Stafford

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Stafford is the county town of Staffordshire, in the West Midlands region of England. It lies approximately 16 miles (26 km) north of Wolverhampton and 18 miles (29 km) south of Stoke-on-Trent, adjacent to the M6 motorway Junction 13 to Junction 14. The population of Stafford was given in the 2001 census as 63,681, with that of the wider borough of Stafford as 122,000, making Stafford the fourth largest settlement in the Ceremonial county, after Stoke on Trent, Tamworth and Newcastle under Lyme.

Stafford means ‘ford’ by a ‘staithe’ (landing place). The original settlement was on dry sand and gravel peninsula that provided a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of the River Trent. There is still a large area of marshland northwest of the town, which has always been subject to flooding, such as in 1947, 2000 and 2007.

It’s thought Stafford was founded in about 700 AD by Mercian prince called Bertelin who, according to legend, established a hermitage on the peninsular named Betheney or Bethnei. Until recently it was thought that the remains of a wooden preaching cross from this time had been found under the remains of St Bertelin’s chapel, next to the later collegiate Church of St Mary in the centre of the town. Recent re-examination of the evidence shows this was a misinterpretation – it was a tree trunk coffin placed centrally in the first, timber, chapel at around the time Æthelflæd founded the burh, in 913 AD. The tree trunk coffin may have been placed there as an object of commemoration or veneration of St Bertelin.

Already a centre for the delivery of grain tribute during the Dark Ages, Stafford was commandeered in July 913 AD by Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia and daughter of King Alfred the Great, after the death of her father and of her husband, Æthelred, then ealdorman of Mercia in 911, in order to construct a burh there. This new burh was fortified and provided with an industrial area for the centralised production of Roman-style pottery (“Stafford Ware”) which was supplied to the chain of west midlands burhs.

She and her younger brother King Edward the Elder of Wessex, both children of King Alfred the Great and Ealhswith, wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of the Angles of Mercia, were attempting to complete their father King Alfred the Great’s programme of unifying England into a single kingdom. Æthelflæd was a formidable military leader and tactician, and she sought to protect and extend the northern and western frontiers of her overlordship of Mercia against the Danish Vikings, by fortifying burhs, including Tamworth and Stafford in 913, and Runcorn on the River Mersey in 915 among others, while King Edward the Elder concentrated on the east, wresting East Anglia and Essex from the Danes. Anglo-Saxon women could play powerful roles in society. Her death effectively ended the relative independence of Mercia. Edward the Elder of Wessex took over her fortress at Tamworth and accepted the submission of all who were living in Mercia, both Danish and English. In late 918, Aelfwynn, Æthelflæd’s daughter, was deprived of her authority over Mercia and taken to Wessex. The project for the unification of England took another step forward.

Stafford was one of Æthelflæd’s military campaign bases and extensive archaeological investigations, and recent re-examination and interpretation of that evidence now shows her new burh was producing, in addition to the Stafford Ware pottery, food for her army (butchery, grain processing, baking), coinage and weaponry, but apparently no other crafts and there were few imports.

The Lady of Mercia, Æthelflæd, ruled Mercia for five years after the death of her father and husband, dying in Tamworth in 918.

At around this time the county of Staffordshire was formed. Stafford lay within the Pirehill hundred.

In 1069, a rebellion by Eadric the Wild against the Norman conquest culminated in the Battle of Stafford. Two years later, another rebellion, this time led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia, culminated in Edwin’s assassination. This meant his lands were distributed amongst the followers of William the Conqueror. Robert de Tonei was granted the manor of Bradley and one third of the king’s rents in Stafford. The Norman Conquest in Stafford was therefore particularly brutal, and resulted not only in the imposition of a castle, but in the destruction and suppression of every other activity except the intermittent minting of coins for about a hundred years.

Redevelopment began in the late 12th century, and while the church, the main north to south street (Greengate) and routes through the late Saxon industrial quarter to the east remained, in other ways the town plan changed. A motte was constructed on the western side of the peninsula, overlooking a ford, and facing the site of the main castle of Stafford, on the hill at Castle Church, west of the town. Tenements were laid out over the whole peninsula and trade and crafts flourished until the early 14th century, when there was another upset probably associated with the plague of Black Death, which was followed in the mid 16th century by another revival.

Stafford Castle was built by the Normans on the nearby hilltop to the west in about 1090. It was first made of wood, and later rebuilt of stone. It has been rebuilt twice since, and the ruins of the 19th century gothic revival castle on the earthworks incorporate much of the original stonework.

