Water supply in Yardley



In Yardley more than most Birmingham manors water supply has been a crucial factor in the history and pattern of settlement. The impermeable clay bedrock of the region, Mercian Mudstone, ensures that there is a fast run-off of rain. The streams are necessarily small, so close to the Midlands watershed, but they rise quickly and as quickly subside. Modern field-drainage and flood-control measures speed up both actions. Before the natural vegetation was cleared the rise and fall were less extreme: the great oaks, thick undergrowth, and rich topsoil retained rainfall, releasing it gradually into numberless rills. Superabundance of water on or near the surface, the heaviness of the clay beneath, and the daunting impenetrability of the forest cover, discouraged settlement.

Those parts of Yardley which were covered by relatively permeable drift, which were also the highest, were less heavily wooded: on the stoniest flat ridges the natural cover was bush and heath. Though not very fertile, these were the areas chosen for agriculture and dwelling sites. The lack of surface water was no disadvantage except in driest weather as the water table was high and reachable by shallow wells. Ponds for animal watering and fish culture could be made by damming streams and by clay-lining beds in sandier soil. The surface of ponds, lower in temperature than the banks, would cause greater precipitation of dew to augment rainfall. Known fishponds, apart from disused moats, were Danford and Lyne Lakes, Swanshurst (a smaller pool preceded the present one made about 1759), Coldbath, Broomhall, and of course the millponds. There were probably stews east of Yardley Moat, on the Cole arm near Lea Hall, and at ten other sites.

Early moated sites, necessarily on or near watercourses, gained defence at the cost of inaccessibility, floods, and the ills of primitive living in damp surroundings. Moats fed by hillside springs escaped valley mists and chills, but the use of the ditch as a sewer increased the likelihood of disease. Dwellings within moats were customarily raised on gravel platforms: accretions of rubbish and rubble over many generations would make them reasonably high and dry. All houses of any size had moats until the 17th century. Thereafter many were infilled or abandoned. Rebuilt houses outside moats in Yardley included Blakesley, Hiron, Greet, Tyseley Farm, Glebe Farm: abandoned moats are known on or near the manor bounds, notably the double ditch beside Haunch Brook below Billesley Common; and of course the manor house moat.

Yardley's first open fields were on the ridges of drift between the Cole, Stich Brook, and Yardley Brook. Their cultivators' dwellings lay round the field edges, on sites later occupied by Hill House, Cocks, and Field House among others. The manor house, Blakesley, and Lea Hall were established on clay, however, and the small street-village developed near the first. The disadvantages of living on cold, miry sites, with a very poor water supply, are so obvious that the wonder is not that Yardley village stayed small but that it ever appeared at all. It may have post-dated the church, which was built there because the manor house was nearby, and which was a refuge in time of war: there is no geographical reason for its existence. Wells into mudstone can collect only dirty surface water, and even this would dwindle in dry spells. In Georgian times if not earlier supplies of water had to be brought to the village by cart. There were seven pumps in the village in 1902 (O.S. Six-Inch Map), but they must often have failed.

From the village south nearly to Coventry Road was a very sparsely settled area until recent times. There was no drift capping, so that this was the most heavily wooded part of the manor. It had to be cleared from farms like Blakesley at its edges over many centuries. Since Blakesley and Lea Hall are clearing names and presumably established in naturally open areas in wood, it must be conjectured that their sites had some drift cover, sufficient to fill their known wells, and that the Geology Map is in error thereabout. There is no other explanation for early and continuing settlement, on sites apparently on clay, with no adjacent streams to provide water.

Three other field systems are closely related to geology, those of Lee, Tenchley (Stockfield/Acocks Green) and Greet (Sparkhill). Each is on sandy and gravelly drift. Peripheral settlement was at springs flowing from the drift. The scattered dwellings sites elsewhere in the manor are explicable in terms of water supply. 23 early ones are on probable spring-lines on valley sides at drift edges, so that they combine good water-supply with good drainage. Examples are Flaxleys, Gospel Farm, Greetmill Hill, Titterford, and Oaklands. On the flat ridge-tops are more than 30 old sites, all of which would have had productive wells. Across Billesley and Wake Green there is a good flow from the sandy drift of Kings Heath across the more clayey deposits of Swanshurst and Sarehole Commons. Hence the settlements of Billesley and Swanshurst, Bulley, Sarehole, and the farms about Yardley Wood Common. The tributaries on the west side are larger and longer than those of the east because the Rea/Cole interfluve is wider than the ridge between the Cole and its tributaries on the east side: thus we find five large pools on the west side of the river and at least three watermills. A site most clearly shown to have been chosen for its water supply is that of Hay Hall, where a 'hege' (enclosure) was made on a small circular patch of drift: this would have been an island tump in a sea of trees, dry but with water a few feet underground and streams on three sides. Flaxleys, Riddings, and the sites later occupied by Greet House and 'Tyseley Grange' were similarly islanded.

Suburban development during the nineteenth century brought little enlargement to Yardley and Lea Villages and Greet hamlet. A few mansions in Church End, such as 'The Croft' with three pumps, were supplemented by streets at Stechford (whose water may have been pumped from the river and/or Stich Brook), and some cottages along the lanes. It is an intriguing thought that, had Yardley village been able to provide water for a larger community, it might not have remained the rural backwater it still is: turnpike, canal, railway, and even Outer Circle bus route might have changed its character. West Greet grew on drift while the hamlet beside the manor house of Greet dwindled until it disappeared. Until piped water came from Sparkbrook to Acocks Green, and to Church End from Plants Brook and Shustoke Reservoirs, in the 1890s, the old restrictions imposed by geology still affected where new buildings were erected. Mansions, villas, and terraces were still built largely on drift, while the clay areas remained rural and unsettled. The crowded terraces put up on two crofts opposite the church in Yardley, doubling the village population, were provided with piped water at once. The rapid urbanisation of Stechford, 'South Yardley', Acocks Green, Tyseley, Greet, Sparkhill, and Springfield before World War One was possible because there was water on tap for all domestic and industrial purposes. Until Yardley Rural District joined Birmingham in 1912, however, there was no adequate refuse disposal, and the 144 ponds shown on Blood’s Map of 1876 - marl-holes and claypits largely - had by then been infilled with rubbish. Some farms and cottages were still not linked to the mains when World War Two began.



The waters of Yardley


The river Cole in Yardley, and its fords and bridges

Standing waters (millpools and fishponds) including Moseley Bog

Watercourses of Yardley

Water supply in Yardley

The waters of Yardley: settlement, communications and industry


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