"John Louis Petit and the Black Country" by Chris Baker

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Blackcountryman. Unfortunately a number of figures were omitted and some other figure captions were incorrect. The electronic version of that edition on the web site contains a correction page, and the full corrected article is given here for convenience.


Preamble

The “Gothic Revival” In church architecture in the mid-nineteenth century was largely driven by the Ecclesiological Society, formed in 1839, the members of which were insistent that the only proper design of church building was the decorated gothic style of the middle ages. Proponents of this style included Augustus Pugin and Gilbert Scott and many of the Anglican churches that were built in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected these principles. There were however, a small but vociferous opposition who advocated careful preservation of medieval buildings and that new work should build on and complement earlier styles. The arguments between the factions reached a quite astonishing level of intensity and vitriol. For example, the rather unpretentious chancel of St. Michael’s church in Lichfield, which will be referred to in what follows, was described by the local branch of the Ecclesiological Society as “…a hideous and unnecessary aftergrowth... so substantial a deformity….” and was duly rebuilt in the proper style. It can be fairly said that the Ecclesiologists won the argument at the time, and as ever, the history of the period was written by the winners, so the views of their opponents get little coverage. Tastes change however, and the work of those who favoured an evolutionary approach to church architecture is once again beginning to be appreciated.


One of these was the Rev. John Louis Petit (1801-1868), a talented watercolourist, who painted hundreds of pictures of churches in Britain and around Europe that were used to illustrate the talks that he gave to large audiences. His paintings were never sold commercially and have only recently begun to be discovered and publicly exhibited by the Petit Society. The website of the Society (http://revpetit.com) gives a huge amount of detail about the development of his quite unique style that somehow captures the emotional impact of the church buildings he drew.

From a Black Country point of view however, John Louis Petit and his family are also of interest in two ways. First of all the Petit family derived much of their considerable wealth from the Ettingshall Park Estate in Sedgley, where one of them was responsible for the building of the folly we know as Sedgley Beacon. Secondly, John Louis also painted a small number of Black Country industrial scenes which show very early, and accurate, representations of the iron and coal industry. We consider both these aspects in what follows. First however we give a brief history of the Petit family.


The Petit family

The first of the Petit family to arrive in England was Lewis Petit (1665-1720), a member of the ancient Norman family of Petit des Etans, who, with many other Hugenots, fled to England from Caen on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He served in the British army as an engineer, rose to the rank of brigadier-general and was appointed lieutenant-governor of Minorca from 1708 to 1713. One of his two sons, John Peter Petit, married Sarah, daughter of John Hayes of Wolverhampton, the owner of the Ettingshall Park Estate near Sedgley. John Hayes died in 1736, and left Ettingshall to his son, another John Hayes. This John himself died in 1745 and the estate went to Sarah and her sister, and thus ultimately to John Peter Petit. Ettingshall Park was a large, originally arable estate, that even at that stage was beginning to be exploited for its coal and ironstone reserves. It is from that estate that much of the Petit wealth derived.


John Peter and Sarah’s only son, John Lewis Petit (1736-1780) qualified as a doctor in 1767 and was physician to St. George’s Hospital from 1770 to 1774, and to St. Bartholomew’s from 1774 until his death. He and his wife Katherine had three sons John Hayes Petit (1771-1822), Peter Hayes Petit (1773-1809) and Louis Hayes Petit (1774-1849), but clearly lacked imagination in the giving of names. Peter was a lieutenant-colonel of the 35th Foot and died of a wound received at Flushing in Holland during the Napoleonic war. Louis became a barrister and, from 1827 to 1832, was MP for Ripon. After ceasing to be an MP, his remaining years were largely devoted to literary and philanthropic pursuits. There is a striking monument to him in St. Michael’s church in Lichfield.



