Essington Laid Bare: Springhill and the Birches Sun Club (Part 2)

Introduction: 
This is the second part of a three part article on the archaeological and historical landscape of Springhill (Essington Wood) with a special focus on Springhill House and its Covert, a piece of woodland to the rear of this house that once hosted the Birches Sun Club, a former naturist (nudist, in parlance of old) site.

Springhill Covert in 1947, a prominent feature in the Essington Wood landscape and location of the Birches Sun Club from 1956-c1976. (Staffordshire Record Office)

Part 1 dealt with the overall introduction, the background and the archaeology for the area (https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/other-places/essington-laid-bare-springhill-and-the-birches-sun-club-part-1/); this part will take in the historical sources for the development of Springhill from before its enclosure in 1808 to the arrival of the Birches Sun Club in the 1950s. The final part will be on the Club itself and naturism as a whole.

Springhill, 1972 – CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS: the Birches Club was operating at this time (the Club can be seen within the Covert), within this environment. (WLHC)

Springhill Prior to Enclosure: 1775 – 1808.
In the late 18th century Springhill was a part, and seemingly an undistinguished one, of Essington Wood. Oakden, in his Place-Names of Staffordshire (Cuttlestone Hundred), can trace the wood back to 1308 at least. What the wood was at that time in the sense of density, clearings and open scrub/heath land is unknown, but it would have provided pannage for pigs, fuel and building materials for Essington.

Essington Wood is a mile or so to the east of the village of Essington. On William Yates’ map of 1775 (below) the ‘wood’ appears to be depicted no differently to Sneyd Common below it (which has a section of woodland clearly drawn next to it), so this proffers that Essington Wood was in fact open heath/common-land by this stage and not a closed forest area as the name suggests.

There may have been some clearance due to the coal mining, as we also know that by 1775 the wood was also being exploited for mineral wealth – ‘coal pits’ (shallow bell-pits, for small-scale extraction) appear as circles on the map.

Essington Wood on William Yates’ 1775 map, populated by a few buildings, coal pits, and the now A34. (Walsall Local History Centre)

There is no indication that, other than the Cannock to Bloxwich road (A34, Stafford Road), any of the current road network passed through Essington Wood: in particular, and concentrating on what is now the Springhill area, the now-called Broad Lane (traceable under that name to 1819 at least), which connects the old Hilton Hall estate (the Warstone Road/Bursnips Road, A462) with the Short Heath area of Bloxwich; Long Lane, which connects the top end of Broad Lane to Newtown; and New Landywood Lane, which connects Long Lane to the Old Landywood Lane, outside Upper Landywood.

Long Lane (and junction with New Landywood Lane). The straightness of these roads suggests they were part of a planned landscape. 2017.

I cannot accept that the land was not crossed with track-ways of some sort, but we have no idea as to where these were or their level of sophistication. The straightness of the roads mentioned above, shown clearly on the OS map and aerial photo above, indicates strongly to me that these paths were formalised – or constructed as new – as a part of a planned landscape when the Springhill area was enclosed around 1808.

Broad Lane, passing Springhill House, is also a straight road. 2017.

The scale of the Yates maps is just 1 inch to the mile and according to his map (at that scale it must be remembered that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) there appears to be only three ‘significant’ buildings in Essington Wood: two of these buildings are located near to where Essington Wood Methodist Church (opened, I believe, 24 March 1835) and the now-named Chapel Farm currently stand; the other appears to be Cannock Lodge Cottage, which was the location of a later deep-coal mine (and more Newtown way). We have to be careful, but there appears to be no reference of Springhill House, the Why Not Inn or the now lost Collier’s Castle (also known as Mockbeggar’s Hall) which are shown on both the Enclosure map and 1834 OS map, below.

Yates’ 1798 reissue – showing the canals and an enclosure – possibly Collier’s Castle. (WLHC)

Yates reissued his map in 1798. Interestingly, an enclosure (although no building is depicted) appears on this issue that, according to the map key, is an area described as ‘estate of gentry’; accuracy would point this being Cannock Lodge (and it was owned by the Vernon family) or possibly being Springhill House, although we do not even know if that existed, while its shape, it could be argued, looks more like the enclosure that surrounded Collier’s Castle (which was also owned by the Vernon family).

