Back where it all began

I am very pleased and honoured to present today this lengthy but detailed work by eminent local historian Gerald Reece, author of what has to be the greatest work on Brownhills, ‘A walk in Walk Into History’.

Gerald no longer lives in the area, having long ago decamped to Devon, but following his interest in this blog, and the staging of the hugely successful talk he gave in 2012, Gerald has been good to his word and written the ‘missing chapter’ of his 1996 book, detailing how coalming began in Brownhills, giving rise to the settlement we see today.

This is an extraordinarily detailed piece of work, and Gerald welcomes any comment, and regards it as a sound foundation for further research by others. That he maintains such a fascination with Brownhills after years away is remarkable – and very, very welcome.

It will help if you read the previous work Gerald wrote on coal mining in the area.

The work was sent to me as a scanned PDF, which you can download yourselves here; the text itself is presented below.


Gerald Reece is a remarkable man, who worked hard to explore our history in a time when it was neither fashionable, nor easy.

When I started this blog five and a half years ago, I had no idea where it would lead, and expected it to die a painless, unnoticed death within weeks if not days. That it has survived so far, and led to the writing of work such as this, is a matter of great surprise, joy and pride to me.

I thank Gerald for his devotion to Brownhills and the history thereof; for his years of patient and costly research in days before the internet, and for the warmth, generosity and humility he exudes.

Thank you Gerald. I’m sure that even now, the Brownhills debating society have the kettle on and are warming up. It foes look like rain, after all. I do hope there’s Battenburg.


The clues were out there. This is Gerald’s hand-drawn copy of the 1840 Tithe Map; note in the area highlighted, there are areas labelled ‘Old Coal Pit Land’. Old. In 1840. Note also the wonderfully named ‘Handkerchief Piece’. Click for a larger version.

Gerald wrote:

In my account of the early history of Brownhills entitled ‘Brownhills, a walk into history’, first published in 1996.1 mention on page 99, first paragraph,

When coal was first mined in Brownhills is unknown. No documented evidence exists giving the place and date of the initial operation.

Since making that statement I have located evidence that shows when and where coal mining, on a commercial scale, first took place in Brownhills. The following account is taken from the notes of a talk I gave on the subject in November 2012.

It concerns the history of two ancient plots of land. They were known as Palmers Hay and Great Brownhills and they formed the area that is known today as Coppice Side Industrial Estate.

The earliest reference I have found concerns the fields known as Palmers Hay and date from the 16th Century. The name Palmer is said to be a reference to Pilgrims, sited where it is this is a probable assumption.

Dated 2nd. September 1569, the twelth year in the reign of Elizabeth 1, an indenture stated that a pasture with appurtenances being situate at the boundary between Little Wyrley and Pelsall adjoining the lane leading from Wolverhampton to Lichfield (an important pilgrimage route) was offered for sale by Thomas Smith of Hammerwich.

It was offered to Fabrianus Orme, Thomas Royle and William Webbe all of Hammerwich. The sale did not go through but it does establish the ownership of Palmers Hay at that time.

Cross referencing these details in other documents of the period I noted that Fabrianus Orme was part of a consortium who in 1567 purchased the Manor of Ogley Hay from Lord Stafford and his brothers Walter and Rupert. (S.R.O. D546/3/5/1).

Fabrianus Orme is mentioned as living at Overton Grange in Hammerwich. Page 264 of the Victoria County History of Hammerwich. (S.R.O. D(W)1734/2/l).

In 1573, 16 Elizabeth 1, the Rent Roll for the Manor of Little Wyrley makes mention of Palmers Hay.

In March 1637, in a document of indenture of feoffment, Erasmus Smith of Hammerwich, son of Thomas Smith, did for £100 of lawful money of England, grant, bargain, sell, alien, enfeoffe deliver and confirm to Ralph Smith, Gentleman of Cathedral Close, Lichfield, his heirs and assigns:

All that close or pasture in two parts divided called or known by the name of Palmers Hay with appurtenances lying and being within the Lordship of Little Wyrley in the County of Stafford.

Together with all that cottage or tenement thereupon erected. An area of 24 acres, more or less.

