The Growth of the Town

As in the neighbouring towns, the population greatly increased in the 19th century thanks to the availability of employment in the new industries. This can be seen from the census records:

Although the population had greatly increased, the town centre where most people lived, still occupied a relatively small area around Trouse Lane, Upper and Lower High Street and Bridge Street.

Many of the houses were tightly packed and others were at the back of courtyards.

The Market and Entertainment

The town became well known for its market, whose roots go back to the 18th century. It all began in 1709 when Queen Anne granted a charter that gave John Hoo the right to hold two annual fairs in the town and a weekly market on Fridays. Fairs were initially held on 25th April and 23rd July until the calendar was altered in 1752, when the dates became 6th May and 3rd August. The charter allowed the sale of cattle, beasts, and all manner of goods, including wares, and merchandise commonly bought in fairs and markets.

At the time John Hoo was lord of the manor, having purchased the estate from the Shelton family. He was born around 1658 and became a member of the Bar and afterwards a sergeant-at-law. He married Mary Hanbury of Whorestone, Bewdley.


Looking into the Market Place.

The market cross building, possibly built in 1709, used to stand approximately on the site of the present clock tower.

It consisted of two rooms in an upper floor, resting on pillars and arches. The rooms were reached by an external flight of stairs on the northern side of the building which were also used as a whipping post. Offenders would be tied to the door posts and a public flogging would be administered by the beadle.

The building had many other uses. The Charity School, the Court of Requests, and the Petty Sessions were all held there. By 1824 the building had been demolished after falling into a bad state of repair.

By the early 19th century Wednesbury fair was in decline due to competition from Walsall and Wolverhampton. By the 1850s the meat and cattle had gone and the fair soon disappeared. The weekly market however, continued to flourish in the Market Place until recent times. By the early 19th century the Friday market had been supplemented by the addition of a market on Saturdays. In 1861 the market was purchased by the Local Board of Health who fixed the trading hours as 5a.m. to 5p.m. on Fridays and 12 noon until 11p.m. on Saturdays.

Today the Market Place is well known for its fine clock tower which was designed by local architect Mr. C. W. D. Joynson and built in 1911 to celebrate the coronation of King George V.

 

Wednesbury's Coronation Clock Tower.

  Laying the clock tower's foundation stone on 22nd June, 1911.


The dedication of the clock tower. 9th November, 1911.

F.W. Hackwood recalled in his “Wednesbury Ancient and Modern”, that he was told of the sale of a wife, by an eyewitness, which took place at a public auction held in the Market Place. He also stated that this had happened on more than one occasion.

The town also held an annual wake on 23rd August, St. Bartholomew's Eve. When the modern calendar was adopted in 1752 the wake moved to the first week in September. Thousands of visitors flocked to the town during wake week which became the local working man's annual holiday. The wake extended from the High Bullen, through the Market Place to Bridge Street.
It greatly annoyed the local factory owners because their employees were away from work that week and so there was no production. In 1874 Richard Williams, the Managing Director of the Patent Shaft, the town's largest employer became Chairman of the Wednesbury Local Board of Health. He was determined to end the wake and with the backing of the local Nonconformist church he convinced the Board to obtain a Home Office Order to abolish the wake. From January 1874 the wake was not allowed to be held on the streets, but the resourceful organisers moved the event to the Back Field behind the Green Dragon in the Market Place. Richard Williams became the most unpopular man in the town, and the wake became a tradition that continued for many years.

Bull baiting was held during the wake, initially at the High Bullen, and later in Back Field, with as many as 6 bulls being bated each year. Many of the participators wore long white aprons which extended to the ground and were used to catch their dogs after they had received a tossing from the bull. The baited bulls would be killed and cut up on the Thursday of wake week to provide cheap meat for some of the many visitors who had by then spent most of their money.

Several of the town's public houses could also be found in the Market Place. They were the Talbot, the George & Dragon, the White Lion, and the Green Dragon. In Bridge Street was the Red Lion, the Coach and Horses (later known as the Coachmaker's Arms), and the White Horse. In Vicarage Road is the Leathern Bottle which claims to date from around 1510 and so is the town's oldest pub, which was rebuilt in 1913. In the 18th century the magistrates met there.


The Old Leathern Bottle.

