At the beginning of the 18th century the population of Walsall was just over 5,500, almost twice what it was 100 years earlier.

In January 1701 Walsall Corporation acquired the old manorial corn mill by The Bridge, from the lady of the manor, Dame Elizabeth Wilbraham, on a 500 year lease, at an annual rent of two shillings. The building was in a poor condition and the Corporation agreed to repair it and to give any profits from grinding to the poor. Repairs were made, and small sums of money earned, but by 1763 the building had been demolished or converted to other uses.

Difficult times for the Corporation

During 18th century the Corporation faced many problems. Its popularity was at an all time low, there were difficulties in recruiting members, financial crises, and hostilities between the Borough and the Foreign.

Many of the burgesses were tradesmen, who were not prepared to be members of the Corporation, in case they had to make unpopular decisions that might prejudice their business interests. Foreigners, Nonconformists, Catholics, and High Tories were excluded from the Corporation, and until 1741 the Mayor received no payment for his duties. After 1741 any mayor who served for two consecutive years would receive a payment of £15, from then on most mayors served a double period.

Corporation membership was lower than ever, with rarely more than 12 members. In the twenty years up until 1708, thirty Capital Burgesses had been appointed to the Corporation, but in the next twenty years only eleven were willing to serve on the Corporation.

There were financial difficulties, particularly over the poor rate. People in the Borough were paying three times more than those living in the Foreign, which led to resentment, and the call for a general rate for everyone in the town. In 1752, in an attempt to overcome the problem, the magistrates appointed four overseers for the whole town, in the hope that his would lead to the establishment of a general rate. Previously there had been separate overseers for the Borough and the Foreign.

Walsall in about 1796. Stebbing Shaw.

The people in the Foreign would have none of this, and one of the Foreign overseers, Samuel Wilkes of Bloxwich went to prison rather than handing his books over to the magistrates. The leading inhabitants of Bloxwich took their case to the Court of the King’s Bench on two occasions, each time achieving a judgement against the magistrates. In 1756 the magistrates finally gave-in and reinstated the old system.

One of the Corporations’ most serious problems was maintaining law and order. There were a many disturbances by large disorganised crowds, demonstrating against political parties, the established church, Methodism, the crown, or more usually high food prices. During one riot in 1750 an effigy of King George II was hung on Church Hill.

In the latter half of the 18th century many people were unemployed and could not afford to properly feed themselves and their families. The price of wheat had escalated, and so people took to the streets, attacked millers, food wholesalers, and even market traders. They believed that they could force traders to reduce prices by rioting. Things were so bad that in 1776 over twenty people were sworn-in as constables to protect the market traders from rioting crowds, who frequently attacked them, and were dissuading them from coming to the market.

In 1780 a hundred coal miners invaded the corn mill at Bescot, and forced the miller to sell them wheat at five shillings a bushel. They then marched to Walsall market and forced the traders to do likewise.

The system of law and order was inadequate to cope with the problem, which was made worse by the rising population. The magistrates held a petty session each week, and a Court of Quarter Sessions. The town gaol was insecure and many prisoners escaped, some being sent to Wolverhampton for tighter security.

Relief for the poor

In 1723 poor relief legislation was passed under the terms of the Workhouse Test Act which stated that anyone wanting to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. The legislation was intended to prevent irresponsible claims on a parish's poor rate. By 1750 there were 600 parish workhouses in England and Wales.

In 1717 Walsall Corporation purchased three cottages on Church Hill, near the church, from Mr. Thomas Harris of Worcester. By 1732 the cottages had been converted into Walsall’s first workhouse, with accommodation for 130 people. The first governor, Simon Cox was followed by Richard Lambert, appointed in 1781 at a salary of £25. He was given the following instructions, which were recorded in the vestry book:

That the said Richard Lambert keep good order and rule in the said house; that he and the whole family go to rest and rise at necessary and reasonable hours; that the said house and premises at all times be kept clean, sweet and decent; also to cause the seats and pews in the said parish church to be swept and cleaned every Saturday by the poor in the said house, without any expense to the inhabitants; also that the said governor of the said house, not to have any private or weekly bill for the use of the said house or the poor, etc.; likewise that he keep the poor in the said house to work (such as are not capable to go to out-work) in such employment as he shall think necessary and most convenient. And those out-workers, such as mechanics, labourers, etc., the said master to agree with all masters or mistresses for such servants by the day, the week, or piece, and he to keep a memorandum book for that purpose, by which means it may be made known to the acting overseer for the time being, what is due from each master to each servant, and the said governor to collect such money weekly, and transmit the same to the overseer of the poor; also the said governor to go on all journeys on parish business or such as are thought advisable by the overseer or his colleague; the said governor to pay the poor, occasionally to assist the overseer in buying of meat, clothing, or other reasonable business; the said governor to be allowed all reasonable charges upon journeys. It is further agreed the said governor shall not be allowed any other perquisites, more than his yearly wages of £25.

