Swanshurst Quarter, by John Morris Jones
This 1979 booklet covers that part of the ancient Manor and Parish which lies west of the Stratford Road. It includes much of what is in Sparkhill and Greet. With his widow's permission, it has been made available here, with only a small amount of editing.
Swanshurst Quarter was an administrative division, not a natural entity. It was that part of the ancient manor and parish of Yardley which lay between the Stratford Road and the south-western boundary, 3.6 miles from north to south and 2.4 miles across at its greatest. Established by the 18th century as one of the four areas of the Civil Parish for poor rate collection and highway maintenance, it ceased to exist when Yardley Rural District joined the City of Birmingham in 1912. Herein the whole area will be called 'the Quarter': 'Swanshurst' will always refer to the common, farm and district of that name.
Geology (map two)
The Quarter's underlying rock is Keuper Marl, a stiff red clay 800 feet thick. This is impervious to water, its fine particles being waterbound. It will mix readily with surface water to form a soft sticky mud. Upon the clay are variable deposits of glacial drift, consisting chiefly of sand and gravel, with some boulder clay, which were strewn thickly over the area at the end of the last Ice Age. This material has been washed off the valley sides by melt-water torrents, but patches of it remain at places in the Cole bed where they form fording points. Drift survives also as a capping on the inter-fluvial ridges, where it forms the highest ground: being relatively porous it soon dries out on top, but it holds water well and springs flow from its edges across the clay below. Overlying both drift and clay is a hundred centuries' accumulation of topsoil, which is wetter and richer in humus on the latter. The larger stream beds are floored with alluvium, fine-grained silt, brought down and deposited by floods: in natural conditions this is waterlogged. The Cole valley and the lower courses of the Chinn, Shirley, and Spark Brooks are narrow strips of silt bordered by clay slopes (see maps 2 and 3). There are V-shaped exposures of clay extending from the Cole up the valleys of the Billesley, Primrose, Robin Hood, and Showell Green Brooks.
An illustration of the accumulation of silt is provided by Trittiford Mill Pool. At the upper end, where the headrace dumps its suspended load when checked by the static water of the lake, a delta of black sediment forms. In twenty recent years the bird-sanctuary islands became accessible from shore in dry seasons, and only a narrow channel twisted past them to deeper water. By 1972 the pool became too shallow for boats, and a costly mechanical operation was required to dredge it out. The silt was used to raise the river bank upstream.
The water-worn riverbed gravel which provided a ford and a district name - Greet - can be seen on the upstream side of the Stratford Road bridge over the Cole. It creates an island there unless periodically removed, like that which used to exist at the Warwick Road crossing: to some extent the bridge piers prevent the stone from rolling on downstream. Our gardens contain hundreds of these smooth pebbles, fragments of rock brought by glaciers from Welsh mountains: cultivation mixes topsoil and drift together. Street excavations reach the clay, which is like plasticine when first exposed to air and becomes concrete-hard when dry. It is difficult to work, but will crumble and weather down eventually to a good tilth. Because it was more fertile than drift, it was customary from Georgian times to dig out marl and spread it on the surface. Every farm had its marlpits, the clay being used both for its potential fertility and for making excellent bricks and tiles. The ponds filled with rainwater and were then used to water stock.
Natural vegetation (map two)
The Quarter's varying geology has affected natural growth, communications, settlement, and occupations, all of which will be considered in later chapters. Keuper Marl's retention of surface water favours the growth of oak trees, which require vast quantities of moisture. Oaks tolerate thick undergrowth of bush and bramble. Except when climatic conditions were arctic, or hotter and drier than now, the natural cover of our region was oak forest, so dense as to be largely impenetrable. On permeable drift, tree-cover was less thick, dwindling to bush and shrub and grass on the driest and stoniest patches. The marshes of the deep-silted valleys were reedy and tussocky, with groves of willow and alder at their edges. About the Cole-Spark confluence the bogs were 200 yards wide.
Thus the Quarter had a variety of vegetation types. The infertile highest levels, across which go the Stratford and Yardley Wood Roads, had patchy woodland, birch, hazel, and gorsy heath. The west and east plateaux were separated by boggy valleys whose rounded sides were clad in great oaks and thick underbrush.
