Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Extraordinary History of The Stew - A Piece of Shrewsbury's Heritage in Danger of Demolition

The history of the building on Frankwell Quay known as The Stew gets more exciting the further back one looks.   I know the subject has been covered already on My Tonight From Shrewsbury but over the last few days all sorts of facts have turned up, courtesy of the archive of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, and I'd like to share some of them.

The above picture shows Frankwell Quay and the path of the River Severn as it was at the time of the Great Frost of 1739.  The Stew is on the right of the picture, in front of the bridge. However, the earliest mention of The Stew goes back much earlier than that – to 1405 when James Callerode [also known as Dyer] conveyed The Stew, comprising land, a croft and dovecote to his son Thomas. It’s described as being immediately upstream from the St George’s Bridge [the name by which the old Welsh Bridge was known]. 

Some years later, in an agreement designed to resolve debt issues, a group including Edmund, Earl of March – joined later by Richard of York, the Earl’s powerful heir - were invested with possession of The Stew as a freehold estate. These were the times of the Wars of the Roses, when two powerful Plantagenet lines, both descendants of Edward III, fought for the crown of England. Richard of York had a claim to the throne of England on the Yorkist [ie. white rose, for those of you who are still in Flower Show mode] side, and on the Lancastrian [red rose] side was Henry VI, son of Henry V, who became king at the age of eighteen and developed a well-earned reputation for being easily swayed.  

In 1433 Richard of York signed a release on the Dyer lands, including The Stew. However, in 1445 a new agreement was drawn up, again including him. The word used for this agreement was an enfeoffment – an old English word with Norman origins going back to feudal society, but also used in property law.

Despite this enfeoffment still being in place, the heir of Thomas Dyer, Hugh, decided at his death to pass on rights pertaining to The Stew and the body of land around it to Sir John Talbot, a Lancastrian supporter, later to become the Earl of Shrewsbury. In Dyer’s will his brother William was made his heir, and in 1452 that William released any rights he might still have on The Stew again to Sir John Talbot. 

Confused?  Believe me, this is simple compared to the mass of detail documented in the Drapers’ Archives.  These were complicated days, with kings fighting for, and losing, crowns, in a continual state of deposition and reinstatement. And it was the powerful Yorkist side of this wrangle that appeared to have the strongest clout regarding The Stew. 

The Drapers became involved in the story of The Stew in 1462 when, as a means of resolving the legal wrangles, King Edward IV passed onto them the Dyer lands by Royal Charter, because, it stated, there were no other claimants.

That’s not the way, however, that the family of the staunchly Lancastrian Sir John Talbot saw it. Having become Earl of Shrewsbury, he was killed at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, fighting on the side of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI.  During the two-year period when Henry VI was reinstated on the throne, Shrewsbury’s widow Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury - famous in her day as ‘the old ladye of Shrowesburie’, though not to be mistaken for that other old ladye of Shrowesburie, Bess of Hardwick - seized her chance and sent in her steward, Alan Stury, to seize The Stew and adjoining lands by force.   

In 1471, however, the Yorkist Edward IV was back on the throne, and Henry VI was executed. This was the perfect moment for the Drapers to act.  The king was petitioned, in which petition the Countess of Shrewsbury and her steward were described as ‘a gretely manace’. Alan Stury was called by Edward IV to appear before his Council and explain himself.  There appears to be no record of the outcome, except that the Drapers retained possession of lands and building, described as ‘a croft called le Stewe, croft with the pond there in Frankwell, next the chapel of St. George, between the land of John Colle, called Colle [apple] orchard, and the bank of Severn.’ 

Never mind the Battle of the Roses, which still had a way to run [Edward IV’s sons were the Princes in the Tower, who were murdered by Edward’s brother – but that’s another story]. The battle of The Stew was finally over, and the Drapers free to lease The Stew to tenants without dispute. The Countess of Shrewsbury died in 1473 and was buried in Shrewsbury Abbey. When he died, her devoted steward [some say husband], Alan Stury, ordered that his body be buried near ‘the tomb of my lady of Shrowesbury’.  

