A Brief history of Victorian Wolverhampton

A Study of the urban development of Wolverhampton during the Victorian era.

Jon Wallis, University of Wolverhampton.

First written 1986 (revised 1995) (partially updated 2024).

There are links in this document to more detailed information about various notable buildings (the link is the building's name). This extra information is taken from reference [7]. There are also some pictures of the buildings discussed in this study, which were supplied by Peter Burden.



The use of the phrase "Victorian era" is intended to be a guide-line only - urban development did not start to happen merely because Queen Victoria came to the Throne - it had its roots in the industrial revolution which the Victorians inherited. Thus I intend to begin at 1827, if only for the fact that a map of Wolverhampton exists for that date which gives a baseline against which to view the development of the town over the next 75 years. Correspondingly, it must be appreciated that the forces at work during the Victorian age did not stop with Victoria' death, for they had acquired a momentum which carried on well into the twentieth century.

I intend to approach this study of Victorian Wolverhampton by looking at some of the major forces which moulded its development - I have grouped these into four broad categories - Religion, Commerce, Public Health, and Culture. There are obvious overlaps between all four, sometimes minor ones , sometimes almost total ones, but then no one force could ever exist in isolation. Where it has been difficult to decide which category to put an item in I have followed the flow of the text - anomalies will have to be lived with.


St Peter's Church

The logical starting point for a discussion on religion in Wolverhampton is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter. Although obviously not built during the Victorian era, the parish church of St. Peter is pertinent to a study of Victorian Wolverhampton because of the way it was incorporated into the structure of urban development at the time. The church occupies a commanding position at the highest point in the town centre and would have been recognised by the religious element of Victorian society as an ideal symbol of the authority of God, in terms of its physical position. It is both close to and (significantly) above the commercial and administrative centres of the town. The Town Hall itself looks up to it.

The church was thoroughly restored between 1852 and 1865 by Ewan Christian (how apposite!), who, in addition to restoring the church, built the chancel and apse as new. At the time of the restoration the Rector, J. Osmond Dakeyne, said that the task was

"illustrative of humble Christian gratitude to the Almighty ruler of all things, who has made their industry to prosper and amidst the crash and uprooting of surrounding nations, sanctified their own land to be the Goshen of a darkened and stricken world."[7(no.21)].

This is clearly a reflection on the "empire- attitude" which reached its peak in Victorian Britain - the idea of the British Empire as a redeeming Christian Empire, the torch bearer for a world shrouded in pagan darkness. Additionally, the Church (as an institution - and more specifically the Anglican Church) was desperately worried at this time that the rapid urbanisation of Britain was reducing the power of the Church, which was basically rooted in the neo-feudal hierarchy of rural society, something which was being usurped by the essentially unstructured nature of the cities and towns. In the country it was comparatively easy for a clergyman to keep a watchful eye on his parishioners and to detect any "waywardness" and sort it out. Equally, the villagers themselves would tend to watch each other and would discourage any non-conformity by social pressure. In a village everyone had their place and stayed in it.

The coming of the city

In urban areas, however, there was not such a stable situation. The much greater density of population, the fact that urban populations tended to be created rather then to evolve, and the fact that urban populations tended to be segregated, all combined to create great problems for the church. A Unitarian minister, Robert Vaughan, wrote

"In a neighbourhood where every man is known, where all his movements are liable to observation, and the slightest irregularity becomes a matter of local notoriety, a strong check is constantly laid up the tendencies of the ill-disposed. In such connections it is felt that should the law fail to punish, society will not. The crowded capital is to such men as some large and intricate forest, into which they plunge, and find, for a season at least, the places of darkness and concealment convenient for them." [quoted in [6], from The Age Of Great Cities, R.Vaughan, 1843].

In a city a man could be anonymous. The social segregation of classes was seen as a major problem. As urban areas developed, each class would tend to stick together in particular areas, producing exclusively working class areas and exclusively middle class areas. Thus it was felt that the religious influence of one class was not brought to bear on another (i.e. the middle class didn't influence the working class any more.). This led to the idea of "two nations", first mentioned in 1841 by Dr. William Channing of Boston, America, who wrote - "In most large cities there may be said to be two nations, understanding as little of one another, having as little intercourse as if they lived in different lands."[6], and later , and more influentially, by Disraeli, in Sybil, or the two nations. in 1845 -

"'...Well society may be in its infancy,' said Egremont,...'but say what you like, our Queen rules over the greatest nation that ever existed.'
'Which nation?', asked the young stranger,' for she reigns over two...Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy: who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.'
'You speak of -', said Egremont, hesitatingly.

(plus ca change.....)

Thus there were great efforts made to exert a religious influence in the urban areas. The main symbol of religion, in general terms, is some sort of church building, the very presence of which was thought to be a moral influence. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that as towns and cities grew, so did the number of churches and other places of worship. At the beginning of the period we are dealing with, there were only two churches in Wolverhampton, both of which are shown on Smart's map of 1827 (m1) - St. Peter's and St. John's (built in 1755).(There were also some non-conformist chapels, notably the Wesleyan Chapel in Darlington Street - where the present Methodist Church is - and some Roman Catholic chapels - notably SS.Peter & Paul's, attached to Giffard House, in North Street - but these should be dealt with separately to the Anglican churches).

