The Victoria County History (VCH) is well known for its detailed studies of individual localities, which assemble (in the words of one recent reviewer) ‘countless tiny parts to build a much larger whole’. The ‘Big Red Books’ describing the histories of places large and small using primary sources from the earliest times to the ever-moving now are the foundation of many local – and national – histories. It’s always a big occasion when a Victoria County History volume is published, and despite COVID concerns – and early morning fog, which came as a surprise – the latest one for Staffordshire, on Tamworth and Drayton Bassett, was launched on Saturday 15 January in great style in St Editha’s church in Tamworth town centre.
Researched and written by the county editor, Dr Nigel Tringham, who has now retired after 40 years’ service with the VCH in Staffordshire, the volume charts the history of the town from its hey-day when an important centre for the rulers of Mercia, through its role as a market centre in the medieval and early modern periods, to its transformation in the late 20th and early 21st century as an overspill town for Birmingham.
Addressing a (socially-distanced) audience of the Tamworth and District Civic Society (many of whom had helped supplying local information) – along with the Lord Lieutenant (Ian Dudson), the High Sheriff, the Bishop of Lichfield, the chair of Staffordshire County Council, and the Mayors of Tamworth and Fazeley – the author gave an overview of the town’s history, much of it based on an exceptional borough archive still kept at Tamworth, together with a long run of medieval court rolls now at Keele University.
Tamworth was unusual in being divided between two counties, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, with the boundary running right through the centre of the town, although the division doesn’t seem to have caused any problems for the inhabitants, even before a corporation covering both parts was established by royal charter in 1560.
What surprised many of the audience is how the town (and then the wider parish) became wholly in Staffordshire in 1889, following national legislation – namely, because there were more people living in the Staffordshire part than in the Warwickshire part at the time of the 1881 census. But this was the only time this happened in the 19th century, and so it could easily have gone the other way!
The volume also treats several villages in the surrounding parish, some of which became mining villages in the 19th century as coal and clay deposits were exploited. And those on the east side of the town (formerly in Warwickshire) were transformed into vast housing estates as the town expanded as a consequence of Tamworth becoming Birmingham’s most successful overspill town from the mid 1950s onwards. The overspill story – with its legacy of town-centre redevelopment and (in their early days) socially-challenged housing estates – is discussed in some detail in the VCH volume, nicely contrasting with the town as a royal centre in the Mercian period.
The volume also covers the adjoining parish of Drayton Bassett, the home from the 1790s of Robert Peel, the Lancashire cotton manufacturer, who opened cotton works in the town and in its satellite village of Fazeley, and some 19th-century buildings associated with cotton mills still survive in the area. Peel’s son, also Robert, the prime minister, built a mansion house at Drayton in the 1830s, but after the family became financially challenged this was demolished in the 1920s, and the site redeveloped as the present, very popular amusement park.
With the support of the County Council and (since the 1990s) of Keele University, and also a close partnership with the Archive Service, steady progress has been made in completing the VCH in Staffordshire. The Tamworth and Drayton Bassett volume is the fifteenth in the set, and work is now underway on Uttoxeter on the east side of the county.
Buy VCH Staffordshire XII
VCH Staffordshire XII: Tamworth and Drayton Bassett is available now from Boydell & Brewer to obtain a 25% discount (until 30 April), enter the code BB980 at the checkout.
Parishes and Townships covered: Tamworth, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, Wilncote and Glascote