The monument to Louis Hayes Petit in St. Michael’s church in Lichfield


The eldest of the three brothers, John Hayes Petit (1771-1822) inherited the Ettingshall Park estate, but also followed an ecclesiastical career. He was ordained priest in Chester in 1798 and served a curacy at Ashton under Lyme near Stalybridge in Cheshire. During his time there he married Harriet Astley of the nearby town of Dukinfield. Harriet was born in 1779 to the painter John Astley (1724-1787) and his third wife Mary Wagstaffe (1760-1832). John Astley had a colourful life, painting portraits of many 18th century notables, arousing strong passions of admiration (mainly in women) or distaste (mainly in men). His first wife was an unknown Irish lady who died in 1749. The second was Penelope Dukinfield Daniel (1722–1762) widow of Sir William Dukinfield Daniel, 3rd baronet, and a daughter of Henry Vernon, former High Sheriff of Staffordshire. John and Penelope were married with some rapidity after she intimated that the original of the portrait he was painting of her would be available if he wished. On Penelope’s death, and the death of his stepdaughter, Astley inherited the substantial Dukinfield and Daniel estates in Cheshire and Staffordshire and was able to lead a life of some luxury and idleness thereafter. Harriett was one of three sisters, known as the Manchester beauties, and her marriage to John Hayes Petit would have brought him both a beautiful wife and a substantial supplement to his already considerable income.


In 1811 John was appointed Curate of Donnington, and then in February of that year he was also appointed as a Perpetual Curate at Shareshill, to the north-east of Wolverhampton. As well as the Ettingshall estate, he also owned considerable areas of land in Wolverhampton and south Staffordshire. Around 1817 he leased Coton Hall at Alveley in Shropshire, which was a very substantial property that belonged to the Lee family (from whom the US Confederate General Robert E Lee was descended). It would not have been a cheap place to lease. After John Hayes Petit’s death in 1822, Coton Hall was bought by James Foster (1786 -1853), the very successful and wealthy ironmaster and coalmaster of Stourbridge.




John Louis Petit


John Louis Petit, the artist, born in 1802, was the eldest of John and Harriet’s nine children. He inherited the Ettingshall estate on the death of his father in 1822, and also inherited the bulk of the estate of his uncle Louis Hayes Petit when the latter died in 1849. In total they formed a very substantial estate in the Wolverhampton area, that was being heavily exploited for coal, iron ore and limestone. He and his sisters also had a less tangible inheritance from his mother and his grandfather – the passion and the ability for painting and sketching. After he graduated from Trinity College in Cambridge in 1825, John Louis Petit firstly pursued an ecclesiastical career being curate at St Michael’s in Lichfield from 1825 to 1828, and then curate at Bradfield and Mistley in Essex from 1828 to 1834. He married Louisa Reid, the daughter of George Reid of Trelawny in Jamaica in 1828. The Reid family derived much of their wealth from slave plantations in Jamaica and the family received considerable compensation for their lost income when slavery was abolished in the 1830s. He gave up his post in Essex in 1834 and from the mid-1830s onwards he devoted his time to his painting and architectural criticism, and his story is well told on the website of the Petit Society. He died in 1868 and is buried with a number of his relatives, in a large tomb in St. Michael’s churchyard, where a display board has recently been placed outlining his career.



The grave of John Louis Petit and his family in St. Michael’s churchyard


The Ettingshall Park Estate

The extent of the lands owned by Join Louis Petit in Ettingshall in the 1840s are shown on the map below. The estate boundaries are taken from the Tithe Allocations and are superimposed upon the 1882 Ordnance Survey map of the area. The estate was in the north of Sedgley parish, just south of the Wolverhampton boundary and the holding was 413 acres in total. It is centred on Ettingshall Park farm and lies west of another large estate – that of Ettingshall Hall. A small block at the south of the estate was owned by his uncle and former MP, Louis Hayes Petit until his death in 1849. Most of the land, even at that stage was arable or pasture. There were a small number of collieries to the north-west, and two lime workings at Round Hill and Beacon Hill. However just beyond the estate heavy industry was beginning to encroach, with the Spring Vale Ironworks to the north-east and the Parkfields iron works to the north. The former was served by basins from the Birmingham Canal (as indeed were most ironworks in the area). The underlying 1882 Ordnance Survey map shows a similar situation in the south of the estates, with most of the field boundaries being identical to those on the tithe map, but in the north mining activities have completely eliminated the fields (and indeed makes the estate boundary difficult to determine) and indeed many of the roads shown on the tithe map. In effect the area of mining in the 1880s came right to the edge of the South Staffordshire Coal Field.




