Wolverhampton in the 19th Century

At the time of the Queen’s accession, Wolverhampton was a prosperous town, owing its wealth not just to industry but also to the fact that it was an important agricultural centre and market town, a mixed economy town if ever there was one. Writing in 1839 one observer commented:

“The town is on the western borders of the mining district, and the neighbourhood consequently abounds with mines of ironstone and limestone, with furnaces, gorges and iron works. There is also a corn mill, two worsted mills and chemical works for the manufacture of sulphuric acid and nitric acids.

The trade of Wolverhampton is greatly facilitated by its situation on the direct line of the road to Holyhead, Manchester and Liverpool. It also has the advantage of navigable communication to every part of England by means of the Birmingham Canal”.1

The diversity of industry in the town was one of its strengths and the list of trades practiced must rival in sheer diversity any other town in the country. The manufacture of japanned and tin ware was introduced into the town from south Wales in the 18th century. Together with Bilston, Wolverhampton was at the centre of this industry and produced goods for home and foreign consumption. Although we now tend to associate the manufacture of locks with Willenhall, Wolverhampton too was an important centre for the industry but one that tended to make more expensive products. The Chubb Brothers, Charles and Jeremiah, first made locks in Portsea and later moved to Horseley Fields in 1818. Later they moved to the finest industrial premises in town, the Chubb Building.

Locally made products on display in part of the interior of the Industrial Hall at the Wolverhampton Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1902. The displays reflect the confidence and prosperity of local manufacturers at the time.
Tubing was made for gas and locomotives and steel works of every description from nutcrackers through files, rasps, vices, and anvils to cycles and tricycles. Coach ironmongery was made, as was kitchen furniture. There were also grease, chemical and varnish works, malting and brewing, corn mills, and cooperages, iron and brass foundries. There were no less than ten spectacle manufacturers not to mention snuff grinders and watchmakers. There were also many patent articles manufactured in Wolverhampton including enamelled saucepans and other culinary utensils “coated on the insides with a sort of porcelain instead of tin”.
The many fine Victorian buildings in Wolverhampton are testimony to the prosperity of the town in the 19th century. Its population in 1831, six years before the accession of the Queen was 24,732. This can be compared with the 6,647 of Walsall and the 37,000 of Stoke on Trent. Between 1801 and 1901 the population of Wolverhampton increased eight fold.

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Despite the fact that much of Wolverhampton is Victorian, the town still has something of the townscape of a medieval market town. The market was south of the church and  the names Exchange Street and Cheapside gives away its origins. Victorian Wolverhampton was slow to develop.

“Look at the town…Few in England wear seemingly more antiquity in general aspect. Here are houses built in Elizabeth’s day… Its name has a good old Saxon sound; and its main street and market place have not yet been reduced to the straight lines and cast-iron uniformity of modern architecture”.2

It is interesting to note that one of the old Elizabethan buildings mentioned by the American writer Eliash Burritt* was the Old Hall on the site of the present library. A firm of paper makers and japanners used this until the early 19th century. The hall had been the moated mansion of the Levesons, a family who had made their money through the wool trade. In the 18th century Joseph Turton junior, an iron factor, purchased the hall and removed the upper storey and inserted sash windows. The hall later became Turton’s hall. In the 1860s it was still used for industrial purposes by F. Walston & Co. It is a pity that the hall has not survived, as it would have be a rare and interesting example of a country house converted to industrial use.

Like many industrial towns, the rapid development left the local authority helpless in the face of fast multiplying slums and the attendant problems that they brought. As late as 1842 a Government report on the slums of Wolverhampton read: -

“In the small and dirtier streets, at intervals of every eight or ten houses…the great majority are only three feet wide and six feet high…These narrow passages are also the general gutter…having made your way through the passage, you find yourself in a space varying in size with the number of houses, hutches, or hovels it contains. They are nearly all proportionally overcrowded”.3

*Burritt is often credited with coining the appellation Black Country, but the name pre dates Burritt by many years. The people of Stratford Upon Avon have never forgiven Burritt for linking them with Birmingham. 

The industrialization of the area and the concomitant loss of greenery were noted by a German visitor in 1835.

