In the 19th century the population of Walsall rapidly grew, as people moved into the area looking for employment in the expanding industries. Within 40 years the population had doubled, and doubled again in the next 25 years. By the end of the century the population had increased almost nine times to nearly 90,000, which would have been unimaginable in 1800.


1801 10,399
1811 11,189
1821 11,914
1831 15,066
1841 20,852
1851 26,816
1861 39,692
1871 48,529
1881 58,802
1901 86,400

A New Post Office

Around 1800 a new post office opened on The Bridge. It had previously been in the Bull’s Head Yard in Rushall Street, and is believed to have been the town’s first post office. In the early 1800s the postmaster was Mr. Hill, who was assisted by Mr. Bullock, the postman for the Borough who earned seven shillings a week. When he delivered letters past the pinfold he received an extra penny, and an extra two pence for deliveries over a mile. Letters to the Foreign were delivered by the postmistress, Mrs. Bullock. In 1813 the revenue for letters coming into the town was estimated at £2,000 per year. The post was received at 11 o’clock, and the postal charges for letters were as follows:

To London - ten pence.  To Lichfield - five pence.  To Birmingham - four pence.

In 1827 the post office moved to Digbeth, with an entrance in Adam’s Row. It remained there until around 1853 when it returned to The Bridge, from where it moved to Park Street. In 1879 a new and much larger post office was built on the corner of Leicester Street and Darwall Street.


Walsall’s first public library opened on 14th November, 1800 in Rushall Street. It was founded by the Rev. Thomas Bowen, a Unitarian minister, at his own house, and available to anyone on the payment of a subscription. He provided a library room, and a librarian. Bowen published several educational books, and invented a number of mathematical instruments. Around 1813 the library moved to a larger room at Valentine and Throsby's stationery shop in High Street.

By 1830 there was a need for a larger library. A public meeting was held on 16th August, 1830 which led to the building of St. Matthew’s Hall in Lichfield Street which contained a reading room containing around 3,000 books, a news room, and a first floor gallery.

The stuccoed building, on the corner of Leicester Street was built in 1830 and 1831 in brick and stone, to a Greek Doric design, with a large portico supported by four columns. It cost 1,600 guineas to build, raised by a sale of shares costing £10 each.

St. Matthew’s Hall. From an old postcard.

An earlier view of St. Matthew's Hall.

Unfortunately the subscription proved to be too high, and the library closed.

The building remained empty for several years until it was purchased in 1847 by Mr. C. F. Darwall, Clerk to the Magistrates, for £620.

It was initially used as a savings bank, until around 1855 when the ground floor became the County Court, and a lecture room. The first floor was used as a freemason’s hall, and also for musical entertainment.

The County Court continued to be held there until the 1990s when it moved to Upper Bridge Street. The building then became a bar, a restaurant, a night club, and is now a Wetherspoons pub.

When the library and news room closed in St. Matthew’s Hall, they were moved to John Russell Robinson's printing works on the Bridge, where a literary and philosophical institution was added, where lectures and discussions were held.

In 1857 Walsall council decided to open a library under the terms of the Free Libraries Act of 1850, which gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. In 1859, a library building, designed by Nichols & Morgan in a Renaissance style, was built in Goodall Street. In 1872 the Free Library was converted to a news room, and a library with a reading room above. Three years later the books and papers from the library at Robinson’s printing works were presented to the Free Library when the subscription library closed.

In 1887 the Free Library was extended, and in 1890 the upper room became the art gallery, museum, and reference library. It was replaced in 1906 by a new Free Library in Lichfield Street. The old free library building still survives today as shops.

The Free Library.

Walsall's second Free Library in Lichfield Street. From an old postcard.


Until the early 19th century, most of the entertainment in the town was provided by travelling groups of players, in various halls and assembly rooms, the most popular being at the Dragon Inn in High Street, which had a stage, but no scenery.

Walsall’s first purpose-built theatre opened in the Old Square in 1803. It was built by subscription, for which fifty pound shares were available. Each subscriber received interest on his investment, which on paper looked good, because the takings for a full house could average between fifty and sixty pounds. Although several well-known actors performed there, the venture was not a success, and it closed in the early 1840s. In 1845 the proprietors were evicted for non-payment of rent, and a few years later the building was converted into shops.

In 1839 Samwell’s Circus Royal was in Goodall Street, and in the early 1840s Holloway’s Theatre opened at Bloxwich racecourse. Productions included popular plays and musical performances. The theatre moved to Walsall, and was replaced at Bloxwich by Bennett’s Theatre.

