The History of Yew Tree Cottage
March 29th, 2022
In the 1770s when the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal was built, Kinver was already an important town with a busy ironworks and an established woollen industry. To the east of the town the River Stour swept around Dunsley hill, and the canal was dug to the east of the river. As the wharf area at Kinver Bridge developed over the years, it would have been bustling with activity, with horse drawn boats coming and going, a weighbridge, and labourers loading and unloading goods. There were two pubs, the Lock Inn in Mill Lane, and the Vine Inn. Even the temperate frequented the inns. In 1839 the Wesleyan Methodists held their services at the Lock Inn, then in 1846 they held their services in one of the rock houses at Dunsley Rock. Up at the top of Dunsley hill were Dunsley House and Dunsley Manor Farm, the homes of well-to-do families with a host of servants. At the foot of the hill there was a small hamlet, consisting mostly of rock houses built into in the hillside. These became known as the Dunsley rock houses. (A further group of cave dwellings can be found at Kinver Edge).
By 1830 there were probably twelve or thirteen rock houses nestled into the sandstone slopes. Unfortunately the early censuses do not allow us to separate those who lived in cottages from those who lived in rock houses, and in both the census and the church records, the residences of the same families are inconsistently named, either Dunsley or Dunsley Rock, making identification even more difficult. Although it is impossible to identify individual homes, we can learn a great deal about the families who lived there. Most of the men were boatmen and iron workers, and several of the women were screw makers. Although some of the labourers were agricultural, others must have been employed at the iron works or the canal wharf, where there was a weighbridge. According to Bills and Griffiths, labourers at the canal wharf rented lodgings at the rock house caves for 1 shilling a week.
In the 1841 census the properties seem to be listed from north west to south east, starting at the Lock Inn, where the brewers and victuallers were the Williams family, and continuing along Gibraltar Lane to Dunsley Rock without any form of identification – the records give all addresses simply as ‘Dunsley’. The heads of the households were a nailer, a cordwainer (shoemaker), a maltster, five agricultural labourers, four female screw makers at the local screw factory, and a spade maker (the Spade Works can be seen on 1880s maps). As we continue south east, we find eleven boatman, three agricultural labourers, a general labourer, a forgeman, three iron puddlers (working at the iron works), three lady screw makers, and two female servants.
In the 1851 census, Dunsley Rock is separated out from Dunsley. There were 17 households living at Dunsley Rock. The heads of these households were Thomas Humphries, a labourer, and his lodger, a lady screw maker; John Oldnall, a labourer; Abraham Thomas, a labourer whose granddaughter was working at the screw factory; Thomas Preston, a forge labourer, whose son was a labourer and whose daughter in law worked at the screw factory; George Bennet, a forge labourer, whose son was also a forge labourer and whose daughter worked in the screw factory; James Green, a labourer; James Mallard, a forge labourer, whose lodger Ann was a boatman’s daughter; John Preston, a forge labourer, whose wife was a charwoman; William Coley, a boatman, and his lodger Robert Morris, also a boatman with his own young family; Henry Preston, a forge labourer; Richard Morris, a boatman, with two sons working as a boatman and another as a boat boy; Sarah Poole, a field labourer, with her daughter and her lodger Thomas Hall, a labourer; Robert Morris, a boatman, whose daughter worked in the screw factory, and whose son in law Joseph Willington was also a boatman; John Longmore, a forge labourer, with his wife and his lodger George Patrick, an iron puddler; William Inchmore, a disabled pauper, and his lodger Sarah Inchmore, perhaps a sister; Edward Elwell, a boatman, with his son, a forge labourer; Joseph Longmore, a forge labourer, with two stepsons, a forge labourer and a boatman, and Emma Hall, a lodger working at the screw factory.
Bills and Griffiths suggested in their pamphlet about the rock houses that the ones Dunsley were of crude construction, smaller, more crowded, and damper than the ones at Kinver Edge because of their proximity to the river and the canal, although the shade from the hill and its overhanging trees probably had more effect on the dampness than the watercourses. From studying the parish registers from 1814 to 1884, they concluded that disease was rife and lives were foreshortened by the unhealthy conditions. They cite two families who lost 14 members in the space of 49 years, and six deaths from smallpox.
