The Bells of Brownhills

I get asked some unusual questions here on the blog and I was asked in the last week on Facebook what I knew of the poem The Bells of Brownhills, and what they in fact were; this was actually quite easy for me, as being an avid fan of local historian Sir Gerald of Reece, I recognised immediately his handiwork as featured in his 1996 book, ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’.

Engine Lane was once a pollution-scarred route past mineshaft and spoil heaps: Now it’s a almost a rural idyll. Image from my 365daysofbiking journal.

Since the person that asked didn’t have a copy of the book, I vowed to scan the relevant chapter and post it this weekend, which I’m doing here and now as I have with much of the book. Since the work is now rarer than rocking horse dung, it seems sad not to share what is the finest work on Brownhills with a wider audience where possible.

The Bells of Brownhills is a poetic lament to lads killed in an early Brownhills mining accident, written by Gerald in the absence of any real folk music of our town – but there is so much more in this chapter than that. I’d forgotten what a cracker this is.

As ever, I pay tribute to Gerald for this remarkable work, researched and written in a time before the internet and as ever, packed choc full of facts. If you ever get chance to buy a copy of his book, do so – it’s rare though, and will cost usually several times the original cover price.

Any observations? Comment here, feel free to mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com or tap my shoulder on social media.

Gerald wrote:


The bridge over the lost Slough Arm. Image from my 365daysofbiking journal.

The Wilkin Inn dates back into history but not as far as some would have us believe. It is not an old Toll House, from the simple fact that the roads that passed here were never turnpiked. I have to admit that my story of Queen Victoria having a secret meeting there with Adolf Hider was also an exaggeration. She would never have indulged in such ‘Monkey’ business. The Wilkin Inn is mentioned in the census returns for 1871 when the landlady was Lucy Follows, Widow, aged 31 years.

1914 J. Hughes
1926 F. Cook

The Pear Tree cottage existed in 1851 when William Hartshaw was the Beer Retailer there. Allbut’s Road is named after the Allbut family who farmed in the area from the 1760’s.

The Crown Inn, 196 Wading Street.

1880 Edmund & Eliza Broome
1901 Joseph Read
1908 William Thacker
1914 Joseph Harrison
1940 Joseph Pearce

The signpost that stands at the junction of the Old Chester Turnpike Road and the Watling Street Road was erected in 1982. It was made by R. Bridgegroom of Lichfield. It replaced the earlier sign that was removed in 1978 and is now in the Staffordshire County Museum at Shugborough. That Signpost had been restored in 1931 by a Company in Oxford. A series of such signs had stood at or near the present site since 1777 when the first Signpost was erected by the Turnpike Trust.

A turn off the 1900s view of the Watling Street, looking east from Shants Bridge. The chapel on the right in the mist was the Rehoboth, and was demolished to make the modern Rising Sun island. Image from ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

The Rising Sun is reputed to be the oldest surviving public house in Brownhills and I have come across nothing to contradict this. It was an old established hostelry in 1800 and a recognised stop on the London-Chester coaching route. It has been rebuilt at least four times during its existence. The customary list of known licensees follows:

1834 John Thacker 1850 Thomas Latham
1854 John Owen 1861 Thomas Yates
1880 Elizabeth Steadman 1888 Richard Chatfield
1892 John Broadhurst 1893 Thomas Marshall
1908 Joseph Tideswell 1919 Samuel Smith
1924 William Lawton 1936 Clifford Perrins
1940 Thomas Perks

1990 Paul Humphries ‘a fair and generous landlord’

It became part of the William Roberts empire in 1880’s. A photograph of the building at the turn of the century can be seen just inside the bar area. In 1985 The Rising Sun was sold to Burton wood Breweries for a reputed £½m. History has a habit of repeating itself, in 1858 licensees were taken to court for serving short measure.

The rising sun in 1892. Image from ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

At the Bridge [Known as Shants Bridge – Bob] marking the boundary of Brownhills at the present division between Staffordshire and the West Midlands is a rural staircase leading down to the old Midland Railway Line, now used as a Nature Trail. It was built in the 1980’s, courtesy of the Manpower Services Commission. They utilised the otherwise unemployed, whose ancestors 100 years earlier had been employed repairing County Roads, whose ancestors 100 years earlier had been employed repairing Turnpike Roads, whose ancestors had been employed repairing roads long before the Romans arrived.

