This is courtesy of Ian Bott of Wednesbury and my friends at The Black Country Bugle. This is a fascinating story of handed down family history.
It comes from a book entitled Dudley Castle and published in 1834, its author a Mrs Sherwood. She describes herself as the wife of a worthy tradesman and the mother of several children, and grew up in what must have been the Dudley Port or Great Bridge area. And even in the pre-Victorian period, the locals could look back on what seemed a lost golden age, as Mrs Sherwood explains ...
“My native place lies in the road between West Bromwich and Dudley, a part of England which was once very beautiful, exhibiting such a rich diversity of hill and dale as only to require to be left to the hand of nature to render it delightful to the eye; and, in times past, as ancient records tell us, these hills and dales were planted with fir forests, extending for many miles, and interspersed at intervals with a few thatched cottages, a convent, or an embattled tower.
“But more recently, it was discovered that there were mines of coal, and iron, and limestone of considerable value, under the surface of this fair country; and, in consequence of this discovery, there is now little to be seen in the neighbourhood of my native place, but the mouths of pits, engines pouring out smoke, ground blackened with soot, and innumerable habitations of human beings, scattered in wild disorder as far as the eye can reach.”
Mrs Sherwood, if that was her real name, had grown up living with her father, a head clerk in the house of one of the first iron masters, her mother and her maternal grandmother, the latter of whom had waited on a well-to-do lady in her youth; a fact which becomes key to the unfolding story.
Mrs Sherwood begins the tale with a recollection of a family trip to Dudley to fetch new dresses for herself and her sisters when she was aged ten, presumably sometime around the year 1800. It left quite an impression, and the author recalls vividly her new frock; featuring a rose leaf on a white background, with a very small rose bud peeping from behind each leaf. Each of the three sisters was given a new summer bonnet of plaited straw, tied on with a green ribbon, and a pair of mittens made by their grandmother from silk stockings. But the new outfits were to be untouched until a particular day, when the girls’ father was to take a rare day’s holiday and escort the family by cart to Dudley Castle, which, though they could see it from just outside their house, the girls had never visited ...
“We jostled merrily away, till the towers of the castle burst upon our view, lifting themselves above the woods with which the hill is decorated. After we had seen the castle, we presently arrived at the foot of the hill, having the town of Dudley on our left, and then getting out of our cart, which my father led away to the nearest place of entertainment for horses, we passed through a gate in the wall into the woods, where a winding path led up the steep. At length, coming out upon a lawn of considerable extent just upon the brow of the hill, we had a full view of the keep of the castle standing upon the highest point of the rock, and immediately on the right, but somewhat lower, the old gateway.”
Once the family are settled in the wide expanse of the castle’s courtyard, the girls’ grandmother sits them down and begins to tell them a true story. During her younger days in service to a wealthy lady, which must have been around the 1730s or 40s, she had accompanied her mistress and her daughter, as the latter’s maid, to an evening of feasting and dancing at Dudley Castle, which, although beginning to deteriorate even that far back, was still owned and sometimes used by the Ward family, whose main residence now was at Himley:
“It was quite dark by the time we arrived at the foot of the hill,” she recalls, as the young girl who will eventually become Mrs Sherwood begins committing the tale to memory, “and the snow was on the ground; however, there were lamps fixed among the trees all along the private road up to the castle, and there were lights upon the towers, which shone as beacons far and near, for it was a great day at the castle. The horses, though we had four, had hard work to drag us up the snowy path. However, we got up in time, and passing under the gateway, we found ourselves in this court.
The court was, she continues, brought buzzing to life by the many guests and their attendants that night:
“But, Oh! my children, how different did it then show to what it does now, being littered with splendid equipages, and sounding with the rattling of wheels and the voices of coachmen and grooms calling to each other, and blazing with lights from almost every window. There was such a bustle among the carriages, that we could not drive up to the principal door for some time, and during that delay I had abundance of leisure to look about me. The keep stood much as it does now, a huge and gloomy monument of past days; but all that portion of the castle which extends before you, my dear children, was alive with the bustle and stir of persons bent on pleasure and little thinking of the various changes and chances to which human nature is liable ... the oriel windows, the stone frames of which are still so nearly entire, were at that time filled in part with painted glass, through which the lights which were within emitted rays of various tincture. And the sounds of merry voices and of harps and viols, issued from every door way.”
The room which the ladies were given for the night is described in some detail, and it’s fascinating to think that the empty grey skeleton of a building we all know today was once full of cosy, well-equipped rooms. Mrs Sherwood’s grandmother describes the ladies’ chamber as follows:
“It was a wide low room, and there was a light closet in it, and it was hung with a tarnished paper, which looked like cut velvet. And there were huge stout-backed chairs, and a large toilet, set with Indian dressing boxes.
“There was a bright fire in the grate, and whilst the housemaid assisted me to set everything in order for my ladies, she informed me that she had lived for forty years in the castle, and hoped to finish her days in it. She spoke of her lord and his family, as if there were none in the land that could compare with them.”
The old woman then goes on to describe some of the remainder of the castle’s interior as it had been during her one visit as a youth. Even in the early seventeen-hundreds, comfortable as it could be made when the occasion demanded, the castle had an air of forlornness, of past glories:
“I wish I could bring before you, as it were in pictures, the curious old-fashioned ornaments and pieces of furniture which I saw in the castle,” she recalled to her granddaughters. “There was not a window which was sashed, but all were casement, in stone frames, many of the panes being of coloured glass. And there was scarce one chamber on the same parallel with another, but there was a step to go up or a step to go down to each of these; then the chimney pieces, being mostly of carved wood or stone, were so high that I could hardly reach to the mantle shelves, when standing on tiptoe ... then the chairs were of such a size, that two of the present sort would stand in the room of one, and doors, though very thick and substantial, were each an inch or two from the floor, so that the wind whistled all along the passages, rattling and shaking the casements, and often making (as my conductor informed me) a sort of wild and mournful melody when not mingled with the sounds of voices and musical instruments; for, as she told me, the castle was even then but seldom visited by the family, and occupied only, excepting on extraordinary occasion, by a few servants.”
The grandmother was told by her guide, one of the resident staff, that during the summer there were usually just three or four servants in the castle, who took delight in breathing the clean air up on the hill above the smoke of the works below. And even though the lord of the castle had by that point removed the bulk of his treasures to one of his more comfortable residences, the few paintings that remained were enough to lighten the lives of the domestics. One in particular, which hung in the state bedroom above the dining room, was described as follows:
“It was a hard, rude painting, the colours being much faded, but it represented a lady and a knight with a numerous assemblage of sons and daughters of all ages, from the babe on the mother’s lap to the son just stepping forth upon the stage of busy life, and assuming all the airs of manhood; the towers of Dudley Castle arose in the distance, although their outlines could hardly be traced, for the painting was on boards, and empaneelled in the wainscot; the lady was rested on a bank of flowers and her husband was looking upon her with such an expression of love and confidence ...
“The dresses seemed as if they had belonged to ages past, perhaps to the time of Elizabeth; but, be that as it may, the picture representeed a domestic scene, in which the beautiful and the brave, the noble and the delicate, had lived, and moved, and acted, years before even I had entered into existence.”
Spellbound by the picture, the young maid was eager to discover who the family were, but none of the servants of the castle knew, and, as the sounds of merry-making had begun to waft up from below, they were keen to take her down to the great hall, which she then goes on to describe