Little London (and the White Lion, Walsall)

A few years ago I wrote an article on the history of the White Lion pub in Churchbridge (which is to the south of Cannock, bordering the Great Wyrley township), and it attracted enough interest from a lady for her to leave a comment regarding her own family history.

The White Lion, Little London: rebuilt in 1897. 2017.

The White Lion in Little London, Walsall. 2017.

Sadly, the comment was not relevant to that White Lion but to the White Lion that is located on the corner of Sandwell Street and Little London, in what is generally called the Little London area of Walsall – which can be made out on the 1938 OS 25″ map below. Therefore, as I like that pub too, I thought I would have a little go at putting Mrs. Ballanger’s snippet of family history into context for her.

The White Lion and the 'un-named Little London area on the 1938 25"OS Map. (Walsall LHC)

The White Lion and the Little London area on the 1938 25″OS Map. (Walsall LHC)

The trouble was, as I started to look into the pub it quickly became apparent that it was old – and by that I mean it predated the both the current 1890s rebuild and the 1830 Beerhouse Act – so I knew that its early origins would be difficult, if not impossible to track.

So, to cover this, I decided to split the article in two: this part will indirectly look at the pub by concentrating on the place name and early development of the area known as Little London in Walsall, with some reference to the Little London in Willenhall; while the second part will look at the pub itself.

Little London: Place Name
I have studied several landscapes and the local place-names often form a good starting point, although it must be conceded that translations by Philologists can be far from certain due to linguistic development since many, not all, were first named between the 7-10th centuries.

One reason for possible confusion is that most place-names are made up of different types of elements: function (‘ton’ ending etc, meaning farm/hamlet), ownership (Bloxwich for example – possibly ‘Bloc’s village’) or a typographical features (Cannock for example – possibly just meaning ‘hill’) are the most common, but others include directional references (Norton – north settlement), for example. These elements, especially ownership names and topographical features, can easily be confused.

Most of the place-names in the Walsall region likely have mid-Saxon origins; and were likely so-named as the population returned to the levels of Roman Britain and new areas were settled, and old ones recolonised. Walsall is a unique name, with a variety of demonstrated medieval spellings corrupted from an Old English root (Saxon). Its meaning, however, is unclear for the reasons I have stated: one school of thought is that it could translate to ‘Walla’s valley’ (as in a personal name), or another is that it may mean ‘valley of the Celts’ (Britons, Welsh, Outsiders). This translation is very interesting, as we shall later with regard to Little London.

A view from 'Windmill' down to Little London - once separate small communities on a major road, now indistinguishable on a leafy suburban lane. (2017)

A view from ‘Windmill’ down to Little London – once separate small communities on a major road, now indistinguishable on a leafy suburban lane. (2017)

If Walsall is fairly unique, ‘Little London’ is not: locally, we have a Little London in both Walsall and Willenhall and further afield there are around 130 other such named places in England and, interestingly, in Wales. One thing our two Little Londons have in common is that they were on the edge of, and have now been subsumed by, larger settlements.

A view towards Little London from the Maw Green area to the south. (2017)

A view towards Little London from the Maw Green area to the south. (2017)

With such a glut, it is very easy to assume that a place-name like ‘Little London’ is both modern and refers in some way to the capital city of England; indeed, the first thought of many is likely that it was a settling point for a significant or number of families from the London area seeking a new or better life. The question is – is there any merit in these thoughts? Well, yes there is to some degree.

I myself am from Italian extract; my grandfather, Marcus Farina, stepped off the boat in 1894 with his parents Giovanni and Angelina. The family settled in Bartholomew Street, Birmingham. It, and the surrounding area, became a haven for large numbers of emigrating Italians and it soon became dubbed ‘Little Italy’ to reflect this. Today, the area has been flattened and the slums cleared; the Italian families have long since moved on and they, along with the name of Little Italy, have been largely forgotten. What this shows is that immigrant settlement, in this case international, can give rise to modern place-names even if in this case it was short-lived.

So, while there maybe a common link between all these Litton London places, my starting point is to examine what had been already been written on the origins of our Little Londons.

To be honest, I wasn’t really convinced with the story put forward with regard to Walsall’s Little London by W.F. Blay in his ‘The Street Names of Walsall’ book (1992): he advanced that ‘When a number of houses were built here, the inhabitants made claim to so many rights that the district was sarcastically called Little London’. No evidence was cited in support of this event, or explanation as to what these rights were that were claimed.

