4.  The Eighteenth Century

By 1801 the population of Wednesfield had reached just over 1,000 people.  In 1603 it had been estimated to about 200 – suggesting, if true, very little increase since the time of Domesday – but it had doubled by 1665.  Undoubtedly the population had been increasing – as it did elsewhere in the country – for several centuries.  This population increase came at a time when all the available agricultural land was in use and, although enclosures and various developments associated with the Agricultural Revolution meant that land was more productive, it seems that there was pressure on the local population.   Most of the people would have lived on or just off the main street, which is now represented by High Street and Rookery Lane.   The inventories of the period show that a number of local inhabitants were pretty well off, their wealth being based on agriculture, not industry.  But they were the few, not the many.  It is probably because more people are trying to live off less land that agricultural workers started to take up other occupations.  At first this would mostly be part time, even being, in some cases, confined to the winter months when not too much could be done on the agricultural front.  Two smithies had been recorded in Wednesfield in 1665 but these would have been serving the needs of agriculture almost exclusively. 

Nevertheless in the 18th century we find Wednesfield people being described as locksmiths, key smiths and trap makers,  and similar trades associated with bashing small bits of metal are mentioned  – anything larger would have caused problems with the transport of material in and finished goods out.  The first recorded locksmith in the area was Richard Tomkys of Neachells who is mentioned in 1703.  At first the production was very small scale and concerned with supplying factors in Wolverhampton.  In due time some works became bigger and started selling on their own account.  

But all in all it is not unfair to say that, in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution more or less passed Wednesfield by.  Stebbing Shaw, at the end of the 18th century mentioned a few large houses and some tumuli in Wednesfield but did not have much else to say about it.  Even by 1868 J. C. Tildesley could write:  “Wednesfield is the beau ideal of an old Black Country town.  It presents a quaint mixture of town and country, garden and workshop, toil and ease, which distinguished other nearby towns nearly half a century ago.  Toil and enterprise have lifted the others to rivalry with Wolverhampton and even Bilston, but Wednesfield has pursued a tortoise pace of progress”.

This modern view of Church Street, with the most recent (and biggest) church on the site, still gives an impression of the old village.

Tortoise-paced it may have been but progress it was.  The size of the town continued to increase, sufficiently at least justify the inhabitants in trying to get their own church.  Up until now everyone had had to troop off to St. Peter's in Wolverhampton, their parish church, for regular services as well as special occasions, such as births, deaths and marriages.  A group of local people was assembled, lead by Dr. Richard Wilkes of Willenhall, and they met regularly at the house of John Wood by the village green.  Their first task, apart from raising a quite considerable sum for expenses as well as for the actual building, would have been to settle the principle with the authorities at St. Peter's.  This would have been no easy matter as St. Peter's was jealous of its position, especially its fees,  and usually opposed to any sort of  slackening of its grip, whatever the benefit to local people may have been.  But the necessary Act of Parliament was duly passed – not for a parish church (which would have been too much for St. Peter's to bear) built for a chapel of ease, with a curate, not a vicar or rector, and with limited rights to perform the sacraments.  The church was to be built (on the site where it still is) on what was then the village green; and new roads were to be built on all sides of it.  This resulted in something of a re-planning of the old centre of the village.

The chapel, dedicated to St. Thomas, was consecrated on the 28th August 1750.  It was a rather plain box, unadorned but for  a tower at the west end and stone finials on each corner  There were only three windows to each side.  It seated only 50 people.  But the village now had a Vestry, which could not only look after the church buildings and church life but could also play a part, along with the Manorial Court and the local magistrates, in running the life of the area.

This photo (probably early 20th century) shows the hump back bridge over the Wyrley and Essington Canal, with St. Thomas's in the background.

The village centre was to suffer another radical alteration when, in 1794, the Wyrley and Essington canal was authorised by Parliament.  This canal was constructed as a contour canal – it followed the line of a single height contour, no matter where it lead.  This meant that the cost of locks was done away with and the canal's greater length meant that it passed more properties, from which trade might come.  If narrow boats had further to go, any loss of time would be offset by not having to negotiate locks. 

The bridge over the Wyrley and Essington, though widened and with its approaches somewhat levelled, still produces access problems.

But the consequence of the “Curly Wirley” for Wednesfield was that it became largely surrounded by a moat-like canal, with the roads over it being carried by hump backed bridges.  Local people trying to move goods along the roads soon felt that these bridges, on almost every road out of the town, were a curse.  Smallshire cites with approval the view of a Dr. Hands that these bridges were an obstruction to the development of the town.

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Nineteenth Century