Early Industries

Early industries relied on the vast mineral wealth in the area. Wednesbury stands on the South Staffordshire Coalfield above the 10 yard seam, which outcrops in many areas. As well as thick coal seams there were large quantities of iron ore, some sandstone, and a few clay deposits.

Coal Mining

This became an important industry in the area thanks to the plentiful supply of coal, at or near the surface. Mining in the area was first recorded in 1315 in a document prepared for Juliana de Heronville which describes much of the old manor. It records several coal pits and contains the earliest record of ironstone mining in the town. At that time the pits were near Bradeswell, possibly referring to Broad Waters. Many of the early pits would simply be depressions in the ground where the coal could be found at the surface. A little later bell pits dominated the area, greatly changing much of the local landscape.

Until the late 16th century when coal was commonly used for domestic heating, its main use would have been in the smithy. Blacksmiths were an essential part of life, producing everything from horseshoes, and nails, to domestic or farm implements. The coal would be used for their hearths and also for crudely smelting the local iron ore.

The early pits were shallow affairs, the depth being limited by flooding. This would remain so until the appearance of steam powered pumping engines in the early 18th century. The demand for coal rapidly grew at that time thanks to the developments at Ironbridge, where coal replaced charcoal in the iron smelters. Demand increased yet again in the late 18th century thanks to the local canal network which was built to transport coal from the Black Country coalfields into Birmingham.


Inside a 19th century Black Country pit.

There were extensive coal pits in the town, including Monway Colliery by the Holyhead Road; Lodge Holes Colliery in Dangerfield Lane; Old Park Colliery and Hobbs Hole Colliery in Old Park Road; Forge Pool Colliery and Fallings Heath Colliery at Fallings heath; Burrs Colliery in Hydes Road; Vicarage Colliery and Goldicroft Colliery at Wood Green, and many, many more.
By the end of the 17th century nearly one third of the local working population worked in the coal pits and coal was in such demand that pits were sunk in all parts of the town.

Although there were many pumping engines in the area, they were often ineffective. The water pumped out of the mine interfered with the surface drainage and flowed into nearby streams, which would flood adjacent empty workings. As a result, water from the flooded mines could find its way back into the working mine from where it originated, and mine owners could find themselves draining adjacent mines at their own expense. By 1870 around 150 million tons of coal and 20 million tons of iron ore were under water in South Staffordshire.

The flooding of abandoned and long forgotten workings was  always a danger to underground workers, who could easily dig into them and flood their own mine. This happened in 1911 when Lea Brook Colliery was flooded by water accidentally tapped by the miners. It resulted in 1 dead, and 3 seriously injured miners, but thankfully 30 others narrowly escaped. In 1863 a small tributary of the River Tame flowed into collapsed mine workings and drowned Stears Meadow Colliery, causing 3 deaths.

Underground fires were another common hazard, which led to subsidence and surface collapses, leaving large burning holes, known as 'crownings in'. In 1895 a large underground fire near the Patent Shaft mine in Old Park Road rapidly grew and covered a large area by the end of the year. The Borough Surveyor carried out borings to estimate the state of the ground beneath the road. As a result the Highways Committee obtained outside advice, but nothing was done.

In 1897 a huge gaping chasm appeared in the road and Wednesbury Corporation made the Patent Shaft liable, but again nothing was done. On 14th April the Corporation's night watchman, 71 years old Thomas Hodgkiss fell to his death in the fire and his body was badly burned before it could be recovered. The body was eventually retrieved by P.C. Richard Goldby who received a medal from the Prince of Wales for his bravery. Only after Hodgkiss's death was something done. The Corporation and the Patent Shaft agreed to share the cost of restoring the road, which amounted to around £1,000. The death of the night watchman came to the attention of the Daily Mail, who sent a reporter to investigate. As a result a much publicised trench was dug into the seam and filled with black sand to contain the fire, which still burned for some time.

In July 1894 a crowning in occurred at the Lion Colliery which resulted in the collapse of an old engine house. The fire had previously been ignored for 3 years, showing the general lack of concern about such events. A ditch was dug and filled with black sand, but this proved to be insufficient and the fire spread towards houses in Bridge Street, eventually causing the collapse of a brick wall.


An old gin pit, a common site in the area.

Another underground fire started at Sparrows Forge Road in 1902 which resulted in a crowning in. A similar fire broke out behind the Old Park Works in 1911 which resulted in a horse being swallowed up. As recently as June 1935 another underground fire took place in Old Park Road.