“About Wolverhampton, trees, grass and every trace of verdure disappear. As far as the eye can reach, all is black, with coal mines and ironworks”.

Others were not so dismissive; the following writer (1851) refers not only to the improvements taking place in the town, but also to its quite magnificent settings:

“(The town) is very salubrious…being seated on the summit of a bold gravelly eminence…skirted by fertile pastures and gardens, and having in the distance hills of great magnitude. Until about twenty years ago, the town displayed but little beauty in its streets and buildings”.4

There were some areas that were particularly bad including Lower Stafford Street, Salop Street, Horseley Fields and the Bilston Road area. Even as late as 1865, £100 was granted to the Sewerage Committee to meet the expense of covering over the public ditches. In a report on Wolverhampton in “The Builder” of August 1872 the writer notes “the most odious court system, countless courts of the most unhealthy and objectionable character…with middens full, stinking and confined, and deadly”.

The writer points out what to us must seem surprising, that is the close proximity in which the well-off lived to areas of utter squalor; he ends on an ominous note:

“In Peel Street and its neighbourhood and in what is called Caribee Island, the condition of things is frightful: if the latter were really the settlement of a tribe of wild Indians, it would be an object of wonder to the civilized upper classes of Wolverhampton. These are places which fight against the general salubrity of the town, and out of which will one day come some frightful epidemic to dispel the security at present indulged in, and rouse to salutary action”.

The poor housing was often not just a health hazard but a physical danger as well. In 1876 a number of dilapidated houses in Walsall Street collapsed killing a boy, one Edwin Brown.

Like many large towns, Wolverhampton took advantage of the Artisans’ Dwelling Act of 1875. This (Conservative) measure passed by the Government of Disraeli, empowered local authorities to pull down slums and rebuild decent accommodation for working class families. In Wolverhampton there was a scheme to clear and redevelop the area between Queen Square and Stafford Street. This was the notorious Caribee Island area. The intention was to provide suitable habitation for the displaced and land at Springfield was purchased for that purpose. The Act was implemented in 1881, when much of Lichfield Street was re-aligned to provide a street of metropolitan grandeur. 
The new post office in Lichfield Street, which opened on 29th March, 1897 is typical of the imposing and attractive Victorian buildings that were appearing at the time.
The first shop in Lichfield Street opened in 1883 and building was completed with the Grand Theatre in 1894.

It was reported in 1818 that the streets leading off Queen Square were substantial and well built. The town was paved and well lit by gas. However prior to this, one of the main problems for Wolverhampton had been the maintenance of an adequate supply of water. Water was supplied to Wolverhampton by wells sunk to a great depth under the rock upon which the town was built (indeed, Banks’s Brewery still uses one of these pure artesian sources). However this water supply was inadequate for the needs of the expanding town and so to supply this need a company was formed and an Act obtained in 1845 for the erection of a waterworks, which was opened in 1847. The water was obtained from springs in the red sandstone rock at Tettenhall and Goldthorn Hill where storage reservoirs able to hold 2 million gallons were constructed. From these reservoirs, water fell through 15-inch pipes, which were constantly charged, so that in the event of fire, hoses could be attached to throw water over the highest building. Water was also obtained from an artesian well at Cosford. It was reported that the water in Wolverhampton was remarkably pure and soft. These wells still supply water to the town.

One of the ways in which the health of the nation was improved was by the erection of public baths and in this Wolverhampton was no exception. The architect G.T. Robinson designed baths built in multi-coloured bricks in bath Street. There were hot, cold, tepid and vapour baths. The self-improvement that was such a feature of life at all social levels was also in evidence here for attached to the baths were reading rooms and rooms for chess and other amusements.

The Municipal Swimming Baths.

Despite the fact that Wolverhampton was a major industrial town, we should not forget that it was also a major market town. The numerous “Folds” around the church are an indication of the importance of the town as a medieval market. The nearby Halfpenny Green is a reminder that here, cattle driven from Shropshire, were fattened up at a halfpenny a head before being driven to town by way of Salop Street.

