1066-1840: The Growth of Great Wyrley (and the Walsall Road)

This is the second of three articles that looks at the relationship between the settlement of Wyrley (or settlement within Wyrley) and some of the roads that have defined or helped to create it. Great Wyrley and the nebulous Landywood have grown massively from 1900 onward, so most roads were constructed or extensively developed to accommodate the inter and post-war housing estates. Saying that, some roads are of course older and it is these I want to look at.

In the first part I looked at the Toll road and traced the general history of Watling Street – historically the largest road that touched the village. In this second part I want to look at the Walsall Road. It is here that I will need to digress into the medieval and later growth of Wyrley to try to understand the road’s importance to that growth. In the final part I want to take a look at the early 19th century road network of Wyrley: to do this I shall walk up the A34 and, through the use of current photographs and older mapping for illustration, look at a few examples of where the roads and paths in Wyrley today that have fossilised – maybe just through a ‘wiggle’ or a bend – an earlier landscape.

Please remember to click on photographs to expand.

The Major Roads: Medieval Growth and the Walsall Road
The M6 Toll and the Roman Watling Street, while separated by over 1900 years, are similar in that they had far larger function than serving Great Wyrley, whereas, though not its sole goal, Wyrley was integral to our other primary route, which has become known as the Walsall Road. As with Watling Street, it is impossible to know if the Walsall Road led to settlement in Wyrley or just connected it to the existing road network – this is because of the lack of physical evidence and the road joined the more ancient and larger settlements of Bloxwich and Cannock (with a route off to the equally older Norton Canes and Little Wyrley – which becomes important later).

The Walsall Road (A34), I would suggest, was already a well trampled out ‘hollow way’ by the time of the population expansions of the early medieval period – indeed, as the name Wyrley is Old English in origin, the road was possibly in existence by the Saxon period in some form.

Edward the Confessor as depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. (Unknown)

Although not in the Domesday Book (see part one regarding Little Wyrley’s entry), we do know Great Wyrley existed in 1066: an entry in the Plea Rolls for 1270 has Richard de Loges claiming that in 1066 his ancestor Richard (the Forester) held Great Wyrley from Edward the Confessor (who was king until his death on 5 January 1066, he was followed by Harold but he is often expunged in records as he was considered a usurper) – although according the Book of Fines of 1275 it was William I that actually bestowed the title on Richard. Exist it may have done, but we have no idea as to what Great Wyrley comprised of in area, buildings or people.

Richard the Forester held several estates in Staffordshire according to the Domesday Book, the most valuable being at Rodbaston in the Cuttlestone Hundred. Great Wyrley is not listed separately, but it is possible that its revenues were incorporated into this estate. If a tract of land had been transferred from the Bishop (who owned the Domesday settlement of Little Wyrley) to the King (who then granted it to Richard), it may not have been mentioned by name, but it may have been reflected in the huge increase in the value of his Rodbaston estate – from 2s to 15s – between 1066 and 1086.

Alternatively, it may have formed a part of Cannock’s Domesday return – as later Wyrley was a part of its ecclesiastical and manor court system.

As we progress through the medieval period further clues as to what Great Wyrley actually comprised of, and how the settlement describes itself, begin to emerge. Homeshaw covers much of the ownership of the ‘manor’ in his 1951 joint work on Great Wyrley, but I am more interested in what the settlement contained. The 1270 Plea Roll described Richard the Forester as holding the vill of Great Wyrley. A vill is an area of land in a rural community. In the same passage Rodbaston was described as a manor, which is a legal and administrative unit under the auspices of a lord.

We have two references to Wyrley in the 12th century, according to the Victoria County History. The then Forester and holder of Wyrley, William Croc, granted all his rights to Wyrley to the Abbey at Radmore (Gentleshaw/Cannock Wood) around 1153 – and, indeed, became a monk there. It was either he or Henry of Normandy that granted a mill in Wyrley to the Abbey at that time. The king recovered the manor after the Abbey swapped their Cannock surrounds for a site in Warwickshire and it was passed to Robert de Brok, then eventually to Hugh de Loges around 1195. In 1198 Hugh was found to be holding a carucate and a half of land in Wyrley by the service of keeping the forest of Cannock, which is around 180 acres.

Cannock Forest, a painting by Jean Walker. The wood was transferred from king to bishop and continued to shrink over the centuries.

