Like the majority of small English towns, Rugeley's name dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, being first recorded in the Domesday Book of A.D.1086. The name consists of two separate components, the prefix from the Old English word hrycg or 'ridge of land', an element which usually appears lastly in English place-names, while the suffix is the Old English word leah commonly meaning 'a woodland clearing', an element which appears in a large proportion of English place-names. The Anglo-Saxon name then, was spelled Hrycg-leah and pronounced harshly, "Rudge-lee". This sound has become more refined in recent times, the posh element in town insisting that the prefix should be pronounced in the same way as the French word for the colour 'red', i.e. "rouge". Unfortunately, this modern refinement caused a great deal of confusion for some Victorian etymologists, who mistakenly claimed that the ancestry of the name was from the Old French Rouge-lys meaning 'the red fields', using the argument that the fields beside the River Trent were strewn with red poppy-flowers during the summer months (which is untrue). This also led people to conclude that the name dates merely from Medieval or Norman times, which blatantly ignores the Domesday evidence in favour of folklore. The literal meaning of the name Hrycg-leah is usually given as 'The Woodland Clearing on the Ridge', but the authors do not agree with this interpretation in light of work by Gelling in 1974 regarding the use of leah in place-names which suggests that when a name containing this element occurs in relative isolation within a given geographical area then it is more likely that leah should be translated as 'an island of wooded land [amongst the clearings]'. Evidence for this use of the word is apparent when one looks at Rugeley as many people in Saxon times did, from the point-of-view of the River Trent; where the aspect to the south and west is dominated by the wooded slopes of the Cannock Chase uplands. Here much of the land, especially that on the steeper slopes, recieves too little direct sunshine to promote agriculture and therefore was never cleared, remaining wooded up until today. On this premise we argue that the precise meaning of Hrycg-leah should be interpreted as 'The [place at the] Wooded Ridge'. (Gelling & Cole, p.191, pp.237-42 & fig.44; Mills, p.293; Poulton-Smith, pp.100-1)
This occupation site dating to the middle-Stone-Age consists of a shallow cave about 2.5 metres deep and a maximum 1 metre in height (c. 8 x 3½ feet) and is located on the southern side of a small sandstone outcrop overlooking a shallow, dry valley running north towards the Trent. When excavated, the cave was found to contain a hearth together with a 'lithic assemblage' of 267 stone tools dating to the Mesolithic period (10,000 – 4,000BC), with an early-Bronze-Age (2,500 – 1,500BC) knife which may have been purposefully deposited. The site was discovered by accident in 1978 when the remains of two human skulls were unearthed by children playing within the cave entrance. A forensic investigation of the two skulls concluded that they were probably both females, 'one [aged] 18-20 years and the other considerably older,' both having died in prehistoric times. The skull fragments were located in a stratified layer above and unconnected with the Mesolithic occupation deposits in the cave, which is evidence that they are later in date, perhaps belonging to the late-Stone-Age or Neolithic period. The cave is now back-filled and buried in order to preserve the site. (AHDS)
Further evidence of prehistoric occupation in Rugeley is supplied by the discovery in 1952 by Robert Stephens of a Neolithic (c.4,000 – 2,000B.C.) hand-axe in a field between the Rising Brook and the railway line about 300 yards south-east of Fair Oak House (SK 0272 1633), also a barbed-and-tanged arrowhead dating to the Bronze-age (c.2,500 – 700B.C.) found near the Eaton Lodge roundabout on the A51 (SK039192). (AHDS)
The River Trent has many tributary streams which drain the northern and eastern sides of Cannock Chase, and along many of these streams in Rugeley there are the remains of Bronze-Age seasonal campsites known as 'Burnt mounds':
The Rising Brook has its genesis on Brindley Heath near Hednesford which collects southwards through Brindley Valley then runs north-eastwards along the glacial valley through the middle of Cannock Chase, picking up a minor tributary at Moor's Gorse and collecting the waters of the Stony Brook just before passing through Slitting Mill, whereafter it passes beside the Fair-Oak School and Hagley Park playing fields, feeds the duck pond in Elmore Park then disappears beneath the streets of modern Rugeley before re-emerging beside the Trent Valley Industrial Estate shortly before emptying into the Trent. At several places along its length, from Moor's Gorse to Fair-Oak, there have been found the remains of Bronze-Age burnt mounds.