Nevertheless, there were some people at the rock houses whose lives were just as long as those in the village. For example Hannah Green died in 1850 age 74, Benjamin Oldnall died in 1845 age 82, and Ann Thomas died in 1854 age 76. Some of the deaths at Dunsley Rock were due to accident, not illness, for example 13 year old Mary Longmore drowned in the canal in December 1849. On Wednesday 05 December 1849, the Worcestershire Chronicle reported:
Kinver.—Child Drowned.—An inquest was held on Monday at the Lock Inn, Kinver, before Mr. Phillips, coroner, on the body of Mary Longmore, a fine little girl of 13. Her parents reside at Dunsley Rock, which overhangs the canal near Kinver, and she had been seen in a boat that was moored near her father’s house on Sunday. On being missed, the canal was dragged, and soon after three o’clock the body was found quite cold and dead. There was a mark on the temple and right cheek, as of a blow, which might have been occasioned by a fall against the side of the boat. By direction of the coroner the jury returned an open verdict, “Found dead in the canal.”
1873 – William Henry Price
At some point William Henry Price acquired some of the rock houses. William lived at Rockmount, Dark Lane, Kinver from at least 1871. He probably purchased the rock houses in an auction sale of land, houses and cottages which was held in September 1873 and Lot 3 probably included the last remaining occupied rock houses. The catalogue entry for this lot read:
Lot 3. All those five cottages with the garden sloping down to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, situate at Dunsley Rock, in the occupation of Edward Knott, George Bennett, John Barker, and two void. For further particulars, apply to W. J. Cowper Esq., Solicitor, Newbury or Mr. John Taylor, Land Agent, Stourbridge.
William also had property in Rhyl, Flintshire, Wales. He married Sarah Julia Mannix there in 1874.
On 29th August 1874 the County Advertiser & Herald for Staffordshire and Worcestershire published a report by Dr Ballard on “The Sanitary State of Kinver”. This provides some fabulous detail on the state of the cave dwellings. He wrote:
“There are in the neighbourhood of Kinver two series of cave dwellings which require mention; one at Dunsley Rock, and the other at Kinver Edge. The Inspector of Nuisances has made a thorough inspection of these dwellings, and has furnished me with a copy of the tabulated statement of the result of his inspection, which I forward with this Report. 1) There are thirteen cave dwellings at Dunsley Rock, of which eight are occupied by families. The caves are dug out of the face of the sandstone rock at an elevation of about 40 feet above the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. The front of each cave is usually in part built up with bricks, so as to leave a window opening and a door opening. In all instances there is one inner cave, in several instances there are two or even three inner caves, entered from the first or outermost one. These inner caves are used as bed rooms, have no means of ventilation whatever, and are dark. I measured two of the inner caves used as bed rooms. One of them measured 13 feet x 13 feet x 7 feet (on an average) high, 1.183 cubic feet, or thereabouts. In this case there were three beds. In one slept a man and his wife, in the other, two sons, one by night and the other by day; and in the third bed a daughter, when she is at home. The other inner cave measured 9 feet x 9 feet x 8 feet (on an average) high – 648 cubic feet. In this cave there were two beds, but I was told that one of these is unoccupied. The ventilation of the outermost caves used as living rooms is also very defective. Mostly the caves are dry. The privy accommodation is very insufficient, is of rude construction, and unwholesome. Domestic slops are thrown out anywhere, to find their way down the face of the rock into the canal below. The water supply is a spring at the base of the rock which bounds the canal. The water of the spring is received in a rude basin of rock, over the well worn edge of which water from the canal flows whenever a boat passes down through the lock just above, or when a passing boat causes a swell. The approach to this spring is very dangerous. These cave dwellings are the property of various persons, and they are rented by their inhabitants. They are unfit for human habitation.
