Wolverhampton's suburbia

A few notes by Frank Sharman

We have very little idea of how big Wolverhampton was in its earliest times or how its buildings would have been distributed around the church. But it might be safe enough to imagine them fairly closely huddled around the church precincts. For as long as the town remained a market town and service centre the picture would have been much the same. The Fire Brief, issued after the great fire of 10th September 1696, gives a hint of that Wolverhampton was essentially an agricultural and agricultural service centre: its list of things destroyed by the fire includes "sixty dwelling houses, sixty bays of barns, with stables and outhouses full or corn, hay and other materials for husbandry".

Even as late as William Yates's map of Staffordshire of 1775 Wolverhampton remains pretty compact. Places like Bushbury, Tettenhall, Compton and Penn are shown as villages well into the countryside though to the east, of course, Bilston, Willenhall and Wednesfield are shown as quite substantial towns but still clearly separated from Wolverhampton by open land.

Even when industrial enterprise started to have its effect on the town the picture would, for many years, have remained much the same. Everyone lived as near the town centre as they could, not least because lack of transport meant that it was best to be within easy walking distance of your work. Indeed up until the nineteenth century it was the standard practice in England to live above your work - and that was not just the shopkeepers but the industrialists too. By the time of Isaac Taylor's map we can see this pattern beginning to break up in so far as housing was being provided around the old town centre in a variety of standards. Nevertheless there were still many large gardens to town houses near the town centre, for example between John Street and Cock Street. Some ribbon development has taken place along the road to Walsall and along North Street and the Brickkiln Street area is beginning to develop.

In the nineteenth century the town was beginning to fill up; the town house gardens have disappeared; suburbs to the east were expanding. A good example of what was happening was the Great Hall near Bilston Street, which was once the edge of town great house of the Levesons (later to become the Dukes of Sutherland). As Wolverhampton's industrial expansion swept round it, it went down in life and ended up as a factory. Even the factory was swept away by the demands for town centre uses and is remembered only in "Old Hall" teaware.

Those who could afford it began to move out of the town centre. For the most part they moved into the established, village, centres in the nearby rural areas. Some set up residence in Penn and Finchfield but the most favoured spot was Tettenhall, which had the advantage of having a reasonably decent road to it and a sufficient population to provide local services. So began the clear division between the suburbs of east and west Wolverhampton. As in nearly every town in the UK the better residential areas were established in the west where, amongst other things, the prevailing westerly winds would blow the town's smoke away. The poorer areas became established in the east, where the smoke was blown to, and nearer the established industries. The location of these industrial areas was recognised, then reinforced and perpetuated by the lines of the canals and railways.

As the nineteenth century went on new middle class houses were built, especially along the road to Tettenhall and along the road to Penn.

But most of the areas which are now middle class suburbia remained very rural. George Barnsby's "Chartism in the Black Country" contains this description of Bradmore in 1841: "better known as Lad's Grave is a small village of about a dozen cottages, almost secluded from the world where they labour in the fire-iron, lock and hammer line. ... Some are young and married and three are of the patriarchal sort whose word is law in the village. These old men are still obliged to work 12-14 hours a day".

Steen and Blacket's map of 1871 shows the development around St.John's and the much lower class development around Carribee Street. The town centre was now so crowded, unhealthy and inconvenient and that drastic action was needed and schemes for new roads in the centre were designed to improve traffic circulation, to improve the appearance of the place and, particularly, to remove the troublesome and unhealthy working classes to somewhere else - anywhere else. The Victoria County History (Vol.3, p.329) notes of the collegiate church of St. Peter: "their estates ... were laxly administered and their properties badly maintained. The clergy's preference for long leases and occasional fines, together with their lack of capital and incentive, stood in the way of long-term improvements. Until the middle of the 19th century the effective redevelopment of the centre of Wolverhampton was hindered by the slum dwellings and vacant lots of which the collegiate estates largely consisted". It may be significant that the church was reorganised and the borough council were created at much the same time and town centre redevelopment followed - albeit rather slowly.

John Steen's map of 1898 is significant for showing what is now called Whitmore Reans but which was originally called New Hampton, the name reflecting the intention to build a new town for the working classes displaced by slum clearance. But usually, where slum clearance took place those displaced were expected to make their own arrangements; they either crowded into existing low rent properties or occupied older premises being deserted by the fleeing middle classes.

It was the very end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth which saw an enormous expansion of suburbia. The main thrust of it was the provision of middle class housing.  A good and largely still extant example can be seen between Penn road and Lea Road, where the sale of the old Graiseley Estate to developers lead to the building of a high class suburb in the 1890s.

Council housing did not make much of an impact until the 1930s when a large number of estates was built, many of them being regarded, at the time, as very good examples of municipal housing.

The development of the western suburbs does not seem to have had many unusual features. Mostly agricultural land was sold off in greater or smaller blocks and the builder who purchased the land would erect whatever class, style and density of housing he thought would sell most profitably. There are other instances of the gardens and grounds of gentlemen's residences being sold off and used for housing. A small scale example of this would be Fern Leys in Finchfield; and a larger one would be the estate built in the grounds of the Spinney, Finchfield. Bantock House and Park is, of course, a notable example of where this did not happen.

It would be of great interest to plot the expansion of the town (or even small parts of it), by both time and class, to try to determine what governed what land was used and what types of houses were put on which bits of land. Up until 1947 there were, in effect, no planning laws to make or regulate those decisions. In the other areas it would be interesting to find out the extent to which the industrialists provided housing.

Wolverhampton's suburbs do contain some unusual features. One of them is the remarkable number of trees preserved in the western suburbs. Why did this happen? Some areas with distinctive features which may be worth a write up are New Hampton, Fallings Park Garden Suburb, the Competition Suburb, Parkdale and Castlecroft Gardens. Are they any more such oddities? (And has anyone tried to explain the street names of Wolverhampton?).

Notes about these areas will be added here as time serves or when someone else writes some of them.

An outline of the work of Major Kenneth Hutchinson Smith

Major Kenneth Hutchinson Smith designed and built many houses in Wolverhampton in the inter-war years, including Castlecroft Gardens. He is most well known for his "mock Tudor" houses - but were these really fakes, or honest fakes, or ...?

As usual, all comments, additions, suggestions, whatever, will be gratefully received.