Sedgley Beacon lies some 237 metres (777 feet) above sea level in the heart of the West Midlands. It is said that the top of Beacon Hill is the highest point between Sedgley and the Ural Mountains in Russia. Commanding views were once enjoyed right across the industrial Black Country and beyond to the Clee and Malvern hills and the mountains of Wales. It is even said that on a clear day the far away Bristol Channel can just about be seen from the summit. Now sadly neglected, a castellated monument of local Gornal stone crowns this once popular high point. The Grade 2 listed Beacon Tower is a familiar motif on the Dudley Metropolitan Borough Coat of Arms but the origin and purpose of the monument itself is something of a local mystery.
In times gone by the Beacon was an ideal vantage point from which to light warning fires when invasion threatened. Such a fire was almost certainly lit in Elizabethan times to warn of the Spanish Armada. During this period Sedgley formed part of a whole series of such beacons stretching right across the country. Writing around 1900 in ‘South Staffordshire Stories’ historian G T Lawley tells us that during the Wars of the Roses a troop of Yorkish soldiers were camped on the hill. Later on he maintains that Parliamentarian forces under Colonel Bruerton occupied Sedgley Beacon during the siege of nearby Dudley Castle in the English Civil War.
Sedgley Beacon is not short on legend including one that Druids once practiced their faith on its summit. These days, the local Sedgley Morris Men can be found on the hill dancing in the dawn each May Day morning . A local name is ‘Bacon Hill’ and Lawley again provides us with a story of how this name came about. An old lady was milking a cow on the hill one evening when a young girl appeared and asked for a drink of milk. The old lady gladly obliged and the little girl skipped away. That night, as the old lady and her husband dozed by the fire the little girl appeared again. She was a fairy and offered to grant a wish in return for the kindness she had been shown. Continuing to doze, the old lady became mithered about lack of food for the coming winter and dreamt of bacon. The next night after a knock at the door the old couple were amazed to find two large flitches of bacon left for them. The fairy had repaid the kindness shown her. Since then, as the story goes, the area has been known as ‘Bacon Hill’. Of course, a less fanciful explanation is that in old Black Country dialect ‘Beacon’ is pronounced ‘Bacon’!
The present Beacon Monument was erected in 1846 according to the date carved in one of the stones, but who built it and why is a complete mystery. The popular and enduring local legend has it that the building was constructed by Lord Wrottesley of nearby Wrottesley Hall. John Wrottesley, 2nd Baron Wrottesley, was an accomplished amateur Victorian astronomer. In fact, he was a founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society and was its esteemed President for some years. Given this pedigree it is little wonder that the story grew up that the tower was in fact an observatory. Documentary origins for this comes from Frederick William Hackwood who in 1898, writing in ‘Sedgley Researches’, maintains that the tower was indeed used by Lord Wrottesley for astronomical purposes.
Others disagree. Sedgley Local History Society maintains that the astronomical connection is a mere myth. The building was probably built by a local landowner called Petit as a folly but even they suggest that it may have been on behalf of Lord Wrottesley. Historian Trevor Genge, writing in the Winter 2008 edition of ‘Scene’, suggests that Wrottesley had the tower built as a monument to his late friend, the ironmaster Thomas Perry.
So what is the likelihood that Lord Wrottesley used the tower for astronomical observations? It is well documented that he had a purpose built observatory at nearby Wrottesley Hall in Tetenhall. This housed large transit and equatorial telescopes and had rooms for the two other astronomers employed as assistants. It would just not have been viable to try and move any of this equipment to a tower in Sedgley for observing purposes. Apart from anything else Sedgley at the time was in the heart of the industrial Black Country and polluted skies from the heavy industry all around would have been highly likely. At Wrottesley Hall the local Wolverhampton Council kept an exclusion zone around the observatory to prevent pollution interfering with observations. Such was Lord Wrottesley’s reputation at the time.
Could it have been that Hackwood simply made a mistake in the location of the observatory? It seems not as in his 1898 work he acknowledges the location of an observatory at Wrottesley as well as making the astronomical connection with the Beacon Tower. There are other possibilities. Lord Wrottesley was a great champion of popular science and it is not inconceivable that he financed, or at least part financed, a viewing platform for the public on what was believed at the time to be the highest point in the area.
Another possibility is that Wrottesley, or his assistants, were using the tower as a fixed platform for taking longitude measurements as was commonly done at sea. Lord Wrottesley was known to have a keen interest in the calculation of longitude. Whilst the problem of calculating longitude at sea had been solved by John Harrison some years before, the expense of the chronometers involved meant that the less accurate ‘Lunar distance method’ was still in common use until at least 1850. Sedgley Beacon Tower would have been an ideal place for making and testing such measurements due to its virtually unrestricted views to the east and west.
Irrespective of whether Lord Wrottesley was associated with the tower or not Tony Cowell, Friends of the Beacon Treasurer, is concerned that both the Beacon and its tower are in a very bad state of neglect. “The tower needs an immense amount of work on both the inside and the outside and from top to bottom. The surrounding area which forms part of the tower itself is also in desperate need of restoration. Our group will be applying to the lottery and other organisations who supply money for this type of work. We are working hard towards a complete restoration of this unique monument and returning the area to its former glory”.
Perhaps a proper and sympathetic restoration of this fine old building will finally reveal that elusive bit of evidence which will once and for all solve the enigma of Sedgley’s mysterious monument.
Andrew Homer, June 2011
First published in Mysterious Britain and Ireland