On returning to his home town in 1524 for the funeral of his mother, Bishop John Vesey found Sutton Coldfield in a poor state. As Bishop of Exeter and a long-standing confidant of King Henry VIII, Vesey had both the influence and wealth to be able make serious changes for the town’s benefit.
He had the King grant Sutton a charter of incorporation in 1528 which put the local government of the town in the hands of a warden and 24 prominent residents known as the Warden and Society of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield.
Vesey rebuilt the aisles of the Holy Trinity church and installed an organ, he built a market place and restored the market, paved the streets of the town, and had two stone bridges built – the one at Minworth survives. He had Sutton Park gifted to the residents of Sutton for common use; he founded and endowed the free grammar school, the foundation of which also still survives in a building dating from 1729, and he built 51 stone houses of which five survive.
Moor Hall Farm
John Harman alias Vesey was born between 1452 and 1465 at Moor Hall Farm which stands on Moor Hall Drive. The farm is documented as early as 1434, although the present building seems to date from the 16th century. It may be that Vesey had the original, probably a timber-framed house, rebuilt in sandstone when he returned to Sutton Coldfield in the 1530s. The Bishop is known to have looked after his poor kinsmen and Moor Hall Farm may well have been occupied by one of them.
For his own residence, Vesey bought some 40 acres of land close to the farm where he had been born and here he built a Tudor mansion. It was a three storey house with over 20 rooms. Like the King and Vesey’s friend Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who had respectively built Nonesuch Palace and Hampton Court in brick, Vesey had his new Moor Hall built in brick, a newly fashionable and expensive material.
Bishop Vesey was often absent from his new home in London or Exeter but, when he stayed here, he certainly lived in style keeping 140 liveried servants, and it was here that entertained Henry VIII. The present Moor Hall, now a hotel, was built in 1903 by Colonel Edward Ansell of Ansell’s Brewery fame, replacing Vesey’s house.
However, rich and well connected though he was, Bishop Vesey did not forget his family still living in the Sutton area. He built for poor family members a number of stone houses. This building material was unusual. The dwellings of almost all people in this area at the time was timber, mud and thatch. Only churches and houses of high status such as manor houses were built of stone. The Vesey houses, believed to have been 51 in number, though smaller, were built to the same pattern as the rebuilt Moor Hall Farm.
When visiting Sutton in 1538, Henry VIII’s antiquary John Leland wrote:
He buildyd dyvars praty howsys of stone in the forest, and plantyd his pore kynesmen in them, allotynge ground conveniently unto the howsys, for the whiche the tenaunts bere the Kynge a mean rent.
Remarkably, nearly 500 years later, five of these houses survive.
The Vesey houses are well-built with square blocks of sandstone. They are of two storeys, the upper floor accessed by a spiral staircase near the entrance. Upstairs and downstairs there are usually two rooms divided by a wooden partition. At each end of the rectangular building is a stone chimney stack. The roof was tiled.
Not only are the houses unusual for having been built of stone in this area, but also that they had chimneys and an upstairs floor. The usual style of domestic architecture was single-storey, timber-framed with a hole in the thatched roof to allow smoke from the open hearth to escape, making an upstairs floor impossible. Vesey may have built in stone for speed. Using standard sized blocks made building quicker than creating timber frames which had to be custom made. It is likely that he employed local labour, but he may well have brought a master stonemason with him from Exeter Cathedral to plan and oversee the work.
High Heath Cottage
The smallest of the houses is High Heath Cottage, which lies off Withy Hill Road in an area which is still completely rural and remote. This house has a single room in each floor.
Old Stone House
At the bottom of Maney Hill Road, now close the centre of the town is the Old Stone House. This is one of the largest to survive and is probably the least altered.
A large oak bar secures the front door and upstairs is what may be an arrow slit with a stone seat for the watchman. Marks under the seat may indicate where arrows were sharpened on the sandstone.
Because of the narrow stone spiral stair, a coffin drop is provided whereby a number of floorboards can be removed to allow the body of a deceased to be lowered.
The Bishop encouraged his relations and other locals to take up weaving kersey, a thick strong cloth made from inferior wool and a good additional source of income for smallholders or labourers. On the ground floor is a large, north-facing window where the loom would have stood.
In the north of Sutton at Hill Common, a much altered Vesey house stands on Weeford Road. It is believed to be the first house to have been built in this area of ‘waste’.
Vesey was keen to find employment for his kinsmen and enclosed land around here for the purpose of keeping sheep whose wool would then be used for the weaving of kersey. There is evidence in Sutton of sheep farming from the early 14th century when the chapel of Sutton manor house was known to have been dedicated to St Blaise, the patron saint of wool-combers. It is not known whether the Bishop was further encouraging the keeping of sheep or reviving a practice that had died out.
The Warwickshire antiquarian, Sir William Dugdale, writing in 1651, maintained that the house was built for the prevention of highway robberies. This was a desolate area with no human habitation and Vesey installed his own servants in the house for the protection of travellers. The house eventually became a labourer’s cottage and was later extended with three more small brick cottages inhabited by working people until the end of the 19th century. However, by 1911 the stone house had been extended to the rear and the brick cottages were converted into rooms and stables for a wealthy family.
Warren House Farm
Hidden behind the mid-20th century houses on Walmley Road is Warren House Farm whose sandstone build is rougher and less regular than the other Vesey houses.
The house was altered and extended during the 17th century. However, the granary associated with the farm may be even older than the house itself.
Vesey House / Ford Keeper’s Cottage
In the New Hall valley, down by the stream known as the Ebrook (also known as Plantsbrook) is a stone Vesey cottage which was the ford keeper’s house. It is hard to believe that this small, now canalised stream ever presented a problem to travellers.
However, the ford here was one of few firm river crossings in this wide marshy valley and the ford keeper’s duty was not to see people safely across but to collect tolls from travellers. The house has been relatively little altered since the 16th century.
What happened to the other 46 Vesey houses?
Neither the location nor the fate of the remaining Vesey houses is known. It is more remarkable that five have stood for 500 years than that the others seem to have disappeared without trace. Buildings that survive for this length of time are almost invariably houses of high status and not the houses of the common folk. Presumably, over time, the Vesey houses fell into neglect and disuse. However, it is pretty certain that the well-cut stones were reused and they may survive as the foundations of later buildings across the area.