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History in the Making

By Douglas T Davies

This article originally appeared in Ramparts, Vol 17 No 2, pp 11-14, 2006.

According to the Collins English Dictionary the definition of history is 'the discipline of recording and interpreting past events'. This was certainly the case when John Hemingway, an historian and Archaeological Officer for Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, started his research over 20 years ago delving through records and archives to compile the chequered history of Dudley Castle and the Barons who lived there from 1070 to 1757. However the history of the castle did not stop there.

In modern times two more dates also need recording in the continual history of Dudley Castle. They are Thursday the 20th July 1989 and Wednesday the 16th August 2006. These dates will allow people who read Ramparts in years to come to know that Dudley Castle continued to live on in spite of being a ruin.

Thursday 20th July 1989 was when a group of people with a common interest in Dudley Castle met for the first time to set up an orgaisation now known as The Friends of Dudley Castle. During the past 17 years the Friends have always been committed to support and promote the Castle in every way possible locally, nationally and internationally as a major treasure of British Heritage.

Wednesday 16th August 2006 was when John Hemingway's new book 'An Illustrated Chronicle of the Castle and Barony of Dudley 1070 - 1757', the culmination of his years of research, was launched in the courtyard of Dudley Castle, with the first print run of 1000 copies sponsored by the Friends of Dudley Castle. This new book, the first to be published on the history of the castle for over 50 years and more comprehesive than any before, certainly was worth the wait.

The Friends involvement in sponsoring the book began when, in February 2006, John Hemingway had his first book, on the history of St James Priory, Dudley, published by the Friends of Priory Park and The Green. The book became very successful and many copies were sold. In March the Friends of Dudley Castle Committee, at one of their monthly committee meetings, decided they would sponsor John's second book, on the history of Dudley Castle. The money in their Fund Raising Account was just sitting in a bank account gaining some interest but not really doing much else, so this was a great opportunity to use it to help promote Dudley Castle.

This money had taken many years to raise. The first major fund raising event was held in July 1995 when Victoria Fletcher, a founder member of the Friends, held a musical event and raised 211-79. Soon afterwards a fund raising committee was formed. It comprised of Julie Nicholls, (Vice-chair), Pam Hazlehurst, Greta Howell and the late Zena Pottinger, all founder members of the Friends. Their tireless efforts going out with their gazebo to various events across Dudley, sometimes standing in muddy fields in the rain selling tickets for the tombola, and Zena always on hand selling her second hand books, all these activities helped to swell the bank account making it possible for us to sponsor John's book.

Patrick McGraghan our chairman sent an invitation letter to the Earl of Dudley inviting him to the book launch and I had the job of sending out invitations to eighty guests as well as informing the membership of the Friends.

Three weeks before the launch, members of The Guild of the Blessed Saint Edmund King and Martyr, our 15th century re-enactment group had a photo shoot with John in the grounds of Dudley Castle. Within the week these pictures started to appear in newspapers across the Midlands. There was no turning back now, Wednesday the 16 August 2006 commencing at 7-30pm in Dudley Castle courtyard was to mark an historical event in the continual history of Dudley Castle.

On the day of the book launch the weather had not been to good and at 4.30 pm it started to rain. This was not a welcoming sight since the event was to take place outdoors. As time ticked by the black clouds disappeared and the sun broke through. As the guests started to arrive they saw the castle bathed in sunlight taking its majestic, prominent place on the hill ready for the evening ahead. The invited guests included Dudley Council Officers, Councillors and friends of John whom he specifically wanted to come along. Unfortunately the Earl of Dudley was unable to attented. However he was very keen when asked if he would write the foreword to the book.

At 6.50 pm Councillor John Woodall, the Mayor of Dudley, and his wife met Patrick McGraghan outside the Queen Mary restaurant. Patrick then introduced John Hemingway to the Mayor and his wife.

At 7.20 pm one of our billmen (Kevin Goodman) came down from the North Gate and informed Patrick that he and the guests were required in the courtyard of the castle. Patrick and the mayor, followed by the guests, slowly walked up the slope towards the North Gate. Medieval music could be heard echoing on the walls of the castle. Once through the North Gate, the billman shouted, "Make way, make way, for the Lords and Ladies".

Once everyone was assembled in the courtyard Patrick presented the first signed copy of the book to the mayor. Patrick then singled out Mike Hessey from the guests that were present. Mike had had an enormous involvement in the setting out of each page of the book taking John's scripts and turning them into the finished book. Our chairman presented him with a signed copy.

This was followed by short introduction speeches by Patrick, Peter Suddock, Chief Executive of the Zoo and Castle, and Les Jones from Dudley Council. Once the formal speeches were completed our guests started to have their copies of the book signed by John. The number of books he signed that evening overwhelmed him.

The Guild had set up an arena in the courtyard with several tents forming an encampment. In order to portray various parts of the Castle's history they dressed in multi period from medieval to Tudor a most outstanding array of colour and costume design. The knowledge the Guild has about history and how the castle functioned during its occupation provided our guests with an insight into the day-to-day activities that would have taken place. Dressed in their colourful Tudor costumes Emma and Mark Aston continued to provide the background music echoing within the walls of the castle. The archers demonstrated the use of the longbow, while 10 year old Jacob Kelly, a junior member of the Guild dressed in medieval costume, enthralled those who had gathered around him as he told the yarn of how he fought the French.

As the sun started to fade over the castle, the floodlights were switched on; slowly the castle Keep took on a new hue. This huge limestone structure took pride of place and dominated the night sky as it as done for the last 900 years.

From 9 pm the Friends and guests started to leave the castle courtyard and make their way home. Armed with signed copies of John's book and memories of the evening, it certainly proved to be an historical event for those 150 or so who were present at John Hemingway's book launch.

To conclude I would like to leave the last word with a quote from John's book: "This of course is not the end, and I hope that others will follow in my footsteps and go on with the research: finding out more about the Castle and Barony of Dudley".

Details of how to obtain a copy of the book can be found on the web site.