In 1206, King John granted a Royal Charter which created the Borough of Stafford. In the Middle Ages, Stafford was a market town mainly dealing in cloth and wool. In spite of being the shire town, from Æthelflæd to Queen Elizabeth I, Stafford required successive surges of external investment. King Richard II was paraded through the town’s streets as a prisoner in 1399, by troops loyal to Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV). When James I visited Stafford, when he was said to be so impressed by the town’s Shire Hall and other buildings that he called it ‘Little London’. Charles I visited Stafford shortly after the out-break of the English Civil War. He stayed for three days at the Ancient High House. The town was later captured by the Parliamentarians, while a small-scale battle was fought at nearby Hopton Heath. Stafford later fell to the Parliamentarians, as did Stafford Castle, following a six-week siege. The town’s most famous son is Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler. He was a staunch Royalist.

In 1658, Stafford elected John Bradshaw, the man who judged the trial of King Charles I, to represent the town in Parliament. During the reign of Charles II, William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford became implicated in the Popish Plot, in which Titus Oates whipped up anti-Catholic feelings with his claims that there was a plot to have the king killed. Viscount William Howard was among those accused and he was unfortunate to be the first to be tried and was beheaded in 1680. The charge was false and over five years later, on 4 June 1685, the bill of attainder against Viscount Stafford was reversed.

The town was represented in Parliament by the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the eighteenth century. During the same era, the town’s mechanised shoe industry was founded, the most well-known factory owner being William Horton. The industry gradually died out, with the last factory being redeveloped in 2008.

In 1837 the Grand Junction Railway built the first railway line (Birmingham to Warrington) and station in the town, and at Warrington this linked, via another line, with the Liverpool to Manchester railway. Birmingham provided the first connection to London. Other lines followed, Stafford became a significant junction and this helped attract a number of industries to the town.

On 31 March 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the town to join in the 800th anniversary civic celebrations.

In 2013 Stafford will celebrate its 1,100th anniversary year with a number of history-based exhibitions, while local historian Nick Thomas and writer Roger Butters are set to produce a two volume ‘A Compleat History of Stafford'(sic).

The top-tier Staffordshire County Council, and Stafford Borough Council, are both based in the town. Stafford has its own parliamentary constituency.

The Elizabethan Ancient High House in the town centre is the largest timber-framed town house in England. It is now a museum, with changing exhibitions.

Stafford Castle was built by the Normans on the nearby hilltop to the west in about 1090, replacing the post-Conquest fort in the town. It was first made of wood, and later rebuilt of stone. It has been rebuilt twice since, and the ruins of the 19th century gothic revival castle crowning the earthworks incorporate much of the original stonework. The castle has a visitor centre, with audio visual displays and hands-on items. There’s also a recreated medieval herb garden and Shakespeare productions take place in the castle grounds each Summer. The castle forms a landmark for drivers, as it is highly visible from the M6 motorway.

The oldest building now in Stafford is St Chad’s Church, dating back into the twelfth century. The main part of the church is richly decorated. Carvings in the church’s archways and pillars may have been made by a group of stonemasons from the Middle East who came to England during the Crusades. A great deal of the stonework was covered up during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the church took on a neo-classical style. In the early 19th century restoration, work was carried out on the church and the Norman decoration was rediscovered. The Church hosts “Timewalk”, a computer generated display which relates the journey of history and mystery within the walls of the church.

St Mary’s, the collegiate church formerly linked to St Bertelin’s chapel, was completely rebuilt in the early 13th century in a cruciform layout with an aisled nave and chancel typical of the period. It has an impressive octagonal tower, once topped by a tall steeple, which can be picked out in Gough’s plan shown above. The church was effectively two churches in one, divided by a screen, with the parish using the nave and the collegiate canons using the chancel. St Mary’s was restored in 1842 by Giles Gilbert Scott.

The Shire Hall Gallery was built in 1798 as a court house and office of the Mayor and Clerk of Stafford. It houses the Art Gallery, which shows changing exhibitions. It also contains a café and the town’s library. The Shire Hall used to be the town’s court house, and is a Grade II listed building. It still retains two courtrooms. One of them is open to the general public and has a permanent exhibition showing the history of the building and details of some high profile cases that were heard there. An old ‘holding cell’ is also open to public viewing.

The Shugborough Hall country estate is 4 miles (6.4 km) outside town. It previously belonged to the Earls of Lichfield, and is now owned by the National Trust and maintained by the leaseholder, Staffordshire County Council. The 19th century Sandon Hall is 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast of Stafford. It is set in 400 acres (1.6 km2) of parkland, and is the seat of the Earl of Harrowby. Weston Hall stands 5 miles (8.0 km) east of Stafford, in the Trent valley, with a large park and it was once part of the Chartley estate. It is believed that the main part of the Hall was built around 1550 as a small dower house, however the architectural evidence suggests that it is Jacobean. Weston Hall was extended in 1660 into a three-gable structure with high-pitched roofs.

