A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1964.
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AGRICULTURE (fn. 1)
The area of the modern city of Birmingham is not of course a geographical or agricultural unit. It became united only as land previously used for agriculture was taken over for industry and housing, spreading from Birmingham itself. The Birmingham plateau, on which the modern city stands, consists in part of the wooded country of north Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which after rather late clearance became prosperous farming country, and in part of the lighter soils and heathlands of south Staffordshire. (fn. 2) Modern Birmingham stands where these areas meet, and there are wide varieties of soil and character in its component parts. The country drops from over 700 ft. in the south and west to the meadows of the Tame and Cole in the north and east. The soil varies from place to place between sands and gravels and clay, with outcrops of marl and sandstone. Although sand and clay are too much intermixed in almost every part of the area for generalization to be possible, it may be said that clays predominate in the west of Aston, in Handsworth, Harborne, Selly, and the north-west of Northfield, in King's Heath, Sheldon, and Yardley Wood. Most of Erdington is sandy and gravelly soil and so is the north-west of central Birmingham and Edgbaston. There is marl in the south and west at Northfield and Yardley and around the alluvial beds of the Tame at Erdington. Most of the area is well watered, by springs as well as by the various rivers and streams. (fn. 3)
The area seems to have been settled mostly in scattered hamlets and farms in the forest clearings rather than in nucleated villages. Northfield and King's Norton were probably colonized from Bromsgrove. The hamlets in these two parishes and in Yardley and Aston, many with 'green', 'heath', 'end', and 'lea' names, reflect the piecemeal clearance of the forest. (fn. 4) In Edgbaston there is little trace even of hamlets of any size, let alone a nucleated village. Fourteen manors or berewicks within the modern boundaries of the city were named in Domesday Book. (fn. 5) No details are available for Harborne, Yardley, and King's Norton, which were all attached to manors outside the area. King's Norton and Yardley presumably included part of the wide area of wood which existed in their parent manors, and woods were included in all but one of the other entries. Erdington, with 5 acres, had the largest recorded area of meadow and meadows were also mentioned at Handsworth, Perry, and Little Barr. Aston and Northfield were the two largest manors with 20 and 19 plough-lands and 18 and 14 ploughs respectively. If, as is possible, Aston manor included some scattered settlements which later became independent, then Northfield may have been the largest single village in the area. The other manors all had under 6 plough-lands and in most cases slightly fewer ploughs than lands. In nearly all cases there were considerably more ploughs out of demesne than in, and at Aston there were none at all in demesne.
Little is known about the social structure of the villages at this time. In Domesday Book there were villeins and bordars on all the manors of which the tenants are enumerated, and there were six cottars at Northfield. There were two serfs at Erdington, one each at Aston and Witton, and two and a bondwoman at Northfield. There were no free tenants at all. (fn. 6) The little information which is available suggests that, as happened elsewhere in the country, the situation changed a good deal in the next two centuries. By 1291 there were 82 free tenants and sixteen customary tenants at Bordesley, (fn. 7) and in 1338 the rents of the customary tenants were half those of the free ones. (fn. 8) There was only one villein at Aston in 1318. (fn. 9) The relation between status and size of holding varied: holdings of virgates and fractions of virgates were common until the 14th century and some were mentioned in the 15th. (fn. 10) In King's Norton in the 13th century the fractions were small and diverse, (fn. 11) but at Northfield as late as 1386 the 26 customary tenants held thirteen virgates of land. (fn. 12) At Bordesley in 1291 each of four free tenants held a messuage and half-virgate but the fact that 78 tenants held new assarts must soon have destroyed any pattern of holdings. (fn. 13) The extent of labour services and the date of their commutation for money rents is uncertain. The lord of Birmingham commuted the hay-lifting services of 17 tenants in 1232. (fn. 14) The works of customary tenants were specifically mentioned in Northfield in 1291, (fn. 15) and at the same date the sixteen customary tenants of Bordesley gave 14s. 10d. by custom for their mowing and reaping services. The free tenants there apparently paid money rents only, (fn. 16) and there is no mention of the value of works in other extents of manors in the area. Presumably in some manors the early commutation of services was encouraged by the non-residence of lords and by the break-up of the demesne. The whole demesne of King's Norton seems to have been alienated by the Crown in the 12th century (fn. 17) and a 13th-century rental appears