extra tales...

This series of articles, written by various authors, considers some of the articles that did not make one of the other series published here.  These are listed below – simply scroll down the page until you reach the articles you are interested in.

Shrewsbury’s Stolen Saints

Heavenly Gates

Dr Robert Darwin

Lockdown in Shrewsbury

The Last Pandemic

Shrewsbury’s Stolen Saints

Article by Russell Game, first appeared Spring 2019


St. Winifride was the daughter of a Welsh chieftain, who had taken a vow of celibacy. A young man by the name of Caradoc fell in love with her, but she rejected his advances. Made angry by this, he cut off her head. According to the legend, her head then rolled towards her uncle, St. Beuno, who was praying close by. He placed her head back on her body, and she was restored to life. Caradoc, on the other hand, immediately fell dead. At the spot, a spring appeared, which soon became a destination for pilgrims.

By the 1130s, the monks in Shrewsbury was getting concerned at the lack of relics in the abbey. In the medieval period, abbeys considered the relics of saints to be a vital source of income from pilgrimages. The monks began a search to find any suitable relics, and they discovered that the bones of St Winifride were buried at the Welsh villages of Gwytherin, near Basingwerk Abbey. A deputation of monks was sent to the village in order to acquire the relics for Shrewsbury Abbey.

Once this had been achieved, which was not an easy process, the bones of the saint were carefully wrapped and carried to Shrewsbury, where they were kept overnight at the Church of St. Giles. The next day, as the abbey prepared for the arrival of the bones, a young man approached St. Giles on horseback, held up by people on both sides.

According to the story, this man had lost the use of his limbs – but after being in the presence of the saint’s bones at St. Giles, he was able to walk away! It was also said that, on the day of the procession from St. Giles to the abbey, the rain fell steadily – but the precious ornaments that accompanied the bones remained dry.

The bones were interred in a shrine at the west end of the abbey. News of miracles spread across the country, many pilgrims were attracted to the shrine, and the abbey gained in both prestige and reputation

In 1361, Nicholas Stevens became abbot of Shrewsbury Abbey. According to Wikipedia, he sought to enhance the reputation of the abbey further and was not above a bit of skulduggery to achieve his aims. He built a new shrine for St Winifride, and then sent out a party of Shrewsbury monks, which stole the relics of St. Beuno, St. Winifride’s uncle. These relics were then installed in the abbey church. When this became known, the abbey was fined – but it was still allowed to keep the relics!

In 1540 the shrine to St. Winifride was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, as part of the Reformation. However, a Catholic church was built and named after her in 1956, for the new Monkmoor parish.

Heavenly Gates (Shrewsbury Cathedral)

Article by Martina Chamberlain, first appeared Autumn 2019

The classical column – one of the architectural contributions to the world of the ancient Greeks – was originally wood and inspired by, and made from, tree trunks. When I stand and admire a pair of beautiful iron gates or balustrade the same thought sometimes occurs to me, this is inspired by nature, but man has strived to create something more harmonious and beautiful through symmetry and grace of form. And of course like the columns of antiquity, they are more long lasting than earlier structures made from wood. There are no Greek columns remaining made of wood, I think!

The earliest railings were wrought iron, and some examples are still to be found inside our churches. It was used for all forged metalwork until the early 1900s. The material has exceptional corrosion resistance and ductility. Cast iron, which is of low ductility and quite brittle, can also produce intricate shapes, but these are created through the use of moulds rather than hammering, which would be likely to damage the iron.

The Davies brothers of Wrexham exploited the qualities of wrought iron to make ornate railings in the 18th century and these are widely admired. Nikolaus Pevsner described their work as “miraculous”. Fine wrought iron railings they made for Stansty Park near Wrexham can be seen at Erddig Hall.

Cast iron railings appeared in the second half of the 18th century, because of new industrial processes. The Adams brothers, in particular, made them fashionable in the grand neoclassical houses they designed. It was rarely used decoratively outside of houses until after 1850. It was then most commonly used for railings mounted on low stone boundary walls, balustrades and in some middle-class houses, parapets or to crown bay windows, porches or pointed roofs.

Wrought and cast-iron gates and railings are a common feature of grand Victorian houses but also were used for more modest terrace housing. Aside from their decorative qualities, in towns they were used to mark the boundary from the public highway and help provide a level of security.

By the late 19th century there were catalogues of mass-produced cast-iron railings and gates for the wealthier Victorian householder to choose from.

Famously, during World War II, many iron railings in Britain were removed. They were usually cut off at the base; and the stubs may still be seen outside many buildings in London and elsewhere.