The report went on to describe the more commodious caves at Kinver Edge, as well as some dilapidated ones in that area. In conclusion Dr Ballard wrote:
Where dwellings are unwholesome, and therefore nuisances under section 8 of the Nuisance Removal Act, 1855, from want of proper drainage, and as such drainage will render them wholesome is impracticable, they ought to be regarded as unfit for human habitation, and proceedings should be taken with a view of having them closed….. The cave dwellings at Dunsley Rock and at Kinver Edge, which cannot be properly lighted, ventilated, and otherwise made wholesome, should at once be dealt with, and proceedings must be taken for the purpose of having them closed as unfit for human habitation.
When the 1881 census was compiled, the heads of the houses beyond The Vine were listed as Eli Forest, a spade manufacturer; Frances Rudge, a dressmaker; Edwin Hoult, a general labourer; Sarah Wakeman, a farm servant, and her lodger John Bradley, an agricultural labourer; Thomas Lane, a boatman; Henry Preston, an iron works labourer; George Bennett, an iron works labourer; William Coley, a boatman, his wife Hannah, two of their sons, both boatmen, and a lodger Edgar Thomas, also a boatman; Edward Knott (recorded here in 1873, see above), a general agricultural labourer; James Green, a coal merchant’s labourer, and Edward Williams, a boatman, with his wife Sarah. Listed after them were a group of residences labelled as Dunsley Dell. These were three unoccupied properties, followed by three households, the heads of which were Thomas Gregg, a gardener; Catherine Coley, a boatman’s wife; Mary Milward, a widow, with her two sons who were iron works labourers, and finally an unoccupied dwelling. It is fairly safe to assume that these last listings in Dunsley Dell included the remaining cave dwellings, but it is not clear whether the name Dunsley Dell included any newly built cottages.
The cottages are built c.1881
William Price’s daughter, the actress and author Lilian Nancy Bache Price, known as Nancy Price, was born in 1880 and lived with her father at Rockmount. In 1953, she wrote a memoir of her childhood, ‘Into an Hour-Glass’, and recorded that her father, William Henry Price, owned the land on which the rock houses stood. She also wrote that the local health board forced him to rehouse the tenants of the rock houses elsewhere in the village. I have not read the original extract in the book so I do not know whether she recorded exactly when this occurred. I don’t think she said that he built the new cottages to replace the cave dwellings either. (Does anyone have a copy?)
The new properties were probably built at the beginning of the 1800s. These included a terrace of three cottages on the left (now Yew Tree House), a single cottage (perhaps two joined?) in the centre (now Yew Tree Cottage), and another terrace of three workmen’s cottages on the right (now Dunsley Rock Cottage). Although we cannot be certain exactly when the cottages were built, all three were definitely in existence by 1882, because Yew Tree House, Yew Tree Cottage, and Dunsley Rock Cottage are clearly marked on the 1887 Ordnance Survey map which was surveyed in 1882. This 25 inch to the mile map clearly shows the outlines of the three properties at Dunsley Rock which exist today. There appears to be a row of buildings to the north west of the cottages, probably the last remaining rock dwellings shown in the postcard below, but there are none to the south east of Dunsley Rock Cottage. The location of a spring by the canal bank is shown to the south east of Dunsley Rock Cottage, with a short path descending to it.
Bills and Griffiths’ wrote in their booklet that by the 1880s the caves were no longer rented by permanent residents, but that boatmen still rented them. Gradually the caves deteriorated to the point where they could no longer be used, and they were never restored. It is possible that people still lived in some of the caves after the cottages were built, but gradually these last rock houses slipped into disuse.
William Henry Price died in 1903.
1890 – Henry Parrish Downing buys Yew Tree Cottage
The next known owner of the Rock Cottages was Henry Parrish Downing, a former glass manufacturer. He owned property at Dunsley from at least 1874, when the first of a series of conveyances were made to him. In 1881 he appears in the census as a farmer of 330 acres at “Dunsley”. I have found no primary evidence that he owned the Rock Cottages, however, a declaration written by Selina Jane Price in 1930 and found with the papers of Yew Tree Cottage states that he was in ‘undisturbed possession’ of Yew Tree Cottage from at least 10 years before his death in 1900. This confirms that he bought Yew Tree Cottage from William Henry Price in around 1890, about ten years after it was built. This declaration will henceforth be referred to as the SJP declaration.