The Cannock forest was shrinking: we know that in the 12th century the Bishop of Lichfield was granted 1500 acres that had been recently assarted – that is cleared of woodland – in one royal grant alone and, in the 13th century, the king granted swathes of oak trees for building purposes (for example, 80 oaks were given for the repair of St Mary’s Church, Stafford, in 1244). Much of the forest would be granted to the Bishop of Lichfield in 1290.

Added to this were local rights to cut timber – or not as the case may be. In Wyrley we know that William de la More (the then Forester) appeared in the Plea Rolls for 1283-1284 to sue William Trumwyne, William Ingge and Ralph the Miller of Wyrley for cutting down 40s worth of trees. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first, not only was there an established community – but it appears to be growing as the woodland is being illegally assarted either for the wood or, more likely, to create more agricultural land; second, the name Ralph the Miller (of Wyrley) suggests not only that crops were grown but that they were processed in Wyrley as well. Indeed, assuming he was a miller, he may have processed grain from some miles around.

We also know that the local economy was more developed and at this point animal husbandry was clearly being practiced in Wyrley: the same William de la More took the cattle of the same William Trumwyne and impounded them as Trumwyne owed him his ‘due services’. Trumwyne went on to release them by force and would have been arraigned on such a charge only Trumwyne failed to appear in his defence – I am sure it isn’t the first or last punch-up in Wyrley over an old cow.

Uncalled witnesses in the More v Trumwyne case, c1280s. (Mike Edwards)

In 1293 Richard de Loges died and an inquisition was undertaken in order that the king would not miss-out financially. Great Wyrley was described as a hamlet, which he held from the king as a keeper of the forest of Cannock. This hamlet was worth some £9 2s 8d a year. Interestingly, with regard to settlement, the inquisition states that the rent of fixed tenants was worth £4 per year, and 10s for other tenants. Equally interesting, as it suggests the presence of a principle property in the hamlet, is that it had its own court (like a full manor). This was worth 32s 8d a year.

In 1300 Richard de Loges, son of Richard, died and the inquisition that followed makes fascinating reading with regard to the make-up of the hamlet. It lists all of Richard’s tenants, their holdings and the value of those holdings. Some just hold land, while others have a messuage (house/farm etc) too. Richard had his own property in Wyrley and received rents from ten others – there may well be have more, as these are just the ones he has lordship over. Just for interest, one plot of land was held by William the Chaplain – who may have tended to local spiritual needs.

Edward III from his tomb at Westminster Abbey – he levied the lay subsidy taxes to pay for his Scottish wars. (Westminster Abbey)

The early 14th century was marked with a great famine after a significant change in weather patterns and there is some possible evidence as to how this may have affected Wyrley: two tax records do exist, the lay subsidy rolls for 1327 and 1333, which were taxes levied to raise funds for the Scottish wars of Edward III. There are returns for Great Wyrley and for Norton and Wyrley.

It would be reasonable to assume that these returns would give the number of households within these areas and while they do they must be treated with caution: firstly, many were exempt from the tax – of the 13 entries in the 1327 list for Great Wyrley only Adam Herberd reappears with certainty within the 7 names listed in 1333; secondly, it is likely that the lists included Cheslyn Hay as one taxed subject was Richard de Oldefalling; finally, people change tax district – for example, John Trumwyne and Richard de Huntingdon reappear in the Cannock list in 1333.

In 1342 an inquisition was held in Great Wyrley in front of the King’s Escheator. This entry is interesting for three reasons: firstly, many of the names on the 1327 subsidy lists are witnesses, showing how many avoided the tax in 1333; secondly, Great Wyrley is described as a manor in the gift of the king; finally, and most importantly, ‘they say there is no manor or chief messuage [a manor house], dovecote, orchard, land, meadow, wood, pasture, mills, nor anything’. If this last point is true, and the rents were now said to be worth 66s 8d a year and the value of the court had fallen to 3s 4d, then this is a marked decline in value between the inquisitions of 1293 and 1342. I would like to come back to this later when looking at where the hamlet was located.

We have spectacular evidence of the effect of the ‘black death’ on Great Wyrley. The inquisition on the death of John de Loges this time took place in Penkridge (Rodbaston?) in 1349, he possibly died of the plague although this is not stated. Again, it said John held the manor from the king as the keeper of the Cannock forest. The inquisition states that the lands, tenements and rents were once worth 100s, but are now worth ’60s… because of the present pestilence and paucity of tenants’. The court also had no value.