I have talked about the potential origins of Collier’s Castle in part 1, so sorry for the overlap. Nothing on the building survives in the family collection housed at the Staffordshire Record Office.

According to the secondary sources I found, it was alleged that Collier’s Castle (Mockbeggar Hall) was built by the Vernon family, in Italian style, somewhere between 1730-1800 (Oakden’s Place Names of Staffordshire and Evans & Albutt’s People of Essington). It is believed that the building was for housing estate workers and it is likely they that coined the sarcastic names.

Mockbeggar Hall/Collier’s Castle in the 1920s – it was demolished in 1936. (Evans & Albutt)

Well, there is some good evidence for this: the field system around the ‘castle’ is contrary to more regulated fields created by enclosure – and so likely predates it (this field pattern can be seen on the 1947 aerial photograph above, as well as the maps below).

1815 copy enclosure map – showing the Collier’s Castle enclosure and the more regulated fields around it. (SRO)

The vague map evidence supplied by William Yates may suggest that it was built between 1775 – 1798 and there is good reasoning for this, but an earlier date, contemporary with the pits already marked on the 1775 map, is perfectly possible.

In my opinion, I would go for a date between 1795 – 1800: this isn’t just plucked out of the air, it is not only its absence from the Stebbing Shaw quote in 1794 (see part 1) and Yates’ possible suggestion the enclosure was in existence by 1798 – with or without the castle building – but I also think, logically speaking, there is a good chance that the ‘castle’ and the canal are linked as a part of Vernon upping the level of his coal concerns.

Collier’s Castle with gardens, 1839 Tithe Map (Lichfield Record Office)

It is possible that the building was originally conceived as a discreet lodge for the Vernon family, with a surrounding park area; lodge or not, and I only moot the point, it was later said to be used to home estate workers out of sight of Hilton Hall (a not untypical method of dealing with such a problem by the gentry).

These estate workers were not the Hilton Hall gardeners, but most likely the colliers that were working the growing Vernon mineral concerns. Later, I assume they just rented a room to whoever sought one. It seems that there was space for up to eight families (as shown by the 1839 Tithe map/schedule and later censuses), with each having a garden area as well.

While initially the name Mockbeggar was used on the 1834 OS Map, I suspect this wasn’t to the liking of the Vernon family and that Collier’s Castle (reflecting its original purpose) was its formal name. My evidence for this is that Collier’s Castle was used in the tithe survey (importantly, with a Castle Field mentioned), on all later OS maps and, where the building was identified, on the censuses; indeed, a Joseph Walter France lived in a house named ‘Castle View’ according to the 1911 census.

We know by 1841 that not everyone residing at the Castle was from a collier family as it is recorded on the census. We can’t take it as a given that the Castle was just for housing colliers anyway, but if it were I think there were several reasons why the Vernons would have expanded their range of tenant: first, their smaller-scale coal concerns had closed by 1841 (although other, deeper mines had opened); second, newer, more attractive housing had been erected in Essington to accommodate miners (Thirty-House Row for example, opposite the Mitre Inn on the Bursnips Road) and finally, there were other industries in Essington such as brick-making, farming and agriculture.

Greenwood’s 1820 map showing that the bounds of Essington parish was still roughly those of the old common ‘wood’. (WLHC)

Coal had been mined in Essington, by the Vernons of Hilton Hall, since at least 1652. As the size of the operations and number of pits grew better access was needed and by 1798 the Wyrley & Essington Canal was opened; it cut into the Springhill and Essington Wood area – terminating just behind Springhill Covert.

I believe a rail (plate-way) link was established immediately between Vernon’s pits opposite the Mitre Inn and both the Wyrley & Essington and the Lord Hays Branch canals (by 1800) – crossing the Springhill area. The site of this rail-road ran behind what is currently ‘The Range’ (Wood Farm) on Broad Lane and is currently being developed.

A branch canal was built from the Wyrley & Essington to Vernon’s pit in 1798, which may have reduced or replaced the immediate need for the rail link. The canal link was abandoned by 1830 as it had water supply problems and the shallow pits it served had become exhausted.

