4. The Twentieth Century
The turn of the century saw the beginning of industrialisation in Wednesfield and, as the century went by, increasing amounts of residential development, as Wednesfield got caught up in the expansion of the Black Country.
David Byrd, who had been sent to Weldless Tube by TI to learn the ropes, kindly informed us of the very large expansion of the company by TI with a huge continuous tube-rolling mill, built at the end of the 1960s. Billets were fed-in at one end, and finished tube came out at the other. The factory also had its own railway line running into the site, built by BR. The finished tubes were made to a very high specification for use in demanding applications including aircraft, nuclear power stations, rams, and racing cars.
Paterson & Gears of Birmingham built a confectionery factory at the junction of Hall Street and Well Lane in 1902 but closed a few years later. The works were taken on by the Patent Axle Box Foundry which grew to employ some 400 people.
The James Metal Works, near Rookery Street Bridge, were established about the same time and are recorded as employing some 50 people by 1909. After 1918 it merged with other similar works and became the Wolverhampton Metal Company.
In 1910 the Day family, who had made keys in North Street for generations, moved into the business of making car radiators. After the first world war they moved out of Wednesfield to the old Clyno works in Wolverhampton, and then to Willenhall. In the late 1930s they formed a company called Willenhall Motor Radiator Ltd and then moved out of Willenhall back to Wednesfield where, in Neachell's Lane, they expanded into assembling motor bodies, employing large numbers of people.
In 1911 the Wednesfield Steel Works are recorded as already in existence in Neachell’s Lane when it had 50 workmen but little else is known about it.
There was a number of other smaller industrial trades and the trap makers, keys makers, lock makers, hinge and handle makers continued. The industrial revolution had finally hit Wednesfield. But it had not long hit when the Depression years knocked it back. Works closed and others cut back on their activities and on employment. Smallshire feels that Wednesfield did not suffer as much as other nearby places, probably because Wednesfield still had a sustaining rural background: “there were more vegetable gardens, pig sties, poultry runs and off job work in Wednesfield than in nearby towns”.
The beginning of the century also saw the dramatic event of the destruction of St. Thoams's by fire. It was quickly rebuilt, largely on the old foundations, and keeping most of the tower - and most of the general appearance of the exterior.
Along with this industrial development came new housing. “The terrace houses of Hart Road, Neachell’s Lane, Bolton Road, Wolverhampton Road and Wood End Road [were] built to accommodate the workers of the nearby factories”. And other parts of the township began to be built up with council and private housing. The UDC created the Nordley Hill Estate, later extended by Woden Avenue.
There were other developments too. Wednesfield got a cinema surprisingly early. The Ideal, in Rookery Street, seems to have started as early as 1912, in a building which started life in 1852 a a chapel, used by the Methodists until 1886. Thereafter its history is uncertain until the cinema appeared. It kept going in this use until 1962, when it became a dance hall. (Later it became a carpet shop and is now part of a builders’ merchant’s yard). The Ideal, like many nof the smaller Black Country cinemas as known as “The Smack”. It was small and nowhere near as flashy as the other cinema in town, the Regal. The Regal, which could hold over 1,000 people, opened in 1935. It lasted until 1962, when it was demolished and replaced by a supermarket (then Fine Fare, now Somerfields).
When the depression receded there was some further industrial expansion. The most notable case was A. E. Jenks and Cattell Ltd., which had started in the 1900’s in Willenhall as Enoch Burrows, manufacturers of grid irons, adopting their new name on the death of Enoch Burrows. In the later 1930s they moved from Willenhall to Neachell's Lane and became a very large concern manufacturing tools of all kinds.
During the second world war there was a good deal of industrial expansion and firms such as Weldless Steel Tube, Jenks and Cattell, Willenhall Motor Radiator, Brockhouse Castings and Wolverhampton Metal expanded their works.
That was not to last for long. Wednesfield’s fields were to prove an irresistible attraction to Wolverhampton, which was finding itself short of space for council housing. Their solution was the favoured one of the time, an Overspill Agreement. One of the solutions to the post-war housing crisis was the building of new towns, which decanted people out of overcrowded towns and cities to brand new towns. Another solution was for authorities with too many people and not enough land to build on, was for those authorities to enter into agreements with authorities where there was land available, to create new estates in the area of the receiving authority. The receiving authority was not necessarily close by but Wolverhampton did manage to find nearby authorities, one of which was the Wednesfield UDC (and another of which was Seisdon RDC who “received” many Wolverhampton people in Wombourne”. Under the 1952 agreement Wolverhampton would build two estates and the houses would be allocated to local people and to people from Wolverhampton. Wednesfield, of course, continued to build its own estates. And thus the Long Knowle, Lichfield Road, Linthouse Lane and Ashmore Park estates came into being. Nearly all the fields of Wednesfield had now disappeared and the town had changed from its old agricultural aspect to industry in the south and suburbia in the north.
Industrial development continued throughout the 50s and 60s. Ductile Steels of Willenhall set up a new company called Ductile Planetary Mill Ltd, to exploit the new process of “planetary rolling” and established it in Wednesfield. The group moved its head office to Wednesfield in 1963. C & B Smith, the iron founders from Wolverhampton moved in and Aaron Weight developed the Strawberry Lane estate, with his own company, Tractor Spares Ltd., and others such as Howard Perry (steel stockholders) and Decca Radio and Television Ltd.. And other companies expanded or moved in.
In 1959 the High Street was widened and new shops provided by the remarkable expedient of building the new buildings behind the existing ones and then demolishing the old buildings and throwing their sites into the highway. Almost nothing was left of the old High Street scene. In 1960 a new open air market was established behind the new shops – Wednesfield had never had a market before. (It later moved onto a car park near the council offices and, in very recent times, onto the High Street).
By the mid-1960s, when the local economy was going well, the central government managed to convince itself that big was beautiful and that bigger local authorities would get many advantages of scale. So in 1966 local authorities throughout the country were to be amalgamated. Wednesfield, containing as it now did a vast number of Wolverhampton council houses, was, much against its will, thrown into Wolverhampton (along with Tettenhall, Bilston and some other parts).
It was not long after these amalgamations had taken place than the economy started to wilt and soon something like industrial death followed. Many of the companies in Wednesfield (as elsewhere in the whole Black Country) closed or drastically contracted. Thousands were thrown out of work and vast tracts of once industrial land lay derelict. The country was in the painful process of moving into a post-industrial economy. The central government had no very clear idea of what sort of economy was to replace the manufacturing industries but did have an idea that the old industrial areas needed reviving. So, amongst other schemes, they set up a number of Development Corporations, each of whom received large sums of money to do something – anything really. The Black Country got the Black Country Development Corporation whose idea was to make the place more attractive to new industry (though what sort of industry that might be, they did not seem to know clearly) and for this purpose they cleared and tidied up derelict industrial land, improved access by building large new roads which lead through any vacant space to any available motorway, and they granted planning permission for development – any development. In this way new roads appeared round Wednesfield and what became known as the Bentley Bridge Development appeared. This area was slow to fill up and when it did do it was, of course, not as an industrial estate, but as a retail and leisure estate. The BCDC never seems to have given too much thought as to how this development would impact upon Wednesfield (or, even, Wolverhampton itself). Integrating it, or at least linking it, with the old heart of Wednesfield continues to exercise the minds of the planners. Work is currently (April 2008) going on to try to achieve this. And other work is under way or planned to upgrade the environment of the Wyrley and Essington as it passes through the town and to modernise Wednesfield Park. All this will help to fit Wednesfield for the 21st century.