The Origins of Great Wyrley

I studied the arrival of farming in Britain for my A’ level in Archaeology and I found an interest in early landscapes while undertaking my degrees, all some years back. I studied the landscape and place-names around Penkridge for my BA (Hons) dissertation on the Roman sites there, and those around Gerrards Bromley (near Eccleshall) for my MA in Local History.  It seemed natural to look at Great Wyrley at some point now that I am doing this blog, however, I am under no illusion that whilst this article will likely be more popular with those that have insomnia than those that want a fun read, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth writing.

Since the arrival of farming practices into Britain around 4000 BC, the story of farming and the story of human settlement are in fact inseparable. Set against the national back-drop, this article simply tries to offer, in brief, some ideas and thoughts on the possible nature of local settlement and land-use around the Great Wyrley area from prehistory through to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Much of the early evidence referred to will come from recognised local archaeological features (some of which have now disappeared) and portable finds that have been declared to archaeological authorities and placed on record. These can be found in the National Monuments Record (NMR), the Staffordshire Historic Environment Record (Staffs) and the Wolverhampton and Walsall Historical Environment Record (W&W) amongst other sources and the Historic Environment Record and the reference number are quoted so readers can check the full record for themselves, on-line. There are likely many undeclared and unlisted finds from the locality, which obviously cannot be included in this article. Further evidence comes from the local place-names, the translations being based on the works of JP Oakden, The Place-Names of Staffordshire part 1: Cuttlestone Hundred; David Horovitz, The Place-Names of Staffordshire and Herbert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names.

The General Story
From around 4000 BC the domestication of cattle, pigs, goats and sheep commenced, as did the growing of crops such as wheat and barley. This was likely practiced at little more than subsistence level for an extended family, but even this required a commitment that forced the abandoning of the nomadic lifestyle enjoyed by previous generations. Early farming practices could see small areas of forest cleared, the land planted, crops reared and then the land abandoned after a generation or so due to soil exhaustion. This commitment therefore should not necessarily be seen as the creation of permanent farmsteads and settlements, but one more a period of occupation.

Therefore, the first factor in understanding permanent settlement after the introduction of farming is that the landscape has to be able to support it. Geographer, Michael Chisholm, identified five factors in his ‘model’ settlement, which he also prioritised with a score of 1 to 10: these were building materials (it scored the lowest at 1), arable land and fuel (both of which scored 3), grazing land (which scored 5) and the most vital of all, water (which is reflected in its score of 10).

The second factor is that of population. It seems obvious that new land was colonised as the population of an area grew, and that that population constantly grew. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work like that: population has fluctuated considerably over time and in itself is a major reason for the founding of, total or partial abandonment of, then later the re-founding of settlements, especially when we are talking of marginal ones. Generally, the prehistoric period was one of population growth, but it collapsed after the Roman withdrawal (possibly halving). It rose again through the Saxon and early medieval periods, but again crashed during a 14th century ravaged first by famine and then by plague. It wasn’t until the end of the Tudor period that population again reached the level it had under the Romans. From 1600 onwards it has grown at an ever increasing rate.

The next factor is the uneasy compromise between individual and community living. Settlement occurs in two general forms, dispersed and nucleated: dispersed settlement consists of individual, isolated houses and farmsteads, often in marginal areas such as moorland, whereas nucleated settlement is quite simply the opposite. The concepts of a hamlet, village and town are familiar, it is where buildings cluster around a single (the village green) or more focal points (polyfocal) within a confined or defined area (such as a hillfort for example). Of course, nucleated settlement can be supported by dispersed settlement, as farmsteads seek the trade, martial and legal protection offered by larger settlements. Roman Penkridge (Pennocruncium) was like this, a town with Engleton Villa on the outskirts. I believe many of these types of settlement are represented in the local landscape.

Finally, there is the impact on settlement of an increasingly complicated system of land ownership and social structure, or for want of a better phrase, sub-letting. It seems we love nothing more than boundaries. Initially, ditches and earth banks would physically delineate property; however, this would pass in time to a system of recorded landholding. Whatever the complexities of the Bronze Age, the Domesday Book reflects those of the Norman feudal system. Domesday shows how the church and nobles held estates from the king, which they may in turn sub-let. The tenant may hold that estate on his own, or alternatively, he may offer land within it to freemen, villagers or smallholders in return for service on his land. There may also be slaves. This system tightly controlled settlement. Each man was to have his lord, and each acre an owner.

