Mike Hodder, Birmingham City Council
The Great Hall, Wolverhampton: Elizabethan Mansion to Victorian Workshop. Archaeological Investigations at Old Hall Street, Wolverhampton, 2000-2007. by Christopher Hewitson, Eleanor Ramsey, Michael Shaw, Malcolm Hislop and Richard Cuttler. British Archaeological Reports, British Series 517, 2010 (Birmingham Archaeology Monograph Series 5) ISBN 978 1 4073 0702 2. £35.00. vi+102 pages; illustrated in colour and black and white.
It is always good to see archaeological work on sites in the West Midlands conurbation reach publication, especially for those parts of the region that are under-represented in the literature. This volume describes the results of a relatively small excavation and associated watching briefs in what is now part of Wolverhampton city centre which, combined with documentary research, tell the story of a site’s transition from medieval field to a great house that was later used for the japanning industry.
Drawing of the West Front of the Old Hall, undated but probably mid-19th century © Copyright Wolverhampton City Council
Shaw sets the scene with a historic background drawing on primary and secondary evidence. Historic maps, illustrations and photographs taken during its demolition indicate that the "Great Hall" was of late 16th century origin. It was built by the Levesons, wool merchants with interest in ironworking and coalmining. In the 18th century the house was occupied by the Turton family, and in the late-18th century by japanners (japanning is the application of a hard black lacquer, imitating Japanese lacquer, to metal or papier-mâché items), continuing in this industrial use into the second half of the 19th century before its demolition in 1883. Richard Wisker’s detailed account of the Leveson family will certainly be of local interest but seems superfluous as part of this report. By contrast, Hewitson and Jones present a clear account of the japanning and enamelling industry, details of which may be unknown to many despite its great local importance, and relate the processes to the rooms at Old Hall as labelled on a map of 1852.
Taylor's map of 1750 (left) and location of investigated areas, on corner of Bilston and Garrick Streets (right) © Copyright Birmingham Archaeology
The excavation and watching brief report by Cuttler and Ramsey follows. A moat originally surrounding the house was sectioned at several locations, and a late medieval ploughsoil survived under the upcast from it. The earliest pottery in the moat dated to the 18th century. Other structural remains included sandstone and brick walls attributable to the 16th century house and additions and alterations relating to the 19th century industrial use of the site. Although the report is illustrated by several plans and section drawings, it is surprising that there are no photographs of the excavation- I would have expected at least a general view of the main excavation area showing the moat and masonry features.
Fragments of tin-glazed earthenware bowls (left) and porcelain bowls and saucers (right) © Copyright Birmingham Archaeology
Ratkai’s report notes the relatively small quantity of medieval pottery (13th-15th/16th century) but discusses it and the post-medieval pottery in relation to pottery from other sites in Wolverhampton and the surrounding area, including Birmingham city centre. Although overall there was little evidence for earlier medieval occupation of the site, large abraded sherds of late medieval and early post-medieval pottery from the area of the eastern part of the main building suggested occupation there but the pottery could not be closely dated enough to say whether or not it predated the 16th century house. Crucibles of 15th- to 17th-century type were probably related to the construction of the Hall. There were significant post-medieval pottery assemblages from moat fill, their composition varying in different parts of the site. A high status late-18th century group was dominated by formal dining and tea wares, including Chinese porcelain tea bowls, creamware plates, and sauceboats. Deposition of this group possibly resulted from a clear out by the Ryton family who lived and worked on the site in the early-19th century, but as japanners they themselves are unlikely to have used pottery such as this. Elsewhere on the site, utilitarian coarsewares were predominant in the moat fill, indicating different activities such as cooking, brewing and dairying. The inclusion in the report of colour plates of vessels of well-known types, in addition to drawings of them, is surprising and is something that might be more expected in a North American report on a post-medieval site than a British publication.
Pearlware tea bowls (left) and fragments of pearlware saucers and jug handle (right) © Copyright Birmingham Archaeology
Glass from the excavation includes wine bottles of 17th- to 19th-century date and a graffito on window glass. A wooden peg was probably from a timber-framed building, and there was a rare find of a wooden bowling ball made of tropical hardwood. Worked stone included part of medieval window tracery, possibly from an earlier building on the site. In addition to crucibles, there were some offcuts from metalworking. Environmental evidence from the moat indicates waste ground, and also trees, cultivated land and grassland. Chemical, micromorphological and magnetic susceptibility analyses of the deposit interpreted as a ploughsoil confirm that it was a cultivated soil.
17th century wine bottle (left), wooden peg (middle) and hardwood bowling ball (right) © Copyright Birmingham Archaeology
The discussion by Hewitson, Hislop and Shaw includes points that are significant not only for this site but for elsewhere in the region and beyond. Discussion of the ploughsoil could have made reference to the moat in nearby Walsall, which excavation showed was established over ridge and furrow. The date of the moat at Old Hall is problematic: it would be assumed to be medieval in date but nothing in its fill could be dated to earlier than 1725, suggesting that it was kept clean or, more likely, cleaned out or recut at this time. It is suggested that the moat could actually have been constructed to surround the 16th-century house, indicating that perhaps we need to look more critically at the dates of other moats in the region. The buildings and their surroundings at the Old Hall site can be described in some detail from maps and illustrations. The 16th-century house was built in brick at a time when this material was a status symbol, and brick buildings were more common in rural areas than towns. Information on the Old Hall therefore contributes to an understanding of architectural history by augmenting the evidence provided by surviving buildings in the surrounding area. Despite the site’s documented industrial use, relatively little industrial debris was found in the excavation, which emphasises the importance of a detailed analysis of documentary evidence - would we have deduced what industries went on here from the archaeological evidence alone?
From a curatorial point of view, it would have been useful to include a statement about the extent of archaeological survival demonstrated here compared with elsewhere in Wolverhampton. This would have emphasised the significance of this particular site and provided justification for the level of detail of the publication, although I have reservations about this detail and the publication outlet consequently chosen for the report. I wonder whether in this instance the report would have lost any of its quality if it were briefer and therefore publishable in Post Medieval Archaeology or a county journal (in this case Transactions of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society), perhaps accompanied by a glossy booklet aimed at a wider and more local readership. However, I know only too well the challenges of getting development-based work published and I therefore particularly welcome this detailed and good quality production as a contribution to the archaeology and history of Wolverhampton and the wider conurbation.