Details of some of the local mines can be seen in the list compiled in 1896 by W. Beattie Scott, H.M. Inspector for the South Stafford District:

Mine

                   Owner

Underground workers Surface workers
Blakeley Wood Price and Son, Leabrook 38 26
Coal Hall  David Read, Darlaston Road    
Far Close Roberts and Parkes, Wednesbury Bridge    
Hobbs Hole Hobbs Hole Colliery Co. 12 5
Hollow Meadow  Smith, Round & Ramsall, Hollow Meadow    
Lodge Holes Wednesbury  Henry Bird, Butcroft, Darlaston 5 3
Millfield Patent Shaft and Axletree Co. 114 76
Moorcroft Moorcroft Colliery Co., Moxley 20 7
Moorcroft G.W. Bray, Moxley 5 3
Old Park Road Hobbs Hole Colliery Co., Wednesbury 16 5
Wednesbury, Old Fields Bradshaw and Bailey, West Bromwich  3 2
Wednesbury, Old Park Jas. and Jno. Hunt, King's Hill 13 4

At Old Park Colliery, run by Lloyds and Fosters, they raised coal from a depth of 200ft, most of which was used in the Old Park Works. Other mines were run by:

Samual Addison
John Bagnall & Sons
Simeon Constable
Danks & Company
Edward Wright & Company

Coal mining in the town began to decline in the second half of the 19th century, at a time when coal could easily be transported from other areas, thanks to the extensive transport infrastructure. The main competition came from the Cannock area, and the following neighbouring towns:

Town

Number of collieries

Bilston 64
Walsall 39
West Bromwich 52
Wolverhampton 26

The collieries in West Bromwich were all built during the 19th century. At the time there were 21 working pits in Wednesbury, including Balls Hill Colliery, run by Lloyds and Fosters, and Lion Colliery at the Mounts. Both of them were producing the best coking coal in Staffordshire for the iron smelters and the gas companies.


An advert from 1897.

By the end of the 19th century, only a few pits survived, and within a short time they too would disappear as they became uneconomical to work. The last were the Millpool Colliery which closed in 1914, and the Millfield Colliery which closed in 1915. Both were owned by the Patent Shaft.

An interesting account of local coal mining can be found in "Osborne's Guide to the Grand Junction Railway" published in 1838:

Wednesbury is about a mile and a half to the west of the line, and two miles further north than West Bromwich. It was, very early in the history of our country, a place of importance; its name being derived from Woden, the God of war of the Saxons, and Boro or Burgo, the name of a town. In the year 900, there was a strong fortress erected here, on the hill where the church stands now. The place stands on a hill, and is surrounded by the scenery of tall chimneys, engine houses, the machinery of coal pits, furnaces, and iron works. It is a dark, dirty, mean-looking place, as though cleanliness and comfort were none of its care. The population is 9,000 or more. The church is a handsome Gothic building, lately repaired at an expense of £5,000. The living is a vicarage, in gift of the crown. There are three chapels. One belonging to the Independents, one belonging to the Methodists, and one to the Primitive Methodists. This is one of the places that furnished such furious mobs, when first the Wesleyans began their out-door preaching.

There is a Lancasterian School, built by subscription, for educating 130 boys, a Church Sunday School, and a Methodist School. There are about £68 per annum arising from land and legacies, for charitable purposes: and the Poor Rates amount to more than £2,300.

The mines of coal, iron, and lime, and the manufacture of iron into gun locks and barrels, axle-trees and springs for coaches, hinges, nails, screws, files, gas and water tubing, afford the population tolerably full employment. The whole country round about seems turned inside out: it is worked in all directions for ironstone, coal, and limestone.

The pits vary in depth from 60 to 300 yards. It is extremely interesting to go down one of these pits; and if the visitor resolves to descending one, he had better select one that is deep, and has been in work for some time. He will be furnished with a miner's jacket, trousers, and cap, and accompanied by a guide, and will get into a large iron basket fastened by hooks and chains to the rope, the iron basket resting on the lid of the pit. The rope is gently drawn up, and the lid rolled away, when the experimenter finds himself suspended over a perpendicular descent of 200 yards. The engine begins to turn, and he descends into the shaft, which becomes increasingly dark, and the candle which he carries with him scarcely serves to light him to see the moving darkness. As he passes down, he will observe the different strata, and most probably will see the openings of mines which have been worked in the course of the sinking of the pit. The sensation which he will experience, from the sides of the pit rapidly ascending past him, while he feels himself as rapidly sinking, is one which is very awful and interesting, and must be experienced to be understood. To feel that you are fast sinking into the bowels of the earth, and that the light of heaven and the beauty of earth are receding from you, and may never more appear, is one of those sensations which brings all the natural dread of eternity nearer to us than we probably ever experienced before. On arriving at the bottom, you step out, and following your guide, you discover some dim shadowy beings, by means of the lights placed around, who are engaged in boring and digging the solid rock.

