4. The Nineteenth Century
The population of Wednesfield township, during the 19th
century, was as follows:
There is clearly an enormous increase from the beginning of the century to the end but it is no where nears as great an increase as was experienced in towns where the industrial revolution hit hardest.
As the nineteenth century opened local industry continued to increase slowly. There was some quarrying of stone and some coal mining but, apart from Ashmore Park, the geology was against Wednesfield; the only coal that was found was poor stuff and most collieries did not last long.
But lock and key making continued. These were almost exclusively back yard businesses, consisting of one man working on his own or with one or two of his offspring; in some cases these men also had other jobs, for example as victuallers. By 1833 there were 33 lock makers in the village. In 1851 there were 101. In 1863 200 lock and key makers were recorded in Wednesfield. Some of these small firms started to sell direct to customers, rather than to factors in Wolverhampton.
But the distinctive industry of Wednesfield was trap making, of which it had almost a monopoly in England. It is not known when or how this branch of metal bashing started in Wednesfield but it first appears in the records in the second decade of the 19th century and may have been older than that. Certainly it expanded rapidly during that century when demand increased greatly, at home and overseas, for traps to discourage poachers, traps to kill vermin, traps to kill animals wanted for their fur and traps for any other purpose. Wednesfield trap makers seem not to have gone in for much division of labour and every part of every trap, including the chains and the springs, was made from scratch. Unlike the local locksmiths, the trap makers sometimes operated in firms bigger than family size. When the Marshalls merged with the Griffiths in the 1920s, they formed one of the biggest, most successful and long lasting of the firms. They employed 20 trap makers as well as other workers. Henry Lane was another of the larger and more successful firms, employing ten men in 1898. The scope of their operation is indicated by their winning prize medals at international exhibitions in Belgium in 1863, Melbourne in 1888 and Brussels in 1897. James Roberts, of North Street, was also a considerable exporter.
Though these firms were big by local standards, there were, at the end of the 19th century, no large firms by the standards of Wolverhampton, Bilston or even Willenhall. Wednesfield was still mainly agricultural but still developing. In 1836 a school was built in New Street, probably by the church. In 1854 a National School was built at Wednesfield Heath and in 1864 another was built in Graisley Lane. In 1875 there was a new Church of England School at Wood End.
Nor was their a lack of action on the religious front. Wesleyan Methodists are first noted in the area in the 1820s and in 1852 they built the Rookery Street Chapel. In 1886 they moved to Trinity Chapel. The Church of England's chapel of St. Thomas was demolished a rebuilt in 1841, a much large affair than the first – in fact it was pretty much on the ground plan of the present church. In 1849, with the re-arrangement, under statute, of the somewhat idiosyncratic affairs of St. Peter's, Wolverhampton, Wednesfield became a separate and independent parish of St. Thomas. This meant that it performed all its own ceremonies and kept its own registers of baptisms, marriages and burials; and nobody had to go to St. Peter's again or ever again pay fees to St. Peter's. The boundaries of this parish came to define Wednesfield and when the Urban District Council was formed its boundaries were the parish boundaries.
In 1850 Holy Trinity church at Heath Town, with its associated almshouses, was built as a daughter church of the new parish of St. Thomas. The building of Holy Trinity reflects the expansion of Heath Town; and its becoming a separate parish, in 1866, marks the fact that Heath Town was becoming a place of its own, independant of Wednesfield – a development that can be seen as culminating in the creation, in 1888, of separate Wednesfield and Heath Town urban district councils.
Wednesfield's communications were improved by the construction of the Bentley Canal in 1840. There were only two bridges across it in this area and they caused no traffic problems. Although this canal was doubtless useful to Wednesfield, the coming of the railways was of greater importance. Such were the oddities of Victorian railway development that the first railway station to try to serve Wolverhampton was, in fact, in Wednesfield. The coming of the Grand Junction Railway “revolutionised the Heath” as Wednesfield Heath Station became “a hive of activity central to a new community ... around which quickly grew up a maze of small factories and the back to back houses of Grove Street and Heath Street”. Smallshire also reckons that new developments of better class houses along Prestwood Road and Thorneycroft Road came into being because of the station.
