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Staffordshire


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Is one of the counties most affected by the industrial revolution. The county town has never dominated the shire. In pre‐Conquest days, it was overshadowed by Tamworth and Lichfield, in modern times by the Black Country towns and the Potteries. The core of the county is the river Trent. The northern parts of the shire are hilly, running up to the Peak District. Cannock Chase, south‐east of Stafford, was for centuries almost impassable, and the Staffordshire rivers were not navigable until the 18th cent. Even as late as the 19th cent., Arnold Bennett could describe his county as ‘lost in the midst of England’.

In Roman times, the region was part of the territory of the Cornovii. It subsequently became the heartland of the kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth was the royal city of the Mercian kings and Lichfield the ecclesiastical capital, St Chad establishing the bishopric there in 669. In the later 8th and 9th cents. the power of Mercia declined, first defeated by Wessex, then overrun in the 870s by the Danes. Under Edward the Elder, the Mercians counter‐attacked. *Æthelfleda, the lady of the Mercians, recovered Tamworth and Stafford in 913 and fortified them. The outlines of the shire were now appearing and it is mentioned in the Anglo‐Saxon Chronicle for 1016 by name.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Staffordshire remained remote and inaccessible. Poor communications and the relative insignificance of the county town meant that many market towns achieved a genuinely independent existence—Leek, Stone, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Newcastle under Lyme, Rugely, and Uttoxeter. Defoe in the 1720s was greatly impressed by the horse fairs at Penkridge, but a little disappointed in Stafford—‘we thought to have found something more worth going so much out of the way’.

The transformation of Staffordshire's economy came in the 18th cent., greatly assisted by the new canals. The outlines of the canal network were apparent in the 1770s, when Brindley opened the Staffordshire and Worcester to link up with the Severn; the Trent and Mersey, through Burton, Rugely, Stone, and the Potteries, brought access to the north‐west; the Birmingham canal to the midlands and south; the Caldon canal linked Etruria to Froghall, with a branch to Leek. The work of the canals in bringing the county into a national orbit was completed by the railways. The effect upon the county was dramatic. The deposits of iron and coal in south Staffordshire began to be exploited on a national scale: Matthew Boulton started his Soho works at Handsworth in 1762. In the north of the county, Josiah Wedgwood opened his Ivy House works at Burslem in 1759, setting up as a master potter, and ten years later built the great Etruria works. Burton upon Trent, favoured by good water, was exporting beer to the Baltic by the mid‐18th cent.: William Worthington set up in business in 1744, William Bass in 1777. The first census of 1801 registered the changing situation. The population of Stafford with 3,900 was already surpassed by Stone, Lichfield, Leek, Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Rowley Regis, and West Bromwich above the 5,000 mark, Burslem 6,500, Walsall 10,000, and Stoke, a comparative newcomer, at 16,000. In the course of the 19th cent. the southern parts of the shire were swallowed up in Birmingham, and the six pottery towns came together in 1910 to form the unique federated borough of Stoke‐on‐Trent. By the local government reorganization of 1972, Staffordshire lost Walsall and Wolverhampton to the new West Midlands authority. Staffordshire retained its own county council in the later 1990s, with Stoke and Sandwell (Smethwick) becoming unitary authorities.

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Subjects: Decorative Arts, Furniture, and Industrial Design — British History.


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