The mineral railway survived; it would later connect to the main-line railway rather that the Wyrley & Essington Canal and would be extended to reach the Rosemary Tile Works on Hobnock Road, while the main direction would be diverted to feed the Holly Bank Colliery (behind the Old Mitre Inn). These routes can still be made out on the 1972 OS map above.

Springhill After Enclosure: 1808 – 1950s
The Springhill area was enclosed around 1808. Sadly, the award (the schedule of who owns what) that dated to that year was withdrawn from the Staffordshire Record Office and never returned by its original depositor – which is very frustrating. There does not appear to be an original map either, but there are a couple of what look like draft versions; these drafts are interesting for their complexity and for what they show, as well as for what they do not.

A cruder version of the later copy enclosure map. It shows Collier’s Castle and the Lodge, but no other buildings. (Staffordshire Record Office)

The first map is basic: it shows the straight roads and planned boundaries, with the context of the rail road and canal, but it gives no ownership names. What I find interesting is that Collier’s Castle and the Lodge are marked on it, as are a property at the junction of Long Lane and the Stafford Road and one near the turn on New Landywood Lane, yet there is no Springhill House or Why Not Inn depicted on Broad Lane.

A less crude plan, with ownership names. (Staffordshire Record Office)

A second plan is more complete: it has the names of the land owners and the size of the holding in, what I assume to be, acres.  What is interesting on this map is the roughly 21 acres made out to a T D Wightwick (Springhill House and Covert site), the 26 acres made out to a W Jones on one side of it, the large strip made over to Bradley on the other, and the small strip made over to J Bradley next to that one. None of these fields show buildings, still; I would suggest that this is because none had been built by around 1808.

We do have a copy of a map that allegedly dates to 1815. We know it definitely dates to around that period, as the earlier maps can be seen within it and the landscape it portrays can be traced to today’s Springhill.

One big difference is that Springhill House is marked on this map and has three large fields attached to it (amounting to the same approximate 21 acres), suggesting that it was erected and its land sub-divided sometime between 1808 and 1815. Pencil writing on the map itself suggests Springhill House and its fields were all owned and occupied by a John Perks, but we cannot be sure when that writing was added.

The copy Enclosure map for Essington Wood, 1815. Plots 95-97 are Springhill House and the land belonging to it – owned and occupied by John Perks. (SRO)

What else does the 1815 show? Well, first, the large strip of land made out to W Jones was still made out to Jones; second, the large strip of land made over to Bradbury was now sub-divided (especially directly off Broad Lane) and was predominantly made over to a Smith, Haden and W Jones, with a house in a small strip belonging to a Mr Craig; finally, in an enclosure marked 91, in what was a small strip belonging to a J Bradbury but now made over to a W Griffiths, there appears the buildings that were likely a blacksmith’s shop and what would become the Why Not Inn.

The Why Not Inn – site of Griffiths’ blacksmiths that became a public house as the settlement developed. Note its alignment to the road and the houses next door. 2017.

What is interesting about these buildings, compared to nearly all of the later buildings, is their orientation to Broad Lane: they are at an angle as opposed to being square to it (which can be seen on the later, larger scale OS maps).

I believe, in 1828, the Sneyd Common area was also enclosed as Vernon, Lord of the Manor, placed an advert in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette announcing it.

The 1834 OS Map shows a couple of important things in my opinion: the first is the level of industry in Essington other than coal – with the brick kilns in the fields opposite Broad Lane (Holly Bank end) and in Sneyd; second, it shows the first development around Springhill – as Barn Farm (under Collier’s Castle) appears to be in existence by then and, most importantly in our story of the Birches Sun Club, Springhill Covert is shown to the rear of the house.

The 1834 OS Map showing the roads, canals, Collier’s Castle, Springhill House and Covert, and the mineral railway from the coal pits near the Mitre Inn.  (WLHC)

The tithe map dates to 1839; it was created in order to accurately assess  property values for tax purposes. Strangely, it fails to depict the Why Not buildings (enclosure 564), yet it does describe them in the schedule. John Perks is listed as the owner and occupier of Springhill House (depicted in the wrong place) and the fields behind – with enclosure 699 being described as a plantation (wood). Perks also rented several other fields from the Vernons – those between Collier’s Castle and Holly Bank.

