Yardley Church End, by John Morris Jones
This booklet by John Morris Jones dates from 1980. It is reproduced with the permission of his widow. Some text editing has been done, but almost no updating. It is a valuable detailed resource on the area north of the Coventry Road.
Church End's name was doubtless of ancient use. A manor 7½miles long, 11½ square miles in area, would need location names for its districts more than most, and the adoption of that one for the
northernmost of three administrative divisions of Yardley in the reign of Elizabeth I was no more than a continuance.
The Civil Parish of Yardley then established, co-extensive with the manor and the ecclesiastical parish of St. Edburgha, was too large for a single set of Overseers. These unfortunates, selected annually from among the chief tenants, were unpaid and untrained for their onerous duties of maintaining highways and succouring the poor. To ease their load, the parish was divided into three 'ends', conveniently separated by the Coventry and Warwick Roads, and the three 'ends' each had their own Overseers. A century later the south of Yardley was sufficiently populous to require a further division into two, thenceforward called Broomhall and Swanshurst Quarters. In this publication 'the Quarter' will always mean the Church End Quarter, all of the manor and parish north of the Coventry Road.
Geology and natural vegetation (maps 1 and 3)
The geology of Church End is simple. Keuper Marl, the red clay of the Midlands, covers the whole area. It is many hundreds of feet thick and impenetrable by water. Overlying the clay in places are patches of drift, two of sand and gravel north-west of the village, and two very small ones north-east of it. Boulder clay and mixed drift lie about the Coventry Road and extend south through Yardley, and north of Lea Hall. There is or was a narrow outcrop of soft Arden Sandstone curving about the site of Glebe Farm. The drift is a legacy of the most recent Ice Age, a remnant of masses of transported material deposited in glacial lakes and terminal moraines, broken by ice, smoothed and partially washed away by melt-water torrents as the glaciers dwindled. Immense rivers coursed down former drainage channels, gouging out deep trenches. The larger of these became infilled with silt, becoming wide, flat-floored valleys across which small post-glacial streams meandered and flooded.
Drift survives as a thin capping on interfluvial ridges: the solid material, fragmented rock, is resistant to wear unlike the soft clay. The porosity of drift makes it a storehouse of water, which cannot penetrate the impervious clay beneath and so spreads out across it, appearing as springs at the interface. Sandy material is washed down from the highest levels, leaving stony ridges. These are dry and un-welcoming to heavy afforestation, so that they are relatively clear of trees and firm underfoot. Valley sides, bare of drift, were in natural conditions very thickly wooded. Clay is fertile and its rich topsoil retains water enough for the thirsty oaks. That tree tolerates bush and bramble undergrowth. A natural oak forest, like that which once lay between the village and the Coventry Road was a largely impenetrable deciduous jungle. This petered out beside boggy side-streams and at the edges of the Cole flood-plain: there willow and alder and tussocky grasses covered waterlogged silt.
Natural vegetation can be deduced from the known characteristics of the surface rocks, but old names tell the story too. Throughout the Quarter there were marl (clay) pits, brick-kilns, tile-houses. There were wood-names like 'ley', meaning clearing in wood, 'riddings', meaning land cleared of wood : and there were moors and mores, bogs beside streams and in places where the water-table was higher than a depression in the drift.
Relief and drainage (map 2)
The interfluvial ridge, Yardley's backbone, runs for six miles between the Cole and its east-flowing tributaries - which joint it far downstream of the manor. There is the slightest of gradients from 425 feet at 'The Swan' to 400 feet at Hillhouse, but there is then an abrupt descent of a hundred feet to the Cole. Clearly the present trickle, despite its ability to rise six feet in an hour, did not create so wide and deep a valley. The ridge-end is cut into by the Stich Brook, which formerly rose near the Yew Tree and entered the Cole east of Stechford Bridge, and by the Yardley Brook whose two sources were near Yardley Moat and Partridge Road. These tributaries are or were quite straight, descending directly, in contrast to the Cole which, having flowed firmly northward for several miles, makes great loops to eastward across its flood-plain. This is probably due to its having formerly entered the Tame near Castle Bromwich. Barred by an ice-wall it ponded, the overflow ultimately finding its way to a confluence with the Blythe. The great meanders, indicative of the small gradient, frequently flooded the bordering meadows and made them a wide barrier to travel and use until proper drainage was undertaken last century.
