Owners of Yardley
Yardley was still nominally a possession of Pershore Abbey until the early 15th century, though its tenants had long since given up paying the equivalent of the cost of a mounted man-at-arms as rent. For three hundred years the Beauchamp family held the manor, but having a score of others they rarely or never lived in it, the estate being run by a bailiff. Several generations of the Limesi family were sub-tenants and probably the only lords ever to be resident. Soon after their line died out, about 1260, several claimants to the manorial rights were all rejected by William de Beauchamp: it was he who by marriage gained the Earldom of Warwick for his family. From the early 14th century until 1478 Yardley was held directly by successive Earls (except when Richard II granted it to the Dukes of Norfolk and Surrey in turn, 1396-9). Beauchamps were followed by Nevilles, including the all-powerful 'Kingmaker' and by George Duke of Clarence. After his execution the Warwick estates including Yardley reverted to the Crown.
Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts - eight monarchs in all - were successive lords of the manor. Yardley was one of the properties granted to Catherine of Aragon in her divorce settlement: a poignant reminder of her first marriage to Prince Arthur is the north door of St. Edburgha's Church (see below). After her death Yardley reverted to Henry VIII.
Though Yardley cannot compete with Kings Norton in length of royal ownership, it was a Crown property for 138 years - until Sir Richard Grevis of Moseley Hall bough it in 1629. Not all of Yardley was included in the sale. The 'manor' of Greet was owned by the Greswolds, and other estates were in different hands. After the eminence of Sir Richard, who held high offices under James I, the Grevises were divided in the Civil War, and their fortunes began a long decline. When Henshaw Grevis, last of his line, succeeded in 1759, the sale of the estate barely sufficed to pay his father's debts, and he was reduced to labouring. Seven years later the lordship of Yardley and a thousand acres were bought by John Taylor of Bordesley Hall, a very wealthy manufacturer and co-founder of what is now Lloyds' Bank. Most of the Taylor estates were in the southern Quarters of the manor, and the greater part of them was sold in and after 1913 for housing estates and parks. As the purchaser of much of the land, the City Corporation might be thought of as the present lord of Yardley, but the title (which is a saleable commodity independent of land possession) was never sold and its present holder is Jonathan Taylor or Lower Quinton near Stratford. All manorial rights, vestigial as they were, came to an abrupt end in 1940, so that the title is purely honorary.
The oldest sites have been named above: few buildings survive upon them. Those which do are St. Edburgha's Church, the Trust School, Blakesley Hall, and Hillhouse Farm. The church is the usual mixture of periods and styles. Starting at the southwest corner and going anti-clockwise, we have the great contrast between the massive blocks of important sandstone that make the tower and the rubble masonry of the south wall and transept, which may well be of local stone from the Glebe Farm outcrop. The fragments certainly suggest that the supply of stone was limited. Within the south wall, the only part of the 13th century church to survive except for the re-set south door, are two Decorated windows of the next century, with the porch between them. The timbers of this are 15th century, like the tower and spire, but the stonework below is modern.
Transepts and nave were newly built in the 14th century and the chancel was lengthened. The three-light window on the end transept wall is contemporary with these works, which created a new cruciform church. A recent boiler-house in the angle between transept and chancel obscures one of two Decorated windows and the priest's door between them. There is a 13th century lancet window above this, in its original position. The south chancel wall is a history in stone - rubble 13th century, irregular masonry 14th century, and uniform courses of rough-hewn stone at the end which, like the great East Window, date from 1890. On the north side of the chancel an arch infilled in 14th century stonework shows the site of a Decorated window of two lights: a large one near ground level indicates the former furnace-room. The cross plan of the Decorated church was lost when the north aisle was added in the 15th century and further hidden with the vestry addition in 1890. The original end window of the transept survives in situ. A lancet window was re-set in the vestry wall, whose other windows are late Victorian. Two Decorated windows from the former nave wall were re-set in the new outer wall, and later a Tudor doorway was cut between them. This had the pomegranate of Aragon and the Tudor rose in its spandrels, said to celebrate the marriage of Catherine to Prince Arthur. The aisle's south window is Perpendicular, like the great windows of the tower, which are offset because of the spiral staircase in the south-west corner. The four-stage tower, with pinnacled parapet and crocketted spire, was the work of Henry Ulm, a master-mason who built similar ones for several parishes hereabout. The grooves in the tower's south wall were apparently caused by the sharpening of knives and implements: Yardley lacks suitable stone for that process elsewhere.
