Trades and Industries, up to the end of the 17th Century

It was inevitable that metalworking in one form or another would be carried out in the area, because of the plentiful supplies of coal, iron ore, and limestone. Work at this time was carried out in little workshops, often in a yard behind the craftsman’s house. In the 15th century the churchwardens accounts at All Saints’ Church list the local trades and industries in three categories:

1. Smiths, braziers, carriers, lime burners.
2. Millers, shearmen, tailors, mercers, drapers, glovers, sempsters, and barbers.
3. Cobblers, bakers, butchers, and carpenters.


Much of Walsall lies in the South Staffordshire and Cannock Chase coalfields, often outcropping close to the surface. By the early 14th century, coal and iron ore was being mined. The lords of the manor (then divided), Roger de Morteyn, and Margery Ruffus made an agreement to share the profits of the coal and ironstone mines in the manor. Margery’s son, Sir Thomas le Rous reserved the right to license coal-mining on land at Birchills in 1326 and 1327. By the late 1380s, and 1390s, there were coal and ironstone mines in Windmill field.

Coal was mined in the manorial park, because the manorial accounts for 1490 to 1491 include a payment for prospecting for a mine there. By the middle of the 16th century, the town was supplying coal to Sutton Coldfield. A document from the Calendar of Deeds, dated 1597 records a sale by William Webb, Mayor of Walsall, and others, of land in Bloxwich to George Whitehall. The document states that the purchaser promises to serve all the inhabitants of Walsall with coals, called “dassell coalles” at the rate of three pence for each horse, mare, or gelding load, and with others called “bagge coalles” at two pence per like load, and to refuse none so long as there be any coals upon the bank.

Large quantities of iron ore, or ironstone as it is known, were to be found alongside the coal seams. The ore often outcropped near the surface, particularly in the south, and south eastern parts of the town. As already mentioned, the ore was mined in the town in the early 14th century, and in Windmill field by the late 1380s. In 1537 Thomas Acton was leasing mines in the ‘Foreign’, from the Crown, and by the early 17th century the ore was supplied to ironworks in the surrounding area, including (from 1561) Lord Paget's blast furnace on Cannock Chase. His son Henry leased 8 open cast mines in Walsall in 1576, and soon many more were to be found in the area.

The carboniferous coal and iron measures lie above a layer of Silurian limestone, which in places outcrops near the surface, and so is relatively simple to mine. It is first mentioned in a document dated 1325 which states that Sir Thomas le Rous grants Robert Bonde three acres of his waste land in Birchills, on condition that he should not make any mines of limestone in the same.

One of the limestone caverns off the Dudley canal tunnel. It gives an impression of the size of the caverns, and the vast amount of limestone removed.
It was mined in many areas around the town, from the eastern edges, to Rushall, and in the town centre itself, where the Arboretum now stands.

There were also mines at Townend Bank, and around Church Hill, where the more valuable Upper and Lower Wenlock Limestones are to be found.

The part of Church Hill around Ablewell Street became known as Lime Pit Bank, as a result of the extensive caverns that were dug under the hill.

Much of the limestone was used as building material, although it was also burnt to produce lime, and used in agriculture as a fertiliser. It became an essential ingredient for tanners who soaked leather in a solution of lime to remove any hairs. There is a list of trades in the Staffordshire Record Office dating from around 1494 which includes a mention of lime burners in Walsall.

Cartloads of local limestone were transported throughout the area. It became a popular building material. Wenlock limestone was favoured by ironmasters for use as a flux in the smelting process. By 1569 it was being transported to the ironworks at Middleton in Warwickshire. The limestone on the eastern side of the town was known as Barr Limestone, and mainly mined around Hay Head.

Much of the limestone at Rushall was extracted from around 200 feet below the surface. It was highly prized because when polished it looked like marble.

Metal Working

Although iron ore was plentiful in the area, it seems likely that little smelting was done in the town until the 14th century. By the 16th century several bloomeries producing iron were operating in the town.

Around 1300 the lord of the manor, Sir Roger de Morteyn granted Adam the bloomer an acre of waste at Bloxwich, presumably on which to set up a bloomery. It may be that iron was being smelted in the Birchfields area in 1333, because by that time the name Cinder Hill Field had appeared.

In the late 14th century the lord of the manor sold iron ore, and purchased the finished metal from Robert Grubbere, an iron smith working in his local bloomery. In 1528 an area near the River Tame called Bloomsmithy meadow was sold to Martin Pemerton, which suggests that a bloomery was there before that date, presumably water-powered.

In the late 1570s, trees were felled in Bentley to provide timber for charcoal making. The trees were cut down by William Gorwey, John Stone, and Richard Worthington to provide charcoal for their ‘smithmills’.

There would have been many smiths in the area who would have produced all the different kinds of metal items that were in everyday use, from household utensils and fittings, to tools, agricultural implements, horseshoes, and weapons. In 1362 Robert Grubbere had a forge in the town, as did Richard Marchal who made nails at his forge on Church Hill. William Marshall had a forge in Rushall Street, and William Mercer ran a forge in Bloxwich.

By the end of the 17th century the many goods manufactured in the town included awl-blades, buckles, chains, locks, nails, brass and pewter holloware.

An impression of an early bloomery.

Nails were made in Walsall by the late 14th century. There were three nail makers in the town in 1603, and several in Bloxwich. By the end of the century there were many more. Locks were made in small numbers from the 16th century, and awl blades were made in Bloxwich. They were used for boring holes in wood and leather.