It seems likely that Henry Downing and William Price (and/or their wives) were friends, and perhaps they were also in business together. They both had property in Flintshire, and Henry Downing married his second wife, Elizabeth Stewart nee Aaron, in Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales, in 1876, just two years after William Price had married there.
The continuing decline and abandonment of the Dunsley Rock cave dwellings can be seen quite clearly from the census returns in subsequent years. By 1891 the number of households had reduced substantially. Beyond The Vine the heads of the households were Samuel Harris, a gardener; and Sarah Blunt, a widow, with her two sons. These were followed by four uninhabited dwellings. Next came three households labelled as ‘Dunsley Rock’, perhaps the three cottage which make up the present Yew Tree House or Dunsley Rock Cottage (as yet unnamed). The heads of these three households were James Preston, a retired iron worker; Hannah Coley, now widowed; and Benjamin Craddock, a woodman. These were followed by two households labelled as Dunsley Dell, and finally two unoccupied residences also labelled as Dunsley Dell.
Henry Downing continued to acquire properties in the area until 1895.
1900 – the Cottages pass to the Price siblings
According to the SJP declaration, Selina Jane Price was a frequent visitor to her uncle Henry in Dunsley, and she lived with him entirely for the last 18 months of his life. She must have held a special place in his heart, as she was named after his first wife.
Henry Parrish Downing died in 1900 at Dunsley House. I believe Henry Parrish Downing had no children. The SJP declaration confirms that on his death his estate passed to two Trustees. The first was his nephew Samuel John Price, then living in Cardiff. I wondered whether I might find a familial connection between Samuel John Price and William Henry Price, but there does not seem to be one. The second Trustee was Dinah Hawkings, a spinster. It is possible that Dinah was Henry’s common law wife.
The SJP declaration states that either Henry or Samuel also owned The Gables in Dunsley and the wharf adjoining (I have not seen the relevant page).
1901 – The Railway
From 1898 to 1901 Kinver Light Railway was built from Amblecote to Kinver, providing more employment for the local men. It was opened in March 1901 and remained in service until 1930.
In the 1901 census Samuel Price was still living in Cardiff and was employed as an accountant. His sister Selina Jane Price was listed at Dunsley House. Dinah Hawkings was listed as her companion.
In 1901 the census lists the the properties at Dunsley Rock by name for the first time. ‘Yew Tree Cottage’ was occupied by Joseph Fletcher, a 44 year old agricultural labourer, and his wife Annie. ‘Yew Tree Cottages’ are listed as two unoccupied properties. ‘Dunsley Rock’ is listed as three separate cottages, occupied by Thomas Haward, a 29 year old groom and non-domestic gardener, and his wife Sarah, James Perkin, a 37 year old non-domestic gardener, and Arthur Parker, a 36 year old carter at the Coal Wharf, and their respective families. The name Dunsley Dell has disappeared from the census, and there appear to be no more rock dwellings.
Early 1900s – a Walk
An undated booklet, “Illustrated Guide to Kinver” was published in the early 1900s. Names of business proprietors in the booklet date it as after 1901, but before 1910. The booklet describes a walk through Gibraltar and Dunsley Rock.
Walk No, 2. Gibraltar Rock and Whittington Inn, 2½ miles. Starting from the terminus of the Kinver Light Railway,immediately on getting to the public road, which is adjacent, we turn to the left, passing over the Canal bridge and taking the first turning to the right. From the terminus itself the rock above-mentioned may be seen, and will give one some idea as to the direction in which to go. After turning to the right, a mere path leads past the rock, parts of which are inhabited, whilst a little further on the walk takes us through some beautiful woods, where in Spring, a carpet of blue bells are to be seen, whilst a wealth of foliage forms a grateful shade on a hot summer’s day. After leaving the wood, a walk of two or three minutes brings us to one of the oldest hostelries in the country, the Whittington Inn, an example of Early English architecture which is well worthy of inspection.
The walk returns to the terminus via the church. It is interesting that no cottages are mentioned in this description. Bluebells still flourish in the woods!
In 1903 Samuel Price’s sisters Joannie and Mary Elizabeth died in Cardiff.