But now you turn your eyes up to look what is the roof over your head: and there you see the massive and eternal rock, and remember that you are two hundred yards beneath the surface of the earth. What a situation would it be for one being alone! On looking round, you perceive (if it be a limestone pit,) a lofty roof, eight or ten yards high, of apparently veined marble, sustained by massive and handsomely formed pillars, at the distance of every ten or twelve yards. These pillars are parts of the rock, which have been left in the working, and yet they have all the appearance of having been constructed. In some places you see men lying down, working with pick axes, clearing away the obstructions; in others you see them boring the rock by driving immense chisels into it; and in some places you see them upon ladders, doing the same work at the roof. Anon they inform you they are going to blast a portion of the stone off. You retire behind a pillar, and the terrific explosion thunders in reverberating volleys through the mine. Again and again does the blast burst in astonishment upon your ears. On examining the place after an explosion, you find a large mass of rock split off, sometimes a ton in weight. Such is the power of the expansion of heated air.

In some places you find the water drains through the rock into the mine; and the mouth of the pit is always dropping, so that the mine would soon be full of water, if it were not for the pump which is always kept at work in the other shaft. The air is very agreeable, and when the eye is accustomed to the dullness of the light, and can distinguish clearly what is going on, the mine is really very pleasant; for the temperature is quite comfortable, and all the fear of your position is gone in the course of half an hour. After seeing the loading of the basket occasionally, you at length step in yourself and ascend, returning to the surface of the earth again.

It is lamentable to find, that this population scarcely ever thinks of anything but eating and drinking when the day's labour is over. The house of the working man is not much inhabited by him. The mine has his days, and the ale-house his evenings. He cares not for his family. The wife may care if she will; but she was brought up in a house of the same kind, and what else can be expected of her.

The women in this neighbourhood seldom wear caps. They mostly use a handkerchief tied round their head, and neither in person or manner show much of grace, or attraction. They are early used to carry heavy burdens, and help to load and unload at the mouth of the pit; hence they become coarse and unwieldy, and lose that natural pleasantness, if not gracefulness of appearance, which is common to their sex. This is particularly observable in the extreme width of their mouths, shortness of the necks, and breadth of their shoulders, caused by the habit of carrying heavy baskets of coal on their heads from the shafts of the pits to their respective dwellings, there being a regular allowance to each workman for his individual home consumption.

There is a market every Friday, and a fair on the 6th of May, and the 3rd of August. There is also a wake or feast, which begins on the Sunday before Bartholomew's day. The wake, especially, is a terrible time for the display of the propensity to drunkenness. During the war most of the men might have become independent, so high were their wages, and so constant was their employ; but after all, few of them are possessed of common necessaries.


From the 1900 edition of Ryder's Annual.

Other Industries

The Quarter Session Rolls from around the end of the 16th century includes a list of the inhabitants of Wednesbury who ended up in court. It also includes their occupations which were:

alehouse keeper, baker, blacksmith, bridle / saddle maker, buckle maker, butcher, carrier, draper, farmer, ironmonger, iron worker, joiner, labourer, miller, nailer, peddler or merchant, potter, servant, spur maker, weaver

The burials recorded in the Parish Registers from 1678 to 1699 include the occupations of the deceased as follows:

2 bakers, 3 blacksmiths, 7 brick makers, 3 buckle makers, 3 butchers, 6 carpenters and joiners,
3 cobblers, 73 colliers, 2 edge tool makers, 5 farmers, 2 glove makers, 2 iron fitters,
2 ironmongers, 10 labourers, 4 locksmiths, 1 maltster, 3 masons, 6 millers, 83 nailers,
2 peddlers or merchants, 8 potters, 2 servants, 2 textile dealers, 3 weavers, 1 wheelwright

It is interesting to compare the numbers of people involved in the different industries listed in the above table. Most of the workers were nail makers or coal miners, showing the importance of both of the industries at the time. Nearly 3% of the working population were brick makers, and 3.4% were potters. The local pottery became known as "Wedgebury ware" and was sold throughout the region.
Clay tobacco pipes were also made using white clay from Monway Field.

