The Manor in the 16th Century

By the beginning of the 16th century, Walsall had a well established mayor and council. The Burgess Roll of 1377 contains a reference to the consilium or town council, and the mayor. An ordinance from around 1500 refers to the high steward, the mayor, and the council, consisting of 25 members.

By the middle of the 16th century the council had 24 members, and the town acquired its first Town Hall, the original Guildhall in High Street. In 1547, Richard Dyngeley, Master of the Guild moved out, and the building was taken over by the mayor and the council. Much of the building was leased out, and part of it became an inn, later known as the Green Dragon. The main hall was used for civic events, mayoral banquets, and for manorial courts.

In the early part of the 16th century, the manor was leased out to several people including Robert Acton, a groom of the King’s bedchamber, and a member of an old Saxon family from Wolverton Hall, near Worcester. One of the State Papers from this period, dated 1526 to 27 states that:

Robert Acton lease of lands in the Manor of Walsall, called ‘The Wastes’, parcel of the Manor of Stafford, forfeited by Edward, late Duke of Buckingham, with reservations, for 21 years, rent £2.6s.8d. and 3s.4d. increase.

Acton rented the manorial park, and is remembered for the dispute he had with the mayor and burgesses over the payment of fees for the use of the park, and the stealing of deer from the park. He took his case to the Court of Star Chamber, and accused the mayor and two colleagues of threatening to set a mob on him. He described the people of Walsall as “Light persons suddenly moved to affrays and insurrections”. He stated that the mob would “Raise Bayard of Walsall, with his thousand colts and set 400 men onto him. They would ring Bayard’s Bell. So that all the town would rise against him.”

Who Bayard was in unknown, but the colts refer to the clubs with carved heads that were paraded around the town on ceremonial occasions. By the mid 17th century the mayor and the 24 twenty-four capital burgesses walked the fairs, wearing their gowns. The group walked from the Guildhall to the church steps where they proclaimed the fair open, then walked down to The Bridge and proclaimed the fair open again. They were escorted by men carrying the carved clubs, known as Bayard's Colts. The tradition had been abandoned by the early 19th century.

Some of the clubs have survived and can be found in Walsall Museum. The outcome of the dispute is not known, but within 12 months, Acton had leased the park to Walter Devereux, Lord Ferrers of Chartley. Acton must have died by 1536 because in that year the king granted Walsall Manor to Sir John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

Read an article about Acton's dispute, from an 1830 edition of the 'Walsall Note Book'

An impression of 16th century Walsall.

A New King

This was a time of change, due to the antics of Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VIII on the death of his father. He reigned from the 21st April 1509 until his death on the 28th January 1547. He is remembered for his many wives, and the suppression of the Catholic Church. The various Acts which led to The Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 had quite an impact on Walsall Church. The church had been under the patronage of Halesowen Abbey since the middle of the 13th century. Around 1538 the king took it over, and granted the abbey and its estates to John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who became Earl of Warwick in 1547.

In 1536 John Dudley became Lord of the Manor of Walsall, and remained as such until 1553 when he was found guilty of high treason and executed. The manor then returned to the crown and came under the control of Queen Mary.

Walsall church had a number of chantries, which were for the exclusive benefit of local wealthy land-owning families. They gave money, and endowed land to the chantries, which were there to ease their souls into the after life by the process of prayer. Daily services and prayers were carried out by the chantry priest, who was funded by the endowment, usually the income from the endowed land. In the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 Walsall is described as a vicarage with ten chantries.

King Henry soon put an end to the chantries and pensioned off the priests. Some of the chantry land in Walsall was kept by the crown, and some sold for the benefit of the crown. The remainder came into the possession of the town, and so was acquired by John Dudley.

There were many chantries still in operation in other parts of the country. When Henry’s son, King Edward VI came to the throne in January 1547, he issued the Chantries Act which put an end to the remaining 2,374 chantries and guild chapels. The priests were pensioned off, and the property was absorbed into the Court of Augmentations, which had been established to administer crown lands. Some of the income was to be used for the building of almshouses, schools and hospitals, as a replacement for the facilities lost when the monasteries were destroyed.

Groat (4 pence) coins from Henry VIII's reign.

In 1553 John Dudley was executed for high treason, and Edward VI’s half sister Mary came to the throne. His estates were taken over by the crown and so Queen Mary acquired the Manor of Walsall. At that time many of the citizens of the town felt that Walsall had missed out, because the 1547 Chantries Act had not been imposed there. The Act abolished the 2,374 chantries and guild chapels. Their buildings and lands were sold, and some of the money raised was used for the good of the public (as stated in the Act). In several places schools were built on chantry land.