Other pubs included the Duke of York, and the Turk's Head, which is still to be found in Lower High Street. Other survivors include the George in Upper High Street, originally known as the King's Head and the Blue Ball at Hall End, which is now listed and known as Spittles. Several generations of the Spittle family ran the pub and also sponsored local cockfights. Cockfighting was a popular pastime, and in the 19th century there used to be a cock pit in Potters Lane. Birds were reared and trained for the king, and annual “cockings” were held at Wake time. They were attended by the nobility and members of the sporting fraternity from all over the country. Other sports included bear baiting, and badger drawing.


A busy day in the market.

Horse race meetings were held in Monway Field in 1778. They later moved to a new course, and each meeting was followed by a ball. Other activities included dog fighting, prize fighting, flower shows and a visit to the Theatre Royal in Earps Lane, which opened in 1859.

Wednesbury had a 9 hole golf club, founded in 1908 in Hydes Road on land leased from the Patent Shaft. In 1938 the company attempted to sell the land to a private property developer, but the attempt failed because of the onset of war. In 1947 the council purchased the land and built the Golf Links Estate, consisting of Woden Road South , Chestnut Road, Cherry Lane, Yew Tree Lane, Lilac Grove, Walnut Lane, Cedar Road and Sycamore Road.

The Old Theatre Royal in Earps Lane opened in 1859 and later became the Rialto Cinema. In the 1960s it became the Midland Cinema Bingo Club but soon closed, and was demolished in 1969. Another theatre, the Hippodrome Theatre in Upper High Street opened in 1891 as the New Theatre Royal. It survived until April 1959 and was demolished in the early 1960s.

The Picture House opened in Walsall Street on 25th March, 1915. In 1938 its name was changed to the Gaumont and in 1964 it became the Odeon. It had another name change in the early 1970s when it became the Silver and is now Walkers Bingo.

Cholera

Cholera first appeared locally at Bilston on 4th August, 1832 and reached Wednesbury 5 days later. During the next two months or so there were 285 cases in the town, and 95 deaths. The last case was reported on 12th October. During the epidemic a temporary local board of health was established, and the British School converted into a hospital. 5 stations were set up for the dispensing of medicine to the poor, and two medical inspectors were engaged to provide daily reports on the condition of people in the lodging houses.

A second epidemic occurred in 1848 which resulted in 200 deaths in the town. The Wednesbury Board of Surveyors erected several huts on Monway Field for use as a temporary hospital and a general undertaker was appointed for the dead.

Each day the victim’s bodies were brought to the church porch and buried in a communal grave. Many of the cases occurred in St. James’ Parish, the poorest part of the town. After the second epidemic, the situation was taken in hand. In 1853 the South Staffordshire Waterworks company was formed to provide a clean and therefore safe water supply, to prevent further outbreaks of the infectious disease.


Bridge Street looking towards Lower High Street.

In 1858 land was acquired on Church Hill for the building of the reservoir for the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company. Work got underway in 1859 on the circular reservoir which had an earth embankment, and could hold 1,538,190 gallons of water. It was 18 feet deep. By November 1859, work on the reservoir itself had been completed, allowing it to be part-filled. It came into use in April 1861 when the project had been completed. The work had been carried out by John Boys Limited.

In 1908 it was recommended that the reservoir should be covered. It remained open until 1923 when a roof, supported by 96 piers was built by Messrs. Davey & Company of Runcorn. The reservoir continued in use until 14th May, 1974, after which the site was sold.

Care of the Poor

By the turn of the 17th century the parish was made responsible for the well being of the poor thanks to the Statute of Labourers in 1563, and the Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601. It became the annual duty of the parish to choose an officer, usually around Easter, to administer the Poor Law for the forthcoming year. The officer was chosen at a vestry meeting and his name would be submitted to a Justice of the Peace for approval. He then had the power to raise taxes to supply funds for relief of the poor. At the end of the year he had to submit his accounts for the approval of the vestry. This system lasted until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 when a new system based on unions of parishes was introduced. As a result Wednesbury parish became part of the West Bromwich Union, run by a board of elected guardians.

Wednesbury had its first almshouse as early as the beginning of the 17th century thanks to the bequest of Thomas Parkes, who died in 1802. He left £10 in his will for the care of the poor, under the control of the vicar and churchwardens, who were to pay £1 annually for ten years. He also gave a house to accommodate a school for 10 poor children and a cottage to be used as an almshouse for 2 persons.

