Local Personalities and Prominent Families

John Clemson

John Clemson was a wealthy miller and maltster who lived at 33 Market Place in the lovely three storey house that still stands today. The adjoining building, now a shop, was his malthouse. He was joint owner, with the Chapelry Estate, of one of the windmills that stood on the eastern side of Rose Hill.

His daughter Mary married Ralph Dickinson Gough, a Wolverhampton solicitor, and first chairman of Willenhall Board of Health. John Clemson died in 1750.

Number 33 Market Place.  The building on the right was the old malthouse.
    John Clemson's malthouse, now a shop called
    Davey's Locker.

The Hartill Family

One of Willenhall’s prominent families, the Hartills, became successful businessmen, tradesmen, manufacturers, and property owners. The family moved to Willenhall from the Kinver area and claimed to be descended from the Lords of the Manor of Hartill in Cheshire.

Members of the family had arrived in Willenhall by the early 17th century. Thomas Hartyll, born around 1610, had 3 children baptised here in the 1630s and 1640s. His son George married Isobel Cross at Wolverhampton in 1662. During the 17th and 18th centuries, members of the family were locksmiths and landowners.

Isaac Hartill, a genial, friendly, and popular man, ran the Neptune Inn in Walsall Street for many years. The inn stood opposite St. Giles' Church. On his death in 1820, at the age of 90, he was succeeded by his son Isaac Hartill junior, whose son Jeremiah, was born in 1804-05 at the Neptune. Jeremiah became a prosperous doctor in the town, establishing his medical practice in 1826. He was very involved at St. Giles' Church and became a church warden in 1838, continuing in the post until 1841.

1832 had been a wake-up call for Willenhall because of the terrible cholera epidemic in neighbouring Bilston, where 745 people died, almost one in twenty of the population. Willenhall had the same unsanitary living conditions, and dreadful slum housing as Bilston, but got off very lightly with 42 cases, and 8 deaths. The Public Health Committee decided that something had to be done to improve conditions in the town, to safeguard it from another epidemic. They decided to appoint an assistant overseer at a salary of £20 per year, to ensure that there was better administration of the Poor Laws. The post was given to a member of the Hartill family, Mr. Randle Hartill, who held the post for a short while, as did his successor. The post then remained vacant.

   Jeremiah Hartill. From Hackwood's Annals of

The efforts of the committee were in vain, because too little was done, too slowly. When the terrible cholera epidemic of 1849 spread rapidly through the town, three doctors worked tirelessly, disregarding their own safety, to save as many lives as possible. One of the three doctors was Jeremiah Hartill, the other two were Mr. J. Froysell, and Dr. Pardey.

Jeremiah had a new house built in 1847 on the corner of Walsall Road and Birmingham Street. At the time he was a prominent fighter for land reform, because it was almost impossible to obtain freehold or leasehold land in the town. A formal public dinner was held in recognition of his efforts. During the dinner it was suggested that he should call his house 'The Manor House' because of his assistance in overcoming the opposition of the Lords of the Manor to land reform. As a result the house became known as 'The Manor House', a name it still carries today.

Jeremiah was eventually joined in the medical practice by his two nephews, William Henry Hartill (born in 1838-39), who joined in 1861. William's brother John Thomas Hartill (born in 1847-48) joined the practice in 1869.

In 1881 Jeremiah gave £200 to the vicar and wardens at St. Giles' Church to be invested in consolidated annuities. The interest was to be annually distributed on January 1st to 20 poor people of the town. This became known as the Hartill Charitable Trust. Jeremiah never married. In the 1881 census he is listed as living at the Orchard in Wednesfield. By that time John Thomas Hartill had moved into 'The Manor House'. Jeremiah died at Wednesfield on 26th February, 1888.
The two brothers, William Henry, and John Thomas, married daughters of James Tildesley.

William married James's eldest daughter Louisa Elizabeth, born in 1842-43 and John married her younger sister Emily, born in 1847-48.

