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Greetings from the hamlet that inspired a spooky tale

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 28, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Postcard from Wassell Grove convalescent home

  • Front cover of Cold Harbour by Francis Brett Young

  • Halesowen-born author Francis Brett Young

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THIS picture postcard was posted in October 1936 offering "Greetings from Wassell Grove", the tiny hamlet between Halesowen and Hagley, and it comes from the collection of John Taylor of Kidderminster.

The card shows views of the house, also named Wassell Grove, that was the home of Job Garratt, the Black Country coalmaster who served two terms as mayor of Dudley, 1881-83.

Garratt died in 1908 and his widow remained at the house but in 1917 it became a convalescent home, taking patients from Dudley Road Hospital, Selly Oak Hospital and the Public Assistance Department.

The postcard is from this period in the house's history and it appears to have been written by a patient. Sent to a Mrs Matthews of 31 Weaman Street in Birmingham's city centre, the message reads:

"I had to write to the hospital for my mac which I left behind, also a panel note they forgot to give me but I have had no answer yet. I should like to see you on Sunday but it is a good walk along the lane and it would be too much for you I'm afraid. How do you like it without the other family? I have sent C&D a PC also C&A. Tell E to bring a few of the last records that were bought and not carry a heavy parcel. Love Edith."

Wassell Grove continued as a convalescent home until 1940 when it was converted to a residential nursery, caring for up to 45 children whose mothers were working long shifts of war work in the Birmingham factories.

Falling demand saw the nursery close in 1955. The house was then bought by the Wassell brothers, building contractors of Bott Lane, Lye. They demolished the old house and built two new homes for themselves on the site.

Wassell Grove also has a literary connection as it provided the inspiration for the sinister hamlet of Cold Harbour in the novel of the same name by Francis Brett Young, first published in 1924.

Cold Harbour is the tale of a haunted house and its malevolent owner. It begins with the arrival of Ronald and Evelyn Wake in Italy, where they are recovering from a recent ordeal. Gradually, they are coaxed to tell their story.

Motoring from the Cotswolds to the Black Country, a flat tyre leaves them stranded in Cold Harbour, not far from Halesby, Young's fictional Halesowen.

Young describes their arrival thus:

"And then, suddenly, Cold Harbour. Although we were prepared for it, it took our breath away. There were only three buildings: the church, with the parsonage and the manor house on either side of it. They stood huddled together, as if for protection, on the brow of the hill, which fell away from them into the basin beneath; and about them, as though to perpetuate the reason of the hamlet's name, ran a belt of magnificent beeches. All through the Cotswolds, on our drive westward, the beeches had shone like pyramids of flame. On those that surrounded Cold Harbour, not three days later, there was not a leaf left. The beeches in Cotswold had trunks that showed a sheen of steel and platinum; the trunks of Cold Harbour beeches were black and dull as soot. They stood up stark naked and motionless, as though they were dead, a complete circle, dipping over the brim of the ridge like a fairy ring; and as we passed within their circumference it seemed as though we were stepping out of this world and into another of ghostly silence. A fancy, of course. As a matter of fact, the deep felting of beech-mast and leaf-falls muffled our footfalls."

Cold Harbour is a strange place, "on the plane of practical geography it doesn't exist" and "Its beauty was singularly inhuman and its terror – for it was terrible, you know – elemental."

It becomes apparent that the house of Cold Harbour is possessed by a malign spirit and it seems that its owner, Humphrey Furnival, can control it and thereby torments his wife to the brink of insanity and any other poor soul who enters the house.

Francis Brett Young was born in Halesowen in 1884, the son of Dr Thomas Brett Young. Francis studied medicine at Birmingham University and set up in general practice in Brixham, Devon, in 1907. In the First World War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in East Africa and following that he settled on the Italian island of Capri where he wrote a number of novels.

In 1927 he achieved acclaim, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Portrait of Claire.

Young returned to England in 1929 and lived in the Lake District before moving to Craycombe House in Fladbury, Worcestershire.

After the Second World War his health failed and he went to live in South Africa, and he died in Cape Town in 1954. His ashes were brought back to England and interred at Worcester Cathedral.

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