In 1380 the poll tax rears its head, and Norton and Little Wyrley are again assessed separately from Great Wyrley. Great Wyrley is in fact listed as ‘membris Magna Wyrley et’, which means Great Wyrley with members – in other words, this could include Landywood, Cheslyn Hay and Churchbridge. The entries are for married couples and single adults. Who paid what is not really important here, but the assessment lists what appear to be 13 single and 52 married couples (this does not mean there were 65 households necessarily and, as stated, the taxation area is not clearly defined). The vast majority are described as cultor, indicating they were cultivators of the land – farmers or farm labourers to some degree. There were various artisans, which included: bakers, butchers, a shoemaker, a weaver and a miller – which adds credence to my previous suggestion that grain was processed within the village, but also shows that the community could provide for itself in many other ways.

So where was this hamlet? With the presence of a likely medieval moated house (rebuilt in 1758) into the 1950s, I would suggest that this hamlet was centred on the junction of what is now Walsall Road and Norton Road (going as far up as Old Manor Farm). Saying that, moated houses were a feature of the mid-later medieval period (13th-15th centuries), and considering there was no ‘manor house’ in 1349, it is possible this moated property was constructed after that date over an existing building or on a new site.

The historic heart of Great Wyrley (spot the moat) – the Walsall Road/Norton Lane junction on the Tithe Map 1838. (Lichfield Record Office)

In January 2011 the South Staffordshire District Council’s Historic Environment Character Assessment looked at this question and it too placed ‘the Moat’ as the focus of medieval Wyrley. They go on to discuss the field system that supported the community, some of which can be made out on the map above… ‘Further evidence of medieval occupation survives in the surrounding field systems… the morphology of those which now lie beneath the housing to the west of Walsall Road… as shown on late 19th century Ordnance Survey maps suggests that they had originated as medieval open fields. These large hedge-less fields were usually farmed on a rotational basis… [and] were divided into strips which individual landholders held across the various fields. They were enclosed piecemeal during the post medieval period as the landholders sought to consolidate their holdings’.

The HECA went on to say that the ‘open fields were probably created as illegal assarts within Cannock Forest during the 12th and 13th centuries’ (which I have hoped I demonstrated by William de la More v Ralph the Miller at al case). It also cites sources that claimed that ‘Great Wyrley was one of the settlements claiming disafforestation from Cannock Forest (for the repeal of Forest Law) in 1300, suggesting settlement had occurred in this area by that date’ (which I have definitely demonstrated). And that ‘the disafforestation had probably been granted by the mid 14th century’.

Finally, as demonstrated by later OS Maps, I don’t think we should think of this ‘hamlet’ as being, as the name suggests, a nucleated settlement; while I believe there were a cluster of buildings around the ‘moated property’,  I also believe, as the population grew between the 11th and 14th centuries, that there was likely some dispersed settlement along what is now the Walsall Road and into Landywood, too. Cheslyn Hay would have had settlement as well that was likely included in the assessments for Great Wyrley.

To recap the 11th – 14th centuries: Great Wyrley was not included in the Domesday assessment, but it did exist in some form by then. The settlement then grew through the early medieval period as a result of forest clearance – being described as a hamlet by 1293. Despite being described as a manor in 1342 there was no ‘manor house’, so there was likely a steward that collected rents, heard pleas and reported to an absentee landlord (the de Loges family). The manor suffered during the Black Death but recovered, possibly with a new and moated principal property, to be a relatively self-sufficient community by 1380, which was rooted in agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Major Roads: Post-Medieval Growth, Landywood and the Walsall Road
The area grew further in the 15th – 16th centuries, which is shown by the fact that when the Peto family relinquished their hold on the manor of Great Wyrley their sale was considerable. In 1527 they sold 20 acres of arable, 120 acres of pasture, 20 acres of meadow, 40 acres of woodland, and over £7 worth of annual rents to a group of gentlemen, for £200. In 1545 it is recorded that they sold the manor, 6 messuages, 200 acres of arable, 100 acres of meadow, 200 acres of pasture, 100 acres of woodland, and over £10 of annual rents to James Leveson, a Wolverhampton wool merchant. This last land sale alone was twice the size of that of the Domesday entry for Norton and Wyrley.

At this point I want to touch on Landywood. I said that Landywood – a name also of Saxon derivation and meaning ‘open clearing in a wooded area’, which too smacks of marginal settlement – was (and still is) nebulous, by which I mean that it is undefined geographically. You can argue historically that there was a Landywood, Lower Landywood and an Upper Landywood – and this is something I want to look into in the next part – but for now I want to confine myself to a simple defining and some developmental facts as it is to the early Tudor period we have our first evidence of settlement there.

