The Early Twentieth Century

By 1900 the town centre had grown into an affluent, busy and vibrant shopping area, with shops and businesses of all kinds, much as it is today. Large numbers of people travelled to and from the town thanks to the frequent and cheap tram services that allowed people to travel greater distances to work or shop. The many industries in the town offered employment to a large number of people. Around this time production of leather goods in Walsall reached an all time high. Around 10,000 people were employed in the local industry.

On 24th March, 1900 Her Majesty’s Theatre opened in Park Street. It was Walsall's most successful theatre, seating over 2,000 people.

During the nineteenth century Walsall's population dramatically increased. By 1901 it had reached 86,400, nearly a nine-fold increase over one hundred years.

 

The new Council House and Town Hall.

 

Lichfield Street.

In 1905 the new Council House and Town Hall opened in Lichfield Street on a one and a half acre site. It was built at a cost of £98,000. In the same year Edward Thomas Holden became the first Freeman of the Borough. He ran E. T. Holden  & Son Limited, in Park Street, the family firm of tanners and curriers that was founded by his father. He was elected to Walsall Council in 1860 and served on the council for sixty two years, becoming mayor three times; 1870 to 71, 1871 to 72 and 1904 to 05. In August 1891 he became Liberal MP for Walsall after a by-election due to the death of the MP, Sir Charles Forster. He remained in Parliament until June 1892. He became a member of Walsall School Board, a member of the Board of Guardians, a Justice of the Peace for the borough of Walsall and the county of Staffordshire, and was knighted in 1907. He died on 13th November, 1926 at the age of 95.

1906 saw the opening of Walsall's new library in Lichfield Street. It cost £8,000 and was a gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish philanthropist.

The Walsall Golf Club at Gorway was founded on 19th March 1907 on land leased from Lord Bradford. Initially it had six holes, but a year later was extended to fourteen holes. The entrance fee was 4 guineas and an annual subscription cost 2 guineas.

1908 saw the opening of the town's first cinema, The Imperial. It opened in the Imperial Theatre which had been converted into a cinema. The town's first purpose-built cinema, the Electric Picture Palace opened on 12th April, 1910 in The Square. It was built by S. Wootton of Bloxwich, and officially opened by Lady Holden.


The interior of the Town Hall.


Another view of the Town Hall. Taken at a local history fair in 2002.

On 24th April 1909 the Walsall Cricket Club opened the Gorway Cricket Ground on a four and a half acre site costing £1,500. The inaugural match was between the club XI and a team representing the senior clubs in the town, including members of the Walsall Y.M.F. Club, and Shannon's Cricket Club. Walsall Cricket Club easily won, scoring 150 for four. Billy Preston was the first to get a half-century on the ground scoring 77 not out. They dismissed the opponents for 41. The match was followed by an inaugural dinner in the tea room, attended by the Mayor, and several club 'veterans'.

In October 1909 a lady health visitor (Hilda Joseph) was appointed for the town, thanks to pressure from Walsall's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Harry Shore. She had to visit every home containing a young child. Her first report, based on visits to around six thousand children revealed the following:

50.9% had bad teeth, 13.5% had dirty heads, 11.3% had enlarged tonsils, 8.8% had defective hearing, 7.8% had defective sight, 6.4% had bronchitis, 4.6% had rickets, 3.4% had ruptures, 2.1% had goitres, and 1% had body vermin.

398 of them were poorly clothed, 773 had poor boots, and 6 had no boots at all.

Dr. Harry Shore's first report in 1910 commented on how hardship and poverty affected young mothers, resulting in a high infant mortality rate, usually from poor housing conditions, lack of ventilation and overcrowding.


High Street on market day.

The Liberal government passed a number Acts of Parliament under their Liberal reforms package which were designed to help the poor. The 1907 Education (Administrative Provisions) Act set up school medical services that were run by local government. All children were to receive a medical inspection. The National Insurance Act 1911 provided for a National Insurance scheme with provision of medical benefits. Workers were given access to free treatment for tuberculosis, and the sick were eligible for treatment by a panel doctor. The unemployed received a time-limited unemployment benefit, and every mother received a maternity grant of thirty shillings.

In the years immediately before the First World War the country suffered from much industrial unrest involving strikes by railwaymen, miners, engineering workers etc. Wages were very low and so people were demanding a realistic minimum wage. One industry greatly affected in Walsall was tube making. There were strikes at Birchfields and Pleck involving large numbers of people. Things came to a head on 11th June 1913 when a strike at Walsall's  largest tube manufacturer, the Talbot-Stead Tube Company Limited, in Green Lane, got out of hand. Twenty men entered the factory in an attempt to return to work, which greatly angered the strikers. A crowd of around three thousand gathered outside the factory which was guarded by two lines of policemen. They agreed to disperse if the twenty workers would leave the factory. A riot took place, stones were hurled through factory windows, and a police refreshment vehicle carrying food for the police officers on duty, was overwhelmed by the crowd, and the food carried away.

During the strike the Mayor organised a relief fund which fed 800 children daily at their schools. The strike eventually ended in July.


Walsall's lovely old Art Gallery.

A very different event took place on 30th August 1913 when an aircraft landed in the town for the first time. An aircraft race had been organised between two pilots, Bentfield Charles Hucks, and Gustav Hamel for a fine silver trophy and prize money of five hundred pounds, offered by the Birmingham Daily Post. The race consisted of several short flights around a circular route, starting and ending at the Tally-Ho grounds at Edgbaston.

The first leg was to Redditch recreation ground, followed by a flight to Green's Field near Allesley Road, Coventry, then on to Nuneaton, Drayton Manor, and Walsall. The aircraft landed in Springvale Farm which was near the Birmingham Road and the modern Park Hall Estate. Gustav Hamel landed in an adjoining field because he felt that the official one was too small. When Hucks landed he was surrounded by a waiting crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 people. The spectators included the Mayor, the town councillors and their wives and friends. After thirty minutes the aviators departed on their last but one leg to Quinton, before returning to Edgbaston. Hamel succeeded in beating Hucks by just over twenty seconds. 

Sadly both aviators had short lives. Gustav Hamel disappeared over the English Channel on 23rd May, 1914 while returning from Paris in a new 80hp. Morane-Saulnier monoplane. He was only 24 years old. Bentfield Hucks died on 7th November, 1918 as a result of double pneumonia. He was 34 years old, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.


Another view inside Walsall's old Art Gallery.

   
View a 1914 directory of shops and businesses
   
 

The Guildhall.

 

Entrance to the Town Hall.

     
 

Sister Dora's Statue.

 

Alderman J. N. Cotterell, Mayor of Walsall, 1914-15.

Entrance to the Arboretum.

The Arboretum lake.

Another view of the Arboretum.
A final view of the Arboretum.

   
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