A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
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The former hamlet and civil parish of Willenhall lay two miles south-east of Coventry between the River Sowe and the River Avon. The hamlet was a detached part of the ancient parish of Holy Trinity, Coventry, but remained in Knightlow Hundred and was not included in the county of the city in 1451. It was recognized as a civil parish in 1881, (fn. 1) and was then in Foleshill Union (later Rural District). The parish was extinguished in 1932 when 464 acres in the north-west were transferred to Coventry County Borough and 308 acres in the south-east to Baginton civil parish in Warwick Rural District. (fn. 2)
The north-west of Willenhall was bounded by the River Sowe, the south and south-east by the Avon and by the valley of a stream which runs southwards to the Avon from the Bogs in Binley. On the southwest the boundary lay several hundred yards west of London Road and on the north-east roughly along the line of the railway from Rugby to Coventry, with an irregularly-shaped tongue of land stretching north towards Ernesford Grange. The land rises from all sides to Willenhall Wood in the centre of the former parish.
London Road enters the former parish from Ryton on Dunsmore by Ryton Bridge over the River Avon and leaves it again by Willenhall Bridge over the River Sowe into Whitley. The railway crosses the River Sowe by Sowe Viaduct. The Coventry bypass, here called Stonebridge Highway, branches from London Road at Tollbar End on the former parish boundary. St. James Lane leaves London Road near Willenhall Bridge and crosses the middle of Willenhall, by Little (formerly Upper) Farm, to Binley. Brandon Lane leaves London Road near Ryton Bridge and crosses the south of the area by Lower Farm, towards Brandon. A track in the east runs from St. James Lane to Lower Farm. Most of the north-western part of Willenhall, now in Coventry, is covered by modern housing estates; the south-east remains rural.
MANORS AND ESTATES.
Willenhall first appears distinctly in the late 12th century: the chapel there was among property confirmed to Coventry Priory in 1183-4, (fn. 3) and in 1195 hay was being sold from the priory's estate at Willenhall, which was then, with the rest of the priory's possessions, temporarily in the bishop's hands. (fn. 4) The Willenhall estate was referred to as a manor in a confirmation to the priory of 1221. (fn. 5) At about the same time members of the Willenhall family, who were the principal tenants of the priory there until the early 15th century, began to appear as witnesses to charters. (fn. 6)
In 1279 the priory held the estate with free warren (granted in 1257), (fn. 7) view of frankpledge, and the assize of bread and ale, by unknown warrant and without liability for scutage. (fn. 8) The priory had threequarters of a virgate, with meadow and wood, in demesne. The only other notable landholder represented in the village was John Hastings, lord of Allesley, who held a small plot, later called Hastingscroft, from the priory. The priory had two free tenants, Robert son of Geoffrey (Willenhall), and John Cross, who each held a half-virgate; Robert also held a water-mill. (fn. 9) There were eight (fn. 10) villein tenants with three virgates, and six cottagers.
The description of the Willenhall holding as a half-virgate in 1279 may be misleading. In 1252, when Geoffrey Willenhall did homage for it, it was described as a house, a mill, and a carucate of land. (fn. 11) The mill was identified as Finford Mill when Geoffrey's son Robert did homage in 1291. In 1340, when Robert's son John was in possession, the land consisted of four arable crofts, a meadow, and a field of pasture, (fn. 12) and the priory granted him another piece of woodland in 1342. (fn. 13)
In the 1360s there seems to have been an attempt to assert that the Willenhall family held their estate not of the priory but of the manor of Cheylesmore. In 1360 there was an inquiry into what land Thomas Willenhall might hold of the Prince of Wales in Willenhall. (fn. 14) When John Willenhall died in 1365, his land was said to be held of the honor of Chester. (fn. 15) The priory retained the wardship of the young heir, while Thomas Willenhall, apparently John's brother, unsuccessfully pursued his claim to the estate with Cheylesmore manor. (fn. 16) In the early-15th-century rental another John held the estate of the priory as it had been described in 1340. John seems not to have been living in Willenhall, (fn. 17) but in 1539 the family was still there, in the person of William Willenhall, who held Willenhall Hall, but apparently no land. (fn. 18) There is no further trace of this family.