Smart's Buildings: Situated in arable land on the east side of the Rising Brook, between the stream and the Rugeley-Hednesford railway line (SK 0254 1591), this mound had been much reduced by ploughing before it had been identified and is nowadays visible merely as a dark layer of cracked and burned pebbles in the banks of the stream.
Fair Oak: Located in the middle of a large field between the Railway Line and the Rising Brook just south of Horn's Pool (SK 0294 1689), this mound has now been ploughed out and it's stones scattered over a considerable area. The mound's position, some distance away from the modern course of the Rising Brook is due to the fact that the stream here was diverted to the north in the 17th century in order to feed the Horn's Pool millpond but originally would have run close beside the ancient campsite.
The Stony Brook rises near Fairoak Lodge and flows east-north-east along Stonybrook Valley to merge with the Rising Brook just south of Slitting Mill. This particular mound lies just to the south of Lower Stonybrook Pool (SK 0208 1655) and covers a large area of ground to a considerable depth. This would suggest that the site was probably used over a considerable period of time, possibly being the summer camp of a substantial family group. It now overlooks an artificial pool on the north-eastern edge of Cannock Chase about two miles from Rugeley town centre, and is an ideal spot to take the kids for a picnic, being covered by turf and surrounded by Scots Pine and the invasive Bracken and Bramble but the long, flat summit is pleasantly grass-covered.
The Stafford Brook rises in Bevin's Birches to the north of Penkridge Bank and runs east, then northwards passing Etching Hill on the west and joining the Trent at Wolseley Bridge. A geophysical survey conducted in 1990 revealed a burnt mound, tentatively dated to the Bronze-Age, on land belonging to Stafford Brook Farm (SK 0192 1817).
Etching Hill is a Triassic Sandstone outcrop lying just over a mile (1.6km) WSW of Rugeley town centre, at a height of 450 feet (137m) above sea level, the hill is surmounted by an outcrop of Lower Keuper Sandstone of the Sherwood Sandstone Group. These rocks have been upthust by the Cannock Chase Anticline and subsequently exposed by surface erosion. They would normally overlie - and are thus younger than - the pebble beds which form the Chase Uplands. On its summit is a shallow "cist" cut into the sandstone and measuring around four feet square by about two feet deep, used in modern times to support the base of a flagpole on the hilltop which was removed only recently (SK 0277 1875). The hole was not dug to contain the concrete base for the flagpole but was apparently already present on the hilltop and may even date back to prehistoric times. It is possible that this feature represents a Stone-Age 'cist burial' or tumulus, which originally may have contained the interred remains of an ancient chief or clan-leader; no evidence has been found in support of this theory. (AHDS)
An old art teacher of mine, Mr. Bateman, once told me a story regarding the naming of this local landmark, which is said to stem from early Victorian times when the area was a favourite of the neuveau riche, who built houses here with profits from the industrial revolution and who reputedly went on painting or etching trips on its slopes. I cannot verify the authenticity of his statement, however.
The rocks on top of Etching hill been much graffitoed over the years, which I can live with, but recently they have been habituated by groups of unruly youths who have littered the summit with shards of broken beer bottles. I remember playing here happily when I was a kid, though if any were to gambol about the place now, they would soon be making hasty tracks towards Rugeley Health Centre to receive couple of butterfly stitches and a tetanus jab. I'm sure that something could be done about this. Eh, Councillors?
There has been nothing recorded which would indicate any permanent occupation of the Rugeley area during the Iron-Age.
There are no records of any remains or artefacts dating to the Roman period recovered anywhere within the Rugeley area. The Watling Street Roman military highway passed the Cannock Chase upland area to the south where the Romans built two fortified road stations at Wall south of Lichfield and at Water Eaton south of Penkridge.
The only archaeological evidence for early-Medieval or Anglo-Saxon occupation in the Rugeley area is a loom weight or spindle-whorl found near the Stafford Brook at Wolseley Bridge (SK020203) and dated c.A.D.600. (AHDS)
The Domesday Book entry for Rugeley contains a few clues to help us recreate how the village may have looked in A.D.1086, the full entry and a translation from the Latin shorthand used by the Domesday compilers is given below:
"[In Cuttlestone Hundred] The King holds RVGELIE (Rugeley). Earl Algar held it. The fifth part of 1 hide. Land for 5 ploughs. 9 villagers with 3 ploughs. A mill at 30d; meadow, 3 acres; woodland 3 leagues long and 2 wide. Value before 1066, 20s; now 30s."
