25 June 2023
A search in the rain
for the Comberford
estates and legacy at
I was back in Wednesbury a few days ago for the first time in more than half a century. I had been in the West Midlands market town back in 1970, visiting Saint Bartholomew’s Church and searching for the site of Wednesbury Manor, which had belonged to the Comberford family in the 16th and 17th centuries.
When I first visited Wednesbury, it was long before the days of digital photographs, Google Map searches and the amassing of local and family history resources on websites.
I had walked around Wednesbury over half a century ago, searching for any signs of the long-disappeared manor house and any indications that the Beaumont and Comberford families had an important presence in the town.
But all I had was a few jottings, hand-sketched maps and pencilled notes. I needed to return to Wednesbury to take photographs and to make my findings available to others who share my interest in the history and legacy of the Comberford and Comerford families.
Little or nothing remains today to mark the site of the original manor house at Wednesbury. In William Comberford’s time, the manor house lay about 300 metres north-east of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, by Manor House Road, close to today’s primary school and Beaumont Road.
When I first visited Wednesbury in 1970, the site of the original manor house was pointed out to me as a short stretch on the south side of Manor House Road, between the corners of Harcourt Road and Beaumont Road.
I returned to Wednesbury last week to see Saint Bartholomew’s Church, and to search again for the site of the manor house, once held by the Beaumont and Comberford families. Unusually heavy rains that afternoon did not help my search and did not provide for good photographs.
Manor House Road is part of the B4200 linking Wednesbury and Darlston. Carefully measuring the distances from the church and using historical accounts and images of the old manor house, I am now satisfied that the manor house stood on the south side of Manor House Road, between its junctions with Harcourt Road and Beaumont Road. On the site, to the east of a local Catholic school, stand Nos 98 and 100 Manor House, with an electricity substation between them.
There are no reminders of this former manor house to be seen today, apart from the names of Manor House Road, Harcourt Road and Beaumont Road, remembering the names of two families who intermarried with the Comberford family, and in the names of a small number of shops on the opposite side of the street, such as the Manor Fish Bar.
Comberford Drive is a 30-minute walk further east, close to the site of the forge once operated by the Comberford family over 400 years ago.
Wednesbury Manor … the remains of the manor house seen in an old postcard in 1892
Wednesbury Manor House once stood on a site about a quarter of a mile north-east of Saint Bartholomew’s Church. The Beaumont family, who claimed French royal ancestry, inherited Wednesbury through the marriage of Joan Heronville and Sir Henry Beaumont, while the Heronville family had acquired the estate a generation earlier through the marriage of Henry Heronville and Joan Leventhorpe.
The heraldic family trees on the ceiling of the Long Gallery in the Moat House, the Comberford family’s townhouse on Lichfield Street in Tamworth, illustrate the importance William Comberford and his family attached to their descent from the Beaumont family, and how they had inherited their estates in Wednesbury. It was a boast he was eager to impress on the future Charles I when he was their guest in 1619.
The Comberford family acquired the Wednesbury estates when Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496/1498-1555) married Dorothy Beaumont. Humphrey was educated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (BA 1525, MA 1528), with two of his brothers, Henry Comberford and Richard Comberford. He was the Master of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield in 1530, and succeeded to his father’s Comberford estates in 1532.
Dorothy Beaumont was one of three daughters and co-heiresses, and her other two sisters had married brothers from the Babington family. By buying out the interests of the Babington family, the Comberfords arrested the possibility that the estates would be divided, and placed themselves in a position to exploit the new-found wealth in coal mining in south Staffordshire.
When Humphrey and Dorothy married, they also strengthened the links between the Comberford family and many of the prominent Catholic families in south Staffordshire. These links, and the safe passage of Catholic priests during the reign of Elizabeth I, were facilitated, in part, by the fact that the Moat House in Tamworth and the Comberford manor in Wednesbury were linked directly by the River Tame.
Humphrey Comberford seems to have been happy to leave much of the management of the interests in Wednesbury Manor he had acquire by marriage in the capable hands of a younger brother, John Comberford.
Humphrey and John were brothers of both Richard Comberford of Bradley, Bursar of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and sometimes confused with Richard Comerford, ancestor of the Comerfords of Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford; and of Canon Henry Comberford (1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral.
John Comberford lived in Wednesbury, and in 1543-1544, as John Cumberforthbe, gentleman, he was Treasurer of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was then Thomas Cranmer, or Treasurer of Canterbury Palace. He married Emma or Anne Beawlott or Bellet in 1549.
John Comberford died on 25 April 1559, a day after making his will, and he was buried in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Wednesbury. Shaw and Bagnall say the figures on the tomb on the chancel floor included a man in armour, a woman in the dress of the time, and their son and four daughters. The inscription on his tomb read: ‘Of your charyte pray for the soule of Ihon Comberfort, Gentlylman, and Em hys wyffe, the which Ihon departed the XXV day Aperyl in the yere of oure God MDCIX of whose soule God have mercy.’