The watercourses of today are few and small. When drift and topsoil were full of water, when forest retained rain and released it gradually, there were multitudinous rills of constant flow. The
Cole and its main tributaries were noble streams, slower to flood but mighty then and slow to decline.
The foundation of Yardley (map 1)
Our district was the northenmost part of Arden, that great tract of wood and heath and bog which covered the south-eastern half of the Midland Plateau and its southern environs. Nothing is known of its pre-history. Two thousand years ago this was a border zone, a no-man's-land between the Coritani tribal group of the East Midlands and the Cornovii of the West Midlands. The long occupation of Britain by the Roman Empire probably affected Arden very little: no known Roman road crosses Yardley. Doubtless the ridgeway (see below) was in occasional use, but how much, by which peoples, and where they lived, and to what extent the forest had been cleared before the first known settlers arrived, are matters for conjecture.
During the 7th century Hwiccans, descendants of West Saxon invaders, moved north into our area along ancient tracks and crumbling Roman roads. A small group came down beside the marshes of the Cole, along a dry ridgeway that is still in use - as Highfield / Fox Hollies Roads, Broad Road, Fox Green, Dalston, Yardley and Church Roads. They may have been former residents of Beoley, which had Yardley as a 'member' in the Domesday Book, but the linking of these two most distant properties of Pershore Abbey may have had no more significance than that the 'radman' of Beoley also collected the taxes of Yardley.
North of a crossing track that descended to a ford the Hwiccans found a densely wooded tract. Whether this deterred them for a short time we cannot guess, but perhaps a game trail provided a way onward. A mile north they came out on to the open sandy ridge-end. The Cole wound below, and on two sides were boggy streams. Forest to east and south completed natural boundaries. Here was a suitable site for a settlement, high and dry, already cleared or easily clearable. Springs at the drift edges provided ample water, the brooks could be dammed for fish and stock-ponds, the air and heath and forest supplied food and materials in plenty. The Stich Brook bisected the high ground. Its meadows were drier and often more usable than the wide expanses of bog beside the Cole. The first open fields to be ploughed and fenced against animals overlay the ridge-end, and the farmers made their separate homesteads at its edges. There was no village.
This account of the initial settlement of north Yardley is conjectural but not without justification. The ridgeway would be the only feasible access route. The slopes were densely wooded and the riverside much too wet for travel. That the colonists did advance beyond the formidable barrier of Church End's forest and lay claim to north Yardley and later to another drift patch beyond the woods to the east, Lea Village, is certain. If they had not done so ours would not have been a Hwiccan colony but Anglian. At the same time as Saxons were entering the Plateau from south and east, Anglian immigrants were advancing from north and west. The latter were to establish Birmingham and Aston (which included the later Bordesley and the Bromwiches) and Maccaton (Mackadown, Sheldon's predecessor) as Yardley's neighbours. They would have settled Yardley too if Hwiccans had not claimed it first. The Cole provided a convenient and indisputable boundary between two not dissimilar peoples, two kingdoms Mercia and Hwiccia (Wigornia) and two shires and bishoprics.
That settlement was peripheral about the fields is equally certain. Farm sites once founded for good reasons of geology and water supply, tend to remain in use for centuries. Some of ours may like Mackadown Farm in Sheldon have been in occupation since Bronze Age times. Finding no justification for the early establishment of Yardley Village, or indeed any nucleated hamlet, and noting that ancient dwellings like Field House, Flaxleys, Hill House, Yardley Farm, Church Road Farm, Cocks, and Blakesley Hall, surround the open fields, we can be fairly confident that these are original sites going back at least twelve centuries. It is currently being claimed that the strip system of agriculture in great fields is not the natural outcome of successive years of clearance and sharing of each new piece, but is a later development. If so, a scatter of farms bout the fields, each cultivating a compact patch of cleared land close to the house would be the logical arrangement.