The revenue from Rugeley was payable directly to the King, William I of Normandy, but had previously (i.e. before the Norman invasion of 1066) belonged to the Saxon Earl Algar (or Ælfgar), who, in addition to Rugeley (1.22) also held lands at Meretown and Cannock in Cuttlestone Hundred (1.24-5), at Alrewas, Barton-under-Needwood, Elford and Harlaston in Offlow Hundred (1.11,20,26,32), at Sandon, Chartley, Wolstanton and Penkhull in Pirehill Hundred (1.13-16), at Rocester, Crakemarsh, Uttoxeter, Leek and Mayfield in Totmonslow Hundred (1.17-19,21,23), and at Kinver and Pattingham in Seisdon Hundred (1.27-8); all of these lands and all the revenue therefrom, were taken from Earl Ælfgar by King William.
The Domesday Book tells us that land at Hamstall Ridware (5.2) was also owned by Earl Ælfgar but that he donated these lands to the cathedral of St. Remy's in France; presumably this happened before William of Normandy was able to get his hands on the place. The Earl also held lands at Claverley, Kingsnordley and Alveley in Seisdon Hundred (8.1-3) and at Sheriffhales in Cuttlestone Hundred (8.5), which were taken by King William and granted to Earl Roger of Stafford. Land at Worfield in Seisdon Hundred (9.1), formerly owned by Earl Ælfgar, was subsequently granted to Hugh of Montgomery. Land held by Earl Aelfgar and subsequently donated to William Son of Ansculf included Sedgley, Upper Penn and Amblecote in Seisdon Hundred (12.1,6,14), the latter site being formerly held, not by Earl Ælfgar himself, but by "two of Earl Algar's men, without jurisdiction".
The rest of the Domesday entry for Rugeley gives information on how the place may have looked:
Even though were are assured that Rugeley existed during Anglo-Saxon and Norman times due to it being listed in Domesday almost all of the town's buildings were very-likely of timber and have not survived the passage of time; the same is true of many other towns in England. Unlike the preceeding Anglo-Saxon period, however, there remains direct archaeological evidence of Norman activity in Rugeley within the fabric of the Old Chancel.
Built within the original clearing which formed the 'Place at the Wooded Ridge' (see above), only the 12th century chancel and 13th century north chapel of this church, known locally as the Old Chancel, remains in good repair. Windows dating to the 16th or 17th centuries survive in the north wall of the chapel and a blocked Norman window may be seen high on the west face. The extant building is connected via an arcade on this side to a dilapidated 14th century tower with corner buttresses. The arcade, which consists of four unequal arches, is all that remains of the original 13th century nave and north aisle of the old church which was allowed to fall into ruin after the west end of the chancel building was blocked-off in the early 19th century. The religious needs of the Rugeley populace were then being served by St. Augustine's church which was built in 1822-3 on the opposite side of the road from the Old Chancel building, which was itself converted into a mortuary chapel by having its west end walled-off and allowing the (damaged?) nave and north aisle of the old church to subsequently fall into ruin. (Salter, p.74)
A papal decree issued by Pope Celestinus II at Lateran during the first year of his papacy A.D.1143 confirmed the donation of the churches of Cannock, Rugeley, Alrewas and (Abbots) Bromley to the Bishop of Coventry and the Church of Lichfield. Hackwood also informs us that "A gift of the towns of Cannock and Rugeley with their churches was made to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield by Richard I., 4th December, 1189, which was afterwards confirmed by Henry III., 10th April 1230." (Hackwood, p.96)
Aside from the remains of a Medieval/Post-Medieval Churchyard Cross in the grounds of the Old Chancel (SK 0444 1856) there is no other archaeological evidence in Rugeley dating to this period in history. For this, we are forced to look slightly further afield in neighbouring parishes on the opposite bank of the River Trent. At Wolseley the local family living in the fortified manor house at Wolseley Hall (SK 0241 2027) was granted a 'licence to crenellate' in 1469, and at Mavesyn Ridware a supposed Medieval/Post-Medieval holy well at Cawarden Spring (SK064181) emphasises the importance of the natural springs feeding fresh water into the Trent that were likely to have been a direct cause of Rugeley's genesis at some time in late-prehistory. (AHDS)