The successors of John Cross, the second free tenant in 1279, also survived to the early 15th century. Henry Cross sold a holding which included a half-virgate to Henry Barr of Coventry in 1339, (fn. 19) but the Cross family then acquired Heycroft, apparently in exchange, and became the tenants of Hastingscroft and of a holding next to it which included Marlcroft and a half-virgate. The property descended from William to Adam and thence to another John Cross. It was this John who in the early 15th century claimed to hold in fee; as a result of the claim the prior took the property in hand and thereafter the family disappears. (fn. 20)
The priory's estate was remarkably stable during the 250 years of its recorded existence. The only known transactions were in 1364, when a house was bought, (fn. 21) and in 1368, when the priory acquired the small Barr holding through Barr's daughter, Edith; the prior was presumably only eliminating an intermediate tenancy since it already held the lordship. (fn. 22) Otherwise, there were sixteen tenants about 1390 and in 1410-11, as there had been in 1279; this number had fallen to thirteen by 1539. There were 4¾ virgates, in addition to closes, in both 1279 and 1340, and 5¾ in 1410-11; by 1539 most of the land was described in terms other than virgates. The total rents of the villein and cottager holdings, after rising sharply from £3 10s. in 1279, then remained at £9 to £10 in 1390, 1410-11, and 1539. (fn. 23)
In 1544 the estate of the dissolved priory was granted to Sir Richard Lee who regranted it to John Hales of Coventry. (fn. 24) The estate remained in the possession of the Hales family until the 18th century; a grant by Christopher Hales to Edward Hasylwood and Thomas Dawra in 1556 (fn. 25) was presumably only a lease or a mortgage. In 1720 Sir Edward Hales sold the estate to John Montagu, Duke of Montagu, and Montagu sold it in 1722 to the statesman and diplomat, Richard Hill of Hawkstone (Salop). After Hill's death in 1727 the estate came by a settlement to his nephew, Rowland Hill (created a baronet in the same year), and was held by the Hill family until the 19th century. The Hills seem to have been in financial difficulties after 1798, and the Willenhall estate was apparently sold by 1809 to James Wyatt, whose memorial stone described him as of Willenhall House in 1814. (fn. 26)
James R. Wyatt was the landlord, and was managing the estates with great care, from 1830 to 1840. (fn. 27) There were then seven farms and two smaller holdings on the estate. (fn. 28) It is unlikely that the Haleses or the Hills ever lived at Willenhall, the hall shown in 1793 probably being occupied by a tenant. (fn. 29) James Wyatt may have built or rebuilt the Willenhall House in which he lived; the younger James Wyatt did not live there. The house was let, with 40 acres of pasture, in 1830, (fn. 30) and was occupied by James Nellor during the 1830s. (fn. 31) Samuel Gorton was living at Willenhall House in 1904. (fn. 32) Otherwise the ownership has not been traced. Coventry corporation acquired the land, and a housing estate was built after 1950. (fn. 33)
The hamlet of Willenhall was in the 15th century centred around the junction of the present London Road and St. James Lane. (fn. 34) Along the stretch of London Road, then called Weeping Lane, from this junction to the bridge over the River Sowe, were several cottages, the tithe barn, and the priory's 'chamber'. Along the south-western stretch of St. James Lane, called Newton Lane, were other cottages, with the site of the chapel and its graveyard to the north, and the house of the Willenhall family to the north-east. The north-eastern stretch of St. James Lane, towards Binley, was called Wood Lane.
