The Development of Local Government

Before the 19th century the most common form of local government was a combination of local Justices of the Peace, who administered the powers of the Crown, and the local parish Vestry, the decision making body that was named after the room where meetings took place.

Vestry meetings were attended by the parish ratepayers, who not only looked after the spiritual, but also the physical welfare of parishioners and their parish amenities. They levied and set the local rates and taxes, and took responsibility for the care of the poor, repair of the roads, law enforcement, church repairs, and appointed parish officers such as parish constables, and overseers of highways, and overseers of the poor.

They also carried out the duties required by the poor law. Under the terms of the Poor Law Act of 1601, each parish was responsible for its own poor, and the distribution of poor relief, which was funded by the poor rate. This was levied on property owners and tenants.

The Vestry oversaw the running of the Willenhall’s workhouse, founded in 1741, until the poor law was replaced by Poor Law Unions in 1834, as a result of the Poor Law Amendment Act. The workhouse closed in 1839, by which time the administration of the poor was in the hands of the Board of Guardians for the Wolverhampton Union of Parishes. The poor of the town were then sent to the Union Workhouse in Wolverhampton.

The Public Health Act of 1848 gave powers for the setting-up of public health boards, which led to the formation of the Willenhall Local Board of Health in 1854. The first meeting took place on 18th September, 1854 in the Literary Society’s room in Stafford Street. Those present were Richard Foster, Jeremiah Hartill, Joshua Froysell, W. Hodson, R. Butler, Jonah Hartill, G. Morgan, and G. Robinson. James Tildesley was in the chair. Ralph D. Gough was appointed chairman at a subsequent meeting on the 2nd October.

The initial objectives of the board were concerned with improving the health of the population by providing a clean water supply, sewers, street lighting, and a municipal burial ground. At this time the administrative functions of the town were shared between the Vestry, the Justices of the Peace, and the Local Board, which must have been an administrative nightmare.

In order to simplify local government, the Local Government Board was created under the terms of the Local Government Board Act of 1871 to oversee all local government matters. Simplification continued under the terms of the Public Health Act of 1872 which divided the country into local sanitary areas, and extended the power of local authorities. This led to the Willenhall Local Board of Health becoming the Willenhall Urban Sanitary Authority.

At this time Willenhall became smaller. The citizens of Short Heath had previously petitioned the Local Board to separate from Willenhall. As a result Short Heath became a separate Urban Sanitary District with its own Local Board, which became Short Heath Urban District Council in 1894. The two areas were separated until they were reunited as a result of the Staffordshire Review Order on 1933, when Willenhall also took over a small part of Bentley.

Willenhall acquired its first council, Willenhall Urban District Council, in 1894 as a result of the 1892 Local Government Act. There were 16 members, elected on 17th December, 1894. The first chairman was Jesse Tildesley.

From an old postcard.

The Library

The library in Clemson Street.

By this time the council controlled many local services including the library. Willenhall had a library very early on, thanks to the efforts of the Willenhall Literary Institute, a voluntary organisation founded by a group of public spirited men. In 1866 the organisation funded the building of the library in Clemson Street. As well as the library the building included, study rooms, a lecture hall, offices, and committee rooms.

In July 1874 the local authority decided to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act which enabled town councils to establish public libraries, and stated that access to libraries should be free of charge. In 1875 the literary institute transferred its building and contents to the local authority for use as a public library. The first librarian of the free library was David Marsh.

The Urban Sanitary Authority held its meetings in the committee rooms, and levied a rate of one penny in the pound to cover the running costs, supplemented by rent for the rooms. The building, which became Willenhall’s first Town Hall continued to be used by the local authority until the new town hall was built in Walsall Street.

In 1921 the library received a legacy of £100 from the late Jesse Tildesley which was used to purchase books for a reference library. Within a few years the open access system was adopted so that borrowers could directly examine the contents of the library, rather than requesting books from the catalogue.

The stock increased after a grant of £450 given by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. By the mid 1930s the library had around 18,000 books, and a reading room was made available to the public.

Forest Gate Branch Library.

A separate juvenile lending department was opened, and thanks to the appointment of a full-time librarian and assistants, the lending departments opened all day. The opening hours were 10.00 a.m. until 7.30 p.m. except on Wednesdays when the library closed at 1.00 p.m. The minimum age for children was 8 years old, and the junior department closed at 6.00p.m. The Library Committee joined the Regional Library Scheme for the Midlands, so that any book not in the library, could be obtained from another library within 14 days.

In 1948 a branch library opened at Holy Trinity School in Coltham Road, and operated until 1960 when it was replaced by Forest Gate Branch Library at New Invention.

A New Town Hall

The new Town Hall, now the library.

The new Town Hall was built in 1934/35 on the site of the Old Hall.

