up to about 1790

This page is decorated with drawings from Pyne's Microcosm of 1808.  They are not specifically of Bilston but show the kind of work that would have been going on there in the 18th century.

Agriculture was certainly, for centuries, Bilston’s main industry.  Originally it would not have been much more than subsistence farming but, as surpluses were produced and an expanding economy made specialisation possible, sales and exchanges in a market would have developed.  Bilston, as we have seen, had a market from an early date and it was centred on the market cross.  The medieval market probably served only local needs but would have gradually expanded, though probably limited, or at least slowed down, by the proximity of the large, regional market, at Wolverhampton.  Bilston market may have had some dealings in wool, as wool was the mainstay of the English medieval economy.  The streets and alleys called “Folds” possible reflect this industry but it is most likely that the major trade in Bilston wool was through the very large wool market in Wolverhampton.  On the other hand nearly all wool eventually went through London and London merchants and, Bilston being on the main road to London and on the London side of Wolverhampton, it is possible that Bilston people traded directly with passing merchants.  In fact, in England generally, far more wool was sold directly to merchants than was sold through markets and Bilston was well placed for this sort of trading. 

Brickmaking - and note the women doing all the work here - was carried out as near to the building site as possible.  From time to time kilns would have sprung up in various parts of Bilston.

A more specialised agricultural product was flax, which was not only grown in the locality but processed too.  The parish registers contain many references to flax workers especially flax dressers.  Presumably the large amount of water needed for retting the flax came from the brook. 

The market would also have been a principal outlet for local artisans, of the sort which existed in every place of any size – makers of footwear and clothing, corn and seed merchants, carpenters and joiners, and the like.

When other industries started in Bilston is not clear but we know that by the 1700s several industries had appeared and these are detailed below.  But before embarking on that it might be as well to observe that to say that Bilston’s industries developed because there was coal, iron ore and limestone underlying it, is not a sufficient explanation.  (It might also be pointed out that there was no very great water supply in Bilston and that good means of transport to areas of consumption were conspicuously lacking).  In addition to the raw materials you need knowledge and entrepreneurial skills and it must have been those characteristics which enabled Bilston to develop industrially.  They would have been hampered by the lack of a river for water and distribution, but perhaps helped by the fact that there was no large landowner to hamper development by withholding land and no guilds to stifle the widening of skills.

Basket making.  Baskets were used for all sort of thing and would, for instance, have been far commoner than buckets.  Bilston would have been big enough by now to support all sorts of craft workers.

Dr. Rowlands says that by the end of the 1600s it was the local gentry who were exploiting the mineral wealth of the area: “Mr. Hoo of Bradley had a quarry of building stone, and William Robbins of the Mansion house had a coal-work at the Croft, where in 1692 he employed Benjamin Wood of London to build him an engine to draw water there, which required four men to keep it going.  Samuel Pipe, esquire, had an agreement with William Clarke, coalmaster, of Wednesbury to get coal and iron”. 

But things were changing:  by 1760 “the Hoo family had much increased their interests becoming lords of the manors of Bradley, Barr and Wednesbury, but ceased to reside in Bilston after 1720.  The Perrys too, in their many branches, scattered.  The Pipe family died out.  William Robbins lived fifteen miles away and ‘only came over to collect his rents or more often sent for them’.  Later he moved to London.  New men with new fortunes made from new trades came to the fore.  In the short period between 1716 and 1730 when trades are given in the register there are 240 references to buckle-makers, 61 to toy-makers and 44 to chape-makers.  These trades readily adapted to the introduction of japanning and enamelling about 1720”.

Men paving (or paying) a road.  Highways were supposed to be maintained by the parish council and every man in the village was supposed to contribute day labour to the work.  The system worked badly.

It might also be noted that all of these industries, with a few exceptions such as iron production, can be described as cottage industries, in that they were usually run, on a small scale, by large numbers of people operating on their own in their own houses and backyards.  They would mostly have sold their products not directly to the consumer but to “factors”, who bought from many makers and sold the bulk of good thus accumulated to merchants, wholesalers and retailers.  If, for instance, we think that Bilston mass produced enamelled boxes we have to remember that this was not mass production as we know it today, with everything being produced by a large company in a large factory; but it was mostly a very large number of individuals and family, each producing small quantities.  But there are indications of bigger operations, employing people outside the family, in both enamelling and japanning. 

1.   Coal mining

It is well known that coal, of high quality and in many thick seams, underlies most of Bilston.  The earliest reference to the mining of coal which Lawley gives is one of 1315.

At that time coal was not much used for any purpose – wood was too plentiful and the making of charcoal was widely practised.

 But in time, with the near exhaustion of wood and charcoal, coal became more and more in demand for domestic and industrial purposes and the good people of Bilston did all they could to meet this demand – short of working the mines efficiently.  The whole area around, and even within, the village, was covered by small bell pits.  This industry continued, to some extent at least, until the early 20th century but most of the pits had been worked out before then.  Nearly all the mining was carried out by one man/family operations.

