Mills, Docs and Drapers: A Brief History of Highfields House, Bloxwich

This is one for the Bloxwegians 🙂 . Bloxwich is a town that holds a special place in my heart: for it was Bloxwich that I chose to host my first pub crawl after being T-total for 5 years and it was the best 5th birthday party any kid could have had 🙂 . A few days ago I was approached by Tony Kulik, who is a Wyrleyblog regular (that simply means he has read more than one article 😉 , about a now lost property in Bloxwich called Highfield House. Highfield House lay behind the the Bull’s Head pub. Today, this site is at the end of Drakes Close, just off Drakes Road; both strangely named after Francis Drake, who wasn’t a Bloko boy as far as I know 🙂 .

The site of Highfield House today - Drakes Close. 2014.

The site of Highfield House today – Drakes Close. 2014.

Anyhow, my starting point was simple; I knew nothing of the house other than I had heard the name, so everything would be new to me. Dipping my toe into the potential sources only showed me that the house itself was difficult to trace: there are no photographs or plans at the Walsall Local History Centre, it only appears by name on the 25″ OS maps and on only one census, which is that of 1881. I realised pretty quickly that I would have to chart a wider area than simply the house. I also wanted this article to be a little different, so I set myself a challenge – in this case a Time Team styled time limit. Whilst at the end of it I didn’t expect to produce a definitive article, I did hope at least to shine a little light on Highfields House for those that are interested. So, what is out there and what could I discover? As Tony Robinson would say, I had just three hours to find out.

Highfields: Origins
‘Bloxwich Fields’ appears as a general address on the 1841 census for a number of inhabitants. In 1820, this area covered a sweep from what is now the top end of High St and Lichfield Rd, around what is now the cemetery area, across as far as Blakenall and then down to the Pinfold. Indeed, later the name would be enshrined in Field Road (after the locals objected to it being called Cemetery Rd after the opening of the burial ground), which bisected the two parts. The ‘field’ part of the name of Highfields House came from those surrounding fields. The use of ‘High’ could refer to a geographical comparison to other fields (for example, fields to the north could be referred to as Upper or High and those to the south as Lower or Low), or the surrounding area was significantly higher in comparison to other fields.

The second alternative is supported by evidence. We know from documentary sources that Bloxwich had a few mills back in the 17th century, although their precise location isn’t clear. The Victoria County History draws on these sources and states A windmill conveyed to Henry Stone by the Whitall family in 1624 may have been in Bloxwich. There were two windmills between Great and Little Bloxwich in 1682. By 1693 there was one, in Chapel field, standing south of Lichfield Road c. ¼ mile east of High Street; it was still in use in 1816 but had disappeared by 1819.

Chapel Field is shown on the estate map of the Countess of Mountrath, which was produced in 1763. Short Heath is now effectively Bloxwich Park. The map does not show a mill, or any occupation on the field behind what is now Park Rd and The Bull’s Head: however, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any as this is was not a map aimed at depicting what was there, just what was relevant to the property of the family. In other words, if she doesn’t own it, it doesn’t appear.

Countess of Mountrath's Estate Map, 1763. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Countess of Mountrath’s Estate Map, 1763.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

If you take a look at Yates’ Maps of Staffordshire, 1775 and 1798, the second of which can be viewed on-line (see Brownhills Bob’s page on the map: ), a windmill is indeed depicted in the fields off High St and under the Lichfield Road. If you take a look at the 1834 OS Map, the mill is in fact at the end of a track way which runs from the side of the Bull’s Head Inn. The Bull’s Head then was in the same position as it is today and that location can be fixed on the map by the Wolverhampton Road, which runs at the same angle it does today and is opposite the pub. The map may have been published in 1834, but parts were surveyed as early as 1814 (although some parts were later revised), which would be consistent with the mill being present on the map as it was surveyed prior to 1819, the disappearance date given by the Victoria County History.

The 1" OS Map, 1834. Surveyed earlier. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The 1″ OS Map, 1834. Parts were surveyed nearly 20 years earlier.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The OS Map shows two enclosures on the right-hand side of the track if you were heading from the mill back towards the Bull’s Head. Inside those enclosures are two, possibly three substantial dwellings. These were described on the 1820 (copied 1835) map and survey of Henry Jacobs as houses and gardens, indicating they are in fact separate properties, not one large one. Further, field 442 on the Jacobs map could have been the enclosure where the mill used to stand. The 1834 map, less so on the Jacobs map, also shows a cluster of properties around the junction of the track way with what is now Park Rd.