Great Wyrley: Possible Origins
So let’s turn to Wyrley. The name of ‘Wyrley’ maybe of Anglo-Saxon derivation, but that in itself doesn’t mean that settlement within Wyrley is not older. If we look at Chisholm’s settlement model then Wyrley has the all-important water, in the forms of what are now the Wash and Wyrley Brooks. Further, perched on the edge of what would later be called the Cank forest, the Wyrley area had plenty of wood for building materials and fuel. The forest would also provide pannage for pigs and with some management, grazing land for cattle and arable land for crops.

Let us start in the earlier later prehistoric period, in the periods known as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (around 4000 – 700 BC). Firstly, we have no evidence of settlement in what is now Wyrley, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, after all the Historical Environment Records do have evidence of potential settlement in the wider landscape. The first is an alleged Bronze Age ‘burnt mound’ near the old station at Pelsall (W&W 1674). This site was first mentioned in 1913 and was an alleged stone-boiling mound; some ‘slight evidence’ was recorded in 1997. Possible Bronze Age settlement has also been recorded near Saredon. Dr Robert Plot, in his History of Staffordshire of 1686, made report of a barrow at Great Saredon (Staffs 01813). Further, another possible ‘burnt mound’ has been recorded in Little Saredon (Staffs 01075) and a second off Saredon Lane, near Boulton Farm (Staffs 01072). It must be said that settlement evidence is slight, but that would be expected.

The settlement evidence is supported by a number of portable finds, which not only show human activity in the form of hunting, but possible land management (unless you believe, like Time Team, that every archaeological artefact is in fact a votive offering 🙂 ). In the locality there have been flint arrowhead finds at Cannock (Staffs 01042) and Norton Canes (Staffs 03589), flint axe-heads just off Blackhalve Lane and near the rugby club in Essington (Staffs 02117 and W&W 6252), a polished stone axe-head found at Brookhouse Farm, Featherstone (Staffs 01915) and a bronze axe (palstave) found at Shareshill church in 1966 (NMR 76960). The most interesting for Wyrley is a so-called mace-head, made of micaceous greywacke, which possibly originated in Derbyshire as far back as 5000 BC. It was found in gravel, at a depth of 6 feet, while excavating for a sewer at the rear of the Ivy House pub in Newtown (Staffs 01085).

At this point it is probably best to raise the issue of the ‘great stones of Landywood’, as described by Ernest J Homeshaw and Ralph Sambrook in their 1951 pamphlet history, Great Wyrley 1051-1951. They go onto make a romantic claim that these stones stood upright and overlooked the valley of Wyrley Brook, constituting a ‘temple of the Druids’. Sadly these stones, which were located on their map as being dumped in a field off Gorsey Lane, were not what they believed. They crop-up all over the area and are in fact are what geologists call erratics: these are large stones that have been transported from other regions by the ice-flow during the last glacial period. There was an Ancient Order of Druids in Wyrley around 1910, but sadly they met at the Star Inn, not at a temple 😦 .

Homeshaw and Sambrook's 'Great Stones of Landywood'. Geological erratics rather than a Druid temple. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Homeshaw and Sambrook’s ‘Great Stones of Landywood’. Geological erratics rather than a Druid temple.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Moving into the Iron Age (700 BC – AD 43) we find that the same is true as for the Bronze Age, in that there is also no evidence of human activity in what we now class as Great Wyrley. There is, again however, evidence in the wider landscape. The Wyrley area formed a part of the territory of the Cornovii tribe. Locally, there were hillforts at Castle Ring in Cannock (Staffs 00025); Castle Old Fort, near Stonnall (W&W 2613) and possibly at Knaves Castle, in Brownhills (W&W 2664). If there was settlement in the Wyrley area, it is unclear as to how it related to these forts and its wider place within the ‘tribe’. There is no evidence of any portable finds that date to this period although some of the Bronze Age finds could actually date to the Iron Age; archaeologists will admit that all of prehistory is somewhat vague.

Watling Street, and the wider road network, deserves a little paragraph on its own. It is generally perceived as being a road of Roman origin, originally linking their port at Richborough with the legionary fortress, and former tribal capital of the Cornovii, at Wroxeter. If this is accepted then it may seem obvious to link the first settlement in Wyrley with the arrival of the road. It must be remembered that there had been ‘roads’ in this country before the arrival of the Romans, who took construction to a completely new level. Watling St, the Chester Road North and the Walsall Road could all have earlier elements within them.

