Walsall probably began as a small village, surrounding the parish church, on the top of the hill. It slowly expanded down the hill alongside the market, and on the other side of Walsall Brook, where Park Street is today. By the end of the 14th century, buildings were appearing in Park Street.

For much of its early life, it was an agricultural town, surrounded by fields and meadows. As was usual in the Middle Ages, there were common fields, farmed in strips. Although the fields are now long gone, some of their names remain as place names, and street names. Long Street alongside the railway line is near to the site of Long Meadow, which belonged to the lord of the manor, and lay between Walsall Brook and the mill race. Wisemore is named after Wisemore Meadow, held by 4 tenants, later becoming a common field. Other common field names were Holbrook Field, which lay alongside, and to the south of The Holbrook, and Churchgreve Field, which lay to the south of Holbrook Field. The boundary between the two fields was roughly where Chuckery Road is today. Chuckery is derived from Churchgreve, meaning a small wood, which later became the common field. Cow Lane is named after the lane leading from Ablewell Street to Churchgreve, which at one time was used as pasture for cattle, sheep, and horses. Another common field which formed part of Churchgreve Field was The Lee, possibly known as Lordeslegh. Butts Road is probably named after some of the triangular areas in the fields that did not fit into the ploughing scheme. They were known as butts.

To the south of the town were Vicar's Field, Windmill field, and possibly a field called Armescote. In 1305 the town's windmill probably stood in Windmill Field. It was owned by Sir Roger de Morteyn, who in 1306 gave it to Henry de Prestwode and his son John. In 1318 John sold it to Ralph, Lord Basset, and it remained as the lord of the manor’s mill until 1393 when it was destroyed in a gale.

An impression of the early layout of the town.

The Manor House and The Park

Park Street is named after the lord of the manor’s park, which surrounded the manor house and extended from the top of Park Street, later called Town End, alongside the Willenhall Road, as far as Bentley Mill to the west, and Pleck to the south. It covered around 260 acres of land and had large numbers of oak and chestnut trees. The park was created by William Ruffus, who kept a herd of deer there. In the 14th century, Ralph, Lord Basset kept thoroughbred horses there. They were from his stud at Drayton. In the 1380s bullocks and oxen were fattened in the park. At this time it was mainly wooded, and enclosed to protect the timber, some of which was used for Walsall pillory in 1396-97 and for the perimeter fence.

The Belle Vue pub in Moat Road stands on what was the northern side of the moat. The site of the manor house is just behind the Belle Vue pub car park. In between 1972 and 1974 an archaeological excavation took place on the site of the manor house. The remains of the buildings were very fragmentary, having been disturbed by gardening. It revealed that the original house had been built on agricultural land, consisting of ridge and furrow. It was built in the early part of the 13th century. The stone sills of three timber buildings were constructed on the ridges, one of which contained a latrine. Another was possibly a forge because slag was found there. The slag is typical of iron-working, and of the type that could have been produced in a bloomery, although it could equally have been the result of heavy smithy operations. The slag has a dense thin layer which was probably produced at the bottom of a hearth furnace, likely in contact with charcoal.

A plan of the excavated buildings inside the moat.

Building A was a rectangular structure, 4 m by 11 m, initially built of unmortared limestone across one of the ridges. Internally the furrows were filled with yellow clay. The building was later reconstructed after a layer of clay had been placed over the wall footings and the floor. No hearth or features were found in the building. It appears to have been a forge.

Building B had a continuous base supporting a row of columns, possibly in classical Greek style. It measured 3.5 m by 4.5 m with a half-width extension at the northern end, measuring 1.6 m by 1.3 m. The floor was clay covered, and spotted with charcoal. In the eastern wall was a gap that led to a culvert, which ran outside the southern edge of the building, possibly part of a latrine. A small pile of triangular tiles was discovered at the southern end of the building.

Building C was not excavated, only two exploratory trenches were dug, the first across the west wall, and the second along the east wall. As in the other buildings, the furrows were filled with yellow clay. A hearth was discovered in the east wall.

Remains of an east-west foundation wall were found at the southern end of the site, indicating the location of another building. Much of the building had been robbed-out, but what was left consisted of fragments of internal partitions, a bake oven, and two patches of burnt clay, possibly hearths. The building included a room measuring 5 m by 5.7 m, but the remains were at best fragmentary. Parts of another building to the east were found, including the foundations of a rectangular chimney measuring 2 m by 2.4 m. Just outside the building was a wood-lined well, 2 m square.