Like his uncle Jeremiah, John was very active at St. Giles' Church, and for a time was a church warden.

John Thomas Hartill's house, 'The Manor House' in Walsall Road, now a residential home.

Two of his sons entered the church. Percy Hartill, B.D. became Archdeacon, and Rector at Stoke on Trent, and his brother the Rev. Edgar Hartill became Vicar of Penn, and Rural Dean of Trysull. There were two daughters, Gertrude, and Ellen. The family shared the house with John's sister Eliza, and his medical assistant Henry E. Jones. They also had several servants.

William Henry Hartill's house, number 2 Walsall Road.

William and Louisa lived next door to John and Emily at number 2 Walsall Road.

William's daughter Alice, born in 1868-69 became the first Staffordshire J.P. to sit on the Willenhall Bench, and her sister Edith Florence, born in 1869-70 spent much of her time working for the Bible Reading Union.

Their other children included 2 sons, Albert and Frederick, and three daughters, Emily, Ethel, and Winifred.

William was Willenhall's second Medical Officer for Health, and a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire. He died in 1889.

John continued in the medical practice, and followed William as Medical Officer for Health for Willenhall. He became President of the Staffordshire branch of the British Medical Association in 1885, and again in 1907. Like his brother he was a J.P. for Staffordshire. John continued in practice until his death in 1913.

Thomas Hincks

Thomas Hinks (1715 to 1777) was a prosperous maltster. He married Mary Thurstans from Shareshill, and lived at Dale House in Bilston Street which was built around 1750, and is now Dale House Restaurant. His malthouse, which adjoined Dale House, became Willenhall's first cinema, the Coliseum, which opened in 1914. The cinema was then modernised, and became the Dale Cinema, which opened on the 31st October, 1932, and could seat 1,150 people. It later became a bingo hall, and is now a Wetherspoon's pub, appropriately called The Malthouse.

In 1763 Thomas purchased two pieces of land from the Fowler family, which had originally belonged to the Levesons. The land consisted of a group of fields known as 'The Harpers' which now form part of the Memorial Park. The other land was originally the site of the Leveson family's home, the Moat House. It extended from Leveson Street to Wood Street, and from Stafford Street to Cemetery Road. When Thomas died, the land was inherited by his son Joseph who married Sarah Molineux, the daughter of a wealthy local ironmaster. On Joseph's death, his daughter Barbara inherited 'The Harpers', and his son Samuel inherited the Moat House land.

Joseph's grandson, Thomas (1775 to 1866) became a trustee of the Chapel of Ease Estate, and was a chapel warden when the notorious Rev. William Moreton was Curate of Willenhall.

Around 1812 Moreton was compelled to make a deed of arrangement with his creditors, and Thomas was instructed to oversee the payment of the debt from the revenues of the church living.

Dale House, now a restaurant.

The entrance to J. D. Wetherspoon's pub in New Road, appropriately called The Malthouse.

It opened on 21st December, 1999.

During his time as chapel warden, Thomas became involved in a curious incident at St. Giles Church. In the 1820s there was great rivalry between certain people in Darlaston and others in Willenhall, which sometimes got out of hand, leading to rioting and fighting in the streets. This was possibly fuelled by the cockfighting matches between the two towns which were extremely competitive. The Willenhall townspeople were justifiably proud of their magnificent weather cock that stood on top of St. Giles' Church tower, which to some symbolised the sport.

On occasion, protagonists from Willenhall would taunt the Darlaston townsfolk by scattering corn in St. Lawrence's churchyard while calling their weathercock from its tower. It is believed that some of the people from Darlaston took their revenge in an unforeseen way, which soon became apparent to everyone in Willenhall.

When the people of Willenhall awoke on the morning of Sunday 22nd July, 1827 they discovered that the weathercock had been stolen. The general feeling was that it had been taken by people from Darlaston in retaliation. Two days later the following public notice was issued by Thomas Hincks and James Whitehouse:

From Frederick Hackwood's 'Annals of Willenhall'.

