Wolverhampton changed dramatically as a result of the building of the local canals. In August 1771 the canal from Birmingham, built by the Birmingham Canal Company reached Wolverhampton. On 21st September, 1772 the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal opened, and four months later the difficult 1½ mile section from Wolverhampton to Aldersley Junction was completed.

The new form of transport overcame most of the problems caused by the inadequate national road system of the day, and vast amounts of goods of all kinds were transported to the town. But Wolverhampton still had its medieval street plan with narrow winding streets that formed a bottleneck for the many carts and carriages transporting items into the town, from the canal.

For many years the town had been in the charge of the Constables, public executives appointed by the Manors of the Deanery and of Stowheath, who had a limited range of duties. Many local inhabitants were no longer content with their rule, they wanted changes to be made in the town centre, including the demolition of old crumbling buildings, a better water supply, and improvements to the roads.

The 1777 Improvement Act

This led to the first Act of Parliament relating to the town, the 1777 Improvement Act for Wolverhampton which appointed 125 Commissioners to run the town. It started in a small way on Friday 30th May, 1777 when twelve men met at the Red Lion Inn in North Street to take the first tentative steps towards local government.

The introduction to the Act includes the following: “It is a large, populous trading town and it would be a great convenience to the inhabitants if the streets were widened where necessary, and properly cleaned and lighted, and because a navigable canal has lately been made up in the said town, the number of carts and carriages used in carrying and conveying goods and merchandise is greatly increased and it is essential that they be put under proper regulations.”

The Act named 125 Commissioners, all local residents, who were joined by Stewards of the Manors of the Deanery and of Stowheath, and Prebends of the Collegiate Church. To qualify for office, individuals had to own property worth more than £12 per year and land or goods worth more than £1,000. It was thought that those with the most expensive property were the fittest to rule. The Commissioners represented no one except themselves, they looked after their own interests.

In June, 1777, they appointed James Horton as clerk, and agreed to pay him one guinea for each of their meetings, in return for writing-up the minutes and ensuring that their orders were properly carried out. Littleton Powis was appointed as rate collector, John Marshall as treasurer, and Joseph Barney, Joshua Devey, and John Smith as assessors.

The meetings were held at various pubs, including the Hop Pole, the Bird in Hand, and the Swan, all in the Market Square; the Cock Inn in Berry Street; the Talbot in King Street; the Angel in Dudley Street; and the Red Lion in North Street. It was decided that each Commissioner shall pay not less than sixpence at each meeting, to be spent in drink for the good of the house!

High Green from Isaac Taylor's map produced in 1750. The market hall is coloured green, and 'roundabout house' is orange.
Demolitions and Street Improvements

The Commissioners were empowered to remove nuisances and encroachments. One of their first tasks was to demolish the old Market Hall in High Green which had fallen into a bad state of repair. It had been built in 1532 and measured 68ft. by 29ft. 4 inches, and was later known as “The Old Town Hall”. The upper floor had been used for the Assizes, and on the ground floor were butchers' shops and a slaughter house. In the area alongside the building, known as the shambles, skins of slaughtered animals were left on the ground in a filthy and disgraceful condition. The building was demolished in 1778, and the butchers’ shops and the shambles were moved, after some opposition from the traders, to Pigstye Walk, alongside St. Peter’s churchyard. After the work had been carried out, the market place was much cleaner and healthier.

People were forbidden to ‘wash any brass dirt or ashes, or any kind of metal’ in the streets, for which there was a fine of ten shillings, and stall owners in the market place and the surrounding streets were to ordered to remove their stalls before twelve o'clock at night on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and before ten o’clock on other nights. Scavengers were ordered to go round once a week and inform the inhabitants of their approach, using a loud bell or shouting. Their job was to collect ashes and rubbish from places that were inaccessible to carts, such as yards at the back of houses. A fine of five pounds was introduced for anyone involved in bull or bear baiting, and a fine of twenty shillings was to be paid by anyone who slaughtered any animal in the streets. Properties with an annual value of four pounds, and not exceeding seven pounds were rated at 4 pence in the pound, and properties with an annual value of seven pounds, and not exceeding fourteen pounds and six pence were rated at one shilling in the pound.

The Commissioners then turned their attention to the dark, crooked, narrow, and dangerous streets. Oil lamps were hung on street corners, and every ale house was ordered to fix a lamp over the door. Although the illumination from such lamps was at best dismal, it was the only option. Gas supplies did not exist at the time.

Some of the people who lived in the more narrow streets, received an order to demolish the porch on the front of their house because it was seen as an obstruction. The Commissioners ensured that all the streets were named, using white letters six inches high on a black background. At the same time all the houses and buildings were numbered. They also decided that something had to be done to improve the town’s water supply. The waterworks were totally inadequate, and so the lack of supply was partly remedied by the sinking of wells around the town centre, at places including Town Well Fold; High Green, Salop Street, Snow Hill, North Street, Bilston Street, Walsall Street, Stafford Street, and the Culwell near Cannock Road.

The western side of the town before the building of Darlington Street. From Isaac Taylor's map.