A petition from the town, asking for the Act to be enforced in Walsall, was taken to the Queen by Nicholas and George Hawe. Queen Mary granted their wish, and ‘The Free Grammar School of Queen Mary’ was founded in the town, and given some of the chantry lands. It was built on Church Hill next to the churchyard.

In November 1553 the Queen leased the Manor of Walsall to Richard Wilbraham of Woodhey in Faddiley, Cheshire for £40 yearly rent. In 1557 she sold it to him, along with some tenements in the Borough, the vicarage, and all the manorial rights, for £1026.10s. He died the following year and was succeeded by his son Thomas, a literary man, much respected in the town.

A groat from the reign of Queen Mary I.

The Growing Poor

There was growing concern about the increase in the number of poorer members of society. Back in feudal times, when people were tied to their village, they would have been cared for by the local church and their neighbours. This began to change after the Black Death, when people became more mobile, and the poor relied on the monasteries, the church, and many of the guilds. The Reformation changed all this, when the monasteries were destroyed, and the church and the guilds were suppressed.

Official concern about the worsening problem led to a number of Acts, each designed to offer different forms of poor relief. The 1552 Act ‘For the Provision and Relief of the Poor’ stated that local authorities were to nominate two collectors of alms for weekly collections on Sundays, and that persons refusing to contribute must be exhorted, first by ministers, then by bishops. Records were also to be kept of the names of the poor and the contributors.

The Act was strengthened in 1563 under the terms of the ‘Act for the Relief of the Poor’. This stated that persons refusing to contribute to poor relief were to be exhorted by the bishop, then appear in court before the justices, where they could be faced with imprisonment. Fines of two pounds were levied on officials who neglected their poor relief duties. Anyone who refused to be a collector was fined ten pounds. Churchwardens who failed to report those who were unwilling to serve, were fined twenty pounds, and ministers who neglected to announce elections for the poor relief collectors, were fined two pounds. Collectors who failed to produce quarterly accounts could be imprisoned.

Because lists of the poor appeared in parish records, it is possible to calculate their total number, which is estimated to have varied from one third to one fifth of the population. Justices of the Peace were authorised, and given power to raise funds for the relief of the poor, who for the first time were categorised.

The situation in Walsall was helped by generous donations from the wealthier members of society, some of whom paid for almshouses to be built, or bequeathed almshouses. Benefactors included William Harper, William Parker, John Persehouse, and John Wollaston. In 1563 it is estimated that the number of households in Walsall as a whole was 290.

Poor relief of course wasn’t new. Thomas Mollesley’s Dole had been given out since 1451. The accounts of Mollesley’s Dole provide us with a fairly accurate way of estimating Walsall’s population. In 1539 the dole amounted to £7.10s.9d., in 1652 it had increased to £14.9s.4d., and in 1799 it had risen to £60.


Estimated Population (Borough  and Foreign)

1539   1809
1619   2,861
1652   3,472
1661   4,351
1700   5,500
1799   14,400

In 1578 a long and bitter dispute began between the Mayor and the Council, and Thomas Lane of Bentley Hall, over common rights. Thomas Lane claimed that the mayor, Thomas Wollaston, and members of the council, including William Gorway, and Henry Stone, had burnt down his house at Bentley, riotously assembled, and cut down his trees, destroyed his fences, and grazed their cattle on his lands. He demanded compensation for their acts.

The case came to court, and the defendants admitted that Thomas Lane’s claims were true, but the lands were part of Bentley Hay, and part of the Forest of Cannock, on which the inhabitants of Walsall had right of common for grazing their cattle. They also stated that Thomas Lane was Bailiff of the Hay, under the Queen, and had abused his office by building on the Hay, and enclosing parts of it.

A compromise was reached. Thomas Lane agreed to pay the council a sum of ten pounds annually, and in return the inhabitants of Walsall gave-up their rights of common on the land.

In 1610 Walter Whytehall took an action against the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Wilbraham, the mayor, and others for false imprisonment. It seems that when Thomas was presiding over the court leet, Walter Whytehall disturbed the court and addressed Thomas as follows: “Thowe arte a false harlot and lyest falselye in thye harte.” After the outburst Walter was imprisoned for 15 minutes.

Sir Richard Wilbraham, Thomas’s son, succeeded him as Lord of the Manor on his death in 1610. In that year Sir Richard made a complaint about William Webb, Joane Ball, Thomas Nicholls, and George Hawe for refusing to pay various dues that were owed to him as Lord of the Manor. He decided to subpoena them, to ensure that they produced certain court rolls and other documents.

The burgesses resisted the claims and produced the old charters of William Ruffus, Roger Morteyn, and Thomas Ruffus. The case ended in compromise, with the freeholders and copyholders of the town contributing towards the sum of £103.6s.8d. that was given to Sir Richard as compensation. From then on the copyholders were left alone, and only paid a few pence to the Lord of the Manor as specified in the town’s second charter. During the proceedings a ‘secret society’ or fellowship of 24 persons under the leadership of the mayor was formed, to resist the payment of the claims.