2.  Stone and Sand Quarrying

The first material to be quarried in Bilston was stone for grindstones, the local stone being of a very fine grain and producing high quality grindstones.  This work continued into the 20th century.  Plott says:  “The grinding stones dug at Bilston are so fine, and of so small a grit, that they are only useful for thin edged tools, such as knives, razors, &c. and are better than the grinding stones brought out of Derbyshire”.  

A second material to be quarried was casting sand.  Plott’s Natural History of Staffordshire mentions it:  “I met with a sort of sand at Bilston, so very fine that it is hardly palpable.  It is of a deep orange colour and it is sent for by artists living at a great distance and used by them to cast metal with”. 

And the third, and commercially most important quarry activity, was for limestone, which was used in part for agricultural purposes, though mainly, and more and more, as a vital flux in the making of iron and steel.

3.  Buckle and chape making

Technically a buckle consists of two parts: the “chape”  is the operative part, which acts as a bearing for the “ring” which is the decorative part; the ring is attached to the front of the chape to make a complete buckle.  There is no date for the start of this trade in Bilston.  It may have been there from early agricultural days and was certainly there by the middle of the 18th century.  Although buckle makers continue to appear in the records it is chape making which predominates and in the 18th and 19th centuries Bilston was making many, probably most, of the chapes which were turned into buckles in the Wolverhampton buckle making industry.  Why this industry should have developed and flourished in Bilston is not clear but it may be derived from supplying the buckles and other metal items which were need for the harnesses of farm draught animals. 

Chapes and buckles were made in small family concerns who would have sold complete buckles to factors; and chapes to Wolverhampton (and probably Walsall) buckle makers.  The Rev. Ames noted, in 1729, that his two nephews, who were buckle makers, “began to work in the shop of my house att Priestfields”.  They seem to have worked on their own account and in a workshop attached to the house – a typical arrangement.  The registers kept by Ames include many other references to bucklemakers.

4.  Lock making

It might be worth noting here that there was some lock making in Bilston but very little of it.  (The locks in question are security locks, not canal locks).  The trade seems to have been monopolised by Wolverhampton and Willenhall.  But some locksmiths seem to have done well.  When John Hawkesford died in 1712 he was able to include in his bequests the sum of £5 for charitable distribution to poor widows.  When his wife died about 6 months later she left £7.10s. for the same purpose.  The first burial in the new burial ground, in 1727, was of a locksmith, John Lees and this took place “in the presence of a large company”. 

There also seems to have been a trade in gun locks as R. R. Angerstein gives a list of prices:  “Bilston: gunlocks, common ‘Traidel’ 15d each.  Lock in ‘rest’, 6 1/2d to 7d.  Wages for filing of above-mentioned locks, 6d. to 7d.”.  

5.  Enamelling

Enamelling was, and is, one of Bilston’s most famous industries.  Lawley says that it was present in Bilston “well before 1750” and suggests that Dovey Hawkesford first used enamels as a way of decorating, and adding value to, the boxes and other small items he was making.  How Hawkesford came to be making copper boxes and other items in Bilston, Lawley does not say.  The industry soon developed and seems to have been given a boost when workers from the Battersea factory moved to Bilston when that factory closed.  It should be noted that the Bilston industry was not established by these workers from Battersea, nor is it true that the Battersea work was of higher quality than that of Bilston.

Trade remained good until fashions changed – and some have argued that Bilston was producing so much that enamelled wares became commonplace and therefore unfashionable.  The trade seems gradually to have disappeared during the 19th century, though perhaps not completely.  Enamelling on larger sizes of domestic wares took place on a large scale in Bilston in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially after T & C Clark, the local iron founders, discovered a way of enamelling on iron and steel.  But small scale decorative enamelling may still have been around:  when Susan Benjamin revived the trade in the late 20th century she was able to find people in Bilston who still knew how to do it.  The crafts had many local revivals in the second half of the twentieth century.

6.   Glass

There was a glass factory, probably producing mainly cheap bottles and window glass, at Bradley from 1674 to 1790 but it never developed into a large industry, Stourbridge gaining a virtual monopoly.  Glasshouse Bridge remembers the site of these works. 

7.   Japanning

The first reference to japanning appears in 1710.  At first it may have been wooden items that were decorated in this way but papier mache soon replaced it and, when thin steel sheet became readily available and cheap, that replaced papier mache in Bilston almost entirely (though it did not in Wolverhampton).  Bilston seems to have specialised in making blank trays for supply to Wolverhampton japanners; and finished products of a cheaper and gaudier type than Wolverhampton’s which are said to have been exported in large quantities to South America.  Japanning and tin plate work continued well into the 20th century.

8.  Iron and Steel

John Wilkinson set up in Bradley in 1767.  It was an area well supplied with ironstone, limestone and coal, if not with water. 

There may well have been small scale iron production in the area long before Wilkinson arrived but it is from his time that we can date this industry which was to become the chief industry of Bilston and the pride of the town.

 Large steel works, supplying, it seems, the whole world, started to spring up all over the area.  As we will see these eventually lessened in number until only Hickman’s was left;  it survived well into the 20th century.

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After the Conquest

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18th Century Bilston