People who pass along the A34 road from Bloxwich to Cannock seldom spare more than a casual glance for the large, elegant building—now a convent—a few hundred yards beyond the trolley bus stop.
But it has a fascinating history. Once it was a coaching inn, and legend has it that the ghost of a young woman murdered there could be seen sitting weeping under the big ash tree at the side of the pool on Wallington Heath.
Later it became a private house and Gladstone is reputed to have been a guest there. Now it is a convent of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres.
The Old King’s Arms (right), during its time as a Convent (WLHC)
Its prosperity as a coaching house dates back to 1766, when, after the passing of a turnpike Act a start was made on the present main road from Walsall to Churchbridge.
The part from Churchbridge on to Cannock remained in such a bad condition that coaches could not use it, and had to go to Stafford via Gailey and Penkridge.
Former King William Inn, Fishley Lane, Little Bloxwich,1938 – now demolished (WLHC)
This left the King William in Fishley Lane (previously an important coaching house) out of the picture and its trade transferred to the Old King’s Arms at Wallington Heath, now the convent.
Along the new turnpike road raced the coach horses of the “Red Rover,” and “Railway” from London to Manchester; the “Albion” from London to Chester; the “Crown Prince,” the “Aurora,” and the “Magnet” from London to Liverpool; the “York House” from Bristol to Liverpool; and the “Mail” from Manchester to Bath.
Wallington Heath Pool and the ‘bitties’ cottages, now long gone, c1920s
At Wallington Heath these coaches stopped to cool their wheels and water their horses in the pool now used by children for paddling in the summer, and for sliding in the winter when it is often frozen over.
The next scheduled stop along the route to the north was the Four Crosses Inn at Hatherton, though the coaches would sometimes halt at the Swan Inn at Great Wyrley, or at Churchbridge, to pick up passengers when requested.
The story goes that one wild night, the coachman thought it inadvisable to go farther than the Old King’s Arms so the horses were unharnessed and the coach left on the heath. The ostlers were housed for the night in the ‘bitties’ cottages opposite the Inn whilst the passengers retired to the more comfortable Old King’s Arms.
The former Old King’s Arms, 1920s.
Amongst them was a young woman travelling alone and carrying a roll of French silk.
The passengers went to bed early, as they hoped to make an early start next morning.
When daylight came, there was a stir at the inn, but not from the upstairs bedroom occupied by the young woman. Everyone had breakfast and took seats in the coaches, except her.
A search was made and her mutilated body was found, but the silk was missing. One of the inn’s horses and a driver had also gone.
The legend runs that her spirit refused to leave the King’s Arms. For years after, people passing on wild nights said that they had seen her sitting under the ash tree opposite the inn and quietly weeping.
It was also said that her outline appeared on the yellow plastered wall of the inn abutting the road. The wall was plastered over many times, but the figure still appeared.
There are still a few older people in the neighbourhood who can remember their parents hurrying past the spot or refusing to venture that way at night.
The Old King’s Arms ceased to be a coaching house about 1820, and a new inn was built opposite the church.
The old inn was enlarged and occupied by Mr. J. A. Russell, whose wife was the daughter of the vicar of Bloxwich.
There is a tradition that the great statesman, W. E. Gladstone, stayed there in 1841, during the electoral campaign of his brother, Captain John Nelson Gladstone, who contested Walsall, as a Tory, and who was elected with a majority of 20 votes over his Liberal opponent, Mr. J. B. Smith.
Mr. C. S. Forster, the banker, of High Street, Walsall, and Walsall’s first M.P., nominated Captain Gladstone, and, in the course of an eloquent speech, said that he would like to see: “All the horses in the world harnessed by Walsall saddlers; all soles of all boots pierced by Bloxwich awls; all the boxes fastened by Bloxwich locks; and all the world’s dust swept by Walsall brushes.”
The Old King’s Arms was renamed Wallington House, and remained in the possession of the Russell family until it was opened in 1904 as a convent for the sisters whose mother convent is near to Paris.
Possibly their occupation has given an unquiet spirit rest, for today there is no trace of the young woman on the yellow plastered wall and no ghost sits weeping under the ash tree by the pool.
by E.J. Homeshaw, 1953
TODAY, the house and the convent at Wallington Heath are long-gone. They were destroyed in the 1960s for the sake of a private housing development.
When I was a lad, I was told of the legend of the ‘Flying nun of Bloxwich’ or the ‘Grey Lady’, the ghost of a nun from the Convent of St. Paul who, it was said, drowned herself in the shallow, overgrown pool beside the convent wall, and who might sometimes be seen there on clear, moonlit nights, hovering above the murky waters. This version of the story calls into question by which pool the spirit weeps…
It is my belief that this later tale is but a distortion of the legend of the young girl who met her death so brutally that dark and dreadful night in the Old King’s Arms.
I cannot be sure, so if you ever walk past either pool late at night, and hear soft weeping or spy a shimmer in the dark, perhaps you can ask this sad, unquiet spirit for me?