It is not until 1906 that I first saw the name Gibraltar Rock – this was the title on the postcard shown here.
Some of the rock cottages were demolished early in 1910, an event which was recorded in the County Express on Saturday 19 February 1910:
Rock Houses Demolished. The many visitors who resort to Kinver will be sorry to learn of the partial demolition of some of the rock houses on the bridle road to Whittington, which has taken place during the last two months. […] The rock houses which have been affected must not be confused with those at Nanny’s Rock. which are perhaps better known. […] Gibraltar rock is well-known to the residents of Kinver and the surrounding district, and many people in the Midlands besides, for the rock homes have for years formed the objective of many interested visitors The path on which they abut is the Bridle Road to Whittington, and in summer is sought by many desirous of a pleasant stroll through scenes of exceptional natural beauty. On the one side of the path towers a tree-crested cliff, while on the other hand wind the canal and the River Stour. In themselves the rock houses are exceedingly interesting, as is evinced by the initials of many excursionists who have examined them. The rooms have been hollowed out from the solid rock, and in some cases chimneys cut through it. Whitewashed inside, and with brick fronts, they were twenty years ago utilised as dwellings for quite a number of persons. […] Ten years ago one of the houses was occupied by an old dame, who had spent a good part of her life there, and who was disinclined to leave the humble dwelling, which for her had the fascination of old memories. She too has gone, and for a decade the houses have been but a showplace for visitors, and the playground of youngsters, in whose imagination caves always raise romantic visions.
In the 1911 census, the name Gibraltar does not appear. Only four households were listed at Dunsley Rock, immediately after High Park Farm and its cottages. In the order in which they were recorded, they are:
- Arthur John Parker, a coal merchant, with his wife, three children, and a boarder Albert David Pantall, a general labourer, at ‘Dunsley Cottages’. (There is no mention of any other households at Dunsley Cottages.
- Alfred J Lloyd, a tailor, at ‘Yew Tree House, Dunsley Rock’ with his wife and daughter.
- Miss Clara Bates, a single woman, at ‘Yew Tree Cottage, Yew Tree Cottages, Dunsley Rock’.
- Edward Hill and his wife Elizabeth, old age pensioners, at ‘Yew Tree Cottages, Dunsley Rock’.
Following this entry there are several boats moored at Stewpony Wharf, starting with The Francis. George Brown, a general carrier, was master of the Francis, with his mate William Morris.
In the 1911 census Dunsley House was still owned by Samuel (and perhaps his sisters), but was now used as a ‘Home of Rest’. Selina Price was living with her brother Samuel and sister Sarah in Cardiff. Samuel had obviously retained an interest in boats – he was now a steam tug owner. Dinah had left Dunsley too, and was living with her sister in Burnham, Somerset.
1911 to 1915 – Holidays
It appears that the cottages were becoming increasingly popular for holiday accomodation. Number 3 Dunsley Rock Cottage was advertised in the County Express on Saturdays 21 October and 28 October 1911:
Cottage (furnished), Kinver; sheltered from winds; very low winter terms.—Apply 3 Rock Cottage, Dunsley Rock.
On 15 May 1915 a newspaper advert was published which may refer to any of the properties along Gibraltar and Dunsley Rock. It read as follows:
Kinver – Furnished cottage (small); stamp; also Apartments. The beauty spot of Kinver. Parties catered for. – Lloyd, ‘Switzerland Tea Gardens’ Dunsley Rock.
1921 – Jane Roberts
In the 1921 census, which taken on 19th June 1921, Yew Tree House, Yew Tree Cottage, and Dunsley Rock Cottages are all listed. The residents of Yew Tree Cottage, which was listed as having 5 rooms, were Jane Roberts and three young visitors:
- Jane Roberts, a single woman who was 65 years old and had no children. Her personal occupation was given simply as “Apartments”.
- Olive Brettell, a short hand typist at E Blakemore and Sons Lino, Salop Street, Wolverhampton, age 19 years.
- Thomas Brettell, a full time school boy age 13 years.
- Ivy Brettell, a full time school girl age 7 years.
