In the early 1700s the face of Dudley began to change, when brick-built buildings became more fashionable. There were large local clay deposits and a number of improvements in brick making, including blended clay, better moulding techniques and more even firing, which resulted in a greater consistency, both in size and shape.

Dudley still has two fine examples of early brick-built houses, both from the early 1700s. In Priory Street, then called Sheep Street, next to the building that housed Dudley’s museum, is a lovely house carrying the date 1703 and the initials of Hugh and Joyce Dixon. They were married on the 2nd November, 1701, so this was possibly their first proper family home. Hugh was the first known glassmaker in Dudley, who unfortunately was declared bankrupt in 1713.The house was Grade II listed on the 14th September, 1949.

The second example, known as Finch House, is one of the finest buildings in the town. It is in Wolverhampton Street, on the corner of The Inhedge. It has a Queen Anne facade which carries the initials of the owners, Joseph and Mary Finch and the date 1707. The building was Grade II* listed on the 14th September, 1949. In 1711 the Court Leet ordered that Joseph Finch must "mend the road leading to the bounds of the parish towards Gornal Wood." He was required to mend the road outside his house in Wolverhampton Street. His grandson, John Finch, opened the first bank in Dudley.

Another fine example of a fine brick building is Chaddesley House, also in Wolverhampton Street, on the opposite side of the road from Finch House. It was built in the middle of the 18th century of red brick with a moulded stone door case and pediment. The building was Grade II listed on the 14th September, 1949.

A prominent brick-built building was the old town hall that stood in the centre of the market place. It was raised on arches that provided a useful space beneath for use by market traders. Sadly the building became an eyesore. On the 24th November, 1858, C. F. G. Clark wrote to the Dudley Times and Express, advocating its demolition for its acknowledged nuisance as a public urinal, its shameful use as a hiding place for juvenile obscenity and adult immorality. The building was demolished in 1860.

The Dudley Arms Hotel. From an old postcard.

There was another fine brick building in High Street, overlooking the market place, which was built in the late 1790s on the site of the old Rose and Crown. The Dudley Arms Hotel was very large and plain, but had a certain dignity. It was built by a group of prominent townsmen who formed the "Building Society" for the purpose of buying land and building houses on it for its members.

The initial plan was to build the Dudley Arms Hotel. Subscribers took £50 in shares in the new society and a capital fund was accumulated. Not a great deal is known about the activities of the society, or how many houses were built from its funds.

There was a great deal of interest in the scheme to build the Dudley Arms, which resulted in an impressive building that soon became the most popular meeting place in Dudley, and provided the town with a handsome assembly room. It was also the main coaching inn in the town. The hotel finally closed in May 1968 and was soon demolished.

During the 18th century, the whole character of the area changed, as many of the ancient timber framed houses in the town centre were refaced in brick, so that by the end of the century it all looked very different.

For many years horse fairs were held in the market place. It began on September, 1685 when King Charles II gave permission to Edward Baron Ward to hold two fairs annually, on September 21st and April 27th, each lasting two days. Horses, sheep, cattle and other merchandise were sold, for which tolls were charged. By the early 18th century there were three fairs annually, held on April 27th, July 25th and September 21st. The tolls were extremely small, only 4 pence per horse sold, so little money was made. In July 1703 the profit was only one guinea. On September 21st, 1792, only 2 shillings was received in commission for sale of horses. Later there were four annual fairs, held in March, May, August and October. The fairs in March and August were toll-free.

The Seven Stars Inn that stood in the Market Place. A drawing by Paul Braddon.

The Court Leet

For several centuries, Dudley was governed by the old manorial court, known as the Court Leet, which had jurisdiction over civil affairs including minor criminal matters and petty offences. The earliest records of court proceedings are from 1732 for the town centre and 1701 for the surrounding areas. The Court Leet continued until 1865, but was largely superseded in 1791 by the Town Commissioners, formed under the terms of the Dudley Town Act, passed in Parliament in May, 1791.

The Court Leet met twice yearly, in May and October. Separate juries were sworn-in for the old borough and the other areas until 1798, when they were combined. The meetings were held at a number of locations including The Swan Inn, the Town Hall and the Dudley Arms Hotel. Anyone summoned to attend a meeting, and failed to be there was fined quite heavily. In October 1787 fines varied from 1s. 6d. to 5 shillings.

The juries appointed the town officers. Each year one person was elected as bailiff, the head of the borough. In the following year he would be Mayor. Other appointments included a sergeant and two constables to look after law and order, two searchers, leather sealers, ale tasters and two food inspectors called flesh and fish tasters.