Whoever would have thought that property in Shrewsbury, immediately adjacent to the current Guildhall, had once been the source of so much strife, involving many of the great movers and shakers, kings and kingmakers of their day?  It’s astonishing what you find when you start digging into history.  

At some point The Stew and adjacent property came into the ownership of the Scotts of Betton Strange. The site was subsequently exploited as a large-scale maltings and brewing enterprise.  Though the Scotts continued to hold land on and around Frankwell Quay throughout the 18th century, a deed dated 1713 shows The Stew to be in the ownership of one John Astley, described as ‘yeoman of Little Berwick’.

Certainly an agreement of 1728 mentions John Astley, and his son and heir Thomas, as owners of ‘a messuage and malthouse’ called ‘The Stew in Frankwell’ [the word 'messuage' meaning a dwelling, together with its outbuildings and adjacent land appropriated to its use].  It’s believed that he was the builder of what we currently think of as The Stew, which in its day was a merchant’s house of high quality with cut stone quoins, most of which are still intact.

So - a long and noble history attached to the site, and a building from the early 1700s that’s robust and simply in need of repair according to Peter Napier, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ accredited building surveyor who surveyed The Stew along with Structural Engineer, John Avent in 2006 for Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council.  

I talked about this last week in the office of Peter Napier.  All the pictures in this article come courtesy of him.   ‘The building is solid.’ That was the message he wanted to convey.  It might not look like it to to the untrained eye but according to Peter Napier there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it. ‘It has an amazing roof,’ he said, ‘constructed out of Baltic pine, which in its day would have had to be brought up from Bristol by barge. The building needs to be given a modern use, but despite its current state of disrepair both myself and John Avent, current Chairman of the Institute of Structural Engineers’ accreditation scheme, concluded that it was robust. The roof could be repaired. The only crack in the building hasn’t moved in thirty-five years. In the owner’s application to have it demolished, he describes The Stew as derelict. But it’s not.’   

Peter Napier’s not the only one to speak out for The Stew. In the last few days, English Heritage has come out and said that it should be saved and that they strongly object to its demolition, and that’s the view of the County Ecologist as well, Shrewbury's Civic Society, local residents, including Frankwell residents, whose spokesperson is Ian Lacey, and Shrewsbury Town Council. 

Frankwell Quay is important in the town’s history and, as Engligh Heritage point out, The Stew was an important part of Frankwell Quay. ‘Historically it is situated in the former ‘Frankwell Quay’ area,’ they say, ‘which was - together with Mardol Quay on the opposite bank - the site of Shrewsbury’s inland port on the river Severn, a major element in the economic life and development of the town.’

Today not much remains in Shrewsbury of the town’s river trade.  But grooves in the old bridge at Atcham - made by the rub of hemp against iron as heavily-laden trows were hauled upriver by rope - attest to the river trade to Shrewsbury being a roaring one. 

Given the layout of the merchant’s house at The Stew, and its position in relation to the river and layout of the old quay, there are some who believe that The Stew may well have been the Administrative Office for Frankwell Quay.  According to Peter Napier, that would make it a building of equal importance to any merchant’s house.

 ‘It’s a very fine building,’ he said.  ‘And it’s still intact. It has stone sills from Grinshill, and most of its cut stone quoins are still intact. It has stone string courses, stone cornices and even kneelers still in place, proving that the end against the warehouse was once a gable and that the warehouse was added at a later date.  

If you look at  other houses in town of the same period - the old Guildhall, for example, or Bowdler’s House - you’ll find the same features [see opposite Guildhall's string course and cut stone quoins] and get an idea of how fine a building The Stew could be if its brickwork was repaired, its damaged voussoirs [brick arches to you and me] refurbished, its windows and front door put back in, including its dormer windows, and its roof repaired.  

Here’s a drawing, done by Peter of what he reckons The Stew would have looked like in its day. The cart standing beneath the ‘taking-in doors’ would have been used for loading and unloading to and from the river. The presence of sails in the background are a reminder of Shrewsbury’s river trade.

