Monday, March 1, 2010

Life, Death and Politics in Newark

This is an English Heritage blog, but there is no need to be insular so I have it on the best authority, (My maternal great aunt) that the courteous greeting to any Welsh man or woman today is “'n ddedwydd St Dafydd s Ddiwrnod

I may not have the accent right but my heart’s in the right place!

So let’s go to visit Newark-on-Trent in the county of Nottinghamshire. I love Newark; it has a fabulous history which still feels so real and immediate, and is all around you as you wander through the streets.

And if you wander past the NatWest building you might glimpse a plaque mounted high upon the wall, which you probably won’t be able to read.

It marks the site of Hercules Clay’s residence in the seventeenth century, and a remarkable tale of ghostly warnings incredibly coming to pass.

Newark in the Civil War was defiantly for the King (and as I took my allegiance in this spat from The Children of the New Forest I raise my feathered hat to them!)

After Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, the royalist town of Newark was first attacked in 1643 by the malignant forces of Parliament.  Dwelling in a rather grandiose house in Stodman Street, was one unlikely named Hercules Clay, a rich merchant and an Alderman of the town, - Hercules was a king’s man.

On the night of 11th March 1643 he had his first dream. He dreamed that his fine house was in flames and his family was in grave danger. He apparently awoke in fright, but probably considered this was just a bad dream and possibly due to a rather indigestible supper.

He settled down and went back to sleep when once again this vivid dream of fire and flames brought him wide awake. One can only imagine with what anxiety he settled down again, only to be woken once more from a frightful dream of fire, flame and destruction.

Hercules was a god-fearing man, and he took this as a divine warning and gathering his family together, they raced out of the house. As the family cleared the building a bomb, aimed by the Parliament forces and directed at the so-called Governor’s House right opposite, dropped short.

Crashing through the roof and exploding in a roar of flames the incredible dream of Hercules Clay came true. There in front of his eyes his home was destroyed by the fire and flame he had so prophetically dreamed about.

Hercules could tell a miracle when he saw one, and so he left two bequests to the town. The first was £100 to support a sermon to be preached in St Mary Magdalene Church, and a second £100, the interest from which was to provide penny loaves for the poor of Newark, so long as they had listened to the sermon!

The tradition still continues today – well the sermon does; the penny loaves no longer are provided as the money ran out (a sign of the times perhaps) and indeed, it was said that the unruly behaviour of the not-so-needy people of the town may have had something to do with it as well.

Having said that; it was whispered in my ear that the loaves are still distributed but only to the choristers present at the service to remember Alderman Hercules Clay and his remarkable escape. I offer that information for what it is worth, as I cannot corroborate it.

That was a story of Life - this is not.

In 1997 Fiona Jones of the Labour Party was elected to parliament for Newark; she became one of the so-called ‘Blair Babes’. The defeated LibDem candidate questioned her election expenses and accused her of fraudulently failing to declare the full amount. She was subsequently convicted of election fraud in 1999 and was the first MP to be disqualified from the House of Commons since 1883.

It was noted that Fiona began to drink heavily both at Westminster and, according to her husband, at home during this time of acute stress.

The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal and she triumphantly took her seat again in the House to the cheers of her colleagues, but alas the damage had been done. She lost her seat in 2001 and undertook a futile civil case against the police for malicious prosecution.

Tragically, she died on 28 January 2007 after a history of alcohol abuse – how much of that history was due to the events of her political career will probably never be truly known.

So Newark has one remarkable story of cheating death by Hercules Clay, an outcome of the political events of his time; and the tragic story of a wasted life – probably an outcome of the political events surrounding Fiona Jones.

Just two stories about Life, death and politics in Newark


  1. Ever get the chance, go and stay at the George Inn in Norton St Phillip, just outside of Bath.

    It's a fantastic pub, is around 600 years old and was the HQ of the Duke of Monmouth before the battle of Sedgemoor.

    We stayed there, and while we wandered around the pub, came across the big plaque on the outside..... it was the exact anniversary of the day that the Duke left the pub to march to Sedgemoor and his impending death.....

  2. I used to live in Cherhill, not far from bath and I remember the George Inn - you know I never even saw the plaque you mentioned. It just shows how little of our own history we actually know.

    Thanks for the info - I've marked it on my 'to-do list'