Boundaries (map 4)
As already noted, the Cole forms a natural barrier, requiring no labour for its provision and maintenance, and it separates Yardley from other manors for more than seven miles. But the whole manor cover 11½ square miles. There were no more than sixty inhabitants when Domesday Book was written, and there were probably fewer four centuries earlier - so how could so few lay claim to and hold on to so much land (if indeed the whole was in single ownership as it had certainly become by AD 972)? In that year Gyrdleahe was confirmed as a property of the Abbot of Pershore: the Charter refers to five 'households', which perhaps included an average of a dozen related persons. If these all lived about Yardley Fields, on some of the sites listed above, it is hard to understand their ability to claim the great wooded and heathed tract to the south. It seems necessary to assume that there was sparse colonisation of the whole of Yardley by related groups, perhaps in more than five dwellings, each 'household' being the extended family of a patriarch who were not all living together.
Three proper names come down to us in the boundaries which the Charter records: these were Leommannicgweg and Dagardingweg (the ways of Leommann's and Dagard's folks) and Mund's dean. Only Dagard(a) is thought to have been a denizen of Church End: Pool Lane (Broadstone Road / Pool Way) was perhaps his 'way'. Were the people living on various sites about the open fields members of his family alone? Were other households at Lea Hall, at Tenchley (Stockfield/Acocks Green) and farther south? We can only guess.
On Church End's east side the border with Maccaton was less well-defined. The names used below are modern: the map shows names of AD 972 and 1609. North of the Coventry Road a glacially-transported boulder later called the Gilbertstone provided a marker, then a rill parallel to Elmcroft Road led the boundary into and down the Smarts Hill Brook to the marshy confluence with the Lyndon Green Brook, and up that brook to a spring source (Oak Well). Moat Lane, Bilton Grange Road, Duncroft Road/Charlbury Crescent, might be described as modern perambulation tracks. The ends of Vibart and Farnol Roads (when made pre-1931 they stopped at the then city boundary), a line thence across Sedgemere Road, west of Partridge Road, the line of Broadstone Road and Pool Way continued across Kents Moat Park to the Garretts Green Lane/Outmoor Road junction, thence a line east of and parallel to Heynesfield Road, complete the border to the Cole. Several boulders were used to mark points along the boundary, notably the Shire Stone on Sedgemere Road. Because urbanisation of the border area was carried out in the 1930s, after Sheldon had joined Yardley in the City of Birmingham, several modern streets ignore the ancient bound. It can still be established where dips indicate former watercourses. (See my 'Boundaries of Yardley' for a detailed examination of the boundaries during a thousand years.)
Old names (maps 1 and 5)
The first recorded spelling of Yardley's names is as Gyrdleahe in the AD 972 Charter. Victor Skipp, author of 'Medieval Yardley' and leader of the 'Discovering Yardley' Group 1960-7, plumps for its meaning as 'stick clearing' or 'yard (in the sense of small) clearing'. Neither is really satisfactory. Gyrd(an) gives among other terms the extant word 'gird' meaning to surround or encircle. The sandy patch on the ridge-end that was the heart of Yardley was certainly encircled, by dense woods and water courses. However, speculation about the prefixes of old names is rarely fruitful. 'Colle' (Cole) appears in the Charter and may mean 'hazel', but the hazel is not natural to clay or alluvium, only to drier soils, so that this seems an odd name for our stream. Incidentally, though Colle is the oldest name, 'Hay Mill Brook' is one of several names for different stretches of it.
Lay subsidy Rolls for 1275-1327 provide the next oldest names in the Quarter, those of Stichford, Flaxley, Lee, and Rotyford, Lyndon, and Gilbertstone. Rudyng (Ridding) is recorded earlier (1345) than Stichford and Church Fields, but that does not necessarily mean that it was earlier in existence, only that its record has survived. Blakleistoles (bleak clearing where pollarded trees provide withies?) is the first reference to Blakesley. A number of closes and lanes are named during that 14th and 15th centuries. (See Map 5.)
