The names of some landowners are known and appear in Lawley, as do the names of many more in Bilston itself. These landowners were all people who, by hard work, wheeling and dealing, or just good fortune, accumulated much of the land into their own hands and built the larger houses in the village. They were also, as like as not, the leaders in"enclosing" the open fields. Enclosure was the process by which the old strip farming was abandoned, scattered strips were brought together and enclosed in fields of the shape and size with which we are now familiar.
This was often done in one fell swoop under the compulsion of an Act of Parliament; but there is no Act covering Bilston or Bradley. So there must have been what is known as"enclosure by agreement" whereby, possibly over a prolonged period, maybe decades or even longer, swaps and purchases of strips were agreed between their respective owners until everyone had his land in consolidated areas like modern fields. The written record reflects this process.
n Bradley a deed (said to be of 1479 but strangely worded for that date) mentions an area of land"taken and enclosed before Queen Mary's time, and that before it was enclosed it was called Broad Meadow.
This is not entirely clear but the early date (if accurate) suggests that this enclosure was carried out by a landowner for the purposes of producing a sheep run. If this is the case the deed also reflects the undoubted importance of sheep farming to the area.
Land in a manor's open fields was (certainly for the greatest part) not freehold but copyhold. Copyhold tenure depended on registering one's title, and all dealings in the land, with the manorial court.
As land was enclosed the manorial court no longer needed to meet to regulate the course of agriculture and, very often, manorial courts fell into decay. This meant that land transactions in copyhold land became difficult and uncertain.
It may be that this happened in the whole of the Black Country area, with prime land within and immediately around the villages becoming enfranchised as freehold land, and the rest remaining copyhold.
It is possible that much mining and other industrial development could take place between the villages because it became uncertain who owned the land or had any form of control over it. Dr. Rowlands finds, in most of the Black Country, a relatively strong manorial system in which the custom of some manors gave underlying minerals to the copyholder and some to the lord of the manor. Which category the Bilston manors fell into is not clear.
But, one way or another, through the manorial courts or through encroachment, there seems to have been no legal problem in exploiting the mineral wealth beneath Bilston. This aspect of the development of industry in the area merits further investigation. Most of the Bilston landowning families remained in the area or thereabouts.
Only a few appear on the national scene. For example, the Pipe family provided a merchant who became Lord Mayor of London; and the Hoo family, from Bradley, provided a Sergeant-at-Law" a lawyer somewhat above the modern Queen's Counsel and not much below the judges. Dr. Rowlands refers to them as"lesser gentry".