The Early Twentieth Century

By 1900 the town centre had grown into an affluent, busy and vibrant shopping area, with shops and businesses of all kinds, much as it is today. Large numbers of people travelled to and from the town thanks to the frequent and cheap tram services that allowed people to travel greater distances to work or shop. The many industries in the town offered employment to a large number of people. Around this time production of leather goods in Walsall reached an all time high. Around 10,000 people were employed in the local industry.

On 24th March, 1900 Her Majesty’s Theatre opened in Park Street. It was Walsall's most successful theatre, seating over 2,000 people.

During the nineteenth century Walsall's population dramatically increased. By 1901 it had reached 86,400, nearly a nine-fold increase over one hundred years.

View some adverts for shops
and businesses in 1902

The County Court before the new town hall was built.


The new Council House and Town Hall.


Lichfield Street.


A view of the southern side of Bridge Street from the early 1900s. On the left is the entrance to the rear yard behind the George Hotel on The Bridge. It ran behind the buildings to the rear of the hotel. The shop on the left was run by Middleton Brothers.

Another view of the southern side of Bridge Street from around 1900, to the right of the above photo. The shop at the end of the terrace on the left is Perth Dye Works. On the right is T. Whitfield's tobacconists' shop with Walsall's first Corporation Tramway Offices above. The buildings were demolished and replaced with the Walsall Observer offices.

By the 1890s, there was a great lack of space and even overcrowding at the Guildhall in High Street. A sub-committee was formed to look into the building of a new town hall, which would be sited at Town End Bank, at the northern end of Park Street. Mr. H. H. McConnell was appointed as architect and a grand building was designed to overlook Park Street. For some years the project was deferred, but in 1897 the Municipal Building Committee was formed to find a suitable site for a large building that could house the council's staff and would include a hall capable of seating 1,500 people.

On the 18th August,1899, the foundation stone was laid for Her Majesty's Theatre and so the Town End Bank site was now unavailable. A site was chosen in Lichfield Street next to the County Court. The site was occupied by a large house and Walsall Liberal Club. It was purchased for £6,000 and adjacent land was acquired for a further £5,000. The committee inspected 18 town halls, including Birmingham, which was considered to be a great showpiece for the city. In 1901, Mr. J. Glenn Gibson was appointed as architect and Armitage and Hodson of Leeds were appointed as building contractors.

Work began in the first part of 1902, including the widening and diverting of the old mill stream. The foundation stone was laid on Thursday, 29th May, 1902 by Prince Christian of Schleswig Holstein, followed by a luncheon for over 250 guests. Building work rapidly progressed and the new Council House and Town Hall opened on the 27th September, 1905. It had been built at a cost of £98,000.

It housed the council's many departments including the Borough Surveyor's Offices; the Gas; Electric; Health; Weights and Measures; Rate Collectors; and Overseers departments; the Council Chamber; and the Committee Rooms. The only department excluded was the police, who remained at the Guildhall. A large organ was installed in the hall at a cost of £2,500. Work also included the building of Tower Street at the end of the site, between Lichfield Street and Darwall Street.

The County Court and the Town Hall. From an old postcard.

The old Council Chamber in the Guildhall.

The new Council Chamber in 1905.

In 1905, Edward Thomas Holden became the first Freeman of the Borough. He ran E. T. Holden  & Son Limited, in Park Street, the family firm of tanners and curriers that was founded by his father. He was elected to Walsall Council in 1860 and served on the council for sixty two years, becoming mayor three times; 1870 to 71, 1871 to 72 and 1904 to 05. In August 1891 he became Liberal MP for Walsall after a by-election due to the death of the MP, Sir Charles Forster. He remained in Parliament until June 1892. He became a member of Walsall School Board, a member of the Board of Guardians, a Justice of the Peace for the borough of Walsall and the county of Staffordshire, and was knighted in 1907. He died on 13th November, 1926 at the age of 95.

1906 saw the opening of Walsall's new library in Lichfield Street. It cost £8,000 and was a gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish philanthropist.

