History of Lichfield

Early Years

Old mapIn 1776 Dr Samuel Johnson took his friend Boswell to Lichfield to show him "genuine civilised life in an English provincial town". The description still rings true today, for although Lichfield has grown considerably, it still retains its civilised charm and many of the fine buildings at the heart of the City, including the house in which Johnson was born, have remained largely unchanged over the intervening centuries.

The earliest origins of Lichfield are obscure. In the first century a Roman fort called Letocetum was built two miles south of the present city at the strategic crossing of the major Roman roads of Ryknild Street and Watling Street (now the village of Wall). After the Romans left in the 5th century, a Celtic settlement may have continued in the area. Then in 669, according to the Venerable Bede, Chad moved his bishopric to a place called 'Licidfelth'.

The first church probably stood on the site of the present cathedral, and the settlement quickly grew as the ecclesiastical centre of the Kingdom of Mercia. The development of the city was consolidated in the 12th century under Bishop Clinton who fortified the Close, and also laid out the town with the ladder-shaped street pattern that survives to this day. There was perhaps a degree of self interest in enlarging the township for the income from its rents was payable to the Bishop.

Early Government

In 1387 ordinances were granted by Richard 11 to the Guild of St Mary and St John the Baptist and about this time a guildhall was established on the present site in Bore Street. Although the Bishop retained much authority over the City, the Guild became increasingly involved in its secular government and it was out of this Guild that the first corporation was incorporated by the charter of Edward VI in 1548.

Lichfield became a county in its own right, separate from the rest of Staffordshire, by Queen Mary's charter in 1553. This charter also created the office of Sheriff of Lichfield which continues to this day. In July 1575 Elizabeth I visited the City, and the brethren of the Guild, in anticipation of her visit, repaired the roads, market cross and Guildhall, and paid one William Holcroft five shillings "for keeping Mad Richard when her Majesty was here".

The Civil War

Lichfield suffered greatly during the Civil War, for it was a Royalist stronghold with a fortified Close at a strategic location between north and south. The cathedral was desecrated by the Parliamentarians in 1643, and the central spire collapsed under bombardment from Parliamentarian forces in 1646.

A City of Philosophers

Work on rebuilding the cathedral and close began in earnest with the appointment of Bishop Hacket in 1662 and the city moved into the 18th century as a centre of genteel society considered by Defoe to be the best town in the area for "good conversation and good company". Although there was little industry, the city prospered both from the wealth of the clergy and gentry in the Close, and as a thriving coaching city on the main route to the northwest and Ireland. This was a period of great intellectual activity, the city being the home of many famous people including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward, and prompted Johnson's remark that Lichfield was "a city of philosophers".

In the 19th century the population of the City grew, but the coming of the railways ended its status as a coaching hub. Nonetheless, as an ecclesiastical centre, and the home of such interesting figures as the artist and architectural writer John Louis Petit (1801-68), Lichfield retained something of its historic importance and cultural vitality - a tradition that has continued to this day. Municipal affairs flourished, with many works of improvement to the street lighting and water supply. The old Corporation was reformed into an elected council in 1836, with a Mayor as its civic head, and the Guildhall, which had fallen into disrepair, was substantially rebuilt in 1846.

The Crucifix Conduit & Sandfields Pumping Station

The Crucifix Conduit plays an important role in the history of Lichfield as it was the source of fresh water to the City. The Conduit was installed by the Friars of the nearby Friary for public use in the 15th century. 300 years later, Lichfield water saved the lives of thousands in the Black Country during the industrial revolution as Sandfields Pumping Station began pumping clean water under the control of the then fledgling South Staffordshire Water Company. Some estimates place the number of lives saved by Sandfields as high as 1 million. The original pumping station was powered by two second-hand steam engines from Brunel's failed atmospheric railway; these were replaced by the Bolton and Watt beam engine that is still inside the Sandfields building. The Sandfields Building is Grade II* listed; the Lichfield Waterworks Trust was established to save the building which remains at risk.

Recent History

The City has grown rapidly in modern times with the population increasing from 10,000 in 1951 to over 30,000 in 2011, but the changes prompted by the new housing and incoming families have brought vitality and prosperity to the city.

Although only a few miles of green belt separate the city from Birmingham, Lichfield has retained its separate identity, together with a strong sense of pride in its local community. Lichfield is particularly fortunate in the large areas of pools and parkland which bring a wedge of countryside to the very heart of the city, and which have recently been restored and improved through a £3 million Heritage Lottery Fund project. There is a wealth of local groups, sports clubs, and societies, and a wide range of social and recreational activities.

Visitors to the City find plenty to interest them in the historic streets, buildings and old traditions. A visitor to the Cathedral, Johnson Birthplace Museum or Heritage Exhibition, can be assured of a genuine welcome and personal attention far removed from the "conveyor belt" tourist attractions that have been created elsewhere.

There is a fast and frequent train service to Birmingham and the M6(Toll) motorway skirts the southern boundary of the city, once more placing Lichfield on the main route between London and the north west.

In the changes that lie ahead the City Council will strive to maintain the unique character and unspoilt charm of the city, and ensure that its historic identity is not lost. The City of Lichfield is justly proud of its traditions and its active and caring community. It is a fine city in which to live, and a fascinating place to visit. This is fittingly embodied in the Council's motto on its coat of arms, which quotes Samuel Johnson's tribute to his native city in his Dictionary, "Salve, magna parens" - "Hail great Mother".