There were indications of a building to the south of the well, built of unmortared limestone. Unfortunately it extended beyond the southern limit of the excavation. The building with the bake oven and hearths is thought to be the kitchen, the building with the chimney, residential, probably the hall itself, and the building to the south was possibly an open shed.

The construction of the moat seems to have involved the diversion of a stream, which flowed northwards along the west side of the site. The stream, now culverted, still exists, and flows beneath the houses to the north of the site. The north arm of the moat, and the northern ends of the east and west arms had been filled-in sometime before 1884 when a row of houses was built upon them. During the second half of the 19th century the southern part of the site was a garden containing two ranges of greenhouses. In the 1920s a bowling green and pavilion were built on the northern part of the site, with allotments to the south. The site was acquired by the West Midlands Regional Hospital Board in 1972, for redevelopment.

The manor house was probably built by William Ruffus, at the same time as the creation of the park. After William’s death in 1247 it passed to his eldest daughter Emecina, then around 1275 it was taken over by her son Sir William de Morteyn. After his death in 1283 it was passed on to his nephew Roger de Morteyn, and in 1314 to Ralph, Lord Basset of Drayton.

It seems likely that Ralph’s son and daughter-in-law lived in the house, or at least occupied it for a time, because his grandson and heir, Ralph, was born in Walsall in 1333. Around this time a moat with a drawbridge was built around the house. The Basset family seem to have used the house for many years because in 1388-89 the roof was repaired, and a wooden belfry was built for the chapel. A new drawbridge was built over the moat, and the large heavy gates were reinforced with iron. After Ralph’s death in 1390 the house may have only been used occasionally. It was abandoned in the 1430s, and the fishing rights for the moat, known as ‘le Mote’ were leased to the bailiff of the ‘Foreign’. The house must have fallen into disrepair because it had been demolished by 1576.

By the early 1400s much of the land in the park was leased out, and cleared for agricultural use. In 1859 part of the area was opened as a public park called ‘Moat Garden’ using the moat as a feature. But the venture was unsuccessful and the park soon closed.

W. Henry Robinson mentions, in his "Guide to Walsall", a once famous spring called "Alum Well" which was in a field on the eastern side of the moat.

View a list of the Lords of the Manor of Walsall

Park Street, The Bridge and Walsall Mill

Park Street follows the line of the old road from the manor house and park into the early town. Town End at the top of Park Street was possibly the ‘head of the town’ which is mentioned in the charter of 1309, which allowed the burgesses of Walsall (the higher status members of society), the right to hold their own courts, and also began to regulate the separation between the centre of Walsall (the Borough) and the outlying areas, known as the Foreign. At Town End, Park Street divided into three, one road leading to the park, the manor house, Willenhall and Wolverhampton, a second leading to Birchills, and a third leading to Bloxwich.

The other end of Park Street led to The Bridge, originally a small footbridge across Walsall Brook, which now runs in a culvert. The bridge was first recorded in the 13th century. Walsall Brook flows southwards to Bescot Brook and the river Tame, and is fed from the north by two streams, The Holbrook, which rises near Rushall Canal, and Ford Brook which flows from Aldridge. The confluence of the two streams is near the Gala Baths. Just north of the old footbridge, near to where Sister Dora’s statue now stands, was the lord of the manor’s water mill, and the mill pool, which extended from the brook across to the area now occupied by St. Paul’s Church. The pool was known as ‘The great fish stew’.

This may have been the great fishpond of Walsall, which was owned by Emecina and Geoffrey de Bakepuse, and in 1248 leased to her sister Margery, and her mother Isabel, widow of William Ruffus. In 1275 when Emecina’s son, Sir William de Morteyn, took over the running of her estate, he acquired the fishpond, which he owned until his death in 1283.

An impression of how the interior of the mill may have looked.

The water mill was known by several names; Walsall Mill, Town Mill, the Ford Mill, the Old Mill, and the Malt Mill.

In 1395-96 Jenkyn Cole, of Walsall Mill complained that the burgesses of the town would not grind their corn at his mill, instead taking it to other mills including the one at Rushall.