The hotel at Eaton Lodge was built in 1899 but has now (November 2007) been scheduled for demolition to make way for new housing. The hotel lies upon the site of a post-medieval hunting lodge which was built sometime after 1540. It is possible that this hunting lodge was situated on the eastern edge of the game park associated with Wolseley Hall and the Deserted Medieval Village (DMV) of Bishton. Wolseley Park has roots in Medieval times and its extent is realised in old field names such as 'Park Field' (SK020198) near Stafford Brook Farm and other, similar field names near Wolseley Bridge (SK019188). (AHDS)
The mill mentioned in the Domesday entry for Rugeley was sited somewhere along the length of the Rising Brook which follows the line of the A460 to Hednesford, but its exact location is unknown. Besides the Anglo-Saxon mill, which almost certainly milled corn into flour, the brook has hosted a number of mills which have harnessed the waters of the Rising Brook and turned its energy to industrial purposes. During the early-17th century an ironworking forge known as 'Cannock Forge' was in operation at the top end of Fair-Oak valley and the site is still visible today as earthworks together with those of an associated pond-bay (SK 0258 1664, SK 0260 1650). There are also earthwork remains of a post-medieval iron-works and its associated millpond known as Dutton's Pool, just south-east of Slitting Mill village now sited in the middle of arable farmland (SK 030 173). This pool served the slitting/rolling mill built in 1622-3, and was still in operation in the late-19th Century but was demolished to make way for the water pumping station at the bottom of Jones' Lane. (AHDS)
The Shrewsbury Arms Hotel in the centre of modern Rugeley was built c.1810 and incorporated the shell of another building, a coach-house which was built sometime before 1732. The inn used to be named the Talbot Hotel and gained notoriety in the middle-19th century as the home of 'Palmer the Poisoner'. (AHDS)
In the churchyard of St Augustine's church in this pleasant little town, NE of CANNOCK CHASE, is a tombstone to John Parsons Cook. The simple inscription gives a date, 1855, and the statement 'His life was taken away'. The facts behind this relate to one of the most sensational murder trials of the mid-19th c when William Palmer, a Rugeley doctor born in 1824 and educated at the local grammar school, was found guilty, after a 12-day hearing, of poisoning Cook, a bookmaker to whom he owed money. Palmer was executed in public at STAFFORD, taking with him the secret of the poison he had used." (Hadfield, p.652)
Rugeley Trent Valley railway station (SK047190) opened for business on the Trent Valley Railway in 1847. Rugeley Town railway station on the Cannock Mineral Railway (SK044175) first opened for business in 1859 and closed to passengers after over 100 years of operation in 1965. The station reopened for business again in June 1997, carrying passengers to Birmingham New Street in the south-west and one year later, after the line had been replaced to Trent Valley the service was extended to Stafford in the north. (AHDS)
The Rugeley Home and Cottage Hospital was founded in 1866 and continued to heal the sick until it was demolished in the early 1980's to be replaced by a residential nursing home in 1989. Rugeley Hospital established in 1871 on the Brereton Road was designed by W.A. Bonney and was at the time the latest in modern designs, comprising a main block with several wards, a dispensary, operating theatres, administration buildings and domestic accommodation for live-in staff, with a separate building to house the laundry and mortuary. A new wing with extra wards for the sick was added sometime between 1900-21. (AHDS)
The water pumping station on Brindley Bank was constructed around 1907 and houses a tandem compound Hathorn Davey pumping engine, itself built in 1907, which has been preserved in immaculate condition by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company. (AHDS)
Close to the Wolseley Arms pub on the A513 Stafford road there is a stark remnant of the fear of imminent Nazi invasion which gripped the country during the Second World War. A square pillbox built of red-clay brick and concrete sometime during 1940-1 overlooking the crossing of the A51 over the Trent at Wolseley Bridge (SK 019 203). This strongpoint was formed part of Defence grouping Western Command Stop Line No 6 which stretched from Tamworth along the Trent Valley to the east of Stoke-on-Trent and then onwards via Macclesfield and Stockport to Manchester. (AHDS)