The city of Lichfield: Introduction

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1990.

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'The city of Lichfield: Introduction', A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, (London, 1990), pp. 1-3. British History Online [accessed 25 June 2024].

. "The city of Lichfield: Introduction", in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, (London, 1990) 1-3. British History Online, accessed June 25, 2024,

. "The city of Lichfield: Introduction", A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, (London, 1990). 1-3. British History Online. Web. 25 June 2024,


Lichfield, one of the smallest of the English cathedral cities, was an ecclesiastical centre by the 7th century. (fn. 1) A town was laid out there in the 12th century, and it was incorporated and given county status by royal charters in the mid 16th century. Until the later 18th century it was among the largest and wealthiest Staffordshire towns, and with its cathedral and its position on important main roads it was also the social centre of the county.

The boundaries of the city were probably extended on the north and west in the mid 17th century, but there is no surviving perambulation before the later 18th century. (fn. 2) The area remained 3,475 a. until 1934 when it was enlarged to 3,597 a. (1,456 ha.) by the addition of part of Streethay on the east. (fn. 3) Further adjustments to the eastern boundary in 1980 reduced the area to 1,403 ha. (fn. 4) Circuit brook marks part of the northern boundary, and Darnford brook formed much of the southeastern boundary until the changes of 1980. A large part of the city was still open country in the mid 20th century, but in the 40 years following the end of the Second World War there has been extensive residential development with a threefold increase in population. The city had little important industry before the 19th century, a fact which, when noted by James Boswell in 1776, provoked Dr. Johnson to say of his native Lichfield: 'We are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.' (fn. 5) In the later 19th century brewing and light engineering became important, and the later 20th century has seen a notable increase in light industry on several trading estates.

Lichfield is situated on the Keuper Sandstone between the high ground of Cannock Chase on the west and the valleys of the Trent and the Tame on the east. The ground within the city slopes down from 382 ft. (116 m.) in the north-west to 282 ft. (86 m.) on the sandstone shelf where the cathedral stands. The market place lies at 265 ft. (81 m.), but south and east of the city centre is a ridge which reaches 341 ft. (104 m.) at St. Michael's church on a spur at Greenhill. To the south-east the level drops to 226 ft. (69 m.) where the Tamworth road crosses the city boundary into Freeford. There is another ridge in the south-west of the city where the level reaches 423 ft. (130 m.) on the boundary at Aldershawe and Harehurst Hill.

Two pools, Minster Pool and the larger Stowe Pool, lie respectively south and east of the cathedral. Before the 18th century there was a third pool known variously as Upper, Over, and Sandford Pool; it lay west of Minster Pool, separated from it by a causeway. (fn. 6) John Leland in the 1540s noted that the pools divided the city into north and south parts, (fn. 7) while Daniel Defoe in the 1720s described how Minster Pool 'parts Lichfield, as it were, into two cities, one is called the Town, and the other the Close'. (fn. 8) The pools were fed from the west by Leamonsley and Trunkfield brooks, but by the 1980s the brooks no longer contained sufficient water; instead water is pumped into Minster Pool from the South Staffordshire Waterworks Co.'s tunnel running from Hanch reservoir in Longdon. (fn. 9) A single stream, now covered over, runs out of Minster Pool into Stowe Pool, out of which it flows north as Curborough brook. The pools appear to be natural in origin but to have been deepened in order to drive two mills and to serve as fisheries. (fn. 10) For Celia Fiennes, visiting Lichfield in 1697, the city stood 'low and waterish', and she noted 'a great standing water … just by the town which does often flow the grounds after rains'. (fn. 11) Horace Walpole visited Lichfield in 1743 and wrote of it that 'the bog in which the cathedral … stands stagnates, I believe, midst beds of poppy and makes all its inhabitants as sleepy as its bishop and canons'. (fn. 12) In 1745 another traveller commented with equal sarcasm on Lichfield's situation, 'which (tho' in a bog) the inhabitants fancy to be as healthy as that of Montpellier'. (fn. 13) Upper Pool disappeared as a result of encroachment, and the area had been landscaped by the 1780s; it is now occupied by the southern part of Beacon Park. Minster and Stowe pools were landscaped in the later 18th century. (fn. 14) In 1840 a local physician denounced them as a source of disease and called for them to be filled in. (fn. 15) In the later 1850s they were dredged and turned into reservoirs by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Co. (fn. 16) Although no longer so used, they remain a striking feature of Lichfield's landscape.

