The Opening of the Railway

Although not realised at the time, the opening of the Grand Junction Railway, and James Bridge station was to have a dramatic effect on the fortunes of industry in Darlaston. Initially the railway only catered for passengers, until six months after opening, when goods traffic was introduced. This had a great impact on Darlaston’s fortunes which had been in decline for many years.

The town relied heavily on the gun trade, but after the Napoleonic wars demand fell, and Darlaston went into a severe depression, which lasted around twenty years. The introduction of goods traffic changed everything. Industry flourished, raw materials and machinery could easily be transported to the factories, and finished products were distributed far and wide.

Keay's were one of the many Darlaston manufacturers that greatly benefited as suppliers to the railway companies.
The world’s first long-distance railway, the Grand Junction Railway, opened on the 4th July 1837. The 82 miles of track ran from Birmingham to Newton Junction on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The line ran through the Black Country with stations at Perry Barr, Newton Road, Bescot Bridge, James Bridge, Willenhall, and Wednesfield Heath (for Wolverhampton), then on to Stafford, Crewe and the north.

Due to the hilly nature of the town, much of the line through Darlaston had to laid in a cutting, roughly between Bentley Road South and James Bridge Cemetery. Road bridges crossing the line were built in the Crescent, Bentley Road South, Kendricks Road, and Walsall Road.

During the last phase of construction there would have been a lot of activity on the section which is now alongside James Bridge Cemetery.

The Walsall Canal is carried over the railway cutting across a small aqueduct, built of brick and stone, lying at an angle to the cutting, and known as the Bentley Aqueduct. During construction a temporary canal was built for the passage of boats.

An early Grand Junction Railway train, with some outside passengers.

When the work had been completed, and the diversion removed, it was found that the cast iron liner in the aqueduct leaked in several places. The canal had to be diverted again, and the leaks fixed. With great difficulty the liner was made watertight, but by this time work on the remainder of the line had been completed. So Bentley Aqueduct became the last feature on the line to be finished.

The opening of the line caused great excitement. Large numbers of sightseers flocked to watch the progress of the first train, which consisted of eight carriages hauled by an engine called ‘Wildfire’. James Bridge must have been awash with people, who came to watch the train, travelling faster than anything they had seen before, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles an hour.

The arrival of a holiday excursion train at James Bridge Station in 1906.

When operation began, six trains travelled along the line daily, from each direction. Four of them had only first class carriages, the other two had first and second class carriages. James Bridge, like the other four stations between Birmingham and Wednesfield Heath was a second class station, so only trains with second class carriages stopped there. Initially the only trains to call at James Bridge were the 9.03 a.m. and the 5.33 p.m. from Birmingham, and the 1.26 p.m. and the 9.26 p.m. from Manchester and Liverpool. No trains with second class carriages ran on a Sunday.

One of the earliest accidents on the railway occurred near Bentley when a horse got onto the line from a nearby field. It collided with a locomotive, which was derailed, and ended-up in a field. The accident killed the driver, and several horses that were in a horse box. As a result of the accident, the fences alongside the track were improved.

In the first two months of operation over 5,000 first class, and nearly 4,300 second class passengers travelled from various stations to Birmingham. Ticket sales amounted to just over £2,191. A lot of money at the time.

A later view of the station.

In 1846 the railway merged with the London & Birmingham Railway, and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, to form the London and North Western Railway, which had an even greater impact on local industry. This can be seen in the names chosen for two nut and bolt companies that opened shortly after the railway was built. They were the Grand Junction Works at James Bridge, and the London & North Western Works on Bentley Road.

James Bridge Station also had a station hotel in the form of the Railway Tavern. The pub originally opened in the mid 1840s as the James Bridge Hotel, but has now sadly gone.

The station became very popular, but passenger numbers declined as public transport on the roads improved. Many people will remember the summer excursions by train that began at the station, often organised by local factories. Although passenger numbers declined, the railway carried a lot of goods traffic, and was essential for many manufacturers. James Bridge Station closed in January 1965, and all traces of it have now disappeared. The railway itself is still an important link between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, and hopefully will continue in service for many years to come.

The railway station in its later years.

Darlaston's Other Railway Station

In 1863 the South Staffordshire Railway Company opened the Darlaston Branch which ran from a junction with the London & North Western Railway at James Bridge, through Darlaston town centre, to a junction close to Wednesbury Town Station, on the line from Walsall to Dudley.

It included Darlaston Town Station, situated in the cutting between the Walsall Road, and Darlaston Road.

The station became very popular with passengers, and by 1869 there were nineteen trains running daily, each way from the station. Many people commuted to and from Darlaston, and large amounts of goods were transported day and night, serving many factories along the route.

Unfortunately as far as I know, there are no surviving photographs or drawings of Darlaston Town station. It would have been built of wood, possibly with wooden platforms.