Another bequest that provided money for the poor was made in 1683 by Joseph Hopkins, an ironmonger of Birmingham. He bequeathed £200 for the purchase of land, in or near Wednesbury. Any money earned from the land was to be given to help the poor. The executor John Cotterell purchased 16 acres of land in Darlaston and used its income to provide 3 coats and 3 gowns annually for 6 poor parishioners. The remainder of the income provided bread and money for the other poor inhabitants. The income greatly increased when coal was found on the site. In 1823 it had risen to over £60 and provided 60 people with coats and gowns.

By the 18th century opinion had turned away from almshouses, in favour of workhouses. The idea was that the poor should earn their keep, and the threat of the workhouse would act as a deterrent to anyone seeking help, other than to those really in need.

By 1766 Wednesbury had acquired its first workhouse consisting of four converted cottages in Meeting Street. The cottages were purchased by John Addenbrooke and John Cox in 1715, using the proceeds from a special rate levied for the help of the poor.

At least one of the cottages became an almshouse and all four were converted into a workhouse within a few years. By 1768 a small cell had been added for the custody of any wrong offender in the parish, but in practice it was rarely used. The governor’s favoured method of punishment was to chain wrong doers to the fire grates.

In 1786 an inventory of the goods in the workhouse included a list of the rooms, which consisted of the following:

The governor’s kitchen, a cellar, a bedroom over the pantry with 2 beds, a lower house and men’s ward, a lower parlour, a men’s lodging room with 12 beds, a woman’s kitchen, a women’s lodging room with 20 beds, a brewhouse and a bedroom above, with 2 spare beds.

Little regular work was found for the inmates, although occasionally they were hired out to local employers. The workhouse continued in use until 1857, when it closed. As already mentioned, Wednesbury became part of the West Bromwich Union as the result of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The union was declared on 11th October, 1836 and included the following parishes:

Handsworth with Soho and Perry Barr, Wednesbury, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Warley Salop, and Warley Wigorn.

Pressure for accommodation mounted and so the commissioners eventually decided to build a new Union Workhouse in Hallam Street, West Bromwich, which opened in 1858. The old workhouse building at Wednesbury remained until 1920 when it was demolished.

Health and Sanitation

The 2nd Report of the Commissioners on the Enquiry of the Health of Towns, published in 1845 states:

Wednesbury consists of one long street, along the turnpike road, with many lateral ones branching into courts and alleys, inhabited by the working classes. There is no drainage worth the name, no scavengers or system of cleansing, and the supply of water very scarce and indifferent. There are no pipes (though there is, it is said, a good supply near it, at a high level above the town), a few pumps, and the wells are often bad. The people complain much, and have to carry water near a mile, or to buy at a halfpenny for three cans.

The workhouse of the town has very bad water in the well, and they are obliged to fetch it for washing or drinking several times a day. The courts, alleys, and small streets are unpaved or ill paved, full of stagnant puddles, privies with open vaults, pigsties, etc.; there is, in fact, no care taken on these points, and the greatest neglect appears. I find it stated "There is a dreadful stinking tank or ditch at the back of the Turk's Head, where the magistrates always meet, and the public enter by this filthy place."

The damning report includes footnotes on certain parts of the town:

Whitehouse Square Filthy choked-up privies, and dirt holes overflowing.
High Bullen Open drains, full and stinking.
Ledbury's Buildings Filthy open privies, stagnant liquid filth and receptacles; bad water generally; opposite court - bad privies.
Houses opposite Turk's Head Open receptacle of liquid filth.
Miss Webley's Court Green stagnant puddles.
Bullock's Fold Open terrible drains; no water but by buying.
Buck's Buildings Open privies, pigsties, filth and ashes; open drain full of filth.
Workhouse Fold Three had the fever in our house, said a woman. One died; privy full, filth overflows.

Clearly something had to be done. Of course the terrible findings didn't just apply to Wednesbury, most towns and cities were much the same. During the cholera epidemic which swept through England from 1847 to 1849 the government established the General Board of Health under the terms of the Public Health Act of 1848. The new authority designated areas as local health districts. If an area was not a borough it was given the task of electing a local board of health to oversee health and sanitation.