Also marked is the "site of the intended free church" - this was to be St. George's, which was consecrated in 1830. St. George's is important because, as Smart's map (m1) indicates, it was a "free" church. During the 1820s people where encouraged to go to church, and were entitled to do so, but whether they did or not depended upon how much money they had. Pews in churches were allocated on the basis of property ownership. Thus the rich landowners got the best pews and the poor people got the successively worse pews, until there were no spaces left. This system was a hangover from the rural past of the church. In rural areas it worked because of the low population density, but in the growing towns, with their much higher population densities, it meant that most poor people could not attend church - the very people that the church felt they were losing influence over. With this in mind, Rev. Thomas Walker, the chairman of the Committee of Churchwardens, proposed the construction of a free church, in which pews would be available for anyone to use, regardless of social status. Money was raised partly by grants available under Acts of Parliament passed for the purpose in 1818, and partly by public subscription. St. George's was a Commissioner's Church - that is, it resulted from the desire of the Church commissioners to build more urban churches. Such churches had two roles - to meet the challenge of the growing trend of non-conformity and to save the working classes from the dangers of atheism and revolution.

The building of St. George's heralded an enthusiasm for building churches that would last in Wolverhampton for the whole of the Victorian era. The list runs as follows:

St. George's 1830
St. Paul's 1834 Penn Rd. - built in the Gothic style characteristic of the early Victorian period.
St. Mary's 1842 built in the Early English style of the Gothic revival.
St. James' 1843 Horseley Fields - Also built in the Gothic style
St. Matthew's 1848 Horseley Fields
St. Mark's 1849 Chapel Ash - Early English Gothic. Another Commissioners' Church.
St. Luke's 1861 Lower Villiers Street.
St. Andrew's and
Christ Church Both built during the 1860s
St. Jude's 1869 Tettenhall Road.

The above represent the main "establishment" churches built in and around the centre of Wolverhampton during the study period - from two in 1827 to twelve in 1871 - most are shown on the Steen and Blacket map. Obviously, as the town expanded, there were more churches built in the outer reaches of the conurbation but these are not relevant to the discussion of the structure of central Wolverhampton.

The Gothic revival

For those churches for which such information is available it will be seen that there was a definite preference for the Gothic style of architecture. Gothic was to become the accepted style of church architecture - it found its greatest champion in the form of Augustus Pugin, who in his first book, "Contrasts, or a parallel between the architecture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and similar buildings of the present day", propounded the view that medieval architecture was better than the (then) current styles (which were classically influenced) because it was a product of religious devotion rather than commercial interest. He condemned classicism as being the language of paganism and utilitarianism - two attitudes he despised. In a later book, "True Principles of pointed or Christian Architecture", Pugin asserted the merits of Gothic architecture. This partly stemmed from an underlying desire to develop a national style - Pugin felt that Classicism and Renaissance belonged to Italy - and partly from religious motivations - the verticality of Gothic embodies the heavenly aspirations of Christianity. True, Pugin was basically concerned with Roman Catholic churches, but his ideas were influential throughout the established church also.


The non-conformists were very active in Wolverhampton in the nineteenth century. In 1841, in the Snow Hill area there were four chapels (Unitarian, Irvingite, Baptist and Presbyterian), together with a Methodist Mount Zion chapel in Horseley Fields and a Jewish Synagogue in nearby St.James' Square. These were gradually added to - a Catholic Apostolic chapel on Snow Hill (1845), Congregational chapels on Snow Hill (1847) and Queen Street (1866 - built by E.W. Pugin, son of the famous A.W., mentioned above.), a Baptist chapel in Waterloo Road (1864), Primitive Methodist chapels in Dudley Road, Duke Street and Horseley Fields (in the 1860s), another Unitarian chapel on Snow Hill (also 1860s), a United Presbyterian Church (by Bidlake, 1870) and the Methodist Church in Darlington Street (1901, by Arthur Marshall) These are only the main non-conformist buildings - there were numerous others, of various denominations, which had less attention paid to them. The great spate of non-conformist churches was the result of the increasing religious freedom in Britain in the nineteenth century. For example, until the repeal of the Corporation and Test Act in 1828 non-conformists could not vote. There was great pressure for them to compete with the established church - competition which resulted in the tangible form of buildings - hence the proliferation of non-conformist churches. Non-conformity was very strong in Wolverhampton - the 1851 religious census revealed that more that 50% of the worshipping population was non-conformist. Thus it is hardly surprising that the town was packed full of their chapels. Interestingly, of all the non-conformist chapels mentioned above, only one is still operating - the Darlington Street Methodist Church. This huge building still dominates the bottom of Darlington Street. It is of Free English Early Georgian style, but also has a large dome and two turrets - Pevsner describes it as being "a very uncommon kind of design for the purpose"[9]. It was certainly a contrast to the then predominant brick and terracotta buildings (cf. the Central Library).

