Portobello was a small village at the western extremity of Willenhall, extending along both sides of the road from Wolverhampton to Walsall, bounded on the east and north by the River Tame. It was originally the centre of the local brick-making industry due to the plentiful supply of clay in the area. This was commemorated in the name of one of Portobello’s principal streets; Brickkiln Street, which was built on an old field called Brickkiln Piece.

The area was named after Admiral Edward Vernon’s capture of Portobello in the West Indies. This was achieved with only six ships on 22nd November 1739. It caught the public's imagination to such an extent that the Portobello and Vernon names were widely used throughout the country, in fact in modern Portobello there is a Vernon Close.

Portobello rapidly developed in the early 19th century with the coming of the industrial revolution. Coal was in great demand and large quantities of it could be found all around the area. Many mines opened in close proximity to Portobello, which became a mining community housing many of the local miners. The larger pits were the Osier Beds Colliery, named after the type of willow (used in basket making) that originally covered the area, Bunkers Hill Colliery, named after a battle in the American War of Independence, and Moseley Hole Colliery, named after the Moseley area which commemorates the De Mollesey (Moseley) family.

Portobello grew as an area of back-to-back houses with courtyards, shared privies, communal wells and water pumps. The houses became grossly overcrowded as more people moved into the area seeking employment. In August 1849 Willenhall was hit by cholera, and the disease soon reached Portobello, where there were many fatalities due to the bad housing conditions and poor water supply. The epidemic lasted until October by which time it had claimed at least 292 lives. Suitable land on which to bury the victims was in short supply and most of them were buried at Doctor’s Piece, which is still known today as the cholera burial ground.

The Grand Junction Railway, the world’s first long-distance line, covering the 97 miles from Liverpool to Birmingham, opened in July 1837. Stations were built at both Willenhall and Portobello, near the Noose Lane level crossing. Portobello Station was never profitable, remaining open until January 1873, when passenger services between Bushbury and Willenhall were withdrawn.

The railway is best remembered for the terrible accident that took place near to Noose Lane level crossing on 19th October, 1899. The original railway line went through Portobello to Wednesfield Heath Station and the north. After the Stour Valley line into Wolverhampton had opened in December 1851, a loop was built from Wolverhampton high level station to the Grand Junction line, joining it just west of Portobello. On the day of the accident there was a dense fog and the signals were set against a goods train as it approached from Wednesfield Heath.

The driver could not see the signals and he overshot the points at the junction with the Wolverhampton line. At the same time a passenger train travelling from Wolverhampton crossed the points and ploughed into the goods train. The locomotive was derailed and ended on its side instantly killing the fireman and fatally injuring the driver, who died later in hospital. Luckily the coaches stayed upright, otherwise the death toll would have been much higher.

The scene of the railway accident at Portobello.

The local population was well served by public houses and churches and there was even a school. In the High Street alone there were six pubs, the Bridge Tavern, the Gough Arms, the Bird In Hand, The Cock, The Malt Shovel and the New Inn. There was a Methodist Chapel and a mission church dedicated to St. Alban.

Portobello became part of the Borough of Wolverhampton in 1966 as a result of the Local Government Reform Act. At the same time the remainder of Willenhall became part of Walsall.

The area  changed dramatically in the early 1970s when most of old Portobello disappeared under the developer’s hammer as part of the scheme to upgrade the Willenhall Road. The dual carriageway was built along with the traffic island at the end of Willenhall Road and Portobello changed overnight. The old narrow streets have now gone and the area of modern housing called Portobello lies mainly to the south and west of the original village. One survivor is the old school, which is now the community centre and another is the war memorial. All of the old mines have disappeared under the relentless spread of urbanisation and today it’s difficult to imagine how the original village must have looked.

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