The City of Lichfield: A Brief History

Lichfield is a cathedral city and civil parish situated roughly 16 miles (26 km) north of Birmingham. At the time of the 2011 Census the population was estimated at 32,219 and the wider Lichfield District at 100,700. The City is notable for its three-spired medieval cathedral. Lichfield was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, the writer of the first authoritative Dictionary of the English Language, but the City's recorded history began when St Chad arrived to establish his Bishopric in 669 AD. The settlement grew to become the ecclesiastical centre of the Kingdom of Mercia. In 2009 the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever discovered, was found 4 miles (6km) south-west of Lichfield in the Parish of Hammerwich.

The development of the city was consolidated in the 12th century under Bishop Clinton who fortified the Cathedral Close and laid out the town with the grid square-shaped street pattern that survives to this day. Historically the Bishop of Lichfield had authority over the city. It was not until 1548 with Edward VI's charter that Lichfield had anything like a secular government. As a reward for the support given to Mary I by the bailiffs and citizens during the Duke of Northumberland's attempt to prevent her accession, the Queen issued a new charter in 1553, later confirming the charter in 1548 and in addition granting the city its own Sheriff. The same charter made Lichfield a county administratively separate from the rest of Staffordshire - which it remained until 1888. The reign of Henry VIII had a dramatic effect on Lichfield. The Reformation brought the disappearance of pilgrim traffic following the destruction of St Chad's shrine in 1538 - which was a major loss to the city's economic prosperity. Also in that year the Franciscan Friary was dissolved. Further economic decline followed the outbreak of plague in 1593 which resulted in the death of over a third of the entire population.

Three people were burned at the stake for heresy under Mary I and the last public burning at the stake in England took place in Lichfield when, on 11 April 1612, Edward Wightman from Burton upon Trent was executed by burning in the Market Place. Lichfield was divided during the English Civil War. The Cathedral authorities were for the king but the townsfolk generally sided with the Parliament. This led in 1643 to the fortification of the Cathedral Close. Lichfield's position as a focus of supply routes had an important strategic significance during the civil war and both forces were anxious for control of the city. Lord Brooke, notorious for his hostility to the church, led an assault against it but was killed by a bullet on St Chad's Day - an accident welcomed as a miracle by the Royalists. The Cathedral was re-taken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine the same year; but on the breakdown of the king's cause in 1646 it again surrendered. The Cathedral suffered extensive damage from the war, including the complete destruction of the central spire. It was rebuilt at the Restoration by Bishop Hacket thanks, in part, to the generosity of King Charles II.

Lichfield started to develop a lively coaching trade as a stop-off on the busy route between London and Chester from the 1650s onwards, making it Staffordshire's most prosperous town. The city thrived in the 18th century, reaching its peak in the period from 1800-1840 as a busy coaching city on the main routes from London to the north-west and from Birmingham to the north-east. It also became a centre of great intellectual activity; being the home of many famous people including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin, Elias Ashmole and Anna Seward. This prompted Johnson's remark that Lichfield was "a city of philosophers". In the 1720s Daniel Defoe described Lichfield as 'a fine, neat, well built, and indifferent large city'.

An infantry regiment of the British Army was formed at Lichfield in 1705 by Col. Luke Lillingstone at the King's Head public house in Bird Street. In 1751 it became the 38th Regiment of Foot and in 1783 the 1st Staffordshire Regiment. After reorganization in 1881 it became the 1st battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment.

The earliest mention of skilled artisans in the City can be found in 1177. Several Craft Companies were established in Lichfield, to safeguard craftsmen's interests, but the City was not sufficiently large for the various branches of Smiths to sustain separate Companies so they amalgamated, probably around the fourteenth century, to form the Worshipful Company of Smiths. Its Ordinances were confirmed in 1601. One notable Freeman of the Company was Michael Johnson, father of Dr Samuel Johnson. The Company is still in existence and seeks to encourage and recognise craftsmanship by admitting to membership those who are skilled in their craft, as judged by their peers. It also seeks to honour those whose services to the City have been outstanding, by making them Honorary Freeman.