Roman Catholicism

The Roman Catholics are the last remaining piece of the religious jigsaw in Wolverhampton. The major centre for the catholic population in the early part of the nineteenth century was the Giffard House / SS.Peter & Paul's building on North Street. Giffard House was built as a Mass House and a Priest's residence in the early eighteenth century. The church of SS. Peter & Paul was built as an extension to the existing chapel in Giffard House and was opened in 1828 - it was the first purpose built Roman Catholic church in Wolverhampton. As the number of Roman Catholics in Wolverhampton increased it became necessary to build more churches - SS. Mary & John's was built on Snow Hill in 1851- 5 (designed by Charles Hansom, the son of the more famous J.A.Hansom - the man who founded The Builder [the first major architectural magazine] and the inventor of the Hansom cab.) and St. Patrick's, intended for the growing Irish population of Wolverhampton, built by E.W.Pugin in 1866, who also built the Queen Street Congregational Church (see above). There was a feeling of resentment against the growing number of Roman Catholics in Wolverhampton - in 1852 there was a public meeting against "this intolerable Papal aggression"[1] and in 1855 a Roman Catholic Priest assaulted a Protestant who he found praying at the bedside of a dying catholic. The expansion of Roman Catholic churches in Wolverhampton took place in the suburbs - St. Patrick's was the last one built in the town itself.


The rapid progress of science in the eighteenth century carried on apace in the nineteenth century. Discoveries in the field of medicine led doctors to advocate more attention to public health and personal hygiene. If the middle classes could ignore the squalid conditions of the working class areas they couldn't ignore the periodic epidemics which arose out of them and which spread throughout the town, regardless of class.


At the beginning of the study period the only real facility for public health was the Dispensary in Queen Street. This was built in 1826 and was of essentially classical design (Greek pillars etc), (the building is now a travel agent and Indian restaurant). However, its services were very limited and tended to cost money. An advance was made in 1831 with the opening of a Medical Hall and Vapour Bath Establishment, in Dudley Street. The advertisements for it stated that "It must be admitted that an institution of this kind had long been wanted."[1] It was "intended for the relief of the poor as well as for the accommodation of families and the public generally."[1] There were operations every Friday morning, which were free for the poor if they could produce a note from a respectable person saying that they couldn't pay.

The Queen Street Dispensary was replaced in 1849 by the South Staffordshire General Hospital. It was built by public subscription (as is announced in the stone work of the building itself) "to supply a long felt want for the relief of disease and accident among the mining district of this part of the county of Stafford."[2]. The original building was a single block with two storeys - the original layout of the hospital is now obscured by numerous additions over the past 127 years. The hospital is in the Italian Doric classical style, but it must be said that it is more functional than decorous. In 1849 the Queen Victoria Nursing Institute was opened in Chapel Ash, as part of a national tribute to Queen Victoria. The idea was to provide a major service for paying patients in order to fund a minor service for the poor. It was expanded in 1895. The Eye Infirmary was properly established in 1881 by St. Mark's Church, but had existed as part of the Dispensary as early as 1834 and in separate premises in Stafford Street in 1849. Further expansion led to the building of the present Infirmary in Chapel Ash, the money being provided by Philip Horsman, who also paid for the Art Gallery. The now vacant St. Mark's site was used as a Women's hospital from 1890, which moved to purpose built premises in Connaught Road in 1904 (now replaced by the modern West Park Hospital).


In 1832 a Cholera epidemic hit Wolverhampton, claiming 193 lives. The incident was entirely beyond the capabilities of the Dispensary and showed the need for better facilities. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act allowed for the building of Workhouses, where the able bodied poor could be put to good use, and which fulfilled a very basic health care role. In Wolverhampton the act resulted in the Workhouse in Old Mill Street, built in 1840 - the street is shown on the Tithe map (m2) as Workhouse Lane - and the Union Poor House on the Cleveland Road, which is clearly marked on the Tithe map - this building follows the Radial pattern of design which was generally reserved for prisons (but then, what was the difference?). Regrettably, the Union Poor House, well worth preserving for its architectural merits, has been demolished.

General conditions in Wolverhampton at the start of Victoria's reign were very bad and they did not improve for many years. Following the 1848 Public Health Act a Government inspector visited Wolverhampton and his report was horrific - one in six children died in their first year, life expectancy at birth was only just over 19 years and two thirds of houses had no sewerage or drains. It must be remembered that at this time there was a considerable amount of housing right in the centre of the town, which contributed to the generally disgusting state of the more public areas. Cholera came again in 1848 with devastating results. Over 500 people died. The newly opened South Staffordshire General Hospital gave no assistance, since it would admit no infectious patients at all. The ill were put into isolation wards in the workhouses and in tents erected for the purpose on Goldthorn Hill, about two miles out of the town.

Throughout the 1840s there had been an increasing awareness of public health. The figurehead of the movement was Edwin Chadwick, who was secretary to the Royal Commission of 1832 which resulted in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In 1842 Chadwick produced his Report on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. This report argued for the provision of water supplies, sewerage and better housing for the working classes and it revealed the connection between bad conditions and bad health, something which many people already knew and chose to ignore. Chadwick wrote that if his recommendations were followed "an increase of 13 years [of life] at least, may be extended to the whole of the labouring classes."[5]. He also wrote that "the removal of noxious physical circumstances, and the promotion of civic, household, and personal cleanliness, are necessary to the improvement of the moral condition of the population."[5].

