In 1888, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, was running the country. The latter was causing controversy by stating that no 'black man' would ever be elected to represent a British Constituency. (He was referring to Dadabhai Naoroji, a man of Indian descent, who went on to be the MP for Finsbury Central.) The Oaths Act became law, removing 'God' from the oath of allegiance sworn by all MPs when entering Parliament, thus allowing Atheists to run the country. Jack the Ripper claimed his first victims in Whitechapel; the football league was formed; and a cartographer wandered through Great Wyrley making a map.
In the place where legend would have it that the Landywood Great Stones once stood, the cartographer wrote a label. This was, the map now stated, the position of the Fighting Ground. So what was the Fighting Ground?
Great Wyrley in the 19th Century
Today, Great Wyrley is a sprawling expanse of housing estates, hemmed in by the ruins of old mining works and the motorways leading anywhere else in the country. In the 19th century, it looked very different. It was smaller for a start, with clear divisions between Old Wyrley, Wyrley Bank, Landywood, Little Wyrley, Churchbridge and Cheslyn Hay.
The old men and women could still recall when all of this had been forest. Their own parents had made their living cutting the trees all down. The old timers had earned their bent backs and wrinkles in the shallow cut mines that sprung up once the charcoal had been cleared. There were deeper shafts being dug now, in places like Streets Lane and Gilpins down by Churchbridge.
In 1842, a law had been passed, which banned all women and children under ten from entering a mine. It meant that the black faces, hacking coughs from lungs filled with coal dust and the blue tattoos from cuts healing with coal dust in it, all belonged to the men. It also ushered in a new age of poverty, from families used to having far more wages. Kids as young as two could earn money down the mines, opening and closing doors.
Great Wyrley's Fighting Women and Gorse Bushes
Wyrley's women supplemented their family's income by collecting gorse from the moor and hillside edging Gorsey Lane. This could be burned as fuel, or crushed between rocks to feed livestock. The flowers were human food too, making a lovely salad or boiled as a tea. But there was a bigger trade to be had there.
Gorse is also called Broom for a good reason. The branches can be chopped into shape and gathered together to make a traditional broom. Wyrley women were frequently found in the markets of Wolverhampton, Walsall and Cannock selling their brooms. They earned a reputation for rowdiness and hard-faced bargaining there. They were forever causing fights.
The problem was so great that Frederick William Hackwood recorded the complaints of a Walsall police constable, in his The Chronicles of Cannock Chase (1903), about Wyrley women. It seemed that females caught fighting in half of the Black Country would be wont to give Wyrley Bank as their place of origin.
It was often just a convenient lie, because fighting women were expected to come from Wyrley. Most of them had never even seen the town, but they and the police knew that little could be done along that line of enquiry. No uniformed officer asking questions in Great Wyrley would find any answers. It was viewed as a den of iniquity, with the residents banding together against all comers and refusing to co-operate with the law.
It seemed that little had changed since the 12th century wardens of Edward III had reported back to their monarch that 'nothing can tame those wild Wyrley folk'. Even as late as 1888, there were no police officers in Great Wyrley. In 2011, there's still no police station.
The End of Bare-Knuckle Fighting in Victorian Britain
Great Wyrley, with its reputation and isolation, became a Mecca for sports that the law frowned upon elsewhere. Amongst these was bare-knuckle fighting, which settled feuds or simply pitted one hard man against another. It was illegal in 19th century Britain, with police officers entering the fray to break them up and arrest all participants.
The Marquis of Queensbury had tried to channel all of this aggression into a series of rules, which would ultimately result in the accepted sport of Boxing. But in 1867, when he introduced them, even boxing was afforded only a dubious legality.
The whole weight of the justice system was being thrown against bare-knuckle fighting, particularly when people were betting on the outcome. In 1882, the Court for Crown Cases Reserved made a judgement that is still law in Britain (R v Coney). The Crown Justice ruled illegal any fight resulting in actual bodily harm, even if both participants had given their prior consent. Anyone found spectating could also be charged with aiding and abetting.
This was pretty much the death knoll for locally organised bare-knuckle fighting throughout the country. But not in Great Wyrley.
The Fighting Ground in Landywood
The wide expanse of land was scarred with the remains of open cast mines and the shallow gulleys forged to drain water away. It had once been forest and off, on the far Southern horizon, there were still the few dotted trees that were now Essington Wood. This was the Fighting Ground.
Holly Lane looped around it, leading in one direction to the Wyrley-Essington canal, along which walkers could eventually reach Wolverhampton and Birmingham, and in the other to the fields backing onto the old Roman Watling Street. Run that way and you had a choice between North Wales or London and anywhere else between the two.
Not that anyone would have had to go to such extremes. Landywood was just a short sprint away from Wyrley Bank, where people could just disappear because no-one would have seen them at all. Especially when a police officer was asking.
To the immediate north-east was Broom Hill, with its sweeping view over endless acres of Staffordshire and maybe even as far as Shropshire. This was the place where the Parliamentary army had camped during the Civil War for precisely the same reason. You can see people coming from miles away. A shout from the top of Broom Hill could probably be heard from the Fighting Ground. A lit bonfire would certainly have been seen.
In short, the bare-knuckle fights went on with impunity. There were no police officers in Great Wyrley. If any were called, then the look out on top of Broom Hill would see them coming. In any case, it would take a long time for them to get there. They'd have to arrive from Cannock or Hednesford, which was a fair trek, even on horseback, and someone would have to get the message to them first.
But in the extremely unlikely event that police constables arrived on the scene in time to interrupt any fight, there were escape routes everywhere. The majority would probably have just run south, where there was no barrier between them and the distant Essington Wood. It would have been a short stroll back along the canal later.
There is oral history of this still in Great Wyrley. Steve, who we last met in the hunt for the Landywood Great Stones, had heard all about it. The story passed down to him was that prize fighters used to come from miles around - from the Black Country, from Staffordshire, from Shropshire, Birmingham and perhaps even further afield - because Great Wyrley was one of the safest places to fight, as regards the law.