Pounding the streets of Stoke-on-Trent
in search of a buried past

- 'Ghost of drunk doctor still haunts high school'

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....   

The young surgeon, Dr Thomas Oliver, cut a pathetic figure as he was led to the gallows at Stafford Gaol in 1797 for shooting dead John Wood of Brownhills. 

“It seemed to have been a tragic story of young love and parental protectiveness,” says historian Steve Birks, “A tale of pride and prejudice when a suitor came to call on the father of a prosperous family only to be shown the door with fatal consequences.”

Thomas Oliver was a well-liked Burslem doctor, not as popular for his medical ability as for his sociable aptitude with a gin bottle. And he was over the moon to be walking out with the daughter of a leading potter. But matters took a turn for the worse when her father, John Wood, put a stop to the affair. A depressed Oliver decided to commit suicide in front of the Wood’s at their Brownhills residence but shot and killed Wood instead.

The Brownhills estate belonged to John Burslem of Dale Hall and in 1590 passed to his eldest grandson Thomas when he married a Mary Ford,” explains Steve. “In turn Margaret, one of their two daughters married newcomer, Gilbert Wedgwood, and this union launched the great Wedgwood dynasty.” 

Brownhills remained connected to the Wedgwood’s until John Wood bought it in 1782. It was Wood who built the mansion next to his manufactory. And it was here that Wood met his tragic end.

“An important packhorse lane passed through the estate,” says Steve; “A continuation of a lane from Marsh Street Hanley winding through Cobridge and Burslem and down the Sytch to Brownhills to meet a tollgate on the Lawton turnpike.”

Stych Lane was separated into two tracks by a gully caused by the proximity of the Scotia Brook where there was a corn mill and a couple of early potteries. 

1750 map showing location of The Sytch & Sytch Brook
1750 map showing location of The Sytch & Sytch Brook

“In 1750 the road was called the Sytch and the brook Sytch Brook,” Steve continues. “An 1800 map still mentions the Sytch but the water course had become Scotia Brook. An 1832 map shows one of the roads as being Sytch Hollow, while another map calls it Hill Street. But in modern times it had become Back Sytch. And by the end of the Victorian period it was Liverpool Road, then Westport Road.”

It’s difficult to define sytch or sitch. It may have something to do with the brook. The terraced streets were unmade and often flooded with domestic and industrial pollution. But it was once a thriving community with a school, public houses, shops and chapels. 

“It must have been a deprived part of Burslem,” says Steve. “I recall an interview with Dr John Wittow who refers to his grandmother living here in an 18th century cottage by the mill at the side of Scotia Brook. He recalls having to climb a flight of steps made from abandoned millstones to the front door. And as a boy before the Second World War Dr Whittow remembers walking up the derelict Back Sytch to Burslem.” 

Nowadays all that has changed; the old community has disappeared and new houses are being erected along the sites of the demolished potbanks. 

“Behind Back Sytch is the council-owned Trubshaw Playing Fields. This would have been part of the Burslem family’s estate,” says Steve. “While on the other side of the Sytch was Wood’s estate which is now Brownhills High School.”

Brownhill’s High was originally built as a college for girls in 1927 to take 420 students. It was built around a quadrangle in the architectural style of a public school at a huge cost of £43.000. Head teacher Andrew Stanier has the programme of the formal opening in 1929 performed by the Duchess of Athol. 

“It was unique in Stoke on Trent for its time,” says Andrew handing me the school’s first prospectus. “It was then called Tunstall High School for Girls. Classes were being conducted temporarily in the Victoria Institute while they were waiting for Brownhills to be built.” 

The document is a wonderful piece of social history. Admissions were by examination for girls-only from the age of 10. Parents were compelled to sign an agreement to keep their children at the school for 4 years at a fee of 3 guineas or 5 guineas for non-ratepayers outside Stoke on Trent.  

“As you can see,” Andrew points out, “It was almost a private school designed for higher education. Using that now redundant term, it became a girl’s grammar school.” 

Someone who can just recall Brownhills in those days is current long-serving teacher, Richard Boulton. 

“I arrived as a twenty-year old arts and design teacher in 1964,” recalls Richard. “Miss Price was the headmistress and I can tell you it was all pretty daunting. You have to consider that it was an all-girl’s school. And because it had an upper and lower sixth-form many of the students were only a couple of years younger than me.” 

Moving on I wondered what happened to Wood’s mansion. 

“I don’t remember it before it was demolished,” Richard says. “Extended projects and buildings stands on the site it occupied.” 

In fact Brownhills Hall was demolished in the 1950’s, when it was still an impressive building but decaying and unusable. The school became a mixed gender comprehensive in the early 1970’s. And gone forever are the brown blazers and skirts replaced by the modern jackets and trousers. Deputy head Sue Wilson recalls a Wood connection back in 1986. 

“We decided to put on a play for our Christmas concert called The Doctor’s Undoing,” recalls Sue. “The head Tim Legge and I wrote the words with scenes set in the doctor’s surgery, the hall and gardens and the Turk’s Head, an ancient Burslem pub where Dr Oliver spent his time getting drunk.”


'The Turks Head and Ivy House.'
'The Turks Head and Ivy House.'
Showing thatched cottages. These buildings stood on Bucknall Road, Burslem. Artist: 'E.B.'

date: (c) 1800-1899

© William Salt Library

Local legend suggests that Oliver’s ghost still haunts Brownhills.

“Oh yes, we’ve often had reports of ghost sightings,” smiles Sue. “But that’s all part of the Brownhills’ legend, don’t you think?”

next week: Tunstall

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next: Ladywell, Tunstall
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see more on Brownhills

20 March 2008
editorially corrected May 2024