As was noted in 1876:

“Few, if any, large manufacturing towns possess so large an element of agricultural interests. The weekly market, which takes place on Wednesdays, is largely attended by farmers of the county, and also by those of the sister county of Shropshire and an enormous quantity of cattle is disposed of and finds its way to the shambles of the metropolis, as well as to those of the immediate district”.5

(The word “shambles”, as used here, is the old name for a livestock market).

In White’s Directory of 1861 the writer could say that Wolverhampton was “the most populous borough and market town in Staffordshire”.

Many buildings serving primarily agricultural purposes were witness to this unusual combination of industry and agriculture. (The Royal Agricultural Society held their 1871 show in Wolverhampton). An open market was once held in Queen Square, formerly High Green. The modern buildings of the Square still outline the ancient market area. Before the erection of the cattle market, animals had been driven into the town and sold openly on the streets, “often to the annoyance of the public and injury to the beasts themselves”. The cattle market, designed by Edward Banks, was situated in the Cleveland Road near to St George’s Church. It was thoroughly well drained and had an abundant supply of water. Its capacity for some 700 horses, 5,000 sheep and 3,000 pigs gives some indication of its importance as a livestock market. The delightfully named Fat Pig Market was situated in Bilston Street, adjoining the Cattle market. This was opened in 1856 and had accommodation for about 800 porkers.

The agricultural side of the town’s activities is shown by the erection of an Agricultural Hall in 1863, which occupied a prominent position on Snowhill. A large moulding showing a plough and a sheaf of corn surmounted the entrance. It was later used as a corn exchange and for the display of agricultural implements. In its open space of 1,200 sq yards, there were held flower, poultry and dog shows. The recently demolished Gaumont Cinema occupied the site of the Agricultural Hall. The cinema and the present shop on the site both follow the contoured outline of the old Agricultural Hall.

Few people in Wolverhampton could fail to be aware both of the close proximity of the countryside and the novelty of industry occupying former agricultural land. One of the main complaints about St. Mark’s Church in Chapel Ash, was that although the view from Queen Square was impressive, it blocked out the vista of the Clee Hills and Shropshire. It was also written of Horseley Fields, (a ley for horses), that it is “but…now redundant in smoke, and the noise of the forge and steam hammer is heard, where formerly the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep were the prevailing sounds”.6

Politically Wolverhampton came into its own after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act. By this Act Wolverhampton was allowed to send two M Ps to Westminster. The first two men who had the honour of representing the town were Charles Villiers and Thomas Thornley. Under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, the number of seats was increased to three. The constituency also included Willenhall, Bilston and the parish of Sedgley. In 1848, under the terms of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, the town received a charter of incorporation. By this the town was governed by a Mayor, twelve aldermen and thirty-six councilors. The town was divided into eight wards, a further four being added in 1896. From its incorporation, Wolverhampton council acted with vigour and enthusiasm that was the hallmark, though not the prerogative of the new industrial towns.

There was vigorous political activity in the town with numerous political and social clubs. In 1889 there were three Conservative Clubs, one being for Conservative Working Men, and two Liberal clubs including the Villiers Reform Club. As an expanding and prosperous town, with a secure artisan class, there were quite a number of institutions to help those of an industrious nature to rise in the world, that social mobility so beloved of the Victorians. Among the provident institutions of the town were a savings bank and a number of friendly societies. The Wolverhampton Freehold Land Society was established in 1848, for the purpose of enabling working men and others to obtain plots of freehold building land and thus become entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Initially 1,200 shares were issued to 750 individuals with which land was purchased in Moorfields and Sedgley Road. Also the society entered into an agreement for the purchase of Whitmore Reans estate for £8,000.

All in all, the picture of Victorian Wolverhampton is one of improvement, wealth, energy, pride and redevelopment and this is reflected in the many buildings of the town.

The term “Victorian” is one of the most widely used descriptive words and also one of the most imprecise. We speak of “Victorian values”, “Victorian Architecture” and the progress of the “Victorians”.


1. W.G. Hoskins, "The Making of the English Landscape".
2. Eliash Burritt, "Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland", 1868.
3. Factory Inspector's Report, 1842.
4. White's Directory, 1851.
5. Steen & Blackett, Wolverhampton Guide 1871.
6. ibid.

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