In 1799 the workhouse was enlarged to accommodate over 200 people. It had a large dining room, 42 feet long by 15 feet wide, with two very pleasant and airy lodging rooms above, and a large workroom with facilities for spinning wool and linen. The poor were expected to work there and make their own clothes. The building was inconveniently situated, being on top of the hill. Water for drinking and washing had to be carried there by hand. There was also a workhouse at Bloxwich capable of holding around 100 people. Most of the poor were given outdoor relief, and lived away from the workhouse. They received payments for rent, fuel, clothing, and medical expenses. In 1742 the expenditure for the poor amounted to £338.17s.2½d. By 1810 this had increased to around £2,000.

Many people insured themselves against unemployment and sickness by joining clubs and benefit societies. By the end of the century there were 20 of them in the town, more than anywhere else in Staffordshire. They had around 1,800 members, who in times of need received between 6 and 8 shillings a week, plus medical treatment.

A Municipal Cemetery and a Racecourse

By 1750 there was almost no space left in St. Matthew’s graveyard for burials and so the Corporation purchased land off Bath Street known as Windmill Field, and built what was called the Old Burial Ground, Walsall’s first municipal cemetery. It was surrounded by a brick wall, the first bricks being laid at a ceremony in March 1751 by Mr. A. Bealey, Mrs. Elizabeth Cox, and the Rev. Robert Felton.

Walsall racecourse and grandstand. From Thomas Pearce's History and Directory of Walsall.

Long Meadow in between Walsall Brook and the mill stream was the site of the town’s racecourse which opened in 1777. Meetings were held annually during the Michaelmas Fair, and a grandstand was added in 1809.

Trades in 1767

Sketchley’s Directory published in 1767 contains the first detailed list of Walsall trades. It listed 84 buckle makers, 66 chape makers, 38 publicans, 19 spur and rowel makers, 13 snaffle makers, 10 ironmongers, 8 stirrup makers, 7 chapmen and merchants, and several awl-blade makers, blacksmiths, chandlers, curriers, fellmongers, gunsmiths, locksmiths, nailers, skinners, tanners, and whitesmiths.

Inns and Hostelries

In 1774 the owner of the New Inn on the left-hand side of Park Street (looking towards Town End) was looking for a new tenant. The pub was described in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on the 19th of September, 1774 as follows:

To be let and entered upon at Christmas next, all that new erected and compleat inn in Walsall, in the County of Stafford, called the New Inn, standing near The Bridge and New Road, and conveniently situated for the reception of noblemen and gentlemen travelling through Walsall. The business of the said inn is daily increasing on account of the turnpike roads being made exceeding good from Walsall to Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Lichfield, and Castle Bromwich, and also from Walsall to a place called Church Bridge upon the Chester Road. The reason Mr. Hart, the present occupier leaves the said inn is on account of his having taken the Swan Inn in Birmingham to which place Mr. Hart goes on Christmas next. The New Inn is genteelly fitted up and the bedding and furniture are mostly new and very good, which with the chaises and horses will be sold to any person inclined to take the inn at a fair appraisement, and great encouragement will be given to a good tenant.

Behind the inn was a well known cock pit used for the sport of cock fighting. The sport was very popular during the 18th century, especially during race meetings. Higher up Park Street, on the other side was Hancox and Clibury’s Bell Foundry at Pott House. In 1634 they cast the great bell for St. Mary’s Church in Lichfield. By the latter half of the 18th century, Park Street had become one of the most important streets in the town, which resulted in it being paved in 1776.

The Woolpack Inn. From an old postcard.

Other local pubs included the Angel in Park Street, the Woolpack, and the Talbot, both in Digbeth, the Three Swans in Peal Street, and the Bull’s Head in Upper Rushall Street. The Woolpack, a timber-framed building dating from the 15th century, was originally one of the finest houses in the town. By the 17th century it had been divided into an inn and a shop. The inn greatly prospered because of its central position, and became one of the main centres for cock fighting. It survived until February 1964 when the area was redeveloped.