Until the building of the Agricultural Hall in 1868, entertainment was again mainly confined to travelling companies and amateur groups, appearing in halls and assembly rooms such as the Temperance Hall in Freer Street, and the Guildhall Assembly Rooms in Goodall Street. The Agricultural Hall was built on The Bridge opposite St. Paul’s Church in what is now Darwall Street, and sponsored by leading local farmers, millers, and grain dealers. It could seat up to 1,000 people, and acquired a theatrical licence in 1871 after which operatic and dramatic performances were held. It opened as a permanent theatre on 26th March, 1883 and was run by Rebekah Deering who rented the building. Unfortunately it was unprofitable, and suffered the same fate as the Old Square Theatre. After changing hands several times it was sold in 1885 to become a public hall, known as St. George’s Hall. It reopened on 22nd September, 1887 with an increased seating capacity of 1,500, and was used for a time as a music hall. From around 1895 it became known as St. George’s Theatre.

In the late 1890s it was rebuilt as the Imperial Theatre by the Walsall Theatres Company whose Secretary and Manager was William Henry Westwood who had a great influence on the local theatres.. It reopened on 22nd May, 1899 with a seating capacity of 1,600. The new theatre only operated for around a year because the company was already building Her Majesty’s Theatre at the top of Park Street. The Imperial Theatre became Walsall's first cinema in 1908, and screened its last film in 1968. In 1974 it became a bingo hall, and until recently a Wetherspoons pub. It is Walsall’s last surviving theatre building from the 19th century.

The Grand Theatre. From an old postcard.

Around 1870 Charles Crooke opened Crooke’s Music Hall in his former beer and wine shop on the corner of Park Street and Station Street. It became known as the Alexander Theatre, until 1886 when it changed hands. The new proprietor, William Henry Westwood changed its name to the Gaiety Theatre.

In 1890 it was replaced by the ornate Grand Theatre, built to the design of Daniel Arkell of Birmingham.

It had a cupola on which stood a gilded lady with a trumpet, and a niche containing another gilded lady playing a lyre.

It cost £14,000 to build, and had a seating capacity of 2,000, but like the other theatres was financially unsuccessful, which led to its closure in 1899.

Many famous acts appeared there including Vesta Tilley, the gymnasts Volti and Ray, the comedian Frank Seeley, and the Villion Troupe cycling act. A ticket for the gallery cost six pence, but a ticket for the dress circle was priced at two shillings, a lot of money for most people at the time.

On 4th September, 1899 it was officially reopened by Vesta Tilley as the Theatre of Varieties, and became known for variety shows, silent films, and drama. It became a cinema in 1931 after Associated British Cinemas acquired the building. It remained in use until 1st October, 1938, when it closed. After being acquired by the grandson of the mayor, Pat Collins, it reopened as the new Grand Theatre, but disaster struck on 6th June, 1939 when it was completely destroyed by fire.

Her Majesty’s Theatre

Walsall’s most successful theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, opened in 1900 and was built of brick and stone in French Renaissance style, with a large copper dome on the roof and a tall flagpole. The theatre stood at the top of Park Street on one of the most prominent sites in the town, which had been earmarked for the new Town Hall, until the council decided to build it in Lichfield Street.

It formed an impressive sight as seen from Park Street, and had a lavishly decorated interior with fine ornamental plasterwork, electric lighting, and a grand hall, paved with a marble mosaic. The stage was 75 feet long and 45 feet deep so that it could accommodate the most elaborate scenery and the largest companies. It could seat over 2,000 people, and was known for its high class dramas which were initially successful.

It was owned by the Walsall Theatres Company who engaged Owen & Ward of Birmingham, a firm of specialist theatrical architects to design the theatre, which was built by Whittaker & Company of Dudley. The theatre was formally opened on Saturday 24th March, 1900 by the Mayor of Walsall, Councillor J. W. Pearman-Smith, and a large number of guests. They saw a short musical, and enjoyed a lavish tea.

The theatre opened to the general public on Monday 26th March with a musical comedy called 'The Belle of New York' which was performed by the Ben Greet Company. Tickets cost 6 pence and 9 pence for a seat in the gallery, and one guinea for a ticket to a private box.

A varied programme of music, drama, and variety became the norm. In 1903 the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed 'The Mikado', 'H.M.S. Pinafore', and 'The Yeoman of the Guard'. In 1906 Lily Langtry performed at the theatre, and Harry Lauder topped the bill in 1908. Sadly audiences started to decline, mainly due to competition from theatres in Birmingham, and so Her Majesty's turned to vaudeville, before becoming a cinema in 1933.

In 1935 the building was acquired by Associated British Cinemas (ABC), but the cinema was not a great success. Audiences of the day did not appreciate the elegant Victorian interior which was considered to be unfashionable.

The cinema closed on 5th June, 1937 and was demolished to make way for the Savoy Cinema, later known as the A.B.C. In the process, Walsall lost one of its most elegant buildings, but no one seemed to care. There was no public outcry, people were happy to see it go.

Her Majesty’s Theatre. From an old postcard.

View a couple of early 1930s programmes for productions
at Her Majesty's Theatre

From the 1899 Walsall Red Book.

