The Manor of Yardley
Yardley is 11.5 square miles in area, 17.5 miles in circuit. Regionally it is a northward extension of the Solihull Plateau, a flat area bordering the central hollow of the Birmingham Plateau, clearly bounded to the north by the Rivers Tame and Rea, cut into by the Cole system and declining gently to the Blythe valley on the east. The general dip of the surface which the drainage reflects is from SW to NE. Thus the highest point in Yardley is 507' above sea level at its western tip, and the lowest is at the easternmost bound, (on the Rea-Cole interfluve) on the Cole north of Kitts Green, below 300'. Apart from the rounded valleys, slope is uniform and slight across the area. Yardley east of the Cole is a low ridge, well defined by the river on the west, less so by NE-flowing tributaries on the east, its flat crest lowering from 470 feet in the south to just over 400 feet in the north.
The simple relief indicates the uniformity and level of the underlying strata. These are layers of Keuper Marl, a reddish-brown clay with some shaley bands within, which are 1,200 feet thick in places. The only other solid rock in a negligible outcropping of Upper Keuper (Arden) Sandstone in the Glebe Farm area. Overlying the Marl is a variable but always thin layer of drift material, a ground moraine left by Pleistocene ice: glacial melting washed the drift out of the valleys, leaving it as a capping on most of the interfluvial ridge. West of the Cole, in Wake Green, Billesley, and Yardley Wood, the deposits consist mainly of sands and gravels, of which there are two smaller patches north of Yardley Church, while the ridge between Shirley and Coventry Road is covered by boulder clay. The alluvial deposits along the Cole are very narrow and hardly exist elsewhere.
The River Cole, in former times known in Yardley as Greet Brook and Haymill Brook (though Colle is the most ancient name) deserves no other title. It has always, since Pleistocene times when the valley was deepened by torrents of meltwater, been a small and variable stream. Larger and less variable when bordering forests retained water and released it steadily, and when the untapped water-table overflowed copiously, the Cole was still a very minor waterway. Yet despite its uselessness for navigation it was an obstacle to travel, so that firm crossing-places were important: it could be dangerous in flood, and it could and did provide waterpower. Its score of tributaries are all small and short within Yardley, only the Chinn Brook being more than two miles long. The east-flowing streams which rise in Yardley are tributaries of the Easthall Brook which enters the Cole outside the manor. Many streams are now dry or tiny trickles, and some have been culverted.
The natural vegetation of Yardley would be largely oak woodland, whose undergrowth could make it almost impenetrable. The relatively impervious Keuper Marl retains surface water, and oak trees thrive on it. Boulder clay would be only less favourable, but the stoniest areas and the permeable sandy patches would have had lighter tree cover, perhaps even some open heath. Thus the parts west of the river would be relatively clear, as would the north end of the ridge and perhaps its top. But the valley sides and nearly all of the manor north of Coventry Road would be thickly forested. The undrained meadows of the Cole and its side-streams would be bogs bordered by willow and alder.
These factors would greatly affect human movement, settlement, and occupation. Place-names, all Anglo-Saxon, help to give a description of the manor in early times, and show what the first settlers had to face. The earliest names are given in the Charter of AD 972, and refer to brooks, springs, a ford, oak trees, and a swamp. The -ley ending of several names recorded for the 11th century, but certainly older, indicates a clearing in woodland - but not in dense woodland. Nobody lacking bulldozers and machine-saws would try to start farming in a forest, and so we find Yardley, Flaxleys, and Lea, Tyseley, Billesley, and Bulley, all using the better-drained soils. Swanshurst and Greethurst, woodland patches, are found on the west side of the Cole valley, and west of Tyseley and on the Arden sandstone strip in the north. The name of Greet indicates the deposits which provided the fords – to use which travellers made the tracks later to become Warwick and Stratford Roads – and also easily-cleared land for open fields, for it means ‘gravel’.
The 'moors' often shown on later field-maps beside streams are 'mors', meaning swamps. Quagmire Farm, much later, on drift but beside marl, is a reminder of the difficulty of travelling on much-used clay tracks in wet weather. Sarehole has the 'holm' ending which means a meadow liable to flood. Fords are among the early names, like Rotyford (New Bridge, Yardley Green Road) which means' safe crossing', a matter of importance in an area where there is no deposit of gravel like those which closely approach the river at Titterford, Greet, and Stichford (Styfec's Ford).
A point that becomes immediately obvious when old topographical names are plotted on a map is their scarcity between Yardley Church and Coventry Road. At the south end of this bare patch are Fast Pits, Red Hill, and Clay Lane, all providing the reason for the lack of names. The drift-free area would be the most densely-wooded of the whole manor, almost the last to be cleared, and cleared from the edges by existing settlements not by new ones made within. The condition of the road across this area (Church Road) became so bad in time, the soft marl so worn, that it became necessary to raise it above the surrounding land. This was the Long Causeway, shown on 19th century maps.
