Brierley Hill lay in the parish of Kingswinford, though technically it was never in a medieval township, being part of the wilderness of Pensnett Chase. The place-name Brierley Hill consists of three words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Brer meaning the place where the Briar Rose grew, leah meaning a woodland clearing and Hill meaning – what it does today. The place-name might suggest a mini-estate existed here but the area that it lies within from the medieval period was on the edge of Pensnett Chase. In fact the hill on which the church stands served as a ridgeway (Brettell Lane) that crossed it running between Dudley and joining the Wolverhampton – Stourbridge Road. Merry, as in the hill not the place, was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word gemeare which means the boundary, presumably meaning the boundary of the parish of Kingswinford, which is at Black Brook to the east.. Tipsyford – the ford of Tippa across the Black Brook is another Anglo-Saxon name which implies the Lye-Dudley route is of great antiquity.
Although the surrounding villagers used the chase as common ground to graze their animals it was officially a hunting reserve. (The Wallows is a medieval term for a large pool or swamp, which collected streams where wild boar and deer, used to take mud baths.) Throughout its history people were officially banned from putting dwellings in the Chasel. Only charcoal burners were allowed to erect temporary booths there during their seasonal occupation. It was however during this period that people discovered that the Chase was a source for numerous mineral deposits; coal, iron and fireclay and the utilisation of these valuable resources could not be ignored. One of the first places that people started to settle on was Black Delph; the name signifies coal working. Delph is a medieval word – meaning to dig.
During the late medieval period the traditional woodlands began to disappear. As charcoal was an important product by this time the replanting of trees occurred. These man-made plantations were cut every ten years or so and they were called coppices after the technique of cutting them down to ground level. By the 18th century most of the land east of the High Street was coppice woodland, Brierley Hill Coppice, Archill Coppice, Merry Hill Coppice and the larger level wood. This wooded area was recorded in Two Woods Lane that ran from Merry Hill, west to Black Delph. The name of the woodland in this area was Archill in Kingswinford and Harts Hill in Dudley. (This was a variation of the same name. The two parish authorities were at loggerheads over the exact site of the boundary prior to the 18th century.)
Recorded references to Brierley Hill did not start until the 17th century. In 1642 the first reference of a resident is recorded, when Richard Peirson, a Blacksmith of Brierley Hill is mentioned. After this the settlement starts to increase, but it was not until Pensnett Chase was enclosed in 1748 that the race was on to utilise all the land. The person with the largest share was Lord Dudley who had also been involved in the building of the Stourbridge Canal across the Chase in 1776. In 1785 John Snape drew a map of the Stourbridge canal and in it showed Brierley Hill for the first time. St. Michael’s Chapel was constructed on the chase in 1765. This was built by public subscription and the first incumbent was the Rev. Thomas Moss (1765 – 1808). By this date however there were only a few dwellings in the High Street and a scattered settlement at ‘Black’ Delph.
By the turn of the century Brierley Hill was growing. Ribbon development had occurred all along the lanes that surrounded the hill, collieries, quarries (Quarry Bank) glass works, and iron works filled the spaces between the dwelling houses and woods. In Fowlers Map of 1822 the settlement of Brierley Hill had extended to the canal except for a small piece of Level Coppice. A rash of collieries and iron works had opened up alongside the canal. A timber compound of Lord Dudley’s replaced the northern part of Level Wood, east of the canal. This in turn became the Old Level Ironworks. The New Level Works was added on the other side of Level Road and the whole complex eventually became the Round Oak Steel Works.
The mining subsidence, open shafts, cinder tips, heaps of slag and waves of black smoke made the hill a very unappetising place to live on, so much so that a rhyme was composed comparing it with Hell.
When Satan stood on Brierley Hill
And far around it gazed
He said, ‘I never more shall feel
At Hell’s fierce flames amazed.”
An attempt was made to make it more civilised, but the miners, quarrymen, foundry men and glass workers whose rough and dangerous work made them hardened to social niceties made it an uphill climb. A National School was built in 1835 to accommodate the rising population and the new parochial district of Brierley Hill with Brockmoor, Delph and Quarry Bank was drawn up in 1842 – St. Michael’s became a parish church. By this date the High Street had become a market area. Marsh and Baxter’s became a major employer in the centre of the town making pork products. With the philanthropy known at the time they laid out Marsh’s Park on the hill. This probably made up for the lack of greenery as during the 19th century the coppices began to disappear. Even Level Wood was rapidly depleted and industry grew in the surrounding area.
By the end of the century Brierley Hill had become a town. The purpose for its existence, the excavation and manufacture of raw materials, began to decline as the resources were used up. By the beginning of the 20th century most of the mineral deposits were worked out and with the advent of other materials the ironworks began to close. Finally Round Oak itself shut its doors in 1984 and the land was left as a waste area until the arrival of the Merry Hill centre.
John Hemingway, 29th January 2005