Essington Laid Bare: Springhill and The Birches Sun Club (Part 1)

Introduction: Scope
Due to one thing or another I have been working on this article for nearly three years, and the funny thing is that after all that time it would have been a very short one as there isn’t a great deal known about the subject: that being the Birches Sun Club, a former naturist (nudist, in parlance of old) site located in Springhill Covert, a piece of woodland to the rear of Springhill House (now Springhill Farm), off Broad Lane, in Essington.

Well, it would have been short: as I researched the Birches Club I became increasingly interested in the landscape around Springhill and the questions that it poses, after all it was that landscape that allowed such a discreet club to function in the first place, and so I decided expand the article to incorporate a basic landscape history of Springhill – with special focus on Springhill House and Covert.

You can probably then guess what then happened? Yes, I found so many questions that it all started to run away a bit size-wise – and so I had to break the article up to make it more manageable to write and, more importantly, to make sure that the few who would read it would stay awake!

Anyhow, it is in three parts that are arranged for convenience not size: Part 1 encompasses the introduction, background and the archaeological survey of the area; Part 2 takes in the documentary history and development of the House and area, both before and after the enclosure of Springhill around 1808, and the final part of the article will be on the Club itself and naturism as a whole.

Springhill, 1972 – CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS: the Birches Club was operating at this time (the Club enclosure can be seen within the Covert), within this environment. (WLHC)

Spoiler: Getting the Humour Out Of The Way 
This article is a serious one, but I knew in writing an article that involved a naturist club I would also have to deal with the inevitable comedy that comes along with it, so lets start with that.

I was asked about what I knew of this old ‘noddy colony’ in Essington, in all seriousness, by a group of the maturer members of my local workingmen’s club; I simply acknowledged what I thought was a joke question with a smile – after all, hands-up if you have ever thought about naturism and Essington at the same time?

My smile was greeted with a momentary pause before, and I suppose inevitably, the whole thing then descended into a plethora of innuendo and double entendre as each of us played out a homage to Sid James, Charlie Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams. People are funny things: often they have a morbid curiosity over murders, despite being horrified by the deed; they often love a tale of the supernatural, despite being scared out of their wits by it; and, somehow endearingly, nothing reduces them to a state of complete hysterical helplessness than the suggestive nature of the word dumpling if said in true ‘Carry On’ style.

Infamy, infamy…. (unknown)

Bawdy 1970s humour has its own place in our social history, as the endless re-runs of ‘On The Buses’ on UK Gold testifies, however, so does the serious subject of this article, which I think suffers from a degree of ridicule due to the mystique surrounding what it really is and why people do it.

Anyway, returning to that subject, as those around me did not contest the existence of the club, and in fact there seemed to be a tacit acceptance that it did exist, I headed for the Walsall Local History Centre and vainly tried to trace the said place. I failed, and my failure to uncover anything only confirmed my belief that the whole thing was a myth. I reported this back to those interested, but my dismissal was disputed – they were adamant that there was a ‘nudist camp’ located in Springhill Covert back in the 1950s.

Springhill Covert in 1947, it and the egg shaped site of Collier’s Castle are prominent features in the Essington Wood landscape. The Covert was the location of the Birches Sun Club from 1956-c1976. (Staffordshire Record Office)

I had been interested in the Covert for sometime as it was such a curious feature in the landscape and had intended to look into it already for my own interest, and so all of this just peeked my curiosity even more.

In order to sort the fact from the fiction, I decided to undertake a programme of archaeological and documentary research for the site (which would allow me to dust-off some old skills). At the same time I contacted the British Naturist Society, and Steve (the then Society Archivist) was brilliant with finding what they had and supplying me with copies. Finally, and equally brilliant, I had an enlightening conversation (a good few hours) and a tour around the site by Geoff Horton, the current farmer (whose family have farmed at Springhill since 1929).

I hope that the series of articles does justice to all concerned.

Springhill: An Ancient Past?
Where to start?  Well, I thought I would start with a search of the archaeological databases, after all they should be able to tell me what archaeological features had been recognised locally and what work had been done on them. What these searches turned-up, and my subsequent research into them, left me convinced that, while there were deep suspicions that there was an ancient/medieval feature in the Springhill area, there was no hard proof of what it was, or where it was (the maps and the aerial photograph above sufficiently define the Springhill area for you to know what I am talking about in this section).

Let’s start with the survey records themselves. I searched the Heritage Gateway online site for a radius of 2 km from the junction of Broad Lane and Long Lane. Heritage Gateway is the Historic Environment Record (the old National Sites and Monuments Record) for Historic England, but the site also hosts databases for many other relevant national and local bodies including the Staffordshire, Wolverhampton and Walsall Sites and Monuments Records.

