The Royal Oak, Bullings Heath: Explorations in local history

Bullings Heath as it stands today, viewed from the south – with the former Royal Oak highlighted. Imagery from Bing! maps. Click for a larger version.

This is the first of a multi-part epic. Researched painstakingly by David Evans, top bloke and stalwart of this blog, he wrote this up some weeks ago, and I’ve been working on bringing the information out in the best way possible.

This whole story came about way back in March of this year, when I was contacted by Hilary Little. Hillary sent me the following email on the 11th of that month:

Hi Bob

The end of an era is about to happen. The house in Green Lane, Walsall Wood that was many years ago the Royal Oak at Bullings Heath, is now empty with the passing of its last occupant. The family would love someone to be aware of the history of this place before it disappears into the mists.

It has been owned by the Smith family for the last 71 years, and my Mum, who grew up there, has lots of information about old cottages that used to be in this area… And their old residents. My Grandmother always said the drive way was called ‘Pepper alley’.

It would be great if my mum and her brother could talk to someone about the house and its history.

Please let me know if you or David Evans might be interested.

Kind regards

Hilary Little

I immediately knew this was a job for David. He loves the local history, talks well, and like a dog with a bone, won’t let go. I put the task to him, and David jumped at the chance. Over the subsequent months, he has met with Hillary and the family, and documented everything beautifully.

The Royal Oak, and it’s location, have been mentioned here before, several times. It’s fitting that we can finally nail the history of this lost alehouse.

In the exploration, this history has turned out to be very complex. David has approached, and interpreted, what has become somewhat of a mystery. Pepper Alley is listed on census records and newspaper reports, but emerges and disappears from the historical record. We know it was in the Bullings Heath – Hall Lane area, but conflicting oral and official records have muddied the water.

Another great local history wonk – [Howmuch?] – has done his own study of Pepper Alley which I shall visit as part of this series. It’ll be interesting to see what readers make of this issue.

I’d like to thank everyone everyone involved – and especially Hillary, for thinking of this blog with the initial approach. David has worked incredibly hard, and it shows just what can be done when members of a community collaborate together on our historical commonwealth. Of course, full credit and thanks must be given to Hillary and family, who’ve shared their history with us in such a frank and candid way.

Right, on with the show. This appears to break abruptly, but there’s no easy place to edit it. My apologies, but a 3,000 word post has to be cut into manageable chunks.

The series begins with an analysis of the census and other official records.

Bullings Heath as it was mapped by the Ordnance Survey, at 1:2,500 scale in 1902. Note that the road now called Camden Street was called Bullings Heath.

David wrote:

An e-mail arrived from Bob. It contained an incredible piece of local history… a documentary reference to a largely unknown inn, the Royal Oak,  in the lost area of Bullings Heath in Walsall Wood, asking for help to unwravel the history. The quest began!

Other sources were scarce, but one site, British History Online, with the pages detailing Walsall Wood, its economic history, local government and public service proved to be invaluable, as it quoted its sources. Walsall Wood in History, Walsall Councils own site for the area, seems to have taken its information from this site.

A lengthy and complicated census search ensued. This trawl was to cover eight census years, from 1841 to 1911, but from this labyrinth of information a spreadsheet slowly emerged, and with it a glimpse into the development of this part of Walsall Wood, and also a fascinating view of how the census evolved over these years, too.

In 1841 this part of Walsall Wood, between the Black Cock Bridge and Mob Lane, was largely rural. Some cottages (four dwellings) are listed at Goblins Pit, near what is now known as Coppice Woods. The next entry is for Walsall Woo, but luckily, mentions an Edmond Arblaster, farmer (his farm is later known as the sewage farm), and intriguingly mentions a David Birch, shoemaker, and a George Birch, an awl blade maker

In 1851 the names Bullings Heath and Pepper Alley appear, as places. A Joseph Lea, nail maker aged 47 is shown living at Bullings Heath, and a family of 6 blacksmiths are living at Bullings Heath… the first mention of blacksmiths here. In Pepper Alley John Harrison, aged 51, nail maker is living in Pepper Alley, with his family, including Samuel Harrison aged 18, a blacksmith. He is recorded as being the last horse-nail maker and in 1891 was living in Coppice Road. Also in Bullings heath a John Critch and 6 people were living. They were blacksmiths.

It was a small blacksmith/farrier and stabling community, with a shoe-maker, Mr Birch, and Mr Joseph Lea, another awl-blade maker.  I am very glad that Mr. Lea did not move from this home. It helped to locate other dwellings in subsequent censuses.

Hillary says of this map, ‘This photocopy, I think has come from the deeds. Please ignore the ‘ x house here’ mark, that is very modern. The royal oak is clearly marked, as is number 24, which was where my Mum was born’. Click for a larger version.