A timetable from August 1869, including the trains that called at Darlaston Town Station.

An impression of how the station might have looked, based on the railway company's standard buildings.

In 1867 the South Staffordshire Railway became part of the London and North Western Railway.

All was well until the introduction of steam trams by the South Staffordshire & Birmingham District Steam Tramways Company, in 1883. People preferred to travel by tram, and the branch claimed to have lost £6,000 in passenger traffic between 1883 and 1886. In 1887 the passenger service was withdrawn, and the local authority and local businessmen attempted to get the service reinstated via the courts.

Darlaston Local Board, the forerunner of Darlaston Urban District Council, applied to the Railway Commissioners to have the service restored. The Commissioners agreed, but by that time the railway company had demolished the station buildings and removed the platforms, obliterating all traces of them. The London & North Western Railway appealed to the High Court, which ruled that the Commissioners had no power to make such an order. In December 1893 Darlaston Local Board took the railway company to the High Court, but lost the case. The court ruled that the service could only be provided if the railway company chose to do so.

A fine painting by Ray Jones showing how the station may have looked.

The original railways that passed through Darlaston.

Although passenger traffic ceased, the line became an essential link between local companies and the railway network.

It carried a lot of goods traffic to and from many factories including the iron works at Darlaston Green, W. Martin Winn & Company, Charles Richards & Sons Limited, GKN, Old Park Works, and the Patent Shaft & Axletree Company.

The line continued to be heavily used until the 1950s when road traffic started to dominate. It closed in the mid 1960s at the time of the Beeching cuts. All that remains of the line today is the footpath from Heath Road to Darlaston Road. The only surviving features are the Bull Street, and Walsall Road bridges, the remains of Darlaston Road bridge, and the cutting that runs alongside Victoria Road, and Crescent Road, extending to Darlaston Road. Many people fondly remember Mason’s paper shop in Pinfold Street, but few will remember the time when it was a London & North Western Railway parcels receiving office.

Ironically, the coke for the steam trams, which caused the decline in the number of railway passengers, was delivered by the railway to a special siding that ran up the side of the cutting above Darlaston Town Station to the adjacent tram depot and headquarters. On the site were extensive tram sheds, workshops, offices, and the general manager's house. Electric trams were introduced in 1893, and the company was taken over by the British Electric Traction Company. The Darlaston Depot closed in 1930. A short section of preserved track could be seen until recent times in the road leading to Charles Clark's parts and service department.

Contemporary accounts of life in Darlaston in the first half of the 19th century are very few and far between. Two railway guide books were written in 1838, both of which include descriptions of Darlaston. These accounts were written by comparatively wealthy travellers, to whom visiting Darlaston must have been like visiting another world. Even allowing for this they are still of great interest.
South Staffordshire Railway locomotive number 181 Justin. Built by E. B. Wilson.
The first of these is Drake's Road Book of the Grand Junction Railway which includes the following:

The high road from Walsall crosses here to Darlaston, (seen in the distance on the W.,) another town in the iron and coal district. The chief manufacturers of this, as of the neighbouring towns, consist of various iron and steel goods. The whole district is abundantly traversed by canals, tram-roads, &c., for the convenient conveyance of merchandise, and presents to the passing traveller less subject for praise in point of beauty, than for admiration and surprise, at the closely-placed engines, mills, coal-pits, iron mines, and factories, which greet him on all sides, with hissing, curling volumes of white steam, or thick massy clouds of rolling smoke. Should the traveller journey through this strange neighbourhood by night, the novel and wild, not to say, grand, effect of the fires, must strike him forcibly. Huge furnaces glowing on the earth, from a dark wayside forge; tall chimneys, themselves not seen in the gloom, vomiting forth flames and fiery-coloured smoke, or a long range of glowing hillocks, where flickering blazes play from charcoal burning within; add to these, the dusky figures of the men and boys employed in the works, and a stranger will have a scene before him, in which the "fearsome" is oddly enough blended with the grotesque.

South Staffordshire Railway locomotive number 301 Viper. Built by E. B. Wilson.
The second account is from Osborne's Guide to the Grand Junction Railway, which includes a longer description:

To the west, about a mile from the line, is the town of Darlaston, a part of the mining district. The town is situated on a hill, and from a distance looks very well; but as we approach it, there is more appearance of actual wretchedness and degradation than in any other part of the mining district. The buildings are almost all small houses for the workmen, and their workshops; and the place is as uncouth and rough in appearance, as if there were no town within a hundred miles. Many of the streets are as unattended to as the lanes and byways of a farmhouse, the mud and dirt actually obstructing the passage. The people and the houses of Wednesbury are dirty, and unattended to; but in Darlaston they seem to have little or nothing to attend. There is a plain-built large church, in modern chapel-of-ease style, which was erected by subscription. The living is worth £200 or £300 a year, and is in the gift of the executors of the celebrated late Rev. C. Simeon, of Cambridge.