The nature of the soil and its vegetation need not be deduced from geology alone: surviving topographical names, notably on the 1843 Tithe Map of Yardley, provide a description of both (Map 4). South of the Rea lay ancient Arden, perhaps derived from Celtic words meaning 'steep woodland'. This is an apt name for the southern edges of the Midland Plateau, though not for the wide levels around here. Arden was never a forest in the legal sense, had no definite boundaries, and contained all the varieties of vegetation found in Swanshurst Quarter. There are several local names which indicate silvan scenery. 'Yardley Wood' was formerly all of the manor south of the Stockfield/Acocks Green Field system, contiguous with the woods of Solihull and Kings Norton, which shrank in size and changed in character until as 'Yardley Wood Common' it was a bare common pasture in the far south. Within the Wood other names appeared, notably Swanshurst (first ref. 1221). The -hurst ending means a small wood, but the fact of its use for pasturage in the 13th century suggests, as does geology, that this was no deciduous jungle but open woodland: doubtless after some centuries of use there would have been partial clearance too. In AD 972 a 'tall oak' was one of the boundary marks on Yardley's west side. Oaklands (Farm) on a tongue of marl by Primrose Brook, Woodlands Farm, Grove Farm, Oaks Fallow on the Shirley Brook, the Grove off Baldwins Lane, Wood Meadows at Showell Green and west of the Dingle, are names indicative of former cover if not that of the 19th century when they were recorded. By that time only small copses survived - or had been allowed to regenerate as coverts for game - such as Little Wood east of Baldwin's Lane/Scribers Lane, Woods west of Coldbath Pool and Wood Piece on Newey Goodman's playing field. The -ley ending of Bulley, Billesley, and Shirley, was given to settlements in forest clearings, natural ones which were extended during many generations. Riddings were areas so cleared: there were some at Billesley.
Evidences of drift are plentiful in local names. Greet is Old English 'greot', grit or gravel and the name was once applicable from the Coventry Road to Billesley Lane. Greet Hall lay just north of the Warwick Road and gave its name to a Quarter. The crossing of the Cole by both the Stratford and Warwick Roads was called Greet Ford. The latter was first with Greet Bridge, but the former had Greet Mill beside it. Greet Common and Greethurst lay to the west thereof. One of Greet Manor's fields, east of the Stratford Road, was Gravel Field on Gravelly Hill. On Heyne (High) Field, now Sparkhill Park, were Hazel Dell and Birch Leys, indicating the natural varieties of tree found on dry drift. Stoney Lane was well-named: it could run so close to the Spark Brook because it had a firm gravel foundation. Gravel pits were dug beside Billesley Lane and Wake Green Road. There were sandpits below Swanshurst Farm and off Brook Lane, while Sandy Hill, Coney Green, and Coningtree Croft describes the dry sandy slopes in which rabbits (connies) made their burrows.
Because land-drainage was not completed until this century, many names testifying to poorly-drained land have survived. The 'laundes' on the boundary (see below) and the 'slades' were boggy valleys bordered by trees, as were the 'mores' or 'moors' beside every brook. The original -holm ending of Sarehole, which name was applicable from the Dingle to Green Road ford, meant 'flood-meadow'. The mire of Puggemire Farm was due to the Chinn Valley's clay-bordered silt. After the Pugges had gone, the name became still more expressive as Quagmire.
Relief and drainage (map three)
The lie of the land reflects a gentle tilt of the marl strata from south-west to north-east. In the Quarter the highest point is at 500 feet north of St. Agnes' Church, and the lowest at Greet Bridge on the Stratford Road (370 feet). Looking from the top corner of Swanshurst Park (475 feet) across the Cole Valley, the flatness of the plateau across which the Stratford Road winds is clear to see. A drive along the western perimeter roads of the Quarter shows that side to be equally level, save where it is hollowed by water-courses. On this northward extension of the Solihull Plateau relief has been created by downcutting of streams into the soft clay. At the end of the most recent glaciation, the vastly swollen Cole gouged deeply into the marl, and its tributaries followed suit: ten thousand years of rain, snow, and wind have bevelled the gorges' sides to create the gentle undulations below plateau level that we see today.
