An Affectionate History

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William Jack Dickenson

 
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Edward Dickenson

 
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Beadles’ Staffs

 
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Funeral Mute

 
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Charles Cross
the oldest verger in England

 
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Ralph Vines in the bell tower

 
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Ellacombe frame (removed)

 
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Plaque to the Charlotte Cross
first ever female verger

On Christmas Day 1938, William Jack Dickenson, affectionately known by his colleagues as Young Billy, sang his first solo at the morning service at St Mary’s, Moseley at the age of 12. His voice was admired for its beauty, confidence and self-control but three years later, his voice had broken and he began to act as Crossbearer, leading in the choir in which his father, William Albert, also sang.

The Dickensons had a long connection of service with Moseley Parish Church which started when a young man named Edward from Hints, Staffordshire, on Watling Street just north of Sutton Coldfield, came to the village as a sawyer in the 1820s. He was born around the time that Lord Nelson visited Birmingham with the Hamiltons in 1802 and he married a local girl, Phoebe Hooper, at Edgbaston Old Church in 1827. They settled in a house in St Mary’s Row by the Bull’s Head. By 1851, they had nine children, two of whom, Harriett and Edward Jnr, reappear in our story.

No records have been found as to when Moseley had its first beadle but we do know that Edward Dickenson (pictured) took over this role in 1856 from William Halward of Moor Green, one of whose grandchildren went on to become Lay Clerk at Canterbury Cathedral.

There are two Beadle’s staffs displayed in church belonging to each of them and the photograph of Edward is said to show him in his uniform of blue coat, red collar and brass buttons. Unlike Dickens’ character, Mr Bumble, he had no connection with any workhouse and, by his time, the two staffs which are displayed in church clearly demonstrate that some importance was attached to this position. It is unlikely that the Beadle had any official position in the civic world of the village outside the Parish Church and it is likely to have been a ceremonial post only, although he was also known as Clerk of Moseley so he may have had some association with the records of the church.

Quite why Edward made his way to Moseley is not known but it is worth mentioning that the village of Hints had earlier had a minor connection with Moseley. At the time of the Priestley Riots which took place from 14 July to 17 July 1791, Squire John Taylor had rented Moseley Hall to the Dowager Lady Carhampton (neé Judith Maria Lawes), the widow of Simon Luttrell , 1st Earl of Carhampton (Irish Peerage). When the mob arrived at the Hall on Saturday 16 July, they helped to pack all of the lady’s belongings before setting fire to the Hall. Her cousin, Sir Robert Lawley, the local M.P., came to help and took her to his house north of Sutton Coldfield. He had a pile at Canwell near the village of Hints, Staffordshire the birthplace of Edward Dickenson, so it may be that his family was introduced to Moseley in this way but we will probably never know that truth of the reason for this migration.

One of the duties of Beadle was at funeral services, where he would walk in front of the mutes with his staff draped in black silk. The mute is depicted in art quite frequently but in literature is probably best known from Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Oliver is working for Sowerberry's when this conversation takes place: "There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear ... which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love". The main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around at funerals with a sad, pathetic face. A symbolic protector of the deceased, the mute would usually stand near the door of the home or church. In Victorian times, mutes would wear sombre clothing including black cloaks, top hats with trailing hatbands, and gloves.

Edward Dickenson, the Beadle, died in 1883 and is buried in the churchyard along with his wife Phoebe (or Fibby according to one entry in the Census records) and many of his family. His eldest daughter, Harriett, married a gardener from Solihull Lodge, who was destined to become (possibly apocryphally) the oldest Verger in England, by the name of Charles Cross (pictured). He was born in 1837, two months after King William IV died. He always worked in the village and was a well-known figure. Before his father-in-law, the Beadle, died, he had become a pew opener as well as a bell ringer, joining Phoebe’s brother, Edward Jnr in the belfry. They both became vergers in due course, one on the south side of the church and one on the north until Edward Jnr died at the age of 63 in 1893. It is recorded that he never failed to put in an appearance at Christmas time with the village hand-bell ringers and that a muffled peal of the bells in the tower was rung on the occasion of his funeral.

Edward Jnr’s duties were taken over after his death in 1893 by his own son, William Edward but only briefly because he died at the early age of 44 in 1899. He seems to have suffered from a young age with a heart condition but this did not stop him from moving away from Moseley to work for a wealthy lady in Kent. Upon his return to the village, he was employed by the organist, Frederick H Bell, in his wholesale drapery business in Cannon Street, Birmingham. As a lad, he had worked for Mr Thomas Sneyd Kynnersley, a well-respected parishioner and benefactor of St Mary’s, who was the Stipendiary Magistrate in Birmingham for many years, and lived in Moor Green House, where Boundary Drive off Moor Green Lane is now situated.

As years went on, Charles Cross became not only the sole Verger, with an assistant but also the Sexton, as well as continuing with his bell ringing. He was described as the repository of our church traditions and the preserver of our customs. Stories gathered around him. On one occasion, a new curate, pipe in hand, sought him out in the churchyard where he was digging a grave. Introducing himself, the curate asked if Cross would tell him the rules and customs that had to be maintained, when he had time. “Certainly, I will”, the Verger replied, “and I’ll begin at once. We allow no smoking in the churchyard.” There was a matter-of-factness about him which was characteristic of his office. A lady, whose mother had recently been buried in the family grave, asked him if there would be room for her also to be buried there. “Well, ma’am, “he answered. “If you keep as you are, there will be room for two of you, but if you become like your mother, there will be room for only one.”