In 1926 the church needed a new roof. Steel girders support it but the ancient beams were bolted beneath them. New courses were set on the top of the aisle walls, and carved corbels there included the two oldest spellings of Yardley's name, diocesan, royal, and family arms, the pomegranate and the rose. The church contains monuments of local families, notably that of Humphrey Greswold who was Lay Rector in Tudor times. Of the pre-Reformation rood screen and six altars nothing survives and the interior has suffered many changes. The arms in the chancel are those of St. Chad, Canterbury, Worcester, Pershore Abbey, Tykeford Priory, Catesby, and Maxstoke - the last four being claimants to ownership of the church in the Middle Ages.
The Trust School may have been built with a bequest of 1512, although there is no certain reference to it until 63 years later. The generous use of timber argues for the earlier date. The four-bay house has oversailing first floor and gable, decorated sills but plain brackets. Of the original building only the west front and sagging north side with five brackets survive. Beyond this the building line continues with brick buildings - the eastmost surviving bay of the old school has been bricked on the ground floor - which are 18-19th centuries. The first Georgian extension provided a home for the bachelor schoolmasters who had formerly lived on the first floor. The porch is modern, enclosing the original side door. The south face has been drastically repaired. Timbering survives over the porch and at the east end, but brickwork and large windows between are probably Victorian like the chimneys. Since World War Two the brick houses have been enlarged. The school remained in use for boys only (girls had ceased to attend when fees were demanded) until 1908, though there may have been a break in the 16th century. It is now used for parish meetings. A bequest had built it, and rent from many gifts of land maintained it. In time the income from sixteen pieces, eight in Church End, was enough to permit the opening of a school in Hall Green and help bridge maintenance.
Nearby Blakesley Hall was originally a moated farmhouse as were all dwellings any size. The site used to be visible just to the east of the Tudor Hall but has been levelled for use as a car park. Richard Smallbroke built the present hall beside it in about 1590. Though not built to the fashionable E-plan, supposedly in honour of Elizabeth I, having but one main wing, the hall reflects Smallbroke's wealth in its decorative timbering: herring-bone and quadrant woodwork was showy and costly in a period of declining woodland. Whether the school and hall were originally thatched is unknown. The great weight of later tiles may explain the sagging floors of both. Local tile-making had continued, as we know from the excavations of West Hall (Kents Moat) half a mile away in Sheldon.
A humbler house survived until two decades ago. Vintage Cottage in Blakesley Road appeared to be 17th century chequerboard (square-frame open timbering) infilled with brick, dormered,
high-chimneyed. Hillhouse Farm, a three-storeyed house with shouldered gables, is the last building on a site that may have been occupied for a thousand years or more. Pebble-dashed and
dilapidated, long since abandoned as a dwelling, it cannot long survive. Lea Tavern, also Stuart in date, was demolished this century. Such buildings as last long enough to be photographed were,
except for those described above, always of brick, Georgian or later, replacing the earlier timbered ones.