The notice had no effect. No one came forward with information, and the weathercock could not be found. The empty tower dented Willenhall's pride, and so a new weather vane was quickly installed.

Some time later the weathercock was was found by coalminers reopening an old pit which lay between the two towns. The weather vane was quickly removed, and the weathercock reinstalled in its former position, possibly more securely than before.

Frederick Hackwood, in his 'Annals of Willenhall' states that a copy of the public notice used to hang in the Neptune Inn as a curiosity.

The HSBC building, once the Metropolitan Bank.

Read about George Benjamin Thorneycroft an important local benefactor

Dale House, and the Dale Cinema are on the left, and the Metropolitan Bank is on the right. From an old postcard.

Read the Willenhall entry in Harrison, Harrod & Company's 1861 Directory of Staffordshire
The Tildesley Family

Members of the Tildesley family were, and still are, successful Willenhall businessmen, manufacturers, and professionals in many walks of life. The first family member known to have lived in Willenhall was Jeffery Tildesley who moved to the town from Tong in Shropshire around 1730. In 1731 he married Elizabeth Thomas, daughter of the landlord of the Bell Inn in Market Place.

Jeffery purchased the Bull’s Head Inn in Wolverhampton Street and ran it until his death on 11th February, 1792, at the age of 86.

He was very involved in the local church, and in 1760 was appointed as a trustee of the Chapel of Ease Estate. He had a large family including 3 sons, John, Samuel, and Richard. He is buried in St. Giles’ Church where there is a memorial to him. In 1842 the Bull’s Head was run by a second Jeffery Tildesley, presumably Jeffery senior’s grandson.

The Bull's Head. From Frederick Hackwood's Annals of Willenhall.

One of Jeffery’s grandson’s Richard Tildesley (1798 to 1858), was the first person to open a brass foundry in Willenhall. He also cast malleable iron at his factory in Cross Street. Richard’s eldest daughter Harriet married the well known miller, baker, and grocer, Joshua Rushbrooke in 1849. The family had at least one shop in Cross Street because Richard is listed in Pigot & Company’s Directory of 1842 as a beer seller, and Violetta Tildesley is listed as a grocer and provision dealer, both in Cross Street. Violetta was married to Thomas Tildesley, a prosperous grocer, and like many other family members, a staunch supporter of the Methodist cause. Thomas died in 1837.

Pigot & Company’s Directory also lists an Isaac Tildesley, an ironmonger and beer seller in Church Street, and another Jeffery Tildesley, a shopkeeper in Workhouse Lane.

Members of the family opened the first malleable iron foundry in Willenhall when Matthew Tildesley (1811 to 1879) jointly founded John Harper & Company with his cousin John Harper at Albion Works.

Another family member, Jesse Tildesley, born in 1836, founded Jesse Tildesley Limited, a firm of structural engineers. He is described in the 1881 census as an iron bridge builder employing 32 men and 9 boys. He lived at 10 New Road with his parents, Josiah born in 1810-11, his mother Ann, and two younger sisters, Eliza and Susanna. They also had two live-in servants. Jesse was a member of Willenhall Local Board, and the first chairman of Willenhall Urban District Council in 1894, and continued in the post until 1896. He also became a keen Methodist and lay preacher. Along with his cousin James Carpenter Tildesley, he was one of main contributors to the Willenhall Magazine, which was published monthly by J. Loxton, in the Market Place, during 1862 and 1863. Jesse died in 1919.


James Tidesley (left), Josiah Tildesley (right). From Frederick Hackwood's Annals of Willenhall.

The Tildesley family ran one of most successful lock making companies in Willenhall; Carpenter and Tildesley. It all began in 1830 when John Young and James Carpenter jointly patented an improved design of latch bolt and lock. They decided to divide the patent into rim lock use and mortice lock use, which gave John Young the right to make mortice locks, and James Carpenter the right to produce rim locks. Carpenter’s lock became known as "Carpenters lift up lock" and was a great success.

