Romance is in the air, have you noticed? Kat and Alfie may have knocked it on the head, but Lizzie and Mr Darcy are at it again and the nation’s pulse is racing. So maybe it’s time to give Dick and Bess a chance.
Theirs, after all, is one of the great untold love stories.
Dick Slee and Bess were to Cannock Chase what Robin and Marian were to Sherwood. Sort of.
The Hollywood version would go something like this:
Slee, an 18th century free spirit (think Colin Firth meets Heathcliff) leaves his home on the Shugborough estate and runs away to sea. Kidnapped by pirates, he learns his bloody trade fighting shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Dan Tempest, Jim Hawkins and Henry Morgan. In no time, he’s commander of a man-o’-war stolen while singeing the King of Spain’s beard in the West Indies. His exploits win him a royal pardon and he returns to Shugborough loaded with more doubloons and pieces of eight than he can shake a cutlass at, hides his booty in a cave on the Chase and settles down to a life of splendid respectability with his childhood sweetheart, Bess.
If you look up Slee in the reference section at the county library, you might notice that the screenplay differs somewhat from the facts, but, unless you happen to be an historian, such inconsistencies will matter little.
Most accounts agree that Slee (also known as Reynold Rudock or Raddock) was once a labourer employed by the Anson family on their estate at Shugborough where he fell in love with a maid who spurned his advances.
Some say he was a Cannock lad who hid himself away on the Chase after being jilted by his cousin, one Bertha Wheatwell.
But all accounts agree that a broken heart was the reason he chose to live the life of a hermit in his cave.
Actually, cave is pushing it a bit. It was a turf hut in front of which he staked out a garden and planted a few trees. The location of Dick Slee’s cave near Seven Springs is still shown clearly on Ordnance Survey maps, although oddly it’s not marked on the Chase Online website. There’s little to see nowadays anyway beyond a slight hollow in the ground.
You’re wondering about Bess, aren’t you?
I was saving the best till last.
She was the love of Dick’s life; in his eyes more beautiful than Bertha and comelier by far than any maidservant.
She didn’t say a lot, but, then, she wouldn’t.
Bess, you see, was a hare.
She became his soulmate on daily walks over heathland around Haywood Warren and beyond, and she’d lie at his feet while he sat for hours in reverie at his hut door.
Sadly, Bess met a sticky end, the victim of a hunting accident. Lord Anson’s greyhounds got her and once more Dick’s heart was broken.
“She was my sole companion and my silent friend,” he wrote, before the parish authorities moved him to the workhouse at Rugely where he died “in miserable melancholy”.
Jane Austen, eat your heart out.