The Cole is about 25 miles long, from a spring source near Weatheroak almost on the Midland watershed, to its confluence with the Blythe near to Coleshill. Twice the river changes its mind about its destination, at Birch Acre and Stechford, but in the Quarter it flows south to north as it probably always did, falling about forty feet in two miles. The principal tributary (Chinn Brook) rises only twenty yards from the Cole, but the streams diverge at once and the Chinn flows north-east to Trittiford where it rejoins the Cole after 4.5 miles. The present confluence is not the original (see Watermills below), being now a quarter-mile downstream.
Other tributary streams in the Quarter are short and insignificant now. Three of them (the Spark, Yardley Wood and Shirley Brooks) define not only the manor but also the county boundary (see below, Boundaries). In what follows the original source of each stream is given. The Yardley Wood Brook, one mile long, had formerly two sources. The southern rill was the manor and shire boundary which continued along the conjoined brook, now the city boundary, from Highters Heath to the Cole: open from the Stratford Canal eastward, it is dammed to form a fishpond at Priory Road, and is channelled between modern houses both sides of the border. The Shirley Brook (from shire-ley, the clearing on the shire boundary) rises on Sandy Hill near the Stratford Road and flows one mile south-west to the Cole. It too fed a mill. The last thirty yards are culverted beneath the railway embankment. The boundary leaves the brook a quarter-mile south of the source.
Going north, the next stream flowing west is the ‘Primrose Brook’, a convenient location name, which rises in Primrose Lane and enters the river half a mile below, opposite Trittiford Mill Pool. The Haunch Brook (one mile) rises near Wheelers Lane and flows south-south-east, crossing Hollybank Road and the foot of Billesley Common, entering the Chinn Brook in Cocks Moor Woods. For much of its length it defines the boundary with Kings Norton. The Billesley Brook (half a mile) is now wholly culverted. It formerly rose at the Common's north-west corner and flowed east, down the line of Dene Hollow, and into the Cole at the start of Sarehole Mill's headrace. The Swanshurst Brook (three-quarters of a mile) rose near the top of Brook Lane: it is culverted from its source to Swanshurst Pool, which it formerly fed. Descending through the miniature golf course, it is now culverted beneath (new) Wake Green Road beside the remains of Sarehole Farm. From 1768 until 1935 it flowed into Sarehole's headrace at that point.
The ‘Robin Hood Brook’ rises near Highfield Road and flows half a mile north-west to join the Cole just below the former ford opposite Sarehole Farm. It is culverted throughout. The Coldbath or Bulley Brook (one and a half miles long), rises near the top of Cambridge Road (Kings Heath) and flows easterly across the Quarter, is joined by two rills on Moseley Golf Course, and enters the Cole at Green Road ford, having been diverted at Sarehole Mill. It is open from Billesley Lane to Coldbath dam: from there it is part of a new sewer, but its lower course still supplies Sarehole Mill Pool. The Springfield Brook formerly rose on the Yardley Pool Allotments. Its spring (now dry) may have been the holy well referred to below. The brook fed Greet Mill Pool. The Showell Green Brook (one and a half miles) rose near the manor boundary on Billesley Lane, at what may have been Bull Spring, and met another rill at the Yardley Wood/Wake Green Roads crossing. It still flows above ground beside Sparkhill Park, leaving the Quarter at the Stratford Road. A rill from Hazel Dell formerly joined it in the Park. The Spark Brook is nowhere to be seen in the Quarter. Described as a 'torrent' in 1511, it can rarely have been more than a trickle. Rising near Phipson Road, it flowed north to the Stratford Road and east to the Cole. By 1896 it had become a stagnant rubbish repository. It was then culverted, Stoney Lane being widened over it to take tramlines. The millpools and fishponds on these watercourses will be described in Watermills and Georgian Times below.
