Article originally published in West Midlands Archaeology 45 (2002), pages 11-15.

The Great Hall: an Elizabethan Mansion in Wolverhampton

Isaac Taylor's superb plan of Wolverhampton, surveyed in 1750, shows an intriguing building at the south-east edge of the settled area.  Marked as The Great Hall it is clearly one of the town's major buildings, and is one of just seven regarded as of sufficient importance to be shown in bird's eye view rather than merely plan form. (Fig 1)  The hall can be seen to comprise a three-storeyed building, apparently of H-plan, facing west, with a further two-storey wing running off from its north-west corner; all are set within the north-western quarter of a large moated site.  Orchards and gardens occupy the other quarters.  A curtain wall runs round the interior of the moat with turrets at the north-east and south-east corners.  The moat is spanned by a curved bridge over which a path leads to the entrance to the hall.  Outside the moat, immediately to the south-west, is a further large complex of buildings, this time shown in plan form, thought to have been barns where sheep were kept and wool stored.

Figure 1.

Later maps and illustrations tell us more about the Great Hall, or the Old Hall as it became known.  Its roof was lowered in the 18th century but the building survived, though much altered and extended, until 1883.  Nineteenth century illustrations show a brick building with stone dressings and a plethora of massive chimney-breasts.  Centrally placed at the front of the hall is a two-storey porch.  The moat is still shown on a drawing of 1837 but had been filled in and partially built over by the time of the Wolverhampton tithe map of 1842. (Fig 2)

Figure 2.

The whole complex is obviously designed to impress and show off the prestige of its owner but to whom did it belong and why and when was it built?  Traditionally the hall is supposed to have been built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by John Leveson, a member of the younger branch of the Leveson (locally pronounced Luson) who were wealthy wool merchants and one of the dominant families in 16th century Wolverhampton.  The building style would certainly fit an Elizabethan date.  There is, however, something of a conundrum here for John Leland writing in the late 1530s to early 1540s refers to Thomas Leveson, John's elder brother, living in the ancient house of the Leveson family at the town's end of Wolverhampton.  If the Levesons were living in an old house here around 1540 this cannot be the Elizabethan-style residence shown on Taylor's map.

The regeneration of the area from 2000 onwards has provided an opportunity to answer some of the questions about the Great Hall.  The site of the hall itself is largely occupied by the main building of Wolverhampton College of Adult Education, itself a Grade II listed building, and there was a proposal to build an extension to this building and convert it into a Learning Centre.

Accordingly a scheme of archaeological works was required ahead of, and during, the development.  The excavation of this type of site in a heavily urbanised area, where it is uncertain what survives and what has been removed by later development, is never an easy matter.  Ideally one would like to strip the whole area down to archaeological levels and then make decisions as to which areas to excavate.  This provides too many uncertainties for the developer, however.  Hence a scheme was devised which comprised large scale trial trenching to identify the most promising areas, followed by set-piece excavation ahead of development and a watching brief with opportunity for salvage excavation during development.  It was anticipated that parts of the infilled moat would have survived later developments on the site but the remains of the hall itself were considered likely to lie largely under the college buildings or outside the development area.  Nevertheless the research design called for the excavation of any remains of the hall itself which did survive as well as the excavation of a complete section across the moat.

Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit (now Birmingham Archaeology) were called in to undertake the excavations and a summary of their work is given on pages 00-00.  Hence only a brief mention will be made here.  In the event the trial trenches demonstrated not only that well-preserved sections of the moat did survive but also discovered parts of the foundations of the curtain wall and of a building adjoining the main hall.  The set-piece excavation concentrated on excavating a complete section of the moat ditch and on examining the wall foundations.  The moat ditch proved to be large, around 10m wide and up to 3m deep.  The foundations were also sizeable, of sandstone and over 1m wide.  They were cut into a reddish soil which may have been upcast from the excavation of the moat.  Beneath this was a grey soil which is thought to have been a ploughsoil, perhaps suggesting that the hall was built in an area which had previously been part of the town fields.

The story does not end here, however, for last minute changes to the design of the building provided a need, and an opportunity, to look at an area of the main hall itself.  Surprisingly the foundations of the hall were discovered immediately under the tarmac and it became apparent that they were so massive that later developers had simply left them intact and built around them.  A salvage excavation was swiftly mounted and Birmingham Archaeology managed to recover a good plan of the north-west portion of the main building.  Further analysis is needed but intriguingly an earlier stone moulding – perhaps 15th century – was recovered – and there is the possibility that some of the foundations may relate to an earlier building.

Hence what can we say about the history of the Great Hall, and what does this tell us about the Leveson family and about the social structure of Wolverhampton at this time?  The supposition that the hall was built by John Leveson in the Elizabethan period is likely to be correct but it is likely to have been built as a replacement for an earlier building.  John Leveson's desire to build himself a new and impressive hall fits well with what was happening all over England at this time – the period of The Great Rebuilding.  He was a man of his time, a wealthy merchant seeking to provide himself with the trappings of the local gentry.  The Leveson's were major players in the affairs of Wolverhampton and apparently quite ruthless in their dealings with their fellow citizens.  In the 1530s John along with his older brother Thomas were involved in an affray with James Leveson, head of the elder branch of the Leveson family as a result of an argument over who controlled the town's market.  Around the same time complaints were made against Thomas that he was allowing his stock to graze the arable fields, destroying his neighbours crops and impounding their cattle.

On Thomas' death in 1563 John Leveson bought his Wolverhampton lands and properties from Thomas' daughter and it is perhaps at this time that he decided to build himself a grand new mansion in the then fashionable building material of brick.  He held the important post of Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1562 and obtained the right to wear a coat of arms in the same year – a further display of his prestige.  He was also a merchant of the staple, one of the elite wool merchants allowed to export abroad.  His business interests extended beyond wool, however, for, in addition to owning property and land, he was granted a licence to cut down wood for use in ironmaking in 1563 and when he died in 1575 he left his coal mines to one of his sons.

Hence in the history of the Great Hall and the Levesons we can see a story very much of its time – an Elizabethan merchant family aggressively on the make with an eye to increasing their wealth and to branching out into new enterprises.  These were the people who were to pioneer the new industries, which were eventually to lead to the heavily industrialised Black Country of the 18th and 19th centuries.


This paper is an update of one I gave at News from the Past entitled 'History and Archaeology at the Old Hall, Wolverhampton.’  My thanks to Birmingham Archaeology who carried out the excavations, particularly to Richard Cuttler, the Project Manager, Ellie Ramsay, the Site Director, and Malcolm Hislop, Buildings Recording Officer, for discussing the results of the excavations with me.  I am also grateful to Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies and their staff for guiding me to relevant material and providing the original for Fig 2.  The excavations were financed by Wolverhampton Adult Education Services and City of Wolverhampton College.  Birmingham Archaeology are currently preparing a report on the excavations which it is hoped to publish in Post-Medieval Archaeology.

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