The Town Hall and the Carnegie Library. From an old postcard.

The Walsall Golf Club at Gorway was founded on 19th March 1907 on land leased from Lord Bradford. Initially it had six holes, but a year later was extended to fourteen holes. The entrance fee was 4 guineas and an annual subscription cost 2 guineas.

1908 saw the opening of the town's first cinema, The Imperial. It opened in the Imperial Theatre which had been converted into a cinema. The town's first purpose-built cinema, the Electric Picture Palace opened on 12th April, 1910 in The Square. It was built by S. Wootton of Bloxwich, and officially opened by Lady Holden.

The interior of the Town Hall.

Another view of the Town Hall. Taken at a local history fair in 2002.

The new Town Hall. From an old postcard.

On 24th April 1909 the Walsall Cricket Club opened the Gorway Cricket Ground on a four and a half acre site costing £1,500. The inaugural match was between the club XI and a team representing the senior clubs in the town, including members of the Walsall Y.M.F. Club, and Shannon's Cricket Club. Walsall Cricket Club easily won, scoring 150 for four. Billy Preston was the first to get a half-century on the ground scoring 77 not out. They dismissed the opponents for 41. The match was followed by an inaugural dinner in the tea room, attended by the Mayor, and several club 'veterans'.

From the 1934 Walsall Red Book.

In October 1909 a lady health visitor (Hilda Joseph) was appointed for the town, thanks to pressure from Walsall's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Harry Shore. She had to visit every home containing a young child. Her first report, based on visits to around six thousand children revealed the following:

50.9% had bad teeth, 13.5% had dirty heads, 11.3% had enlarged tonsils, 8.8% had defective hearing, 7.8% had defective sight, 6.4% had bronchitis, 4.6% had rickets, 3.4% had ruptures, 2.1% had goitres, and 1% had body vermin.

398 of them were poorly clothed, 773 had poor boots, and 6 had no boots at all.

Dr. Harry Shore's first report in 1910 commented on how hardship and poverty affected young mothers, resulting in a high infant mortality rate, usually from poor housing conditions, lack of ventilation and overcrowding.

High Street on market day.

The Liberal government passed a number Acts of Parliament under their Liberal reforms package which were designed to help the poor. The 1907 Education (Administrative Provisions) Act set up school medical services that were run by local government. All children were to receive a medical inspection. The National Insurance Act 1911 provided for a National Insurance scheme with provision of medical benefits. Workers were given access to free treatment for tuberculosis, and the sick were eligible for treatment by a panel doctor. The unemployed received a time-limited unemployment benefit, and every mother received a maternity grant of thirty shillings.

In the years immediately before the First World War the country suffered from much industrial unrest involving strikes by railwaymen, miners, engineering workers etc. Wages were very low and so people were demanding a realistic minimum wage. One industry greatly affected in Walsall was tube making. There were strikes at Birchfields and Pleck involving large numbers of people. Things came to a head on 11th June 1913 when a strike at Walsall's  largest tube manufacturer, the Talbot-Stead Tube Company Limited, in Green Lane, got out of hand. Twenty men entered the factory in an attempt to return to work, which greatly angered the strikers. A crowd of around three thousand gathered outside the factory which was guarded by two lines of policemen. They agreed to disperse if the twenty workers would leave the factory. A riot took place, stones were hurled through factory windows, and a police refreshment vehicle carrying food for the police officers on duty, was overwhelmed by the crowd, and the food carried away.

During the strike the Mayor organised a relief fund which fed 800 children daily at their schools. The strike eventually ended in July.

Walsall's lovely old Art Gallery.

A very different event took place on 30th August 1913 when an aircraft landed in the town for the first time. An aircraft race had been organised between two pilots, Bentfield Charles Hucks, and Gustav Hamel for a fine silver trophy and prize money of five hundred pounds, offered by the Birmingham Daily Post. The race consisted of several short flights around a circular route, starting and ending at the Tally-Ho grounds at Edgbaston.