Of pre-Saxon sites in the Quarter nothing is known. The region may have been less sparsely peopled, and more clearance may have occurred than used to be thought. But if farms and hamlets existed they were lost before the advent of maps, or they were taken over and re-named by later comers. That there were folk in the district two thousand years ago is confirmed by a relic too large for total obliteration by ploughing and infilling. This was the ancient earthwork now called Berry Mound in Solihull Lodge, a half-mile south of Yardley Wood. The name is Saxon and was originally 'buhr mont' (fortress hill), but the work is of Iron Age date, made prior to the Roman conquest. This eleven-acre site, an oval of 850 yards perimeter, was not the home of a few savages, nor a hurriedly-made defensive position, but a permanent camp which would have taken organised people some generations to complete. In its heyday the fortress was defended by a high bank topped by a palisade, with a deep ditch outside it. On three sides the slight hillock, actually the end-knoll of a low ridge, was protected by valley marshes. A track led along the ridge between the Cole, Shaw and Peter Brooks, to a causewayed entrance on the south side, which was probably guarded by outer banks. Was the hill-fort a solitary dwelling-site in an otherwise empty area, perhaps erected by a tribe driven into Arden by pressure from others more powerful? Or was it the capital of a settled district in which natural clearings had been utilised for small family farms? In the absence of archaeological finds, identifiable prehistoric fields, and authentic pre-Saxon names, we cannot answer these questions. Excavation at Berry Mound has revealed little, being confined to the ditches, since it is in the large central enclosure that evidence would be found. Other earthworks like that at Swanshurst (see below), of which even the date and purpose are uncertain, may have a history of settlement much earlier than medieval or even Saxon; but this can only be conjectural.
A few finds of single coins around here are all that we have to remind us of 3.5 centuries of Roman rule. There are no known Roman roads, though the ridgeways (see below) were probably in use before the legions came; and who is to say that some other of the Quarter's lanes do not go back as far? Whether or not the area was well-peopled in prehistoric times, it undoubtedly had a large animal population of wolves, bears, wild cattle, sheep, goats, and swine, deer, hares and rabbits. The air, the trees, and the marshes were full of birds, and every rill teemed with fish.
The first documentary reference to our area is in the famous Charter of 972. In this King Edgar confirmed the Abbey of St. Mary of Pershore in its possession of many estates including 'five households in Gyrdleahe'. The name is pronounced 'Yerdley' and its given boundaries enable us to state that this was our parent manor of Yardley. There is no reason to suppose that the settlement was then very recent, that the thousand years of recorded history which were celebrated in the Yardley Millenary Festival of 1972 were the total. After the West Saxons' victory over a British alliance at Deorham (Dyrham) in 575, the way was open for their colonisation of Severn and Avon. Though movement into Arden may have been slow, it is probably that by the 7th century the Hwiccan kingdom centred on Worcester had reached its northenmost extent. Anglian immigrants were moving into the middle of the Birmingham Plateau by way of the Tame and Rea at the same time as Hwiccan colonists were advancing north along Ryknild Street and down the Coleside ridge. The two not dissimilar peoples, family groups looking for new homes away from lands settled by their immigrant ancestors, came into contact along the Cole and Spark. Anglian Mercia and Hwiccan Wigornia established their common frontier thereon, as did the Sees of Lichfield and Worcester a century or so later. The Hwiccan origin of the first known folk of Yardley is apparently confirmed by the manor's inclusion with its neighbour (Kings) Norton in the Diocese of Worcester, established in AD 680. Wigornia later succumbed to Mercia, but that once-great kingdom had declined to a mere earldom by King Alfred's time.
Danish raiders were abroad in our area, for both the Roman fort at Metchley and Berry Mound were long known as 'Danes' Camp'. But the peace imposed by Alfred's victory sent the invaders back beyond Watling Street, and there was never a permanent settlement by Scandinavians around here, even after later incursions. Alfred's daughter Aethelflaeda, widow of the Mercian earl, continued to repel the Danes and to build strategic fortresses. King Edgar established the Midland shires by allotting contiguous Hundreds to the strongholds of Worcester, Warwick, and Stafford. As a property of Pershore Abbey Yardley belonged to Pershore Hundred, though far removed from the rest of it, and so went with it into Worcestershire like its neighbour Norton. It was to remain an anomalous promontory into Warwickshire until 1912.
The first inhabitants of Yardley to be known by name are three who appear in the boundaries recorded in the 972 Charter. Two of them (Mund and Leommann) lived in our Quarter. The valley of the Spark was then called Mund's Dean, and 'Leommanincgweg' (the way of Leammann's folk) is identifiable as the Stratford Road across Hall Green. There is of course no certainty that these men were still living in 972, or that theirs were two of the five households, but we may guess where they or their descendants were living, Mund's on Sparkhill and Leommann's either near the meeting of six tracks at Robin Hood or at Four Ways where the ridgeways cross. It is not unreasonable to suppose that all local boundaries had been settled by this time; we may wonder how so few people (about fifty?) could have laid claim to the 11.5 sq. miles of Yardley. But numbers in this late-settled wooded region were generally small and there was enough land for all who came.