The 1839 Tithe Map for Springhill – strangely, it doesn’t show the Why Not buildings, but does show Perks’ sub-division of his fields (LRO)

We know that the next phase of industrial development occurs in the 1850s.

In 1857, the Wyrley & Essington Canal was extended from the terminus at the Cannock Lodge to the Wyrley Cannock Colliery, which was located at the bottom of Dundalk Lane, Cheslyn Hay (then, Dunduck Lane, Great Wyrley). In 1858, the railway arrived. The South Staffordshire Railway ploughed through the landscape, following a similar line to the canal.

This development may have been the catalyst for the opening of the Why Not pub, which looks like it is on the 1861 census under the tenure of John Robotham.

There appears to have been little domestic development in Springhill by 1884, as shown by the 25″ OS Map, however, coal mining has started to dominate the landscape, certainly as far as Springhill House is concerned – which will be discussed in the part on the house, below.

In 1873, the Essington Farm Colliery opened up on the bend of the Wyrley & Essington (See 1972 OS Map, south of ‘The Clumps’, by the Double Bridge). The ringing and rumbling would have been heard at Springhill House even if the buildings were too far in the distance, I am sure. It was a deep mine, and the Company that operated it would take on several collieries locally including the Hilton and the Sneyd.

Around 1874 the Cannock Lodge Colliery opened on the site of Vernon’s lodge, which we have already discussed. There were several deep shafts, going as far as into Newtown (site of the Lakes OPH); in fact they took over the Norton Cannock Collieries there.

Opposite the house, across Broad Lane, a few hundred yards into the fallow fields, lay the Springhill Colliery 14 Shaft. This was a single shaft – a part of a larger colliery – that sat next to the mineral railway which ran between Vernon’s pit opposite the Old Mitre Inn and the Wyrley & Essington Canal (disused at that part). It opened in 1881, was 80m deep, and would work on three separate seams.

In 1890 the main Springhill Colliery was opened as a part of the Essington Farm Company. A tramway connected the two, crossing Broad Lane at the site of the now demolished Hilton Cottage (now used for fly-tipping! See 1972 OS Map), passing under the railway and stopping near the canal basin, where the site of the colliery was (again, see 1972 map).

What is interesting is with all of this localised mining that no housing appeared on Broad Lane, the number of scattered, basic properties centred around Collier’s Castle seemingly remaining static. It isn’t really until the 25″ OS Map for 1902 (remember maps are surveyed sometime before their official date) that we see that there has been some development – this being the houses, with some gaps, from the Why Not pub towards Springhill House. I think one of these was a grocer’s shop operated by John Griffiths.

The first houses built on Broad Lane in the 1890s. 2017.

Over the next 20 years the area changed significantly: the Cannock Lodge collieries had closed by 1910; the Springhill Colliery closed in 1916 (the 14 shaft had closed by 1904), outlasting its actual parent colliery, Essington Farm, by some years. The only activity would be the mineral railway taking coal from the Holly Bank Colliery (once at the rear of the Old Mitre Inn) to the canal and railway.

Houses erected by 1918 at the junction of Long Lane and Broad Lane. 2017.

Despite the abandonment of mines around Springhill, the hamlet did develop further – the census showing that many of those that took the new properties were in fact miners. This development saw significant infilling of the land between Long Lane and the Why Not pub, as well as the first couple of houses on Long Lane itself.

The first houses on Long Lane appear likely before World War One. 2017.

The inter-war years saw a massive change in the wake of the various Housing Acts that followed World War One that forced slum demolition and new homes to be built. With Springhill, the old Collier’s Castle building was torn down in the late 1930s, I believe, while the whole side of Broad Lane from Collier’s Castle to the Bursnips Road was erected. The Broad Lane Club was also opened. The mineral railway which served the Vernon pits at the Old Mitre was reopened and extended to the tiles works on Hobnock Road.

The inter-war houses built in a swathe from Collier’s Castle to Bursnips Road – all previously virgin fields. 2017.