More Improvements

The problem of the inadequate water supply was discussed during a Commissioners’ meeting at the Cock Inn in August 1779. At the meeting the treasurer was instructed to pay Mr. Bowick £1.4s.8d. for taking the levels of springs at Goldthorn Hill; and Mr. Junett was paid £29 for supplying a water cistern, 18 feet wide and 35 feet long, which stood in the market place, and also for repairing some of the other waterworks in the town. Unfortunately the water supply was still inadequate, and so some residents sunk wells in their back garden to get a better supply than could be obtained from the public wells. Also in 1779 Samuel Salt was appointed as parish beadle.

The Commissioners also considered the possibility of providing suitable stalls on market days, in the market place. It was agreed that Mr. Higgs could erect stalls at his own expense and charge one penny for each separate basket brought into the market. Later they agreed that he could rent the ground previously occupied by the market hall, and the now demolished water cistern, for seven pounds ten shillings annually for ten years.

In 1793 the Commissioners decided to divide the town into ten districts, and employ extra scavengers to clean the streets. They also entered into a contract for lighting the town’s streets, and improved policing by appointing a watchman for each district to control crime, particularly because there were frequent robberies with violence, especially at night. Each watchman had a watch box to shelter in, and was dressed in a heavy fawn coloured coat, with a cape, and provided with a dim horn lantern, a large wooden rattle, and a long stave. Every half hour they would leave their watch boxes for a few minutes to call the time, and the state of the weather.

The Town Improvement Act of 1814 banned the use of thatched roofing, although the last thatched building in the town, a cottage in Broad Street, remained until the 1870s. In order to improve the state of the streets, the Commissioners ordered that every person should clean the area in front of his or her house before 10 o'clock on every Thursday and Saturday morning, and that some of the poor men from the workhouse should sweep and clean the streets.

Darlington Street

Another old building, seen as a roadside obstruction was the ancient ‘roundabout house’ that stood at the western end of High Green between North Street and Cock Street (now Victoria Street). It was in a dilapidated and dangerous state, and in May 1815 was sold to the Commissioners by Sam Adey, the owner, for £800. The building was soon demolished. The materials from the building were sold by auction to the highest bidder. When the building had gone, the Commissioners decided to build a new street from the western end of High Green to the bottom of Salop Street. They approached the land owner Lord Darlington and agreed to purchase the land for £350 per acre. The new street became Darlington Street.

The newly built Darlington Street. From the 1842 Tithe map.

The big candlestick in High Green.

As already mentioned, the streets were originally lit with totally inadequate oil lamps. This situation was rectified in 1821 when for the first time the streets were lit by gas.

The town’s gas supply was provided by the Wolverhampton Gas Company, and produced at the gas works that were built in Horseley Fields, and began production on 17th September, 1821.

The gas lights were a great success, and a large cast iron column about fifty feet high, carrying a huge gas lamp, was erected in High Green to commemorate the event. Because the column was so high, the light did not reach the ground, and it became known as ‘the big candlestick.’

By 1826 the pillar of the lantern and the railing round its base became dirty, and the surrounding area was a rendezvous for the local layabouts and degenerates.

It became a public nuisance and was eventually removed in 1840. In 1824 the gas company renewed the contract for lighting the streets at a cost of £1.16s. per lamp per year.

A gas lamp in High Green.


A typical gas light.


The Commissioners supported a Bill for the formation of the Wolverhampton Waterworks Company to supply the town with water. The waterworks company was formed in 1845 and a new waterworks was built in Regis Road, Tettenhall. Up to 800,000 gallons a day were pumped from boreholes and stored in reservoirs. The Commissioners also gave their support to a Bill to provide a new cemetery, which led to the building and the opening of Merridale Cemetery in 1850.

Dissatisfaction and Change

By the 1840s there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Commissioners. The question of a network of sewers for the town attracted much attention, but the Commissioners’ borrowing was limited to £20,000 so nothing was done. People were also dissatisfied because the Commissioners were not elected by the ratepayers and could choose anyone they wanted, to fill their vacancies. They also appeared to work extremely slowly. Other dissatisfactions included the incompetent watchmen, beadles, and parish constables, who were all open to bribery. 

Dissatisfaction grew, and on 1st February, 1847 a petition was signed by 108 of the principal householders, and presented to Mr. John Hartley, the Head Constable, asking him to call a public meeting to consider the possibility of petitioning Parliament and the Queen to ask for the granting a Charter of Incorporation for the town. As a result of the successful application, the Commissioners were replaced by a Borough Council in 1848. The first council elections were held on 12th May, 1848.

One of the Commissioners’ last acts was the purchase of a large piece of land beside Cleveland Road from the agent of the Duke of Cleveland, for the construction of a cattle market for the sale of horses, cows, sheep, and pigs.


The Book of Wolverhampton by Frank Mason. Pub. Barracuda Books Limited, 1979.
Wolverhampton The Town Commissioners by Frank Mason. Pub. Wolverhampton Public Libraries, 1976.
The Story of the Municipal Life of Wolverhampton by W. H. Jones. 1903.

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