The lands on the Staffordshire side of the boundary are the Conduit Lands. They had been bequeathed by generous benefactors to the Feoffees and Sidesmen of Lichfield Conduit Trust. The revenue raised from leasing out the lands paid for the installation and maintenance of the early piped water system in Lichfield. The Conduit Colliery Pits 1, 2 and 3 stood on the ground now occupied by Lew-Ways Limited. The first mining shaft was sunk there in 1865. I worked at Lew-Ways from 1955 until 1958. A decent wage, considering.

The land upon which the Old Norton Branch Bridge stands is the edge of Little Wyrley Common. In 1855 John Robinson McClean had negotiated terms to build the Norton Branch Railway that would join his South Staffordshire Railway at High Bridges to the East Cannock Junction between Cannock and Hednesford. Compensation for the use of the Common Land was set at £61.5s.0d. The payment of this money seems to have been overlooked and it was to be another 25 years before it was finally paid, with interest. Half of the money allocated was spent trying to find out just who was still entitled after all those years. John Craddock of Wolverhampton Lane, Brownhills received 3d.

The major holders of Rights upon Little Wyrley Common in 1884 were:

Elizabeth Hussey 800 Acres
Vicars Choral, Lichfield 155 Acres
Feoffees of Lichfield Conduit 94 Acres
Thomas Knight 42 Acres
Dean & Chapter, Lichfield 42 Acres
Queen Mary’s School, Walsall 58 Acres

The Cathedral Pit stood where the Plant Hire rusts. Crabtree Switchgear occupied the buildings here for many years. The lands once belonged to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Lichfield.

The land at the rear of the Rising Sun Inn was known as House Meadow, later to be called Engine Meadow. It was owned in 1840 by Henry Thomas Lister and was occupied by James Thacker. The area of Brownhills Common was crossed with deep water channels and drained by Steam Driven Pumping Engines. Remains of the water channels can still be identified. Near to Engine Meadow was the Old Coppice Colliery No. 3 Pit. It was reopened briefly in 1956 as a private concern under license from the National Coal Board’s monopoly. It was allowed to operate as long as it did not employ more than thirty underground workers. Several small pits were reopened and operated by George Jones, a local businessman. He was also a member of Brownhills Urban District Council.

The remains of the Branch Railway that served the Little Wyrley Common Pits and the Wyrley Grove Pit can still be traced. The Grove Pit was the site of a terrible disaster on 1st October 1930 when an explosion ripped through the underground workings and fourteen miners were killed. Ten of them were Brownhills men. They were buried with honour in a collective grave in St. James’ New Cemetery.

The worst mining accident in the history of Brownhills was barely mentioned in the National Press. The disaster was eclipsed by the destruction of the Airship R101 in which 46 people were killed.

The site of Coppice Colliery No. 5 and Colliery Brick Works is now a Fishing Pond [Marklews Pond – Bob].

The footings of a building can still be identified on the Common at the junction of Engine Lane and Coppice Lane. This was once the Farmhouse that was rented from the Hussey Estate by George Roberts. It was here that William (Brewer) Roberts spent his youth.

The bridge near the level-crossing in Engine Lane spans a shallow stream. This was the Branch of the Wyrley and Essington Canal that ran from the Slough Basin to near the Rising Sun. A clause included in the Act of Parliament that allowed the building of the main canal in 1794 made provisions for ‘Cuts’ to be built for the use of the Lord of the Manor. Remains of the Canal Lock Gates still hang hidden beneath the undergrowth in this grey place. Coppice Lane was settled in the mid 1800’s. Houses were built here for the Agents from the neighbouring mines. William Hanbury had built ‘The Coppice’ for his Agent and William Harrison agreed to the building of ‘Woodside’ for his. In the 1860’s the ‘Woodside’ Agent was Matthew Webb.

Cross referencing data I came across details that tied in the facts of several events. Extract from the Staffordshire Advertiser dated 3rd January 1863:-

Brownhills Rifle Volunteers. Captain Harrison of Norton Hall, has erected a very handsome monument in Ogley Hay churchyard over the remains of the late Hyla John Webb, second son of Mr. M. Webb, of Brownhills, as a tribute of respect to the memory of a member of his Company who was universally esteemed. The design by Mr. Robinson of Derby is purely Gothic, and has been executed with the greatest taste in blue York stone by Mr. Longmore of Walsall.

The monument still stands in Ogley Hay churchyard and can be seen right rear of the church as you enter from Vicarage Road.

‘Woodside’ grew over the years and became a large imposing residence. Fit indeed for a country squire. It was purchased in the 1880’s by Dr. John Coombe Maddever, Medical Officer to Brownhills Health Board. He renamed the building ‘Coombe House’. After his death the building became the residence of a line of eminent Doctors connected with Brownhills Urban District Council. A notable being Dr. Robert George Bradford M.D., after whom was named Bradford Road.