The tomb was missing for many years, until it was found once again in the apse during renovations in 1890. However, a search 80 years later in 1970 with the Revd CJW Ward failed to find it once more. The arms of John and Emma Comberford (the Comberford cross with five red roses, impaling the Beawlott arms) were once illustrated in the painted glass windows in Saint Bartholomew’s that were smashed during the Cromwellian era.
Humphrey Comberford died three years earlier on 23 December 1555, probably in Northamptonshire, where his large estates were centred on the Comberford Manor in Watford. Humphrey’s will was proved on 7 November 1556. He was probably buried with his wife Dorothy in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Wednesbury, where the impaled arms of Comberford and Beaumont were once part of the painted glass windows.
Humphrey Comberford’s widow Dorothy (Beaumont) died in 1565, and Wednesbury became part of the Comberford estates inherited by her eldest son, Thomas Comberford (1530-1597). Until 1564, one-third of the Manor of Wednesbury was in the hands of Sir Thomas Babington, and one-third in the hands of his brother Anthony Babington. However, in 1565 Thomas Comberford secured full possession of the whole of the Manor of Wednesbury, with its dependent estates and lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire.
Those estates and lands included the manors of Wednesbury and Tynmore, 120 acres of land, 40 acres of wood, 10 acres of land, and 10 acres of meadow in Wirksworth and Kirk Ireton, near Matlock in Derbyshire; £10 rent in Wednesbury, Waltswoode, Finchpath and Tibinton; and a fifth-part of the Manor of Egginton in Derbyshire, half-way between Burton-upon-Trent and Derby.
A modern artistic impression of Wednesbury Manor … a painting by D Clarke now in the Sandwell Museums
Thomas Comberford’s relationships with his tenants in Wednesbury were never very happy, and there was a series of lawsuits with Thomas Parkes, the most powerful of his tenants in Wednesbury and a prosperous iron founder.
Thomas Comberford’s eldest son, William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford and Wednesbury, used his wealth from the Comberford family estates in Wednesbury to advance his family’s political, economic and social power in South Staffordshire.
From 1597 on, William Whorwood was William Comberford’s partner in working an iron-making smithy at Wednesbury. William leased the smithy at Wednesbury to his son-in-law, William Coleman of Cannock, in 1606, including his ‘forge with finery and chafery.’ William Comberford was trying to expand his iron-working business and to establish himself as a supplier of charcoal and as an ironmaster. In 1606, he was planning to build new water mills at or near Wednesbury Bridge.
William emphasised his descent from the Beaumont family and through them kinship with French, Scottish and English royalty in his decoration of the long gallery in the Moat House in Tamworth. It was an opulent display to mark a prominent place during the visit by James I and his son Prince Charles to Tamworth in August 1619.
The Comberfords had risen in social standing from the ranks of the local farming families to claiming a place among the gentry. If they ever entertained any hopes of receiving a title, these never materialised. But when the prince succeeded to the throne as Charles I, the monarch built on these claims to his own benefit, using William Comberford to raise loans and troops for the royalist cause during the English Civil War.
William Comberford was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire at the end of 1622. In 1623, he donated the sixth of the eight musical bells in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Wednesbury, which is inscribed: ‘William Comberford, Lord of Wedgbury [sic], gave this bell, 1623.’ On the seventh is, ‘Sancta Bartholomew, ora pro nobis’ and on the tenor is inscribed: ‘I will sound and resound to thee, O Lord, to call thy people to hear thy word.’
William Comberford died in 1625. In his will, he asked to be buried in the north end of the parish church of Tamworth, where he said his father and mother were buried. He left £20 for the poor of Wednesbury and £20 for the poor of Tamworth, the income from both sums to be used to buy bread on Good Friday. A tablet in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, recording the charities of Wednesbury Parish, noted: ‘William Comberford, esq and lord of this manor, gave the use of twenty pounds by will, to be bestowed for every Good Friday on the poor, in bread, anno 1626.’
Ede points out, the ‘story of Wednesbury manor between the deaths of William Comberford senior in 1625 and its acquisition, between 1657 and 1663, by the Sheldon family, is confused and in part uncertain.’
When William Comberford, died in 1625, his grandson William Comberford was his heir at law and aged 32. William succeeded to the Comberford family estates, but did not take possession of them as the bulk of the estates, including the Moat House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, and the Manor of Wednesbury, had been leased in trust by his grandfather William Comberford to his uncle William Comberford. William was entitled only to the reserved rents on the Comberford estates, but he appears never to have received even these from his uncle, for by 1648 these were in arrears by 23 years.
According to the local historian William Hackwood, who lived at Comberford Cottage in Bridge Street, Wednesbury, Colonel William Comberford probably sold Wednesbury Manor in 1642 to raise money for the Royalist cause.