There is a Wesleyan Methodist Church, an Independent Chapel, and a magnificent Primitive Methodist chapel. This last building is one of the largest and best constructed edifices of the kind in the country. There are Sunday Schools connected with each place of worship, but there are no public and but very few private day schools, and therefore there is scarcely any means of instruction for the great mass of the population.

The manufacture of the place is gun locks, a branch of business which, during the war, was so profitable that a good workman could get a pound note per day. Granting a considerable allowance for the depreciation of paper money, yet the profitable employment in making gun locks was such, that by working only two days a week, the men could obtain as much as would supply their wants, and find them the means of enjoying the only luxury they seemed to know - that of drinking four days a week - which they used to indulge, out of loyalty to their own country, and hatred to France.

South Staffordshire Railway locomotive number 297 Dudley.
Built by W. Fairbairn & Sons.

During the war, these Darlaston gun lock makers used to live in the most luxurious and extravagant manner. Such was their demand for poultry, fish, and meat, that Darlaston became the most profitable market for these things in the neighbourhood. Most of the men might have made fortunes in the days of prosperity, but they not only spent what they obtained extravagantly, but refused to work more than one or two days a week. During this belligerent carnival the people sunk even lower than before in vice and immorality, and not one particle of what can be denominated personal or household comfort, was obtained. Bull-baiting, dog and cockfighting, and all sorts of low and debased practices, were the amusements they indulged in, while swearing, cursing, and disgustingly foul language, seemed to grow with their prosperity. At length the war ceased. Suddenly the trade of the place fell away. The workmen, instead of being able to get a pound per day, could only obtain three or four shillings, or less, and very frequently he had no work at all. The greatest misery prevailed; those who had previously breakfasted even on turkey, chicken, or rabbit, were now glad to get a bit of bread and bacon, or cheese. Many who used to drink a bottle of wine at dinner, now could not get half a pint of beer. The poor ignorant and mistaken creatures were accustomed to curse the peace, and abuse their employers, and work hard and close in sullenness and misery.

Millions of gun locks have been made here for the purpose of destroying our fellow creatures. During the French war, gun locks were worth from 8shillings to 15shillings each, and a good workman could get up two in a day. Now they are 3shillings and 6pence, or 4shillings, and so much more work in them is required, that a man cannot make more than one a day. The workmen are incredibly ingenious, being able to forge almost anything on the anvil. There is no doubt that they would forge iron images on the anvil, as well as the statuary cuts them in marble, if they had orders for them.

Great quantities of iron, coal, and free stone, are found in this neighbourhood. Steel furnaces and forges are here for the supply of steel for the locks and springs which are made. The ground has been so undermined, that pits are constantly being made in the earth in all directions, by the falling in of the mines, when the pillars are taken down; and consequently most of the houses are built low, in order that they may accommodate themselves to the sinking of the ground.

The language and terms which the workmen adopt, when the endeavour to explain anything, is such as but few persons can understand. Barbarisms, such as "Um thinks as it's gooden like for wae"-"Us does the work for they"-"Us have the wark to daew when em awhants it deunne wael, far nobbodee abaen here cono daou iten bun wae" are very common. To hear them talk of their great works, their pits, and mines, everything is alive and acting. A pit carries a shaft (the way down) a hundred yards deep. She (for it is generally feminine) uses so many men and horses. The coal runs itself out at such a place; or the rock, or gob, (a term for the clayey kind of stone) eats it out. It spends itself in a certain direction. If goes, it comes, it stops, it breaks, it overruns, it lets us know, and does everything which a being can do. The men are as proud of their pits and mines as if they were their own estates. Each one has his own part of the mine in which he works, and she is his wife. He works with her, and for her, and she seems to possess his entire soul and body.

The following colloquy may be taken as a good specimen of their social language. It was heard near to Dudley, between a woman who was standing at her house door, and a neighbour who was passing by on her road to market. "Oi say, where be'est thee a gwain?" "Oi been a gwain to Dudley." "What be'est a gwain to Dudley fir?" "Oi been a gwain to fetch a ship's yead and pluck." "Oi say, thee bring me one wut?" "E'es oi wull." "An moind au dunna forgit the brains, our divil looves brains." "Noa, oi wunna."

The women, even the young ones, seem to lose their natural symmetry very early, and their mode of dress is so generally uncouth that they appear to be neither men or women. That there are plenty of women, the number of children, which we see, proves; but both father, mother, and children, seem to be without education or attention. The children play in the streets from the time that they can run till they go to the pit or the shop, and there they work till they have children themselves to do the same thing again. There cannot be a place in the kingdom more deserving of the attention of educational men than the mining district of Staffordshire.

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