Old roads (maps 1 and 5)
Communications, settlement, and occupations were largely determined by geology up to the present century. Valley bogs were an obstacle to travel, whether crossing or following the Cole, there were no riverside roads, and tracks led down at right angles to those few places on the river where gravel in its bed made crossing possible. These were Styfec's (Stich) Ford, Hay Mill Ford (where travellers made use of the shallows below the millweir), and Rotyford at the site of New Bridge. Hob Lane, Cole Hall, and Lea fords were at places of special difficulty, where the bogs were widest, so that they must often have been unusable. 'Rotyford' means slippery crossing and needs no further description. It was in use because it was on the most direct route to Birmingham.
The oak forest was exceptionally hard to push through. On game trails and man-made tracks the soggy topsoil was quickly removed by hooves and feet, while the clay beneath was readily churned into the stickiest of mud. On slopes like Red Hill (the Coventry Road from Hay Mills to Waterloo Road) and the descent of Old Yardley Green Road to New Bridge, a holloway was formed which became a tributary stream in rain, washing away still more of the soft material. It is not surprising that Thomas Telford, planning the improvement of the Coventry Road early in the 19th century to provide a fast coach road for Irish MP's between London and Holyhead, should decide to abandon Red Hill holloway and make a new road beside it; nor that the 'church way' (Church Road north from the Swan) had become so worn in Stuart times that it had to be raised on 'the long causeway' - still remembered in a Victorian cul de sac beside it; nor that the City Corporation should leave part of Yardley Green Road as a fossil holloway in a recreation ground.
As we have seen, the ridgeway which comes north through Yardley from Pershore, Beoley and Trittiford, follows the highest ground and the drift which covers it. Thereon tree cover was least, giving way to heath where it was stoniest. North of the Coventry Road - which makes use of the relatively drier and clearer boulder clay from Waterloo Road nearly to Wagon Lane - the ridgeway divided, one track going either side of the Stick Brook. It will be noted that Church Road continued to follow the highest ground, slightly better drained than the rest of the uncapped clay, but that Stoney Lane does not. (Clements Road is the ridgeway thereabout.) The reason for the lane's descent into the Stich Valley is clear in its name: for at least part of its length it is firmly bedded on gravel. As Station Road it cuts through the drift patch, whose eastern edge Church Road utilises north of the church. Similarly Lea Ford Road/Gressel Lane made use of a drift patch. The road from Stichford to Lea crossed drift at Flaxleys and Hillhouse, but from there it was deep-sunk and difficult, especially at Cowford on the Yardley Brook. Despite its bad approaches on both sides and its clay bed, Rotyford was much used because it led to the town where Church Enders' surplus produce could be sold, and they could buy what they could not make or grow. It acquired a timber (foot) bridge in 1462.
It is worth noting that Church Road goes in a straight line north towards the Limesi Moat, diverging only at Barrows Lane to go past the church. This suggests that the manor house predates the church. The isolation of the village was due in part at least to the difficulty of reaching it across clay, from every direction. Albert Road, whose earlier names are not known, began as a boundary track at Stichford Field.
Yardley's roads have often had changes of name. Map 5 gives the most interesting ones where several are known. As would be expected, lanes were often called after families which lived there, and these would inevitably change. Thus Holders Road was formerly Burdons Lane, Stud Lane (after Yardley Stud Farm) was Jones Lane, Barrows Lane was Ashmores. Deakins, Clements and Stuarts (correctly Stewards), Flavells, and Gressel (Greswold) recall tenants' or owners' names. Hob (Hobmoor), Moses (Croft Road), Donkey (Harvey) and Dead Man's Lanes (Crossfields Road) were doubtless so named for good local reasons. Brook Hole Lane (west end of Flaxleys Road) crossed the Stich Brook's holm or flood-meadow. The same term is in Hol Brook, the alternate name for the Stich Brook. Rudding Lane (Deakins Road) crossed cleared woodland, Wash Lane bordered the wash, the oft-flooded meadow near the mill, Broomy Lane (Vicarage Road) describes its natural heathy vegetation. Park Lane approached and bordered Sheldon Park: it became Pool Lane for the ponds along it. Grove Lane (Queens Road) took its name from the mansion nearby as did Croft Road.
