Industry, Water and Rail

The industrial revolution gave to England an enormous variety of industrial architecture, structures and engineering works, much of it only being now appreciated. Often a care and attention to architectural detail was lavished on these buildings that went beyond their functional need. Mills built in the 17th century can, at first glance, be taken for country houses, as mill owners sought respectability for the their profession by disguising its nature. In a town such as Wolverhampton, where industry was so diverse, industrial premises reflect this, ranging from the small workshops to large factories. Not all industrial premises were purpose built; many of the smaller ones especially were adapted from other buildings. One form of building that lent itself to these in more recent times was redundant Nonconformist chapels. We had thought that there were no chapels converted to industrial use in Wolverhampton. However at the bottom of Temple Street is a small premise that, despite having a new façade, looks by its side windows as if it may once have been religious building. The large numbers who converted to Nonconformism, and the chapels built to serve them, were not sustainable when numbers began to decline. The problem of redundant chapels is at present acute in parts of Wales.

The old Chubb lock works.

Both Wolverhampton and parts of Willenhall are synonymous with lock making and one of the most famous names is Chubb. Within Wolverhampton town centre, there are remarkably few industrial premises, but one is particularly striking and that is the former Chubb Lock factory in Railway Street that dates from 1899. It is a dramatic building of five storeys, occupying a prominent corner position. It is of unusual shape, being triangular with a stair well at the apex. It has recently been sensitively adapted for use as a cinema and arts centre.
The 18th century saw rapid developments in the field of transport. Turnpike roads, first introduced in the 17th century, spread rapidly and gained in popularity until they linked at least all the major towns with reasonably prepared roads. Wolverhampton Turnpike Trust was set up to develop through Tettenhall to Shifnal. Tettenhall was also the scene of a major rock cutting when Thomas Telford took through a section of the London-Holyhead Road. By 1763 no less than seven turnpike roads met at Wolverhampton.

It was, though, the coming of the canals that provided industry and commerce with a means of transporting heavy or bulky goods. The canal network that developed was of prime importance to the development of the midlands in general and the Black Country in particular, for Birmingham and the Black Country were at the heart of the English canal system. In the area between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Teme valley there is a network of canals at three levels approached by a long flight of locks.

Canalside cottages and lock number one.

There are tunnels, signposts, tollhouses and lock keepers cottages. This system was considerably extended in the 19th century.

Unfortunately nothing remains of Wolverhampton’s turnpike system, although tollhouses exist on the Willenhall Road. The canal though has provided us with some interesting arrangements of Victorian buildings, though not as many as we would wish.

The Staffordshire and Worcester Canal that runs through the outskirts of Wolverhampton and partly financed by the town’s businessmen, was the work of the great canal engineer James Brindley. The Act of Parliament authorising the canal was passed in 1776 and Brindley was able to complete the forty-six mile route in six years. The canal begins at Great Haywood on the Trent and Mersey Canal and follows the valleys of the Penk, Smestow and Stour to join the Severn at Stourbridge. The Staffordshire and Worcester canal is joined just out of town at Aldersley by Telford’s Birmingham Canal and it is this which runs across the bottom of Broad Street. Later the canal was extended to Nantwich under the name of the Birmingham Liverpool Junction.

Another view of the canal cottages.

Until the 1970s a graceful cast iron bridge took the Wednesfield Road over the canal, this has now been removed to the Black Country Living Museum where it can still be appreciated. Near to the modern bridge is an arrangement of wharves that after having served as industrial premises have now been converted to use as a nightclub, currently defunct. In Broad Street Basin there is an interesting group of canal cottages.

It is often asserted that the coming of the railways brought about the sudden demise of canals and whilst it is true that there was some consternation amongst canal proprietors the change was not so dramatic as is often thought, especially in the midlands where the canal network was both complex and efficient and could often not be improved upon by the railways. The Cannock extension was built as late as 1853, a decade after “railway mania”.

When the railways came to Wolverhampton, providing great stimulus to its industries, it was at the centre of controversy between two rival companies.

The Grand Junction Railway, which connected Birmingham with the Liverpool and Manchester line, was opened in 1837. As lines only approached the centre of town as closely as was necessary to make a connection, the Grand Junction came no nearer than Heath Town, then Wednesfield Heath. 

Wednesfield Heath Railway Station, long after closure.

The name Station Road is a reminder of where it once was. An additional problem for Wolverhampton was the fact that it was on hill.

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