The references to virgates and selions indicate that some part of the parish at this time lay open, and it is probable that the field called Newton Field, north of the hamlet and the chapel, formed the principal open field of the parish. South of Wood Lane were Little Wood and Willenhall Wood, which were kept in the hands of successive landlords and still partly survived, with their ancient names, in the mid 20th century. There were crofts around these woods, and to the north-east around the Willenhalls' house. South again was the great Finford Meadow, kept in hand by the priory in the 15th century and mown with the aid of labour services, but leased by 1539. The priory had a pound, possibly on the site occupied by the village pound in the 19th century on the main road, between the hamlet and Finford Meadow. Finford Mill, immediately west of Ryton Bridge, was in the parish of Baginton, though part of the Willenhall estate.
In the early 13th century Willenhall Wood and Little Wood, and the area around them extending to what became the north-east boundary of the parish, was part of a district common to the inhabitants and landowners of the surrounding villages. During the century agreements were made by the prior with the Abbot of Combe and Robert Joilin of Binley, defining boundaries and commoning rights. The Willenhall tenants had at this time the same rights as their lord. (fn. 35) By 1279 the priory was inclosing the wood and depriving the tenants of their pasture. (fn. 36) In 1410-11 the woods were inclosed, and the pasture 'of plain and wood' between them and the boundary was said to be the priory's. Only the Willenhall family retained rights in the area, by specific leases of wood and pasture. (fn. 37) The tenants' commoning rights were not entirely extinguished, for there was a piece called Willenhall Green in the 16th century, (fn. 38) and a Willenhall Common, with gates on the eastern boundary of the parish, in the early 19th century. There may also have been common meadow in Willenhall Meadow and Town Meadow, (fn. 39) but the rights do not appear to have survived into the 19th century.
The labour services of the tenants in 1279 were light. The holders of half and quarter virgates did two days' mowing and collecting and carried the hay, and did two days' reaping at the harvest; the cottagers did three days' stacking and collecting of hay. (fn. 40) In 1390 and 1410-11 the services varied from tenant to tenant, but were very similar to those in 1279. Most tenants did one or more days' mowing and carrying on the 'hammes' in Finford Meadow; some tenements had a section of the meadow permanently allotted to them. Hay or food was by this period to be carried specifically to Coventry. The priory was leasing the small demesne that it had had in 1279, and the reaping service was done at the 'Metebote' on the demesne farm at Harnall or was commuted for 4d. (fn. 41)
There is no sign in the rentals of any effects of the Black Death, though the abatements of 15th-century subsidies were particularly large for Willenhall, (fn. 42) but the abandonment of the chapel (fn. 43) may have been connected with a decline in population.
The standard rent throughout the period was 13s. 4d. for a half-virgate and 6s. 8d. for a quartervirgate; there is no evidence in Willenhall of the acreage of a virgate. The rise in the priory's income from rents between 1279 and 1390 (fn. 44) was due not to commutation of services or an increase in existing rents, but to the leasing of the demesne, and, more important, to new rent from crofts. (fn. 45) The priory's old demesne may be identified with land held by the Cross family in 1390 and 1410-11, and with the oddly described 'three quartons [quarter virgates] of arable and other separable land' leased to Roger Adnett in 1539. (fn. 46)
The largest sums among the rents in 1539 were again not increased rents, but the result of radical changes in the priory's agricultural policy. Newton Field, probably the remains of the old common field by then inclosed, was leased as pasture to a single tenant. Besides this general inclosure, some piecemeal inclosure is suggested by the descriptions of the Willenhall family's holding and of the former demesne. (fn. 47) References to virgates or parts of virgates held 'in three fields' in 1410-11 (fn. 48) indicate a three-course rotation where the open field survived. Finford Meadow was also leased in 1539. The landlord's regard for Finford and its neighbouring meadow, Prior's Darling, was demonstrated at the Dissolution, when the tenant, who had obtained a 60-year lease in 1528, was persuaded to surrender it for one of 21 years. There was no reference to labour services in the 18th century. (fn. 49)