A desire to improve the lot of the poor was not necessarily motivated by any sense of moral obligation however - it was often justified on economic and capitalist grounds: If a person was fit and well he/she would be able to work harder and longer - if the profits from this extra capacity for work exceeded the initial investment in providing the better conditions necessary for better health, then it made sense to spend money on social improvements. The so-called benevolence of the great business men of the nineteenth century was not always born out of a sense of humanitarianism. One obvious conclusion of the report was that as the towns and cities grew, the problems would grow with them.


In Wolverhampton there was a gradual increase in public health activities. The first waterworks were opened in 1847, but were very limited in service. A bigger system was operated from 1858, from the Cosford works - a legal battle between the Wolverhampton Corporation and a private waterworks company over who should run the system left the Corporation with such huge legal costs that it bankrupt the council and the bailiffs took possession of the Town Hall - all this 127 years before Liverpool's troubles. In 1867 the Corporation took control of the water undertaking, under the Waterworks Transfer Act of that year, and have controlled it since (and will do so until the water-supply is returned to private control).

Sewerage was also very important - it is no good supplying water if you can't get rid of it. In 1849 there was no real provision for sewerage at all - most water drained into the nearest open ditch - with the associated health problems. It wasn't until 1868 that the first deep sewers were installed in the town, primarily in the main streets, and the worst of the open ditches were covered over. However, it was a long and gradual process until there was a really comprehensive system for the whole town.

The provision of a water supply and sewerage system should be seen in their correct context. They were certainly needed and they certainly paved the way for a healthier town in the future, but they were not provided out of any sense of duty or responsibility, not for the most part. The 'services' were operated on a profit making basis - only those who could pay got any real benefit - any effect for the general good was purely a piece of luck. Even when the Corporation operated the services there were continual accusations of corruption and sharp- practice, with people lining their pockets from the income the services generated. The council itself discouraged the installation of water-closets, by charging an annual fee for them that was too high for most of the town's population.

Personal Hygiene

Another aspect of the health movement was personal hygiene. With no adequate water supply, washing was very difficult and not particularly effective. There had existed in Wolverhampton, as early as 1816, a bath house, but it was too expensive for all but the rich. The poor made do with the canals and gravel pits. In 1844 a national Commission for Baths and Washhouses was set up to encourage the building of public baths. Baths were seen as improvers not only of health but of morals. The Builder in 1851 stated that public baths were "a great step towards the purification of mind." [1] Cleanliness is next to Godliness is an apposite maxim.

The first real public baths in Wolverhampton were built by public subscription in 1850, in what became Bath Road. They had a main pool plus subsidiary bath-rooms and games rooms. They too cost money to use, but were more affordable than the previous facility. As far as morals went, the new baths were criticized because they "from their Arabian Nights style of architecture to the drooping chain that forms the handrail round the bath, offend against every canon of what modern baths should be."[1]. Presumably, the Byzantine influenced design of the building was not thought to be restrained enough. The baths were not noticeably healthier than the canals to begin with - there was a complaint in 1851 that the water was only changed once a month, and when the council took the baths over in 1875 it was found that the water was still only changed weekly and that by the end of the week the water was "of a nature to discourage users."[1]. The baths were extended in 1899 and again in 1909, at which time the original Byzantine style building was demolished. The 1899/1909 building was itself pulled down in 1985 after years of neglect. After the site had been used as a car-park for several years a new town swimming bath (singular this time, but built to competition standards) was finally opened in 1990.


Despite the increasing concern for public health, the death rate was still alarmingly high during the nineteenth century. This meant that the dead had to be disposed of. Up until 1849 the only provisions were three Anglican graveyards - St. Peter's (now covered by the Polytechnic Sports Hall, ring road and the School of Art and Design building) - St.John's and St. George's - plus a Roman Catholic ground in North Street. By this time they were utterly inadequate. The 1849 cholera epidemic was the last straw - when St. George's was used to bury the victims, the Sexton had to use a boring stick to find enough spaces. Graves had been dug 20 feet deep to get as many bodies in as possible. The new awareness of health made people realise that having graveyards full of disease ridden bodies right in the middle of town was a bad thing. Private enterprise stepped in , a new graveyard was built at what is now Jeffcock Road (shown on the 1884 map (m4) in the lower left corner) and the old graveyards were shut - St. George's taking a bit longer than the others as the Vicar there was rather fond of the burial fees. However, there was no municipal burial facility until the early years of the Twentieth century.

The desire for improved conditions also led to the creation of Wolverhampton's two major parks. West Park was opened in 1881, and was built on the site of the race-course. This, in one stroke, provided a healthy open space and removed the major scene of the working class vice of gambling and drunkenness (although a new race-course soon opened at Dunstall Hill, which has only recently (1994) been considerably improved and re-opened by The Queen) and East Park, which opened in 1896.


The main cause of the prosperity and development of Wolverhampton in the nineteenth century was the coming of the railway, as was the case for towns throughout Britain. The early development of Wolverhampton was founded on the excellent canal navigations that existed in the area, linking the manufacturing centres with the places that wanted the products. Smart's Directory of 1827 informs the reader that the canals linked Wolverhampton with 73 major towns in Britain. The development begun by the waterways was rapidly accelerated by the Iron Horse.