Wouldn’t it be great, I said, my imagination running ahead of me, to have the last remaining flat-bottomed trow, the Spry [now currently residing in dry dock down river at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum] brought up here as part of a restored Frankwell Quay?  I’ve seen film of the Spry under sail.  Her restoration is marvelous. She’s a beautiful sight.

Whether or not that’s likely to happen [not, I’m suspect, being the case] Peter reckoned that getting rid of the gyratory effect around the buildings in Frankwell car park - which could be easily done by making the entrance to the car park two way - could provide a landscaped pedestrian area between the river and The Stew. This view is also expressed by English Heritage in their objection to the demolition. They recognize that the present setting of The Stew in unsatisfactory, particularly in its ‘highway dominated uses of the external spaces and the lack of a good relationship with the river’. They urge every effort be made by all concerned, including the council, to ‘regenerate the historic waterfront and make it an asset to the town’, and they pledge their willingness to work with us to make that happen.   

‘We’ve lost too much of our industrial past,’ Peter Napier said.  ‘We’ve got to hold onto what we have left. What’s the point of knocking down the Stew to replace it with a boutique hotel? We already have a boutique hotel, the Silverton, close by on Frankwell. And now across the river there’s a brand new Premier Inn.’

Given its history, The Stew would be a hard act to follow.  With modern buildings on either side, a new boutique hotel would be in danger of turning Frankwell Quay into Anywhereville UK.  What’s needed here, firstly, is to save The Stew from demolition. But then we need to find a good use for it – and a fine example of this kind of transformation isn’t far away. 

Today the Cinema in the Square, housed in the beautiful Old Market Hall, is an important part of Shrewsbury life. The building was never in danger of demolition, but restoring and finding an acceptable modern use for it proved extremely difficult.   Most people had never seen inside it.  Like The Stew, it was not a building in public use.  Now, however, it houses a cinema and attractive café/bar.  Everybody loves it.  Everybody uses it.  It’s at the heart of Shrewsbury town life.  Its restoration has been a huge success.

There’s a word I’ve heard bandied about recently – the Italian word ‘centrostorico’, meaning ‘historical heart’.  In this respect, Frankwell Quay and The Stew are every bit as much a part of Shrewsbury’s centrostorico as the Old Market Hall and town Square, and should be preserved as such.

What’s needed here is not only for the building to be saved from demolition, but innovative thinking applied to finding it a 21st century use.  Maybe it even needs extending.  If the extending were done sympathetically, and was beneficial in providing appropriate facilities, why not?  

People talk about moving into the 21st century, by which they more often than not mean getting rid of the past and starting again.  But surely as good a way as any of creating a 21st century town is to acknowledge its past and give something back to it, honouring its heritage, building on it, respecting its roots and figuring out how make the most of them in the process of moving on.

The river trade has gone.  The wool trade is a thing of the past. The Industrial Revolution that created so much activity on the river is long over. People come to Shrewsbury by train and car, not trow. But they do still come. And if we care about tourism, then we need to care about heritage. On the news last night, a figure of 25% was given for tourist visits connected to heritage sites.  In other words, our historical heritage here in Shrewsbury is a massive draw - and The Stew [seen here on the right of the picture] could be at the heart of it.

It would be madness to let it go.

At the beginning of the year, when I started this blog, I wrote, ‘I'm not the local tourist board. I don't represent the town council. I’m not even some great authority on Shrewsbury.  I’m just a writer and local resident who’s prepared to go on a year-long walk and see what I find.'  I'd do my best, I promised, and I'd try to travel with an open [and curious] mind.  And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m no historian, no architectural expert, just a local person who cares about her town and senses that something important is happening here and needs to be addressed.

If you think so too, and want to save The Stew, here’s what you can do [and now, please, before 27TH AUGUST when the County Council’s period of consultation closes]:

Two submissions to the County Council have been made. 1] For permission to demolish The Stew. 2] For permission to build a boutique hotel in its place.

For information and advice on how to comment on an Application: 

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