In 1651, Shortly after the English Civil Wars had ended, the Little Wyrley Rent Roll contained the following entries of ownership of land.

The Queen  Henrietta Maria of France, the widow of Charles 1) holds land also holds the Hilkin Wilkin and the Manche.

  • The Cathedral Church of Lichfield hold land.
  • The Vicars Chorall of Lichfield hold land.
  • The Wardens of the Conduit Trust of Lichfield hold land.
  • The Wardens of the Schoole of Walsall hold land.
  • Sir Richard Leveson holds the Crossacks.
  • Sir Edward Leigh of Rushall Hall holds Brownhills.
  • John Smith holds Palmers Hay.

Only land owners were mentioned in the Rent Roll. Tenents and Sub Tenents were not mentioned.


A fantastic, wonderful and rare book; do get a copy if you can. Mine has been so well read now it’s falling to pieces.

In January 1654 the son of Ralphe Smith, John and his widowed mother Joyce decide to sell Palmers Hay. It was bought for £100 by John and Milbrow Speed of Brownhills. they included in the transaction a proviso for their grandson Arthur Milward to have one third share. After the death of John Speed the full title was granted to Arthur Milward by Milbrow Speed.

Arthur Milward of Burton in the Parish of Much Winlock in the County of Salop died in 1677.

In his Will he bequeathed his estate in Brownhills, being a dwelling house and messuage with all profits, to his sister Joan Wilkes, widow.

Around this time the Manor of Little Wyrley changed ownership. It was purchased by Roger Fowke of Brewood. He was succeeded by his son Walter whose daughter and heir Sybil married Joseph Hussey of London. This was the beginning of the Fowke/Hussey Dynasty.

Palmers Hay was inherited by Roger Wilkes and then passed on to his son Frances.

In November of 1736 Frances Wilkes of Broseley, Salop, Collier and Ann his wife sold to Ralph Smith also of Broseley, Blacksmith, for the sum of £141/1/0d, the area Palmers Hay then in five separate fields divided.

On 3rd December 1737 Ralph Smith of Broseley used Palmers Hay as collateral when he borrowed £120 from Thomas Haslewood, Ironmonger, of Bridgenorth, Salop. The monies to be paid back within one year with interest.

Ralph Smith used the money as part payment when he purchased from William and Ruth Smith of Middlestools in the Parish of Norton Canes, ‘All those closes of land called or known as Great Brownhills’. Also called by several names, Patch Croft, The Well Place, The Barretts Bank, The New Leasow, The Bigg Brownhills Close, The Birch Tree Piece, The Poole Piece, The Upper Leasow and The Meadow. An area of 55 Acres, more or less, lying next to Palmers Hay.


Beneath this busy, but unassuming warehouse on the Pelsall Road, the history of Brownhills really began.

The change of ownership of the fields of Great Brownhills was entered onto the returns of the Court Baron of the Manor of Little Wyrley for the year 1743. ( S.R.O.)

This document also mentioned that the Lordship of the Manor of Little Wyrley had changed. Phineas Hussey had sold off ⅔rd’s of the manor, retaining only ⅓rd.

The ⅔rd holder and new Lord of the Manor was Christopher Wood. He was the son of Henry Wood, Rector of Aldridge. Christopher Wood also held part ownership of the Manors of Norton Canes and of Ogley Hay.

The rights of the Lord of the Manor included control of all mineral rights through-out the Manor. Which up until that time had never been exercised. That was to change.

In March 1743 Ralph Smith, owner of Palmers Hay and Great Brownhills, was for the sum of £70 paid to Christopher Wood, granted the sole concession to excavate coal and ironstone within the bounds of the Manor of Little Wyrley for a period of six years.

In December 1743 Ralph Smith stated that he had

…Expended the sum of £1551/5/6d in getting coal and setting the same.

Included in this amount was

…An Engine, Gins and other implements used in or about the coal field.

The size and type of the engine is not mentioned, nor is the location and depth of any shaft.

In 1990 an article in the Express & Star covering the opening of the new T&S Office Block in Apex Road stated:

That construction was complicated by the discovery of three separate seams of coal and a disused mine shaft.

[Bob’s note: That’s now the One Stop warehouse.]