Whatever its origins, Watling Street linked the immediate Roman settlements of Letocetum (Wall) and Pennocrucium (south of Penkridge). You would think that the presence of such an arterial road would have encouraged new settlement, or the expansion of existing settlement. Sadly, as with the earlier periods, there is no evidence of settlement in the Roman period. During an assessment carried out in 1994, for the potential road-widening of the motorway, evidence was uncovered of a potential villa and road just off the current A460 (NMR), on the edge of Saredon and Shareshill. This is very close to Wyrley.

What we do have is the first declared archaeological find within the existing Great Wyrley boundary that is recorded on the on-line databases (Portable Antiquities Scheme: WMID-B76FD0). This find was made in 2010. It is a damaged lead-cast classical styled standing figurine, possibly of the goddess Minerva. Whilst a medieval date has been mooted, a Roman date is a most likely given its classical theme and a similar example being found elsewhere.

Lead statue of Minerva found in Great Wyrley (Portable Antiquities Scheme: WMID-B76FD0)

Lead statue of Minerva found in Great Wyrley
(Portable Antiquities Scheme: WMID-B76FD0)

In the Great Wyrley area, the Anglo-Saxon period (410 – 1066) offers some useful evidence regarding the historic environment, not in the form of archaeology, but in the form of place-names. As the population increased new areas were settled and former lands re-settled, particularly in the 8th-10th centuries. These place-names are Saxon and based either on personal names, or topographical features. A topographical place-name is not of course proof that there was actual settlement, whereas a personal name indicates there likely is.

The only immediate place-name we have that appears to be based on a personal name is Essington. Ekwall has this as the tun of Esne’s people; a ‘tun’ being almost any level of settlement, but it is likely in this case that it just a farmstead.  At Hill Farm, on the Bognop Rd, there is a low earthwork bank, which has been interpreted as a possible boundary marker and reputedly mentioned in a charter of 994 (Staffs 01674).

Slightly further out we have Bloxwich; this is likely the settlement of Bloc (likely old even by the middle Saxon period). It is unclear as to whether Saredon is a topographical name meaning barren hill, or personal name meaning Searu’s hill. The similarity between Saredon and Shareshill should also be noted, something that Horovitz also picks-up on. Pelsall may mean Peol’s land between two streams.

Wyrley is generally accepted as being topographical, meaning a clearing in a wood where there is bog myrtle. Horovitz adds that a ley suffix (leah) is also indicative of a clearing which is ‘especially one used for pasture or arable‘. Bog myrtle, by definition, grows in swamp ground and the Washbrook itself may refer to a low-lying plain prone to flooding. I suppose the question is, does this place-name originate from the landscape around what is now Great or Little Wyrley, or both?

Landywood simply means an open clearing within a wooded area. Again, Horovitz adds that the possibility that this means woodland pasture and as such, farming.

Cheslyn Hay is perhaps the most interesting. The hay element, likely again, refers to an enclosed forest clearing. The Cheslyn element has advanced a couple of theories; although the lyn, it is agreed, refers to a hill, ridge, or bank. The Ches element may refer to a ‘cist’, which is often a prehistoric stone-lined chamber used for a burial or cremation. Whilst Cheslyn Hay has not produced any evidence of such burials, the HER does record the possibility for Saredon. An alternative, offered by Horovitz, is that ‘cist’ is a derivative for chestnut tree.

So what does all this tell us about settlement around Wyrley prior to the medieval period? Well, nothing definitively – and I can hear you saying what the hell have I read this for 😉 . Most local names are of a topographical nature and seem to indicate marginal settlement, likely farmed, within a wooded environment. The archaeological evidence used here would suggest that people have walked and possibly managed the Wyrley landscape from the Bronze Age. Saredon may present evidence of the earliest settlement in the immediate vicinity, but there are no clear beginnings, especially in Wyrley.

I suppose if you take the place-name evidence in conjunction with paucity of archaeological evidence and then take into account the rising population of the later Anglo-Saxon period, it currently seems safe to say that settlement in Wyrley occurs at some stage at this point. I would suggest, that with all of the building that has occurred within the township, I think it is unlikely that any definitive proof will ever be found.