The Temperance Hall and The Empire

In the mid 19th century the temperance movement rapidly grew. In 1855 a temperance society was formed in Walsall with the aim of reducing the poverty and misery caused by the excessive consumption of alcohol. The Temperance Society purchased a piece of land in Freer Street in1866, for the site of a temperance hall, which would offer alternative forms of entertainment to the public house, to make people less dependent on alcoholic drinks.

The land was acquired for £500 and a temperance hall was designed by local architects, Loxton Brothers of Wednesbury. The building, which took 9 months to build, cost £1,970, and was paid for by public subscription. It was built in the Italian style, of red brick, with dressings of Bath stone and Portland cement. The main entrance in Freer Street was via a foyer with three pairs of swing doors.

The hall covered an area of 65ft. by 45ft. and could accommodate around 1,000 people on pine seats on the floor and on a horseshoe shaped gallery, which ran around three sides of the hall. The hall ceiling was lavishly decorated and well lit, with 5 gas chandeliers, and side and front windows. At the far end was the stage.

The building also contained two reading rooms, two dressing rooms, a lantern slide and film projection room, a committee room, a dance hall on the lower ground floor and cellars. Hall keeper's residence rooms were also included at the back.

The building, which opened on the 2nd February 1867, was let for religious, philanthropic and charitable uses that were in keeping with the principles of the Temperance Society. Each Christmas the hall was opened for the ‘Robins' Breakfast’ for the poor children of the town, who each received a packet of sweets, an orange, an apple and were allowed to play games in the hall.

The ground floor plan of the Temperance Hall.

The Temperance Hall.

On Saturday nights popular entertainment was organised by musical or dramatic societies. One of the first regular uses was for a series of lectures organised by the Walsall Literary Institute. The hall became very popular and was in use most evenings.

In 1892 and 1893 the hall was used for church services after the old St. Paul's Church was demolished, until the new church opened.

The hall was known for its excellent acoustics and many celebrities performed there including Oscar Wilde, who spoke on 'The House Beautiful' in 1884.

The first ever moving pictures seen in Walsall were shown there by Mr. Shrapnel, but the quality was very poor.

After the bombing of Wednesbury Road Congregational Church, during the Zeppelin raid on the 31st January, 1916, church services were held in the hall until the church had been repaired.
In June 1917 a Food Economy Exhibition was held there, organised by the Food Control Campaign Committee in the hope of promoting new ideas to housewives to help overcome the shortages caused by the war.

Things went badly wrong on the 21st October, 1921, during a concert. A ceiling support beam collapsed and part of the ceiling fell onto the audience. One person was killed and many were injured. Expensive repairs were required and the hall lost much of its former popularity.

The premises were eventually put up for sale in May 1930 at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham and sold for £13,500 to a Mr. T. Jackson, from Bournemouth, who converted it into a cinema. Before work began on the cinema, a farewell meeting was held in the hall during which Alderman Joseph Leckie, referred to the days when the Temperance Hall was at the height of its success.

The new cinema, called ‘The Empire’ was designed by J. H. Hickton. The building work was carried out by J & F Wootton of Bloxwich.

The original facade was covered with white cement and new entrance doors replaced the old swing doors. A new floor was also installed, together with upholstered seating for 1,200 people in the stalls and balcony. The cinema opened on Monday 28th August, 1933 with a showing of the musical comedy ‘Letting in the Sunshine’.

In 1937 The Empire was sold for £20,000 to Captain Clift to become part of the Clifton Circuit.

In 1954 it was Walsall’s first town centre cinema to install cinemascope, which was extremely popular and resulted in long queues forming in Freer Street, particularly for each performance of 'The Robe'. The last film to be shown there was ‘Cleopatra’ on the 24th October, 1964.

In February 1965 the cinema was demolished to make way for the Old Square Shopping Centre.

The Empire.

The location of The Empire.

The Gaumont Cinema in Bridge Street, where Coffee Republic and the Co-op supermarket are today.

The Palace Cinema in the Old Square.


F. W. Willmore includes an interesting letter in his History of Walsall which gives an insight into some of the problems faced by local people in the early years of the century. It is from the December 1804 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine, and describes the inconvenience caused by a shortage of small coins:

Much inconvenience is felt in this neighbourhood for want of silver in change. There are many collieries, lime works, forges, and furnaces which employ hundreds of people, and the masters to pay their workmen issue cards of various sorts, from one shilling to ten each, nominal value. These cards have been brought to the market town adjacent, and paid for provisions, clothing and other things, so that they became a drug, and very little hard cash is to be seen. Moreover, many of these have been counterfeited, and the holders have been obliged to sustain the loss.

Water Supply

In 1804 large scale repairs to the town’s water pipes were necessary in order to ensure that the supply was clean and pure. In 1806 the network was extended, and in 1810 and 1813 improvements were made to the drainage system in High Street and Rushall Street. In 1814 the whole system was renovated at the cost of £90.