This story suggests that settlement was en mass, that those arriving were not from the local area and, it seems to me, that Walsall had poor governance. I did go on to find some evidence to support this claim, but not enough to convince me.

The proposal by Norman Tildesley in his 1951 book ‘A History of Willenhall’ for their Little London seemed equally as vague: he advanced that the name could be traced to the middle of the 18th century at least, and that it may be due to some London companies owning land locally – Clothier Farm, for example, may have been owned by the London Clothworkers’ Company.

The only evidence I found that did cite evidence was an intriguing article written by Peter Yates and printed in the Black Country Bugle in September 2005: it firmly claimed, and was supported by his family history investigations, that the name was brought to Willenhall by a family named Morgan around 1745. Ironically, this family had previously farmed at a Little London Farm in Trefonen – near Oswestry in Shropshire – and nowhere near London.

So, if the only real evidence so far put forward suggests that Willenhall’s Little London was settled by Salopians, is there any real evidence that Walsall’s Little London area was settled by Londoners at any one time? Well, not that I came across.

The earliest evidence I found was from a journal dating to around 1780, in which a Thomas Smith wrote-up his family story; it is now lodged in the William Salt Library in Stafford.

Smith was born in 1733; his story goes back to his grandparents, who settled in what Smith calls ‘the area of Walsall generally called Little London’, in the 1640s. The journal goes on to say that that houses had just been built by there by the Pursehouse family from Reynold’s Hall, which may support the theory of a sudden settlement, but it doesn’t suggest outsiders as Smith’s grandparents were from Dudley and neighbouring Caldmore, not London.

Further, unless the settlers were aggrieved at Pursehouse, as far as governance and rights goes, by the 1640s Walsall had a Charter of Incorporation, perhaps making it a better town to live than some of its neighbours. While this isn’t conclusive, it doesn’t suggest a mass influx from London claiming special rights to me.

Thomas Smith's account of his family settling in 'Little London', written around 1780. (William Salt Library).

Thomas Smith’s account of his family settling in ‘Little London’, written around 1780. (William Salt Library).

So, I looked further afield.

According to the Institute Of Place Name Studies, all places named Little London have a common root: the name being attributable in some way to stopping point for Welsh cattle drovers – perhaps going back to the medieval period. This is a dangerous assumption in my opinion, and one possibly already shown as wrong: for if Peter Yates is correct, Willenhall got its Little London not from the drovers stopping in Willenhall, but from stopping in Shropshire.

These drovers moved cattle from Wales to the markets of England using the old drove roads. If we accept that Willenhall was not directly named after a drovers road, where is there such a road near Walsall? Well, Watling Street (A5) and the now named A452 (which crosses Brownhills and Shire Oak) were such roads; indeed the A452 was called the Welsh Road.

Now, these roads were in recorded use for droving during the medieval and post-medieval periods, but landscape historians, such as W.G. Hoskins, believe these roads, or parts of them, were being used for the same purpose as far back as the pre-Roman period; indeed, I made this point in my BA Hons dissertation on Pennocrucium (a Roman settlement on Watling Street, near Penkridge – which is on Wyrleyblog), venturing the thought that Watling Street could have been an established trade/drove route between the continent and Ireland (through Wales) exploited by the Romans as they advanced.

There is a point to this waffle, trust me.

There is an interesting website on the Little London place-name alone, which is really worth a look (; it advances a familiar story: ‘With the custom for place names being given by the local community, the term Little London would need to have been recognised throughout England. It was clearly not a descriptive name of the location… In the Medieval period, when towns were developing from villages, they took their rules and customs from larger and more prosperous towns… Not wishing to be subjected to local taxes or trade restrictions by any County sheriff, the Welsh chose to abide by the laws of London and in so doing called their settlements Llundain, in the Welsh language.’ So, Blay could have been on the right lines after all?

The problem that I have is that these were transient camps, not established settlements, so why should ‘Little London’ survive and ‘Little Italy’ not for example? And, why should transient drovers get special rights anyhow? The same website makes a good point on this question: ‘For a place name to become permanent it needed to be accepted by the local people and [for a national place-name like Little London] this would have required a common name to have been chosen which would have been understood throughout England… The various dialects of Middle English… would not have used the same term, so perhaps it was an earlier Anglo Saxon word that was widely understood and still in use at the time’. Never mind the linguistic question, my problem with this is why would anyone in Staffordshire care remotely what the people in Buckinghamshire called a drovers’ camp?