John Comberford (ca 1597-ca 1666), of Handsworth, Staffordshire, was aged about 28 when his grandfather William Comberford died in 1625. He married Mary Singleton of Broughton Tower, Lancashire, and they had no children. He was named by his brother William as one of the executors of his will. He inherited Wednesbury after the death of William Comberford in 1653 and after settling ‘all my lands in Wednesbury’ on trustees, he appears to have paid off all the outstanding debts on the estate and sold it around 1656 to his distant cousin, John Shelton of West Bromwich.
John Comberford’s will is dated 1657, but he was still living in 1664, when he was a party to leasing Comberford and Wigginton Manor. He died within the following two years, and his will was proved in 1666.
John Shelton of West Bromwich was a Cromwellian and strict Presbyterian. He had already bought property in the Wednesbury area from John Comberford of Handsworth, and he was Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1672. By then, the fortunes of the Comberford family had declined, partly through the misfortunes of the English Civil War, and the family links with Wednesbury had come to an end.
Inside Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Wednesbury, in 1827 (Hackwood, facing p. 22)
Wednesbury Hall was sold in 1710 by Shelton’s son, John Shelton, to John Hoo of Bradley, serjeant-at-law, and it then passed to his brother, Thomas Hoo, to Thomas Hoo’s son, John Hoo, who died at the old house in Wednesbury in 1740, and to John Hoo’s sons, John Hoo (1718-1746) and Thomas Hoo, High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1772 and who died in 1794.
Wednesbury Hall was used as a farmhouse, but it deteriorated when it was the home of the Hoo family in the early 18th century. The top storey of the old manor house was removed about 1755, and it was soon reduced to ‘a common farm[house],’ so that Shaw in 1779, in his History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, says the manor house at Wednesbury ‘has nothing remarkable about it, now being converted into a common farm.’
When Thomas Hoo, Lord of the Manors of Great Barr and Wednesbury, died a bachelor and intestate in 1791, the manors passed through the female line to his second cousin, Mary Whitby, wife of Edward Whitby. She was the only daughter of the Revd John Dolman, Rector of Aldridge, and grand-daughter of William Beady and Margaret Hoo daughter of John Hoo of Bradley, and to her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth Maria Foley Hodgetts, wife of the Hon Edward Foley (1747-1808), daughter of John Hodgetts (d. 1783) and grand-daughter of John Hodgetts of Shutt End, Kingswinford, and his wife, Mary Hoo.
These two women were ‘the present ladies of the manor’ at the end of the 18th century. Wednesbury then passed to Sir Joseph Scott (1752-1828), when he married Margaret Whitby, the only daughter of Edward and Mary Whitby and one of the two Hoo heiresses.
A local vicar, the Revd John Wylde, contested this succession and produced a will dated 1777 naming himself as the chief beneficiary. When the case was heard at Stafford Assizes in 1792, a papermaker proved beyond doubt that the will produced by Wylde was a fake and was on paper made after Thomas Hoo’s death.
Sir Joseph Scott inherited Wednesbury Hall and was made a baronet in 1806. He was still in possession of Wednesbury Hall in 1820, and died on 17 June 1828. His son, Sir Edward Dolman Scott (1793-1851), was MP for Lichfield.
The coal-mining interests of the Comberford and Parkes families passed in the 17th century to the daughters of Richard Parkes of Old Park. In 1727, Sarah married Sampson Lloyd, a leading Quaker whose descendants gave their name to Lloyds Bank. Sarah’s sister married Thomas Pemberton, whose descendants also married into the Lloyd family.
By 1834, Wednesbury Hall was in the possession of Sir Horace St Paul (1775-1840), a baronet and a count of the Holy Roman Empire, and the house was described as ‘a venerable brick mansion.’ Wednesbury Hall was inherited by his son, Sir Horace St Paul (1812-1891) in 1840. However, by the time Bagnall published his History of Wednesbury in 1854, the manor house had been converted into a farmhouse, ‘retaining nothing of its former magnificence.’
Wednesbury Manor House remained a farmhouse until the late 19th century. FW Hackwood, who saw the house in its later years, described it in his book Wednesbury Ancient and Modern: ‘small red bricks, heavy sandstone mullioned windows, very plain but somewhat high. Its open entrance porch had a seat on each side.’
Wednesbury Hall was later known as Mason’s Hall, and the manor house was in slum conditions by the mid-19th century. It was only the size of a cottage when it was photographed in 1894, and it was completely demolished at the beginning of the 20th century.
The archaeologist Paul Belford in a paper has described archaeological excavations in 2004-2008 at Wednesbury Forge, north-east of Wednesbury and in the Tame Valley, and how they encountered extensive remains of timber and masonry structures and other features. The historical and archaeological evidence revealed a sophisticated ironworking complex in existence by ca 1600, and this was continually adapted and redeveloped until the site closed in 2005.
Comberford Drive in Wednesbury is close to the site of the former forge, once owned by the Comberford family. It is almost two miles east of the site of the former Manor House and Saint Bartholomew’s Church, squeezed between the banks of the River Tame and the sidings of the railway line and the busy M6. The nearest landmark is Bescot Stadium, the home ground of Walsall Football Club and Aston Villa Women.