Norman to medieval times
In 1086 Beoley and its member Yardley (spelt Gerlei, the g being pronounced as a y) had a population of about 100. As Yardley was much the larger, it is reasonable to give it 60-70 inhabitants in perhaps a dozen households. Of these half, the villeins, probably had enough land to support a family: the rest, bordars, had to supplement the produce of their smallholdings by working for others. About 600 acres were in cultivation. As the Church End fields covered only about half of that acreage, it seems likely that Tenchley and Greet, the other communal settlements of Yardley, were already established then. But the number of households seems too few, especially as some of these may have been individual farms, assarts in the waste like Broomhall, Hay Hall, Tyseley, and Bulley (Billesley). A good third of Yardley was wooded, the densest forest being a square mile between Blakesley and the Coventry Road.
To get a more accurate picture of the population scatter, we move on to the tax returns of 1275-1327. The 82 taxpayers for the whole manor were probably about half of the total number of heads of households, the prosperous half. There were thirty of them in Church End. Eight described themselves as being 'of Yardley', which may include Blakesley, two were at Stichford, two at Hillhouse, one each at Flaxleys, Rotyford, Lyndon and Glebe Farm (then called Waters, later Walters), four at Gilbertstone, and ten at and about Lea. So there were a half-dozen either living near the church or on un-named assarts elsewhere. That was a period of great population growth: among assarts founded with much labour in the clay were Blakesley, Waters, the Lea (later Bloomers, not the Hall), Cole and Cowford Halls, Great and Little Fasts.
Yardley's open field systems had probably reached their greatest extent by the mid-14th century. All further clearance and cultivation were the work of individuals and families. Everywhere by fire and axe the woodland was being destroyed. It is likely that most of the timber north of the village had been cleared while that to the south was being merely nibbled at. No medieval names are to be found within it. Assarts at its edges, Blakesley, the Fasts (moated farms, fast as in 'fastness'?), the moated farm on Moat Lane, Gilbertstone, gradually ate into the primeval forest. The land they uncovered, though potentially more fertile than stony drift, was heavy, cold, and waterlogged. No woodland names survive upon it, and only one name at its north-west edge: there in 1349 was Wodemilne, Wood Mill, not a timber structure but one close to the forest. There are some wood names in the north of the Quarter, which may indicate copses left for game. The name of Yardley Wood came to rest in the drift-covered south of the manor, where the woods of Kings Norton, Solihull and our manor met.
St. Edburgha's church
Although Pershore Abbey held Yardley for more than two centuries as a direct possession and retained residual rights in it for much longer, it seems to have made no attempt to provide a chapel. Perhaps there was a timber preaching cross somewhere as a meeting-place for occasional priestly visitations during journeys between the Abbey and Maxstoke Priory, but no trace or record of it survives. The manor was in the Bishopric of Worcester, established in the Hwiccan capital in the late 7th century, but those who wished for regular blessings of the church travelled to Aston four or more difficult miles away. That they did so we may assume, because it was from Aston Church in Lichfield Diocese that a chapelry was established in Yardley. Presumably the Yardleians built their own small chapel, and priests from Aston officiated therein. Its dedication then or later was to St. Edburgha (Ed-burra), grand-daughter of King Alfred, to whom a chapel in Pershore Abbey had long been dedicated. It is reasonable to suppose that the first timber chapel stood on or near the site of the present church - so why was it built there? The usual custom was to build a church near the manor house.
Yardley had few resident lords, but the de Limesi family were probably living in a house within Yardley Park moat during the 13th century, when the present church building was begun. The moat may have been in existence when the first chapel was built in 1165: the Beauchamps of Elmley were then the tenants of the manor, paying for it with 'one knight's fee', and it was perhaps William de Beauchamp who had the moat dug as protection for a house, either for himself or a steward.
Why there? The site had a poor water supply, being on uncapped clay, but that was probably the reason for its choice. A moat dug in permeable drift has to be lined with puddled clay to make it watertight. Whether there was a nearby rill, a tributary of the Yardley Brook, to provide drinking water and replenish the moat cannot now be discovered. Whatever the reason, manor house and church were built on a site with disadvantages, as the few cottagers who settled nearby were to discover. An outer moat, which provided greater protection and more fish, not to mention a larger cess-pool, was infilled so long ago as to be untraceable today. No excavation has been done on the platform, whose last house was untenanted after 1700.