A number of colours are found on historic ironwork. In the first half of the nineteenth century ‘invisible’ greens (so called because they would blend into a background of foliage) or stone colours were used for fences, gates and railings.

In 1840 Humphrey Repton recommended a ‘bronze’ finish, made by powdering copper or gold dust on a green ground. Green was used throughout the mid-Victorian period, but dark blue, red and chocolate brown are also found.

Dr Robert Darwin and Shrewsbury

Article by Bibbs Cameron, first appeared Spring 2020

It is known that Dr Darwin was father to Charles Darwin, but there is so much more to him than just that one fact. Without him many of our beautiful buildings in Shrewsbury would not have been built.

Robert was born in Lichfield in 1766 to Dr Erasmus Darwin. His mother died when he was just 4 years old. He had two older brothers, Charles and Erasmus, and two illegitimate stepsisters, Susannah and Mary, born from an affair Erasmus had with Robert’s Nanny, Mary Parker.

When Robert was 12, his elder brother Charles, who had qualified as a doctor, died at the University of Edinburgh. He had done an autopsy on a child, cut his finger and become infected. Robert was very upset about Charles’s death because he had looked up to him as an older brother. He also now had to step into Charles’ shoes to fulfil his father’s wish for one of his sons to become a doctor.

Erasmus then supervised Robert’s education. He was educated at Edinburgh and then went to Leiden University, where he finished his MD with an impressive thesis which was published. His father also managed to secure Robert’s membership of the Royal Society when he was just 21 years old.

After he finished his education, he heard about an opportunity in Shrewsbury to work as a doctor. He got lodgings in St John’s Hill and, within a year, he had 50 patients. A substantial practice was being developed.

Meanwhile, back in Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin had made an arrangement with his friend Josiah Wedgwood that, when Robert could support her, he would marry Josiah’s favourite daughter, Susannah. This was a good match because she came with a substantial fortune. They finally married when he was 30 and she was 31. He had worked hard for 10 years in Shrewsbury and now was able to support her. They married in London and came back to Shrewsbury to live in The Crescent, where their first child – Marianne – was born.

They soon were looking to build a house and they found land in Frankwell overlooking the town and with wonderful river views. John Hiram Hancock is thought to have been the builder of the property.

By 1800 the family were living at their new home. Another child was born in 1800 – Caroline – followed by Susan in1803, Erasmus in 1804, Charles in 1809, and Emily Catherine in 1810. The family was now complete, but Susannah was showing signs of ill-health. She died in 1817. Robert was distraught – he had known her since she was a young girl and he had loved her very much.

Dr Darwin was an imposing man at 6’ 2” and weighing (at his heaviest) 24 stone. He had a very good memory, though he did say this was a burden at times. He was kind to the poor, often treating them free of charge at The Mount. He also sponsored a school for the poor in Frankwell, which his daughters ran.

His loans to friends and family and, later, to Shrewsbury projects helped grow his wealth. He lent £30,000 to Josiah Wedgwood to build Maer Hall, and he lent £334.10s to Charles Bage whilst Bage was drawing the plans for the Ditherington Flax Mill.

When St. Chad’s was running short of money during the rebuild, he lent the church £1,000, and he lent money for the improvement of Shrewsbury’s roads and pavements. He also lent money for the Council House in the Square and much more. He owned shares in the canals, Thomas Telford’s A5 and the railways.

As time passed his health began to deteriorate so he resigned from The Royal Salop Authority after 42 years of service. At the age of 82 he died of heart failure and was buried with his wife in Montford.

He left the equivalent of £9 million in today’s money. It was said that he owned ¾ of Shrewsbury and knew the medical secrets of the rest.

Lockdown in Shrewsbury

Article by Bibbs Cameron, first appeared Summer 2020

It has been a unique experience, living within the loop during the last three months. The first week of lockdown was as if we had been transported into a futuristic adventure with empty streets, no cars, no open shops; in fact, no sound other than birds singing.

Slowly, as the days went by, people began to venture out once more and some queues developed outside the few shops that remained open – shops selling foods and medicine.

Cars also began to reappear, though one wondered why, given that so few shops were open. Could it be that cars were using the town as a cut-through? Even though people were not supposed to visit others in their homes, not even if they were related…

As the weeks progressed, people did venture out onto the streets more frequently, particularly to applaud NHS and care workers, plus other key workers. As the death toll rose, we all took stock of own lives and appreciated our family and friends more than ever.

Meanwhile, plenty of people volunteered to help those who were shielding by delivering food and other essential supplies. Many a neighbour would pop a note through doors offering to shop for others, or to help in any other way.

By Week 10 it appeared that lockdown and social distancing had become optional. Young people, imbued with the optimism of youth, congregated in groups. Meanwhile, other people, who were wearing masks and continuing to observe social distancing, expressed concerns about the increased risks of contagion.

