The modern Walsall Metropolitan Borough is a substantial area housing around a quarter of a million people. But it was not always so extensive, or so populous!
In 1831, the old Parish of Walsall, at that time divided into the townships of the ‘Borough’ and the ‘Foreign’ for the purpose of collecting the Poor Rate, included just 15,066 people.
But what were the Borough and Foreign? Simply put, the Borough was the old town itself, the rough equivalent in size of modern Walsall’s town centre. Today, it would not take you long to cross it on foot – if you got off the bus outside The Prince pub in Stafford Street and walked south to the Wheatsheaf pub in Birmingham Road, you will have travelled across the town of Walsall: the old Borough.
The Foreign was every place within the old Parish of Walsall but outside the Borough. In those days, when Bloxwich had a chapel of ease but no parish of its own, the Foreign primarily included such places as Bloxwich (the effective centre of the Foreign), Little Bloxwich, Blakenall Heath, Leamore, Birchills, Shelfield and (albeit semi-detached) Walsall Wood. It also included such smaller locations as Pleck, Caldmore, Chuckery and Palfrey.
Rushall, Pelsall, Brownhills, Aldridge, Streetly, Bentley, Darlaston and Willenhall, which were not part of the old Borough and Foreign, did not come under the administration of Walsall until the mid 1960s-70s, which changes caused some controversy within those towns and villages. The present Metropolitan Borough itself (preceded by the County Borough) came into being on 1 April, 1974.
The rivalries between these later additions and Walsall itself were foreshadowed by the long-standing feuding between Bloxwich and Walsall, which despite their distinctness and one-time geographical separation before the surrounding areas were filled in with houses, shops and industrial development, are thought to have been historically associated for almost 1000 years.
In practice, the separate identity of the Foreign or ‘forren’ goes back at least as far as the 13th century, when the Ruffus Charter of c1225 mentions the ‘forin woods’, and a lease of 1485 refers to ‘the Manor of the Forren of Walsall’.
In the churchwarden’s accounts of what is now St Matthew’s Church, the Borough and Foreign were frequently seen to be at odds over the church expenses and church rates, and the term is used in the 1627 Charter granted to Walsall by King Charles I.
But it was not until the 17th century that the main bone of contention between borough or ‘Burrowe’ and foreign or ‘Forren’ – the collection of a rate to provide for the poor – brought the feuding to a peak.
Over many years, the complex way in which the Poor Rate was assessed and divided was declared unfair on one side or another by feuding ‘Forreners’ (primarily Bloxwich folk) and ‘Burrowemen’ (the denizens of Walsall town). During the English Civil War (1642-1651) and after, the fact that many of the inhabitants of the Foreign were mainly Royalists (Cavaliers) and those of the Borough Parliamentarian (Roundhead) in allegiance did not help matters either.
Later, arguments about the distribution of funds from various charities caused more bad feeling to ferment. A further crisis occurred in 1752, when Samuel Wilks and John Whitehouse, Overseers for the Poor for the Foreign, retired, and the justices of the peace for Walsall refused to appoint others for the Foreign alone, claiming that the Parish of Walsall was ‘one and indivisible’ and proceeded to make ‘one general and intire rated throughout the whole parish’.
Since at this time the poor in the Borough greatly outnumbered those in the more rural Foreign, and the new rate for the Foreign was therefore three times as much in the pound as before, there were vigorous protests from the people of Great Bloxwich and the liberties of the Foreign.
As a result of the controversy, Samuel Wilks refused to give up his books to the justices, and went to prison for contempt of court, determined to resist the rate and declare the separateness of the Foreign from the Borough. This, while legally incorrect, was historically right, both from previous practice and by the desires of the people of the Foreign.
He ‘…served his sentence with fortitude, and all the wealth and power of Bloxwich backed him in his fight for the independence of the Foreign’. In November 1753, after considerable legal argument, the court of King’s Bench decided in favour of Bloxwich, and Samuel WIlks was the hero of the hour. But it was not until 1756 that the mean-spirited and tight-fisted Walsall justices finally gave in and agreed to appoint separate Overseers for the Foreign.
Today, Samuel Wilks, while long passed away, is still a prominent citizen of Bloxwich, by virtue of his grave being marked by one of the few tombstones still upstanding in All Saints’ churchyard. His grave is a place of pilgrimage for all those who continue to stand up for the proud and independent spirit of Bloxwich, although the Foreign disappeared as a poor law township in 1835, and as a ward in 1888.
The age-old rivalry between Bloxwich and Walsall did not end there; as late as the 1920s, the animosity between Bloxwich and Walsall was being likened to the ‘Irish Question’ in the Walsall Observer. There were also calls for ‘Home rule for Bloxwich!’ Moreover, many have said that the reason the moat around All Saints Church faces south is to keep out the people of Walsall… But that is another story.
Still, the bulk of the old Foreign remains, albeit as a ripple or an echo in time, reflected as it is in the boundaries of the modern council constituencies of Bloxwich East, Bloxwich West, Blakenall and Birchills-Leamore wards.
And so do its people. We are the Forreners…
Historic pictures and access to research resources were kindly made available for this article courtesy of Walsall Local History Centre.