A high plateau bordered by the Trent Valley to the north, the bustle of Englands West Midlands to the South, Cannock Chase has played a fascinating part in Staffordshires history. Boasting an Iron Age Hill Fort and ancient hunting forest. Cannock Chase was an important feature in the landscape from the earliest times.
The towns of Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley have ancient origins. inn 1189 the parishes of Cannock and Rugelet were sold to the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. Both towns began to grow and by 1259 each held weekly markets. A fair was granted to Rugeley to take place on the ‘eve’ feast and morrow of St Augustines Day, from this fair grew the Rugeley Horse Fair, once famous throughout the world.
In Tudor times, Sir William Paget, able minister in the court of Henry VIII, acquired Cannock Chase at the churchs expense and was the first to recognise the value of the areas rich mineral resources. Coal mining and iron smelting grew in importance. The pace of change was gradual, though Rugeley and Cannock remained important local centres. Whites Directory of 1747 described Rugeley as a “clean, well built town of exceedingly pleasant and healthful situation”
The mining of coal had a long local history, but from the middle of the 19th century the massive exploitation of local seams got underway. Canal and railway links fostered the remarkable growth of an industry that would dominate for more that an century. At its peak in the 1920s, 23,000 men brought up over four million tons of coal a year, more than the North Staffordshire and Black Country coalfields. Other industries prospered alongside the collieries. Cannock was a centre of edge-tool manufacture, whilst Rugelet was known for its ironworks. New settlements sprang up on the heathland, including Hednesford and Norton Canes. The population rose rapidly, creating problems of poor housing and sanitation. in 1894, Urban District Councils were created for Rugeley and Cannock and their actions reflected the wider responsibilities of these authorities. Social housing began to appear after the First Worl War and the local authorities opened libraries, generated electricity and were responsible for elementary education.
Changes in the community have continues through more recent times as collieries closed and other industries were sought to replace them. 1993 saw the closure of Littleton, the last deep-mined colliery on Cannock Chase.
Cannock Chase District today still bears the legacy of its proud past. A centre of industry and yet an area of beautiful rural splendour.
Cannock Chase Military History
Cannock Chase and the Great War
At the beginning of the 20th Century Cannock Chase was very different from the way it is now. It was a very bleak landscape with none of the now familiar Forestry Commission pine trees.
Between 1914 and 1918 two huge Army Training Camps were built. Up to a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth troops, destined for the trenches, passed through.
Remains of these camps and the railways which supplied them can still be seen, throughout the Chase, if you look closely.
RAF Hednesford – Second World War
Cannock Chase is also associated with the military history of the Second World War. In 1938 the building of a training school was begun on Brindley Heath, (on the area south of the Visitor Centre). It was opened in 1939 by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood. Its official title was the No. 6 School of Technical Training but is better known as RAF Hednesford. During the War many thousands of men and and a smaller number of women received their basic training at the camp, before being posted to all parts of the country. The training focused on the maintenance of the air frames and engines of the RAF planes.
At its height the camp was the size of a small town with its own facilities including a cinema, NAAFI, YMCA and churches. Later it was unique having a Jewish Synagogue.
A railway halt was built at Moors Gorse and the recruits had to trudge, with their heavy bags, up the long climb of Marquis Drive. This soon became known as Kit Bag Hill.
At the Visitor Centre there is an Old Comrades Book for service personnel who served at RAF Hednesford to sign.
There is now a National Service (Royal Air Force) Association with regular reunions. You can also visit the National Service (Royal Air Force) Association (NSRAFA) Website where you can find your old comrades, local meetings, members profiles and more.
After the war
At the end of the war it became a personnel dispatch centre and service personnel were demobilised. Between 1950 and 1956 it was used for National Service Training there, including the dreaded ‘square-bashing’.
Immediately after it closed as a training camp it was reopened as a resettlement camp for Hungarian refugees fleeing from the Russian Invasion of Budapest. After further weekend use by the Territorial Army, many of the buildings were sold off and the site fell into disrepair.
In the 1960’s and 70’s the remains of the camp were demolished and the whole site became part of the Cannock Chase Country Park. All that now remains are the roadways which were in between dozens of wooden huts. The east of the area is now a quiet wildlife sanctuary, the rest of the site being used for occasional events and providing an excellent surface for wheelchairs.
Cannock Chase in the 17th Century
Throughout England’s civil troubles in the 1640’s, the Cannock Chase area was crossed and re-crossed by military forces vying for control of the local strategic towns: principally Stafford to the north, and Lichfield to the east.
In 1642, as the escalating troubles forced thousands of Englishmen to choose sides, Lord William Paget of Beaudesert, on Cannock Chase, decided to abandon his strong Parliamentary connections and support his King. In August he received a royal commission to raise troops, and recruited heavily across the local area, as far east as Lichfield and as far south as Walsall. Many of his officers were drawn from the local gentry: the memorial to Richard Bagot – later a Colonel himself – may still be seen in Lichfield Cathedral.
On August 22nd, Charles I raised his Standard at Nottingham, effectively declaring war, and in September Lord Paget’s new regiment marched to join him. Paget stayed behind: no fighting man himself, he had given command to a professional soldier. In November, Staffordshire declared itself neutral: thus constrained, Paget’s association with his regiment ended. In 1644 he reverted to his natural loyalties, petitioning the Parliament for forgiveness; the regiment itself remained loyal to the King, and was destroyed at Naseby in June 1645. Several of its Staffordshire men petitioned Charles II for financial relief in 1663.
The Chase area saw most action early in 1643. In February Parliamentary forces besieged and captured Lichfield, badly damaging the Cathedral spires; on March 19th the Royalist Earl of Northampton was killed at Hopton Heath near Stafford as he tried to prevent the town falling into enemy hands. Meanwhile the Queen waited in Yorkshire with vital troops and supplies: Lichfield lay squarely on her route to the south, and Prince Rupert himself was ordered into Staffordshire to relieve it. Sacking and burning Birmingham on the way, he arrived at Lichfield in early April, where the Parliamentarians had garrisoned the Cathedral Close. The Close walls proved impenetrable to artillery, but a Royalist Colonel wrote to the Prince with an unusual solution, telling him: “I wrote for such miners from Norton or Cannock, or thereabouts …who are as skilful as any, and fifty in number. I conceive them sufficient, but, if you please, I will send for a hundred more tomorrow night; they are within seven miles of Lichfield, and shall be within a mile of the town by ten o’clock this morning …” These skilled Chase men quickly mined beneath the Close: gunpowder was then detonated in the tunnel,, the subsequent collapse of the mine bringing down the walls above. This was the first time gunpowder had been used this way in England”, and the breach in the walls immediately gave the Royalists victory.
Thereafter the area remained fairly settled for the duration of the wars. Although Parliamentary troops took Stafford in May – the High House being used to hold Royalist prisoners – Lichfield remained a Royalist garrison until recaptured for the Parliament in 1646.