Horseley Fields Junction and the local iron works

The Horseley Junction signpost.

On this section of our industrial journey we will take a short and essential diversion along the Wyrley and Essington Canal from Horseley Fields Junction.

This was the northern part of Wolverhampton’s iron-making district that grew-up along the canal and flourished until the late 1870s, then rapidly declined because of a deep recession in the industry.

The iron works were situated in a relatively small area around the BCN and the Wyrley and Essington canal, in the north-eastern corner of the town.

Almost everything that entered and left the works was transported on the canal, and so the industry totally depended on it.

A map based on the 1842 Tithe Map which shows some of the early industries that grew-up along the canal. At this time, poor roads and horse drawn vehicles couldn't have coped with the large number of extremely heavy loads that entered and left the factories. The only nearby railway, the recently opened Grand Junction Railway, ran through Heath Town and so the canal was essential to the growth of local heavy industry. It was also essential for the city's first gas supply. The gas works, on the extreme left, had to be close to the canal in order to receive large quantities of coal from mines throughout the Black Country.

The same area in 1902. By this time the number of factories had greatly increased, and most of them still relied heavily on the canal for their existence.  
The Iron Works

The iron works would have been quite a sight, a tremendous spectacle. Imagine a journey from the Moseley area, along Willenhall Road to Wolverhampton on a dark evening in the 1860s. At the time Willenhall Road went through a relatively flat area of old mine workings and clay pits, and so hilly Wolverhampton would have stood out on the skyline as a pattern of flickering reds from the furnaces, and black, and grey from the smoke that billowed into the sky.

As the journey progressed, the great Chillington Iron Works would dominate the scene to the left, with tall chimneys and flickering flames from the furnaces lighting the whole area. The flames would be interspersed with dark clouds each time a furnace was charged, and an intense orange glow would be seen when a furnace was dropped at the end of the day. Clouds of black and grey smoke emerged from the chimneys, and the whole area reverberated with sounds from the factory. As an acrid smell filled the air, the traveller’s attention would be drawn to another spectacle of smoke and fire on the right, as the Swan Garden Iron Works drew near.  

The road soon passed close to the neighbouring factory, Isaac Jenks’ Beaver Iron Works with two tall furnaces on the left, and five tall chimneys. In the background were more moving patterns of red and black from the Osier Bed Iron Works. The whole area would have been full of light, and noise, with dark black smoke clouds above.

A typical 19th century ironworks, full of noise, activity, and smoke.

Ahead was the railway bridge over Lower Horseley Fields. Even more tall chimneys could be seen to the left above the railway embankment. As the traveller passed through the railway bridge another impressive display of flickering red, orange, and black dominated the scene. This was the Shrubbery Iron Works, where a circle of puddling furnaces and tall chimneys greeted the visitor. Dark figures could be seen darting around the furnaces, sometimes disappearing into the black of the night.

As the traveller crossed the steep Horseley Fields canal bridge a final spectacle would come into sight on the left. This was Isaac Jenks’ famed Minerva Iron and Steel Works with 21 puddling furnaces and 4 tall chimneys. The road would shake and vibrate as the forges operated, and deep thuds would be heard for some distance around.

Another iron works. This one is has a lot of railway sidings.

Imagine the daily scene on the canal. Large amounts of coal, limestone, and iron ore would arrive at the works, where gangs of men unloaded the boats and stacked the raw materials into neat piles. Others would be loading the iron pigs, iron products, and iron and steel plate into waiting boats to be taken away. The canal would be like a modern busy road, except that everything happened at a much slower pace.

Depression in the Iron Trade

In the late 1870s there was a deep depression in the iron trade. At the time John Jones was mayor of Wolverhampton. The terrible effect on the local population is described as follows, in William Highfield Jones’ book “Story of the Municipal Life of Wolverhampton”. The events possibly took place in the winter of 1879:

While Mr. Jones was Mayor, a season of bad trade set in, which caused distress among the labouring classes. The depression was specially felt in the iron making industry of the district, and brought on a crisis. Firms hitherto of good repute failed to meet their engagements, among these the Chillington Iron Works, the Parkfield Colliery Company, and several others.

The largest and most important firm in the town was G. B. Thorneycroft & Company. The partners in this firm, finding they could not continue making iron except at a great loss, determined to close their works. This was a great blow to the iron workers. Besides this, many of the blast furnaces around were blown out, and the ironworks in the district were silent. Hundreds of decent men wandered about unable to find work.

In addition to these troubles, on January 12th a heavy fall of snow came down, followed by a severe frost, which continued until the end of March. The frost put an entire stop to building operations and all kinds of outdoor employment. The effect was soon felt, and in a short time thousands of families were on the point of starvation. Every day crowds of hungry labouring men could be seen blocking up the thoroughfares opposite the Town Hall, North Street, and the Union Workhouse on the Bilston Road, all clamouring for work or bread.

The Mayor showed great energy in dealing with the emergency. He opened a relief fund, and appealed to the public for subscriptions. His appeal was generously responded to, and he instantly organised centres for the distribution of bread, oatmeal, coals, etc. In addition soup kitchens were opened in different parts of the borough to help the women and children. The members of the town council organised themselves into ward committees and distributed tickets for relief in a systematic manner. The Guardians of the Poor did their utmost to mitigate the suffering.

All signs of this once great industry have now disappeared. The original factories have long-gone and been replaced with others. As Horseley Fields is one of Wolverhampton’s main eastern arteries, large numbers of people travel along it every day. Very few of them know of the important industry that once flourished there.

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