The two houses depicted on the 1834 OS Map. Was Field 447 the site of the Mill? (Walsall Local History Centre)

The two houses depicted on the 1834 OS Map. This time on the 1820 (copied 1835) Henry Jacobs Map.Was field 442 the site of the mill?
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Mill Lane and Highfields House: Development
The next evidence we have is provided by the 1841 census: this census gives us a name for the track way for the first time, which tellingly is Mill Lane. I cannot believe that this lane did not provide access to a mill that is recorded as being in existence just 20 years before. There are six properties listed as being on Mill Lane, but what is interesting is the social mix. If we move in order of the census, we first encounter one branch of the prevalent Bloxwich family of Somerfield. Edward Somerfield was an awl blade maker, married, had a son and employed several apprentices in what must have been a workshop as well. Next was Thomas Allen, a bit maker (horse bit, as a guess) with a young family. Then there was John Jennings, another awl blade maker, with another two in the house. Then, incongruously, a surgeon appears, with a wife, two children and three servants. He was followed by John Barnard, a bricklayer with a wife and two children and finally, William, an agricultural labourer with a wife and two young children.

Mill Lane, running to the side of Bull's Head. Now Drakes Rd. 2014.

Mill Lane, running to the side of Bull’s Head. Now Drakes Rd. 2014.

Needless to say the surgeon stands out. This was Charles Somerville and it was his son, James Harmer (or Harmar), that some 40 years later would be listed as being in Highfield House. Somerville was from Stafford and had become a licensed apothecary in 1838. He and his wife, Harriet Ann, had just arrived in Bloxwich, only appearing on the voting register that year. While he was from Stafford the family must have gone to Brownhills prior to arriving in Bloxwich, as their eldest child (Eliza) was born there in around 1836. The family must have been in Bloxwich from late 1839, as his eldest son (James) was born there at that time. His younger child, Edward, was still a baby and wouldn’t live out the year.

The 1841 Census for Mill Lane, Bloxwich (National Archives)

The 1841 Census for Mill Lane, Bloxwich
(National Archives)

By 1851, Mill Lane had gained an extra household. The entry before Mill lane is the Bulls’ Head, which suggests that the Somerfield awl blade workshop, now operated by Edward’s son John, was a neighbouring property. Three cottages then appear before Charles Somerville, including that of David Cockayne, a gardener. Somerville is now also listed as a GP and licensed apothecary. The household had changed massively: there were now four children, with Hamer (James), Charles and Robert all attending school. Living-in were not only two domestic servants, but also C Dawes, a surgeon’s apprentice, and Charles Allen, a surgeon’s assistant. It isn’t clear if these lived within the main house or in an out-building that was still classed as a part of the same house. Somerville was followed by a couple of cottages and the property of Henry Mason, a master awl blade maker who employed two men.

The 1851 census for the Somervilles (National Archives)

The 1851 census for the Somervilles
(National Archives)

Somerville was licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1853. The later 1850s were to be one of change for the family. In the mid-months of 1858 Harriet died, leaving Charles a widower with a business and family. In true Victorian style he carried on. In the September he appeared at the inquest of Ann Barlow at the Rodney Inn, Pelsall. Barlow, it was believed, had took poison by accident. After a post-mortem, Somerville was able to prove that she did in fact have an epileptic fit and had not ingested poison. In 1859, he was made a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and, around a year after the death of Harriet, Charles married Jane Ward in Lichfield. In 1860 he was appointed an M.D. by the University of King’s College, Aberdeen.

The 1861 census for the Somervilles. (National Archives)

The 1861 census for the Somervilles.
(National Archives)

There are seven properties in Mill Lane in 1861. Again, it is difficult to tell in which order they have been assessed, but the first property is occupied by Henry Mitchell and his family. Mitchell is a surgeon’s assistant and I cannot believe that he is not connected to the Somerville, especially as there are no medical ‘assistants listed as being in the house this time. Next to him is Samuel Clements, who is described as a gardener and domestic servant. Again, I can only assume he is attached to Somerville’s household. The next two cottages are occupied by the family of a widow, Ann Jennings, and a stirrup maker, Thomas Keats. What is significant is that all of the children in these houses are scholars, in a period well before compulsory education and when fees were required.

