A question for all you local history buffs: what’s the link between Stafford’s main post office and the Battle of Culloden?
Here’s a clue: it involves a military order written on a playing card – the nine of diamonds as it chances – and the slaughter of hundreds of Highlanders.
Let me explain. On the eve of Culloden, the encounter that finally crushed the Pretender’s 1745 rebellion, the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the English forces, was relaxing over a game of cards in Stafford with his friend Lord Anson.
The setting was Chetwynd House, a handsome redbrick mansion in Greengate Street, later to become the general post office, but in those days home of the Anson family before they decamped and moved four miles down the road to Shugborough.
The duke was in affable mood. He was winning well and the level of the brandy decanter was sinking steadily. Suddenly a courier burst into the room, sweaty and breathless. He’d ridden all night from a previously unheard of moor in Inverness-shire with the news that Charles Edward and his Scottish hordes were on the run.
Pausing only to pick up a quill, the Duke took a card – the nine of diamonds as it chances – and wrote on it: “No quarter”.
It meant take no prisoners and his troops followed the order to the letter. The rest is bloody history.
Since that black day, as you probably know, the nine of diamonds has been dubbed the Curse of Scotland.
It’s a little known chapter in the annals of the county town, but one that as a boy of eight I filed with the tale about Prince Rupert’s pot-shot from his room at the High House at the weathercock on top of St Mary’s.
Or the one about Sheridan hoping in a toast that the shoe trade of Stafford would for ever be trodden under foot.
There were others: George Borrow working at the Swan as an ostler, Defoe and Dickens unimpressed about the welcome they received and having harsh words to say about the old town.
But the Culloden story was my favourite. The blood, you see.
Evidence? Nothing in writing as far as I can make out, but I got it from an unimpeachable source.
He used to tell it while performing his card trick.
It was the only one he knew, but it was pure magic.
I’d be asked to pick a card and remember it. Then with unerring accuracy and a theatrical flourish he’d name my chosen card.
I was always dumbfounded.
The really odd thing is (as he explained at every performance) the trick wouldn’t work unless he removed one of the cards before he began.
The nine of diamonds, as it chances.
You might have trouble authenticating the Chetwynd House connection because, as I mentioned, it doesn’t appear to be documented. You’ll just have to take my dad’s word for it.