountered a gypsy. For some reason there was an argument and the gypsy placed a curse on the horse; William could not move him. Needless to say, having a broken-down horse halfway up Deuxhill Bank was an embarrassing situation; William went in search of help. Eventually he found a friend who could help him. The friend told him to cut a piece of wood from the hedge and put it in his pocket; the horse would then move. This is exactly what happened and William was able to complete his journey. This story would have last been told to me over 40 years ago; needless to say, I no longer recall all the details. I also gave it absolutely no credence, until quite recently.
George Ewart Evans was a writer and historian, who made it his life’s work to record the stories told to him by the old countrymen of Suffolk, where he settled and lived. Mostly he wrote of events that would have happened around 1880-1914; he published these in a series of books. In one of these, ‘The Horse in the Furrow’, he spoke to waggoners, grooms and ploughmen, the individuals who spent their working lives with horses. In the course of this, he started to hear tales of men who could apparently stop a horse from moving or free it at will; more to the point, once they had stopped a horse, nobody else would be able to move it until they approached it again. Part of the act of breaking the spell usually involved rubbing a small object such as a bone, on the horse. Evans eventually believed that these men were exploiting the keen sense of smell of horses. They knew how to make up two types of oil, one that would attract a horse and the other that would stop it moving. To stop a horse, they would somehow manage to get close enough to the animal to secretly rub a small portion of the ‘stopping oil’ on it; to relieve the spell, they would rub the drawing oil on the animal or at least something else that would mask the smell of the stopping oil. The bone or other object would simply be a way of rubbing the oil on the horse.
This seemed to have many of the features of the story told about my great-grandfather, with the horse being stopped by the gypsy and then a small stick being used to remove the ‘curse’. However, Evans was writing about Suffolk and I needed to find evidence that the various types of oils that he claimed existed in that part of the country were also known in Shropshire. I spent several fruitless years asking old horsemen if they knew of such substances. Then I read an article written by the late Geoffrey Andrews of Cleobury Mortimer. He described “a scent to make a horse follow a person”. This consisted of 20 drops of lavender oil, alum from the chemist and crushed leaves of the plant ‘Old Man’. “A spot of this on the back of your hand and on the horse’s muzzle made them follow one better than some horsy woman’s idea to blow up in their nostrils”.
So what actually happened on Deuxhill Bank? Of course, I do not know for certain; it is possible that the whole event was just a story told by William to keep his young son, Cyril, my grandfather, quiet. However, another interpretation is that around 1890, William had to lead a cart up Deuxhill Bank. Close to this, by the brook in Glazeley, there is a dingle where gypsies used to camp in the 1930s; these camping grounds were often used for generations and it is quite possible that it was visited by gypsy families in the late 19th century. The men would seek casual work on the farms and at this date William was a waggoner at Sidbury Hall; it does not take much imagination to see how a dispute between one of them and William could have arisen. So possibly, the aggrieved party or his wife lay in wait for William and in the ensuing argument, got close enough to quickly rub some ‘stopping’ oil on the horse.
Whilst Mr Andrews did not appear to recall any such oil, the fact that he could give a recipe for a drawing oil gives me confidence that such potions did exist. Quite possibly there would then be some drama of a curse, to further hide what had actually happened. My guess is that William turned to an experienced waggoner on a local farm. In Suffolk, the existence of the stopping and drawing oils were closely guarded secrets and I imagine that the waggoner would not wish to share his knowledge with William. Perhaps he accompanied William back to the horse to point out the special shrub that needed to be cut; this would allow him the opportunity to rub the ‘drawing oil’ on the animal. Of course, some hedgerow shrubs are strongly scented and possibly simply cutting one of these would be enough to mask the stopping oil. Either way, the apparent curse would have been magically lifted.
Old wives tale or fact? I leave the readers to make their own minds up…