The whole complex is obviously designed to impress and
show off the prestige of its owner but to whom did it belong and
why and when was it built?
Traditionally the hall is supposed to have been built in
the reign of Queen Elizabeth by John Leveson, a member of the
younger branch of the Leveson (locally pronounced Luson) who
were wealthy wool merchants and one of the dominant families in
The building style would certainly fit an Elizabethan date.
There is, however, something of a conundrum here for John
Leland writing in the late 1530s to early 1540s refers to Thomas
Leveson, John's elder brother, living in the ancient house of
the Leveson family at the town's end of Wolverhampton.
If the Levesons were living in an old house here around
1540 this cannot be the Elizabethan-style residence shown on
The regeneration of the area from 2000 onwards has
provided an opportunity to answer some of the questions about
the Great Hall. The
site of the hall itself is largely occupied by the main building
of Wolverhampton College of Adult Education, itself a Grade II
listed building, and there was a proposal to build an extension
to this building and convert it into a Learning Centre.
Accordingly a scheme of archaeological works was
required ahead of, and during, the development. The excavation of this type of site in a heavily urbanised
area, where it is uncertain what survives and what has been
removed by later development, is never an easy matter.
Ideally one would like to strip the whole area down to
archaeological levels and then make decisions as to which areas
to excavate. This
provides too many uncertainties for the developer, however.
Hence a scheme was devised which comprised large scale
trial trenching to identify the most promising areas, followed
by set-piece excavation ahead of development and a watching
brief with opportunity for salvage excavation during
development. It was
anticipated that parts of the infilled moat would have survived
later developments on the site but the remains of the hall
itself were considered likely to lie largely under the college
buildings or outside the development area. Nevertheless the research design called for the excavation of
any remains of the hall itself which did survive as well as the
excavation of a complete section across the moat.
Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit (now
Birmingham Archaeology) were called in to undertake the
excavations and a summary of their work is given on pages 00-00.
Hence only a brief mention will be made here. In the event the trial trenches demonstrated not only that
well-preserved sections of the moat did survive but also
discovered parts of the foundations of the curtain wall and of a
building adjoining the main hall.
The set-piece excavation concentrated on excavating a
complete section of the moat ditch and on examining the wall
moat ditch proved to be large, around 10m wide and up to 3m
foundations were also sizeable, of sandstone and over 1m wide.
They were cut into a reddish soil which may have been
upcast from the excavation of the moat.
Beneath this was a grey soil which is thought to have
been a ploughsoil, perhaps suggesting that the hall was built in
an area which had previously been part of the town fields.
The story does not end here, however, for last minute
changes to the design of the building provided a need, and an
opportunity, to look at an area of the main hall itself.
Surprisingly the foundations of the hall were discovered
immediately under the tarmac and it became apparent that they
were so massive that later developers had simply left them
intact and built around them.
A salvage excavation was swiftly mounted and Birmingham
Archaeology managed to recover a good plan of the north-west
portion of the main building.
Further analysis is needed but intriguingly an earlier
stone moulding – perhaps 15th century – was recovered – and
there is the possibility that some of the foundations may relate
to an earlier building.
Hence what can we say about the history of the Great
Hall, and what does this tell us about the Leveson family and
about the social structure of Wolverhampton at this time?
The supposition that the hall was built by John Leveson
in the Elizabethan period is likely to be correct but it is
likely to have been built as a replacement for an earlier
Leveson's desire to build himself a new and impressive hall fits
well with what was happening all over England at this time – the
period of The Great Rebuilding.
He was a man of his time, a wealthy merchant seeking to
provide himself with the trappings of the local gentry.
The Leveson's were major players in the affairs of
Wolverhampton and apparently quite ruthless in their dealings
with their fellow citizens.
In the 1530s John along with his older brother Thomas
were involved in an affray with James Leveson, head of the elder
branch of the Leveson family as a result of an argument over who
controlled the town's market. Around the same time complaints were made against Thomas that
he was allowing his stock to graze the arable fields, destroying
his neighbours crops and impounding their cattle.
On Thomas' death in 1563 John Leveson bought his
Wolverhampton lands and properties from Thomas' daughter and it
is perhaps at this time that he decided to build himself a grand
new mansion in the then fashionable building material of brick.
He held the important post of Sheriff of Staffordshire in
1562 and obtained the right to wear a coat of arms in the same
year – a further display of his prestige.
He was also a merchant of the staple, one of the elite
wool merchants allowed to export abroad.
His business interests extended beyond wool, however,
for, in addition to owning property and land, he was granted a
licence to cut down wood for use in ironmaking in 1563 and when
he died in 1575 he left his coal mines to one of his sons.
Hence in the history of the Great Hall and the Levesons
we can see a story very much of its time – an Elizabethan
merchant family aggressively on the make with an eye to
increasing their wealth and to branching out into new
were the people who were to pioneer the new industries, which
were eventually to lead to the heavily industrialised Black
Country of the 18th
and 19th centuries.
This paper is an update of one I gave at News from the
Past entitled 'History and Archaeology at the Old Hall,
thanks to Birmingham Archaeology who carried out the
excavations, particularly to Richard Cuttler, the Project
Manager, Ellie Ramsay, the Site Director, and Malcolm Hislop,
Buildings Recording Officer, for discussing the results of the
excavations with me.
I am also grateful to Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies
and their staff for guiding me to relevant material and
providing the original for Fig 2.
The excavations were financed by Wolverhampton Adult Education
Services and City of Wolverhampton College.
Birmingham Archaeology are currently preparing a report
on the excavations which it is hoped to publish in Post-Medieval