A final view of Her Majesty’s Theatre. From an old postcard.

Law and Order

Policing in Walsall had never been adequate, and so in 1811 after a spate of burglaries it was decided to establish a public patrol for the protection of common property. The parish was divided into six districts, each with its own watch-house, which was funded from the poor rate. Each burgess had to take a turn in keeping watch, or find a substitute.

Each evening the people on watch would assemble at the guildhall at 10.30 before going on duty. They had the power to arrest and detain anyone acting suspiciously, until the following morning, when they would be escorted to the sheriff. If a prisoner escaped, a hue and cry would be made in the area until he or she could be recaptured. If a man on watch was killed in the execution of his duty, his executors were entitled to a reward of £40. In October 1812 sixteen deputy constables were appointed for the Borough, and eighteen for the Foreign.

There had been a jail in Walsall since the end of the 15th century, and a pillory, stocks and whipping post beside the old market cross in High Street. In the 17th century there was a town cage, and from 1627 a gaol in the town hall. In the early 19th century it consisted of two totally inadequate cold and damp rooms. Willmore includes the following description in his History of Walsall:

Another insight into local life is gained from some remarks on Walsall Gaol, by a Mr. Nields to Dr. Lettsom in 1802. He says, “Town Gaol, William Mason gaoler, salary none, fees ¾ and 2d. to the Town Clerk on commitment of every felon. Two rooms under the Town Hall, that for debtors has a fireplace, it is down five steps with an iron grated window to the street, but not being glazed and no inside shutters is extremely cold, straw only upon the damp brick floor to sleep upon. A door opens out of this room into a dark dungeon for felons, about three yards square. Adjoining to the debtors room is one for felons, with an iron grated window to the street, and two dark dungeons with straw on the floor to sleep on. Allowance to debtors and felons 2d. per day. No court, no sewer, no water. The beadle told me he brought it to the grating for the prisoners. Felons for petty offences remain here till the Quarter Sessions. The debtors are confined here for less than 10s.

Things improved somewhat in 1815 when the gaol was rebuilt in the basement of the guildhall. It then consisted of six damp cells around a small yard. There were three fireplaces, but the walls were frequently so damp that moisture trickled down them. The prisoner’s allowance was limited to bread and water. At the same time a house was built for the gaoler, who by 1833 received a proper salary. Under the terms of the 1824 Improvement Act, many improvements were made in the town, including the provision of a night watch. In 1825 and 1826 watch men were appointed, but the service was soon discontinued because of inadequate funds.

The plaque on the old police station in Goodall Street.

The old police station in Goodall Street.

Things came to a head in the early 1830s. During the miners’ strike in 1831 six hundred special constables were enrolled, and on election day in 1832 more were enrolled, and troops were brought-in. At this time a permanent police force was established, consisting of a superintendent, and three officers.

They were based at a police station that was next to the churchyard, and also housed the fire engine. The building, known as the Station House, was for the use of the police and the temporary confinement of prisoners awaiting their appearance before the magistrates. The cells were small, and the admission of light and air was precluded by a mound of earth in the churchyard, which surrounded the back of the building.

There were no fireplaces in the cells, and the prisoners only had straw to lie on. They had no blankets and were sometimes kept there for eight days. Sometimes police officers would allow them to use their front room where there was a fire.

In 1836 extra police officers were appointed for Sunday duties, and in 1843 a new police station was built in Goodall Street. From 1837, following an agreement with the County Magistrates, prisoners from Walsall were housed in Stafford Jail, and in 1843 Walsall Gaol was replaced by a lock-up in Goodall Street police station.

The Walsall police force came into existence on the 6th July, 1832 after the Town Clerk had written to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Force asking him to recommend a man to form a police force in Walsall. The man chosen was Mr. F. H. West who became Walsall's first Police Superintendent. The following is from the first report of the Commissioners on the Municipal Corporations of England and Wales, March 1835:

The Police consists of a superintendent and three permanent police officers, appointed by the magistrates during pleasure, and the two sergeants-at-mace, in addition to two constables appointed at the court leet, and 16 deputy constables for the borough and 20 for the foreign.

The Superintendent and the three police officers were first appointed in July 1832. The Superintendent receives a salary of £70 a year, the three officers, l7 shillings a week each. The expense of the establishment is defrayed by a voluntary subscription, to which the corporation contribute annually £50. In general all warrants are executed by these officers; before their appointment they were usually executed by the sergeants-at-mace.

There is no nightly watch. The town is lighted and paved under the direction of commissioners appointed under a local Act of George IV. The commissioners are authorised by the Act to appoint nightly watchmen, and in 1825 and 1826 watchmen were accordingly appointed. They were however shortly afterwards discontinued, in consequence of the rate which the commissioners were empowered to levy proving inadequate to the purposes of the Act.