The Council did put out signs in the town, but will this be enough? Other towns and cities have created traffic-free zones to facilitate social distancing. This is an opportunity for Shrewsbury, where many streets are narrow.

The Last Pandemic – Spanish Flu

Article by Russell Game, first appeared Summer 2020

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza” 1

The last major pandemic to hit the world on a vast scale is known as Spanish flu, which hit in 1918 and is thought to have infected some 500 million people. The number of victims is uncertain and has been estimated at between 20 and 50 million people. Even the smaller number represents more than all of the soldiers AND civilians killed during the First World War.

Although specific information about Shrewsbury at this time is hard to come by, by looking at what happened elsewhere, we can draw some conclusions about what it was like here.

Spanish flu lasted for two years in total, but the majority of deaths came in the autumn of 1918. This was the dreaded second wave that we now hear of in relation to Covid-19. Yet much of the second wave of Spanish flu was probably caused when a mutated virus was spread rapidly by the wartime movements of troops.

The virus first appeared in March 1918, and it was initially considered to be a particularly contagious and potent variant of a seasonal flu. Before long it was thought that about 75% of the French army was infected, and perhaps around 50% of British soldiers. Yet there was no undue alarm, because the first wave did not seem to be especially lethal, and the symptoms tended to last only around three days. There seemed nothing to suggest that it was anything more than a seasonal flu.

The name is a misnomer, though there is some debate about the origin of the term. The most likely explanation is that Spain was neutral during the First World War and thus it did not impose censorship on its press.

By contrast, French, British and American reporters could not mention anything that might harm the war effort, and this included news of a virus that was affecting the troops. This meant that Spanish journalists were amongst the only ones reporting on the outbreak of the disease – hence the term ‘Spanish flu’.2

By the summer of 1918 the disease seemed to have run its course. In fact, the disease had mutated into a strain that could kill within 24 hours. In late August ships left Plymouth with troops that were carrying this deadly strain. As they disembarked in various ports all over the world, the second wave began in earnest – the death rate shot up. In the USA, some 195,000 people died in the month of October alone.

The disease was shocking because, unlike most strains of flu that tended to claim most of its victims amongst the very young or the very old, this strain could affect healthy men and women in the prime of life. Medical knowledge at the time was in advance, but its limitations meant that nobody really knew what was happening. Decades later scientists were able to explain that Spanish flu was able to trigger a dangerous immune over-reaction in healthy people. This over-reaction led to severe inflammation and a fatal build-up of fluid in the lungs. To give some indication of this, British doctors at the time likened the effect to that of chemical warfare.

One major difference between then and now was the reluctance of public health officials in 1918 to impose quarantine. Governments knew that a strict lockdown was the most effective way to defeat the disease, but such a lockdown would have affected the war effort by keeping important workers, such as munitions workers, at home. This may have been understandable – but the failure to move to lockdown meant it was spread much more rapidly.

There was no vaccine – and there was never much chance of getting one. The microscopes of the day were just not able to see anything as small as a virus. The severity of the disease was worrying, so some places ordered everyone to wear masks. In other places, spitting and coughing in public were banned, and some schools and theatres were shut.3

Towns and cities were particularly ill-equipped to cope with the pandemic. The war had cost a lot of money, industry was geared up to the war effort, public services had been damaged and millions of people were away from their normal occupations. Hospitals were overwhelmed and medical students drafted in to fight the disease, but there was little that could be done because there was no vaccine and no treatment. Neither were there any antibiotics to treat any complications, such as pneumonia.

By December 1918 the second wave was over, but the disease was still prevalent. A third wave erupted in January 1919, and the mortality rate of this wave was every bit as high as the second wave. However, the war had ended in November 1918, which meant that the conditions that allowed the disease to be spread so widely and rapidly were no longer there.4 By the summer of 1919 the disease was spent – it had probably mutated into something less severe and collective immunity had developed.

In 2020 people are stronger, better nourished and better housed than they were in 1918. We also enjoy better hospitals, better medical knowledge and better technology. Yet even today nobody knows why the disease of 1918 mutated into such a deadly variant. Nor do they know how to prevent it from happening again…

1 – Children’s Rhyme from 1918
2 – Nobody actually knows where the flu came from. Some point to China and others to the USA. However, it definitely did not originate in Spain, where the disease is known as ‘French flu’.
3 – People also had their own homemade cures, such as eating cinnamon or keeping a potato in their pocket. They weren’t very effective…
4 – Armistice Day was a medical disaster. People gathered to celebrate the end of the war, and the virus swept through them, turning victory parades into death marches.