The website goes on to suggest a plausible Saxon term: ‘There were a number of Anglo Saxon words used to describe strangers, foreigners, Britons or Welshman, and one in particular stands out. The word “Utlenden”, which sounds very much like Little London and could have been widely recognised throughout the counties of England. When written down in the Middle Ages by the local scribes, it would have become Litillondon, as recorded at Chichester in 1483. It required Modern English to translate it into the diminutive term of London which we recognise today’.

I do struggle with this, although it must be appreciated that I am no expert on this subject. What seems to be suggested is that there seems to have been a nationally accepted term, based on a Saxon word, for transient settlements – had we not got Google, this would be like us today turning to Shakespeare!

Anyway, if this generic Saxon term was used for ‘foreigners’, we could be left locally with the issue of a small ‘place of the Welsh’ (for example) that is located next to a settlement that may translate as the ‘valley of the Welsh’.

These translations could be viewed as contradictory – after all, the outsiders on the edge of the outsiders? However, they could also support each other; if one accepts that the Welsh drovers’ roads are older than the medieval period – as ‘Utlenden’ and the landscape historians suggest, then they could be the origin not only of Little London’s name, but that of Walsall too. It is a thought.

Further, the meaning of the name of London itself is disputed. It is seen as having a Celtic root, with, amongst other suggestions, translations of ‘mud’, ‘marsh’ and ‘wild’ having been offered. These suggestions, Celtic as they are, do actually fit with the location of Little London, which is cheek-by-jowl with Caldmore (Cold Marsh). Further, the Saxon word for ‘outlands’ (land on the edge, as Little London place names tend to be) is ‘Utlandun’ (in dative form), which is not too dissimilar from ‘Utlenden’, and may also lead to a medieval recording of ‘Litillondon’?

All-in-all, I think it is too easy to suggest all Little Londons have the same provenance. I suspect that they have derived from a number of roots, only some of which have been mentioned here. Saying that, the drovers and their rights is recorded from two sources, so the Institute may well be correct – but you still pay your money and take your choice.

Little London: Early Development
Little London we know was in existence around 1640, when some houses were built in that area; although we can only be certain that it was called Little London from around 1780, when Thomas Smith wrote his family memoirs. A view of the 1801 Walsall census shows that it describes the sub-area as Little London (in bold red ink) and Caldmore (in small black ink).

The 1801 census for Walsall: labelled as Little London and Caldmore - it shows most residents of the area as metal workers of some sort. (Walsall LHC)

The 1801 census for Walsall: labelled as Little London and Caldmore – it shows that most residents of the area are metal workers of some sort. (Walsall LHC)

We also know from Smith, and from Walsall’s 1801 census, that the area was associated with metal work even then; indeed, the census records several spur, buckle, chape and blade makers, as well as platers in operation. It wasn’t just Little London and Caldmore that was an industrial area, the separate and small community described as Windmill just to the north (see map below) was also predominantly populated by such workers.

It did strike me that the Little London name could have been associated with this industry, but then, surely, Little London would have covered a greater area than just a few houses on the West Bromwich Road? Further, the settlement did have some agricultural workers and William Porter, who was both a metal worker and a victualler.

The various trades of the inhabitants of Little London - most to do with metal work (spur, buckles and chapes, platers etc). (Walsall LHC).

The various trades of the inhabitants of Little London in 1801 – most to do with metal work. (Walsall LHC).

The Little London area itself is now centred on the White Lion pub and the junction of the roads known as Sandwell Street and Little London. The 1938 25″ OS Map above shows the road, and the surrounding area, was fully built-up by then; indeed, when the transformation really started it was accomplished quite quickly.

The heart of what was Little London. (2017).

The heart of what was Little London. (2017).

Sandwell Street, as shown by the 1820 Jacobs map below, was once a main arterial route that led from St Matthews church in Walsall to West Bromwich. The other two significant roads on the Jacobs map were the Birmingham (visible to the right) and the Wednesbury roads. It lies un-named on the Jacobs map, and was completely separate then from its neighbouring areas: ‘Windmill’ just to the north, Doveridge to the west and Maw Green to the south.