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre is the town’s main entertainment and cultural venue. The Met Studio within the Gatehouse is a dedicated venue for stand-up comedy and alternative live music. There is an art gallery in the Shire Hall. Staffordshire County Showground, just outside the town, is the venue for many national and local events.

Victoria Park, opened in 1908, is a 13 acre (53,000 m2) Edwardian riverside park with a play park, bowling green, bird cages and greenhouses; Victoria Park has recently undergone a major re-development in places, incorporating a new children’s play area, new sand and water jet area which has replaced the previous open-air paddling pool and also a brand new bmx / skateboard area.

Stafford has a long history of shoe making. It is recorded as far back as 1476, when it was a cottage industry, but the manufacturing process was introduced in the 1700s. William Horton founded his business in 1767, which progressed to become the largest shoe company in Stafford, selling worldwide. He had a number of contracts with the government, through his connections with the town’s MP, the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The shoe industry gradually died out in the town, with Lotus Shoes being the last manufacturers. The large red-brick Lotus Shoe factory on Sandon Road was demolished in 2001 to be replaced by modern housing.

Since 1903, a major activity in the town has been heavy electrical engineering, particularly producing power station transformers. The works have been successively owned by Siemens, English Electric, GEC and GEC Alsthom. Alstom T&D was sold in 2004 to Areva. At the end of 2009, Areva Ltd was split between former owner Alstom and Schneider Electric. Each transformer weighs several hundred tons and so a road train is used for transportation. In the 1968 Hixon rail crash, one such road train was struck by an express train when it was crossing the railway at a level crossing.

Perkins Engines has a factory making diesel engines in Littleworth. Adhesives manufacturer Bostik has a large factory in the town. Stafford is also a major dormitory town for workers commuting to Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham.

The public sector provides a lot of local employment, with Staffordshire County Council, Stafford Borough Council and Staffordshire Police all headquartered in the town. Stafford Prison, Stafford Hospital and MoD Stafford are other sources of local public sector employment.

The town is also home to the computer science and IT campus of Staffordshire University. The Beaconside Campus houses the Faculty of Computing Engineering and Technology and part of the Business School, and the adjacent Blackheath Lane campus houses the School of Health, which teaches nursing. The main campus in Stoke-on-Trent is located about 18 miles (30 km) north.

The town centre Guildhall shopping centre is the town’s main shopping venue, housing more than 40 retail outlets such as HMV, Topman Topshop, River Island and JJB. There are 3 major superstores that surround the main town centre, an Asda superstore, a Tesco Extra and a Sainsbury’s store. They are open 24 hours with the exception of Sainsbury’s.

Stafford railway station was once a major hub on the railway network, but Beeching’s closure of the Stafford and Uttoxeter Railway, and the Shropshire Union Railway to Shrewsbury and beyond completely halted east-west traffic via Stafford. The years up to 2008 saw cross-country trains stopping at Stafford less and less. Since the CrossCountry trains franchisee change, more CrossCountry trains are now stopping at Stafford Station, However if you require services to Carlisle, Preston or Glasgow a change at Crewe railway station is required; Stafford railway station is still a stop for some Virgin Trains services on the West Coast Main Line enabling easy commuting to the cities of Birmingham, London (via London Euston), Wolverhampton and Liverpool. If you require services to the cities of Stoke-on-Trent or Manchester CrossCountry trains operate a regular service to Manchester Piccadilly normally every 30 Mins during the weekdays; Since December 2008 London Midland have operated a service stopping at Stafford which also serves Tamworth, Northampton, Milton Keynes and London and also a Birmingham – Liverpool Lime Street service which departs Stafford Station normally every 30 mins during the weekdays. At least one train each way between Birmingham New Street and Crewe is operated by Arriva Trains Wales.

Junctions 13 (Stafford South & Central) and 14 (Stafford North) of the M6 motorway provide access to the town, therefore the major cities of Birmingham and Manchester and beyond are easily reached. The A34 road runs through the centre of the town, linking it to Stone and Stoke-on-Trent to the north and Cannock and the West Midlands conurbation to the south. The A518 road connects Stafford with Telford to the south west and Uttoxeter to the north east, and therefore is the main route to the major theme park at Alton Towers. The A449 runs south from the town centre and connects with the nearby town of Penkridge and Wolverhampton. Finally, the A513 runs east from Stafford to the local towns of Rugeley and Lichfield.

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal runs close to the Baswich and Wildwood areas, and was previously linked to the River Sow by the River Sow Navigation.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

 

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