views updated May 29 2018

Staffordshire 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, rising north of Stoke, then flowing through Stone and Rugeley to leave the shire at Burton. The Dove, joining the Trent north of Burton, forms the boundary with Derbyshire. Stafford itself is on the river Sow, which joins the Trent south-east of the town. The border with Cheshire runs along the river Dane, a tributary of the Weaver, and the north-west border with Shropshire follows the Tern. 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. Watling Street crossed the southern part of the county, intersecting with the Icknield Way near Lichfield. It subsequently became the heartland of the kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth, on the river Tame, was the royal city of the Mercian kings and Lichfield the ecclesiastical capital, St Chad establishing the bishopric there in 669. Stafford, first appearing as Staefford—the ford by the landing-place—may have been where St Bertelin founded a hermitage, though its position as county town was presumably because it was more central than the others. In the later 8th and 9th cents. the power of Mercia declined, first defeated by Wessex, then overrun in the 870s by the Danes. Since, by the treaty of Wedmore of 878, the Danes took the lands east and north of Watling Street, most of Staffordshire was in their hands, though Danish settlement was less intense than in the shires to the east. Under Edward the Elder, the Mercians counter-attacked. Æthelfleda, the lady of the Mercians, recovered Tamworth and Stafford in 913 and fortified them: she died in 922 at Tamworth. 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. In the assessment for ship money in 1635, Stafford paid only £20, Walsall £25, and Lichfield £100. Industry was vigorous, but mainly local. Celia Fiennes, on her tour by horseback in the 1690s, noted near Beaudesert ‘the coal pits where they were digging, they drew up the coal in baskets with a little wheel, or windlass, like a well’. 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’. Dickens, in the next century, was even more disparaging, describing Stafford as ‘dull and dead’.

The transformation of Staffordshire's economy came in the 18th cent., with the development of potting, brewing, engineering, and mining, all 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, opened in 1777, 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 Grand Junction, opened in 1837, linked Warrington and Birmingham via Stafford; the Birmingham and Derby, via Tamworth and Burton, opened 1839; the Trent valley line, via Stone, opened in 1849. 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 and was joined in partnership by James Watt. 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 on Trent, favoured by such good water that brewers for miles around carried it in carts, was exporting 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, after difficult negotiations, 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. In the 1990s Staffordshire retained its county status, with Stoke-on-Trent as a unitary authority.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 14 2018

Staffordshire County in w central England. The terrain consists of rolling hills with moorlands in the n. The region is drained chiefly by the River Trent. The county is largely industrial. It includes the Potteries around Stoke-on-Trent and the Black Country, one of the great industrial hubs of England. Stafford (1991 pop. 117,800) is the county town. Area: 2716sq km (1049sq mi). Pop. (1997) 809,800.