In 1627 Walsall was granted its Royal Carter by Charles I. A town charter had been long overdue because many people in the town were unhappy about the way it was being run. The preachers were extravagant, there was conflict between the corporation and the magistrates, and 15 members of the council had refused the oath of allegiance, thereby loosing their positions.

The charter became a possibility when Nicholas Parker of Bloxwich, left £100 in his will, to procure a charter for better government of the town. He had been left a considerable sum of money by his brothers, William and Robert, wealthy aldermen of the City of London. In June of that year four people formed a deputation, and made their way to London to procure the charter. They were Richard Stone, and his son Henry, Joseph Clarkson, and either Robert Stone or someone with the surname Curteys (the actual name is uncertain). They took with them a document called “Charges about oure Corporacon.”

Charles I shilling coins.

The Royal Charter, dated 5th October, 1627 laid the foundations for peaceable and orderly government of the borough, and for the permanent freedom of the constitution, and the powers of the Corporation, which consisted of a Mayor, and 24 Capital Burgesses. There was also to be a Recorder, Town Clerk, two Sergeants-at-Mace, and a Beadle for the enactment of reasonable and necessary by-laws, with suitable powers to deal with offences against the law. There would be Justices of the Peace for a Court of Record for the recovery of debts and damages, and for a Court of Justice, with a Jury of twelve members, for the trial of petty offences and misdemeanours. There would also be a public gaol, and exemption for the burgesses from payment of tolls or duties. Two annual fairs would be held, one on the 24th February (St. Matthias’s Day), and another on the Tuesday before the 29th September (the feast of St. Michael).

The mayor would be elected annually, and there would be a deputy mayor. The mayor and councillors were to act as justices of the peace, and were given the right to buy and sell land, and to make byelaws. They were also allowed to have a common seal for official documents. The charter was confirmed on the 22nd February, 1674 by King Charles II.

The 24 members of the council were given membership for life, subject to good behaviour. The council was self-perpetuating, so membership usually passed from father to son. It was in effect a closed shop. When a vacancy occurred, the new member would be elected by the councillors.

In 1635 the unpopular tax known as “ship money” was levied on the town, which had to pay £32, consisting of £14 from the Borough, and £18 from the ‘Foreign’. The tax was levied by Charles I without the consent of Parliament. Although normally only levied on coastal towns, the King began to collect the tax from inland towns in 1634. It provoked a lot of opposition and was one of the causes of the English Civil War. Walsall Council had great difficulty raising the money, which is probably why the town sided with the parliamentarians.

In 1636 there was an outbreak of plague in nearby Birmingham, which greatly worried the council and led to measures being taken to prevent it spreading to the town. The Borough Constable appointed four warders each day to prevent any traveller from an infected area entering the town, and the ‘Foreign’ Constable appointed two warders for the same purpose. Care was taken to regulate the passage of carriages, and loads, particularly from London. Carriers returning from infected areas were confined to their homes, and not allowed to accept guests. In July 1637 a local shoemaker was prosecuted for bringing leather into the town from an infected part of Birmingham, and a woman from the area of Birmingham affected by the plague was paid to leave the town. Similar measures were taken in the 1665 outbreak when it was discovered that carriers were bringing people into the town from infected areas.

The measures were successful and undoubtedly protected the town from the epidemic. They increased people’s awareness of the importance of a clean water supply, resulting in the repair of the town’s two main wells, the Ablewell, and the Warewell, and the tapping of springs in Caldmore. A piped water supply was fed into High Street from Vicarage Moor in the 1670s. In 1676 the mayor and the council entered an agreement with Thomas Jolley, a plumber from Lichfield, for the casting of lead pipes for the conveyance of water from Vicarage Moor to High Street, and Cox's pump, near George Street. A conduit was built which became known as 'the fountain', and cisterns were made for the storage of water. Thomas Jolley was paid £100 for the construction work, and the laying of the pipes.

There were no sewers in those days, so people would throw all kinds of waste onto the streets. This was recognised as a potential source of disease, and so the streets were regularly cleaned.

The Corporation continued its duty to the poor, and by 1648 had opened a poorhouse.

The Civil War

The English Civil War began in 1642 and had quite an impact on Walsall, particularly at Rushall Hall. Colonel Lane, of Bentley, John Pershouse, of Reynolds Hall, Walsall, and George Hawe, of Caldmore were loyal cavaliers. On the other side were Captain Henry Stone, and Colonel Tinker Fox, both from Walsall. At the start of the war, Sir Edward Leigh, an author, member of Parliament, and an opponent of the King, fortified Rushall Hall. In 1643 his wife valiantly attempted to defend the house against the king’s forces with only a handful of men and maids. The house was captured by Prince Rupert, and occupied by Colonel Lane. It was used as a storage depot for plunder taken from Parliamentarian convoys passing between London and Lancashire.