In 1951 Coombe House was purchased by BUDC for £2,000 and converted into additional office space.

I remember delivering early morning newspapers there in the 1950’s. I would hide my delivery bag in Birch Coppice and time myself on my internal verbal clock whilst sprinting there and back. I then worked, morning and evenings, delivering for Mr. Cyril Tomlinson, Newsagent, 52 High Street. Often, on a Wednesday evening, I would also work next door at No. 50 for Mr. Spinks the butcher. My task was to boil up the meats to make the brawn and to concoct from a secret recipe of herbs, rusk and meats the speciality of the house, sausages. ‘You can’t eat our sausages without bread’ was our motto.

After the amalgamation of Brownhills and Aldridge Councils in 1966 Coombe House fell empty. Anxious to find a use for the building the ‘new council’ leased it to Mr. C. A. Archbold of Leeds. He got a very good deal. Rent free for four years, paying rates only, with an option to purchase if he so wished. He turned ‘Coombe House’ into a Night Club. Members only. I had become a ‘Folk Singer’ by that time and I visited the ‘Night Club’ on many occasions to see the local group ‘Ceilidh’ perform. The ‘Night Club’ never really caught on.

Finding no further use for the building and faced with the burden of squatters and vandals BUDC had ‘Coombe House’ demolished. Sections of the garden wall still stand as a reminder of this once stately home.

As a Folk Singer I did research for ethnic songs of Brownhills but I found nothing of local interest. As most of the original community came from outside the area it was no surprise that renditions concerning the exploits of two German Officers crossing the Rhine and Four and Twenty Lassies from Inverness were high on the repertoire of local balladeers.

Not to be oudone I have composed a traditional Brownhills Folk Song, based upon fact and complete with nasal undertones. I carried it around in my head for twelve years before putting it to paper. In the key of G, I hope you like it.


John and James lie neath the clay
their brave young lives they threw away.
They left their homes in Ogley Hay
to work the Bells of Brownhills

How rich the harvest seemed that day
they went to reap their double pay.
They left two widows in their sway
to mourn the bells of Brownhills.

Why did you leave your land so fine
to work in an infernal mine,
why sell your souls for one and nine
to toll the Bells of Brownhills.

A warning then from me take care
brave Ogley lads I pray beware.
Stave venture into journey there
and shun the Bells of Brownhills.

John Cooper and his brother James were killed along with five other miners when the roof of Mr. Harrison’s Brownhills Colliery collapsed in January 1861. The youngest victim was Levi Craddock, aged 11 years.

Birch Coppice escaped most of the devestation that pillaged and mined much of the surrounding lands. In the earlier days of mining Bell Pits had dotted the scenery but these were only superficial scars and left no lasting damage. The Midland Railway’s incursion that disected the area in 1882 also caused little interuption to the tranquil woodlands. The Birch Coppice had existed for centuries on the cloyed heavy soil. In 1935 The Potters Clay Company took a lease on the land. Their initial objective was to remove the surface coal deposits and the underlying clays. The Clays were transported to The Potteries in North Staffordshire where they were made into ceramic tiles and sanitary ware. A district in the Potteries is also known as Brownhills. A promise was made in those early years that the land would be returned to its natural state when the diggings were exhausted. In 1954 the Potters Clay Company sought permission to excavate the Heath and Common as far north as the Wading street. It was refused on the grounds that they had not reclaimed any of the land that they had earlier taken. Local Governments used to do that then. Really the rest is history, Potters Clay were unable to conform to standards. They sought the help of Leigh Environmental Ltd., who were only too willing to help out. They had succeeded in filling the underground workings of Walsall Wood Colliery to make it safe. Leigh have pulled out all stops over the last twenty years in their effort to help fill the gap. They have even called on overseas assistance in their bid. Perhaps it was only fitting that after all the years that Brownhills coals were sent to the comers of the world we received their residue contributions. Leigh Environmental Ltd., have promised that they will comply with regulations and return the land to nature when their task is completed.

The plan below shows the route taken by the Norton Branch of the South Staffordshire Railway when it was opened in 1858. No. 38 is Engine Lane. History has a habit of repeating itself and once again this area has become a hive of industry.

 The plan of the Norton Branch line and who owned the nearby land. Image from ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.
Key to landowners.  Image from ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.
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7 Responses to The Bells of Brownhills

  1. alan thacker says:

    i was born and bred in brownhills west -up until i got married found this article very interesting to learn things from the past regarding brownhills west —thanks for all the infomation

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