None of the Staffordshire, Wolverhampton or Walsall databases threw-up any results for activity off Broad Lane, however, there were two results from Historic England ‘Pastscape’ site.

The first feature (monument 1583623: see http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1583623) was discovered by LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging – where a laser picks up small undulations in ground levels when directed from an aeroplane. What it found in ‘The Clumps’ (see 1972 OS map above and the 1815 map below) was: ‘earthworks of a large sub-circular mound of uncertain date or origin visible at SJ 9809 0364… the mound measures c.33m across.’

1815 copy enclosure map – showing ‘The Clumps’ bottom right – many now vanished, is this what LiDAR picked-up? (SRO)

I guess these earthworks could be the remains of a substantial ploughed-out burial mound, but as the 1815 map shows above, I would suggest it is more likely the tracings of one of the vanished clumps. It isn’t clear as to whether these ‘clumps’ are natural or man-made (mining spoil, for example), although they appear to be fairly equidistant and linear; in truth, the entry is simply too vague and needs following-up.

The second monument, mapped by Historic England as being on the site of Springhill House (77014: see http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=77014 ), is equally vague but is more interesting: the original site description must have been a ‘supposed Roman encampment in Essington Wood’, however, it was followed-up with a field investigation back in 1958 that concluded laconically that the ‘encampment’ was not located and that it was ‘probably a homestead moat’.

The ‘supposed Roman encampment’ is sourced in the above entry from Robert Garner’s Natural History of Staffordshire, 1844 (p69). Garner (1808-1890) was a surgeon from Stoke-on-Trent and a natural historian, not an archaeologist/historian. I suspect that he never set foot in Essington and his own entry was sourced from Stebbing Shaw (History and Antiquities of Staffordshire). Garner’s reference actually lists Essington Wood as one of several encampments ‘that appears to be Roman’.

Garner does not describe where in Essington Wood this encampment was – so I am a little confused as to how Historic England could map it to where they have. I concluded that they must have taken into the equation an account conveyed by a William Pitt to Stebbing Shaw in 1794, which was included in his History (vol 2, p312). Pitt would later go on to write ‘A Topographical History of Staffordshire’ in 1817, but would not include any reference to it in that work.

Pitt’s submission to Stebbing Shaw’s on an enclosure at Essington Wood. (Lichfield Library)

This account is interesting for what it doesn’t say as much as for what it does, and needs picking apart as it could offer a clue to the development of Essington Wood prior to its enclosure.

First, it was the result of a brains-trust of both Vernon, the Lord of the Manor, and either Pitt or someone he knows. It is clear that neither is sufficiently able to understand the feature they describe, indeed, as they believe the site was unknown by Robert Plot (and any other antiquarian), they seek expert opinion form an antiquarian or military specialist.

The physical description is of little help, really: the site is of ‘some extent’ and they believe ‘constructed’ (so man-made) for military purposes, but it does not mention any ditches, raised earthworks or, and very importantly here, ruins or structures. Nor do they give any indication of condition, completeness or degradation. Is it any wonder that the site was written-off in 1958  as ‘probably a homestead moat’ – whether they investigated the actual location or not!

Some topographical detail is provided: the site is ‘on rising ground’, but we have no idea if he means from the lodge building or just within the general terrain. It is important to remember here that he does not say the ‘highest ground’, but on ‘rising ground’.

Their dating is extraordinary in my opinion: Vernon said that he had ‘no history or tradition concerning it’ and, as they believed it of military origin, they dated it to a period before ‘the use of fire-arms’; I cannot understand as to how Vernon had no ‘tradition’ of the site considering his family had been the Lord of the Manor since the 1560s, and them having married into the Swynnerton family that had been the manorial family prior to that (and had built Hilton Hall in the early 14th century).

The location is most interesting: the site is described as being 400-500 yards west of the ‘lodge-house’ that belonged to Mr Vernon. It is tantalising, as any attempt to locate the feature would require an understanding as to where the lodge-house was from which the westerly sojourn was made back in 1794, but tracking a ‘lodge’ of that date seemed on the face of it to be very difficult.

A more detailed discussion as to what was in Essington Wood around 1794 will come in part 2, when we look the historical mapping regarding the buildings; saying that, I need to address the archaeological question. The first thing to say is that none of the historical mapping (including the OS 25″ scale) that I use in these articles, running from 1775 – 1972, show anything that is either described or depicted as an archaeological feature (eg. moat or fort).

The 1839 Tithe Map (shown below) is the best of the mapping sources that shows the likely area that this archaeological feature may have been. The map shows Springhill House (570), Springhill Covert (571), the Lodge (554), Collier’s Castle (444, house; 93, garden) and the strange feature (562),

The 1839 Tithe Map for Springhill: it shows Springhill House and Covert, the Lodge, Collier’s Castle, and a strange feature between them. (Lichfield RO)

Let us start with the negatives: this landscape is not only post-enclosure, but fully 45 years after the Shaw source was written, so all trace of the feature may have been removed in that time (the Great Wyrley Tithe Map does show a moat on it, as does the Essington Map for the moat off Blackhalve Lane). Further, we need to be a little flexible on distance and direction – although it is perfectly possible that both of these were simply estimated in the first place.