In 1947 the National Coal Board opened two drift shafts (the Yew Tree mine, named after the cottage that has since been built over) over the road from these new 1930s houses. Beset by flooding problems these shafts were abandoned in the early 1950s.

One of the Yew Tree drift shafts. (Cannock Chase Mining Museum).

In the late 1950s the enclosures around the former Collier’s Castle were swept away and a new batch of post-war houses were built. This is the environment that the Birches Sun Club arrived to.

Houses on the Collier’s Castle site. 2017.

By the mid 1960s the organic designed houses on Long Lane had been erected, as had a lot of the houses on the old Yew Tree mine site. The community was largely as it is today, yet, within it, lay a naturist club in a bit of woodland.

Springhill House: 1808 – 1950s
Before we start, I am not an architectural historian and it would be brilliant if one visited Springhill to unravel the physical evidence. Until then, you will have to put up with my thoughts. This is a basic landscape assessment and not a place for family histories, but I did want to look at the house owners briefly and John William Perks in a little more detail; I believe Perks can help us understand the history of Springhill and the house a little more.

I have a little problem with the orientation of the house to the enclosed landscape around it, however, I did point out earlier that the older buildings are orientated differently and, more importantly, I cannot understand how a building of the size of Springhill House could not feature on a map if it was there when Cannock Lodge does. So, if we accept, as the map evidence suggests it, that the house was not there prior to enclosure in 1808 but was by 1815, then it must have been constructed by either Wightwick, Perks, or a unknown person in between.

I suspected Perks, but after a conversation with Geoff Horton, whose family have farmed Springhill since 1929, while it is still possible that he built the house, I am now only convinced that Perks massively extended it.

While renovating, Geoff believed he found the brickwork of a smaller cottage within the fabric of the Georgian house. The brickwork was similar, and with the map evidence, suggests this building may have preceded Springfield House by only a few years – so immediately subsequent to the 1808 enclosure is not out of the question. Whatever, the fact that it was part incorporated when it could have as easily been swept away suggests that Perks intended the orientation to be as it was in relation to the landscape.

Springhill House: built in Georgian style, it is orientated to face the gardens, not the road. The central three-floored core is likely Perks’, seemingly built over a small cottage. The two wings and annex are, I am led to understand, later additions. 2017.

John William Perks (or Perkes, as he called himself) was born around 1785, I do not know where other than it wasn’t in Staffordshire. I do know that he was married by the age of 23 to a Mary Ann and while I cannot be sure where the marriage took place, I would suggest locally: John and Mary’s eldest son was named John Whitmore Perks and their youngest was Whitmore Henry Perks, suggesting Whitmore was a family name – possibly Mary’s maiden name. When John remarried in 1822 it was in Bushbury Church (the parish church for Springhill) to a Hannah Lee Whitmore, which seems too much a coincidence to me – and suggests the family were local.

So, could he have built the first house? Well, I know Perks was in the locale in 1809 as his first child, Caroline Matilda, was christened at Bloxwich on 14 May. John Whitmore (born 1810) and Betsy Perks were christened there on 30 December 1812, while Whitmore Henry was on 13 March 1816. The fact the services took place in Bloxwich could suggest the family lived there, however,  there was no Anglican church in Essington at that time, so, as Bloxwich was closer to Springhill than Bushbury, it may have been a matter of convenience.

Unless further evidence comes to light we cannot be sure when he took possession of the house. The likelihood is, of course, that he purchased and extended a small property sometime from 1815 – 1822, however, if we treat as suspect the ‘pencil name’ on the 1815 copy map, as it could of been added at anytime, our earliest direct evidence of him being in the house is not until 1834, when he is listed in the White Directory.

We can possibly narrow it down further: he is in a list of game licence recipients (as J W Perks, Essington) in 1823, and I know he is in the wider Bushbury parish before 1822, as he is listed as such on the wedding certificate.