A foundation stone was laid by Mr. G. G. Evans, J.P. Chairman of the council, and on 20th March, 1935 the completed building was opened by the Countess of Harrowby, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire.

It was built at a cost of £11,749.

The official opening of the Town Hall on 20th March, 1935. From an old postcard.

The building contained a well-proportioned council chamber, panelled in teak, and matching teak furniture. It had excellent acoustic properties, and also contained committee rooms, an assembly room, and offices for all council departments. Attached to the building was the fire station, which housed the town’s fire fighting equipment, and in the adjacent yard was a garage containing the town’s ambulance, a gift from Reginald Tildesley in memory of his parents.

Fire fighting in Willenhall was originally in the hands of the town surveyor, and the roadmen. The fire engine had to come from Wolverhampton. On the 12th of December, 1887 the Local Board decided to form, and equip, a fire brigade consisting of 12 volunteers. People quickly volunteered, and by early January the first twelve members had been selected. They were:

W. Chesney, G. Ecroyd, G. Goodchild, T. Green, M. Jobborn, A. Law, E. Lucas, J. Lucas, E. Raybone, E. Seckington, R. W. Stockham, and J. Tyler. 

Captain of the fire brigade was the town surveyor, Mr. Baker. The first fire station consisted of a roofed-over recess between two buildings in Upper Lichfield Street. The fire fighting equipment included a handcart, 2 standpipes, 100 yards of hose, 2 jets, and 12 uniforms, each consisting of a helmet, a belt, a badge, and an axe. Mr. Baker was soon replaced as captain by J. H. James, who repeatedly asked the Local Board more equipment and better accommodation. An escape ladder was provided, but the volunteers still felt that their equipment was inadequate for the job in hand, and so they locked-up the fire station, handed-in the keys, and walked away. Eventually they were persuaded to return, but a fire engine was not purchased until May 1896.

Willenhall's first fire engine was built by Shand, Mason & Company of 75 Upper Ground Street, Blackfriars Road, London. It cost £145 and could deliver water at a rate of 100 gallons a minute, and send it up to 120 feet in the air.

A Shand, Mason & Company's manual fire engine.

The new fire engine, which was called "Nil Desperandum" proved its worth two years later during one of the largest fires in the town.

On Friday the 16th of July, 1899 a large fire started in Thomas Tildesley's timber yard in Railway Lane at about half past four in the afternoon. With the help of fire brigades from Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Wednesbury, the fire was under control by 9 o'clock in the evening. It had caused around £2,000 worth of damage.

This, and several other fires, highlighted the importance of the fire engine, and the need for a much better steam-powered machine.

In December 1900 the council agreed to spent £700 on the purchase a steam fire engine, 1,000 yards of hose, a double set of horse harnesses, and alterations to the fire station. It would be paid for by adding an extra halfpenny to the rates.

By this time the fire station was next to the Town Hall in Clemson Street.

In those days the fire brigade's services were not free. If they put out a fire, the owner of the damaged property would be charged for each man's time, any expenses incurred, refreshments for the men, and any damage that was done to appliances or uniforms.

A Shand, Mason & Company's steam fire engine.

In 1903 an electrically operated fire alarm was installed, which was later connected to alarms in the firemen's houses. Twelve years late it was updated, and eight alarms were placed in various parts of the town. In 1916 this was augmented by the use of the factory hooter at John Harper's. The fire brigade acquired its first motorised fire engine in 1922 which could pump up to 500 gallons of water a minute. A second motorised engine was acquired in 1928, and in 1934/5 the brigade moved to a new fire station in Walsall Street, next to the new Town Hall. In 1948 the brigade became part of Staffordshire Fire Brigade. In 1966 it joined Walsall Fire Brigade, after Willenhall became part of Walsall Metropolitan Borough. In 1974, with the formation of the West Midlands, it became part of West Midlands Fire Service. In 1981 the brigade moved to a new fire station in Clarkes Lane, which is still there today.

In April 1934 Willenhall was reunited with Short Heath, and the number of councillors increased to 21. The wards were as follows:

Ward  Number of Councillors
Portobello 4
St. Anne’s 4
St. Giles 4
St. Stephen’s  4
Short Heath 5

The Town Hall. From an old postcard.

Behind the Town Hall was the Public Baths, erected at a cost of £25,000 in 1938/39. The foundation stone was laid by Mr. W. Johnson, Chairman of the Public Baths Committee on 24th September, 1938. The building was opened on 15th April, 1939 by Councillor J. A. Parkes, J.P. Chairman of the council.

The building contains a 75ft. long by 36ft. wide swimming pool, varying in depth from 7ft. 6inches to 3ft. 6 inches, and holding 80,000 gallons of water. There was a slipper baths, and also a spring-maple floor which could be placed over the swimming pool to convert the building into an assembly hall. In the winter months it was used for dances and variety shows, and throughout the year exhibitions and demonstrations were held there.