Open fields (maps 1 and 3)
The comparative dryness of the soil on the large drift patch (covering about 200 acres) south-east of Stichford, and its relatively light tree cover explain its use for the first communal fields. It comprised two ridges, that between the Yardley and Stich Brooks being the higher and so sometimes called Upper Field, and the lower that between the Stich Brook and the Cole, called Nether Field - otherwise Church Field and Stichford Field. Later clearances would extend to the edges of the drift - north to and beyond the site of Hillhouse, south perhaps nearly to Blakesley, west to the line of Albert Road, east to Church Road. A small drift patch east of Stichford was cleared and later extended down to the valley bogside: this was The Riddings. A second field-system was begun on drift (boulder clay) between Lea Village (the lane so called) and the boundary, extending south across clay later. Keuper Marl is potentially more fertile than sandy drift, and its tree-cover was to be gradually removed over many centuries by ringing, burning, and felling, but lack of sunshine, abundance of rain, and the heavy going for plough team and reaper were to prevent the land being fully used for agriculture. With a ready market for meat, hides and wool, Yardleians tended to be husbandmen, enclosing their hard-won land for pasture. The 'great timber' was in demand for building houses and ships, while the loppings went into clay kilns to make charcoal for Birmingham's hungry furnaces. So the Yardley lumberjack and charcoal burner laboured until they had created a landscape bare of trees.
Tudor and Stuart times
Although there were large estates in church hands elsewhere in Yardley until the Reformation, and the church was owned by Maxstoke Priory, there was only one small estates in Church Road (bounded by the Cole, the Coventry Road, Holders and Hobmoor Roads) and that belonged to Studley Priory. The Earls of Stafford owned Lea Hall in the C 15th. That was later the home of the Dods.
A Perambulation Report of 1495 has come to light. It shows how much of the border lay along 'ditches' on the east side. These could be either natural brooks of man-made trenches. See my 'Boundaries of Yardley' for the detail of that report, of another of 1609, and a comparison of the given boundaries across a thousand years. The meandering border with Sheldon Park was straightened in 1710.
The first bell of the Church's peal was installed in 1541. Later the school had a bell hung in the west gable. Acts of 1555 and 1598 gave to Civil Parishes the duties of maintaining highways and succouring the poor: annually appointed Overseers were answerable to a Bench of Justices. Manorial officials continued to serve, notably the Constable and his assistants the Headboroughs, one or more for each Quarter. Conveniently near the school were the combined stocks and whipping post (the former last used in 1852), and alongside a small stone lock-up held prisoners awaiting the Assizes at Worcester.
It is probable that most of the Quarter except the great fields was enclosed by the end of this period. Kitts and Marlpit Greens west of Lea Hall, and Fast Green (junction of Holder, Deakins, and Fast Pits Roads) were small common pastures, but elsewhere hedges and ditches separated conveniently small closes, most of which belonged to a few large farms. Even the open fields had been nibbled at their edges. Much of the land was given to sheep and cattle, as were the fields after harvest, and the arable was changing to market gardening. Birmingham was increasingly the market for Yardley produce, and it was to there that surplus population moved. Husbandry required fewer workers than did agriculture. Rural crafts served local needs. Ten kilns were at work in the period, five of them in Church End. Some at least of the houses there began as tile-makers' huts. Because clay (calling it 'marl' was incorrect) was rightly reckoned to be more fertile than drift, it was dug out and spread on fields used for crops. These marlpits and others beside the kilns soon filled with water and served as fishponds and stock-watering places. There were scores of them eventually. Fast Pits and Pool Lane are reminders.
Blakesley was probably not the only prosperous Yardleian's house to be replaced by a larger and more comfortable one. Its stable block, timber-framed, and its brick kitchens were added in Stuart times: the former was encased in brick a century later.
Yardley first appears in a published map in 1576. Christopher Saxton's shows church and village at Coleside near Stichford, and gives it a boundary that annexes a good part of Bordesley and Little Bromwich. No other detail is shown except for a cluster of trees to indicate forest about the borders of Yardley, Solihull, and Kings Norton. It was probably this remnant of the primeval forest which caused the secretary to the Bishop of Worcester, accompanying His Grace on a tour that included Yardley, to describe the parish as being 'secluded in a great wood'. Yardley Woods, first so named in the 1495 Report, could evidently bear that name without confusion despite being in the extreme south of the manor: the Church End woods were already so reduced as to have lost the name if ever they held it. John Speed's maps of 1610 repeat Saxton's errors, and we must wait three centuries longer before finding an accurate and detailed map of Yardley.