Somerville comes next. He has two sons at home, James and Charles, both of which are medical students. There are three servants listed, one of which being a groom. This indicates the presence of a stable and maybe a coach house. The last two properties are occupied by a colliery labourer and an agricultural labourer; their children were not listed as scholars.

James Harmer Somerville was made a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1861 and a licensed apothecary in 1863. James may well have remained with his father after qualifying, but in December 1868 he would take on the house when Charles died at the age of 53. Charles would leave under £2000 to Jane, his widow. James seemed to have filled his father’s shoes when he married Harriet Russell in early 1870, no doubt aiming for a family. Harriet was a branch of the Russell family that occupied Wallington House on the Stafford Rd, heading out from Bloxwich.

1871 Census for the family of James Somerville.  (National Archives)

1871 Census for the family of James Somerville.
(National Archives)

In 1871 there are only five properties listed in Mill Lane. The census ran from the furthest property along the lane back towards the Bull’s Head. The top three properties were occupied by the family of William Bates, a bridle bit filer, and the family of John Elton, a labourer, who had another family boarding with them. The next property was that of James Somerville. He is alone, other than two servants. It isn’t clear as to where Harriet is. Next to Somerville is John Worthington, a medical dispenser, and finally Jane Somerville. Somerville’s family dreams were to be thwarted when Harriet Russell died in 1873, she was just 26. James would go on to re-marry in 1875; his new bride was Elizabeth Addison Russell, whom I believe was Harriet’s sister.

1881 would see things pretty much unaltered regarding the properties and while the 1884 25″ OS Map would give us the first pictorial evidence for 50 years, it is easier to see on the 1902 map. Highfield House is named for the one and only time on the 1881 census. It clearly appears to be, when looking at the map, a multi-building house, with no other properties near. There has been significant development since the 1820s, but when they were undertaken is impossible to say. The gardeners in past census’ may indicate the glasshouses were up as early as the 1850, but it is speculation. I would hazard a guess that Charles Somerville was responsible for developing the property, but James clearly continued this. There are no plans for the period, which would suggest that other than the stable, the house was pretty defined by 1877 which is when the Walsall building plans start.

The 1902 25" OS Map for Highfields (Walsall Local History Centre)

The 1902 25″ OS Map for Highfields
(Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1881, Elton and Bates were still occupying the same houses. These must be the two adjoining cottages and the far right of the house, as they are listed between the house and Cemetery Rd (later renamed Field Rd). Between these cottages and the central part of the house are some glasshouses. One of the small buildings is, I believe, a small stable building constructed by Somerville in 1885. The central part of the house was occupied by James Somerville, his somewhat younger wife, three children, two nurses and three domestic staff. Next door to James were his brother, Charles and step-mother, Jane. It is difficult to tell if they, with their servant, were housed directly next door or in the large building at the end of the range. This would later be called ‘The Cottage’ and rival the size of the main house itself. Quite where John Worthington lived, the medical dispenser, is unclear but it was assessed after the Bull’s Head pub. Personally, I think it likely he may have lived between the two larger properties in what was effectively a house and chemists.

1926 photograph of Bloxwich. The edge of 'The Cottage' can be seen. (English Heritage)

1926 photograph of Bloxwich. The edge of ‘The Cottage’ can be seen on the upper far right.
(English Heritage)

The 28 July 1890 is very interesting. On that date, James Somerville appeared before the Stafford Assizes charged with issuing a false certificate of death. The case revolved around a boy named Frank Doman, who died in Pelsall the year before. Somerville operated a surgery in Pelsall and his unqualified assistant, a man named Mulligan, visited the boy and filled in a pre-signed certificate on his death. This was contrary to the instructions of Somerville, as it must be the signatory that treats the deceased prior to death. Somerville had dismissed Mulligan and there was an action pending on this at Birmingham Assizes. Mulligan had convinced the boy’s father to bring an action against Somerville. Doman couldn’t read or write, so knew nothing really of the certificate, but Mulligan’s wife confirmed the handwriting was that of her husband and the registrar confirmed that Somerville had signed it. Mulligan was finally forced to take the stand, but refused to answer questions for fearing of incriminating himself. Mulligan even laughed at one point. The judge described Mulligan as ‘not a trustworthy person’ and the case was thrown out.

The 1891 census still lists just five properties. The workers’ cottages are now occupied by George Fenton and family, Fenton being a gardener and domestic servant, and labourer Josiah Somerfield. Jane Somerville is still at ‘The Cottage’. John Worthington, the dispenser, is still in the other property but which this time is listed as being between Highfields and The Cottage. James and Elizabeth now have seven children and four domestic servants.

