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The Macabre Legend of Rowley's Portway Hall

By Josephine.Jasper  |  Posted: August 30, 2013

  • Cromwell's Skull

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Portway Hall's connection with the macabre legend of "The Restless Skull" is one of the hoary old stories of historic Rowley Regis which has practically suffocated under the dust of three centuries of time.

Researching it was a fascinating exercise, revealing glimpses of skeletons in the closets of Rowley's oldest families.

Portway Hall was built by Daniel "Ironside" Johnson between the years 1671-1674. Its founder was a great 17th century character, in his own right. That he was related to the mighty Oliver Cromwell and fought alongside the "Lord Protector" at The Battle of Worcester adds spice, and the currency of truth, to a legend which past historians appear to have largely ignored.

A century ago, the tale was a great favourite with yarning village story-tellers who sat in tavern chimney-corners and regaled spellbound audiences with the story of "Oliver Cromwell's Wandering Head" - insisting that the great man's mummified skull was concealed within the walls of Portway Hall for close on a hundred years!

Many historians, past and present, tend to dismiss such legends as folklore tales which have no basis in truth - but where does fact end and fiction begin?

In the absence of eye-witnesses (even Black Country folk don't live that long) we looked for circumstantial evidence to prove (or disprove) the legend.

What we discovered is set out below and many readers will agree with our verdict that those old-time village story-tellers were not weaving a tissue of lies but rather a tapestry of truth!

We all know that Cromwell was born at Huntingdon in 1599 and died in 1658. The years between provide a smouldering chapter in our national history during which he was variously described as saint, desecrator, devil and protector.

The "ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit" are too numerous to list and his puritanical principles brought dire consequences to many ancient churches throughout the land. He saw himself as "the hammer of God" born to smash any symbols of idolatry which he encountered and his savage treatment of enemies has few parallels in history.

Nevertheless, he had many admirers and there have been few national leaders who commanded more loyalty from those close to them, or more hatred from opponents!

When he died on September 3, 1658, Cromwell's body was buried, with due ceremony, in Westminster Abbey. In 1661 it was disinterred and conveyed to Tyburn where fearsome retribution was wreaked upon his corpse. The mouldering body was hanged drawn and decapitated - which gives us a lurid glimpse of the undying hatred he stirred in the hearts of his enemies - which demanded vengeance, even from beyond the grave.

His rotting head was placed upon a pike and displayed to the Tyburn onlookers and afterwards exhibited in Westminster Hall.

The macabre exhibit was stolen in 1688 and disappeared for almost a century!

The savage revenge which was visited upon Cromwell's mortal remains fulfilled, after a fashion, a prophecy made some years before by the 17th century Worcestershire astrologer - John Heydon.

Heydon was born and educated at Tardebigge, Nr Bromsgrove (an area well known to past Black Country hop-picking enthusiasts). He was imprisoned by Cromwell, during the Protectorate because the Lord Protector took violent exception to Heydon's prophecy that..."he would die by hanging and his head would never find a place of rest."

After discovering reference to a headless marble effigy of Cromwell, clad in 17th century armour, which stood in the old church at Tardebigge we went along to investigate.

Tardebigge Church was rebuilt in the 18th century and we could, at first find no trace of the marble effigy. However, after enquiries at the vicarage, the Rev P. Copley, the present incumbent, was kind enough to take us back to the church and show us the object of our quest. The life-sized marble statue we sought was pushed well out of sight beneath the belfry staircase, where it had lain for many years. Rev Copley is uncertain who it represents but the armour which encases the kneeling figure is of 17th century design.

Is this, indeed, a mocking effigy of Cromwell, raised by the men of Tardebigge, three hundred years ago, to commemorate the final truth of John Heydon's prophecy?

By 1674, Cromwell's former disciple, Daniel "Ironside" Johnson, had quietly established a new domicile at Rowley's Portway Hall - a place then remote enough to escape the retribution experienced by many of his compatriots in Cromwell's army.

He began a dynasty which was to flourish and occupy the Portway mansion until the second half of the 19th century.

Daniel, already an old man when he built Portway Hall was described by Nash as "of the yeoman farmer class." He was a fervent Puritan and still felt a great allegiance to his kinsman, Cromwell. On his deathbed, in 1687, he demanded of his sons that they "endeavour to retrieve Cromwell's head from its place of mockery and keep it safe and holy."