There is no evidence that any of the manor's royal owners ever visited it, nor that any Civil War engagement occurred within its borders. But there was dissent here, Dod of Lea Hall and Est of Hay Hall having a recorded altercation, and we may guess that parishioners were called on to billet troops of both sides and probably pay levies to both as well. Worcestershire was nominally for the King, and Warwickshire for Parliament, so that this was a front line zone. The three highways across Yardley led from the swelling town of Birmingham to the walled cities of Coventry and Warwick and the river port of Stratford. Traffic along them in peace and war must have been considerable. Local people were required by law to work on the roads for six statutory days each year. They greatly resented having to repair roads worn by travellers across the manor who brought no profit to the area. Indeed the highways brought looting troops, poachers, footpads, and robbers to add misery to the uncertainties of rural life.
In 1660 there is the first reference to 'the long causeway' by which the deep-sunk church way (Church Road from the Swan) was raised above the mire. It is recalled today in the late Victorian 'Causeway' cul-de-sac which leads off it. Ogilby's strip-map of 1675 records 'Hemill' (Hay Mill) Bridge: as the map was drawn for long-distance travellers by horse or coach, we may assume that the bridge was wide and strong enough for wheeled traffic. The first known 'Swan' inn was Stuart in date, as were inns at Stechford and Lea Hall and the 'Ring o'Bells' in the village (Institute site), probably also Hay Mill Tavern. There were smithies in each hamlet and on the highways. The Limesi moat site was abandoned in about 1700, when the Allestreys moved to Witton, and no trace of the buildings upon it survive. The lowness of the platform argues against five centuries of continuous occupation, as its level was usually raised at each rebuilding, in part by burying material from earlier structures, in order to make the site drier.
The river Cole (map 6)
Forming the west and north bound for seven miles, an obstacle to travel but usable for fishing, power, and perhaps navigation, the river was of some importance in Yardley's economy, as were its meadows. When largely bordered by forest which retained water and fed it gradually to numberless rills and brooks, the Cole was wider and deeper than now, and less subject to quick flooding and subsiding. Deforestation, piped drainage, diversion of brooks into sewers, and the aim of successive river authorities to dispose of flood-water promptly in straight channels, all cause fast run-off. During the settlement centuries, but mostly during the last one, the once-replete drift reservoirs have been much drained by domestic and industrial wells and pumps. Many brooks have dried up or gone to flush sewers, like Yardley Brook.
No evidence can be offered for the Cole as a navigable river, but as there were no bankside roads until recent times and water travel was so much smoother than the use of the abominable lanes, it is quite reasonable to suppose that flat-bottomed boats like wide punts would have been in use, carrying goods if not passengers, between Hay Mill and Stichford. East from there the flood-plain is at its widest, laved by the great meanders, and full access to it for pasture and hay crops was not gained until earthenware pipe drainage was installed in the 19th century.
From the 1200s the Cole was being used to provide power. Through most of Yardley its average gradient is 17 feet per mile, so that a half-mile leat gives a 'head' sufficient for a nine-foot
diameter wheel. (See my Watermills of the Cole and Blythe Valleys.) Greet Mill was first, Wood Mill (Wash Mill) second, in 1349. 'Wash' indicates the oft-washed flood-meadow in which it lay. The
last buildings of mill and attached farm stood west of Millhouse Road opposite Mintern Road. Its triangular pool was fed by a leat from the Cole at Hay Mill Bridge - still shown on uncorrected
street-maps, but long since infilled. The timbered mill was restored in 1385 by one Roger Bradewell, who undertook the task in return for a lowered rent. The Cole mills, like its bridges,
suffered frequent damage from floods, less from water than from material afloat which crashed into them. Wash Mill, sometimes called Yardley Mill as it was the nearest in the manor to the
village, was in decay in 1525, but the pool was being rented for its fish crop. At a later date unknown, possibly 1751, the mill was rebuilt in brick with farm buildings beside it and continued
to grind corn until early this century. The farm was demolished prior to the construction of the municipal estate nearby in the mid-1920s, the pool being then drained but not infilled. Rubble
from bombed houses was dumped into the bed during the 1950s, the site was levelled, and Kestrel Avenue now covers the site of the millpool and lower leat. Stichford Mill, long a corn grindery,
made paper after Georgian rebuilding. It lay across the Cole in Little Bromwich manor, and its ruins were cleared a few years ago in the making of a recreation ground above Stichford. There is
one known windmill site in Church End : this was south of Lea Hall, where Holbeach Road approaches the Meadway.