The 1891 census for Mill Lane. (National Archives)

The 1891 census for Mill Lane.
(National Archives)

Somerville was listed in 1892 as being the Medical Officer and Public Vaccinator, Walsall Union (Bloxwich area). Highfields would undergo a drastic change in 1895. James Somerville died that year at the age of 55.  He left £2200 to his widow, Elizabeth. The family left Highfields, settling on the Birmingham Rd, Walsall. In 1931, Elizabeth would finally pass away in Walsall.

The new occupier of Highfields would be Samuel Sanders. The Bloxwich-born Sanders was the son of lock maker, Thomas Sanders. Thomas employed several people at his shop on High Street. Samuel married Jane Carey Taylor in 1880 and by the following year he was operating as a draper and milliner from his own premises at 198 High St. He had a baby son, Samuel, and a live-in milliner named Elizabeth. There was also a domestic servant.

By 1891 the family had grown with Arthur, Grace and Eric joining Samuel. Business must also have increased, as there was a milliner and a draper’s assistant in the shop. It may have been as much a physical need as an increase in social status that the family decided to mov into Highfields.

1901 census for Mill Lane (National Archives)

1901 census for Mill Lane
(National Archives)

In 1901, only four properties were listed in Mill Lane. Of these, two were the workers’ cottages containing the families of Alfred Dainty (a miner) and Josiah Somerfield (awl blade maker). ‘The Cottage’ was occupied by the new doctor and general practitioner, Arthur Martin. Martin, with his family of four, kept three domestic servants. He too was appointed as the Medical Officer and Public Vaccinator, Walsall Union (Bloxwich area). Sanders, on the other hand, kept no servants and other than his family, a Kathleen Hunt ( milliner), was also in the house. This may suggest that Sanders was in a smaller property, but he wasn’t; the 1904 Kelly’s directory has Sanders at Highfields.

In 1903, Sanders lodged plans to alter ‘The Cottage’, showing that he owned the two properties.

The Block Plan for alterations to 'The Cottage' 1903. This shows its location to Mill Lane and Highfields' Drive. The plans were submitted by Sanders. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Block Plan for alterations to ‘The Cottage’ 1903. This shows its location to Mill Lane and Highfields’ Drive. The plans were submitted by Sanders.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Effectively, Sanders extended the property to build a better kitchen and domestic rooms. In 1911, the property was listed as only being one room smaller than Highfields (13 as opposed to 14, excepting domestic rooms).

Ground floor of the extended 'Cottage'. 1903. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Ground floor of the extended ‘Cottage’. 1903.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The 1911 census shows five properties on Mill Lane. The first cottage was occupied by William Lees. Lees, a miner, had watched three of his four children die; this can be compared to Sanders and Martin, who had seen all five of their children grow-up. The second was occupied by Josiah Sedgwick, a 46 year old labourer, with a wife and one child. The last belonged to Joseph Cooper, another miner. He had a wife and two children; a third had died.

There are no further census returns, but we do have the ‘Walsall Red Book’ from this point on. These books were annual directories, ordered alphabetically and by street, of the inhabitants of Walsall and Bloxwich. From these we know that Arthur Martin left ‘The Cottage’ not long later and after that the number of properties on Mill St varied between two and six between 1911 and 1938. Not only that, but the names of the occupiers changed frequently.

Mill Lane and Highfields House: Destruction
The one constant is Samuel Sanders, at least until 1938. Sanders died on the 17 August that year, but what is striking is that he left nearly £19,500 to his heirs. Probate was granted to two people, as his wife had died back in 1931. The first was Alfred Edward Turner, a timber merchant; the second was his son, a retired Royal Navy surgeon, Arthur Addison Sanders. Now, Addison isn’t a common name, but the second wife of James Somerville was Elizabeth Addison Russell. Addison Russell being her farther. Is there some distant family connection between Somerville and Sanders that led to him taking on Highfields after Somerfield died? Interesting. Anyway, in 1938 there were four cottages occupied, with a G Street occupying ‘The Cottage’.