Until the present century the Willenhall inhabitants had few occupations other than farming. There were millers at Finford, and in 1280 two carpenters of Willenhall took a lease of Alderford Mill in Pinley. (fn. 50) In the 14th century there was a Richard Willenhall who was a cobbler, (fn. 51) and a family called Collins or Wright who were apparently smiths. (fn. 52) London Road south-east of Willenhall Bridge was called the Smithy Hill in the early 19th century. (fn. 53) The smithy itself was mentioned at about the same time, (fn. 54) and was marked on London Road near the pound at the end of the century. (fn. 55) Innkeeping, another trade to be expected on London Road, developed in the 17th century, (fn. 56) but the only inn in the 19th century seems to have been the Crown Inn on St. James Lane towards Binley, mentioned in the 1830s. (fn. 57) There was also a chandler in the late 17th century. (fn. 58) The only industrial activity has been at the brick and tile works north of St. James Lane; this was in existence by 1850 (fn. 59) and survived until just before the First World War. (fn. 60)
There was no specific reference in the Middle Ages to London Road, which, by passing through the parish, has always formed its most important feature. The bridges - Willenhall Bridge and Ryton Bridge - by which the road crosses the Sowe and the Avon were mentioned in 1410-11, though not by those names, and there was a family called 'atte Brugge' in the 14th century. (fn. 61) By Leland's time (1535-43) there was a stone bridge of five arches at Willenhall. (fn. 62) A line of banks west of Dell Close suggests that the stretch of London Road called Weeping Lane ran up from Willenhall Bridge to the east of the present road, and was directly aligned with St. James Lane. (fn. 63) The modern course of the road was probably laid out by the turnpike company in 1724. (fn. 64)
The upkeep of the roads and bridge was a continual problem in the 17th century, disputes arising between the inhabitants and the county concerning responsibility for repairs. (fn. 65) The inhabitants of Willenhall were constantly in trouble for not repairing the main road; this road was given various names, including Willenhall Lane, London Road, and Daventry Road. (fn. 66) In 1632 there were said to be two highways, that from Coventry to Southam (London Road), and another from Leicester to Warwick; (fn. 67) the latter was presumably a route bypassing Coventry through Binley, Willenhall, and Baginton, using St. James Lane, but this is the only reference to it as a highway. There was a toll gate on London Road, after it was turnpiked, near the junction with Brandon Lane at what became known as Tollbar End. The road was considerably improved in 1836, and the gradient of the hill between Willenhall Bridge and Finford Bridge lowered. (fn. 68)
There were thirteen houses on the Willenhall estate in 1644, (fn. 69) as there had been in 1539. By 1730 this had risen again to fifteen, about the medieval figure. (fn. 70) The turnpiking of London Road seems to have encouraged building along the road south of the old village. By 1801 the population was 126. The population fell to 84 in 1811 (though it rose again slightly to 100 in 1821 and 120 in 1831), and the number of agricultural labourers also fell in those years. (fn. 71) This local decline may be associated with the financial difficulties of the Hill family in the same period. Willenhall House was probably built at this time. (fn. 72) During the 19th century some cottages at the former village centre seem to have disappeared and been replaced by buildings such as Manor Cottages to the north and Grange Cottages to the east. At the end of the century several houses, including The Chace, were built just on the Willenhall side of Willenhall Bridge. (fn. 73) These houses represent the only suburban incursion into Willenhall from Coventry before the parish was extinguished in 1932. The Chace, a large building in a gabled, half-timbered style, is now a hotel (1964). In 1921 there were in Willenhall 25 houses and 129 inhabitants. (fn. 74)