Upon these watchmen being discontinued, the inhabitants of the principal street in the town contributed by subscription to maintain a watch; but this also was shortly after abandoned, and the town has not been watched by night for several years. It was stated that a nightly watch was much required, though the establishment of the new police in some measure lessens the evil which might otherwise result from the want of it.


The borough Gaol is situated under the town hall, below the level of the street. It consists of six cells, inclosing a small yard of very insufficient dimensions. This establishment is altogether of an unsatisfactory character: no classification beyond the separation of men from women can be effected; neither is it possible to separate prisoners committed for trial from those under sentence after conviction.

There is not sufficient space for air or necessary exercise. There are three fire places in the gaol, but the cells are frequently very damp; so much so, that the moisture trickles down the walls. The prison allowance is limited to bread and water. The magistrates do not visit the gaol regularly; sometimes an interval of six months or even more is suffered to elapse without any visitation being made. It was stated by the gaoler, that he had never known the magistrate to visit the gaol during the winter months.

The mayor has the custody of the gaol. He appoints a deputy gaoler, usually one of the sergeants-at-mace, who receives as such, a salary of £12.l0s. a year.

Station House

For the use of the police and the temporary confinement of persons apprehended by them, a station house has been fitted up by the corporation. It consists of an entrance room for the use of the officers, and two cells for the confinement of prisoners. This building is also of a very inferior description. The cells are small, and the admission of light and air to them is precluded by a mound of earth forming part of the churchyard, which surrounds the back of the building, and rises nearly to the height of the roof. The walls are damp, and the cells are without fire places; the prisoners have only straw to lie on, and are not furnished with blankets. Persons are seldom confined here more than a night, but it sometimes happens that they are detained longer: prisoners have been kept here for eight days, and in one instance a female was detained for a fortnight. The officers usually allow persons in custody to remain in the front room, in which they themselves sit, and in which there is a fire; but this is an indulgence depending entirely on their pleasure, and is not always accorded.

As already mentioned, the town’s fire engine was housed in the police station next to the churchyard. There had been a fire engine at Walsall since the late 18th century.

It had been kept in the west porch of St. Matthew’s Church, and also in an engine house near the lich gate, which had been built around 1790. The Improvement Act of 1824 gave the town commissioners the authority to provide a fire engine, which was kept in the engine house next to the churchyard.

By the early 1840s there were two new fire engines in the town, one in Lichfield Street belonging to the Norwich Union Fire Office, and another in Bridge Street belonging to the Birmingham Fire Office. When they arrived, the parish fire engine was sold, and in the early 1850s the old engine house was demolished.

Another view of the old police station in Goodall Street.

The Corporation fire brigade was formed in 1879 and based at the police station in Goodall Street. There were also sub-stations at Stafford Street police station and Bloxwich police station. The brigade came under the control of the chief constable in 1888.

From the 1934 Walsall Red Book.

From the 1899 Walsall Red Book.

A new Grandstand

In 1809 a grandstand was added to Walsall’s racecourse, which opened on Long Meadow in 1777. The grand stand, which was supported by annual subscriptions, was built at a cost of £1,300, and by 1823 had 34 subscribers, each of whom possessed a "subscribers' ticket," entitling them to free admission.

It contained a billiard room on the ground floor, and had a turret with a bell. It survived until 1879 when it was sold for £72, and removed from the site.

The races, which attracted large numbers of visitors to the town, were supported by the Corporation, which paid five pounds annually towards the running of the course.

After each meeting a ball was held at the George Hotel. In 1828 the Gold Cup was won by "Maria Darlington," a chestnut mare belonging to Mr. Fletcher.

The event was celebrated by Miss Foote, a popular actress, and the Countess of Harrington who later that day sang "Little Jockey" at the Walsall Theatre.

Looking across the town towards the parish church in 1795. From F. W. Willmore's History of Walsall.

The old racecourse. From the 1899 Walsall Red Book.

The Market

During the Napoleonic Wars the market thrived, selling large quantities of Irish bacon to the navy. Live pigs were shipped from Ireland for the purpose. When the war ended in 1815 Walsall market continued to trade in Irish pigs, and was one of the main English markets dealing in them. Shopkeepers in High Street used to let pig pens in front of their shops for the accommodation of the pigs. In 1815 when a proper pig market was provided at the back of High Street there was considerable opposition.

It has been claimed that in 1855 as many as 2,000 pigs were brought to the market in a day. The trade at Walsall soon suffered because of the coming of the railways, and by 1889 few pigs were sold. During the latter part of the century the market concentrated on general retail sales, and grain. In 1835 barley, beans, oats, peas, and wheat, were for sale. 

High Street in 1861. From an old postcard.