The Age of Steam

Steen & Blacket's Guide of 1871 states that "the railways which have their extensive stations near the end of Queen Street, are the L.N.W.R. and the G.W.R., and have contributed much to the rapid progress and development of trade of the district."[2]. Wolverhampton benefited from being close to the route of the Grand Junction railway which linked London to Liverpool and Manchester. Wolverhampton got its first link with the railways in 1837 when a "Wolverhampton" station was opened at Wednesfield Heath, some one and a half miles out of town. This received no great enthusiasm, due to it being too far away to be of real value and it wasn't until 1851, when the London and North Western Railway opened its station that the railway had much impact. This was the building of the "high level" station, then known as Queen Street Station - this was because, at that time, the approach to the station was down Queen Street - the route is marked very clearly on the 1871 Steen & Blacket map (m3) (the map was produced as part of a guide for visitors to Wolverhampton for an agricultural show and the route from the station to the show ground is marked). The imposing, but sadly neglected building at the junction of Lichfield Street and Piper's Row was the original Ticket Office and administration building and stood at the head of a long driveway to the station proper. It was known as the Queen's Building and was designed by Edward Banks. It is of Italianate design, built of brick and sandstone with two short towers, both of which originally held clocks (the railways, with their timetables, heralded the dawn of the modern preoccupation with time). There were also large wrought iron gates on the archways, a reference to both the iron of the railway tracks and also the iron industry of the black country.

The "low level" station was opened in 1854 by the Great Western Railway and added to Wolverhampton's importance. (The G.W.R. service was an extension of an existing service operated by the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, which the G.W.R. took over, which actually predates the L.N.W.R., but only on a limited scale). The situation was not as simple as this might suggest - there was fierce competition between the L.N.W.R. and the G.W.R. in Wolverhampton, with many legal and physical battles (the Wolverhampton Railway Wars of the 1850s) , but I have deliberately avoided any further detail on the subject of the development of the actual railways in Wolverhampton because it is so complex a subject (it would require a project to itself) and has been more than adequately documented by railway historians.

The Queen's Building

The Queen's building remained in use until the early 1880s when it was made redundant by the development of Lichfield Street as the main access route. This came about because of the 1875 Artisan's Dwellings Act - a product of the health reform movement of the nineteenth century - which was aimed at redeveloping slum areas. In Wolverhampton it brought about the clearing of a large area of slum housing right in the middle of the town - the area around Lichfield Street. This allowed Lichfield Street itself to be widened and made space for new buildings. The changes made can be seen by comparing the 1871 Steen & Becket map (m3) and the 1884 John Steen & Co. map (m4). Lichfield Street became the major through route. It was this single change that gave Wolverhampton its "processional" structure : from the Station, down Railway Drive, along Lichfield Street, through Queen's Square and out of town down Darlington Street.

The Exchange Building

The growing prosperity of the town during the nineteenth century had several effects. The new found affluence attracted people to the town. The new railways physically brought people to the town, industry prospered because of reduced transport costs and a widening market, thereby employing more people, which attracted people to the town. The building, and later running, of railways created employment in the town, again attracting people, and more products were brought into the town from other places - the town becoming a centre of trade for the surrounding districts. All this meant one thing (amongst others) - High Green, the traditional market place was becoming too crowded. The first change was the building of an Exchange building. This was built in 1851, by Robinson, a local architect. From the beginning it was a disaster. It was built with a large glass cupola on the top, to give light into the building "which, however, having given undeniable signs of depression was eventually removed"[2], the roof having to be strengthened with iron rods. The removal of the glass dome led to complaints from the Corn Merchants that there was insufficient light to adequately inspect the grain - trade declined and the merchants built their own Agricultural Hall in 1863, on Snow Hill, opposite the Theatre Royal. The Exchange Hall was subsequently used for public meetings, concerts and dances. Steen & Blacket's 1871 Guide contains the following criticism - "The position on the West side of the collegiate (or St. Peter's) church is an unfortunate one, as it sadly interferes with the effect of that beautiful building." [2]. When the hall was finally put out of its misery in 1898 it was described as being the only building with the foundations at the top. John Roper, in one of the volumes of Wolverhampton As It Was describes it as a "Victorian white elephant"[10]. The existence of the Exchange Hall is commemorated by The Exchange public house, which stands opposite the original site.

The Market

In 1853 a retail Market Hall, designed by the infamous Robinson, was built in St. Peter's Square, to replace the now chaotic open market in High Green. This was a very large structure, with a large open quadrangle in the middle with a glazed roof, surrounded by 'solid' roofed enclosures. The hall featured Iron columns supporting the roof, which were hollow and used as drainpipes - as first used in Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851. The ability to efficiently drain large glazed areas allowed for the construction of much bigger, lighter buildings than had previously been possible, with the obvious benefits for such as Market halls. However, having been built by Robinson, the hall suffered from considerable structural problems, which took many years (and a lot of money) to overcome. The position of the Exchange and the Market Hall are clearly shown on the 1871 Steen & Blacket map.(m3).