23 March 1822, John Perks marries Hannah Lee Whitmore at Bushbury Church. (Staffordshire Record Office)

There is a tantalising piece of evidence – John Perks is listed in the 1818 Parson and Bradshaw Directory of Staffordshire as a farmer, Spring-hill, near Walsall – however, and would you believe it – there is a Springhill (and a Spring Hill House) in Walsall, which was on the Birmingham Road, just after what is now the traffic island with Sutton Road and Lysways Street. In 1818 this would likely have been described as ‘near Walsall’, as it was just outside the Borough boundary. No John Perks, however, is listed in the census returns for 1811 or 1821 in Springhill, Walsall (Walsall had head of household returns for the 1801-1831 censuses).

If this is our John Perks then it authenticates the map, but I suspect it isn’t and even if it were it doesn’t prove that he built the house – but if we assume that he did for a moment, how could he afford such a property? Well, we have no idea of his (or his wife’s) family financial background in the first place – so family money could have paid for it as a wedding gift. Whatever his background, we know that he would later have several revenue streams.

If 1815 map can be accepted as being fairly contemporary, it shows that Perks had considerably wider land concerns than just Springhill House; this was also shown on the later Tithe Map, which showed he rented the fields towards Holly Bank from the Vernon family.

While Springhill House may have started as modest country home, we know that it was the centre of a substantial farming business by its sale in 1844. We also know Perks had property in Walsall and other places by 1827, as there is a deed to 5 messuages in Dudley Street in the Walsall Local History Centre.

He had a game licence issued to him in 1823 and this is also a source of income, even if he just sold game at the farm.

Perks was described as a Sheriff’s Officer from at least 1827 onward: this means he wasn’t a bailiff, but enforced High Court writs – a respectable position. He also is in the Staffordshire Advertiser as an agent for land and other sales in the 1830s. Perks was an entrepreneur, and his will dispensed a tidy estate on his death in 1846.

My theory is that Perks acquired the land and possibly a small existing cottage, and started to build a new two-range property around 1818; i think this was to reflect his social status, but also possibly because he wanted to house is growing family or possibly as a bit of escapism after the death of his wife (he would later leave Springhill House after the death of his second wife).

Springhill House from the Covert. 2017.

I think Perks built at least the core of the current house in a Georgian style (which, was the current style), if not virtually all of it. The house is now orientated to face the gardens but may originally have faced the road, although I think it is unlikely as the rear of the house may have already been as it is today (save for a two-storey porch). Saying that, it is possible: Geoff Horton believes there was at one time a panoramic window that took in two of the first floor windows in order to exploit the vista, and this would have broken the Georgian symmetry of the frontage (which wasn’t unheard of).

The original stable/barn range. 2017.

As we don’t get our first depiction of the house until 1884, although I firmly believe that many of the features can be laid at Perks’ door, the only other building we can be sure of prior to this is the stable/barn block. Similarly, the only garden feature which we can be certain of is the aesthetically pleasing Springhill Covert. A covert is a thicket affording cover to game so if he had a game licence in 1823, I suggest it was in existence then – and had possibly been for some years as it ‘grew naturally’ after planting until it was ‘wild’ enough to hunt in.

Sadly, Perks lost his wife sometime after their last child’s birth in 1816. He remarried in 1822 and went on to have another child in 1830 with Hannah, named Herbert. Caroline moved away after her marriage that same year as did John in 1835, however, he sadly died at Springhill House in 1838. Elizabeth married in 1840, so all that were left on the 1841 census were John, Hannah and Herbert, as well as the domestic help. John William Perks sold-up at auction in 1844, after Hannah died from a ‘long illness’.

Perks’ auction notice, 1844. (Findmypast)

The auction notice for the sale is fascinating as Perks sells everything: livestock, farm animals, farm equipment, farm waggons and carts, harnesses etc, grain, hat and straw, a private carriage, a pleasure boat, household furniture and carpets, tableware, books, pictures, kitchen and general domestic wares. Perks died in Walsall a few years later.

We don’t know who took the house at this point, but by 1851 it was owned by the Aston family – who were farming 90 acres. I can trace little of them prior to there appearance on the 1851 census only that James Aston was from Bloxwich and Hannah from Bushbury. They had married (I suspect in 1842), then spent some time in Brewood as their two children were born there between 1846 and 1847. Sadly, Hannah was to pass away, I think, in 1852 – she was around 30 years of age. James, 35 himself, may have left Springhill House within a year. In 1854, he is marrying Frances Cox Hawkins and farming in Sheldon (Solihull way).