My thanks to:
The Walsall Local History Centre
The websites and books cited in the article.

  1. tonykulik says:

    ‘and I can hear you saying what the hell have I read this for ;-)’ – learnt a few interesting facts Mr Wyrleyblogger, thanks. – keep ’em coming

  2. angvs72 says:

    I love the subject matter, thoroughly enjoyed reading the article and do not have insomnia!
    We would not be where we are today (Intellectually)! without “settling”.

  3. Wouldn’t lyn mean lake? As in the Welsh ‘llyn’? Though I’m struggling to locate said lake in Cheslyn Hay!

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Jo, nice to speak to you again. We chatted a lot when you did your blog articles on the Landywood stones.

      Welsh is derived from pre-Roman languages (Celtic for want of a better word), where as Cheslyn Hay is, according to the Ekwall et al, most likely carved out in the Anglo-Saxon period and so has an Old English name. This means Chezzy Hay is rooted in a different language to Welsh. A HLINC in OE is, according to Ekwall for example, a hill.

      Many places founded (or re-founded) in the 8-10th centuries have pure OE or Scandinavian names (further north), and a few are hybrids. If there were earlier Roman and pre-Roman names they have been swept away. Saying that, Penkridge is an OE name, but it is a hybrid, formed from the Roman settlement of ‘Pennocrucium’ a mile to the south. Pennocrucium was, in itself, a Latinised form of a Celtic name, meaning something along the lines of ‘chief or hilly mound’ (I argued in my dissertation that this was to do with its location near a burial mound). ‘Pen’ is very familiar in Welsh place names.

      As a Lichfeldian, I believe the same is true of my home town. Many locally say it means ‘field of the dead’, whereas I would bet my hat that it is simply, like Penkridge, derived from the former Roman settlement at Wall (Letocetum), which was itself derived from the Celtic for something like ‘grey wood’.

      Would love a lake, though 🙂

  4. andywootton says:

    Are you aware that ‘the stone circle’ was relocated to the corner opposite The Star pub, before apparently being ‘lost’ in a later landscaping project?

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Andy,

      Back in 1951, when the photo was taken, the stones were in a field off Gorsey Lane and I believe they disappeared when the Paklands Estate was built. One or two are still dotted about, the one outside of the Landywood Enterprise Park for example. I remember a small stone circle opposite the Swan Inn, not the Star?

      • andywootton says:

        That’s the one. I just came back to check what I’d written, after mentioning The Star to @BrownhillsBob in a more relevant context 🙂 The stones had gone before I read what they’d been.

  5. Martin Woodhouse says:

    All very interesting stuff. My cousin now lives in Wyrley and my family has lived in the Pelsall / Walsall area for more than 100 yrs. I recently went “home” for a visit and have developed quite an interest in the area. I live now in Canada but plan to continue my research into the area. I’d like to keep in touch and read more. Please let me know how. FYI. I was looking at brownhillsbob’s pictures on Panorama today. Great stuff. Let me know how to stay in touch.

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Martin, I never thought Wyrleyblog would go international – maybe if Walsall was mistaken for Wales! BB’s site is great. Wyrleyblog is on Facebook and Twitter if you want to check them out and you can always leave a comment on those. Thank you for dropping by!

  6. rob caddick says:

    I was always told that wyrley was called bog- murcal glade in saxon times is there any truth in that

  7. Sam Whitehouse says:

    Regarding the similarity between Shareshill and Saredon, if the search area is widened starting with Sherbrook Valley, we then find in order of progression to the south west- Shoal Hill (formerly Shore Hill), Great Saredon, Little Saredon, Shareshill and Show Hill near Wolverhampton .Using the 1 inch to 1 mile OS map of 1834 it is found that commencing at St Peters Church in Wolverhampton, a straight line can be drawn through all of these places. Taking into account the Bronze Age burnt mounds at the Saredons (these are marked on the current 1:25,000 OS), the Bronze palstave found at Shareshill and the “Neolithic or Bronze Age adze” found at Wolverhampton (NSJFS) there is a strong Bronze Age feel to this whole corridor. I tentatively suggest that these places are echoes of an ancient astronomical alignment.

  8. John Sivorn says:

    Fascinating thank you.

  9. Alison says:

    Very interesting. I’ve lived solely in Cheslyn Hay for nearly 54 years. I love this village and Great Wyrley. Thanks so much for publishing this.

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