Fines were handed-out for a breach of the lord's assize of bread and ale, and speculation in farm products sold in the market. In 1732 no one was allowed to sell butter in the market before 1 o’clock, and anyone bringing corn to the market could not sell it elsewhere before 12 o’clock. Failure to comply resulted in a fine for 13s. 4d. Juries also ensured that the ancient forest laws regarding the number of animals kept on a small holding and the removal of timber were within legal limits. Other considerations included the provision of a ducking stool for punishments, the regulation of "plays and games" in the Town Hall, the repair of the pound, and the keeping of Sunday observance.

The repair of roads and footways was not forgotten. Orders were issued to private individuals and the parochial supervisors of highways, to repair the streets, especially the main roads leading in or out of the town. Failure to comply would result in a heavy fine of up to £1.19.11d. On the 23rd April, 1741, the supervisors of highways were ordered to fix some stepping stones across a brook, and in October 1786, Mary Finch was ordered to remove some recently built steps from her house and Mr. Green's house, which extended too far into New Street. They were to be removed within fourteen days, or she would have to pay a substantial fine. Every citizen had to abide by the court rulings, no one was exempt, not even George Jones, who had been mayor of Dudley in the previous year. In the October court in 1787 he was ordered to keep open a pathway through Yokes Park to Blowers Green where people were in danger of falling into a water pit. He was ordered to erect posts and rails alongside the path within six weeks, or pay the maximum fine.

Dudley High Street in 1812 by Paul Braddon.

Sanitation was also scrutinised by the court. Heavy fines could be imposed for accumulating rubbish in the main channels after market days or for the illegal diversion of open and unsanitary watercourses in busy parts of the town, or the discharge of sewage into the streets.  

The court also kept an eye on house building, particularly because of the fear that more houses could increase the number of poor people that the parish had to maintain. In 1733 John Crump was ordered to pull down a new building which he had recently erected on unused land in Netherton, near to a goat house. This had to be done within one month or he would have to pay a fine of thirty three shillings.

Although the Court Leet had the necessary powers to deal with the affairs of a small community, Dudley began to change from a rural area with a relatively small population into an industrial area with a greatly increasing population. The Court Leet did not have sufficient powers to adequately deal with the enlarged population and enforce the minimum provisions that were essential to the developing town, including sanitation, cleansing and policing.

By 1790 the streets were still narrow, largely unpaved with many obstructions and manure and filth had been allowed to collect there. Houses were still not numbered, streets were unlit, the water supply was inadequate, and the only police were the two constables and a sergeant appointed by the court. There was little jurisdiction so disorders were commonplace. 

Because of the intolerable conditions in the town, the Dudley Town Act was passed in 1791 which authorised Commissioners to levy a rate to enable the essential improvements to be carried out. The Court Leet continued to meet until the 28th December, 1866, but after the formation of the Town Commissioners it seemed to lose confidence in itself and more often than not, just expressed opinions rather than dealing with problems and issuing fines. It slowly became obsolete.

Government by the Town Commissioners 1791-1852

As already mentioned, in 1791 Parliament passed the Dudley Town Act which led to the formation of the Town Commissioners, Dudley's local government which remained in power until 1852.

All ratepayers occupying or owning property of a certain value automatically became commissioners after swearing an oath. This was fatefully flawed because of self-interest. It may have seemed reasonable at the time, but it did not lead to effective local government in the interest of all the inhabitants. The middle class ratepayers tended to keep the rates down and had little support for social improvements to help the poor, which would be mainly paid for by better-off ratepayers.

The sanitation and health conditions continued to be shocking, but the Commissioners could not ignore the inadequate water supply and the poor police protection. They did occasionally make half-hearted efforts to seek further powers to improve the town, but only due to public opinion when it was outraged by cholera or other epidemics.

The Commissioners carried out some improvements, but their financial resources and legal powers were inadequate to deal with their wide ranging responsibilities. Their efforts were often overcome by self-interest on the part of local businessmen or industrialists. In 1852 Isaac Badger successfully fought against an application for the Health of Towns Act for Dudley, even though 70 percent of Dudley's inhabitants died before the age of 20.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the Commissioners were jealous of other bodies carrying out the necessary work that they would not do themselves. They were resentful at the incorporation of the Dudley Waterworks Company by an Act of Parliament and they fought against the application of the Constabulary Bill to Dudley.

The Commissioners met irregularly at the Dudley Arms Hotel and decided matters by a majority vote of all present. A chairman was appointed for each meeting. The minutes were signed by any or all the Commissioners present. Many meetings had to be adjourned because the minimum number of five Commissioners did not attend.           

The Commissioners were empowered to appoint officers including two clerks, a treasurer, a surveyor, and a scavenger, whose role it was to collect rubbish in a cart, weekly, from the inhabitants and take it away. He had to let people know when he was coming by ringing a bell or shouting loudly.

