For a long time now, I’ve had a remarkable piece of research from local history buff and great friend of the blog Andy Dennis – it’s something I think will interest many here, and compliments the only other such work I know on the subject, that by Gerald ‘A Walk Into History’ Reece.
The piece explores the evidence and physical geography of the oldest roads in our area, and sheds some light on just how the town is formed. Some of Andy’s observations might be contentious, and contribution is welcomed.
The entire paper is nearly 4,000 words, do I’ve broken it down into multiple posts which I’ll post the remainder of over the next week.
I’d like to thank Andy for a remarkable and thorough piece of very professional and engaging research that really adds to the early knowledge on out area, and I’d also like to apologise for sitting on it for so long – it has taken some assembling into a post as all large ones do. My apologies, but as I always say, nothing is wasted.
￼Old Roads through Brownhills
Ironstone Road, Blake’s Road and Wolverhampton Lane in the nineteenth century and earlier. By Andrew Dennis © 2014 All rights reserved
￼Figure 1, above, is an interpretation of available information about some old roads that crossed the Brownhills area before Inclosure and before the reservoir, today’s Chasewater, was constructed. The map is not intended to be at a fixed point in time, but the background is the Ordnance Survey First Edition of 1834, which is the latest mapping available prior to the various Inclosure Acts of the mid-nineteenth century.
Note that Chasewater is larger today and Jeffreys Swag is a more recent addition. ￼￼￼ ￼
On modern maps there is a ramrod-straight road from Cannock Wood southwards to the bottom of Chasetown High Street. If you were able to travel the road as it was before the reservoir was built (c. 1795-97) and then be able to continue south in a more or less straight line, allowing for a small side step to cross the Crane Brook, you would reach Howdles Lane (the Lane) and the Watling Street.
As a child I thought they might have connected at one time. It was only later that I learned that the roads we see today are the product of the inclosure acts of the mid- to late- nineteenth century. Later again I learned from an archaeologist that ironstone was mined at Radmore during the reign of King John (1199-1216), but the present-day Ironstone Road seemed unlikely to connect with the Lane. Suspecting the link was merely wishful thinking I forgot all about it. More recently I’ve found that the pieces of the puzzle were under my nose, but my interest was only rekindled by a post on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog, which included a map upon which had been handwritten, across the middle of Chasewater, ‘BLAKE ST’. Although this was not the Lane, it did give a clue as to why it is where it is.
A map fragment from 1760 (Reece, p87) shows Ironstone Road leading approximately north from Watling Street. Horowitz, in his analysis of evidence about Knaves Castle, refers to the same source as Reece:
A manuscript plan of the boundary of Norton Canes parish said to be of c. 1760, which includes the site of the future Chasewater reservoir, shows at Knaves Castle a single tree in profile on what appears to be rough but flat ground. A road running north from Watling Street, a short distance to the west of Knaves Castle, is labelled Ironstone Road, and another road leading north- west from the same place is labelled Coventry Road (evidently the same road as Stafford Road mentioned above, and possibly also known as Blakes Road) and passes Tomkinson’s House. Another (un-named) road runs south from the same junction.
Horowitz also writes:
… the 1649 ‘Oliverian’ Survey of the Estates of Lichfield Cathedral (following Parliamentary confiscation). Under the heading for Freeford prebend, it records that in the hamlet of ‘Hameridge’ (Hammerwich) the owner of the prebend had the tithes growing on ‘the heath from Norton Way to Watling Street and so up to Knaves Castle Cross standing on the heath’. From this we might suppose that there was at that time, or had been within memory, a cross close to or at Knaves Castle, and as we shall see Knaves Castle indeed stood on the east side of the junction of two roads to the north and one to the south of Watling Street (all since obliterated), and if not at Knaves Castle itself the cross may have marked that junction.
The reference as we shall see is to p39 of Horowitz’s paper, which refers to the mid-18th manuscript map reproduced by Reece, but a footnote says:
Presumably the Stafford Road mentioned in Sanders 1794, 337. Short Heathy Bank is named on both maps, and helps to confirm that the two names relate to the same road. F. W. Willmore mentions ‘an old way … through Aldridge; thence it may be followed to Knaves Castle, and on to the ￼￼￼￼camp [Castle Ring] at Beaudesert’: Willmore 1887, 18.
This tells that a route existed from Aldridge via Ogley Hay and on to Beaudesert prior to inclosure and presumably followed the old Ironstone Road. It also indicates that the road was available up to at least 1794, but absence from Yates’ 1798 cannot be taken to mean the old Ironstone Road did not exist because most of it is shown on the 1834 OS map. By 1798, though, the Coventry Road had perhaps been obliterated by the reservoir.
￼A likely place for a cross would be at a significant road junction. Two major routes crossing plus Ironstone Road and the route to Lamb’s Lodge, which evidently were contemporary, would be a major landmark. Note that the above plan shows a five arm junction at a single point. I suggest that is unlikely and that there would be some stagger to cross the valley of Brownhills Brook (I recall this being the name for the brook that drained the common, now culverted beneath the Black Path); it seems inconceivable that two bridges would co-exist in such proximity.