We cannot be sure who took over the house, or when. It doesn’t have a clear listing in any of the directories or in the 1861 census, but it is highly likely that the occupant that year was Joseph Bailey, for Bailey was described as a ‘Coal Master’ and therefore the only person likely wealthy enough to live in Springfield House – along with a housekeeper – in that small locale.

Bailey was 28 years of age, single, and originated from Willenhall; he was in fact the son of a mining agent and himself later became a mining engineer. By 1871, he was living in the Pleck, Walsall, with the wife he had recently married. I think he had gone from Springhill by 1868, possibly being replaced by the versatile John Brainsby.

Brainsby seems to be a Jack-of-all-trades, amazingly so when you think that his occupations seem to be completely unconnected. He was born to a wheelwright and his wife in Huntingdon, in 1828, and by 1861 was married, with children, and living in Reading where he was a grocer. We know he is still there in 1864, as he has two gold watches stolen and seeks redress through the courts.

Brainsby is at Springhill by 1871. Grocer no more, he is a colliery general manager – in fact, he was employed by the Wyrley Cannock Colliery. The Wyrley Cannock Colliery mined the land in what was then Great Wyrley, but is now Cheslyn Hay. This area, at this time, included the Nook and Plant collieries, as well as several off Streets Lane in Upper Landywood, near Fisher’s Farm.

Brainsby was Manager when John Farnell was shot dead by James Alsop, possibly at the Nook Colliery – indeed, Alsop lived in Springhill too (see story – https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/wyrley-landywood/the-wyrley-cannock-colliery-incident-gun-crime-1870/ ). Brainsby led the mourners at Farnell’s funeral. The Colliery was sold in 1875, but it appears that Brainsby was still listed as the occupant of Springhill until 1879 at least. Brainsby turns up a few years later in the Isle of Man as an accountant, before appearing to retire there – running a boarding house. He actually died in Kings Norton in 1909.

He was followed into the house, most likely, by a Mrs Butler, but then by a Henry Vincent Smallwood. Smallwood was certainly in the property by 1881 – at which time he was a married, 28-year old tailor, originally from Little Bloxwich. By 1891, he and his wife Caroline had had three children and he was now describing himself as a farmer. Sadly, tragedy would strike: Smallwood died on 17 December 1897 and it appears Caroline and the children moved to a smaller house in Caldmore, Walsall. The house and estate, according to Geoff Horton, was sold to the Vernon family around 1901 – and they would let it out.

The first tenant would be a James William Smith (or, forgive the pun, just William). Smith was from Little Bloxwich and was self-made. His father was a labourer when he was born, but was a shepherd by 1871 and seemingly remained so until he came to work at Springhill in 1901. James had worked on Little Bloxwich Farm from at least 1881, so had learned the trade. I suspect he left Springhill prior to World War One.

The next tenant would be a John Harrison. I know Harrison was at Springhill in 1916 as he is in the Kelly’s Directory, but it is possible he was there from 1912/1913 as Geoff Horton said that the two previous tenants to his family were there for 8 years apiece. Harrison, who likely left Springhill around 1921, I can’t provide any detail about, his successor, Bryce Stevenson, I can.

Stevenson was from Worcestershire, near the Lickey Hills, and the son of a farmer. Born on 27 November 1888, christened on Christmas Day, he became a commercial traveller selling agricultural equipment. In 1911, he was in Stafford, which is probably why he joined the Staffordshire Yeomanry as a territorial before the war.

He was, as a private and a territorial, called to arms immediately; after a spell training, he went on to serve in the Middle East during the war (arriving in Egypt by November 1915) and much of his service can be traced via a previous story on the Blog (see https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/tracing-a-cannock-tommy-the-thomas-bradley-williams-story/ ).

Bryce survived, being demobbed on 3 July 1919, and returned home where he married and farmed at Springhill from around 1921 to 1929. He died in 1940.