On 2nd. January 1744 Ralph Smith signed an agreement of partnership with Richard Ford and William Ferriday. They each purchased a ⅓rd share in the business. They paid £1034/3/8d which included a share of the engine and gin. Ralph Smith kept control of Palmers Hay and Great Brownhills for which he charged the partnership rental.

The two new partners in the business were very important figures of that time. Richard Ford was the grandson of Abraham Darby the Ironmaster of Coalbrookdale. Richard’s father also called Richard had married Mary Darby, Abraham Darby’s daughter. After Abraham’s death in 1717 Richard senior took control of the Ironworks at Coalbrookdale. In 1742 he had installed at Coalbrookdale a Fire Engine of the Newcomen design to recycle water back up hill. When Richard Ford the elder died in 1745 Richard the younger and his two brothers inherited interest in the iron works. They were bought out by Abraham Darby 11 in 1756.

(Article Shropshire News Sept. 1924).

The other partner in the consortium was William Ferriday of Buildwas, Wyer Hill. He too had a distinguished career being a Coalmaster and owner of several coal and ironstone mines in Shropshire, in 1740 he purchased from Coalbrookdale the engine and pumps he installed at his Lightmoor Colliery.

This must have been a frustrating time for the Hussey family. After controlling Little Wyrley for decades they could only watch as outsiders reaped the reward.

Ralph Smith built himself a sizable estate. He had purchased several collieries in Pelsail and he had set himself up as Master of Pelsail Hall.

Events took a turn in 1751 when Christopher Wood, the ⅔rd Lord of the Manor of Little Wyrley had financial difficulties. He could have quickly solved his financial problems by selling his share in Little Wyrley which included the important mineral rights. He had several potential buyers waiting, including Ralph Smith.

The Hussey Family protested and stated that Little Wyrley was their ancestral holding by right and that they and only they should be allowed to purchase it.

It took an Act of Parliament to settle Christopher Wood’s financial affairs.

The Hussey Family regained control of the Manor in full.

The partnership of the Brownhills Coalfield realised that their sole concession of the mineral rights over Little Wyrley had expired and was unlikely to be renewed. Phineas Hussey offered to buy them out, they accepted.

£500 each was paid to Richard Ford and William Ferriday for their share. Ralph Smith was paid £1,300 but he had £122/16/0d deducted. This was paid to Hannah Haslewood of Bridgenorth who had loaned Smith £120 in 1737 to buy Great Brownhills, but had not been reinbursed.

Ralph Smith also agreed to sell all of his other property in the area to Phineas Hussey. On 17th August 1753 an indenture recorded the transaction. This included lands in Pelsatl.Wolverhampton, Little Wyriey, Essington,Bloxwich, Rushall, Walsall, Goscott.etc. It included Pelsail Hall. It also included Palmers Hay and Great Brownhills, together with all messuages, dwelling houses, tenements, edifices and buildings there upon.

The Hussey Family kept control of the mineral rights over Little Wyrley until 1st January 1947 when the Coal Industry was nationalised.

But the story does not end there.

Back to 1759 when the most unlikely person came onto the scene. Canal Builder and Engineer, James Brindley. The fame of his genius is universal but his connection with Brownhills has virtually gone unrecorded. I came across his involvement by chance when reading the history of the Brindley Water Mill in Leek. An entry in their records, written by the late Dr. Cyril Boucher, directed me to the archives of the Institute of Civil Engineers in London. There James Brindley’s diary notebooks are preserved. In one of them he mentioned being invited by Phineas Hussey to erect a steam pumping engine at Little Wyrley in 1759.

Although originally a Millwright, James Brindley was also a pioneering Engineer and he had successfully built several steam pumping engines in the North Staffordshire Coalfields. Very little is recorded in his notebooks regarding the Brownhills Engine. On a visit to the site he did mention ‘the plate boiler is short of steam’. He ordered ‘a little boiler for assistance’, from Coalbrookdale. In a letter dated September 1759 a mention of a brick boiler is made. (Northumberland Record Office 2/DE/7.)

From early Estate and Tithe Maps of Brownhills we now have a rough idea where the Brindley Steam Pumping Engine was situated, adjacent to the perpetuated Engine Lane.