He built a large factory in New Road, known as Summerford Works and produced large numbers of locks. His daughter Harriet married James Tildesley, a local lockmaker. When James Carpenter died in 1844, John Carpenter and James Tildesley inherited the business, Carpenter and Company, which in 1851 became Carpenter and Tildesley. James dissolved his partnership with John Carpenter and became the sole owner of the company. James greatly developed the business, which now exported large numbers of locks to Australia. He also developed a double-handed lock which could be used on a right or left hand door. James Tildesley was chairman at the first meeting of the Willenhall Local Board of Health on the 18th September, 1854 which had been set up under the terms of the 1848 Public Health Act. Two of his daughters married members of the Hartill family. His eldest daughter Louisa Elizabeth, born in 1842-43 married John Hartill, and her younger sister Emily, born in 1847-48 married John's brother William. James died in 1876 and the business was inherited by his eldest sons, James Carpenter Tildesley, and Clement Tildesley.

An advert from the 1897 edition of the Western Australian Post Office Gazette. Courtesy of George McKay.

They both became County Magistrates and lived at Summerford House with their mother, brothers Roland, and Ernest, and sister Florence. They also had two live-in servants.

Clement became the second chairman of Willenhall Urban District Council, his predecessor being his cousin Jesse.

His younger brother Roland, a solicitor, was Clerk to the Council, a post he occupied from 1894 until 1920.

James Carpenter Tildesley was clearly a busy man. As well as being a J.P. for Staffordshire, he was Chairman of Willenhall Petty Sessional Division, President of Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce (1885), Chairman of Willenhall Local Board, Chairman of Willenhall Liberal Association, and Sub-Editor of Birmingham Morning News. It was mainly due to his efforts that the Willenhall Literary Institute was founded, and the Free Library established. In recognition of this work, he was presented with an inscription at a public presentation on the 4th January, 1869.

He was a keen author, writing works on Methodism, local history, and with his cousin Jesse contributed to the monthly Willenhall Magazine in 1862 and 1863. His work on Methodism was entitled ‘Sketches of Early Methodism’. James retired to Penkridge, and wrote a history of Penkridge which was published by Steen & Company of Wolverhampton in 1886. James Carpenter Tildesley died in 1907 at the age of 67.

Thomas Tildesley had a timber yard in Railway Lane, which caught fire on 6th July, 1899. It was one of the town's largest fires, and caused around £2,000 worth of damage.

One of the family’s other companies, W. H. Tildesley Limited, founded by William Horace Tildesley in 1874 is still going strong today. Early products included curry combs, sweat scrapers, tail combs for horses, vermin traps, and horse shoe blanks. The company began to concentrate on drop forgings and has produced all kinds of forgings for many applications, both at home and abroad, including vehicle parts, architectural ironwork, and components for the admiralty. The factory, called Clifford Works is in Bow Street, and still family owned and run today. William Horace Tildesley was succeeded by his son, Horace William Tildesley, who in turn was succeeded by his son David. David in turn was followed by his eldest son Richard, who died prematurely. Today the Managing Director is John Tildesley

A family member who is well known as a local local historian is Norman W. Tildesley, born in 1900-01. He was elected as a councillor for Willenhall Urban District Council in 1934, and continued as such until 1966 when Willenhall became part of Walsall. He was then elected to Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council to represent Willenhall. In 1946-47 he was chairman of Willenhall Urban District Council. Norman also regularly attended St. Giles' Church and became a lay reader. He is best remembered for his book "A History of Willenhall" published in 1951 in conjunction with Willenhall Council to commemorate the Festival of Britain. Norman died on 19th March, 1993 at the age of 92.

One final family business which must be mentioned is Reginald Tildesley's garage and car showroom on the corner of New Road.

Reginald Tildesley was Willenhall's main Ford dealer for many years, and also treasurer of the Willenhall Operatic Society.

The garage closed in 1982.

Reginald Tildesley's garage, around 1927. Courtesy of the late Jim Boulton.