In the 1830s the farms in Willenhall were Hall Farm occupying land in the north and north-east, Upper (later Little) Farm in the centre, and Lower Farm in the east, all of between 100 and 200 acres; and Willenhall House Farm in the north-west, Packwoods Farm in the south, Crown Farm in the north-east, and Chapel Farm in the north, all with less than 100 acres. (fn. 75) Hall, Willenhall Hall, or Manor Farm, as it was later called, probably represented the former Willenhall family holding; Chapel Farm, which included Chapel Yard (the former graveyard) and the chapel site, and buildings in the old village, may have been the former demesne holding. Willenhall House and its small farm had probably been comparatively recently established. (fn. 76) This farming structure survived largely undisturbed into the 20th century. (fn. 77)
Between the wars about a hundred houses were built in the neighbourhood of St. James Lane and London Road, and in 1950 Coventry corporation began to develop Willenhall Wood as one of its three new self-contained communities on the outskirts of the city. (fn. 78) The nucleus of the development, containing a shopping precinct', communal buildings, and the new parish church of St. John the Divine, (fn. 79) covers the site of the Manor or Willenhall Hall Farm estate. The farmhouse, which was a gabled stone building retaining some 17th-century features, (fn. 80) was demolished and a new public house occupies the site. A few chestnut trees from the avenue leading to the farm have been left standing in Robin Hood Road. Other farms which have disappeared with the spread of housing are Chapel Farm, Willenhall House Farm, and Crown Farm. The farmhouse of Little (formerly Upper) Farm, an early-19thcentury brick building, was being used in 1964 as a community centre. Most of Little Wood has been destroyed, but Willenhall Wood is preserved as a public open space. Two of the housing estates at Willenhall, containing between them over 1,100 dwellings and completed in 1960, were among the first in England to be laid out on 'Radburn' lines, a system which gives complete segregation for traffic and pedestrians. (fn. 81) The only vehicular access to the houses is by roads serving their back doors near which individual garages are provided, while the front doors and gardens overlook parkland and are approached by footpaths.
Along London Road a few buildings from the old village survive. At the corner of St. James Lane are two pairs of cottages, now with roughcast brick walls, but probably originally timber-framed and dating from the 17th century. Stone House Farm, just south of the former parish boundary, is one of the older buildings which still stand on the south-west side of London Road. The original house was of stone ashlar with the date '1687' and the name 'Thomas Viner' appearing on a formerly exposed gable-end. (fn. 82) Later brick additions include an 18thcentury rear wing and a new front of about 1840.
The south-eastern part of Willenhall, now in Baginton civil parish and outside the city boundary, contains Lower Farm and also some of the land formerly belonging to Little Farm and Packwoods Farm; this included the former Finford Meadow. This area was still rural in 1964.
In the 13th century Coventry Priory had a court leet and probably also a manorial court at Willenhall. By 1340, however, the court leet for all the priory's tenants in the district east of Coventry, including Willenhall, was being held at Sowe, and there is no evidence of a manorial court in the 14th and 15th centuries. (fn. 83) The sum called the common fine paid in 1410-11 by most of the tenants, at 1s. or 6d. each, and worth 8s. in 1539, may represent commutation of judicial obligations. (fn. 84)
In the 14th century there was a manorial officer, the tenant William Collins or Wright, who was called the bailiff of Newton; he seems to have been an elected field reeve. (fn. 85) At the Dissolution, although the former demesne, the open field, and Finford Meadow, were leased, there was a salaried bailiff, Alexander Colley, who may have been principally concerned with the management of the woods. (fn. 86)
In the 17th century there was a constable and an overseer, and later two overseers. The constable's office was filled by annual rotation, from house to house, and assumption of office was confirmed by what was called the court leet of the manor; there were several disputes when householders refused to serve their turn. (fn. 87) Overseers were elected. From 1682 to 1686 there was a dispute on the assessment of rates, which was settled by determining that the assessment should be on the yardland 'as formerly' and not on annual value. (fn. 88) As there was no longer any open field, the village holdings presumably had some traditional valuation in virgates.
In the 19th century the parish appears to have been administered as part of Holy Trinity parish, Coventry. From 1894 until the disappearance of the civil parish in 1932 there was a parish council for Willenhall. (fn. 89)