Whatever their actual boundaries the Landywoods cover from the Walsall Road, at around the memorial garden to Newtown (although the area around the junction of Holly Lane and the Walsall Road was historically called Bradley – unless a personal name it is another ‘Saxon’ name meaning ‘broad glade in a wood’ and also indicative of marginal settlement), across to Springhill (Essington), down Old Landywood Lane and Streets Lane (once Middle Pit Lane), to Landywood Lane, then across to the Gorsey Lane/Hilton Lane island, then up Shaws Lane to the memorial garden.

Landywood Farm, of early 16th century origin – at least. 2018.

The earliest phase of occupation we know of can be traced to Upper Landywood and to Landywood Farm, which dates to the early 16th century. The farm is a grade II listed building, achieving this status in 1987. The size and shape of the field system around the farm are suggestive of a late medieval/early post-medieval date, but of course it does not mean that there was not a building on the site prior to this date that was swept away during rebuilding.

The 17th century would be one of both turmoil and change. The turmoil came in the form of the English Civil War and Homeshaw (and local tradition) regale us with tales of the royalist Colonel Leveson, the destruction of his manor house, a parliamentarian troop camp based around Wharwell Farm where the soldiers dug a well (hence war-well) to slake their thirst, before clashing with the cavaliers near the camp – Boys Own stuff, although I am not sure I believe much, if any of it.

Wharwell Farm, the site of a Civil War clash?

Sceptical I may be, but I do believe that the Wyrley area was of importance to both sides at this time. The Victoria County History states that mining had commenced within Great Wyrley by 1642, possibly adding credence to those Civil War tales. Wyrley, I suppose, had been involved in industry for centuries – but in the form of supplying fuel and charcoal for the medieval bloomeries and later blast-furnaces furnaces at places like Walsall, Cannock, Rugeley and Beaudesert – but this was taking industry to a new level.

An illustrative example of bell pits, likely the earliest method of coal extraction in the area. (Staffordshire Past Track).

The mines would be simple bell pits and the scale and amount produced is difficult to say, but since deforestation the product was needed and especially in a time of war as it fires the furnaces that make bullets, weapons and armour. Charles I had learned this the hard way, he had to come to terms with the Scots a few years previously when they over-ran Northumberland and strangled London’s coal supply.

Added to the start of industry within Wyrley, the 17th century saw an industrialisation of the agricultural land. It is difficult to say just how much of the open-field system had been enclosed by the 17th century, but the fields on the 1838 tithe-map show all the signs of piecemeal enclosure – that is small, often irregular shaped fields, which were separated off by agreement. Leveson, not one to miss a trick, made an agreement with the copyhold tenants (leaseholders from the Lord) to enclose over 600 acres of common land at Cheslyn Common.

The piecemeal enclosure of the medieval fields as seen in 1838. (Lichfield RO)

The next clue as to the size of Great Wyrley comes from the Hearth Tax assessment of 1666. Effectively, a house was taxed on the number of fireplaces it had – in theory, the more you had the wealthier you were. A total of 75 houses were assessed: a third of which were exempt (likely due to the inability of the occupier to pay), over a half were assessed at just one hearth, two properties had four hearths and two had five hearths – so not the most affluent of areas. It is interesting to note that the moat house is not the clearest and most obviously largest of the local taxed properties.

Interestingly, while it would have included Churchbridge and the Landywood areas, we know that this return did not include Cheslyn Hay, as it too completed some sort of return in 1666 (although it never seemed to be actually officially returned). Some 10 properties were listed, all with but one having just one hearth – the other, two. It isn’t clear if there were exemptions. Cheslyn Hay was now too beginning to be settled, possibly as unofficial encroachments, and likely drawn in by the mining.

The 18th century saw both increased mining activity and an improved transport infrastructure with the arrival of the turnpike road and the link to the canal system via the Wyrley & Essington canal at Springhill. At the same time as the canal was being opened, further enclosures were taking place within Cheslyn Hay and the Wyrley area, which saw large, regular fields laid-out.

I suppose that with hindsight you would say that from this point onward it was only a matter of time that agriculture in Wyrley was to be replaced by industry as the mainstay of the local economy. It does overtake it, but not in as complete a way as how both industry and agriculture were later replaced by commuter-land as Wyrley ceased to import its labour but export it.

