The earliest detailed surviving map of Bournheath 1840

BOURN – from the Saxon “brunna”, same root as the Scottish “burn” meaning a stream or brook.

HEATH – common or “waste”, an area of the manor that produced no taxable revenue.

Until the early 19 C. Bournheath village as we know it did not exist. Indeed it is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, yet we have tantalising evidence that this part of north Worcestershire was inhabited shortly after the Norman invasion. A list of free tenants of Bromsgrove in 1270 includes Edred de Hethe, and Johanne de Hethe is mentioned in taxation records ten years later. Furthermore several 17 C. wills show the testators were proud to describe themselves as “yeoman of Bournheath”.There is a surviving writ from 1602 instructing the sheriff to arrest “William Darbesher of Bournheath” and several charity bequests of this period talk about the revenue being derived from “their estates in Bournheath”.

It appears these small farmers did not actually live on the heath itself but around the periphery. If they held their properties “with appurtenances”, as free tenants of the Manor of Bromsgrove they had certain privileges known as “rights of common”. These included collecting firewood & bracken from the heath to heat their houses, foraging for berries and mushrooms and most importantly to graze their animals. These rights were jealously guarded.

At the end of the 18 C. there was a countrywide population explosion and people became more mobile in their search for space and work. The heathland provided the ideal venue for those involved in agriculture but more importantly nailmaking. Bromsgrove was fast becoming a centre for this trade, their nailmasters could provide the rod and the facility to buy back the completed nails.This encroachment on the heath was entirely illegal, causing great anxiety among the free tenants who saw their much valued rights eroded. Likewise the Lord of the Manor of Bromsgrove was not well pleased as these squatters paid no rent into his coffers. The situation was finally resolved when a bill was presented to Parliament in 1799 to “divide, allot and inclose certain commons and waste lands within the Manor of Bromsgrove”. This bill essentially privatised Bournheath Common. New roads were described and laid out and the free tenants and Lord of the Manor were compensated for their loss of common rights with parcels of land.

Some free tenants found their new allotment inconveniently situated or too expensive to hedge or maintain and immediately sold small plots to the very same families who had previously been squatting on the heath. Thus a predominantly nailmaking community was established and thrived throughout the 19 C.

It is worth adding that Bournheath common was originally split into two with Bromsgrove Manor responsible for the area south of Parish Hill and Belbroughton Manor to the north as far as Pepper Wood. Belbroughton was likewise inclosed and the area thus described was also known as Bournheath in subsequent documents and censuses. Over time the Belbroughton area has lost this identity and is now regarded as Fairfield with just the houses on the south side of Parish Hill remaining part of the village.

2014 Chris Lloyd

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