Georgian times (map 6)
No map is drawn for the 18th century because the detail would be conjectural. Beighton's 'Mapp' of Warwickshire (1725) shows the bounding features of Yardley since the manor is largely surrounded by his county, and also the crossing highways with their intersections. It is possible to draw a road-plan based on these and known dwelling-sites, but a century later the Ordnance Survey fills in all the blanks and probably shows the Georgian scene largely unchanged. The Coventry Road was turnpiked in 1745, but three decades later William Hutton said of it that it was 'exceeding bad, even dangerous, only to be compared with the Dudley Road' - which he called 'despicable beyond description' ! No wonder that the Stratford Road was then the preferred road to London. The Coventry Road's line was chosen for the Turnpike, despite the awesome gorge on Red Hill, because it avoided a number of villages, including Yardley and Sheldon. There was probably a tollgate at Hay Mill Bridge - tolls were still being taken there eighty years ago: others were at Small Heath and Sheldon. The road was to remain barely usable - in good weather - until Thomas Telford's work in the 1800s when the Red Hill holloway was abandoned. It could still be seen beside the highway west of Waterloo Road until a few years ago. Villas next to Ada Road had their cellars built in it.
The increase of buildings along Church Road north and south of the church gave it the character of a straggling street village. Bad communications and poor water supply ensured that it would never prosper. In this period an enterprising carter began to supply fresh water. The service was so popular that when his horse died the parish bought him another, and when he died his wife was persuaded to take over. A strange happening in 1772 was an earthquake, a very minor earth tremor which shook Church End houses and startled sheep. By then there were 24 tile-works in Yardley, most of them in the Quarter and Greet, producing 150,000 tiles annually and large numbers of bricks. Transport was the problem, and this was to be solved when the Birmingham and Warwick Canal was cut through the Stockfield ridge in the 1790s. Coal came to the wharf off Yardley Road, providing cheaper fuel for hearth and kiln - it had previously been brought by cart from Wednesbury at great cost - and also a better means of moving baked clay products to Birmingham and elsewhere. Though not in Church End the canal was a blessing to its inhabitants as to those nearer, especially when flyboats began to ply - at 10 mph - between Stockfield and Camp Hill. Of course the towpath, like the Turnpike, proved to be a highway for criminals. Aris's Gazette printed frequent warnings to poachers, offers of rewards for information leading to arrest, and accounts of armed attacks on Yardley houses. Shutters on windows were not mere decoration in those days!
Known buildings of the period are Cole Hall, Lea Hall ('a large modern house' in 1767), the Talbot Inn, and the Workhouse (1787). The last stood on the Coventry Road at Holder Road (opposite corner to the police station) and was in use until Solihull Union Workhouse opened in 1839. It was then converted into a tenement, and lasted into this century. So few of the farms and mansions known from map and record have been drawn or photographed that their building period cannot be determined, but doubtless many were Georgian, like those at the south end of the village.
Cole Hall with ninety acres, Lea Hall and Bloomers (The Lea) Farm together with 170 acres were characteristic of the Church End farms. The original two great fields were still in strips though no longer farmed 'according to the custom of the manor'. Riddings and the Lea Fields were enclosed. There were allotment patches in the Quarter: Hutton used to walk from Saltley to put in two hours work on his plot before breakfast! Matthew Boulton owned Walters Farm. He sold it to the Vicar of Yardley, so that it was thenceforth known as Glebe Farm. If the moat site had not already been abandoned. it was when the late Georgian farmhouse was built. There were still a few stands of timber in Church End, oaks and ashes, on offer. Whether they were the last surviving clumps of primeval forest left as game preserves or new plantations from Tudor times we cannot now tell.