As we have already noted, Cromwell's head was stolen from Westminster Hall in 1688. Was this mere coincidence - or proof that the Johnson's of Portway Hall were dutiful sons?

As the "Ironside" Johnson's became established on Rowley soil a bitter feud developed between them and the Russell family.

The Russell's laid claim to being the oldest family in the ancient manor, holding documents which proved their antiquity. In the Pipe Rolls for Staffordshire dated 1170, the following entry occurred.

"Richard de Rushdale (Russell owes ten marks and one Palfrey for holding a charter from the King for land at Rowley, which his father held before him."

In a Muster Roll. dated 1539, Thomas Russell was described as being in the gentleman-at-arms class and permitted to carry "bows and arrows."

In 1667, shortly before the arrival of the "ironside" Johnson's in Rowley, a Poll Tax survey recorded that "William Russell has a household of 7 servants." By far the largest body of retainers in the area.

Towards the end of the 17th century, a dispute over "boundaries" started a bitter feud between the Russell's and the Johnson's. The latter family had the better of the dispute and the Russell's suffered financially. There-after their fortunes declined whilst the Johnson's, still fierce puritans, grew in wealth and reputation.

In 1774, over 200 years ago, Theodore Russell, an impoverished son of the ancient family gathered his kinsmen and organised "a raid by night" upon Portway Hall, firing part of the house. Amongst the booty with which the raiders escaped was "a morbid skull contained in a brass-bound casket."

To escape the lawful consequences of his act, Theodore Russell, hastily left Rowley and in subsequent years was described as a "travelling actor" in poor circumstances.

Throughout his thespian wanderings it seems that he carried with him the gory trophy which he had stolen from Portway Hall, for in 1787, he sold it for an undisclosed sum to John Wilkinson, the Bilston iron founder. He presented it to a relative who was a leading antiquary of the day and it was kept in a private museum until handed over to Cromwell's old college (Sidney Sussex, Cambridge) where it now lies in an unmarked grave.

 That just about wraps up the legend of Cromwell's Restless Skull. The house in which it is reputed to have lain for almost a hundred years is now a tottering shell. Like the "creepy" cranium it once guarded, the Hall has known the depths of degradation, not least in recent times when this one-time seat of the strictly Puritan Johnson family became a sleazy strip-club! Such goings on in a house where Cromwell's head once lay serene in its brass-bound casket.

On a later visit to the house we found the lingering perfume of this 20th century decadence adding its distinctive aroma to the ancient mustiness of the house. A modern cocktail bar, crammed with bottles (from which the spirits have long departed), dead cigar-butts in cheap tin ash-trays, red carpet upon which nymphean nudes so recently cavorted, merely echo the final death throes of this dying house.

Its venerable carcass is held together by rusting iron tie-rods, fitted in the last century when the pull of the mines and blasting at nearby quarries took their toll on the structure. The Johnson's have long gone.

Midway through the last century, William Eayles Johnson finally severed the dynasty's connection with Portway Hall when he sold it to the William's family.

The once-noble surroundings of the house have suffered no less from the hand of time. The lofty grandeur of The Rowley Hills, the endless fields and woodland glades have been savagely eroded and sacrificed to the yellow gods of monetary gain. Portway Hall itself is almost overshadowed by rearing piles of motor vehicle tyres, in an adjoining firm's stockyard, mighty blocks of flats and teeming rows of houses cover the meadows which once swept down, in green splendour, to the toll-cottage at Whiteheath Gate. Greedy talons have clawed deep into the nearby hills and in the late 19th century no less than forty coal-pits could be counted within a one mile radius of Portway Hall.

The canal, railway, half a dozen brickyards and ironworks completed the chaotic canvas daubed by the Industrialists of the era.

What does the future hold for Portway Hall?

Hints that it may become a "country club" have been made in recent months but a great deal of work will be required to strengthen its ageing structure if the house, where Cromwell's head once lay, is to be preserved.

Maybe, its woodworm garrison will win after all, and another chunk of Black Country history will disappear from the mangled meadows of our antiquity?

The descendants of the "Ironside" Johnson's and the ancient Russell's still abound in Rowley, probably oblivious of their lineage and ancestral connection with the legend of "The Restless Skull." Perhaps this brief look at Rowley Past will strike a chord of distant remembrance and revive forgotten childhood recollections of the story Rowley greybeards once loved to relate.

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