The Gas Works

In the early 1820s there was great dissatisfaction with the state of the town, particularly with the lack of street lighting. On 28th May, 1824 the Corporation obtained an improvement act for the town, at a cost of £620. The 1824 Improvement Act gave the Corporation powers to carry out improvements in the town centre, including paving, lighting, and widening the roads. The improvements were supervised by the improvement commissioners, a body which included the mayor, capital burgesses, the recorder, the town clerk, the vicar of St. Matthew’s, the headmaster of the grammar school, the steward of the manor of Walsall, the churchwardens, the overseers of the poor, and 46 others.

The area for improvement covered the Borough, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton Road, Marsh Lane, Birmingham Street, part of King Street, and part of New Street.

The commissioners had the power to make and repair pavements, order residents to connect their property to a sewer on pain of a £10 fine, light the streets with gas and oil lamps, build a gas works, appoint and pay watchmen, cleanse, name, and number the streets, ensure that steam engines would consume their own smoke, on penalty of a 40 shillings per day fine to the owner, and provide a fire engine, and weighing machine.

It was to be paid for by a rate not exceeding three shillings, but in reality this was insufficient. The improvements were subsidised by an additional £900 from the Corporation.

In 1826 they opened a gas works on the site of Arboretum Road. It was designed in 1825 by the famous engineer John Urpeth Rastrick who formed Foster, Rastrick and Company at Stourbridge with James Foster, and built some early locomotives including the Stourbridge Lion. The gas works were erected at a cost of £4,000, and let at such a high rent that the Walsall rates were much lower than in neighbouring towns. Unfortunately the gas works could not keep up with the growing demand, and so in 1850 a new gas works was built in Wolverhampton Street, alongside the canal.

The work of the improvement commissioners was taken over by the Corporation in 1876, and in 1877 Pleck Gas Works was built by the canal. Wolverhampton Street gas works then became a storage facility.

The extensions to Walsall Gas Works. From the 1937 Walsall Red Book.

Developments on The Bridge

At the start of the century the section of Walsall Brook crossing The Bridge was fully exposed, shallow, wide, and prone to flooding. It almost divided the town in two, with Park Street and Digbeth sloping down to the level of the stream. The houses on either side were approached by flights of steps, so the whole area looked very different to what we see today. The brook was crossed by a low footbridge, which in times of flood could be partially underwater. When this occurred ladies were carried across on horseback for a fare of one penny. Horses were kept for this purpose at the New Inn.

Around 1813 work began on improving the area starting with the removal of the old manorial mill which for some time had been used as a blacksmith’s shop by a Mr. Chadwick. It was soon demolished and the materials were sold for £31. In front of it was a watering place for horses, and alongside stood a rubbish heap. Between the New Inn at the bottom of Park Street and the brook, was a large well known cock pit which was very popular during race meetings.

Initially the mill race was partly covered over, and remained as such until the enlarging of the square to its present size in 1851. Other changes on The Bridge included the enlarging of the Blue Coat School in 1826, and the enlarging of the George Hotel, also in 1826. The pillars that adorned the front of the hotel were purchased from the Marquis of Donegal in 1822. They formerly stood in front of his stately home, Fisherwick Hall, which was demolished. Before the work on the hotel began, the front entrance was in Digbeth.

The Bridge and the enlarged George Hotel. From an old postcard.

The Corn Laws, Politics, and Rioting

The Corn Laws were introduced in 1815 to protect British farmers from cheap imported grain. No foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain had reached 80 shillings per quarter. It was seen as a way of stabilising wheat prices, but in reality caused violent fluctuations in food prices, and led to the hoarding of grain. This only benefited landowners. At the time all MPs had to be landowners.

It caused great hardship and distress amongst the working classes, who could not grow their own corn, and had to spend most of their earnings on over-priced food in order to stay alive. There was much opposition to the laws, which were not repealed until 1846. The following extract from the edition of the Wolverhampton Chronicle published on 6th November, 1815 describes some of the local opposition to the inflated prices:

The town of Walsall was thrown into confusion on Tuesday night by a numerous assembly of persons, by whom the windows of several bakers were broken, and who eventually attacked the new mill near that place. They did not succeed in getting into the mill, but they either destroyed or carried away everything they could find in the adjoining dwelling house.

By 1820 Walsall was in the grip of a severe depression, which caused much anger, and the signing of the following petition:

To Charles Windle, Esq., Mayor of the Borough and Foreign of Walsall. Sir, we the undersigned, do hereby request you to call a meeting as soon as possible of the merchants, factors, manufacturers, and other inhabitants of the Borough and Foreign of Walsall, to take into consideration the very depressed and impoverished state of the said parishes, and to draw up a petition to the Commons House of Parliament thereupon, and to adopt such measures as may be proper, right, and legal.

The petition, which had been signed by a number of prominent citizens, led to a meeting at the Guildhall, and the sending of a petition from Walsall to Parliament which included details of the immense burden of the poor rate, and implored Parliament not to accede to any proposals for enhancing the price of agricultural produce.