All three of the young siblings were the three youngest children of Thomas and Mary Brettell. They were all born in Heath Town, Wolverhampton. Their father Thomas, a Master Butcher, had died in August 1914, just over a year after little Ivy was born. Their mother Mary was still alive but she was not at Yew Tree House with her children, she was still in Heath Town.
1925 Samuel Price’s death
Samuel Price died in 1925, having appointed his sisters Sarah and Selina Price, and his nephew Andrew Downing Mein as his executors. Andrew Downing Mein was the grandson of Henry Parrish Downing, the son of Samuel’s sister Joannie. Like their Uncle Henry, all the siblings except Joannie had been childless.
In 1930 Sarah Price died, leaving Selina and Andrew as the last of the family with an interest in the Dunsley cottages.
In 1930 Friths registered a postcard showing all the cottages.
In October 1930 Selina signed a declaration (the SJP declaration) stating that Yew Tree Cottage had been in the possession of Henry Parrish Downing and then the Trustees, for 40 years, from 1890 until 25th September 1930, when they had entered into an agreement to sell the property to Jane Roberts for £195. The sale was completed on 14th October 1930.
In 1931 a Wayleave agreement was created at one shilling a year (presumably for the supply of electricity to the cottages) with the Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire Electric Power Company.
The 1939 Register was taken on 29 September 1939:
Edward Houlston, a motor body builder, his wife Hilda, and one child were living at Yew Tree House.
Two other households were recorded after this record, also addressed as Yew Tree House, but they were probably mis-addressed and should have been Yew Tree Cottage. It seemms likely that they were tenants. Jane Roberts was not in residence. In one of these households was Kate Harman, a widow of private means. In the other were Edward Thomas Elkes, a woodman (classed as a heavy worker), his wife Winifred, and one child. No households were listed at 1 or 2 Dunsley Rock Cottages.
In 1939 43 year old Eizabeth Horton, a dressmaker, was living at No 3 Dunsley Rock Cottages with her children 13 year old Margaret, 11 year old Frederick, 9 year old Elsie and 8 year old James, who was at school. Elizabeth’s husband Albert Joseph Horton was the son of a Kinver boatman, so it seems likely that he was a boatman too, especially given the various birth locations of the children, and the fact that I have been unable to track him down in 1911 or 1939, when he was away from home. The family later moved to Walsall area, where Elizabeth came from.
On 25th November 1939 Jane Roberts died.
On 7th Feb 1940 the personal representative of Jane Roberts sold Yew Tree Cottage for £185 to Irene May Dewsbury Jackson, wife of Cecil William Jackson of Forest Lodge, Kinver. Irene later moved to Jersey.
In 1969 Irene sold two properties, Yew Tree Cottage for £1000, and Heather Mount, Stone Lane, for £3000, to L’Etocquet Ltd, a company in Jersey of which she was a Director.
On 16th December 1974 L’Etocquet Ltd sold Yew Tree Cottage for £5000, to John Greaves Smith of the West Midlands Historic Buildings Trust and his wife Maureen Ann Smith, for their own family use. John was a visionary architect, and he extended the cottage to create a comfortable home with a warm and welcoming ambience. Smith’s architecture has retained many of the cottage’s original period features, and entrances to some of the remaining caves were incorporated into the rear walls of the extension which he built. He has created a fantastic retreat in a stunning rural location, yet within walking distance of the lovely village of Kinver and all its facitities.
The Smiths purchased a piece of land in Gibraltar as a parking space.
The present owners purchased Yew Tree Cottage in 2006.
- Into an Hour-Glass, 1953, by actress and author Lilian Nancy Bache Price, known as Nancy Price
- Living on the Edge, thesis, Willetts
- Kinver Rock Houses, Bills and Griffiths
- Survey of 1831, Bright
- A Natural History of Staffordshire, Plot
- A History of Kinver, unpublished, Bennett
- Extracts Relating to Kinver, Enville and Himley, 1832, W. Scott
- Life on the Edge: the Rock-Cut Dwellings of Kinver Edge, paper, Edmund Simons
- A History of the County of Stafford, Greenslade, Johnson, and Tringham, 1984