   
Read the story of one of Wednesbury's most influential families, The Lloyds
   

The Wednesbury Local Board of Health was formed on 26th December, 1851 and held its first meeting on 14th February, 1852. The original members were:

Rev. Isaac Clarkson - Chairman
Thomas walker
J. N. Bagnall
Edward Elwell jnr.
Benjamin Round
Joseph Smith
Jesse Whitehouse
James Frost
Samuel Lloyd, who became chairman in 1853

The Board's powers to improve sanitation were wide and included:

Regulation of sewers, drains, wells, and the disposal of refuse.
Regulation of highways, slaughterhouses, and lodging houses.
Regulation to ensure the provision of adequate supplies of water and gas.
The provision of burial and recreation grounds.

The following officers were appointed by the Board:

Clerk - Francis Woodward
Officer of Health - Dr. Palin
Surveyor and Inspector
of Nuisances -
John W. Fereday
Treasurer - Henry Williams
Collector of Rates - John Griffiths

Francis Woodward was a lawyer with an office opposite the Turk's Head in Lower High Street. The Board's meetings were held there until 1854 when they moved to the Sessions Room adjoining the original police station in Russell Street. The Board eventually built its own offices in 1867 in Holyhead Road.

Many of the pavements consisted of pebbles and were very difficult underfoot. Mr. John W. Fereday, the Town Surveyor introduced blue bricks with a roughened diamond pattern on the upper surface. Although they improved matters they were often only laid across the half of the pavement nearest the kerb.

A rate of 1 shilling was levied on the local population to pay for the Board's activities. The Board's many achievements included:
     

The building of the Municipal Offices and Town Hall at a cost of £4,500.
The building of the public baths and free library at a cost of £6,000.
The building of the town's cemetery at a cost of £5,400.
A great improvement to the town's streets at a cost of £7,300.
The building of deep sewers and the sewage works at a cost of £5,000.
 
The cemetery opened in March 1868 on 12½ acres of land, and was extended in 1885. The Free Library and Baths that stood on the corner of Walsall Street and Brunswick Terrace, opened in 1878 and were built at a cost of £6,700, £1,200 of which was given by public subscription. They were officially opened by Richard Williams, Chairman of the local Board of Health. The library was demolished in 1912 and replaced with new Education Offices. The baths closed in April 1973 and were soon demolished.

The sewage works were built on land at Bescot, acquired in 1884. The works opened in 1888.


The old Free Library.
The location of Wednesbury's Free Library and Public Baths.


The new library.

Other new amenities included Brunswick Park which opened in 1887 and the Art Gallery which opened in 1891 as the result of a bequest by Mary Anne Richards, the widow of coach axle manufacturer, Edwin Richards, who died in 1880. Edwin had acquired a collection of paintings by contemporary artists and they were given to the town along with £3,500 for the building of the art gallery, and an endowment to pay for a caretaker.
         
Read about the
opening of the
new library
  Read about
Wood Green
Pumping Station
         
Although the Wednesbury Local Board of Health had made great improvements in the town, it still came in for criticism in a report made in 1875 by Dr. Ballard, a Government Inspector.

A number of slums have now disappeared, among them being Oatmeal Square, Bolton Square, Beggars Row, and Pitts Square. The properties complained of were mostly courts and alleys contained in an area stretching from Portway Road to the High Bullen and Trouse Lane, all densely inhabited. In many other parts pigsties were allowed too near the dwelling houses. There was no compulsory notification of disease; disinfection was attempted by the cheap and primitive process of loaning whitewash brushes, and though the general annual death rate was not particularly high, infantile mortality was at times excessively heavy.

Fire Fighting

The town's first fire engine was donated by the Royal Insurance Company on the understanding that it should be free from financial liability, for any property insured by them, on which the engine was called to protect. The engine was kept in the yard at the Anchor Hotel on the Holyhead Road. Unfortunately this was too far away from the town centre to act quickly in an emergency. In 1899 the Borough Council built the town's first fire station at the High Bullen. The local fire brigade however, remained a voluntary organisation for many years.


A view of old Wood Green looking towards the residence of Mr. A. Elwell, J.P. which can be seen behind the trees. St. Paul's Church is on the right.


An advert from 1861.


   
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