In this essay, Peter Barnsley unearths some surprising connections between Cradley and the worlds of science, literature, and Victorian feminism.
On Saturday the 12th of November 1932, the Stourbridge County Express carried a report of the induction the previous week of the Reverend Alfred Heale, the newly-appointed minister of Park Lane Unitarian Church, Cradley. The report is unaccredited but it was quite possibly written by Walter Pugh, a veteran local journalist who was at the time the County's man in the Cradley and Cradley Heath area.
Whoever he was, the reporter was not content with merely describing the induction ceremony; he sought out and interviewed the oldest member of the congregation - Mr. W. Jones of Furlong Lane, Cradley.
Mr. Jones, who was looking forward to his 90th birthday in the following January, said that he had been connected with Park Lane Church since his christening there by the Reverend William Bowen, who had then been living in Park House (a 17th century building, which stood opposite Park Lane's junction with the Stourbridge - Birmingham Road). Mr. Jones added that Park House had once been the home of Joseph Parkes, who was well-known in radical political circles in the early and middle years of the 19th century.
Parkes was a solicitor practising in Birmingham; he was also a prominent member of the city's Liberal Party. In or about 1830, the Parkes family moved to London, where Joseph Parkes became a taxing master in the Court of Chancery, and a historian of the Chancery Bar. Well-known also for his collection of Italian paintings, Joseph Parkes died in 1865.
Mr. Jones also reminisced about Joseph Parkes' daughter - Elizabeth (Bessie) Rayner Parkes. Bessie Parkes (1829-1925) is not remembered today - except possibly by feminists (Bessie was a prominent proto-feminist before Christabel Pankhurst was heard of) and by historians of modern English Literature. Although her own writing mainly concerned the place of women in society, she won vicarious literary fame through her children. Bessie Parkes eventually married a Frenchman, Louis Belloc on 27th July, 1867. She was 38 years old when she married, but within three years she had borne two children: Marie and Hilaire.
Of those children, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was to gain the greater reputation (though it is in eclipse now) as a prolific author of essays, novels, verse, history, biography and criticism. He was very popular between the wars, but his fall from favour has been precipitous since 1945 - partly as a result of his notorious anti-semitism.
Hilaire Belloc's sister, who wrote as Marie Belloc Lowndes, is now remembered mainly as the author of The Lodger, though its protracted fame owes more to Alfred Hitchcock's film (1926) than to the original novel or to the play that was based on it.
In his conversation with the County reporter, Mr. Jones' final recollection was that during the time when Bessie Parkes was living at Park House, she regularly attended Park Lane Church.
Was Mr. Jones right? Could Cradley - known (if at all) to the wider world only for its hand-made chain, and for being the birthplace of the Victorian/Edwardian international footballer, Steve Bloomer - really have connections with Joseph Parkes, Bessie Parkes and Hilaire Belloc? Well, yes, Cradley could - and did have such connections, though Mr. Jones' account was both inaccurate and incomplete.
The truth is even more remarkable. Cradley has links not only with 19th Century radicalism and 20th Century Literature, but with 18th Century Science as well.
The Priestley Sisters
It is almost certain that Joseph Parkes never lived in Park House - or anywhere else in Cradley. It is probable that the Reverend William Bowen never lived in Park House either: the 1841 Census shows that he was then living in Chapel House. The Bowens could have moved to Park House after 1841, but as they left Cradley in 1850 (before the next Census) this must remain conjectural. Park House and Chapel House were so close that a powerful slog with a cricket bat from the Chapel House lawn could have sent a ball through a Park House window. Mr. Jones, who was only seven when the Bowens left Cradley, might well have become confused about which house was the minister's residence.
In any case, what is most interesting about the 1841 Census entry is not the address of the Reverend William Bowen, but the identity of his wife. Marianne Bowen was 35 years old in 1841, and had lived in Cradley since 1812. She left hardly a footprint in history, but a considerably greater impression was made by her paternal grandfather.
He was Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, who was famous in his day for political and theological controversy. Dr. Priestley was a Yorkshireman who came to Birmingham in 1780 as a Unitarian minister. In 1794, after his house, library and laboratory had been sacked by rioters, Dr. Priestley sought refuge in America, where he died in 1804.
Dr. Priestley's son, Joseph Priestley Junior, returned to England with his wife and three children in 1812, and settled in Cradley. One reason for this seemingly eccentric choice was almost certainly the presence in Cradley of a Unitarian Church. Marianne Priestley was six years old at the time. She eventually became Marianne Bowen, but it was the marriage of her elder sister, Elizabeth, that was to give Cradley a closer brush against the sleeve of history.
