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Shrewsbury servant Gertrude's revenge for hated job

By Toby Neal | Shrewsbury | Nostalgia | Published:

Gertrude Arnold, a 14-year-old domestic at Rowton Castle near Shrewsbury, didn't care for the work.

Rowton Castle, as seen in an undated, but perhaps Edwardian, Wilding's postcard.

So when somebody tried to burn the place down, she found herself in the frame.

It sounds like a plot from an episode of Downton Abbey, but it had a very real consequence for Gertrude, who lived in Bicton Heath – she was packed off to a reformatory for four years.

Her story is included in a new book, "Rowton Castle, Shropshire," which charts the many twists and turns in the history of the castle, which has seen a variety of roles over the years, ranging from being a family home for centuries, to a school for the blind, and ultimately its current role as a luxury hotel and wedding venue.

It has been written and researched by John Hodges, who has a particular interest in digging out the stories of historic houses.

One of the covers of the book – author John Hodges could not decide which cover was best, so the book is available in a choice of covers.

Brought up at his father's farm at Dryton, Wroxeter, he lives now in Worcester.

Those mysterious fires at Rowton Castle, which at the time was the residence of a Major Lees, were on successive nights, Friday, December 15, 1916, and the Saturday night.

About 6pm on the Friday the laundry, part of a range of buildings next to the castle, was found to be ablaze. The servants were able to put out the flames, but much damage was done.

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On the Saturday evening it was the gun room, part of the same range of buildings, which was on fire. The guns had been taken out because of the fire the previous night, but the building and contents were destroyed.

Incidentally, neither fire seems to have been a finest hour for the local fire brigades.

The Shrewsbury Chronicle reported that with the Friday fire, "the fire had been extinguished before the arrival of the Alliance Fire Brigade. The Royal Brigade were delayed in starting owing to difficulty in obtaining horses."

The castle is now a spectacular weddings venue

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And similarly the following night no fire brigade arrived on the scene until the fire had been extinguished.

Gertrude was dealt with at Albrighton Divisional Sessions in January 1917. She had only been working at the castle for about six weeks.

She denied arson and the vicar of Oxon, the Rev W.G.D. Fletcher, and her father, were both called to speak to her good behaviour.

"It was stated by them that she had been some months in the employ of the Army Pay Offices in Shrewsbury, but left because soldiers' wives were put on in the place of single girls.

"She did not care much at having to go into service."

The reformatory sentence meant she was to a correctional institution.

Another view of the castle.

Years later there would be another serious fire at Rowton Castle, when the occupant was the Royal Normal College for the Blind – and yes, Normal was the correct part of that title. Dormitories in the castle grounds were destroyed in the early hours of March 5, 1953, but nobody was hurt.

Probably the most famous pupil of the college was the blind politician Sir David Blunkett who, John recounts in the book, attended Rowton Castle School before later moving Albrighton Hall not far away.

Not all of the notables connected with Rowton Castle have been human.

A 500-year-old Cedar of Lebanon tree in the grounds was believed to be the largest of its kind in Europe, and when measured in 1985 stood 120ft tall with a girth of 31ft.

It was badly damaged by snow, gales, and heavy rain in 1989 which prompted a rescue operation by tree surgeons. John's book says the magnificent tree has died, adding "due to old age and an unidentified disease the tree is just a shell of its former glory."

An offbeat feature of the book, which costs £14.99, is that it is available with a choice of two different covers.

"I could not decide which one I liked the best, so have used both," said John.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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