Doctor Richard Wilkes, M.D.

No description of local worthies would be complete without a mention of a well respected local figure, Doctor Richard Wilkes, who will always be associated with the street that bears his name, Doctors Piece. The family are also remembered thanks to Wilkes Street.

The first local record of the family goes back to 1331 when John Wylkys of Darlaston witnessed a deed of Roger, Lord of Darlaston. The family were granted land at Bentley, and by the early 15th century had moved to Willenhall. In 1413 a Richard Wylkys of Willenhall witnessed a Bentley deed.

The family built a large house in Willenhall which was badly damaged, or completely destroyed in 1659 during the town’s disastrous fire. The house was rebuilt by Richard’s father and became known as The Old Hall.

Richard Wilkes was born on the 16th March, 1690. His parents were Richard and Lucretia Wilkes. Lucretia came from Wood Eaton, her maiden name was Astley.

Richard was educated at Trentham, followed in 1910 by St. John’s College, Cambridge where he studied theology and obtained a B.A. in January 1715, followed by an M.A. He became proficient in algebra after beginning a course of maths lectures in April 1711 that were given by Mr. Saunderson. From 1715 he taught maths at Cambridge, and in 1718 became a fellow of the college.

Richard took deacon’s orders and was ordained as deacon to the parish of Stowe by Chartley in Staffordshire, between Stafford and Uttoxeter. He preached once at St. Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton, but became disillusioned with the established church, and never took priest’s orders.

Around 1720 he returned to Willenhall where he began to practice medicine. Although he was not a qualified doctor, he adopted the title of M.D. although he was not entitled to do so. He played a leading role in the life of the town, and took an interest in the health and well being of his poorer neighbours, helping them whenever possible, and dispensing medicine to them.

Richard Wilkes, M.D.

Richard married his first wife, Rachel Manlove, from Abbots Bromley, on the 24th June, 1725. At the same time he acquired a large fortune, she was extremely wealthy.

In the 1730s he wrote a treatise on dropsy in cattle, which was causing problems in the midlands at the time. Richard was a prodigious reader, and collected historical manuscripts. He became extremely knowledgeable about the history of Staffordshire, and made copious notes on the subject.

By the time of his father’s death in 1741 he had become extremely involved in church life and was a trustee of the Chapel of Ease Estate. When the chapel was demolished in 1748 to make way for St. Giles' Church, he played a prominent role in the demolition of the chapel, and the rebuilding of the new church, as can be seen from the following entry in his diary:

May 6th, 1748. This day I set out the foundations of a new church in this town; for the old one being half-timber, the sills, pillars, etc. were so decayed that the inhabitants, when they met together, were in great danger of being killed. It appeared to me that the old church must have been rebuilt, at least the middle aisle of it; and that the first fabric was greatly ornamented, and must have been the gift of some rich man, or a number of such, the village then being but thin of inhabitants; and, before the iron manufacture was begun here, they could not have been able to erect such a fabric; but no date or hint relating to it was to be found, nor anything about it come to us by tradition.

Richard became a church warden at the new church. In 1741 he became a joint trustee of Willenhall’s workhouse, with John Wilkes, a surgeon. Richard  also owned a waterworks which supplied water to parts of Wolverhampton. It stood on what became the site of the Chillington Iron Works, and later the Chillington Tool Company. He stated in his diary that the first steam engine to raise any quantity of water was erected there.

The Old Hall. From an old postcard.

A later view of the Old Hall.

His first wife Rachel, died in 1756. Shortly afterwards Richard married his second wife, Frances Bendish, widow of Higham Bendish, and daughter of Sir John Wrottesley. Sadly the marriage only lasted for 4 years, because Richard died on 20th March, 1760 at the age of 70, after a recurrence of gout in his stomach. He was buried beneath his pew in St. Giles’ Church. After his death, Frances left Willenhall for good, to live with her sister in London.