The industrial change was driven by two kinds of people: firstly, the landowners – those that had the power to exploit the land in Great Wyrley were willing to do so – and none more so than the dukes of Sutherland (the Leveson family had increased their wealth through advantageous marriages, the title was created for them in 1833); second, the entrepreneurs – people like Charles Quinton and William Gilpin – who understood business, market need (be it coal or edge tools) and the financial viability in supplying it.

In 1801, according to the VCH, there were 227 inhabitants in Great Wyrley and 443 in Cheslyn Hay (showing its rapid growth in comparison to Wyrley). Within a few years it would expand, as Gilpin had settled the Churchbridge area with his tool works.

The extent of Gilpin’s works, as well as former mine, current mines and the tramways linking them are shown on the 1838 tithe map. The map covers the whole township of Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay, its purpose is to value all the land and movables (including crops) in order to assess their tithe value (a Church tax). The map shows each field and building, and is accompanied by a schedule, which lists by landowner, then tenant, all the fields (giving their size and value, along with nature – arable, pasture, meadow etc). It does the same for buildings. It is a remarkable document and could fill a chapter on its own – suffice to say here, regarding land use, is that it shows that Wyrley is still predominantly agricultural. This may not mean that the agriculture was more profitable.

Churchbridge, 1838
(Lichfield Record Office)

The early 19th century was a tough time for agricultural workers throughout the country and had led to social unrest: the Swing Riots and Tolpuddle Martyrs being two examples in the south. Low wages, long hours, the temporary nature of employment and increased mechanisation were all factors and would drive the movement of workers towards the emerging cities and into the mills, mines and factories.

The mid 19th century saw increasing industrialisation with the railway cutting a swathe through the village, making the movement of coal and people far more efficient. Added to this, the old bell pits of the last century had now given way to larger companies that were sinking deeper shafts.

In 1841 the first census that records personal detail was produced. The census gives the size of the population and the occupations of individuals. In brief, we find that Wyrley grows faster than the county average and that the occupation category shows that it is the industry that is attracting settlement. Farming is still represented. Heads of households are listed as farmers, often with the acreages of their holding, but not the location (so it may not be within the Wyrley area). 15 acres was around one eighth of the old medieval carucate, but it seems could support a family and a servant.

While we cannot say much on the origins of the Walsall Road – we do know that as the primary direct route between Walsall and Cannock, in historical terms, it either isn’t that old – or more likely that it played second fiddle for a significant period to a route that would today seem a little bizarre.

A thoroughfare shown on early maps was not the one that we know today: the Victoria County History states that ‘the original road from Walsall to Stafford, which crossed Watling Street at Churchbridge, before heading to Cannock, originally ran through Little Bloxwich. It is said to have continued via Fishley to Great Wyrley, but there is evidence of a route via Yieldfields, where a road called Stafford Way is mentioned in 1576 and 1617.’

The Tithe Map 1838, showing Bradley Nook (Holly Lane/Walsall Rd junction) and one of the early routes from Little Bloxwich – via Jacobs Hall. (Lichfield RO)

The problem we have is that there a three places that this route through Little Bloxwich could have emerged onto the Walsall Road: first, the straight route is Jones Lane – which leads toward Lower Landywood; second, Jacobs Hall Lane – which leads back towards Upper Landywood, but connects the most obvious of buildings in the Hall; third, Hazel Lane – which is most likely as it comes out near the Star Inn and the toll gate, before heading into the main settlement area of Great Wyrley. This question will be examined in the next part.

The later named Jones’s Lane and Hazel Lane routes to the Walsall Rd from Little Bloxwich, 1838 (Lichfield RO)

The Walsall Road was turnpiked in 1766 and its course was altered to run through Great Bloxwich, so I assume this would have been an upgrade of the existing ‘Stafford Way’. According to the 1838 tithe-map, the first toll-gate on this road in Wyrley was located at the junction of Hilton Lane (then Watery Lane) and Walsall Road – standing on the ground adjacent to the Star Inn. The second was at the junction of the Walsall Road and what is now Leacroft Lane.

This route became increasingly lucrative, due to the increasing coal production within Wyrley and the wider Cannock Chase area. Tolls raised went to the upkeep of the roads, with the surplus to shareholders – although one wonders exactly how much of the income was used for upkeep. In 1781 a four-wheel wagon was charged at a shilling, a horse was a penny, cattle at ten pence a score, with sheep and pigs at five pence a score.

As with Watling Street the responsibility for the road also passed via the Turnpike Trust to the Cannock Rural District Council, before being passed to the County Council. It was classed as a trunk road for a while, but was returned to County Council control around 2004.

To Come: Part 3 – A Walk Up The Walsall Road….