Horse Furniture

Walsall has been well known for a long time as a centre for the production of horse-riding products such as bridles, spurs, and stirrups etc. The industry had begun by the start of the 15th century. The Burgess Roll includes the name of John Sporior, listed as a spur maker. By 1435 Walsall had three makers of lorinery, consisting of saddler’s ironmongery, bits, spurs, and other metal objects.

Around 1540 the well known antiquary John Leland visited the town. He had been authorised to examine, and use the libraries of all religious houses in England by the king. He compiled numerous lists of significant or unusual books, and recorded evidence relating to the history of England and Wales. His description of Walsall is as follows:

Walleshaul, a little market towne in Stafordshir, a mile by north from Weddesbyrie. Ther be many smithes and bytte makers yn the towne. It longgith now to the King, and there is a parke of that name scant half a mile from the towne, yn the way to Wolverhampton. At Walleshaul be pyttes of se cole, pyttes of lyme, that serve also South Town (Sutton Coldfield) 4 miles off.

The William Salt Library has another contemporary description of the town, possibly written by William Wyrley towards the end of the 16th century:

Walsale is a fayre village, and although it inivyneth (enjoys) a maior and priviledges, yet it hath no market, but in it be good store of lorrimers, making bridle bitts, spurs, and such like. This town was sometime belonging to the familie of Hyllarie, but nowe doth acknowledge for lord Th. Wilbrome, of Woodhey, in co. Chester, Esquier; near unto this is the head of Thame, and in the church be these armes.
The description is followed by a series of drawings, made in the church.

Horse furniture was being produced in Bloxwich by the 16th century. In 1561, John Baily, a lorimer of Bloxwich, died, and by the turn of the century there were at least two others.

Locally made horse furniture was sold far and wide. In 1542 Richard Hopkes of Walsall was owed money for stirrups, 'odd bits', fine bits, and snaffles, sold at Exeter, and Bristol, and in Devonshire, Somerset, Dorset, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was probably a dealer rather than a manufacturer, and also sold locally made buckles. Another Walsall dealer, Nicholas Jackson died in 1560. Half of his possessions consisted of bits, stirrups, spurs, and buckles.

By the late 17th century shoe and garter buckles were made locally, but most buckles were produced for saddles.

In the 14th century, pewter and brassware products were made in the town. There were many pewterers and braziers making household utensils such as bottles, candlesticks, chamber pots, dishes, kettles, pots and pans, plates, salt-cellars, saucers, spoons, and warming-pans. There were also bell-founders, and brass foundries casting window casements. Copper was also worked in the town by the late 16th century. Copper smiths produced a wide range of products including holloware, nails, and studs.


Walsall has become well known for its leather goods, and saddles. By the middle of the 15th century there were tanneries in the town, by the stream at Digbeth, and in Caldmore. Finished leather goods were not produced until the 16th century, and only in small quantities.


By 1300 there was a fulling mill in the town, and by the middle of the 15th century cloth was being produced. William Staunton was a clothier who made an agreement with the corporation in 1620 to teach 20 or 30 children the art of 'spinning, twisting, doubling, and quilling' worsted, woollen, and linen yarn.

When Dr. Robert Plot visited Walsall in 1680 he described the local industries as follows:

Nor are they less curious in their ironworks at the town of Walsall, which chiefly relate to somewhat of horsemanship, such as spurs, bridles, stirrups etc.” He mentions that the natives were then skilled in the making of every article connected with saddlery, and of all kinds of buckles. Walsall men were familiar with the arts of tinning metals, and the casting of iron, copper, and brass pots.

Ironstone was raised at this time, both at Walsall and at Rushall, opposite the church, and was divided into six different varieties:

1. Black Bothum
2. Gray Bothum
3. Chatterpye, being the colour of a magpie
4. Gray measure
5. Mush
6. White measure

The two first are seldom made use of, they are so very mean; the two middle sorts but indifferent; the two last, the principal sorts, but Mush the best of all, a small comby-stone, othersome round and hollow, and many times filled with a briske sweet liquor, which the workmen drink greedily, so very rich an ore that they say it may be made into iron in a common forge.

I think that the sweet liquor that attends some of the iron ore, deserves a little further consideration, whereof I received a most accurate account from the Worshipful Henry Leigh, of Rushall, Esq., in whose lands, particularly in the Mill Meadow, near the furnace in the Park; in the Moss Close, near the old Vicarage house; and in the furnace piece or Lesow, it is frequently met with amongst the best sort of Ironstone called Mush, in round or oval, blackish and redish stones, sometimes as big as the crown of ones hat, hollow and like a honeycomb within, and holding a pint of this matter, of a sweet sharp taste, very cold and cutting, yet greedily drank by the workmen.

After many enquiries from old miners in the district, I have been unable to find out anything definite respecting this liquor. The ironstone is now practically extinct, but traces of its former existence are still to be found. The ore from Rushall and Walsall - which latter, however, was not quite so good, was used for making tough iron, out of which the best wares were made.

Limestone was dug all about Walsall, particularly in the lands of the learned Henry Leigh, Esq., where it lies in beds for the most part horizontally. The lime burners here were much more adroit than those of other neighbourhoods.

The Ladypool Furnace at Rushall supplied some excellent tough iron, but softer iron, tin, copper, brass, lead, resin and sal-ammoniac had to be imported into the locality.

During the next two hundred years, Walsall would grow into an affluent manufacturing town, greatly helped by the canal, and improvements to the roads, and transport. The industries so far mentioned were small businesses, employing relatively few people, but that would all change with the coming of factories, and mass production.

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