Emotive history found in the past.
FAMILY history is exciting, wearying, uplifting, annoying, exhilarating, angering, and above all tantalising.
It draws us tightly into its mesh, holding out to us hints of who were our ancestors and whence they came. Tempted to find out more, we strive to learn whatever we can about them and their families but all too often we are left frustrated.
We may be able to hatch them, match them and despatch them, but in vain do we seek to speak with them, see them, touch them and hark to their thoughts and voices.
The records of births, deaths and marriages, of land grants, taxes and law suits allow no feelings but engrossed as we are by our quest into the past we need to look deep within the official documents for what else they may tell us and to link them with others, bringing in whatever other sources we can muster to put together as much information as is possible.
Building up the history of an area involves the same emotions, skills and detective work and it is through an understanding of the places that feature in our family history that we can gain a better appreciation of the lives of those who came before us.
Take Stechford and the Smiths. They go hand-in-hand in the earliest documents of the area.
The district was first described as a hamlet in 1275 when a Robert Smith was assessed to pay four shillings tax. A generation later (1296/7) Alexander, son of Ranulph Rastel, of Little Bromwich granted a lease to 'William le Ferur, of Stichford, and Agnes his wife, of 1d. yearly rent issuing out of land in Little Bromwich, in a field called la Oldefelt, Stichford'.
There is much to grab us in this ancient document. It is likely that William was the son of the Robert Smith mentioned in 1275 and as a 'ferur' he was a blacksmith or iron worker - hence the surname Smith or Ferrer. As such William was an early example of someone making things in the Birmingham region in the later Middle Ages.
William and his wife Agnes lived at Stichford not Stechford. According to Victor Skipp, an outstanding pioneer into the study of local history and the expert on Medieval Yardley, the name might mean the sticky ford, that is the ford with sticks at the River Cole. In fact the district was called Stichford until the mid-19th century when the local railway station was mistakenly spelled as Stechford.
The document also tells us that there were close bonds between Stichford and Little Bromwich (later called Ward End) across the River Cole, and that there was a large open field called the Old Field in the parish of Yardley - to which Stechford belonged. Finally the deed also names a Ranulph Rastel, and interestingly a carpenter called Robert Rastell is mentioned for Yardley in 1507/8.
As for the Smiths, an Alice daughter of an Adam Smith of Stichesford is noted in 1300/1, whilst a few years later 'Edith, daughter of William le Ferur, of Stichford' was granted 'three ridges of land in the field of Yerdeleye, part adjoining the stream called le Hulbroc'.
In that period there were two forms of cultivating land. The first was that by an individual farmer who had struck out on his own with his family. They lived in an isolated farmstead amidst their fields. Such a person was the Bill who made a 'ley, a clearing, and gave his name to Billesley.
The other form of farming was the common field system. As it suggests, this was a more communal arrangement, whereby the arable land of a township or parish was divided into small strips of about half an acre or less. In turn, these were gathered into furlongs which were grouped into between two and four great open fields. One of these lay fallow each year for the common grazing of animals.
Each tenant's strips were scattered amongst those of others. As they were ploughed they made furrows and threw up earth which made ridges that divided the strips from each other - hence the three ridges granted to Edith.
The document of 1318/19 also mentions the Hul Brook, sometimes known as the Fell or Stich Brook. This seems to have run from close to the parish church of Yardley, parallel with Station Road, and down to the Cole.
A descendant of William le Ferrur appears as William Smyth in the reign of the unfortunate Richard II, who figures as the lead character in one of Shakespeare's plays. The son of the famed warrior, Edward the Black Prince, and the grandson of the mighty king Edward III, Richard was a weak ruler. His reign was marked out by the Peasants Revolt of 1381, when the common people rose up against a hated poll tax, and by a despotic manner. Deposed in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, Richard died of starvation in captivity.
Despite the violence and tumult of these years, William Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and day-to-day life carried on across the land. Stechford was no different.
In 1382/3 William Smyth 'of Stichford in Yerdeleye' granted to a 'John Dod, of Bromwich, and Philip Huggen, of Yerdeleye a messuage and a chamber at Stichford, between Brocholelone and the road leading from Yerdeleye to Sutton'.
The Smiths had obviously prospered and now owned property, for a messuage was a house with its out buildings and attached land and William was able to rent it out. Its exact location is difficult to ascribe, but the road to Sutton would be the modern Station Road, which leads to Bromford Lane, then Wood Lane, Erdington and thence to the Sutton Road. As for 'Brocholelone' it is later given as Brokhole-lone and may have been the lane that went to Kitts Green and which is now the line of Manor Road, Inglefield Road and Lea Hall Road.
More on the Smiths and Stechford next week
TIMELESS... George Wilkes' photograph of autumn ploughing at Field House Farm, Stechford.; CHANGE. Flaxley Lane, Stechford, in the early 1900s, caught between the urban with the newly-built houses to the left and the rural, with country lane on the right. A William Flaxleye is mentioned in 1327, suggesting that he took his name from the 'ley', clearing, where flax was grown.; SUMMER...Loading the hay wagon with pitchforks by the River Cole at Stechford. This wonderful scene was taken at the end of the nineteenth century but it harks back to the later Middle Ages. It was taken by George Wilkes, a Yardley man. His impressive and evocative collection of photographs was donated to Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery in 1957.