Some aspects of Lichfield, 1840-1880

Change is all around us, but often we don't see it. This came home to us at October's meeting when Joe Harley shared with us the results of his university research on the changes to the City Centre during the mid nineteenth century. With the help of archive photographs, contemporary prints and news items, we were transported to a bustling Lichfield, where the Victorian City fathers were vigorously promoting change and improvement and constructing some impressive buildings which today give the City centre much of its character.

The forty years that Joe had chosen to study, proved to be a time of major improvement to the City centre. Its primarily residential character was being replaced by one with a stronger commercial and municipal emphasis. This took place at a time when the railway was arriving, with dire consequences for Lichfield's flourishing coaching trade. The upside was that the City found itself located on faster routes to the centres of population, thus opening up new trading opportunities. The facade of the Guildhall is well known to us all. Yet in the early 1840s, the elapse of time together with its use as both prison and fire station had taken its toll on the fabric of the building. Rebuilding was decided upon and duly completed in 1866, yet the City authorities were still not satisfied with the main elevation, which was pierced by a new window in 1892.

Round the corner, the Corn Exchange was reconstructed in 1850 to include a spacious covered market with a corn exchange on the upper floor. The Illustrated London News was moved to describe it as "a very significant structure". Hard on its heels, the new Free Library and Museum was erected in 1857 and still sees partial use as the Registry Office. St Mary's Church did not escape the desire to upgrade and improve. Described as dilapidated by the 1840s, rebuilding took place in 1860, but still the diocesan and municipal authorities weren't satisfied. A total rebuild took place in 1872, including provision of a spire. The Victorian Gothic structure had cost 9,000. This was small compared to the 82,000 spent on the Cathedral between 1856 and 1896. The Cathedral had suffered horribly in the Civil War and little restoration had been undertaken. Substantial sums were raised by public subscription to return it to its former glory. Indeed, much of the civic rebuilding at this time also benefited from financial support from the general public. The Clock Tower, now at the Bowling Green roundabout was originally constructed opposite Bore Street in the mid nineteenth century. Despite suffering from no illumination and an inaccurate clock mechanism, it clearly became a much loved landmark, because when blocking redevelopment in 1926, it was moved brick by brick to its present site. Railway construction also contributed fine new buildings at Trent Valley and City stations in the 1840s, both to be rebuilt by the 1880s as traffic increased.

Joe's extensive talk also reminded us of the large number of breweries and malthouses located in Lichfield, in part as a consequence of the arrival of the railway which easily dispatched Lichfield beers further afield. He concluded by recalling that Lichfield's infrastructure perhaps did not benefit from the same lavish funding as did its principal buildings. Sewerage problems and the need for fresh water as the population grew, preoccupied the minds of the city fathers. Stowe Pool, seven acres in extent in 1848 and silting up, was enlarged to twenty two acres to become the City's main reservoir. Proposals to fill in Minster Pool were the source of much objection, so it was drained, dredged and refilled. Finally, we were reminded that St Michael's Hospital was built as the Lichfield Union Workhouse.

Lichfield was a busy City in this period. New civic and ecclesiastical buildings were under construction, new shops were springing up. The new railway was opening up opportunities for travel for work and pleasure. Joe's research has reminded us that this truly was a boom town.

Roger Hockney
October 2011