During the late 18th and early 19th century much of the medieval city was rebuilt in the red brick Georgian style we see today. Also during this time the city underwent vast improvements with underground sewerage systems, paved streets, improved water supplies and gas street lighting. From medieval times Lichfield citizens had benefitted from a sophisticated system of water supply. As early as 1301 the Franciscan Friary had a piped supply from a spring at Aldershawe. In the fifteenth century, a public conduit, known as the Crucifix, was erected in Bird Street. The supply was then extended along Bore Street to a conduit at its junction with Conduit Street and thence along Tamworth Street to another conduit at its junction with Lombard Street. A Market Square conduit was served by a branch pipe running along Breadmarket Street. There were other piped supplies, serving wealthy private homes and those of the clergy.

The Cathedral Close was supplied by a pipe from a spring at Maple Hayes from the twelfth century. This system was maintained and further extended by the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust, established in January 1546 to continue a supply of clean water for the citizens of Lichfield after the Reformation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Trust sought further sources of water as the City's population expanded, whilst ensuring that the supply became more easily available. A new pumping station at Trunkfield was established in the mid-nineteenth century to meet growing demand but closed in the 1930s because of groundwater contamination. Thereafter the Trust purchased its supplies from the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company's pumping station at Sandfields. In 1963 responsibility for water supply transferred to that Company. However the Trust remains in being, providing grant aid for environmental enhancement projects within the City.

The availability of good clean water resources in Lichfield was central to the choice of the city as the headquarters of the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company, which were located at the City railway station. The founder, John Robinson McLean, was a member of Parliament and President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The primary purpose of the new company, formed in 1853, was to supply clean uncontaminated water to the Black Country where waterborne disease including cholera were common in the heavily populated boroughs of Walsall, Wednesbury, Darlaston, Dudley and Oldbury. The company leased the Minster and Stowe Pools from the City Council and in 1858 enlarged them to provide reservoirs with a capacity of 56 million gallons. A half-mile tunnel from the Pools went to Sandfields pumping station from where supplies were pumped through a 22 inch cast iron pipe, laid alongside the South Staffordshire Railway line, to a reservoir at Moat Hill near the Manor Hospital in Walsall. From there water was distributed to reservoirs in Wednesbury and Dudley.

The Industrial Revolution and the coming of railways signalled the end to Lichfield's position as an important staging post for coaching traffic. Whilst the industrial development at nearby Birmingham and the Black Country grew rapidly, along with the population, Lichfield remained largely unchanged; with the first council houses only being built in the 1930s in the Dimbles area of the city. The outbreak of World War II brought over 2000 evacuees from industrialised areas. However, owing to the lack of heavy industry, Lichfield escaped lightly from air raids. Just outside the city, Wellington bombers flew out of Fradley Aerodrome - which was known as RAF Lichfield. The council built many new houses in the 1960s, including some high-rise flats, while the late 70s and early 80s the City's popularity as a sought after residential location saw the development of a large housing estate at Boley Park in the south-east of the city. The city's population tripled between 1951 and the late 1980s. The city has continued expanding to the south-west, principally as a result of the construction of the Darwin Park housing estate.

Local Government administration is the responsibility of Staffordshire County Council and Lichfield District Council. The latter was created in 1974 by a merger of the previous Lichfield Rural District and Lichfield City Councils. The custody of the City Charters were then vested in Charter Trustees, comprising the 15 district councillors for the former City area. The former City area was the only unparished part of the new District, a situation that was resolved in 1980 by creation of a new parish council serving a population of 32,000 today. In November 1980 the new council petitioned the Queen and the status of 'City' was restored.

Today, the city still retains its importance as an ecclesiastical centre, whilst its industrial and commercial development is limited. The centre of the city retains an unspoilt charm with over 230 listed buildings in its historic streets, fine Georgian architecture and old cultural traditions. Darwin House, home of Erasmus Darwin, is open to the public as is Dr Johnson's House. Bore Street contains many fine buildings including the Guildhall and The Tudor coffee house. St Mary's Centre in the Market Square houses the Lichfield Heritage Exhibition whilst the modern Garrick Theatre is host to a flourishing arts scene. The setting of the Cathedral, with its Close and the adjacent Minster Pool is particularly attractive. Nearby, the City's Beacon Park has been the subject of a major refurbishment programme. Here can be found the statue of Edward Smith, Captain of the Titanic. A little further afield, St Michael's Church and St Chad's Church are both ancient foundations.

Roger Hockney
March, 2013