The Ettingshall Park estate. (The lands owned by John Louis Petit in the 1840s are outlined in red, and those owned by Louis Hayes Petit in green. Black triangles – collieries; red triangles – ironstone pits; green triangles – lime works; purple squares – iron works; blue circle – Sedgley Beacon


Although John Louis owned the land, he leased it to others. The central area around Ettinghsall Park Farm was leased to Dudley Fereday, with smaller agricultural plots leased to Edwin Dixon, William Fletcher and Edward Jay. The mines and pits were operated by George Jones, John Neve and Co., or the Parkfields Company who operated the nearby ironworks. Essentially we see here, as in so many places in the western Black Country at this time, the transition from a farming to an industrialised way of life.


As noted above Louis Hayes Petit owned some land to the south of the Ettingshall estate. This encompassed the highest point in the locality at Beacon Hill. It was on this hill in 1846 that the Beacon Tower was erected, which still stands if in a somewhat dilapidated state. The Sedgley Local History society attributes the building of this tower to “a local landowner, Mt Petit”, although it might have been used for astronomical observations by Lord Wrottesley a well-known Staffordshire amateur astronomer. Whether this was John Louis or Louis Hayes is not clear, but perhaps we have here the architectural critic dabbling in architecture himself, if only in the construction of what can probably fairly be described as a folly.




Sedgley Beacon (from the Sedgley Local History Society website)


The Black Country pictures

Most of John Louis Petit’s artistic work was directed at painting churches for use in his talks and arguments with the Ecclesiologists. However, he also painted a small number of scenes of Black Country industrial activity during his career, and these will be discussed in what follows. All are reproduced with permission of the Petit Society. I do not consider their artistic merits – indeed I would be quite incapable of doing so – but rather I will discuss the scenes the paintings portray and the locations from which they might have been painted. Three of these come from the early 1830s and one from the 1850s.



Spring Vale iron works from the Penn brook (?), early 1830s


The first shows an ironworks in the distance, framed by a much more rural location. My best guess for this is that it is a representation of the Spring Vale Iron Works, or perhaps the nearby Parkfield works, seen from the western side of the Ettingshall estate at a location on the headwaters of the Penn brook (which leads into the Wom brook, and then into the Smestow). Little detail of the works can be seen although the furnaces and chimney can be seen. The painting is of interest as showing the juxtaposition of rural and industrial elements.




Mines near Wolverhampton (?) c1830-35


The second painting is again dated in the early 1830s. The main feature is the pair of pits showing the scaffoldings of the “Rattle Chain”. This is a very early representation of such mechanisms. The nature of the structure between the scaffoldings is not clear but could perhaps be some sort of furnace or processing plant. The grim reality of the destruction of the surrounding countryside by spoil from the mines is also very apparent in the foreground. The figures of two mine workers wearing brimmed hats can also be seen. Nothing by way of safety equipment was provided and there were many injuries and deaths, which were simply regarded as part of the costs of the operation.


In the background there are two churches shown, one with a tower and one with a spire. At first sight they would seem to show the Wolverhampton churches of St. Peter’s to the left with the tower, and St. John’s to the right with the spire. The former was a favourite subject of Petit. However, this placing of the churches suggest that the scene was painted from the west of Wolverhampton, as St. Peter’s is to the north of St. John’s. This however is not possible, as there were simply no mines in this region – indeed the boundary of the south Staffordshire coal field is to the east of the town. We are left with two possibilities – either the artist added the church towers to a scene painted from elsewhere to contrast the old and the new (which of course as a painter he was perfectly at liberty to do), or the painting depicts a scene from elsewhere. In terms of other locations, I can find only one other location in the vicinity from which a church tower and spire could be observed – somewhere to the west of Dudley where St. Edmund’s and St. Thomas’s churches are so aligned. This would give a location for the pits somewhere in the Gornal area, which would be quite possible, being close to the Ettingshall Park estate. However, if this were the location, one would have expected Petit to have skewed the scene slightly to show Dudley Castle, which would be just off the left of the current picture. There may however be alternative possibilities that I have not identified in the Wolverhampton area. Reader’s thoughts would be very welcome.