The Bridgnorth Friary was located on the outskirts of what would have once been the poorer side of town on a strip of land on the banks of the River Severn. It was a home to a community of Franciscan monks. Franciscans were also known as ‘Grey Friars’ because of the colour of the habits that they wore.
Very little is known of the history of Bridgnorth Franciscan Friary. Not even the exact date of its foundation is known. It must have been founded after 1224 when the Franciscans first came to England, but before 1244 when Henry III ordered payment of 40/- to the Friars Minor of Bridgnorth towards the building of their church. There is no reliable record of the name of the founder, and indeed there may not have been a founder in the formal sense, although the friars later claimed it to be Ralph le Strange.
In its receipt of royal support Bridgnorth Friary was typical. It was typical too in its siting on the outskirts of one of the poorer quarters of the town, on a confined strip of land on the west bank of the Severn to the north of the bridge. It would appear that the friary was built just outside the town wall, for in 1247 the friars received permission to enlarge their site by means of removing a road from outside the town ditch to within it. Further extension of the cramped site was achieved by dumping earth and rubbish in the river. By 1272 this gradual process of land reclamation had been going on for several years, and the friars were charged with encroachment on the river resulting in damage to the King’s Mills at Pendlestone. In the same year an escaped prisoner took sanctuary in the church. Building work, as well as land reclamation, seems to have continued throughout much of the second half of the 13th century, for in 1282 the friars received a gift of six oaks, fit for timber, from the King’s forest of Shirlot. Around this time, another gift suggests, the friars may have numbered about fifteen.
Beyond these sparse and not particulary exciting facts the history of the friary is virtually a blank. The names of almost none of the heads, or guardians, of the friary are known, and only a few names of members. Over the years various gifts and bequests to the house were recorded, none particularly remarkable.
Ironically, the only source which provides anything approaching a detailed description of the friary is the inventory drawn up at the time of its Suppression by Henry VIII. The house was surrendered on August 5, 1538. The King’s Commissioner described it as the poorest house he had seen, “all the houses at fallyng downe”. The bretheren, it was said, received only 10s a year in alms and could not have lived but for their provision of chaplains to the Chapel of St. Sythe, which stood on the bridge over the Severn throughout the medieval period. The inventory mentions the quire, the belfry (with two bells), the refectory, the kitchen, the brewhouse and “a conduit coming from the high cross which was not seen for many years”. In addition there must have been a dormitory and a chapter-house, and possibly a guest house and lodging for the guardian also.
The general impression which emerges from the inventory is of a very rundown house indeed. There was a poor store of silver, and although there was adequate provision for divine service there was very little to provide for the domestic needs of the friars. Indeed, the absence of necessary items from some rooms, and the fact that other rooms are not mentioned at all, indicates that parts of the friary had fallen into disuse: in all probability the community was very much reduced, numbering no more than four or five persons.
After the surrender of the friary the silver was taken by the king, one of the bells and lead stripped from the roof were sold, and those buildings considered fit for use were let. Pictorial evidence shows that the friary buildings which remained standing were much modified and added to over the centuries which followed the Dissolution, and eventually formed a single, large, rambling edifice. Parts of the original friary remained more or less intact, however, encased within the new building. One description, from the early 18th century, speaks of impressive underground vaults running in several directions and “plain marks” of the “ancient magnificence” of the friary buildings. The building was converted into a malt-house, but until the middle of the 19th century the refectory was still “in its pristine state: the panelled oak ceiling, the stone fireplace, and many of the windows, though the lights are stopped with plaister, are still in entire preservation”.
By this time, however, parts of the former friary precinct were already occupied by Southwell’s Carpet Factory built in 1824. The factory expanded piecemeal and from time to time, towards the southern end of the site, coffins and skeletons from the friary’s cemetery were turned up, including one skeleton accompanied by a chalice and paten of base metal. By 1860 the factory had swallowed up the last remaining friary buildings; workmen engaged in the demolition of the refectory noting that it still retained its stone pulpit. During extension works to the carpet factory in 1887 two skeletons were found with a portion of a rock tomb.
In the 1800’s the Old Friars Inn opened yards from the friary. It bore the inscription : “I am a friar of orders Grey. Who lived in the Friary over the way. Tho’ my Friary’s gone I still have cheer. Come in and taste our Bridgnorth Beer. And still keep temperate with the same. Nor bring this house to evil frame.” In 1898 a road way was formed between the Eastern Boundry and Friars site.
The Carpet Factory was demolished in May 1989 to make way for new housing on the riverside. Part of the site was excavated by a team archeoligists, human remains were found along with part of the original Friary building, some of the exposed building has been saved and is open to public viewing.
The Ghost of Old Mo
Old Mo was a Monk who resided at the Friary which was located along the riverside, off Cartway. The story goes Old Mo set aside his Holy vows and took to drinking, fornication and all things un-holy. One of his favourite places to carry out his debauchery was Old Mo’s Alley, the alley runs from Love Lane, down past the Scout Hut and leads on to Bramble Ridge, there’s a side track which takes you onto Friar Street, this is where Old Mo approached from.
Old Mo carried on his un-holy ways until the brethren could take no more. One night as he returned from his alley he was confronted by a group of Monks, they tried to reason with him but to no avail, the situation soon turned to one of violence. Old Mo was bludgeoned and then poisoned, his body was disposed of in the river or buried in the grounds? Nobody knows.
Mr Bert James worked in the factory for the Rootes Group who took over the factory to build parts for aeroplane engines during the second world war. While on fire duty one night he saw the spirit of a man dressed in a grey habit tied at the waist by a rope cord.
Mr Ceil Rushton had a simular encounter with Old Mo one evening in 1949 or 1950 while walking his dog. When passing an entrance surrounded by railings which led underground the old factory his dog let out a spine-chilling howl and ran off into the night. On looking around Mr. Rushton saw the figure in a long purple robe glide from the factory and down towards the river.
A Mrs Street, who worked at the factory between 1947 & 1949, left the carpet factory late one night as the last person in the building. On her way to the cloakroom she encountered a figure as she passed through the old part of the factory. It was the ghost of a monk, “Old Mo”. Dressed head to foot in a white habit, he silently approached her up the basement steps, but on reaching the top turned and descended again.
Over the years many people claim to have laid eyes on Old Mo, one eyewitness account from a Carpet factory employee said ‘It was in November about 6.30, i was in the stock room, I looked up, I see him sort of hovering towards me, a tall chap dressed in a Monks coat with the hood up, I didn’t see his face, but I didn’t hang round to say me hellos, I was off on me heels, I went up The Ball (The Ball Hotel, East Castle Street, now The Habit) and had a few Brown Ales’.
Excerpt from Bridgnorth Ghost Book by Mark Hartley & Julie Wareing