In the same year Queen Henrietta visited Walsall whilst on her way to join the King at Edgehill. She came with a force of 2,000 foot soldiers, 1,000 soldiers on horseback, 100 wagons, ordnance and supplies. Tradition has it that she stayed at the ‘White Hart’ in Caldmore.

In May 1644 the Royalists were removed from Rushall Hall after a short siege led by the Earl of Denbigh. In September, an attempt was made by members of the King’s forces, to bribe Captain Tuthill, who was in charge at the hall. £2,000 was offered if he would surrender the hall to the King. The chief go-between in the affair, Francis Pitt, a yeoman farmer from Wednesfield, was executed in Smithfield, London, in October, for endeavouring to betray the garrison at Rushall Hall.

The Civil War ended with victory for the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651. By this time Walsall been greatly affected by hostile forces as they passed through the town. The church had been desecrated. The organ was pulled down and burnt, along with prayer books. Monuments, carvings and windows were destroyed, and the building was used as a stable. Many of the town’s early records and deeds also disappeared at this time.

The War had been a difficult time for the ordinary working men in the area. At the best of times it would have been difficult enough for them to earn sufficient money for food and clothing. During the war, the wealthier families who had loyalties to one side or the other, imposed taxes on the poor to pay for their troops. This must have been a time of great hardship for many people.

In 1660 the unpopular Hearth tax was levied at two shillings for every hearth. Walsall contributed the sum of £56.24s. for 375 hearths in the Borough, and 192 in the ‘Foreign’. The largest houses listed in the tax returns are as follows:


Number of Hearths
John Alport 7
Mr. Barfett 7
Thomas Sheppard 7
Thomas Tibson 7
George Hawe, White Hart, Caldmore 9
John Persehouse, Reynolds Hall 9
Henry Stone.  Mayor of Walsall 1628 9
Francis Pursell 11
Edward Leigh Rushall Hall 13
Richard Nicholes 13
Mr. John Wollaston,  possibly Lower Rushall Street. Mayor of Walsall 1660 13
Edward Mountford 14
Mr. Richardes (two houses) 15

I have added house names where possible.

In 1680 there was a crisis within the corporation because the outgoing mayor, John Comberledge fell ill during the Michaelmas meeting of burgesses, and ended the meeting early before his successor could be elected. Under the terms of the 1627 charter, a mayor had to be elected at this meeting. Under normal circumstances he would have continued as mayor, but refused to do so. As a result the Corporation was robbed of any vestige of power, and could not act. There was nothing in the charter about what to do under these circumstances, in effect the charter was declared void, and steps were taken to obtain a new charter. This took some time because of disagreements between residents in the Borough and residents in the ‘Foreign’ who thought that the charter gave greater rights to those living in the Borough. The majority of residents opposed the charter, which wasn’t restored until 1688.

In 1680 Dr. Robert Plot visited Walsall whilst carrying out research for his book ‘The Natural History of Staffordshire’ published in 1686. He was an English naturalist, first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.

He describes the town as follows:

Large numbers of the inhabitants were doubtless employed at this time in agriculture and in the great woods, which still spread around the town. The centre of the town itself was still the parish church, and the main increase of building was in this locality. Old timber houses stretched now through Digbeth to the Lord's Mill, and the Bridge was in times of flood a complete lake.

A few houses alone stood scattered along the "Parke Streete" and the Town End, while beyond were narrow green lanes, gardens and fields. The public buildings were few, consisting only of the church, the grammar school adjacent, the market house and municipal offices in the "Highe Crosse". The only dissenting place of worship was the Old Meeting House in Bank or Fox's Court, High Street, at the back of Mr. Overton's, then occupied by Mr. Fox, a grocer.

In 1691 the mayor was authorised to build a market house on the same spot as the medieval market cross which had fallen into disrepair. Alongside the old cross stood the pillory, stocks, and a whipping post. The market house, built in 1692 was a small half-timbered building used for the sale of poultry, eggs, butter, and dairy produce. It was known as the High Cross, or High Cross House.

In 1692 the Manor of Walsall passed on to Mary, wife of Richard Newport, later Earl of Bradford. It remained in the Bradford family’s hands until 1945.

By this time Walsall was a thriving town, with a rapidly growing population. People were beginning to move here to find work in the many new industries. The town was rapidly becoming less reliant on agriculture, turning instead towards industry, and the many benefits it offered.

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