The Horton family arrived in 1929; they had farmed for some years at the neighbouring Wood Farm, so knew the area well. Originally only allowed to farm for 8 years, the family stayed and purchased the old estate back from the Vernon family (during a larger estate sale) in 1951. The family sold the Covert to the Birches Sun Club around when the club was formed in 1956, but they may not have purchased the site a few years after this.

Springhill House, 1884: CLICK TO ENLARGE. (WLHC)

I now want to return to the 1880s and to the development of the house and gardens. We get our first real view of the layout of the house on the 1884 25″ OS Map.

Lets start with the position of the house within the landscape as a whole, which had changed an awful lot since Perks’ day. Perks may well have orientated the house to look over the gardens, incorporating a panoramic window, but since the house was built the landscape had industrialised.

Perks would have looked out over the canal and possibly have seen mineral railway, but by 1884 the canal had been extended, the railway (built on an embankment) had been constructed, and the Cannock Lodge and, soon, the Springhill Collieries were in full flow. It wouldn’t be surprising that someone eventually converted the window into two, giving symmetry to the front, as the view was no longer deemed ‘impressive’.

The rear of Springhill House, the smaller square extension (with Gothic window) is later – the rest could be contemporary with Perks. 2017.

The house seemed to be in its current state of completeness by 1884: the two smaller wings being added (some of the windows in the south wing have since been bricked up, indicating a change of use rather than avoidance of window tax or the deliberate use of ‘blind’ windows), in the same Georgian style – possibly indicating they were added soon after the central core; there had once been a front porch, but this has now gone; the side annex was built; and the two rear extensions, one is Victorian while Perks may have been the builder of the other.

Someone has had some fun – can you spot the painted Gothic tracery window on the old stable. 2017.

The outbuildings, all orientated differently to the house, had greatly increased from what appeared to be the single barn/stable on the earlier maps. I don’t find this surprising considering what Perks sold in 1844 and I believe this mirrors the transition from house-first to farm-first. It is interesting to note that one former owner thought it would be fun to paint some Gothic tracery windows on the old stable – who it was and when is impossible to say.

The drain for the house platform, with the circular pond behind (still visible) and the site of the orchard beyond that. 2017.

The gardens are the most interesting for me.

What the 1884 depiction shows is that immediately in front of the house were two ponds, one circular and the other rectangular. The rectangular pond has been lost over time, but the circular one has survived. Below the circular pond was an orchard with fruit trees; this was later destroyed in error by the NCB (and they had to pay compensation) when they scraped the area. The site was used for a bungalow, built by the Hortons in the early 1960s.

The last of the avenue to the Covert. 2017.

Leading to the Covert were two avenues, one lined with trees. Little remains of the tree-lined avenue today, having being lost when the area was surface-mined. The other path is more clearly discernible, it was later used by the naturists to access the site. The fields it passes have also been scraped for coal – removing trees and the odd ‘clump’ within them.

I covered the alleged ruins in the Covert in part 1, the photo above would have showed the archway had it still been standing. The map shows two features in the Covert – both aligned to the field boundaries – suggesting they were newer than these.

The front pond straddles the field boundary and has only recently disappeared, whether it was designed as a garden feature or had a practical use is hard to say – and I forgot to ask Geoff.

The larger pond has a small island (possible fountain?) and what appears to be small structure next to it (again, a fountain or pump?), which is very much degraded now, but still partly exists. This has to be a garden feature, not something older, and if it is bemusing as to its placing in a wood it must be remembered that many follies were in clearings or planted with trees and, in my opinion, these features were equally a part of a covert encouraging wildlife to hunt than being mere decoration.

So, in conclusion, after 10,000 odd words (with part 1), your probably thinking what have I actually proved? Well, this is Wyrleyblog and not Time Team (I have no ‘Geophizz’), what I have done is to present my opinions and the slight evidence we have to support them. It is all bitty and I appreciate that, and I have had to curtail the family histories otherwise it would take an eternity to write (and read!) What I hope I have done is to have raised local awareness and make a few look forward to part 3 (with which there will be a list of acknowledgements).

As ever, if you disagree, support or can add further detail, please comment below – that is what it is there for, as long as you are not abusive!

Dedicated to all those that have lived at Springhill House, especially John William Perks and Geoff Horton. 

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