to account for money rents only. (fn. 18) By the 14th century some freeholders were paying only token rents to their lords. (fn. 19) In 1381 Cornelius Wyrley claimed to hold his lands in Handsworth by fealty only, instead of by scutage, fealty, homage, heriot, and suit of court. (fn. 20) From the 15th century there is no trace of labour services on the manors of which records survive. (fn. 21) At Erdington, Pype, Bordesley, Yardley, and Sheldon all rents appear to have been payable in money, except for some small token rents in kind, by the late 15th century, (fn. 22) and the same was true of Birmingham, Handsworth, and Northfield by the 16th century. (fn. 23) It has been shown that reductions of rents and a dearth of tenants were common in the 15th century on the Warwickshire estates of the Duke of Clarence. (fn. 24) These included Erdington, while Perry and Yardley in the adjoining counties, as well as the Duke of Buckingham's manor of Sheldon, may have shared in this trend. (fn. 25) Leases by this time were fairly common, either for lives or for terms of years varying from 20 to 70 years. What appears to be a transitional stage between copyhold and leasehold tenure is revealed in holdings at will by copy of court roll for terms of years. These are mentioned in Sheldon in 1456-7, Perry Barr in 1465, Handsworth in 1500, and Birmingham in 1553. (fn. 26) About 1544 there was some doubt in Perry Barr whether land held by copy of court roll for a term of years could be assigned to new tenants without surrender and re-grant. (fn. 27) There were apparently no copyholders in Handsworth in 1538, (fn. 28) but by 1650 there were still no leaseholds at all in King's Norton. (fn. 29) Many leaseholders doubtless held demesne lands, particularly in the Clarence and Buckingham estates and on other manors held by non-resident lords. All the demesne was apparently leased at Birmingham in 1553; the earliest leases then running, apart from the lease of the park, dated from 1541 so that demesne farming may have ended with the ownership of the Birmingham family. (fn. 30) Demesne meadow and pasture were leased at Sheldon in 1456 (fn. 31) and the leased property at Northfield in 1549 included the castle meadow and the park. (fn. 32) By the 17th century a 21-year lease on fairly standard conditions appears to have become general in the Holte estates in Aston. (fn. 33)
Although the area was not one of classic openfield country, there is evidence at one time or another of common fields in all the main manors except Edgbaston. The later lack of concentration of settlement in Edgbaston may reflect cultivation in severalty from an early date. (fn. 34) Only one piece of evidence has been found which implies the existence of open fields in Birmingham itself. This is a reference to four selions in the foreign in 1577. (fn. 35) The selions lay together and were to be ditched. Hedged and ditched land in Birmingham was mentioned in 1379. (fn. 36) A three-course rotation, if not a three-field system, evidently prevailed at Bordesley in 1338 since a third of the demesne arable then lay to waste each year. (fn. 37) Other manors had more than three open fields in the later Middle Ages and after: six names of common fields occur in Erdington in the 13th century and several more in the 14th and 15th centuries. (fn. 38) In a rental of Erdington made in 1316-17 nearly all the land which is specifically described appears to have lain in the common fields or meadows, (fn. 39) but there are references to inclosed lands in other manors in the 13th century. Ancient hedges or fences of the Prior of Sandwell were said in 1222 to have been in existence in Handsworth before 1210. These apparently inclosed what had formerly been common pasture. (fn. 40) Other inclosed land existed in Handsworth in 1227, and fences unjustly raised in Perry and Little Barr were ordered to be removed in 1227 and 1272. (fn. 41) Many of the inclosures may have been lands of new assart, for assarting seems to have been progressing fast from at least the 13th century. When the manor of Erdington was divided among three coheirs before 1218 it was agreed to divide the waste too so that each owner could have several pasture and dispose of his share as he wished. One share at least was hedged and ditched and used for arable. (fn. 42) The Earl of March inclosed part of King's Norton wood before 1331, but apparently failed to maintain the inclosure against the commoners. (fn. 43) There were 78 tenants in Bordesley manor holding lands of new assart in 1291 as against only 20 other tenants, (fn. 44) and 15 tenants of new land in Northfield in 1322. (fn. 45) Although many 15th-century and later field names indicate that lands of new assart were often held in severalty, (fn. 46) some form of common rights was evidently envisaged in an agreement made in 1285 between Roger de Somery and Thomas de Maidenhacche. By this Roger was empowered to take into cultivation all his wastes in Bordesley and Bromwich, and Thomas to do the same in Aston and Duddeston, on the understanding that each reserved their rights to the other's wastes for common of pasture in tempore aperto. (fn. 47) Some of the 78 tenants of new assarts in Bordesley may have held land under this agreement.