He was advised to get a more cunning miller to regain their goodwill.

By 1763 the mill had closed.

Early roads, and the early village

The track across the footbridge led to what is now Digbeth and High Street, and on to the parish church, and the original settlement. High Street has been the site of the market since 1220 when a Royal grant gave William Ruffus, Lord of the Manor, the right to hold a weekly market on Mondays, and a fair on the 21st of September, St. Matthew's day,  and on its eve. In 1399 another fair was added on the 24th June and on its eve, celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. In 1417 market day changed to Tuesday when Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Lord of the Manor of Walsall, granted a Tuesday market, and two fairs every year, one on October the 28th (St. Simon and St. Jude's day) and another on May the 6th (the feast of St. John).

Walsall became an important market town, selling mainly farming produce for many centuries. By 1386 a market cross had been erected at the top of High Street, in the centre of the road, near to its junction with Upper Rushall Street, which probably existed in the early 13th century as the road to Lichfield. It had been named by 1339.

The road southwards from the junction of High Street and Upper Lichfield Street, now called Peal Street, was the road to Birmingham, West Bromwich, Darlaston, and Wednesbury. It was known as Hole End in the 14th century, and also Newgate Street.

Before the building of Bradford Street in 1831, the route to Darlaston and Wednesbury ran along Peal Street, Dudley Street, and Vicarage Place to join the existing Wednesbury Road. The route to West Bromwich started at Peal Street, and ran along New Street, Sandwell Street, and West Bromwich Road. It was certainly there well before 1452, because in that year Thomas Mollesley left money for the building of a new bridge (Tame Bridge) in West Bromwich Road, on the old Walsall and West Bromwich boundary. The road to Birmingham was probably in use by the middle of the 13th century. It ran from New Street, through Birmingham Street to Birmingham Road.

The parish church has stood at the top of the hill since around 1200. It was originally dedicated to All Saints, and still has its 13th century crypt, which is the oldest surviving building in the town. The church itself has been extensively rebuilt since those early days, and must look very different to its original form.

The initial settlement and the early town grew up around the church, and would have consisted of simple wooden buildings. Most occupants lived in the town centre. The surrounding areas, known as the ‘Foreign’, included Bescot, Caldmore, and Walsall Wood, which were tiny hamlets with only a few inhabitants, whereas Bloxwich, also part of the 'Foreign' was bigger.

The feudal system introduced by the Normans ensured that the tenants had to fulfil their obligations to the lord of the manor. They included working his land, and harvesting his corn. It would have been an extremely hard life.

Medieval farming.

In the late 1340s, the Black Death, or plague as it was known, swept through the country, killing large numbers of people. It returned in 1361, and again in the 1370s and 1380s, by which time only ten percent of the working classes remained. This changed the relationship between the lord and his tenants, and brought about an early end to feudalism. Peasants were now in short supply and many farming communities disappeared. They could now dictate their own wage levels and terms of employment. In 1401 the tenants in Walsall refused to pay their rents in lieu of services and went on strike.

Although the main occupation in the town during the Middle Ages was farming, there is evidence of industrial activity in the 14th century. In 1300 the Manor of Walsall was divided into two parts, the first part owned by Roger de Morteyn, and the second part by Margery Ruffus (le Rous). They agreed 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 mines in Windmill field.

By 1300 there was a fulling mill at Walsall, and cloth was made in the town by the middle of the 15th century. In 1309 a charter granted by the lords of the manor to the burgesses stipulated that the market-place should be kept clean.

Charters and Burgesses

In the Middle Ages the higher status members of the community were known as burgesses. They were often the more skilled members of society, who were householders, and did not have the manorial obligations of serfs. They paid rent and could run their own lives with more freedom. They had special privileges that derived from their support of the community, and played an important part in the early life of the town.

In 1225 a charter granted by William Ruffus gave the burgesses freedom from paying most of the feudal tolls and customs, in return for an annual fee of 12 marks of silver. He also allowed them to keep their swine in the manorial park, to feed on the acorns when they fell from the trees. They were charged one penny per beast for the privilege. A second charter granted in 1309 gave them further benefits, including the right to hold their own courts. They were an influential group of privileged people, one of whom was the first mayor of Walsall, although his name is not known. This is mentioned in the Burgess Roll, which was kept from 1377 until 1619, and presented to the town by Walter Sneyd, of Keele Hall. It also includes a reference to Walsall’s first town council. It was only possible to become a burgess, with the agreement of the other burgesses, and the payment of a sum of money.