Charles must have been one of those who saw the ancient bells removed to St Anne’s Church and replaced with a new peal In 1874 when Sir John Holder of Brewery fame who lived at Pitmaston, Moor Green, bought a ring of eight steel bells from Sheffield which had hung in to St Marie's R C Church for a few years. The bells were brought to St. Mary's, the treble being first re-cast by Naylor Vickers, who also made the two-tier frame in which the bells were hung. In 1903 the bells were re-hung by Charles Carr of Smethwick and two full peals of 5040 changes were rung, one of Plain Bob Major on 4th May 1904, and one of Stedman Triples in 1905. No doubt, Charles was involved with this.

At that time, there was a ringing room one floor up. Access would have been via the outside door at the base of the tower, up the stone stairs and in through a door into the chamber; the blocked-up doorway can be seen from the present ground floor ringing room. In 1909 the church was partially rebuilt, with the extension of the south aisle and raising the roof with the clerestory. In May of that year the ringing room floor in the tower was removed; ringing could therefore have been done only from the ground floor level, though in fact, this was never done. From then until the restoration work in 1991, only certain bells could be swung for chiming but this was rare. The usual method of chiming the bells was with hammers operated from an Ellacombe chiming apparatus, by which the operator pulled ropes from within a frame on the wall. This system, which became well used throughout the country, is ascribed to The Rev. H.T. Ellacombe, Vicar of Bitton, South Gloucestershire from 1817 to 1850, who wanted some means of enabling the bells to be rung by one person. When this method is used, the bells remain ‘still’ (in the down position) and are struck on the inside of the rim by hammers attached to ropes. The ropes are housed in a frame on a wall so that just one person is thus able to ring the bells. Over the years, several methods of chiming have been devised but the bell ringers of Bitton say that ‘Bitton Method’ is the kindest to the bells and the least likely to cause damage.

The original Ellacombe Chimes are still installed at Bitton and The Ellacombe frame used St Mary’s has been retained in church. It has a suitable inscription in memory of Charles Cross, who died at the grand age of 93 in 1931. His age was chimed on the bells at his funeral by his long-time assistant Mr John Elsden and the coffin bearers were all choristers including his great nephew William Albert Dickenson (son of William Edward) and Frank Ford who was to become the parish organist from 1937 to 1955. Frank became a choirboy in about 1910 and on his retirement as organist, he wrote: “in those days the Church was illuminated by gas. During a Friday evening rehearsal, Mr. Mann (the organist) decided to rehearse an anthem with the large organ instead of the harmonium. The organ was hand blown and two boys, one Pemberton, I remember him quite well, were chosen to do the hard work. During a lull, one of the boys decided apparently to see how he could swing on the gas bracket at the side of the organ and down came the lot. Mr. Cross (the Verger) was sent for in great haste to stop the leak of gas.”

During his last years, Charles Cross was not able to attend to his duties in full and he was helped by his daughter, Charlotte Cross, born in the village in the 1860s where she also grew up and worked. In her teens, she was the general servant at the National School under the headmistress, Miss Mary Bladon. The school had been founded in 1828 on a small plot of one eighth of an acre in what was then Letts Lane (now School Road), leased from Squire John Taylor of Moseley Hall at the persistence of Walter Farquhar Hook (Perpetual Curate 1826 – 1828) who went on to better and grander things. By the 1890s, Charlotte was Cook and Housekeeper at large local houses. When her father died, she was appointed his successor as Verger and it is said that she was the first female Verger in the country. There is a small commemorative plaque on one of the pews (pictured). Charlotte died in 1943 at the age of 79, when John Elsden took over as Verger.

As mentioned, the Dickensons also had a close connection with the Choir. William Edward’s son, William Albert, is said to have joined in 1899 and he is shown in this photograph taken in 1934, third from the right. The gentlemen of the back row were all long-serving members of the Choir with a total of 216 years between them. No doubt some, like Charles Cross, would have seen the considerable building alterations to the church over the years and the beautification of the inside in the days of Canon Bax (Vicar 1928 – 1943). They may even have remembered the time when the choir sang from the gallery at the West end but only just.

This gallery had replaced an earlier loft against the east facing wall of the tower where a small and then a larger barrel organ had been situated. The post holes for this gallery can still be seen. Even when the Bosward manual organ was installed in 1856, the choir still sang from the gallery which was large enough for 150 of the congregation in addition. There is an interesting anecdote from those days. One of the bass choristers was Tom Maydew, the blacksmith, who had a habit of working on Sundays, and during the intervals between the singing was wont to repair to his forge in the yard below, from which he would be summoned by a boy putting his head through the belfry window and saying “Mr Maydew, the Psalm’s coming on”, whereupon he would roll his apron round his waist, hurry up to the loft, and join lustily in the singing.

By the 1870s, the choir had moved to the east end of the Nave and were surpliced. Under these circumstances, “the organ being too small to make its weight felt in the gallery, the Psalms were not always chanted with that smoothness which is desirable in “Quires and places where they sing”, and in a good hearty Hymn the Organist had his choice as to whether he would accompany the choir or the congregation! But the lapse of time leads us to look upon these imperfections with an indulgent eye, and one has still a kindly recollection of many sweet services in the rural Church, whose exterior picturesqueness caused it to be generally admired by visitors from the neighbouring town”. (Frederick Bell, Organist 1871 – 1903)

The present Henry Jones organ was acquired in 1887 and installed in a larger chamber. A purpose-built Choir Vestry was constructed in 1890-1 at the west end and the chancel was enlarged again in 1897. At this time, the choir moved to sing in the chancel as they do to this day and so it was that young Billy Dickenson came to carry the cross and follow his forebears in the service of the church at St Mary’s. He also followed his father and uncle into the Garden of Remembrance

Rob Brown
March 2013