The mining of coal on Palmers Hay and Great Brownhilis became unproductive mainly because the deposits there were shallow and of a poor quality. The site was gradually phased out. Meantimes test workings had located better deeper coal deposits north of Coppice Side under Brownhilis Common.


The plan of test pits, as featured in Brownhills, A Walk Into History’ on page 98. Click for a larger version.

I now believe that the map shown on page 98 of ‘Brownhills, a walk into history’, (The original map is in Walsall, Essex Street, archives. Ref. 35/11/14), is from the 1760s and shows test pits across The Common from the area of Engine Lane leading in a north easterly direction up to the Watling Street where the School is now at the top of The Parade.

This was to lead to the opening of the New Brownhilis Colliery on The Common just south of The Rising Sun.

John Hanbury, Farmer of Norton Canes, secured the first lease from Phineas Hussey, Lord of the Manor of Little Wyrley.

The rest is history.

Some of the documents studied for this analysis were deposited in The Staffordshire County Record Office, Stafford. This should be the starting point for any further research.

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Back where it all began

  1. Pedro says:

    Many thanks to Gerald for the “missing chapter.”

    I wonder what other hidden gems exist in the James Brindley pocketbook?

    We were first highlighted to this by Victoria Owens who was in the course of transcribing the pocketbook in March 2012 in the comments…

    Perhaps she may have published more info.

  2. Bob – apologies, I’ve emailed you separately about this matter. Pedro – what follows may be of interest. Yes, I have published more, but I’m not sure that it would be right to plug it in the comments to Bob’s blog.

    Since Gerald Reece mentions it and in case they are of interest, I attach the passage from my transcription of James Brindley’s 1759-60 Notebook which deal with the engine he built for Phineas Hussey. I should explain that in my typescript I follow the layout and spelling of Brindley’s handwritten entries as closely as possible; sometimes their interpretation leaves much room for debate, which may account for the odd discrepancy between Mr Reece and myself:-

    Phinss Hussey [sic] 1759
    ESQ Little Wirley [sic]
    March 9 fire Engen [sic] 3 day
    March 23 at the
    Daill [that is, Coalbrookdale] to give te order
    and to Whorley [Wyrley] and 4 days
    to Tamworth

    April 13 at Coolbrook Dail 1 day
    Take care of te castings

    April 28 Searching after pipes 1 ½ day

    May 17 going to Colbrook & Worley
    the order misttook te fire door
    Too litle 4 days

    19 to order a comunecacion [communication]
    pipe at Latoun, Chashshire [Leighton, Cheshire] 1 day

    28 work at te Boyler 3 days

    June 1 at te Boiler 5 days

    June 10 at te Boiler 5 days

    [new page]
    June 17 got the
    meatle [?metal] in te
    ground 6 days
    June 23 finished
    0 £ s The boiler 6 days
    Charges 2 6
    July 13 te boiler
    short of steam[.]
    to order a little
    boiler for a sistonce
    at Coalbrookdaile
    0£ 2 days charges £3
    Charges 05
    July 21 To back te 2 day
    Orders and to consult
    About a plate boiler
    Charges £4
    August 30 plate
    0 0£ Boiler 2
    Charges 3

    In December 1758, Brindley had taken out a patent for a steam engine in which he gave a full account of a boiler made on an arched principle out of brick or stone, fed by gravity through a clack opened and closed by a float on the surface of the water, and with internal beehive shaped fireboxes and flues rising through the water. (Patent no 730, 1758, National Archives). The Northumbrian engineer William Brown of Throckley travelled south in September 1759 to inspect the newly installed patent boiler, which Brindley had built for Thomas/Clara Maria Broade’s steam engine at Fenton Vivian neat Stoke. Not only did Brown sketch one of the beehive fireboxes complete with pipework and set in an arched brick vault, but observes that the engine could ‘do well and there will be a saving in it.’ (William Brown’s letter to John Hussey Delaval, 9 Sept 1759, Northumberland Record Office, 2DE/6/3/2).

    Was Mr Hussey Delaval related to Phineas Hussey, I wonder?

