The City Centre of Lichfield: A Brief Historical Perspective

The following notes were prepared in August 2018 as a background brief for the Planning Inspector who had been appointed to chair the planning enquiry into Lichfield District Council's Local Plan Review.

"Almost in the middle of England, this cathedral city has much for us to see that is lovely and of deep interest. It has the smallest and yet perhaps the most graceful of our cathedrals, standing on one of the earliest English sites of a Christian church. From its 16th century grammar school has gone out into the world a group of boys whose names are famous in literature, law, the church and the stage; and in one of its 17th century houses was born our illustrious Samuel Johnson, the most famous man of letters of his day, creator of the first adequate Dictionary of our language". Thus wrote Arthur Mee in his Staffordshire volume of the King's England in 1937. Eighty years on, Arthur Mee would still recognise many of the buildings he so admired in modern Lichfield, which remains a small, essentially Georgian, city.

Undoubtedly, the jewel in the crown is the thirteenth century cathedral, prominent amongst English Cathedrals for its three spires. Its setting adjacent to the Minster Pool and larger Stowe Pool "assures it of a picturesqueness of setting which none can emulate. Moreover it has a Close more complete than most and more intimate than many" (Pevsner). It contains many fine listed buildings, notably the former Bishop's Palace built in 1687. At the entrance to the Close, Darwin House can be found. This listed Georgian building was home to Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and himself a doctor and noted polymath. He was a founder member of the Lunar Society.

Lichfield City Centre retains its medieval street pattern, originally laid out by Bishop Roger de Clinton in the 1140s. It received Conservation Area designation in 1970. There are 19 other Conservation areas within the District Council area. The Market Place is bordered by St Mary's Church, currently (2018) in the course of conversion to the public library, and, notably Dr Johnson's House and Birthplace Museum. Constructed in 1707, this jettied building is supported by three tuscan columns. The Square hosts a statute of Dr Johnson and his biographer and travelling companion, James Boswell. Nearby, in Bore St, are located what Pevsner believes to be the best two houses of Lichfield. The triple-gabled Tudor Café is a early sixteenth century; adjacent and stone-built, is Donegal House, home to the Earls of Donegal who were large Staffordshire landowners. It is now the offices of Lichfield City Council. The Gothic style Guildhall of 1848 can be found next door. Bore St itself retains many fine Georgian buildings, as well as earlier building which have been refaced with brick. One of the iconic domestic buildings of Lichfield is St John's Hospital, in St John's St on the edge of the City Centre. Its eastern range of eight chimneybreasts to the street are from its Elizabeth refoundation, for a hospice for visiting pilgrims to the Cathedral was founded here in the 12th century. The chimneybreasts are regarded as some of the earliest in England. The Foundation, with a much enlarged group of distinctive buildings, continues to accommodate retired Lichfieldians. Opposite and now part of the Council Offices can be found the headmaster's house of Lichfield Grammar School (1682).

Prior to the advent of the railways, Lichfield was an important coaching city. The Grade II* George Hotel in Bird St is regarded by Pevsner as "one of the best late 18th century hotel buildings in the land". It contains a Georgian ballroom. Almost opposite, the Kings Head hosted the raising of the Staffordshire Regiment in the late eighteenth century. Beyond Bird St, in Beacon St, with Minster Pool adjacent, lies Beacon Park, with its statue of Captain Smith, the ill-fated captain of the Titanic. The former free library of 1857 is next door. It was one of the earliest in England. Pevsner calls it "small, of yellow brick and funny". Adjacent to Minster Pool lies Dam St. with its fine array of smaller domestic buildings, with an important timber house of 1555 at its junction with Quonians Lane.

Water plays an important role both in the City Centre and in the wider history of the City. Minster Pool has medieval origins, providing both fish and fresh water for the Cathedral Close. The larger Stowe Pool was established as a reservoir in the 19th century by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company, providing potable water not only to Lichfieldians, but also to the residents of the Black Country in the fight against cholera. A pumping station containing a Cornish Beam Engine still remains in the City.

The secret of the City Centre's distinctive character is found not only in its historical homogeneity, but in the relationship of buildings, open spaces and water, the latter two often linked. Together, all three create the City Centre's distinctive and unique character: a character that ensures its harmonious environment, in which to live, work, shop or relax.

Roger Hockney
August 2018