The positives are that the map shows the two buildings owned by Vernon that were definitely in existence prior to enclosure in 1808 – Collier’s Castle and Cannock Lodge – with a marked feature in between. Either of these could be the lodge referred to, but the one marked ‘Lodge’ and the end of the canal seems too obvious to be true.

500 yards to the west of the lodge would take you to the road junction of Long Lane and New Landywood Lane, but a hundred yards further, and still broadly west, is a clear feature that may well fit the bill (562). This feature is on rising ground, irregular in shape, extensive – some 100 yards x 100 yards at least, and appears to pre-date the landscape enclosure as the road bends around it and is bisected by a new field boundary.

This feature was actually a marshy depression and, as the aerial photograph and OS map above shows, it was levelled and is now built over. What it isn’t is an encampment/enclosure surrounded by a ditch – domestic or military, Roman or medieval – as suggested by Historic England (you don’t lower the centre to build a bank). Further, while it is simplistic to say these types of site would have had some longevity, it must be remembered that no building debris, pottery wares or portable finds from any period have been placed on any public database from the Springhill area.

What it was is anyone’s guess; surly too large to be a fishpond or a marl pit, and the wrong shape for a pond barrow, I can only see that – if anything – it may have been a sand, gravel or clay pit. It could simply be a natural dip (and the drains around Springhill House show how water collects in them at just a few feet in depth),

Now I want to return to Springhill House and Covert for a moment (570, 571): the Covert is around 500 yards south-west of the lodge, and could be the site in question given both the directional issue and that it really isn’t on rising ground. If it is, then all trace of the feature has gone – this is shown by the landscape survey of 1958 (as they describe it vaguely as ‘probably a homestead moat’) and anything above-ground on that site, trees or structures, post-dates 1794 (or they would have likely mentioned them in the 1794 note to Stebbing Shaw). The same thing is true for the house, which is around 900 yards south-west of the lodge.

One thing really bothered me about these sites (Springhill House and the marshy depression), which left me thinking that the feature must have been closer to the lodge and so no trace of the feature was left (if it was west of Collier’s Castle, which was a lodging house for eight families, then it isn’t really on rising ground): for if the feature was the house or the depression, wouldn’t you reference the distance from the closer Collier’s Castle instead?

Then I thought about Collier’s Castle for a moment. It is clear that the field arrangement in which it is sited is older than the more regulated enclosure fields around it, and the ‘castle’ building itself is clearly pre-enclosure based on map evidence, but we have no firm date for its construction. Was there a possibility that the ‘castle’ was in fact placed later into the archaeological feature visited in 1794?

Collier’s Castle (Mockbeggar’s Hall) in the 1920s – it was demolished in 1936. (Evans & Albutt)

While my evidence for the dating of the castle building will be presented in part 2 and the earlier archaeology dealt with here, I do feel that I need to say, to add credibility to the discussion, that I do believe there is evidence to suggest the castle building was c1798.

The argument against is that the castle site is around 1000 yards to the west-south-west of Cannock Lodge (so, twice the distance from the lodge that the 1794 account gave), its shape really excludes Roman forts/marching camps, and its size (it is hundreds of yards long) and lack of real detail exclude anything from a long barrow to an early medieval ringwork house

1st Ed OS 25″ Map, 1884, showing the ‘rings’ of Collier’s Castle. (Staffordshire RO)

So, what could suggest that this enclosure may be the archaeological feature?

Well, it is roughly the right direction and it is on rising ground. The ring enclosure is irregular in shape and alignment: Broad Lane was likely laid out during the 1808 enclosure, but it may well have existed as a dirt track before that – if it did, and was on the same alignment, then the enclosure does not sit comfortably next to it. Early depictions do show the boundary tree-lined and possibly with bank and/or ditch.

The castle building is not centred in the enclosure and seems to be at a slight angle, possibly suggesting the two were not planned at the same time. Further, eight garden plots were initially laid out, one for each tenant family, after the castle was built – these seem irregular and a little ill at ease, possibly shoe-horned into a space never intended for it. These plots may have later been removed as the 1884 OS map suggests that there was now an enclosure within the enclosure. The house was fed by a well.

Whatever the truth, the site has now been destroyed and lies under housing, the Walsall FC training ground and a golf range.

For what it is worth, in my opinion, I suspect there was something in the distant past in the Springhill area; what or where it was is currently lost. I believe it was most likely a smaller house platform (so Historic England got it right, just the wrong place), with a moat, on the Collier’s Castle site. It is the best place to build.