From the 15th century onwards, inclosure seems to have proceeded steadily, though at varying speeds in the different manors. The Birmingham country, like most of the region immediately surrounding it, seems to have been comparatively little affected by the large-scale inclosures which took place in the more classic open-field country in the 15th and 18th centuries. There is a reference to apparent resistance to inclosure for pasture in Handsworth in 1432, (fn. 48) but the local returns to the inquiry of 1517 are negligible. (fn. 49) Presentments in manorial courts for encroachment and inclosure in the 17th century were common, and probably a good deal of inclosure took place by piecemeal agreements. Some of the manors in the area retained open field and common lands until the great age of parliamentary inclosure. (fn. 50) Of the Staffordshire manors, Handsworth retained one open field (73 a.) and about 290 acres of commons and wastes until 1793. (fn. 51) The inclosure of Handsworth Heath in 1793, however, had only a negative influence on the agrarian history of the parish since it was soon after built over. (fn. 52) Perry Barr Common was inclosed in 1814, by which time there were no open fields left in the manor. (fn. 53) Two were mentioned in 1648. (fn. 54) Harborne seems to have contained at least two open fields in 1601 and one in 1733, (fn. 55) but the whole parish was inclosed by 1790. (fn. 56) There had been at least two open fields in 1601. (fn. 57) Of the Warwickshire parishes, Birmingham seems to have been fully inclosed by the 17th century at least, except for the area of heath in the north-west, which was inclosed in 1802 and soon built over. (fn. 58) Aston manor was entirely inclosed by 1758: (fn. 59) there had been open fields in 1606. (fn. 60) The large area of the park was inclosed in the early 17th century. (fn. 61) Erdington had 122 acres of scattered open fields, 104 acres of common meadows and pasture, and 713 acres of commons and waste at the final inclosure of 1802. (fn. 62) There are references to recent inclosures out of the open fields in 1655, c. 1684, and in 1773. (fn. 63) Comparisons of a survey of 1655 and maps of 1760 and 1802 illustrate the gradual reduction of the open fields which here preceded the Inclosure Act. (fn. 64) Witton Common (292 a.) was inclosed in 1802, (fn. 65) but the last open fields of the manor had already disappeared. A large area appears to have been inclosed by agreement between 1729 and 1734, and the rest probably followed soon after. (fn. 66) Duddeston and Nechells manors were inclosed by 1758. (fn. 67) The court rolls of Bordesley manor show the imposition of penalties for encroachment on the commons and waste until 1818, (fn. 68) but there were no open fields by 1760. (fn. 69) About 110 acres of open field in Washwood and Saltley as well as Washwood Heath (156 a. in 1760) (fn. 70) and three common meadows were inclosed in 1817. (fn. 71) In 1760 all the tenants of Saltley manor, as well as the lord, appear to have held land in the open fields in the north-east of the manor, although the south-western half was entirely inclosed. (fn. 72) Little Bromwich still had two open fields in 1759: it is not known when these disappeared. They had obviously already been reduced in size: four fields adjoining one of them were called Near, Far, Over, and Lower New Rails. (fn. 73) By-laws about the open fields of Sheldon were recorded in the court rolls in the 17th century. (fn. 74) Part of one field had been inclosed by 1457. (fn. 75) By 1813, when the commons and wastes (c. 95 a.) were inclosed, there were no open fields left. (fn. 76) By 1701 Edgbaston had no commons or open fields, if it had ever had any. It is perhaps noteworthy that there were a number of substantial freeholders in the parish. (fn. 77) Of the Worcestershire parishes, King's Norton was characterized by its extensive common and wasteland. In 1638 an attempt by the queen, who held the manor, to inclose a third of the waste provoked protests from the tenants, who themselves asked that a quarter be inclosed for their own use. (fn. 78) There were still 3,000 acres of waste in 1650. (fn. 79) Penalties for encroachments on it were repeatedly imposed in the late 17th century, (fn. 80) and when it was finally inclosed by Act in 1774 it covered about 2,055 acres of which 142 acres were allotted to the king as lord of the manor. (fn. 81) Neither Northfield nor Quinton underwent parliamentary inclosure, though there were common meadows and possibly open fields in Northfield in the late 17th and early 18th century. (fn. 82) Open fields, meadows, and commons survived in Yardley until 1847, (fn. 83) when 237 acres of open field and meadow (fn. 84) and 661 acres of commons and wastes were inclosed. About three-quarters of the open-field land lay north of Yardley village in a compact block, and the remainder lay north of Acock's Green. The commons lay in the south and south-west of the parish. Land taken out of one of the open fields of Yardley was mentioned in 1661. (fn. 85)