Queen Square

Over the coming years High Green was gradually cleared of any obstructive buildings and became a public space - trade was still conducted there, but with far less chaos than before the Market Hall. The major event, which formed the character of the area (and caused its name to be changed) was the erection of the statue of Prince Albert in 1866, designed by the sculptor Thomas Thorneycroft - A meeting was held in Wolverhampton in 1864 at which it was decided to erect a statue to the memory of Prince Albert, the cost to be met partly by private subscription and partly by public funds. The committee commissioned Thorneycroft to sculpt the statue. Queen Victoria's permission was sought and granted with the proviso that it should be an equestrian statue with Albert in full military uniform. (He is in the uniform of a Field Marshal and is displaying the Order of the Garter.) As a matter of protocol Queen Victoria was invited to unveil the statue - it was expected that she would refuse, as she had done in the case of such memorials to her late husband at Manchester and Liverpool. However, much to universal surprise, she accepted - just nine days before the ceremony. The event was significant because it was the first time that Queen Victoria had performed any public duty since the death of Albert. Thus the Royal visit was seen to be a great honour for the town. The council was totally unprepared and made a public request for the whole town to assist in the preparations. As it was, the occasion was a great success. The magazine Punch wrote a "verse" for the event :

"Gracious Queen Victoria, Wolverhampton greets you,
Franks her unlovely face in smiles with homage as she greets you,
Underneath her Arch of coal entreats you,
Wreaths, nails, locks and bolts near the Iron Trophy seats you."

Regardless of its highly questionable poetic merits, this verse tells us something about Wolverhampton in 1866. It was obviously not the most picturesque of towns - "unlovely face" - due to it being a manufacturing town - something remarked upon in the last line - "nails, locks and bolts" - a lock forms part of Wolverhampton's coat of arms, since the town was world famous for its locksmithing industry, and the town was noted for its nail and bolt making. The "Arch of coal" refers to an actual processional archway built of coal especially for the event - symbolic of the town's connections with the mining industry. It also shows the very powerful influence of royalty, and particularly Queen Victoria - High Green was renamed Queen's Square in honour of the occasion. Most of the buildings that originally surrounded the statue have gone but the statue remains as a focal point in the Square. From this point onwards, Queen's Square became the real "centre" of Victorian Wolverhampton. The area reinforced its position as the financial centre of the town with the building of Barclays bank in 1876, by T.H.Fleeming, in the Gothic style that was favoured at the time, as a change from the strictures of classicism, Lloyds Bank in 1879, which is Italianate, and the National Westminster Bank in 1905, which shows an Edwardian reversion to classicism. An alternative name for Queen's Square is The Square of Banks. The existing financial buildings, built in the 1870s and after, dominate the square.

The Town Hall

As the town grew in prestige, some show of municipal importance was deemed necessary. The usual symbol was a Town Hall. Wolverhampton's present one was built in 1869-71, by E. Bates, in the French renaissance "second empire" style, with flat corinthian pillars on the frontage. The French style roof was added later, paid for by Phillip Horsman. This replaced an earlier Town Hall, built in 1856, which was of a very standard classical design. By the time the present Town Hall was built the Victorians had tired of plain classicism for their public buildings and looked for something more interesting - Second Empire resulted from the combination of French renaissance architecture with standard classicism.

In the process of post-Victorian urban redevelopment the Town Hall has lost all of its sense of setting - more especially since the monstrous Civic Centre was built. When the Town Hall was built, it would have looked out onto the Market Hall, which although covering the same site as the Civic Centre was considerably less domineering. The fact that the Town Hall faced the market hall meant that the authority of the town's administration would have been visible, in the form of the imposing Town Hall, when the townspeople were doing their daily shopping. Also, the civic function of the Town Hall has been removed to the Civic Centre - the building now being known as the Crown Court.

The Town Hall formed the front of a larger complex, extending from North Street to Red Lion Street, which included the main Fire station and the main Police station. Thus, the tangible symbols of authority were fairly centrally placed in Victorian Wolverhampton.

Increasing trade and increasing literacy meant more business for the Post Office. Until the 1870s it had occupied premises in Queen Street, but Steen & Blacket's 1871 guide reports that they were becoming inadequate and were moving to new, bigger premises. These new premises were the Post Office building in Lichfield Street, now occupied by the University's School of Health Sciences. It is a very imposing building, built in an utterly eclectic style. It thoroughly dominates the street, and looks as municipal as any other building in the town - indeed, it would make an admirable Town Hall. It is a monument to the importance of communication in the town's development.



The increasing literacy and desire for education and 'betterment' led to the idea of libraries. The Public Libraries Act's of 1845 and 1850 were adopted in Wolverhampton in 1869. The first real library in Wolverhampton was in the Athenaeum (formerly the Mechanic's Institute), in Queen Street. There was already a library in Waterloo Road, built in 1857, which was the successor to the original subscription library in Queen Street (now the County Court), which existed from 1848 (though the building itself dates from 1813, when it was built as an Assembly Rooms), but this was a subscription library, and was thus restricted to the middle classes. As its popularity (and public literacy) increased, it outgrew the building and moved to bigger premises in Garrick Street in 1872, which had just been vacated by the Police force, who had moved to their new building behind the new Town Hall. As time passed, these premises became inadequate and a purpose built Library was decided upon. This was the present Central Library, at the junction of Garrick Street and Cleveland Road. Built in 1900-02, by E.T.Hare, it is of free Edwardian style, very eclectic in design with Jacobean and Baroque features, externally of red brick and yellow terracotta with an internal skeleton of concrete and steel - the "new technology" of iron was by now in very wide use. The Library was built "To commemorate the Sixtieth year of Queen Victoria's Reign" (this inscription appears on a terracotta band over the entrance of the building.) The influence of the Queen was much stronger now than it had been on her visit in 1866 - at that time the public was becoming disaffected by her reclusive mourning. The exterior features the names of the literary figures held to be important at that time - Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Shelley, Byron, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton - this gives a good indication of the accepted canon of literature at the turn of the century.