Wednesfield centre was also expanding. In the late 1840s to the early 1960s New Street, Cross Street and Hickman Street were developed. At the turn of the century Hart Road, Neachells Lane, Bolton Road, Wolverhampton Road and Wood End Road were developed with terrace houses to accommodate workers at the factories which were then beginning to be built.
Whilst these developments took place and the population continued to expand, there was not much local government organisation to go along with. This was not an uncommon situation in the country as a whole. The main exceptions were places which promoted local Acts of Parliament to set up town commissioners who, in many respects acted like local authorities. Wolverhampton had such an Act but Wednesfield did not. It was too small to bear the cost or to make the effort seem worthwhile. So the roads continued to be maintained under the supervision of the parish's surveyor of highways, assisted, in theory at least, by the “statute labour” of the local inhabitants. So not much happened. There seem not to have been any turnpiked roads in Wednesfield. In what was still a mainly agricultural area the existing roads probably sufficed, more or less.
The area was policed by a constable, nominated each year from amongst local inhabitants, by the Vestry to Quarter Sessions. These appointments were made from 1750 onwards and operated to the entire satisfaction of the Vestry at least. When, in the 1840s, a county constabulary was proposed the Vestry petitioned Quarter Sessions against it, arguing that a county force would be too expensive and, anyway, local men were better able to deal with local matters. So an efficient and professional police force for Wednesfield was warded off until 1880 when the newly created Staffordshire County Council introduced a county constabulary.
Another concern for the local people was that of the plight of the poor. Under its statutory obligations, imposed by an Act of 1723, Wednesfield Vestry built a workhouse on Old Heath Road, They operated this workhouse and gave outdoor relief (that is, cash payment for the destitute) until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 created new authorities, called Poor Law Unions, run by Guardians, which took over from the vestries. In Wednesfield's case this meant that the Poor Law came to be administered by the Wolverhampton Union. Wednesfield's vestry handed over its accounts, with the usual disputes about them, and the old workhouse was closed.
Living conditions in Wednesfield itself were not as bad as they might have been and not as bad as they were in some other local areas. Smallshire records the Cholera Commission’s report of 1848 as follows:
Then followed a report on the Moseley Hole and Portobello area of Wednesfield stating that water was scarce, gutters choked with rubbish, including dead dogs. The water in these gutters was the only source, and inhabitants fetched it in buckets, pails and even mugs allowing the sediment to settle before using it.
In 1856 a Sanitary Committee for Wednesfield and Heath Town was set up, changing its title to Local Board in 1863. But this was to be the end of the association of Heath Town with Wednesfield. Heath Town had developed its own urbanised area, apparently as a result of its having the railway station and in 1866 the Local Board was split in two. From there on Heath Town and Wednesfield went their own ways. In 1896 both became Urban District Councils. But Heath Town UDC only survived until 1927 when it was swallowed up by Wolverhampton. Wednesfield UDC carried on and it was not until 1966 that, amidst much protest, Wolverhampton swallowed it up too, along with many other areas such as Bilston and Tettenhall.
But long before then the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians, whose fief, as we have seen, covered Wednesfield, had built, in Wednesfield in 1889, the Cottage Homes. These were a remarkable experiment in child care, an attempt to get children out of the workhouse. Covering an area of about 20 acres the Cottage Homes were like a children’s village – the total cost of erecting it was about £20,000 – and it contained schools, an infirmary, recreation areas as well as houses for the staff and, of course, the cottage homes for the children. The children were any children from the Guardians’ area whose parents could not look after them, because they were too poor, were too ill, were in prison or for any other reason. Some children stayed only for a short time until their home conditions improved; others stayed for longer periods, perhaps their whole childhood. In addition to the 3 Rs the children would be taught useful skills, such as baking or tailoring for the boys and domestic skills for the girls, fitting them to go into service. Although the Homes were self-contained and, originally at least out in the fields, there was interaction with village and children from the homes were (as late as the 1950s in the memory of one local resident) invited into local homes for a few days over Christmas. Eventually child care policies changed and smaller homes, scattered around the town, with the children attending ordinary schools, became the fashion and the Cottage Homes were gradually emptied of their charges in the 1960s, though some children were still in residence in the 1970s. When all the children had gone the buildings were demolished.