The Green Dragon Inn in High Street had been an inn since around 1707 and became the centre of the town's social, and political life, due to its close proximity to the Guildhall. It had as large bowling green, 55 yards long, and assembly rooms which were used as the town's first theatre from around 1787 until 1803.

Improvements and Industrial Uncertainty

By this time more traffic was coming into the busy town centre. In order to improve access from Birmingham Road, Bridge Street (originally called New Street) was constructed in 1776. Until this time, all traffic to Birmingham had to go through Digbeth and High Street to the top of the town, and through Rushall Street. This was treacherous, if not impossible in the winter months, due to snow and ice.

Market house at the top of High Street, built around 1589 was demolished in 1800. By the 1760s its position in the centre of the road, close to the turning into Rushall Street, made it an obstruction to traffic. It was replaced in 1809 by a smaller house further up the hill, near to the church steps. By the 1830s it was little used, and became a store for market stalls. It was demolished in 1852.

In 1778 the Corporation added extra pumps to the piped water supply that had been in use since 1676. The new pumps were in Ablewell Street, and Hill Top. There were pumps in each of the main streets, and a wash house on The Bridge, fed by lead water pipes from the source of the supply at Caldmore, known as the ‘Spouts’. A workman was paid an annual allowance of 10s.6d. to keep the pumps in good repair.

By the latter part of the 18th century the main industries in the town were chape making, and buckle making. In 1792 it looked as though buckle making would soon come to and end, because buckles were rapidly going out of fashion, due to the use of shoe laces, then known as shoestrings. The Walsall buckle makers sent a deputation to London, who were introduced to King George III by prominent parliamentarian, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, member of parliament for Stafford. The King was sympathetic to their cause and told the principal officers of his court that they must continue to use buckles instead of shoestrings. Other members of the royal family did the same, and the deputation, which included buckle makers from Wolverhampton, Birmingham, and London, invited the chief members of the royal household to a splendid dinner to celebrate their success. In reality they were just delaying the inevitable. By 1820 the King and his household had ceased to wear buckles, and a local newspaper announced that “Walsall was ruined.”

The George Hotel, Volunteers, and Increasing Population

The George Hotel opened in 1781. It was built by Thomas Fletcher who had previously been landlord of the Green Dragon in High Street. It became the most important coaching inn in the town. At the height of the coaching era it could stable 106 horses. Many coaches stopped there daily, and many distinguished people stayed at the hotel. Thomas Fletcher actively campaigned for local roads to be improved, and helped to encourage the series of Road Improvement Acts that were passed by parliament in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He continued as proprietor of the hotel until his death in 1811, when he was succeeded by his son, Richard. In later times the hotel was greatly enlarged and modified.

Walsall town centre in 1782. Based on John Snape's map.

Walsall Volunteer Association was formed in 1798 at a time when France was threatening to invade the country. People from all over the country were volunteering for the British army, and Walsall was determined not to be left out. A public subscription raised the necessary funds, and a meeting was held in the Guildhall on May 12th, 1798, during which a letter from the Marquis of Stafford was read. Forty three of the men who attended the meeting joined the volunteers, who were led by Joseph Scott, their captain. The colours were presented at a ceremony held at Barr Beacon on September 23rd, 1799. Afterwards the officers and men were entertained at the George Hotel by the Corporation, at a cost of 100 guineas.

Another association, the Queen’s Own Royal Yeomanry, formed on July 4th, 1794, included a troop from Walsall, under the command of William Tennant. In September 1800 the Walsall troop, under the command of Sir Nigel Gresley, helped to suppress riots at Walsall and Wolverhampton caused by the high price of corn.

By 1801 the population had grown to 10,399, divided almost equally between the Borough and the Foreign (5,177 people lived in the Borough, and 5,222 lived in the Foreign). The Borough contained 1,013 houses, 135 of which were uninhabited. There were 941 houses in the Foreign, only 50 of which were uninhabited. There were more women than men living in the Borough, and more men than women in the Foreign.

Since the beginning of the century the population had almost doubled, as it did in the previous century, and Walsall had grown into a sizeable Staffordshire town. The rate of population growth hadn’t changed for two hundred years, but in the next century things would be very different as people flocked to the area to find employment in the new industries that soon appeared. By the middle of the next century there would be around 30,000 people living in the town.

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