by Peter Hickman
The map of Wolverhampton, drawn by Isaac Taylor in 1750, shows little development of the south and west of the town which at that time was entirely agricultural. The next century proved to be a growth period for Wolverhampton and the towns of the area which was to become known as the Black Country. All the expansion took place to the east of Wolverhampton. Factories, workshops and terraces of workers' houses are shown on the maps of 1840s. But on the western side of the town things apparently changed but little! However the census of 1851 shows that in fact the tenancy of the larger farm houses was now in the hands of professional and business men, working in the town but living in some style surrounded by countryside.
It is not certain who built the house, but the first owners were the Petit family. The Petit's were originally French Huguenots, who also owned Ettingshall Park and Old Merridale Farm which was situated about half a mile closer to the Town at the corner of Merridale Road and Merridale Lane. Although the ownership of the house passed through the Petit family for over a hundred years they never actually lived there but leased out the property.
The records show a number of tenants. The first recorded occupant was John Pursehouse in 1788, a farmer who was also recorded as still being there eleven years later.
In 1811 the property was in the possession of Thomas Herrick, a Barrister at Law. The rate book of 1811 describes "The old farmhouse and the new buildings".
1832 Rev Thomas Walker, Prebend of Featherstone. He was the son of the Perpetual Curate of St Peter's, then a Collegiate Church. His wife was the daughter of Richard Fryer, who was a wealthy banker and one of the first Members of Parliament for Wolverhampton when it was enfranchised in 1832. Rev. Walker stayed until 1840 when he moved to Worcester to become Rector of Abbots Moreton.
In 1840 the Petits sold Merridale House to James Bradshaw of Gnosall, a local businessman. He is shown on the census as a farmer of 85 acres. His fields extended beyond the present park on to the other sides of the three boundary roads. At the end of the list of his family and retainers the 1841 census describes him as:- "A partner in the Albion Mill in Horseley Field". In the local Directory he is listed as a "Miller - Grocer - Baker - Provender factor - Cheese merchant and a Tallow Chandler".
Bradshaw as a Town Commissioner, was one of the 'requisitioners' who obtained a Act of Parliament to incorporate Wolverhampton as a municipal borough. He then became a councillor for St James' Ward and later for St Peter's Ward. He was one of the founding fathers of the miodenr town. By 1861 he had retired from his civic duties and was spending his time as "a farmer of 85 acres living at Merridale House". Also living at the house at this time was his wife Sarah, two daughters, a widowed son and four grandchildren and four servants. Bradshaw died in 1869.
When Thomas died in 1896 his son Albert Baldwin Bantock inherited. He, like his father, was a business man and perhaps an even more important civic figure.
He commissioned George Pugh, responsible for work at another local house, Wightwick Manor, to make the panelling and install the elaborately moulded ceilings. These were a very fashionable style of the period and now feature so prominently on the ground floor and in the former billiards room. According George Pugh's accounts ledger "the cost of selecting, making and fixing the Oak panels in the drawing room was £147.12s.0d" in about 1910. Baldwin also had the staircase wall taken down and the stairs widened while removing the wall of his father's office to create a rear hall. The billiards room was reconstructed and a lobby at the rear of the house was also added.
Alderman A. B. Bantock died in 1938 leaving no children and he bequeathed Merridale House and its 43 acres to his wife, with the understanding that on his death it should be given to Wolverhampton Borough Council. Although Mrs. Bantock was to survive her husband by some sixteen years, she donated the house and land to Wolverhampton very soon after his death. She then donated their collection of English porcelain and Chinese ivories. The house and park were discussed by the council and were then accepted at a meeting held on 13th June 1938 where it was decided that the land would be a public park or open space.
In order to provide a residence for a caretaker part of the ground and first floors have been adapted and are therefore unavailable for public viewing.
In 1978 Bantock House was designated as European Small Museum of the Year, but after that time little was done to improve the amenities. However in 1995 Wolverhampton Borough Council submitted an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other grant bodies, for money to update the museum and to provide much needed recreational facilities. The building is a Grade II listed property with fine interiors, featuring elaborate plaster ceilings, wood panelling and Delft fire places in the Arts and Crafts style. The whole concept of the project was to encourage people who may not normally visit museums to relax in a comfortable domestic setting, accessing information and inspecting exhibits at their own pace. To that end the old fashioned 'exhibit case' style of presentation has been replaced by a more informal and imaginative setting.
The house was closed for more than a year while this major refurbishment, costing £1.4 million, was carried out.
After much work, inside and outside, Wolverhampton's historic Bantock House reopened on May 1st 1999, with a three day programme of entertainments. The Mayor of Wolverhampton, Councillor Gwen Stafford Good, began the proceedings by inviting Councillor Sarah Edmonson, Chairman of the Leisure Services, to cut the tape and formally reopen the House. Further improvement work has continued since then.
There are now plans for a new sports wing to be included on the south side for the many folk who regularly use the extensive 43 acre playing fields.
Bantock House as we see it today is the result of an original 18th century farmhouse being extended and altered to accommodate the increasing number and status of its occupants. Both the interior and exterior stand as examples of a prosperous and comfortable Edwardian home. The setting of the house has changed greatly. Considerable estate building had already taken place between 1919 and 1939 in west Wolverhampton. Since the 1950s a large amount of once open land in the area, formerly used as allotments, playing fields and grazing paddocks, have now become built up by infill development. We are fortunate indeed to have retained an open space such as this gift of Bantock Park, which is a valuable and much needed amenity for those who live in this area.