The marriage of Elizabeth Rayner Priestley to Joseph Parkes was celebrated in Edgbaston on 29th June, 1824. Where the couple met is not known (it was almost certainly either in Birmingham or in Cradley) but their meeting and courtship must have depended to a large extent on their common Unitarianism. It is as certain as anything can be that the newly-married couple never lived in Cradley; they lived for the first six years of their married life in Birmingham, before their move to London. But with Mrs. Parkes (as she now was) having both her father and sister living in Cradley, it seems likely that - certainly while they were still living in Birmingham - the Parkes visited there, stayed with either the Priestleys or the Bowens, and - of course - visited the Unitarian Church. And possibly it was the Priestleys who lived in Park House.
The Bowens stayed in Cradley until 1850, by which time the Parkes' daughter, the future feminist, Bessie Rayner Parkes, was 21 years old. She might well have come from London to stay with her father or uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Bowen - and during these visits she would certainly have attended the Unitarian Church. That ancient worshipper, Mr. Jones, might well (as a child) have seen her, and remembered her. It is equally likely that he learned of her visits only from the reminiscences of older members of the congregation when Bessie Parkes became a well-known public figure.
Bessie Parkes was from girlhood brought into contact with the literary and political worlds. She knew well both George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She corresponded with George Sand. She was a friend of Anthony Trollope. Thackeray often dined at the Parkes' house in Wimpole Street because he liked meeting Liberal politicians. When Mrs. Gaskell was working on her life of Charlotte Bronte, Bessie accompanied her to Yorkshire.
Between 1858 and 1864, Bessic edited The English Women's Journal, the first feminist periodical, but she would not have earned the unqualified approval of today's feminists. Although she believed that unmarried women deserved to get any jobs that were going, she wrote in 1862: "....... the fact remains clear to my mind that we are passing through a stage of civilisation that is to be regretted, and that her house and not the factory is a woman's happy and healthful sphere."
Long before she met Louis Belloc, Bessie Parkes became a Roman Catholic convert. She is buried in the Catholic Church of St. Richard, Slindon, West Sussex, where she died, aged 95, in March 1925.
Cradley's connection, through the Parkes and Priestley families, with the worlds of science, radicalism and literature, is indeed a tenuous one. But it adds a little colour to the history of the Parish - and but for the enterprise of a local reporter, that colour might have blushed unseen.
Park House might not have provided a home for either the Bowens, the Parkes or the Priestleys, but in the mid-19th Century, it certainly was the home of Noah Hingley, the founder of the famous Netherton ironworks. Rather surprisingly, this gives Cradley another slender - but direct - link with the world of letters. Noah Hingley was the great-grandfather of the novelist, biographer and children's author, Rumer Godden (b.1907). At least seven of Miss Godden's novels have been filmed: Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, Jean Renoir's The River (for which she co-wrote the screenplay with Renoir), The Greengage Summer (with Kenneth More, Susannah York and Jane Asher), The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (with Maureen O'Hara and Richard Todd,) An Episode of Sparrows (filmed as Innocent Sinners), Fugue in Time (filmed as Enchantment) and 1n This House of Brede (filmed as Tomorrow).
As far as I know, Rumer Godden has never visited Cradley, or any other part of the Black Country, but she is aware of her connection with it, and (to judge from her own words in A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep) she is proud of the achievements of her great-grandfather.
Margaret Rumer Godden, who now lives in Dumfries, published her first novel Chinese Puzzle in 1936. Now 90 years old, she published her latest novel Cromartie v. The God Shiva last November. She has - or had - another local connection; she was once married, unhappily, to Laurence Foster, of Worcestershire's cricketing Foster family.
N.B. Noah Hingley lived in both houses mentioned in this article; by 1865 he had moved from Park House to Chapel House.
The Life of Hilaire Belloc by Robert Speaight (Hollis & Carter: 1957).
The Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes (Chatto & Windus: 1971).
Hilaire Belloc by A. N. Wilson (Hamish Hamilton: 1984).
Victorian Feminism: 1850 - 1900 by Philippa Levine (Hutchinson: 1987).
A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden (Macmillan: 1987).
Victorian Women by Joan Perkin (John Murray: 1993).
Dictionary of National Biography.
I must acknowledge the help of Mr. V. H. Pitt (in tracing the links between the Parkes, Bowen and Priestley families) and - not for the first time - the assistance of the staff of the Reference Section of Stourbridge Library.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.