The Library was built on the site of the old Theatre Royal. Built in 1844, in the wake of the Regulation of the Theatre's Act of 1843, which removed the need for a theatre to be licensed to produce "straight" plays. The Theatre Royal was never a commercial success and was supplanted by the building of the Grand Theatre in 1894. Steen & Blacket's guide of 1871 comments of the Theatre Royal that "The degradation of the legitimate drama to the sensational excitement of the strained tragedy and ridiculous burlesque has been noticed here as in other large manufacturing towns, as well as the metropolis itself." [2]. A virtual accusation that the labouring classes had corrupted the "legitimate" (elitist) theatre, and only for their own enjoyment. During its existence the Royal was in competition with events at the Agricultural Hall opposite, which was much used for entertainment, the ill-fated Exchange Hall and the various attractions at the large number of public houses in the town (The town's original theatre was in the yard of the Swan Hotel - now the Lloyds bank extension.). Additionally there was a great deal of religious opposition to the theatre (Charles Spurgeon had said that he would excommunicate any member of his congregation who attended a theatre and Bishop Wilberforce had said that the "resolution to attend theatres or operas was an absolute disqualification for Holy Orders."[4]), whereas literature was seen to be, potentially, a strong force for the moral improvement of the working classes - with the building of the new free library the degraded drama had given way to the rising tide of literature.

The Art Gallery

The world of Art did not have a place in Wolverhampton until 1884. There had been a number of private exhibitions of art in the town, including one in 1851, held by Guisani and Son, which featured "six exquisite paintings of sporting subjects."[1], but there was no public gallery. However, the climate of public "improvement" and capitalist beneficence prompted the building of an Art Gallery and Museum, which was paid for by Philip Horsman, who funded the 1888 Eye Infirmary (see "Health"), amongst other things. A School of Art was built in conjunction with the Gallery, to encourage local talent. This wasn't the first such institution - Wolverhampton had built a Government sponsored School of Practical Art in Darlington Street as early as 1854 (it was the first such Government school in the country), but there was no public venue for its students to display their work.

The Art Gallery is of Italianate classical design, by Julius Chatwin of Birmingham, a pupil of the great Sir Charles Barry. The windowless second storey, a characteristic feature, is decorated with a Grecian relief, by Boulton of Cheltenham, of figures representative of the Arts - sculpture, painting, architecture, pottery, glassblowing, wrought-iron work and the Sciences (and Industry) - astronomy, navigation, blacksmithing, lock making. It is significant that several of these have connections with Wolverhampton - Blacksmithing, iron work, lock making - the industry of the black country has been raised to the level of high culture by their inclusion. It is interesting to stand opposite the gallery and look at it together with the Midland Bank, next door - Two utterly dissimilar institutions, but so similar in monumental effect. The Midland building, if the stone sign "BANK" above the doorway was removed, could easily be an Art Gallery itself. The bank takes advantage of the Gallery's proximity and copies from it - the same narrow horizontal cut of the stone work, the identical roof balustrading, the very similar capitals on the columns (the second floor of the Gallery and the main ones of the Bank). The same language of architecture - the classicism so hated by Pugin - is used in one to represent the ancient power of the "arts" (and, secondarily, to raise new achievements to the level of art) and in the other to imbue the new power of capitalist commerce with the values of art by means of a structural patina of artistic quality.

Looking at the whole of that side of the street there is an interesting effect - There are four main visible buildings - two are commercial - Barclays and the Midland Banks - and two represent the cultural powers of the Arts - the Gallery - and religion - St. Peter's church. One bank draws on a development of the Gothic architecture of the church in order to give commercialism an acceptable face (Banks as the new church - the temple of Mammon) and the other bank uses the association with the arts to do the same. The same aim - assimilation by culture - but different paths.


I am including education together with culture, even though there are obvious overlaps with Religion (as will be seen below). For most of the nineteenth century it was carried out by schools attached to the main churches . Thus each religion educated its children differently. There was in addition, an ancient Free Grammar School in John Street, founded in 1512, for the instruction of the poor in morals and good learning. This moved to an expansive site on the (then) edge of town, in Merridale in 1875, as it began to fulfill a need for a middle class school. There was also a Blue coat charity school in the town, dating from 1711, but rebuilt in the 1860s - "it has been the means of diffusing a sound, practical and religious education to numbers of children of the working classes." [2], and a Ragged school in Salop Street, as a last catch-net - "it has been the means of effecting great good among the children which it aims to secure from the grasp of infamy and vice."[2]. From 1850 the Dispensary building in Queen Street was used as an Orphan Asylum, to cope with the large number of orphans resulting from the Cholera epidemic of the previous year - this institution later became the Royal Orphanage, at new buildings on the Penn Road, now the Royal Wolverhampton School. Most real education was only available to the middle classes, and above, either by sending there children to boarding schools or by means of private tutors. It can be seen that the main "public" provision of education was aimed at moral instruction rather than academic achievement. very few of the schools survive, though the Methodist school in School Street remains, as does the school building attached to the church of SS. Mary and John's and part of the St. Peter's church school is incorporated into the Polytechnic. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 called for the provision of large numbers of new "Board" schools. The appearance of such schools in Wolverhampton is notable on the 1901 map (m5), although by then some of them had been renamed, e.g. the Board school on the Newhampton Road has become the Higher Grade School.