It is impossible to assess with any certainty the proportions of arable and pasture and the type of farming in the Middle Ages. In spite of the probable later preponderance of pasture, it seems likely that, under the partial open-field conditions which prevailed, mixed subsistence farming was the rule. Extents of the manors of Handsworth, Aston, Bordesley, Northfield, and Weoley suggest that the arable was greater in extent and value than the pasture and meadow. There were 61 acres of demesne arable at Bordesley in 1291, (fn. 86) and this had apparently increased to 180 by 1338. (fn. 87) There were 300 acres at Weoley in 1273 and 172 at Northfield in 1291: the relationship between these two manors, however, is not clear. (fn. 88) There was one carucate at Handsworth in 1291, (fn. 89) 1338, (fn. 90) and 1385: (fn. 91) in 1338 it was said to be very poor and stony. There were 100 acres at Aston in 1318. (fn. 92) Meadows are mentioned in all these manors, specified as 10 acres at Bordesley in 1338, 20 acres at Northfield in 1291 and 10 acres in 1385, (fn. 93) and 10 acres at Aston in 1318. There was also unspecified pasture in some cases and pasture in severalty at Aston and Bordesley. There was extensive common pasture in several places, notably Handsworth and King's Norton, until well past the Middle Ages. The inhabitants of King's Norton, Yardley, and Solihull had common of pasture for all animals in King's Norton wood in the 14th century. (fn. 94) By the 15th century the high proportion of arable seems to have been dropping in favour of increased pasture, probably for sheep. Lands which presumably comprised Birmingham manor were described in 1437 as comprising 1,300 acres of meadow, pasture, wood, and moor against 400 acres of arable. (fn. 95) Many of the parcels of land mentioned in 15th-century rentals, accounts, and deeds seem to have been pasture. (fn. 96) Of the only three inclosures in the area mentioned in the 1517 inquiry, those at Castle Bromwich and Birmingham were significant rather as conversions from arable to pasture than as inclosures. (fn. 97) There were at least nine folds in the borough of Birmingham in 1553. (fn. 98) Leland said that King's Norton had some fair houses belonging to wool-staplers, and that there was plenty of wood and pasture in the vicinity, as well as moderately good corn. North of Birmingham, on the road to Sutton Coldfield he saw better woods than wheat, and noted the 'fair meadows' around Salford Bridge on the Tame. (fn. 99) Sheep never entirely ousted arable-farming in the Birmingham area itself, as the partial survival of the open fields shows. Nor is there any evidence that all inclosures in the area were made for pasture. In the course of a dispute about the inclosure of the waste in King's Norton, the tenants there alleged - probably exaggerating all the figures, and especially the numbers of animals - that there were 300 messuages in the parish and 102 teams, whose owners kept 4,000 acres in tillage. In the winter 8,000 sheep, 1,500 head of cattle, and 500 horses were said to be kept on the tenants' and commoners' lands, and the tenants were generally forced to sell many beasts each year for lack of pasture. (fn. 100) In the 17th and 18th centuries flax was apparently a crop of a certain significance. (fn. 101) It was said to be still grown in considerable quantities in Warwickshire in 1794. (fn. 102)
By the late 18th century at least, Birmingham was beginning to exert a strong influence over the agriculture of the immediately surrounding parishes as a market for produce. The growth of Birmingham had other results: industrial waste of various kinds was used as manure, while the price of labour was governed by that in Birmingham, and wages were said to be about 25 per cent. higher in its neighbourhood than in the remoter parts of the country. Birmingham was also providing work for labourers thrown out of employment by large-scale inclosure and pasture-farming in the south-east of the county. (fn. 103) Acreage returns of 1801 survive for only two parishes, Northfield and Yardley. (fn. 104) Both show the preponderance of wheat to be expected with the high prices then prevailing. In each case the three chief crops were wheat, oats, and barley in that order. (fn. 105) By 1813 the north-east of Worcestershire, presumably including these parishes and King's Norton, was said to be 'late . . . in produce' but 'fairly cultivated both in corn and cattle', with 'some very respectable flocks of sheep'. (fn. 106) Wheat, with beans, oats, and roots, was still said to be the chief crop in these three parishes in 1873. (fn. 107) In 1901 King's Norton still had 1,251 acres of arable and 7,810 acres of pasture. (fn. 108) The same crops were said to be grown in the other parts of the area, and land was also increasingly used for pasture and marketgardening. (fn. 109) Strawberries were specified as being grown in Harborne in the middle of the century, (fn. 110) while there were said to be two large nurseries in Handsworth in 1834, one of which had been established for over a century. (fn. 111) By this time most of the parishes had several substantial landowners. (fn. 112) Aston and its hamlets in particular were affected by the break-up of the Holte estate in the early part of the century. (fn. 113) Most of the farms must, by the end of the century, have become very small. In Kelly's Directory of 1908 the trades directory names 90 farmers in King's Norton, 57 in Northfield, 43 in Yardley, 24 in Handsworth and Perry Barr, and 41 in the hamlets of Aston. (fn. 114) The encroachment of industry and housing was steadily reducing the available land, and during the 20th century the land available for agriculture within the city boundaries has become practically insignificant. (fn. 115) What remains is largely used for dairying and marketgardening. In 1950 vegetables were the chief produce of the market-gardens, and there was little glass. The city council itself developed a 4,000-acre estate of small-holdings outside the boundary at Canwell in the years after the First World War. The early attempts at market-gardening, for which the estate was intended, were a failure, and the success of the enterprise was based upon dairying. (fn. 116)