The west and south boundaries of the Quarter are fully considered in my essay 'The Boundaries of Yardley' and are shown on Map Five. It will be seen that the Shirley and Yardley Wood Brooks are natural boundaries in the south, their swampy valleys making a clear break through the woods. The Spark and Haunch Brooks do not go far in defining the western border, however, and it is not possible to decide whether Stoney Lane, Billesley Lane, and Barn Lane began as perambulation tracks along a negotiated line, or whether the border was fixed along existing paths. Of the 972 topographical details 'moss moor' may have been the undrained Yardley Wood Brook valley, and 'cionda' is reasonably identified as the Chinn Brook; but there is no certainty in placing 'spel brook', 'bull spring', or 'tall oak'. It can be no more than conjecture that they were the Coldbath Brook, the source of the Showell Green Brook, and the junction of Belle Walk with Yardley Wood Road. Why is 'spel brook' not identified with the Haunch Brook, since that stream provides the boundary for three quarters of a mile? This is because the Charter appears to ignore watercourses that define the border, listing only those that cross it. The vagueness of the landmarks given in the Charter may well be due to the fact that the boundary was clearly marked on the ground, either by running water or by tracks, blazed trees, perhaps by ditch and low bank, and did not need to be defined in written words that very few could read. It was not marked by hedge or fence, because it was the custom in Arden for stock to be allowed to roam freely on the common waste of neighbour manors (but not to be driven).
In 1086 Gerlei (Yer-ley) appeared as a 'member' of Beoley, overseen by the same radman for the Abbot of Pershore. The vital statistics for both manors are given as one and cannot be separated, but in view of Yardley's greater size we may claim for it a larger share of population and ploughland. There were perhaps sixty people in the whole manor, of which about 600 acres (1/13) were under cultivation, the rest being meadow (much of it unusable bog) and wood which covered probably a third of the total area. Nothing can be said of Swanshurst Quarter except that it was fairly thickly wooded, especially on the valley sides, but this we know from geology and place-names not from Domesday Book. The area of wood given in there was much more than the total acreage of both manors! The foundation dates of Yardley's early sites are not recoverable; there were four communal settlements including Greet in medieval times, but which of these existed in 1086 must remain unknown. Greet was like at least one of the others in having no nucleated hamlet, its farmers living in cottages about the edges of the open fields.
Moats and earthworks
It is probably true that until Tudor times any rural house of fair size would be moated. A water-filled ditch served as a defence against raiders and outlaws, as a fish-pond, and as a drain. Most moat sites, deserted, had fallen into disuse, becoming infilled middens and shrunken duck ponds before antiquarians could record them. So, few appear on maps and fewer still survive today. In this Quarter we can be sure of only one, and that is unrecognisable. 'The Moats', partly obliterated by the widening of Yardley Wood Road opposite Haunch Lane, seems to have been a ring earthwork at the foot of a slope, with water defences fed by a rill on three sides. The date and purpose of this feature are unknown. It is one of several sites on or close to the manor boundary which may date from the early medieval expansion into the waste. Even less can be said of a site at Swanshurst, where the marshy valleys of the Coldbath Brook and a tributary protected two sides of an eleven-acre earthwork. A line of trees marks the slumped and quarried bank parallel to the brook, but few other traces have survived destruction by ploughing in 1821. The probable extent is indicated by the gardens of houses in Yardley Wood and Windermere Roads. A possible redoubt knoll at the east end was a later windmill site. At the spring-source of the Robin Hood Brook, round which Highfield Road curves, a moat survived until the 1930s, and there must have been others at a dozen ancient dwelling-sites.
Geology, Natural vegetation, and relief and drainage
Early settlement, and Saxon beginnings
Boundaries, Domesday Yardley, and Moats and earthworks
Medieval times, and Ancient roads
Old houses, Local government, and Tudor to Georgian times
Families and houses
Bridges, Watermills, and the Stratford Canal
The Tithe Map
Churches, and Schools
Yardley Rural District
The City of Birmingham, and Urbanisation
Industry, Between the Wars, and Public transport
Swanshurst Quarter in 1979, and Short bibliography