Fazeley - The Pleasure of the Unexpected

My overriding impression of Fazeley has long been that of an undistinguished place with grimy red brick houses and industrial buildings, stretching along both sides of the narrow, heavily congested A5 road which, thereabouts passes over a hump back canal bridge. It was therefore, something of a surprise to learn from John Colburn, Director of Development Services, Lichfield District Council, when he addressed the Society on the 20th January, that those houses, factories and canal bridge in fact constitute an important part of our country's heritage.

They are the physical expression of an extraordinary period of rapid commercial rise and decline between 1790 and 1850, beginning with the completion of the junction of the Birmingham-Fazeley Canal and Coventry Canal at the end of the 1780's. These canals provided the link between the Trent and Mersey Canals and the Thames, thus creating a national waterway system with Fazeley, accessible to large and widely dispersed markets and a prime location for industrial development, at its hub. In 1790, Sir Robert Peel, who counted among his employees James Hargreaves, the inventor of the Spinning Jenny, transferred his Lancashire born cotton business to Fazeley and built what is now known as "the Old Mill". This was followed by other mills devoted to calico printing, cotton and later tape, and smallware manufacture. Other industrial buildings sprang up and also tenements and cottages to house the booming population of workers and their families, together with more substantial dwellings for managers in both Fazeley and Bonehill.

The zenith of the prosperity of the area was reached around 1830. Thereafter there was a sudden collapse following a depression in the cotton trade after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and later on, the development of the railways. Nevertheless industrial activity continued as the ownership of mills passed into new hands - the Tolson family for example - and throughout the Victorian era new factories, houses, churches, chapels, depots and public houses were still being built.

Much of the settlement which grew up remains largely intact today. Most of the mills and other buildings, some of which are 'listed', still stand although in certain cases in a forlorn condition. As remarkable as any feature is the network of natural watercourses, focused on the Bourne Brook, and artificial channels, reservoirs, weirs, sluices, and a remaining water wheel which provided early power and water for the mills. Much of the network is overgrown but, even in its present state, the ingenuity and quality of the engineering can still be discerned.

It is to the credit of Lichfield District Council that it has taken the initiative to preserve and regenerate the whole of this area. Both Fazeley and Bonehill contain designated Conservation Areas. In association with English Heritage, British Waterways and other agencies, the Council has helped to attract substantial financial investment from the European Regeneration Development Fund, English Partnership and the private sector to repair buildings, improve towpaths, attract new business, undertake reclamation works and plan new townscape schemes made possible with the completion of the Fazeley By-Pass. The Fazeley Heritage Project is a fine example of positive planning.

John Colburn, ably assisted by his Conservation Officers, Nathan Blanchard and Stephen King, gave a fascinating and eloquent talk - liberally illustrated - about the work of the Council in Fazeley. What he had to say was a revelation to the many who attended the meeting. Appetites were so whetted that a lot of members expressed the desire to see the area for themselves and, to this end, the Committee is hoping to arrange, with the help of John Colburn, a visit later in the year. It was an enjoyable and rewarding evening, a most fitting occasion for our last meeting at Cruck House.

Mike Tole
January 1998