The large enclosure may not have been not have even existed at this stage, or it could have been a small property boundary, drainage ditch or parkland boundary around this older house platform. I suspect it was a larger boundary for the ‘castle’ building, which may have been conceived as a family lodge before being swiftly turned into tenements.

The Springhill Ruins: A Case of Folly?
One archaeological problem does need addressing here: the problem of the so- called Springhill ruins. In August 1932, a reporter for the Walsall Times visited Springhill House, where he said he saw some ruins that he had no hesitation in claiming were the ruins of the De Esyington family mansion.

His confidence came from the noted local historian Reverend Cawthorne, who knew of them and considered them to be that. Cawthorne himself quoted an unattributed letter of 1848 (in Stafford Library) that ‘speaks of some such ruin as still standing and worthy of the notice of the visitor’. The fact that the ruins are the same is only implied, but they could in fact be the remains of the moat off Blackhalve Lane.

Actually, for me, the way this fact is presented, along with the writer then adding that ‘the inhabitants [of Essington] are mostly colyers and are very poor’, smacks of someone that doesn’t know the place, describing it to someone else that doesn’t know the place either!

Walsall Times, 27 August 1932: A visit to the Springhill ruins. (WLHC)

If I am slightly sceptical of the author’s understanding of these ‘ruins’, and fairly sceptical of Crawthorne’s interpretation of the letter and his understanding of the ruins, then I am positively sceptical about the ruins themselves.

The ruins were located in the ‘coppice’ – that is the Covert – and seemed to consist of a ‘bath house’, a footing, and an archway that faced the tree-lined avenue that led from Springhill House.

Question: the ruins had disappeared by the 1990s, when Evans and Albutt wrote their book on the History of Essington, and as no mention was made of them in the 1958 survey, then what happened to them? Were they not protected? In my opinion they were not protected and were removed by the Horton family, possibly when the site was taken over by the Birches Sun Club

Question: Many of the possible locations for the archaeological site mentioned in 1794 are closer to the ruins than the lodge, why would you not measure the distance from them instead? In my opinion, yes, but as I have hopefully shown, we have no real idea where this feature was and, as such, this question may not be even relevant.

Question: The Walsall Times calls these ruins ‘an archaeological puzzle’, are they hard to fathom? Not in my opinion, I may be wrong but they seem very easy to work out. Consider the following:-

Why would someone in 1848 write about ruins that would be of interest to the visitor, when clearly the covert they were in was definitely planted by 1834 and could do nothing but obscure (actively discourage visitors?) and destroy (tree-roots, for example) the said archaeology?

Springhill House and Covert, 1884 25″ OS map: (WLHC)

Further, if you were planting a covert to afford cover for small game, creating a planned environment, would you not fill-in (did you need a pond that big) or remove any nuisances. If they are not removed, then they become a part of that plan. The OS map above shows the pond, with what appears to be a small island, and what could be either a fountain (see below, its location isn’t mentioned) or what could be the bath house, which I assume was next to the pond within the Covert (although they did not say how they knew it was a bath house or what the state of the preservation was in 1932). In my opinion, this is clearly a garden feature of the c1815 house.

The archway – the problematical archway – consider this: there are no other described standing remains near it – so while all the other walls have gone, stone presumably robbed for non-local buildings (Springhill House, like all around, is built of brick), this weak archway remains. Not only does it remain, but it is a fortuitous position: since the field enclosure of 1808 placed it next to a property boundary at such an angle that it could be aligned to an avenue of Yew trees. No, it is clearly a fake, a small folly – a popular feature of the Georgian period.

Fortunately, our intrepid reporter took someone with him who had some antiquarian knowledge, in the form of Mr Horne, Secretary of the Old Stafford Society. Horne concluded that although the two found some foundations (the footing) that could have been ‘the original building’, the archway contained slag metal which suggested it was the folly I believe it to be. The bath house, with out offering a reasoning, they felt was of the same date (I have offered my reasoning).

Walsall Times, 27 August 1932: suspicion is cast upon the ruins. (WLHC)

I do not believe the ‘foundations’ (the footing: not described, no extent given) were part of anything older, as there is no evidence to suggest anything existed on the site prior to its planned garden. The man who likely had these constructed was John William Perks around 1815; Perks sold the house and contents after the death of his wife in 1841, the Aston family, who came in after, may conceivably not known the provenance of the archway if they were asked by the author of the 1848 letter!

And so that brings a close to part 1, one which many will be wondering what constructively came from it! Little, other than raising awareness I guess, but if you agree or disagree, feel free to comment as long as you are not rude! Part 2 coming soon, full source list at the end of part 3 ……..

Dedicated to Jim Evans and Michael Albutt

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