One of the names that mysteriously appears and disappears here is Pepper Alley, often in relation to Hall Lane. In order to try and define this, I looked to the internet. A town museum near London, has one answer in that it has its own Pepper Alley. It was a place where people would settle their differences… and appears to come from similarly named medieval alley in London. So how did such a name come to be used in Walsall Wood? I think we need to remember the three, possibly four main external influences which may reveal an answer. The canal was built and opened in around 1798/1800 including the Catshill to Aldridge section, the Daw End Branch, which passed Bullings Heath. A term brought by navvies? There was great development in the canal traffic with the new brickworks and coal mines in nearby Aldridge. Perhaps cosmopolitan bargees brought the term? The new South Staffordshire Railway was built in 1850 through the nearby communities of Brownhills and Pelsall, which also caused an influx of migration from outside.

Mr. Joseph Wright is listed as one of a pair of buyers purchasing the community at Bullings Heath, from the Earl of Bradford on 31st March 1857. The other purchaser is named in later deeds as being Charles Cliff Ashmore.

The 1861 census shows that Mr Joseph Wright, a shoemaker from Goscote, was living in Bullings Heath with his wife, and the blacksmith and nail making community had dissolved. Mr Joseph Lea, the awl-maker, remained. Interestingly Mr Critch, who had moved just across the road, has his occupation as publican and blacksmith. I think this refers to the Black Cock pub, though it is not named in the 1861 census.

Fortunately there is a photo existing of the original Black Cock Pub. The building seems to have a bricked-up doorway. It is possible that this is where Harrison moved to, before moving to Coppice Road. Four nail-makers were given land by the Earl of Bradford. Was the Coppice Road one such parcel, or even the Black Cock parcel of land?

The old Black Cock. It’s unclear why this one was demolished, and the one we have today built on the same spot. Picture from ‘Memories of old Walsall Wood’ by Bill Mayo and John Sale. Click for a larger version.

The name Royal Oak does not yet appear, though Joseph Wright is described as a shoemaker and publican, and is living in a house with 13 other people, whose occupations are listed as shoemakers. I think that this dwelling is the one which became known as the Royal Oak. A look at this particular census entry is well worth the effort!

In 1871 the reference to Goblins Pit is not included in the census, but Pepper Alley now shows as 8 dwellings, plus Mr Joseph Lea the blade maker in his home. The Black Cock Inn is named , with Critch and Washington, licensee and blacksmith. The Royal Oak appears in name, there are 10 people listed as living there, mainly shoemakers, with Joseph Wright, licensee and shoemaker. Again, this particular census page is worth a very close look. I pity the poor enumerator!

There are also several outhouses-cum-workshops, clearly inherited from the blacksmith times, a stable, a barn and a pigsty. Later deed plans show these outbuildings and also reveal that the original Royal Oak building had four downstairs rooms, five bedrooms, and a large attic….

In 1881 Pepper Alley is mentioned as having four dwellings, including one with James Parker, an agricultural worker and his family of eight children, and a man whose job was listed as engine driver. Times were beginning to change, perhaps. Joseph Lea, bless him, is still there, and his nephew, also a Joseph Lea is living with him. The nephew’s job is also listed as engine driver. Two families of coal miners have moved in, and the Beer House –  the Royal Oak – has 10 people, mainly shoemakers. The sewage farm gets a first mention with Mr Matthew Webb, the farmer there. The little settlement of Bullings Heath has grown to 20 dwellings now.

In 1891 we see major changes. Mr Joseph Wright, now aged 78, is living in the Royal Oak, with Noah Creswell, son in law, and Joseph’s daughter Emma and their family. There are no shoemakers in the Royal Oak any more. The Black Cock Inn’s licensee is Thomas Squire, and Bullings Heath’s residents are nearly all coal miners. James Ball, a resident, is a brickyard manager. Down Green Lane, Grange Farm’s owner is Mister George Barns, Goblins Pit is listed, and there are four dwellings with Mr William Creswell, retired brickmaker, Thomas Cooper, coal miner, Samson Wattle and Joseph Aldridge, farm labourers, Joseph living there with his wife Phoebe. The Cemetery records for Walsall Wood show a Mrs. Aldridge buried there. The census mentions a Mrs Aldridge being born in Ireland, as were quite a few people in Hall Lane’s canalside cottages where many miners lived in 1881/1891.

Interestingly the census shows that Mr Noah Creswell’s occupation was bricklayer.

A Mr. Amos was still there, recorded as retired shoemaker, and was the last one there. The landlord of the Black Cock Inn was Mr Jackson, who was licensee and also colliery worker.

Deed records show that in 1893 half of the Royal Oak property was sold to Joseph Wright’s other son in law, And that Joseph Wright is referred to as ‘formerly innkeeper but out of business’.

