Black Country Muse


The Burning of Rowley Parish Church.


For many years, there has been a story in my family, concerning one of it's members. When I was young, whenever an argument arose about relatives, my grandfather would always end his observations about grandmothers side with " well, non of mine ever burnt down a Church ". I always thought this was odd, but could never get my father to explain the reason it was said. Later on of course, I forgot all about it, and never asked again, which, as we all now know, is almost always a bad mistake. The answer would have saved me a great deal of research, and wasted hours on the subject. I'm not of course suggesting that what follows is the whole truth, but such stories nearly always contain a germ of truth. Judge for yourselves.


The subject of the research, is Joseph Ruston, who was born in December 1838, at Club Buildings, Rowley Regis, Staffordshire. By all accounts, a hardworking, honest individual, who worked for over 40 years as a Drain Pipe maker, at Doultons factory. He was, since his marriage to Martha Slater in 1860, blessed with a large, and seemingly healthy family. In 1884 they were living at 36 Hawes Lane, in Rowley Village, and Joseph, at least, was a regular attendee, at the Providence Baptist Chapel in Bell End. This had been established in 1876, by Daniel Matthews, and building was completed in 1877. Joseph was, apparently a fairly religious man, who believed in the Baptist view of the Bible, including some of the doctrine which did not agree with the modern way of life. ( such as it was in the 1880s ) In 1894, Saint Giles, the Parish Church, suffered some problems with subsidence, which resulted in the church having to be rebuilt somewhat. This increased the congregation at the Chapel, and some discussion took place amongst the trustee's, over whether to install an Organ. Agreement was reached in 1895, although this decision did not go down well with some Chapel members, foremost of whom was Joseph Ruston. They broke away from the Chapel, and, in what was in hindsight, given the small numbers who went with him, an ill conceived venture, decided to build their own Chapel, on a piece of waste land in Hawes Lane. Finances were hard to come by, and the cheapest bricks were used, to constuct, what was in essence, four walls and a roof. The project was finished in 1896, and Joseph, who had proclaimed himself a Gospel Preacher, began the task of finding converts. This proved to be a difficult task, there was much that had changed over the years, and converting people away from the delights of Newspapers, Tram rides, Music Halls, and other forms of entertainment, was very much an uphill struggle.  So much so, that in 1898, he was sacked by Doultons for the continued disruption, caused by his Preaching, during working hours. He rapidly gained a reputation as a religious nutcase, which of course, did not do the Chapel much good, and earned the ire of his fellow dissenters. Not surprisingly, he lost control of the Chapel, and almost certainly the respect of the local residents, including the Vicar of Rowley, with whom he had many arguments. Forced to accept handouts from his children, Joseph fumed and raged at his own impotence, and the last straw would have been the loss of his investment in the building. This he did not tell the family about, they continued to believe he owned it all. He did not tell them what he planned to do next, nor did they suspect, until after the event, just how troubled his mind was.


On the 18th June, 1913, Joseph Ruston left the house, as usual, to check the Ebenezer Chapel. The only form of lighting allowed in it, were Candles and Parraffin powered lamps. Taking a large can of the spirit, and undercover of the darkness, Joseph carefully made his way, unobserved, to the rear of Saint Giles. There were no vandals about, so they say, in 1913, and most Churches were not always secured. Now whether Joseph knew or not, that the Church was at this time uninsured, I don't know, and I doubt if it would have made him change his fanatical mind anyway. The Church had recently been refurbished, (1907) and the timber, mostly pine, still contained a fair bit of oil, not yet becoming fully dry. This added to the fire, which Joseph now started, having libraly sprinkled paraffin over the floors and pews. He made his way back to the Chapel, put the can back in it's place, and went home, to await the results. The fire was not spotted for some time, only when the air became thick with acrid smoke did anyone bother to call the Fire Brigade. If it had been a Church somewhere else that day, they might have saved it, but Saint Giles, sitting as it did on top of the Rowley Hills, had a particlar problem. The lack of water, and any pressure, with which to fight the fire. They did their best under the circumstances, but all to no avail, Saint Giles was completly gutted. There were many rumours in the papers, some blamed the Suffragettes, and some blamed passing Tramps or Vagabonds. The Police however, kept their own minds open during the investigation, and their mouths closed from speculation. It was rumoured in the family, that Joseph, and his Sons, were questioned a number of times, but nothing was recorded in the local press, so I shall just have to wait and see what transpires, when the 100 year rule on documents releases expires.


My grandmother, her brother, and most of the uncles I met, were in no doubt of just who the culprit was. Most of them avoided Joseph whenever possible, and as recently as 1976, he was refered to as the "Religious Nutcase ". Some things I do know though. Following his death in 1919, there were conciderable difficulties within his family, sorting out his will. For one thing, he did not die at the address one would have expected, in Hawes Lane, but at the old house in Club Buildings. When, and why did the family move him from the Village. There were several small court actions over ownership of property, amongst which I believe was the Chapel. When the will was finally settled, in 1926, the sum total of his estate was £400, which included the old rundown property at Club Buildings, but did it include the Chapel. It's all gone now of course, the old Ebenezer Chapel, pulled down before it fell down. The old Club Buildings, now the site of Stanford Drive, have long been demolished. All the people involved are also now deceased, as are many who could have thrown a little more light on the subject. Well thats the family story, or at least the core of it, I can't prove it one way or the other, but over the years, it's the best explanation I've heard, for the undoubted Arson at Rowley Church. It's just a theory at the moment, and if anyone has any information to the contrary, I will be pleased to hear it. It's coming up to a 100 years since it happened, and it would be nice to solve the mystery.


Now I have made it perfectly clear in the story, that there isn't a great deal of supporting evidence, but it's a good story. It now transpires that some demented soul, who obviously hasn't read it properly, has decided to have a go at the poor author for reciting the tale. Even more, they have decreed that I am not even connected to said family. Concidering my grandmothers name was Ruston, and my great grandfather, and another four such I can name, were all born in Club Buildings Rowley. They only have a connection via a dubious marriage, so who is a blood relative, and which one is telling lies. Make up your own mind, I only tell it as it is.