Leicester Square in the early 1900s. From an old postcard.

Due to the high taxes, and high food prices, the inhabitants of Walsall took an active part in calling for the reform of parliament. Many joined the Birmingham Political Union and held numerous meetings in the town. In 1830 the Political Union for Walsall was formed at a meeting in the Black Boy Inn in Fieldgate. Prominent members included Samuel Cox, B. Abnett, J. Cotterell, William Cotterell, and Joseph Hicken who was appointed secretary. He later became secretary to the Anti-Corn Law League founded in 1838.

In 1830 the anti-reform Tory Government led by the Duke of Wellington were defeated, bringing Earl Grey and the Whigs to power. A Reform Bill was introduced March 1831, but it failed to get through Parliament and Grey resigned, which led to a general election. It was fought on the question of reform, and resulted in the re-election of Grey and the Whigs with an increased majority. A second Reform Bill was introduced, which went through the Commons, and was awaiting its passage through the House of Lords. Fearing that it would not be passed by the House of Lords, the Birmingham Political Union held a meeting at Newhall Hill, Birmingham to pressurise the Lords into accepting the Bill. Around 15,000 people attended the meeting, but the Bill was rejected, and large scale riots were held throughout the country.

The Bill again passed through Parliament with a large majority in March 1832, but it was again feared that it would be rejected by the House of Lords. By now the Political Union for Walsall had greatly increased in size, and meetings were held at the Duke of Wellington in Stafford Street, which was renamed the Earl Grey. Because of the fear that the Bill would not be passed by the House of Lords, around 200,000 people gathered at Newhall Hill, Birmingham in what was known as the Meeting of the Unions. Their aim was to pressurise the House of Lords into accepting the Bill.

Around 500 members of the Walsall Union met at five o’clock on the morning of May 17th at the back of Mr. Hicken’s house in Windmill Street and with a brass band playing, marched to Handsworth. They were met by members of the Wolverhampton Union, and after a lively discussion, Walsall took the lead into Birmingham. In spite of the massive show of support for the Bill, it was defeated in the Lords, and Grey resigned. The King called upon the Duke of Wellington to form a new government, but he was unable to do so, and Grey was recalled to office.

Feelings in Walsall were high, as can be seen from the following article that appeared in the May 23rd edition of the Wolverhampton Chronicle:

On Friday evening last, an effigy intended to represent a noble duke, was carried through the streets of Walsall. In Stafford Street a man named Spencer, probably to show his detestation of the original, fired at the figure, as others had done in its progress, but his pistol being foul, instead of injuring the head of his supposed enemy, rebounded against his own, which was severely lacerated, etc. Mr. Spencer is likely to carry with him for the future a mark of his zeal in the cause of reform.

On 4th June the Bill finally passed through the House of Lords and received its Royal assent three days later. It was greatly welcomed and celebrated throughout the country. Feelings were so high, that if the Bill had not been passed, a revolution could easily have followed.

As a result of the Reform Act of 1832 Walsall became a Parliamentary Borough. In December of that year Charles Smith Forster, a Tory, a local banker and former mayor was elected as Walsall’s first Member of the reformed parliament., a seat he held until 1837. There was much excitement in the town during the election, mainly as a result of the political unions. Over ten thousand people marched through High Street to the Dragon Inn where the flags and banners were deposited. Many were members of the Birmingham Political Council who supported Thomas Attwood, one of the candidates, and one of their founders. A battle followed between the Birmingham and Walsall men who were armed with sticks and other weapons.

When Mr Attwood’s followers were expelled from the George Hotel, the Birmingham mob broke every window and forced entry into the hotel removing any piece of furniture they could find, which was piled on The Bridge, and set alight.

The Riot Act was read, and two companies of the 33rd Foot charged the protestors with fixed bayonets, until law and order was obtained. On the election the following day, a company of the 33rd Regiment, and a detachment of the Scots Greys was on hand in case of trouble. An immense crowd formed on The Bridge, and a large bonfire was lit. Attwood’s supporters tried to prevent Forster’s supporters from reaching the polling booth. The riot Act was again read, but the special constables that were on duty could not control the angry crowd, and so the Scots Greys charged through the mob on horseback, soon putting them to flight. During the scuffle thirty five arrests were made. It was a sad episode in Walsall’s political life.

Other happenings in the 1820s and 30s

In May 1824 Walsall’s first savings bank opened on The Bridge under the patronage of the Earl of Bradford, the Earl of Dartmouth and others. Within a year deposits amounted to over £7,000.

In the edition of the Wolverhampton Chronicle for 23rd January, 1820 there is a mention of body snatching in Walsall. At the time, the so called ‘Resurrectionists’ would open graves and remove, and sell corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. The news item is as follows:


Several of these gentry have been lately prowling about the neighbourhood of Lichfield, and last week they stole the body of an elderly female from Walsall Burial Ground.