In 1776 Wednesbury had its own silversmith in the form of John Whitehouse who produced many items including buckles, seals and tea tongs.

Nail Making

Nail making began at Wednesbury in about 1500 as a cottage industry. The nail makers relied on the ironmonger, the middle-man who supplied them with iron rod and then purchased the finished nails from them, often for tokens instead of cash. The nailers mainly worked in outbuildings next to their cottages and were self-employed, usually working long hours for little reward.


An old deep mine. The photograph shows how much of the area would have looked in the 19th century. 
The whole family, husband, wife and children could be producing nails. They were totally dependant upon the ironmaster who gave them work when it suited him, and could also delay payment for finished nails until he saw fit.

The nail makers were amongst the poorer members of society, often with an irregular income, working extremely hard for many hours at a time, then being idle until more work came along.

Machine made nails began to be made locally in about 1830, which put an end to hand nailing. There were just 2 hand nailers left in the town in 1834, and only one by 1851.


The nailer at work at the Black Country Living Museum.

The Gun trade

Birmingham was famous for its gun makers who used many components produced in the Black Country. Wednesbury businesses supplied large numbers of gunlocks and gun barrels, especially during wartime. Both Adams’s Forge and the iron mill at Wednesbury Bridge produced suitable high quality iron for the industry, which rapidly grew in the town. Most of the gunlock and barrel makers had their own small workshop, usually adjacent to their home. Most were self-employed, whereas others were “outworkers” for gunlock makers such as Richard Edge, who became one of the town’s more prosperous citizens. The trade rapidly grew, especially around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but entered a slow decline afterwards.

It was a skilled trade, a gunlock filer needing at least a five year apprenticeship. The work involved in filing the smaller parts of the mechanism could be very difficult and delicate, requiring a high degree of precision. After the war with France the trade was mainly confined to sporting guns for export, and at the time about 400 people worked in the industry in Wednesbury and about 600 in Darlaston. Between them they produced around 10,000 gunlocks each week.
Pit bank wenches, local female workers in the mining industry in about 1910.

By the 1870s the industry was in severe decline and by 1886 the gun trade in Wednesbury had almost disappeared, leaving just a few businesses producing gunlocks of the highest quality. By 1907 only 8 gunlock manufacturers remained, and by 1935 the number had fallen to 2.


An advert from 1861.

Although components were mainly produced in the town, complete guns of the highest quality were also made. In 1851 Thomas Griffiths of Wednesbury produced the “Lilliputian Gun” which was on display at the Great Exhibition. Although only 4½inches long, the gun could fire a tiny pellet through a piece of wood, half an inch thick. In order to make the gun Griffiths had to first make a set of tiny tools.

Wednesbury Enamels

Wednesbury gained a reputation for its fine enamels. In the 1750s Hyla Holden had a workshop in the Market Place producing boxes such as coal boxes, patch boxes, and snuff boxes. One of his employees was Moses Haughton, an enamel painter, and so enamelled boxes were being produced at the time. In 1818 enamelled boxes and toy watches were produced by John Yardley in Church Street and around the same time enamel painting was carried out by John Harper.

Industrial Unrest

In the first half of the 19th century there were frequent periods of depression in the coal and iron trades. Even when production was at its highest during the Napoleonic Wars, wages did not keep pace with the rising cost of food. When the war ended in 1815 demand for coal fell, and miners from across the Black Country and elsewhere dragged wagons full of coal towards London to publicise their plight.

There were periods of depression in between 1819 and 1843 which led to a lot of unrest. Riots took place in Wednesbury in 1801, 1826 and 1831. Things got completely out of hand in 1826 when the Riot Act was read.

Around 20,000 striking miners from all over the Black Country gathered at Russell's Field, behind the Turk's Head Inn during August 1842. They marched to any pit that was working to order the men out. At West Bromwich the Riot Act was read to them and the Yeomanry took prisoners, who were tied to their saddle straps and taken to appear before the magistrate at the Turk's Head Inn. Many were committed for trial, and some were transported to the colonies.


   
Return to
Churches
  Return to
the contents
  Proceed to
Transport