Samuel Wilks, Rebel of Bloxwich

Grave of Bloxwich Rebel Samuel Wilks, 6 January 2010
Grave of Bloxwich Rebel Samuel Wilks, 6 January 2010 (Stuart Williams)

This gravestone stands proudly in a churchyard which has been laid waste in order to simplify its care. It has an ancient story all its own, which is still told and retold by Bloxwich folk, who have always had an independent and rebellious streak!

It involves the traditional rivalry between the people of Walsall Foreign and those of Walsall Borough, the separate identity of which goes back at least as far as the 13th century when the Ruffus Charter mentions ‘forin woods’, and a lease of 1485 speaks of ‘the Manor of the Forren of Walsall’. In the Churchwarden’s Accounts of St. Matthew’s, the Borough and Foreign were frequently at odds over the church expenses and church rates, and the term is used in the 1627 charter granted by Charles 1.

The Borough was the rough equivalent of modern Walsall’s town centre, and the Foreign was that area within the Parish of Walsall which was outside the Borough – primarily Bloxwich, Little Bloxwich, Blakenall, Shelfield and Walsall Wood, but also including smaller places such as Pleck, Caldmore, Chuckery and Palfrey. Bloxwich was always the heart of the Foreign, its people proud to be ‘Forreners’ rather than ‘Burrowemen’.

But it was not until the 17th century and after that the main bone of contention between Borough and Foreign – 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’ and ‘Burrowemen’. The fact that the inhabitants of the Foreign were mainly Cavaliers or Presbyterians and those of the Borough, Roundheads or Cromwellians, did not help matters during times of Civil War and after!

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, and proceeded to make ‘one General and intire Rate through the whole Parish’. Since at this time the poor in the Borough greatly outnumbered those in the Foreign and the rate was three times as much in the pound, 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 which although technically incorrect was historically right, from previous practice and 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, the 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 Walsall Justices finally gave in and appointed separate overseers for the Foreign.

Today, Samuel Wilks is buried in a place of honour with one of the few tombstones still standing in Bloxwich churchyard, his grave a place of pilgrimage for those who continue to stand up for the independent spirit of Bloxwich, and although the ‘Foreign’ disappeared as a poor law township in 1835, and as a ward in 1888, those of us who were born and bred there, myself included, are still proud to call ourselves true ‘Forreners’.

News & heritage for Bloxwich, Walsall & Willenhall. Formerly The Bloxidge Tallygraph. Est. 2006, inspired by a Victorian news-sheet. Edditid by a Bloxidge Mon.

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