Figure 1:

Yates's Map of the County of Stafford 1775 (part): scale 1 in. to 1 mile (1: 63,360)

The cathedral, rising above Minster Pool, has long been appreciated as an even more striking feature. In 1635 members of the city corporation described it as 'the beauty of the city'. (fn. 17) Defoe considered it 'one of the finest and most beautiful in England'. (fn. 18) Even Walpole thought it 'very fine'. (fn. 19) Henry James in 1872 forgave Lichfield for being 'stale without being really antique' because it formed 'a girdle of quietude' for a cathedral which was 'great among churches'. (fn. 20) Three visitors in 1634 noted the 'stately high spires' rising above the city. (fn. 21) For Defoe they were 'three beautiful spires, the like of which are not to be seen in one church, no not in Europe'. (fn. 22) Francis Mundy, in his poem on Needwood forest written in 1776, hailed them as the 'triumphant ladies of the vale'. (fn. 23) In the 1860s Elihu Burritt, the United States consular agent in Birmingham and a fervent admirer of Lichfield cathedral, noted how the spire of St. Mary's added a fourth to the cathedral spires: 'Lichfield looks like a little city of steeples on approaching it from any side.' Indeed, though a 'flat-footed little city', it was the 'clasp-jewel of the gold-and-green embroidered zone of the Black Country'. (fn. 24)


  • 1. The following account of Lichfield was written in the later 1980s. The people named in footnotes as supplying information are warmly thanked for their help. Statements in this introductory section and in the following General History section for which sources are not given can be assumed to be based on the relevant section later in the volume.
  • 2. Below, boundaries and gates.
  • 3. Census, 1931.
  • 4. Lichfield (Parishes) Order 1980, S.I. 1980 no. 387; below, Freeford (introduction); Streethay (introduction).
  • 5. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, ii. 464.
  • 6. L.J.R.O., D. 77/9/28, 37, 61; below, figs. 2 and 4; econ. hist. (agric.; fisheries).
  • 7. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, ii. 100–1.
  • 8. D. Defoe, Tour thro' the Whole Island of Gt. Brit. (1927), ii. 479.
  • 9. Lichfield Mercury, 4 Aug. 1989, p. 4.
  • 10. S.H.C. 1950–1, 143–4; below, econ. hist.
  • 11. Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. C. Morris (1949), 111, 114.
  • 12. Corresp. of Horace Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis, xl. 43.
  • 13. Hist. MSS. Com. 31, 13th Rep. IV, p. 472.
  • 14. Below, econ hist. (agric.); social and cultural activities (walks).
  • 15. [J. C. Rawson], Inquiry into Hist. and Influence of the Lichfield Waters (Lichfield and London, 1840; copy in W.S.L.).
  • 16. Below, public services (water supplies).
  • 17. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1635, 455.
  • 18. Defoe, Tour, ii. 279.
  • 19. Corresp. of Walpole, xl. 43.
  • 20. H. James, English Hours (1960), 48; L. Edel, Henry James: the Conquest of London, 1870–1883 (1962), 63.
  • 21. Relation of a Short Survey of 26 Counties, 1634, ed. L. G. Wickham Legg, 56.
  • 22. Defoe, Tour, ii. 279.
  • 23. F. N. C. Mundy, Needwood Forest (Lichfield, 1776), 24. Honora Sneyd, Anna Seward's protegé, was reported as calling them 'the ladies of the valley' in 1779: Poetical Works of Anna Seward, ed. W. Scott (Edinburgh, 1810), ii. 89; M. A. Hopkins, Dr. Johnson's Lichfield, 110–11.
  • 24. E. Burritt, Walks in the Black Country and its Green Border-land (1869), 341–3, 353.