The first leg was to Redditch recreation ground, followed by a flight to Green's Field near Allesley Road, Coventry, then on to Nuneaton, Drayton Manor, and Walsall. The aircraft landed in Springvale Farm which was near the Birmingham Road and the modern Park Hall Estate. Gustav Hamel landed in an adjoining field because he felt that the official one was too small. When Hucks landed he was surrounded by a waiting crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 people. The spectators included the Mayor, the town councillors and their wives and friends. After thirty minutes the aviators departed on their last but one leg to Quinton, before returning to Edgbaston. Hamel succeeded in beating Hucks by just over twenty seconds. 

Sadly both aviators had short lives. Gustav Hamel disappeared over the English Channel on 23rd May, 1914 while returning from Paris in a new 80hp. Morane-Saulnier monoplane. He was only 24 years old. Bentfield Hucks died on 7th November, 1918 as a result of double pneumonia. He was 34 years old, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Another view inside Walsall's old Art Gallery.

Looking down High Street, possibly in the early 1930s. From a newspaper cutting from an unknown newspaper.

Looking from Digbeth towards High Street. From an old postcard.

Lipton's grocers shop at 38 Digbeth. From an old postcard.

Digbeth in 1939. From a newspaper cutting.

A quiet High Street in the 1940s, possibly on a Sunday.

Looking down High Street in the 1940s.

View a 1914 directory of shops
and businesses
  Read about the growth of
shopping in Park Street
Read a history of Bescot Hall

The Guildhall.


Entrance to the Town Hall.


Sister Dora's Statue.


Alderman J. N. Cotterell, Mayor of Walsall, 1914-15.

Entrance to the Arboretum.

The Arboretum lake.

Another view of the Arboretum.
A final view of the Arboretum.

The Caldmore Green Picture House.

The Caldmore Green Picture Playhouse opened at Caldmore Green in December 1915. The manager was Harry Parr, and the first film was 'Life's Highway'.

Seating was provided on a stadium plan, with a raised stepped section at the rear. The auditorium was at right angles to the entrance, and was entered by doors halfway down, on the left of the stage.

The name was later changed to Caldmore Green Picture House which in the 1920s boasted that it had the finest screen in the Midlands.

In April 1930 BTH sound equipment was installed, and on 24th December, 1931 it became The Forum.

Audiences declined in the late 1940s because its films had already been shown at other local cinemas, but things improved after 1950 when Frank Harvey became manager. Seat prices were reduced and the cinema regained its popularity. In 1955 a wide screen was installed for CinemaScope along with new projectors and up-to-date sound equipment.

The Cinema closed on 28th May, 1960 with Kenneth More in 'Northwest Frontier'.

Courtesy of Paul Bowman.

The auditorium became a warehouse for the Walsall Lithographic Company, and the foyer became a restaurant which suffered from a fire in 1979. It is now offices. I have to thank Paul Bowman for much of the information about the cinema.

The Empire Cinema stood in Freer Street, roughly where Debenhams store is today. It was designed by J. H. Hickton and built by J&F Wooton from Bloxwich. There were seats in the stalls and on the circle. The projection equipment was made by Western Electric.

The cinema opened on 28th August, 1933 with a showing of  'Letting in the Sunshine' starring Albert Burdon, and a supporting film, 'Slightly Married' starring Marie Prevost.

The cinema was owned by Clifton Cinema (Walsall) Limited, which merged with Alexander Cinema (Lower Gornal) Limited, and later took over Cinema De Luxe in Walsall and renamed it Classic Cinema.

The Empire Cinema became the first cinema in Walsall to have a 20th Century Fox authorised CinemaScope installation, which was later changed to BTH. The first CinemaScope film shown was 'The Robe' starring Richard Burton. The cinema's final film before closure was 'Cleopatra' starring Elizabeth Taylor. The building was sold in 1964 and demolished  in February 1965.

The Empire.


A sign over a window in Freer Street. Courtesy of Paul Bowman.

The location of The Empire Cinema.

The corner of New Street and Temple Street.

Looking down long-gone Temple Street to St. Matthew's Church.

The Bridge, in the early 20th century. From an old postcard.

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