The 1938 Red Book for Walsall and Bloxwich. Sanders is listed as at Highfields. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The 1938 Red Book for Walsall and Bloxwich. Sanders is listed as at Highfields.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The following year the country went to a war that they would win with just a smidgeon of help from a couple of small countries, the names of which now escape me 🙂 . What happened to Highfields during the War years is unclear, but I noted with interest a few comments by people on Tony Kulik’s earlier post on the Bloxwich Past and Present Facebook site; they claimed that they had played in the empty house as kids. This suggests that it was abandoned in the War years. The immediate post-War period was one of optimism, new growth and new housing. In 1946 the Council looked at developing the Mill Lane site for a housing scheme. The Housing Committee minutes were clear, in that there had been no scheme planned prior to the Second World War.

The Revised OS Map, actually produced in 1946. Shows the planned development of the 'Highfields' Estate' (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Revised OS Map, actually produced in 1946. Shows the planned development of the ‘Highfields’ Estate’
(Walsall Local History Centre)

It took a couple of years to purchase the land. By January 1949 the Council were in a position to start the building work, but the four tenants of the occupied ‘cottages’ on the site needed to be re-housed. It doesn’t say which ‘cottages’ were occupied and nothing is stated about Highfields or ‘The Cottage’ clearly; one thing is clear, if they had not been demolished already, they were demolished at this stage. The house building was completed by 1950.

Walsall Housing Committee Minutes, 26/1/1949 - regarding the re-housing of four cottage owners on Mill St. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Housing Committee Minutes, 26/1/1949 – regarding the re-housing of four cottage owners on Mill St.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

And so, Highfields House, The Cottage, the old mills, Samuel Sanders, the Somerville family, the gardeners, the miners, the awl blade makers, the domestic servants, the apprentices, medical dispensers (even Mulligan) pass into history. The one survivng thread that binds them all is the Bull’s Head. Built in the later Georgian period it seems, it was rebuilt in 1927. Both Sanders and the Somervilles would have known the pre-1927 pub.

The pre-1927 Bull's Head.   Both the Somervilles and Sanders would recognise this (Walsall Local History Centre)

The pre-1927 Bull’s Head. Both the Somervilles and Sanders would recognise this
(Walsall Local History Centre)

It now lies, like Highfields before it, abandoned and forlorn.

The Bull's Head, today. 2014.

The Bull’s Head, today. 2014.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
National Archives
Ordnance Survey
English Heritage

This article is dedicated to Stuart Williams, Mr Bloko to me and celebrates the re-launch of the Bloxwich Telegraph.

  1. tonykulik says:

    A fantastic return for a 3hr time team test Mr Wyrleyblogger. Really found that interesting, thanks so much for your efforts in uncovering all those facts and details and taking the time to pen them for all to enjoy.

  2. tonykulik says:

    I certainly realise that Mr Wyrleyblogger, its my perverse sense of ‘humour’ referring to your second paragraph 😉. The search goes on for any photographic material relating to H H. And for your next task……..😁

  3. e.marshall says:

    Inthe 1940’s we called the foot path /lane that lead from near the Bull’s Head, I think it was at the side of the carpet shop, Doctors lane You could walk right through to Field Road.or through a gulley from Harrison street,cross the road through another gulley in Victoria Ave and end up in doctors lane where to the left back towards the Bull’s Head was a sunken garden ,which we called the dell .We would play over there for hours.There was still a small house lived in by someone I went to school with farther across the field. It does not seem that long since the long footpath was closed off. The Addison family was one of the business families in the area who all married with others of the same status . I used to corresspond with someone of that name who traced her family to connections with the Russells and the Foster family from Bloxwich Hall.

  4. Angela says:

    Fantastic my dad was born in doctors lane in1936 in acottage he believed there was a well x

  5. tonykulik says:

    Only just spotted your comments regarding this topic Angela – thanks. Clutching at straws, but do you possess any photos of your father or his family in Doctors Lane? Would love to see them if you did

  6. Alan Sanders says:

    This was a very interesting read as you was talking about my ancestors the Sanders family. I would love it if I could get a copy of this fascinating article please.

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hello Alan,
      Sorry for the delay in replying as I don’t access the Blog much at the moment as I am busy on other projects. The article is only available on-line – you should be able to print it out… sorry.

  7. Denis J. Rowley says:

    Like e.marshall I also knew the area as The Dell and also played there with friends. We all lived in Booth St so it was only a short walk to the area.
    I migrated to Australia with my parents and sister in 1949 but have been back to Bloxwich several times and walked through Drake Road.
    I wrote to Stuart Williams some years ago and he kindly sent me a history of what he knew about the Dell.
    I’m very grateful to have received your email, however I wonder how you came to find me?
    Thank you sincerely Denis Rowley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s