In 1825 the Corporation finally decided to discontinue the Mollesley Dole. In its place the Corporation built eleven almshouses by St. Mathew’s burial ground, for poor women, five from the Borough, five from the Foreign, and one from Rushall. The decision was unpopular and resulted in a considerable disturbance in the town. Placards were put-up, and the authorities were subjected to a great deal of scurrilous abuse.

The 2nd May, 1831 saw the opening of Bradford Street, a new road to greatly improve the journey between Walsall and Darlaston, and Wednesbury. People assembled on the opening day to watch Mr. Quinton’s Birmingham coach pass along the road, and stop half way for the road naming ceremony.

The Coronation of William IV took place on Tuesday 8th September, 1831. This was celebrated in Walsall by a procession through the town which marched to the grandstand at the racecourse.  It consisted of the mayor, John Heeley, the corporation, the odd fellows, the druids, and other lodges. A few days later school children paraded through the town to the racecourse where they were given wine and cake.

In 1832 the town received an unwelcome visitor in the form of Asiatic Cholera, which had been sweeping through much of the country. In June it appeared at Tipton, and in August caused a large number of deaths in Bilston.

It was suggested at the time that it arrived in Walsall direct from Bilston, carried by the water in the canal, mainly because the first victims lived alongside the canal.

Bridge Street, originally called New Street. From an old postcard.

The first man in Walsall to die from the disease lodged in a house on the bank of the canal, and died within 24 hours. Another man who worked on one of the boats met with the same fate. The whole neighbourhood around Walsall Town Wharf was affected. People were dying rapidly, and no one could be found to put them into coffins and carry them away for burial. The local authority had to employ a man to go around the neighbourhood twice daily, to remove the corpses.

One resident, Thomas Jackson, described the disease as a shocking and agonising pain in the stomach and the bowels, and cramp in the limbs, where life, even in the strongest man, seldom held out for more than thirty hours. In that year there were 346 cases of the disease in the town, and 85 deaths.

Read a contemporary description of the cholera epidemic

The Walsall Horticultural Society was formed in 1834 thanks to the efforts of Dr. Kent and Mr. C. F. Darwall. It prospered for three years, but soon came to an end. The society reformed in 1880.

A New Council

When Lord Grey’s government had succeeded in reforming parliament its attention turned to local government. In February 1833 a select committee was appointed to look into the state of Municipal Corporations in England, Wales, and Ireland, and to report any abuses that existed in them, and what corrective measures were needed.

The commission issued its report in 1835 after investigating 285 towns, including Walsall. The findings of the report led to passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The Act established a uniform system of municipal boroughs, each governed by a town council that was annually elected by ratepayers. The council in turn were to elect aldermen to serve on it, with a six year term. Towns were divided into wards. The Act reformed 178 Boroughs, and others soon followed.

The publication of the commission’s report led to a crisis in Walsall. The Mayor, Charles Forster Cotterell resigned, but was then informed by the steward of the lord of the manor, that he could not resign. This led to a special meeting of the Corporation who took legal advice on how to proceed. A writ was issued by the King’s Bench, ordering the Mayor to return to his office, but he failed to do so.

A petition was sent to the House of Commons from the inhabitants of Walsall in favour of reform, and under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act the old Corporation was restructured into the new Borough Council.

The first council elections were held in December 1835, with only one member of the old Corporation elected, he was Charles Forster Cotterell who was re-elected as Mayor. The first council members were as follows:

Foreign Ward: Charles Forster Cotterill, Henry Wilkinson Wennington, Edwards Elijah Stanley, David Badger, John Brewer, and Moore Hildick.

St. George’s Ward: Richard James junior, Joseph Cowley, Samuel Powell, John Eglington, John Wilkes, and Thomas Hackett.

Bridge Ward: Charles Forster Cotterill, Joseph Cotterill, William Dixon, Samuel Smith, Thomas Dutton, and Charles Mason.

The new council met for the first time in January 1836.

The Bridge.

From an old postcard.

Walsall in 1835

In the early part of the century, the old Corporation did little for the town directly, but was active through the improvement commissioners, who did their best to improve the town, according to the limited means at their disposal. The principal improvements included the construction of Lichfield Street, a fine new street connecting Bridge Street to Lichfield Road. Other new streets included Bradford Street, Goodall Street, Freer Street, Mountrath Street, Great Newport Street, and Little Newport Street. Many old buildings were removed or rebuilt, and the growing, prosperous town began to look more affluent.

Read about the Walsall Red Books and the Walsall

Although there had been many problems with law and order, particularly due to people’s anger over the Corn Laws and the Reform Bill, the same problems were almost universal at the time.

The population was still growing, and more manufacturing industries were appearing, which would guarantee the future prosperity of the town. Walsall could look forward to bright future.

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