Richard never had children, his closest family relatives other than his wife were members of the Unett family, because his aunt Ann married George Unett of Wolverhampton. In 1800 a monument to Richard was erected near the family’s pew in St. Giles’ Church by his heirs, Captain Richard Wilkes Unett, and Mr. John Wilkes Unett. It was inscribed as follows:

Near this place
Lie the remains
Richard Wilkes, M.D.

Formerly fellow of St. John’s College Cambridge; the
last of an ancient and respectable family resident at
this place 300 years and upwards. He married first,
Rachel, eldest daughter of Rowland Manlove, of Lees
Hill, in this county, esq.; secondly, Frances, daughter of
Sir John, and sister

Of the late
Sir Richard Wrottesley, of Wrottesley, Bart.
And widow of Higham Bendish, Eaq.
He died March 6, 1760,
aged 70 years.

Richard’s house and estate were inherited by his wife. On her death they were to be passed-on to the Rev. Thomas Unett. Frances survived for another 40 years, but Thomas Unett died in 1785. She decided to terminate her interest in the estate so that other members of the Unett family might benefit. In July 1791 she conveyed the estate to the trustees of the Rev. Thomas Unett; Thomas Reynolds, a Willenhall maltster, and John Ward from Stafford, a surgeon. The house, outbuildings, and garden had been sold two years earlier by auction on 10th September, 1789 at the Swan Inn in Wolverhampton. The remainder of the estate consisting of approximately 455 acres of land, houses, and woods at Smethwick was sold by auction at the Bell Inn on the 4th August, 1791.

At the auction in September 1789, the Old Hall was acquired by John Beebee, a gentleman. In 1813 it was put up for sale, but no buyer could be found. It was re-advertised in 1823, and finally sold in 1826 to John Read. Mr. Read later sold the building to Charles Neve of Wolverhampton, who in 1871 was renting the building to David Turner, a master butcher, and John Wood, a padlock maker. Within a few years the building was sold to George Grimley, a key stamper, who lived there with his family and two servants. He built a factory in the grounds which he called Hall Works, and used part of the hall as a warehouse. In 1918 or 1919 the property was sold to David Waine of John Waine and Sons, lock manufacturers.

Advertisement for the sale of the Old Hall in 1823.

In 1923 the house and grounds were sold to Willenhall Urban District Council for £3,000. The estate was advertised as the Old Hall, with an  engine house, stack works, shops, warehouse, stabling, coach house, machine house and other buildings. The house was initially let to Dr. Arnim Fuoss, a physician and surgeon who occupied the premises until around 1932. The council initially considered converting the building into a combined Town Hall and fire station, but the idea was abandoned, and by 1934 the Old Hall had disappeared to make way for the purpose built town hall which still stands today.

Richard Wilkes' copious writings about the history of Staffordshire, and the surviving manuscripts from his collection, form a lasting legacy, which is, and will continue to be appreciated by historians for years to come. One person who greatly benefited from Richard’s work was the Rev. Stebbing Shaw, who extensively relied on it for his ‘History of Staffordshire’. Whilst looking through Richard’s papers, Shaw found the following epitaph which Richard wrote during a severe illness, some years before his death:


Here, reader, stand awhile, and know
Whose carcase ‘tis that rots below.
A Man’s, who walk’d by Reason’s rule,
Yet sometimes err’d and play’d the fool;
A Man’s sincere in all his ways,
And full of the Creator’s praise;
Who laugh’d at Priestcraft, pride, and strife,
And all the little tricks of life.
He lov’d his king, his country more,
And dreadful party-rage forebore;
He told nobility the truth,
And wink’d at hasty slips of youth.
The honest poor man’s steady friend,
The villain’s scourge in hopes to mend.
His father, mother, children, wife,
His riches, honours, length of life,
Concern not thee. Observe what’s here.
He rests in hope, and not in fear.

Fontana's confectionary shop in Stafford Street. Mr. Fontana, who is standing in the doorway, was born in Italy and sold wonderful ice cream. From an old postcard.

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