John Cary’s 1806 map shows a route from Lambs Lodge to Watling Street, but not Ironstone Road.
Another plan, dated 1818 (initialled GR, fig 4, below), of the reservoir and feeder has ‘Old￼Iron Stone Road’ following the manorial boundary then veering slightly east, but labelled ‘To Coney Lodge’. The OS 1st ed. mapping shows a Coney Lodge and Coney Field on the road to Cannock Wood. Cary’s map marks Coney Lodge (roadless) and there is a Coney Lodge Farm in about the same place today. This road (perhaps too minor or disused at the time of the OS 1st ed?) would connect to a road from just north of the canal feeder all the way to Cannock Wood. White’s History and Gazetteer of 1834 says: ‘On the chase is an extensive rabbit-warren, with a neat house called Coney Lodge’.
￼The 1818 reservoir and feeder plan shows a dam a short distance north of where the bend in the Lane is now. This suggests that Brownhills Brook was dammed to form a ￼small lake with water level at about 144m ASL . This would have submerged the lower half of the land that is now gardens on the west side of the Lane, the northern end what is now Knaves Castle Avenue and parts of Anglesey Road, but would have been little more than 3.5 metres deep at the dam. I have covered this in more detail separately.
This plan also marks ‘Meer Stone’ in several places along the boundary between the manors of Hammerwich and Norton. One of these, fallen, was at the north west corner of my garden, but was destroyed when Knaves Castle Avenue was developed, and all are long gone. A meer stone was a large upright stone marker.
It is inconceivable that a lane would follow the manorial boundary as this was also a water course liable to flooding, even without a dam. Today the line follows the bottom of gardens on the west side of the Lane and this area flooded within my memory, though the brook was rerouted when Knaves Castle Avenue was built. The line of the Lane would have been above the flood plain and, anyway, would need to be high enough up the valley side to reach the level of Watling Street.
The most useful pre-enclosure mapping is the Ordnance Survey first edition published in 1834 and this is the base for figure 1 above. This shows a not quite straight road running southward from Coney Lodge to a point on the old Burntwood Road more or less in line with the current Howdles Lane north of the bend. No onward route to the Watling Street is shown. By this time the lane was crossed by the feeder channel from reservoir to canal and may therefore have been of insufficient consequence to be mapped at that time, or for a culvert to be provided.
The name Ironstone Road would sensibly relate to the availability of ironstone, notably at Beaudesert, where it was mined as far back as the Iron Age and worked from medieval times.
Taken together with the earlier maps and diagrams it seems highly likely that there was once a through route to the Watling Street, but why at that point?
The Coventry Road is considered in more detail below. Here it suffices to say that this once important route crossed the Watling Street near to Knaves Castle. Coventry was among the most important manufacturing centres in England, so it would make sense to connect with the Coventry Road as it headed south towards Catshill. It would also be sensible to keep traffic to the eastern side of the small valley formed by the Brownhills Brook, which drained Brownhills Common.
There was also an inn at the junction named the Welsh Harp, which could have catered to wagoners as well as drovers.
From this it seems clear that what is now Howdles Lane once continued north to Coney Lodge and Radmore and perhaps Cannock Wood and had been used to transport ironstone.
Is the Iron Age settlement at Castle Ring significant in this context? Is there any conclusive evidence to indicate that Castle Ring and Castle Fort (Shire Oak) were occupied simultaneously? If they were, It seems likely that there would have been some traffic between the two places, but would the route more likely have kept to the higher ground of Gentleshaw Common and Hammerwich? This would not have been unduly circuitous.
If Knaves Castle was used in the same period routes linking it to the others may have existed. However, although the papers considered by Horowitz give some indication that the scale of earthworks was not inconsistent with an ancient defensive position they are at best tenuous, sometimes contradictory, possibly exaggerated or otherwise unreliable, and certainly unverifiable.￼￼
- See below.
- General Report to the King in Council from the Honorable Board of Commissionens of the Public Records… Published 1837 – a free Ebook via Google.
- Horowitz David, 2013, Knaves Castle: A lost monument on Ogley Hay near the site of the Staffordshire Hoard with some thoughts on the name Ogley Hay, IN Staffordshire Archaeological & Historical Society Transaction Vol. XLVI, p34 (online).
- Reece, Gerald (1996), Brownhills A Walk into History, Walsall Local History Centre, p93.
- History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, and the … city of Lichfield, comprising, under a lucid arrangement of subjects, a general survey of the county of Stafford, and the diocese of Lichfield & Coventry … / by William White. , p104. Via historicaldirectories.org
- The lost Howdles Lane dam, published on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog – https://brownhillsbob.com/2014/11/30/when-the-dam-burst-2/.