In the far south of the manor is Yardley Wood. At the time of the Domesday Book, the combined woodland of Yardley and Beoley was given as 40 square miles: as the total area of the two is only 19 square miles, there was clearly some exaggeration by the surveyors, but it can at least be said that a great part of Yardley must then have been wooded. In Tudor times the manor was said to be 'secluded in a great wood', but the forest giants were being felled at a great rate then and later. It seems likely that the northern clay-lands were cleared to supply the forges of Birmingham and the ship-building yards before the last woods disappeared from the south, both because of the need for more ploughland between the open fields of Yardley and Acocks Green, and because the southern woods were farther from the town. Thus perhaps a name, Yardley Wood, once applicable to another and more densely forested area, came to rest where it is now.
Yardley's name, of which there are 16 documented forms, is meaningless today. Since it is the name of the manor, first recorded in 972, presumably it is the original one: but that it is on the original site, if indeed there was a nucleated village in early times, is not certain. The first open fields were on the sandy cap at the end of the ridge, but the present village, a linear settlement beside the church, is on drift-free marl as were the hamlets of Greet and Lea Hall. If a 'ley' (a dwelling site in a natural or man-made clearing) were established in the 7th century or later, it would certainly not be in the dense forest which bordered the sandy patch. Perhaps the first houses were scattered about the field-edges, as seems to have been the case with the Stockfield - Acocks Green colony: nucleation, on cleared land, may have come late, even after the building of the first church. That may have sprung from an origin as a chapel of the hall within the Yardley moat. (West Hall nearby in Sheldon had its own chapel later). Another and perhaps greater possibility is that the three settlements began as moated sites, which necessarily were in impervious clay, and that population growth brought hamlet development near them. The problem of fresh water supply, for wells sunk in clay collect only surface water and dry up readily, may explain the continued smallness of all the settlements and the number of individual clearances on less difficult soils.
Foundation and ownership
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 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, 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. 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.
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 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.
Yardley was still nominally a possession of Pershore Abbey until the early 15th century, though its tenants had long since given up paying the equivalent of the cost of a mounted man-at-arms as rent. For three hundred years the Beauchamp family held the manor, but having a score of others they rarely or never lived in it, the estate being run by a bailiff. Several generations of the Limesi family were sub-tenants and probably the only lords ever to be resident. Soon after their line died out, about 1260, several claimants to the manorial rights were all rejected by William de Beauchamp: it was he who by marriage gained the Earldom of Warwick for his family. From the early 14th century until 1478 Yardley was held directly by successive Earls (except when Richard II granted it to the Dukes of Norfolk and Surrey in turn, 1396-9).
Beauchamps were followed by Nevilles including the all-powerful 'Kingmaker' and by George Duke of Clarence. After his execution the Warwick estates including Yardley reverted to the Crown. Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts - eight monarchs in all - were successive lords of the manor. Yardley was one of the properties granted to Catherine of Aragon in her divorce settlement: a poignant reminder of her first marriage to Prince Arthur is the north door of St. Edburgha's Church (see below). After her death Yardley reverted to Henry VIII. Though Yardley cannot compete with Kings Norton in length of royal ownership, it was a Crown property for 138 years - until Sir Richard Grevis of Moseley Hall bought it in 1629. Not all of Yardley was included in the sale: the 'manor' of Greet was owned by the Greswolds, and other estates were in different hands. After the eminence of Sir Richard, who held high offices under James I, the Grevises were divided in the Civil War, and their fortunes began a long decline. When Henshaw Grevis, last of his line, succeeded in 1759, the sale of the estate barely sufficed to pay his father's debts, and he was reduced to labouring. Seven years later the lordship of Yardley and a thousand acres were bought by John Taylor of Bordesley Hall, a very wealthy manufacturer and co-founder of what is now Lloyds' Bank. Most of the Taylor estates were in the southern Quarters of the manor, and the greater part of them was sold in and after 1913 for housing estates and parks.
As the purchaser of much of the land, the City Corporation might be thought of as the present lord of Yardley, but the title (which is a saleable commodity independent of land possession) was never sold and its present holder is Jonathan Taylor of Lower Quinton near Stratford. All manorial rights, vestigial as they were, came to an abrupt end in 1940, so that the title is purely honorary.
Foundation and ownership
Map: descriptive names
Map: geology and roads
Map: early settlement sites
Map: Yardley about 1750
Watermills and windmills
Administration and local government
Map: Yardley Parish and Vestry prior to 1894
Map: Yardley village 1847 to 1904
Map: parishes in 1911
Map: Yardley schools in 1911