Do the bones of ancient dead lie beneath the sprawling bulk of Pensnett's Barrow Hill?
Old legend would have it so. The name itself suggests as much for "Barrow" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "beorg" (a mound raised over a grave) but here lies a contradiction, for Barrow Hill is no man-made mound. It is a dolerite mass, spewed from the bowels of the earth, millions of years ago, when our landscape was first formed. The long centuries have covered it with a layer of subsoil sufficient to support a healthy growth of turf and the roots of rock-climbing trees.
Such are the facts of nature. The old rumour of dead men's bones derives from man, himself, and whispered hints in the known history of the area, like legends of a great battle between Saxons and the invading Danes, the final stages of which were fought out on the rugged ramparts of Barrow Hill. So bloody was the conflict that blood flowed down the sides of the hillock and seeped into its scant subsoil. Today, the hill juts prominently from the stripped acres of old Pensnett Chase.
The rumour that Barrow Hill contained, deep in its dolerite heart, a burial chamber wherein lay the bones of ancient warrior nobles, entombed with their treasures and weapons was a venerable story - even in the 17th century. The tale, whispered through countless generations of old Pensnett families, came to the ears of John Carey, a brother of Sir George Carey of Cockington (Devon). John Carey was Pensnett Chase Head Ranger in the early 17th century and lived at Mouse Hall. The Chase was then a vast hunting ground for the Earls of Dudley and stretched as far as Kinver and Bobbington.
The Earl's Head Ranger took little heed of the story, living prosperously upon his ranger's fee of ten marks (£6.13s.4d) and whatever game he desired to grace his table. As the generations passed, the Careys continued to live at Mouse Hall and occupy the Head Ranger's office. Their fortunes waned and in 1722, Charles Carey "a scholarly but erratic man" became obsessed with the notion that the answer to retrieving his family's prosperity lay in "the Barrow Hill treasure chamber."
He made secret surveys of the rugged imminence and poked around in earth filled crevices.
After finding many arrow heads and rusty bits of weaponry he became more and more convinced that the ancient battle legend was true and that the mound did contain treasure trove. He would allow no-one to help him on his surveys and jealously guarded the environs of Barrow Hill.
His quest came to an unhappy conclusion, for "he died a lunatic after disturbing man-bones on Barrow Hill" and was buried at Kingswinford in 1723.
Thereafter, Barrow Hill was avoided as a place of ill-luck. Locals noted that its slopes were covered with masses of "deadly nightshade" - a sure indication that it was not wise to meddle there. This flower had long been superstitiously regarded as "the devil's weed" by Midland folk and its sudden profusion on Barrow Hill gave the place evil connotations.
The Black Captain
Such considerations did not deter Captain John Belcher - a sea-faring man who was installed at Shutt End House in 1780 as the local "Admiralty Recruitment Overseer." Despite his high-sounding title captain Belcher was a notorious "press ganger" and practically denuded the area of its male population. He had "offices" at Bromsgrove, Kidderminster and Dudley and strove mightily to ensure that the Navy had its full complement of Black Country men (and boys).
It seems that the "black captain" heard of the Barrow Hill legend, whilst living at nearby Shutt End. The story obviously intrigued him and he sought the expert help of William Brettle, a former Brierley Hill mine proprietor who then lived in Stourport. The pair are reputed to have "secretly delved" on Barrow Hill, but then, for reasons unknown, Brettle lost interest in the project. The captain continued his quest alone and became greatly excited by something he discovered during one of his expeditions. He is said to have hurried to Stourport to acquaint his former partner with the nature of his find but, as was reported in a local newspaper, in November 1783.
"Captain Belcher of Shutt End, near Dudley, died of a raging fever shortly after arriving at a friend's house in Stourport. He had left Shutt End hours before in robust health, but greatly excited, and his sudden demise remains a mystery."
Perhaps it was a mystery to the newspaper reporter but Pensnett folk had little doubt about the reason for the captain's death.
We can discover no subsequent trace of delving for treasure on Barrow Hill.
Although, in the 19th century, small coal-mines were in operation all around it and the landscape was vastly changed, Barrow Hill stayed sacrosanct and stands today, perhaps the last bit of ancient Pensnett to remain as it was at the beginning of time. Its ancient legends have been diluted by time. The story of its hidden hoard has practically been forgotten during the last century and the question posed in the first paragraph of this article remains unanswered!