I have tried to provide electronic versions of the maps referred to, but the quality of the scanned images was extremely poor. It may be possible to prepare high-resolution down-loadable versions of the maps, but this isn't likely to happen for some time (it's currently November 1998).

To conclude I will refer briefly to the maps included, to give an overall picture of the development of Wolverhampton in the nineteenth century. For details of the items mentioned, consult the main text.

(m1) 1827 - Smart's Wolverhampton Directory - a very schematic map, with little detail - there was little to show. Only the two main churches are marked, plus the canal, on which Wolverhampton was dependant for its trade. Queen's Square is just the Market Place.

(m2) 1842 - The Tithe map - Much more detail. Appearance of the non conformist chapels and new establishment churches. The coming of the railways is marked by the land "sold to the Railway Co." see map]. The Library in the Athenaeum (Mechanic's Institute) is marked, as is the Dispensary - health and culture were growing concerns.

(m3) 1871 - Steen & Blacket's Guide - The railway stations are both marked, as are the Market Hall, The Exchange Hall, The Town Hall, the Hospital, the Agricultural Hall, the Union Poor House, the Baths, The Theatre Royal, the old Post office and the County Court. Three hotels are also marked - important buildings with the increase in travel due to the railways. None of these hotels survive, but the Valhalla (disused - originally The Criterion) and the Victoria on Lichfield Street are Victorian legacies. The fact that this map was produced as a guide to the town for visitors to a major agricultural show is itself an indication of the commercial development of the town.

(m4) 1884 - John Steen & Co.'s Map - essentially the same as the 1871 map, but important because it shows the new processional structure of the centre - Lichfield Street is now the access route to the stations. West Park is also shown, replacing the racecourse.

(m5) 1901 - Stephens and Mackintosh's Business Street Map - this map has a detailed treatment of the railway network, which indicates the importance of transport in the development of the town. The fact that the map is described as a "Business Street Map" is indicative of Wolverhampton's commercial importance at the end of the Victorian era. The Waterloo Road Subscription Library is marked, as is the Free Library in its Garrick Street (ex-Police Station) premises. Also shown is an Electricity Lighting Station, near the old Union Poor House (shown as Workhouse). Wolverhampton was first lit by electricity on January 30th 1895, when Queen's Square and some surrounding streets were illuminated by a thousand electric lights. They were switched on by Lord Kelvin, then President of the Royal Society, a pioneer of electrical science. This was mostly a display and it was some years before there a wide-spread electrical supply.


The numbered sources given below refer to references in the text. The remaining items are general sources.

[1] Yesterday's_Town_-_Wolverhampton Frank Mason, Barracuda Books, 1982.

[2] Steen_and_Blacket's_Wolverhampton_Guide Steen and Blacket, Wolverhampton, 1871.

[3] An__Architectural__Walk__in__Wolverhampton Rudi Herbert Wolverhampton Public Libraries.

[4] The Victorian_Debate, Raymond Chapman, Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1968.

[5] The Idea of the City in Nineteenth Century Britain Edited by B.I.Coleman, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

[6] Victorian_Cities Asa Briggs, Pelican, 1982.

[7] Historic Buildings of Wolverhampton pamphlets nos. 1,4,6,8,16,19,20,21,22 & 25 Wolverhampton Heritage Project, 1985.

[8] Victorian Architecture Dixon and Muthesius, Thames and Hudson, 1978.

[9] Staffordshire, Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1973.

[10] Wolverhampton As It_Was, Volumes 1, 2 & 3 John Roper, Hendon Publishing Company, Hendon, 1975.

The Book of Wolverhampton, Frank Mason, Barracuda Books, 1983

T he Book of the Century, Edited by F. Avery, Grove Publishing Company, Manchester, 1948.

Wolverhampton Red Book 1896-97, Alfred Hinde, Wolverhampton, 1897.

Melville and Company's Directory of Wolverhampton 1881, Melville and Company, Wolverhampton, 1881

A Handy History of Wolverhampton and Guide to the District, Alfred Hinde, A. Hinde, Wolverhampton, 1884.

Maps of Wolverhampton G.I.J.Orton, Wolverhampton Public Libraries, 1976.

Railways of the Black Country N.Williams, Uralia Press, Wolverhampton, 1985.

200 Years of Change Cyril Gibbons, Workers Education Association, Wolverhampton, (undated).

Midland Sketches W.J.Gordon, Religious Tract Society, London, 1898.

Smart's Directory Smart, Wolverhampton, 1827.

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