Little London: 1835

Little London: 1820. (Walsall LHC)

In 1820 the hamlet was small; the pub, possibly traceable back to 1783, lay on a dog-leg on the road and to the south there appeared to be a few rows of houses and a building opposite. Little London, the road, did not exist. A second route branched off and headed down to Folly House; this was later to be called Folly Lane, then Follyhouse Lane. Green Mill Walk, the path that followed the field boundary to what is now Highgate Road, was also also marked on the 1820 map.

The route to Folly House (Folly Lane) still exists. 2017.

The route to Folly House (Follyhouse Lane) still exists. 2017.

The peace of Little London would be shattered over the next century and, to be honest, within pretty much half that time. Urbanisation, driven by the increasing population and the industrialisation of Walsall (not just manufacture, but the coming of the railways for example – which had a big impact on the West Bromwich Road area) would spread south from the town; the wealthier would then build in suburbia before these areas, in turn, got engulfed by ‘progress’.

In 1841, there were 21 entries in the census for the Little London sub-area, which had grown to 32 entries by 1861; the vast majority of which were still in the metal trade. The neighbouring Doveridge was listed separately. In 1881, the whole area is listed as Sandwell Street – and the sub-area of Little London does not get a mention.

A view down the top end of Little London to the White Lion. 2017.

A view down the top end of Little London to the White Lion. 2017.

Our next snapshot comes in 1885 – with the 50″ OS Map produced that year. This map shows significant development moving down from Walsall, with the building up of Bath Street and of the Windmill area. Around Little London there had been some development, the most significant being the cutting, along the existing property boundaries, of the road the was to become Little London and the complete building development of the frontage of that road.

The 1885 50" OS Map of Little London, showing the development of the road now called Little London. (Walsall LHC)

The 1885 50″ OS Map of Little London, showing the development of the road now called Little London. (Walsall LHC)

It is unclear when the road was cut, also when it was officially named Little London, but this must have been before 1891 as when the name of Little London reappears in the census, it is the road that is referred to and not the sub-area. Within the next quarter of a century Little London would be completely subsumed and the pub would be rebuilt as a part of this transformation of the area; yet, transformed as it was, the nature of the area on a whole was the same – it was still home to mainly metal trade workers.

The junction of Bath Road, Doveridge Fold and Little London: constructed between 1891-1901. 2017.

The junction of Bath Road, Doveridge Fold and Little London: constructed between 1891-1901. 2017.

Between 1891 and 1901, Little London was extended to meet Doveridge Fold. At the dog-leg where they met, Bath Street and been extended to meet the two (only here it was later to be called Bath Road). Within a decade these roads had not only been laid down, but completely built-up with regard to Bath Street (including a back ally exiting onto Little London), while Doveridge Fold had not been fully exploited.

1903 25" OS Map showing Little London, the built-up Bath Rd and the partially built-up Doveridge Fold. (Walsall LHC)

1903 25″ OS Map showing Little London, the built-up Bath Street (later Bath Rd) and the partially built-up Doveridge Fold. (Walsall LHC).

Sandwell Street had nearly all been developed on both sides of the road between Little London and Windmill. To the south, other than the plot of land adjacent to the pub, the White Lion side of the road heading towards Maw Green had also been swiftly completed; the design of the latter showing that they were all built at the same time, by the same builder. The opposite side to the White Lion had altered little since the 1880s.

Further building took place in the next decade. Doveridge Fold was completed and became a part of Little London. The vacant property to the south of the White Lion was sold for housing and they duly appeared. The space on the opposite side of the road was largely filled with housing, although this wouldn’t be completed until after the War years.

So, going back to the map in the introduction, the 1938 25″ OS shows that the whole area has become subsumed by this time; the only thing that has changed since is that some buildings have been redeveloped, all thepubs with the exception of the White Lion have closed or completely gone, and the metal workers have long since moved on.

Part 2 – The White Lion – to follow. This part is dedicated to all those residents and, perhaps, transient drovers that have passed through Little London while strutting their hour upon the stage.

My thanks to:
The Walsall Local History Centre
Mrs Blog for the photos of Little London
Staffordshire Record Office
William Salt Library

Blay, Tildsley, Hoskins and the other authors mentioned.