GORNAL WOOD, to the west of Dudley, is a village that still bears the hallmarks of a Black Country community that has evolved from a scattering of small homesteads where many people were engaged in the nail-making industry and general smithing, with coal mining never far away.
Our attention was recently drawn to Gornal Wood because of an observation made by Bugle reader Mark Room who, after travelling along the Himley Road noticed the former Walter Mills Coach garage had been demolished to reveal an ancient cottage standing alone at the back of the cleared plot. He realised the building had probably been abandoned many years ago, but hoped the Bugle could at least record its presence before it too succumbed to the march of progress.
Surrounded on three sides by more recent residential development with lots of trees and hedges forming a natural screen, it was easy to see why this cottage may have been forgotten for so long.
From a vantage point on the main road the Bugle cameraman took a picture of the building, its ground floor obscured by a bunker of material which had been piled up high by the demolition men. But even at this late stage in its life, the cottage, now just a windowless shell, is still managing to support a healthy climbing rose on its facade, a final gesture of respect from the natural world in the last days of this crumbling ruin.
The next port of call was to refer to a map that might reveal just how old the building was, and after close scrutiny of an O.S map for the immediate area that was first surveyed in 1881, we were excited to find the cottage standing in its own plot of land, away from any recognised roads, but with access from a ginnel on Redhall Road. We can therefore assume that the cottage is at least 131 years old and probably a lot more, and may well have been the home of nail makers whose ancestors may have arrived from Shropshire or along the Severn Valley in the 16th or 17th centuries; or miners who may have dug coal at Cooper’s Bank Colliery just the other side of the Himley Road. The map also showed how sparsely populated Gornal Wood was 130 years ago, with relatively few buildings, though some of the open land which existed in late Victorian times is still retained today.
To speak about the history of Gornal Wood in any detail you have to include its more populous neighbour Lower Gornal. When Dudley’s former chief archaeologist John Hemingway wrote about Gornal Wood a few years ago it was within the context of the ‘Township of Lower Gornal and Gornal Wood’. He began with a derivation of the name: “Gornal is derived from two Anglo-Saxon elements, “Cweorn”, meaning a quern or hand held grinding tool, and “hale”, meaning a nook or corner belonging to a larger unit. A major highway, prior to the English Civil War, ran from west to east, leading from Bridgnorth to Coventry.
It ran along the southern boundary of the township, then came up through Temple Street, Humphrey Street and Bagley’s Lane (now called Dibdale Road). This was recorded in Gough’s road map of the late 17th century.
The site of the traditional centre of Gornal is at Five Ways, and to support this theory a 13th century medieval lead seal has been found there. The township had two open fields, occupying the higher lands in the east and centre. Gornal Field lay to the north, surrounding the village, and Stickley Fields to the west.
“The first mention of the population was in 1662 when a Hearth Tax was taken. (The Hearth Tax, also known as the chimney tax, was introduced by King Charles II at the Restoration of the monarchy and was essentially a property tax on dwellings graded according to the number of fire places). Nine people paid the tax. Sixty-seven names were recorded in the chief rent book of 1744, and a survey of 1774 recorded 191 names in Lower Gornal, and by 1844 there were 627 tenancies.
“Coal lay underneath a substantial part of Lower Gornal and the earliest reference to mining can be found in a document of 1558. It appeared that it was a tradition for the residents to dig it out, and in a Manor Court held in 1590, the issue of whether they had the right to do this was raised.
The court decided that as long as the fuel was only used for their personal household fire it was OK for the local residents to continue. (The rest of this feature can be found in this week's Black Country Bugle).