The Burgess Roll contains entries relating to the admission of people into their group:

Walter Fletcher came amongst the said Burgesses and gave them 2s.4d that he might enjoy the freedom of the Burgesses of the town aforesaid, as in a certain Charter by the Lords of the Manor of Walsall, to them thereof granted is more fully contained. And he did fealty to the Burgesses…..

Roger Mollesley was received as a Burgess, and gave 2 shillings for a fine…….

Henry Mylleward de Ruschale was received as a Burgess, and gave for a fine 6s.8d because he was not of the Manor, nor Tenant within the Manor.

Richard Bridgend of Rushall Street was received as a Burgess to this extent, that he might enjoy etc., and he gave 6s.8d for a fine, and did fealty to the Burgesses.

Henry Marchall of Walsall was received as a Burgess, and paid forthwith 6s.8d, and did fealty to the Burbesses.

Richard Wever, heir to the aforesaid Henry, was received a Burgess by descent from the aforesaid Henry Marchall. (Wever was probably the son of Marchall’s daughter)

It seems that prospective members who lived within the Borough had to pay 2s.4d to join, whereas people living in the Foreign were charged 6s.8d. The Foreign Burgesses received the full privileges that had been given to the other members, including immunity from paying tolls.

They had many privileges including the right to keep animal pens at the market, and the use of common pasture in the waste, which consisted of several commons including Birchills, Blakenall, Dead Man's Heath, Pleck, Short Heath, and Wallington.

It seems that there must have been a school in Walsall in 1377 because a schoolmaster named Robert became a burgess in that year.

By the 15th century the hall of St. John’s Guild in High Street (built by 1416) became the seat of local government. The Guild of St. John was founded in the late 14th century, as a religious organisation with a special alter in the parish church. It had a social and political role, and was closely associated with the town council. Many members of the guild were burgesses.

On the 6th October, 1399 King Henry IV gave a grant to the men of Walsall which freed them from the payment of tolls when travelling anywhere in the country. This privilege was enjoyed by many other towns including Wednesbury and Coventry. It seems that the charter was granted as a concession to Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Lord of the Manor of Walsall, after his titles and estates were restored to him. He was one of the Lords Appellant who tried to separate King Richard II from his favourites in 1387. Richard saw him as a potential enemy, and charged him with high treason in 1397, supposedly as a part of the Earl of Arundel's alleged conspiracy.

The arms of Thomas de Beauchamp.

Beauchamp was imprisoned in the Tower of London, in what is now known as the Beauchamp Tower. He pleaded guilty, and forfeited his estates. He threw himself on the mercy of the king, and was sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Man. In 1398 he was moved back to the Tower, where he stayed until his release in August 1399. Henry Bolingbroke had deposed the king and became King Henry IV, who restored Beauchamp’s titles and estates, and gave the grant to the men of Walsall.

A curious code of laws was made in the Borough in the 15th century, for the “continuance of gode rule”.  It regulated the playing of “unlawefull games, except in Cristemas, as dyce, tables, cares, cloch, tenes, foteball, or eny other lyke”.

An important benefactor was Thomas Mollesley of the Manor of Bascote, who died in 1451. He arranged that after his death, a dole was to be given out in his memory, and distributed to every man, woman, and child, resident in the Borough and Foreign of Walsall. It was administered by the Guild of St. John, and given out on Twelfth Night (6th January). The dole was distributed every year until 1825. Distributors visited every house, and gave one penny to every person in the Manor. Legend has it that Thomas Mollesley was riding through Walsall on the day before Twelfth Night and heard a child crying for food. He decided to bequeath his land at Bascote so that this could never happen again.

Walsall took its Coat of Arms, which includes the Warwick emblem of the "Bear and Ragged Staff" from the town’s association with the Earls of Warwick, who were lords of the Manor of Walsall for nearly 100 years.

By this time Walsall was a thriving, and growing market town, with a successful farming community, and the beginnings of its industrial future. There were 367 poll-tax payers in 1377. It was an affluent town with a complex social structure, a town council, and a bright future ahead.

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