    I am intrigued to read about the family link the Abraham Darbys had with the locality; on the page following his entries for Phineas Hussey’s engine, Brindley gives his account for a boiler he built for Abraham Darby II at Coalbrookdale, between April-September 1759. I’d suggest that one commission must have led to another, which bears out the significance of word-of-mouth advertising in the mid- eighteenth century.

  3. Thanks, Bob. That’s very kind. My contribution appears above.
    My book, James Brindley’s Notebooks ( Choir Press: Gloucester, 2013) is a straight transcription of the four of Brindley’s pocket manuscript books which survive in the public domain. It includes an introduction in which I describe and discuss the content, a glossary of place-names – Brindley’s spelling is seldom predictable – notes and index. In the main, it gives accounts of work done, money spent, and people and places visited. Having said that, the fourth book of the sequence, which dates from November 1763, is in effect a journal in which Brindley, always in the briefest terms, charts his day-to-day work on the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal. I’m not an engineer, so specialists may find it rather thin on the technical side, but I thoroughly enjoyed working on the text and learned a great deal in the process. It is available via Amazon, ISBN 978-1-909300-18-7.

  4. Clive says:

    Very intresting, full of information on are past history. Big thankyou to Gerald and Bob.

  5. Chaz says:

    Hi Bob, the lost blogger of Clayhanger here. Dont know if it is of significance but I do remember Ashton in his unpublished ‘History of Brownhills’ referring to some very early coal extraction in the area around the Rising Sun. Its been a good many years since I read the work but I am pretty sure it relates to the fourteenth century. Also in respect to the mine workings under T&S. A few years ago we had a mine shaft open up on Clayhanger Marsh. It was a proper job, blue-brick lined and had apparently been sealed with three rows of railway sleepers which had rotted over the years. It was supsequently re-capped and is now part of the west side of the pit-mound – Chaz

  6. Pedro says:

    Gerald puzzles as to why the Rising Sun is referred to as the Sign of the Star around 1800. It may just be that it was known as the Star in those times. Many people could not read and would rely on signs, and maybe the signs for Star and Sun could be similar?

    There are several references to Inns and Hostelries such as the Sign of the Star, the Sign of the Cock, the Sign of the Black Bull etc. Also many include the phrase “known by the Sign of the ….”.

    An example is that of John Becket who, in 1796, informed his friends and the public that he has removed from the House known by the Sign of the Cock, in the Market place Stafford (which was taken down to make room for the new County Hall) to a house in the Pig-market.

    In November 1831 the Clerk of the Trustees of the Turnpike Road…

    …and through Ogley Hay to the Turnpike Road leading towards the town of Shrewsbury and the City of Chester, at or near a certain House, now or late a Public House, called or known by the name of Sign of the Sun, situated in the parish of Norton Canes, in the said county of Staffordshire….

    The first mention I can find for the Rising Sun is 1834 in White’s Directory

    As an aside this appeared in the humour section of the March 1847 Lichfield Mercury…

    An Irishman saw the sign of the Rising Sun, near Seven Dials, and underneath wrote A Moon, the man that kept it being Aaron Moon. The thinking he had found just cause for triumph, roars out to his companion. “Only see Phelim, see here! They talk of the Irish bulls, only do but see now! Here is a fellow puts up a sign for the Rising Sun and calls it a moon.

  7. John Anslow says:

    Most interesting article. I see that The Swan is marked on the map but not the Jolly Collier, and The Hussey Arms was then the Turks Head.

  8. maria fitzgerald says:

    Very interesting, my late farther worked down coppice pit for a while back in the early 1960 he told that was pit fall and lost some horse,s.
    Maria carpenter.

  9. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    Wow!…..a huge thanks to Gerald and to your good self…for this superb article. Then there’s the additional comments, too.
    Very much appreciated
    Kind regards

  10. Pingback: A desperate attempt to stave-off bankruptcy | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  11. Pingback: Such was his devotion | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  12. Pingback: Just William | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  13. Pingback: Happy talk | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  14. Pingback: Coronation chicken | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  15. Pingback: When it was all different | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  16. Pingback: Oiling Palmers… More info on where it all began | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.