Brownhills is a town in the West Midlands, England. Located on the edge of Cannock Chase near the large artificial lake Chasewater, it is 6 miles (9.7 km) north-east of Walsall and a similar distance south-west of Lichfield. It is part of the Metropolitan Borough of Walsall and the Aldridge-Brownhills parliamentary constituency and neighbours the ancient villages of Pelsall and Stonnall. Before boundary changes in 1974, it was in the county of Staffordshire.
The town lies on the ancient Watling Street, but is not recorded before the 17th century, although Ogley Hay, which in modern times is a district of the town, is recorded as a settlement in the Domesday Book. Brownhills quickly grew around the coal mining industry, especially after it became linked to the canal and railway networks in the mid-19th century, and by the end of the century had grown from a hamlet of only 300 inhabitants to a town with a population of over 13,000, of whom the vast majority were employed in the coal industry. Mining remained the town’s principal industry until the 1950s, but the subsequent closure of the area’s pits led to a severe economic decline which has continued until the present day. The local authority has instituted a regeneration programme which it is hoped will revive the town’s fortunes, providing better transport and leisure facilities.
Brownhills is situated on the ancient Watling Street and there is evidence of early settlement in the area, including an ancient burial mound and a guard post believed to date from Roman times and later dubbed Knaves Castle. The name Brownhills, however, is not recorded before the 17th century. The most popular suggestion for the origin of the name is that it refers to the early mining spoil heaps which dotted the area.
The settlement is first recorded (as “Brownhill”) on Robert Plot‘s 1680 map of Staffordshire, at which time it was a hamlet within the manor of Ogley Hay, which in turn was part of the parish of Norton Canes. Ogley Hay itself had existed since at least the 11th century and is mentioned in the Domesday Book, although the 1801 census lists it as having a population of only 8 people. Beyond Ogley Hay lay Catshill, another hamlet which pre-dated Brownhills and which lay within the parish of Shenstone.
During the 17th century, shallow mine workings began to develop in the area and in 1759 a turnpike was erected in the Catshill area. A local legend claims that Dick Turpin once vaulted the barricade on his horse to avoid paying the toll, although this is demonstrably false as Turpin was executed in 1739, twenty years before the turnpike’s construction. In 1794 Brownhills (now in the plural) was included in a list of local settlements mentioned in an Act of Parliament concerning canals in Staffordshire, and three years later the Wyrley & Essington Canal, nicknamed the “Curly Wyrley” by the locals due to its winding course, was opened. In 1799 Norton Pool, later to be renamed Chasewater, was created to serve as a reservoir for the canals.
Early in the 19th century, a horse-drawn tram system connected the mines to the wharves on the canal. In response to the growing population of the area open land in Ogley Hay, up until then merely heathland, was enclosed and converted to farmland in 1838, the same year in which the area was first declared a parish, although no church was built for another 13 years. Charles Foster Cotterill, a former mayor of Walsall who had purchased the manor of Ogley Hay in 1836 upon the death of former lord Phineas Hussey, saw the potential of the area and sold off large tracts of his land for private farming and the construction of a flour mill and a foundry. The remaining land of the former manor was progressively sold off through a series of indentures of questionable legality until 1846 when Cotterill sold the last 135 acres (0.55 km2) and moved to London.
The South Staffordshire Railway reached Brownhills in 1850 and led to a huge expansion of the local mining operation and with it a population explosion in the area, with the population increasing from 305 in 1801 to over 13,000 in 1891. In 1858 a branch line was constructed through the heart of what was then the hamlet of Brownhills, which led to a migration of the population eastwards, leading to the formation of mining slums in the Ogley Hay area. Eventually a new town centre developed, complete with library and theatre. This led to the gradual amalgamation of Brownhills, Ogley Hay and Catshill into one town.
Mining was to remain the principal industry of Brownhills until the last pit closed in the 1950s. During the 18th and 19th centuries the area known as Coppice Side was the hub of the mining industry, and the census of 1841 showed that over 80% of the population of the area which makes up modern Brownhills lived and worked there, with up to ten pits active in the area at any one time. As in other mining areas, several men lost their lives in the Brownhills pits. Seven miners, including a boy aged 11, died in an accident in 1861, and in October 1930 an explosion at the Grove Colliery killed fourteen miners, ten of them from Brownhills.
In 1877 the town of Brownhills was officially recognised for the first time after a new Act authorised the amalgamation of rural districts into larger local government areas. An order was issued on 29 September stating:
After the First World War, the Urban District Council, which had replaced the District Board in 1894, began a programme of urban improvement. Large areas of open farmland were purchased for the building of council houses, and a notorious slum area, Ogley Square, which had been declared unfit for human habitation, was demolished after a long legal dispute and the tenants rehoused. The final farmland within the boundaries of Brownhills was sold for redevelopment in 1952.
By the time of the Second World War the mines of Brownhills, being amongst the oldest in the area, were largely exhausted, and following the nationalisation of the mining industry the final pit on the Common was closed in the 1950s. Following the demise of the coalfield the town experienced a severe economic slump, with many high street shops closing down. A wave of new development in the 1960s and 1970s saw a new shopping precinct planned, which it was claimed would incorporate a cinema, bowling alley, hotel and bus station and would completely revitalise the town. Despite the developers’ grandiose claims, the project was not a success and ultimately consisted solely of shopping units, many of which stood empty for up to five years. There was little further development in the 1980s and 1990s, and the feeling of the local council is that the town centre is in need of improvement. To this end the council has created a “Townscape Masterplan” for the redevelopment of the town.