The Commissioners had the power to ensure that people were not allowed to drive any wheeled vehicle including wheel barrows on public footpaths, sell horses and cattle on footpaths, or slaughter them there. Owners of animals and cattle were not allowed to let them freely wander the streets and large dogs had be kept under control and securely muzzled. People were not allowed to light bonfires there, or let-off fireworks. Any of the offences would be subject to a fine of five shillings. Bull-baiting or bear-baiting was not allowed and was subject to a fine of forty shillings.

The Act gave the Commissioners the power to whitewash the houses of the poor at the Commissioner’s expense, but this seems to have been ignored. The Commissioners also had the power to appoint watchmen to control the lawless conditions in the town, but only the minimum number was appointed and their work was largely ineffective. The Commissioners used their power to provide pumps to help maintain the water supply, but this remained inadequate until the incorporation of the Borough in 1865.

Stone Street in 1925. The building on the far left was a malt house which was demolished to make way for the Fountain Arcade. From an old postcard.

On the 20th August, 1792 the Commissioners decided that a sufficient number of oil lamps with lamp irons would be fitted at the corner of the main streets and that an advert would be published for a person to supply the lamps with oil during the forthcoming winter. At the same meeting, the Commissioners ruled that houses in the following streets were to be numbered by painting large letters in a conspicuous place. The streets were High Street, Wolverhampton Street, Stone Street, Queen Street, Hall Street, New Street, Castle Street, Fishers Street, Birmingham Street, King Street, Mill Street, Priory Street and Tower Street.

The amount of the annual rate levied by the Commissioners was defined in the Act. Two shillings in the Pound was paid by occupiers of houses, granaries, malt houses, glass houses, or other buildings, and for yards, gardens, and land valued at Five pounds or more.

At a meeting on the 4th December, 1812 the Commissioners decided to sell the manure lying near the castle wall to Mr. Parker and also to sell the manure arising from the sweeping of the streets to Samuel Smith. On June the 26th, 1813 they appointed Mr. Stokes as inspector nuisances and annoyances in the town, at a salary of £5.5s.0d. a year.

On the 21st February, 1821, Messrs. Barlow informed the Commissioners of their intention to obtain an Act in the present Session of Parliament for incorporating the Town of Dudley Gas Light Company. The Commissioners’ clerk was ordered to take steps to protect the interests of the Commissioners who were more concerned with preserving their own powers than implementing them.

On the 22nd November, 1827 the following people were appointed as watchmen at a salary of twelve shillings per week: William Baird, Joseph Southall, James Farren and Thomas Neale. At the same meeting, James Robinson was appointed superintendent of the watchmen at a salary of five shillings per week. He was under the direction of Mr. Joseph Cooke, Chief Constable. Each watchman was provided with a suitable uniform, a lantern and a rattle.

On the 12th September, 1828, the first complaint against the watchmen was made. James Farren and Joseph Southall, two of the watchmen were accused of negligence and drunkenness. It was ordered that Mr. Cooke was authorised to discharge them if he thought that was the proper thing to do. In future he was empowered to discharge or suspend any watchman for drunkenness or improper conduct and to appoint others in their places.

On the 6th May, 1834, it was ordered that a place be acquired for storing Fire Engines and that Richard Paskin, be appointed as engineer to take care of them at an annual salary of eight pounds. Also that twelve firemen be paid the sum of one pound each per year.

On the 16th June, 1848, it was ordered that the cattle market in fair days be confined to the north side of Wolverhampton Street, both sides of Priory Street and Hare Pool Green and that no cattle be permitted to stand on the South side of Wolverhampton Street.

On the 20th October, 1848, it was unanimously resolved that five of the Commissioners would form a committee to carry out the provisions of the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act, 1848, and that they continue in office for one year.

On the 9th January, 1851, it was ordered that the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1851 be put in force and that the keepers of all common lodging houses and beer shops within the limits of the Town Act were required to register them and that a register of the keepers would be provided and kept at the clerk’s office.

As already mentioned, the Commissioners consisted of some of the wealthier members of the local community who were more concerned about keeping down the rates, rather than helping the poorer members of society, many of whom lived in terrible housing. Everything was done on the cheap. To save money the Commissioners only appointed 9 watchmen who were under the control of the constable, appointed by the Court Leet. The small number of watchmen were incapable of patrolling the hundreds of taverns and beer shops in the area, so drunkenness and crime went unchecked.

A public inquiry held in 1852 revealed that Dudley's health and sanitation was the worst in the country. The inquiry revealed the failure of the Commissioners to remedy the terrible conditions in the town and so they were replaced by the Dudley Local Board of Health.

By 1777 Dudley had a workhouse in Tower Street (formerly Pease Lane), that could accommodate up to 100 people. It continued in use until the 1850s, long after the creation of the Dudley Poor Law Union in 1836, which was established under the terms of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

The location of Dudley's first workhouse.

The 18th century was a century of change, from a small rural town to the beginnings of a large industrial one. By the beginning of the 19th century the population was over 10,000. It is listed as 10,107 in the 1801 census.

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