The baths set up for wrestling.

The assembly hall seated 800 people on the ground floor, and 150 on the balcony, and had a fully equipped stage for theatrical events. The building, which later became Willenhall Leisure Centre, closed on 27th August, 2010.

Willenhall Leisure Centre.

In 1966 Willenhall lost its status as an urban district under the terms of the Local Government Reform Act, and became part of Walsall Metropolitan Borough. At the same time Portobello became part of Wolverhampton.

In 1969 the library moved to the ground floor of the Town Hall, which by then had been vacated by the council. The Clemson Street building was then demolished.


As in most Black Country towns, education in Willenhall began in church schools where children were given a basic religious education, and encouraged to attend church services. By the 1820s there was a Wesleyan Day School, and later a Primitive Methodist School which opened in King Street in 1837. By 1842 the British School had opened in King Street, and another British School could be found in Little London.

In 1853 the Church of England sponsored the National Schools which opened at the junction of Lower Lichfield Street and Doctor’s Piece in 1853. The school continued in use until 1908 when St. Giles School opened in Walsall Street.

St. Giles Church of England Primary School in Walsall Street.

Another view of St. Giles School.

Two of the foundation stones at the front of St. Giles School.

There are three foundation stones on the front of St. Giles School, which were laid on 21st November, 1907. One was laid by Emily Hartill, wife of John Hartill, on behalf of the managers of St. Giles Schools; another was laid by Louisa Pinson, wife of C. H. Pinson, Chairman of Willenhall Urban District Council, and Superintendent of the Sunday and Adult Schools; and the third was laid by Mary Ethel Vaughan, daughter of Henry Vaughan, J.P.

St. Giles School. From an old postcard.

The 1870s saw the formation of the Willenhall School Board, created under the terms of the 1870 Elementary Education Act. School Boards provided elementary education for children aged 5-12, and financed themselves through the local rates. Parents still had to pay fees for their children to attend school, but school boards could pay the fees of children who were from poor families. At the time, school attendance was not compulsory, and remained so until 1880. The 1891 Education Act did away with fees, making elementary education free.

The Central Schools which opened in 1883. Latterly Little London Primary School, which closed in 2007.

Five schools were built in Willenhall between 1879 and 1890 to provide sufficient places for all the children in the town. School boards were abolished under the terms of the 1902 Education Act, and replaced by Local Education Authorities. Education in Willenhall then came under the control of Staffordshire County Council, which became the Local Education Authority.

Lane Head School in 1956. It was built as Short Heath Board Schools in 1880. It is now Lane Head Nursery School.

Willenhall is well served today by a number of schools. Primary schools include St. Giles C of E Primary School in Walsall Street, Woodlands School in Bloxwich Road North, Short Heath; Lakeside Primary School in Holman Close; Clothier Street Primary School in Harry Perks Street; Beacon Primary School in Davis Road; Pool Hayes Primary School in Bridgnorth Grove; and last but not least, Fibbersley Park Primary School in Noose Lane. Secondary schools include Willenhall Comprehensive School which opened in September1955 and later moved to a larger site in Furzebank Way, now known as Willenhall School Sports College; Sneyd Community College in Vernon Way, which specialises in maths and computing; and the Thomas More Catholic School, which is in Darlaston Lane.

Another view of Central Schools. From an old postcard.

An earlier view of Central Schools. From an old postcard.

Group 6 from Walsall Road Council School that stood on the corner of Walsall Road and Crescent Road. From an old postcard.


Willenhall’s first public park was the Short Heath Playing Field, opened in 1919 by Short Heath Urban District Council.

This was soon followed by the Memorial Park which was opened on Saturday 30th September, 1923 by Mr. T. Kidson, chairman of the War Memorial Committee. The committee raised a total of £10,043, by public subscription, to cover the cost of building the park

An early view of the park. From an old postcard.

Another early view. From an old postcard.

The Pavilion. Also from an old postcard.

The tennis courts. From an old postcard.

The area around the bandstand in the early days. From an old postcard.

A more recent view with mature flower beds. From an old postcard.

The lake in the Memorial Park.

The bandstand.

The fencing and park gates were made by E. C. & J. Keay Limited of Darlaston.

Work on the park began in 1917 following a grant of £7,145 from the Unemployment Grants Committee that had been formed to provide employment for ex-servicemen. They were paid £1 a week to work on the park, which originally covered nearly 33½ acres, and is a memorial to the local people who lost their lives in the First World War.

The park was built on a piece of derelict land, covered with old mine workings and slag heaps. It was landscaped, and included tennis courts, a bowling green, a playing area, and a paddling pool. After World War 2 the park was extended by the addition of another 17 acres. Land was also acquired in Bilston Lane and Shepwell Green to provide two open public spaces.

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