The former Royal Oak recently. Image by David Evans. Click for a larger version.

The 1901 census shows that Mr Harry James was the farmer at the sewage farm, that Mr Amos was still living in the small community, Bullings Heath had 13 dwellings under this name, mainly miners, a blacksmith, Mr Harris, the Black Cock’s landlord was still Mr Jackson, but the Royal Oak Inn had Mr Noah Cresswell, aged 42, licensee and builder working on his own account, his wife Emma aged 40, their son Ernest aged 13, and Mary Clamp aged 18, servant, living there. Joseph Wright had died previously. But was Noah Creswell licensee of the former Royal Oak, or of another pub nearby?

To be continued…

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47 Responses to The Royal Oak, Bullings Heath: Explorations in local history

  1. Pedro says:

    In the Annual Sanitation report in Dec 1900, the water mains had been extended to Hollinders Lane, Salters Road, Pepper Alley, Occupation Road, Halls Lane and New Road

  2. Pedro says:


    Would I be right to assume that the area would be better known as Walsall Wood, as there are many more references to the Wood.

    As for mentions of Bullings a few names that appear

    James Morris ……………….March 1903
    Arthur William Finney……..Dec 1901 and Nov 1901
    Albert Beddowes……………Aug 1901
    Margaret Ann Bates……….Jan 1903
    John Bate……………………..Apr 1902

  3. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    yes, locals tended to call parts of the village this way, vis;-, the Cape, the Wood, the Castles, the Vigo etc..all parts of Walsall Wood. Thanks for your notes and names.
    kind regards

  4. pedro says:

    Pepper Alley??

    Staffs Gazette and County Standard 23rd Dec 1841…

    It is reported that a gang of between 40 and 50 men residing in the neighbourhood of Walsall Wood, &c., have been traced as the perpetrators of many robberies and housebreakings which have been committed for several miles around.

  5. pedro says:

    District Council Elections 31st March 1899 (Lichfield Mercury)

    for Walsall Foreign ward. Elected…Noah Cresswell 215 votes

  6. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    many thanks…if you can, have a look at the Moseley Dole details for 1801 for “Goblins Pit “and for “Walsall Wood.”…

    • pedro says:

      The Archives, at the moment, start at 1801 with the Staffs Sentinel. But strangely there seems no mention of Moseley’s Dole anywhere!

      Regards Pedro

  7. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    re those five names from “Bullings”, mentioned in your earlier comment..the gentlemen appear in 1901 Walsall Wood census at addresses very close by, but a 21 year old lady of that name appears to be living with her uncle and his large family in Walsall.
    Where did these names appear?
    Many thanks for your diligence, kind regards

    • Pedro says:

      Oh dear I was hoping you would not ask!

      The only reference for Bullings Heath were the people mentioned, at the Petty Sessions. Let’s put it like this, one was for not having a dog licence.

      Regards Pedro

  8. Caz says:

    thanks Bob, David and Pedro, can’t wait for the next installment. my friend who lives in Hall lane , told me that Pepper Alley is the strip of land running alongside the first house in Hall Lane [opposite the canal houses] and by the Blackcock car park,but i hadn’t realised that there were houses there?

  9. pedro says:

    The Reverend J B Owen

    The following are inscriptions on the Bible, communion service, and silver salver presented to the Rev Owen, minister of Walsall Wood, for his undaunted zeal, fidelity, and ability in the discharge of his duties as a faithful monitor in the cause of our holy religion, and an uncompromising advocate of the precepts and doctrines of the church of England;-

    Inscription on the Bible, presented March 12, 1835 by Mr Smart.

    “Presented to the Rev Owen by the children of Walsall Wood school, being a small tribute of respect, gratitude and love to their faithful friend and Minister…

    Other peresentations by HC Windle and Mr Bassett Smith

  10. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    Rev J B Owen features in the blog article “Going by the Book” as does Mr Smart who was the schoolmaster at the time. The schoolroom is featured in the blog article “Meet me at the corner”. Mr Smart was living in Yew Tree Cottage in the HIgh Street in 1841 census..this cottage was still extant in was by Nicholls Builders Yard, by the WhyNott fishbar and cycle shop!
    The 1910 High Street photo is in Oakparkrunners blog series of photos I believe.
    many thanks for your revelations!

    • pedro says:

      The “Short History” seems very extensive. A lot of work must have gone into it!

      Regards Pedro

  11. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    “Beer House” information and origins..a good site is;-
    which readers may find both helpful and interesting

  12. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    Moseleys Dole;-
    this site also gives the Irish cemetery details(part) at Walsall Wood and a brief 1841 census extract

  13. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro give some interesting statistics…
    from Moseley dole, 1801 ( “1 penny paid per member of a family household to all those living in borough and foreign of walsall “) shows
    for “Goblins Pit”..36 homes; 200 people..and for “Walsall Wood” 16 homes ; 105 people. It also gives the name of the head of each household.


