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News > OVA News > A Mysterious Death in Penns Lane

A Mysterious Death in Penns Lane

Stephen Roberts (OV1977) shares a story that he had published in the Sutton Coldfield Observer last Friday.
15 Apr 2020
Written by Stephen Roberts
OVA News


Shortly after 5pm on the afternoon of Monday 17 October 1842 a gentleman was found dying in Penns Lane, Sutton Coldfield. He had fallen from his horse, which had then bolted. He died in the arms of Baron Dickinson Webster of Penns Hall.  The gentleman in question was well-known in Sutton Coldfield.  He was Charles Barker, at one time warden – an early version of mayor – of the town, a magistrate and the headmaster of Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School.

At the time of his death Barker was forty nine years old.  Educated at Rugby public school and Trinity College, Oxford, he had been appointed headmaster of the grammar school in 1817, at the age of 24.   Described as ‘an elegant … scholar’, he was undoubtedly a man of culture and refinement, with a taste for writing poetry. In truth, however, he did not seem particularly interested in instructing the boys in his charge.  He limited the teaching to Latin and Greek and delegated most of the work to a junior master, who appeared to be largely ignorant of these languages.  The number of pupils stood at half a dozen, but by 1840 had declined to just one.  This gave Barker the time to hunt, socialize – he was noted for his humour and lively conversation – and pursue a profitable sideline in selling hay, corn and straw.

On the day of his death Barker had set off from the grammar school at about 1 pm for Penns Hall. It was a journey he had often made: the wire manufacturers Joseph Webster and his son Baron were his friends.  Having spent a few hours in the company of Joseph, Barker strolled across the fields to have a chat with Baron, who was out shooting.  And then he mounted his horse with the intention of returning to the grammar school.  The horse in fact returned alone.  An examination of Barker’s body did not reveal an obvious cause of death.  At the inquest at the Swan Inn it was therefore decided that he had succumbed to ‘a fainting fit … and died by the visitation of God.’  From this distance, it seems likely that he suffered a heart attack.

T.H. Bakewell of Halesowen was quick off the mark to announce his availability to take up the headship of Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School.  However - like Dr Johnson, the compiler of the first dictionary who, it is said, unsuccessfully applied to become headmaster of this famous school - he was rejected.

A/Prof Stephen Roberts was a pupil at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School between 1970 and 1977.

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