  14. Caz says:

    Hi Bob, just to let you know the land between the houses is now being advertised for sale via Paul Carr, to build on.i believe that there was a small access road/path through the middle of the land leading to the Smith familiy home at the back. The council were trying to sell the land years ago, when the other 2 plots were sold and built on but they had to sort out the access problem with the then owner [Mr Smith].

  15. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    thanks for your note regarding water supplies..was just one tap per row of (up to seven) houses in Hall Lane, I believe.

  16. D.Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    Bassett Smith, an interesting name and the only reference I have found in census returns is for a gentleman born 1821 who was English master at Walsall Grammar School ( at the age of 20) and who had a two day old son Bassett and a two year old daughter Elina in 1841 (source;1841 census).
    HC Windle, Henry Windle, born 1860, merchant who lived in Ensleigh House Walsall, and was an unmarried son in the family of six people who also had three servants ( source; 1891 census..) and two visitors, Negus, from Stonnall

    • Pedro says:

      Hi David,

      The entry of Bassett Smith has opened a large can of worms!

      After quickly seeing the name in the Archives I made a Google search for anything general, and one of the first sites to come up was the The Bloxich Talygraph…

      There is a tradition that the great statesman, W. E. Gladstone, stayed there in 1841, during the electoral campaign of his brother, Captain John Nelson Gladstone, who contested Walsall, as a Tory, and who was elected with a majority of 20 votes over his Liberal opponent, Mr. J. B. Smith.

      Mr. C. S. Forster, the banker, of High Street, Walsall, and Walsall’s first M.P., nominated Captain Gladstone, and, in the course of an eloquent speech, said that he would like to see: “All the horses in the world harnessed by Walsall saddlers; all soles of all boots pierced by Bloxwich awls; all the boxes fastened by Bloxwich locks; and all the world’s dust swept by Walsall brushes.”

      The B Smith here could be Bassett Smith, and also note the mention of Foster whose name I think has come up in the discussions concerning the names of streets in ?Cad something.

  17. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    very many thanks for your super notes. I wonder what is known about Charles Cliff Ashmore, who may have been born in London around1820…he does not seem to be a local person…?
    kind regards

  18. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    from census..only one Charles Cliff Ashmore, apparently.(ouf!) He was a ” practising solicitor ” (1851) rising to “solicitor in supreme court” in 1881. He lived his life ( as a bachelor ) in St Pancras part of London. Throws up a few questions!

  19. David Evans says:

    Hi Pedro
    CC Ashmore died in 1889 leaving estate worth £61 19s 1d..around £5340 in today’s money

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  21. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    I wonder if Pedro could help with this query, please. The name James Negus was linked with some financial arrangement at the Royal Oak, in 1858. I think he may be from Wednesbury, but have not found anything.
    kind regards

    • Pedro says:

      Hi David

      Can’t find anything under James Negus, however the name Negus comes up. There is much mention of a TA Negus of Shenstone way, with a high post in Lichfield police. Mentioned in connection with wayward pub landlords.

      Regards Pedro

  22. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    many thanks for this information…another name, in similar vein, Henry (Harry) HIghway, from around 1871..whatever you can find, please

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  25. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    this may be the correct address….
    at the top of the page, click on Walsall Wood.

  26. Caz says:

    Hi David, following your link above……in the Kelly’s 1916 Directory, Noah Cresswell is listed at The Bee Hive Inn ?. Edward Gwilliam at Blackcock PH, a David John Birch is a hairdresser and a David Evans is also a hairdresser [any relation ?]

  27. Caz says:

    Also the St Johns burials for Walsall Wood [D3374/5] makes interesting reading. One day old William Clews of Goblins Pit was buried on 30th October 1842, and a 4week old Mary Ann Harrison of Green Lane buried 20th Sept 1842 . Looking through this list, it’s astounding how many babies/children are listed compared to adults. But there is one exception and that is Rebecca Littley of Green Lane, buried 7th September 1842 aged 94.

  28. David Evans says:

    Hi Caz
    there were two Noah Cresswells..The Beehive chap was not part of the Royal Oak saga, as far as I could work out. I’m not related to the barer, as far as I know .Yes, the census records do show an appaling high infant mortality rate in Walsall Wood and familes often issued immensely poginant “Death”cards in those days..edged in black and beautifully printed..just heart-breakingly sad. Added to the dangers that the coal-miners faced daily, life was a bit grim, to say the least. I think rebecca Littley is connected to the Derry story in some way, too. The numbers of irish residents, and their social life, is poorly recorded to date, but they figure in census records as “brickworkers”..a very hard job.
    Thanks for your comments and ongoing interest, Caz
    Kind regards

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