Social and Economic Background

This history covers a period from the early part of the 19th century to today – two full centuries. The fortunes of the family over this period are comparable with those of thousands of other families across the country, and, more specifically, in the Black Country.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution was on the cusp of another great leap forward. The invention of the flying shuttle by Kay in 1738 started the weaving industry on its journey from cottage industry to industrial process. The spinning jenny of James Hargreaves came in 1764 followed by Arkwright’s water frame spinning roller and Crompton’s mule which combined the two. The great cotton mills of Lancashire were born and became the exemplar for many other industries.

In 1763 James Watt was sent a Newcomen steam engine to repair (contrary to popular belief Newcomen, from Cornwall, was the first inventor of the steam engine many years before Watt developed his improvements) and, whilst working on it, discovered how to make it more efficient. He was initially financed by the owner of a Scottish ironworks, James Roebuck. Unfortunately he went bankrupt, and in 1773 Watt joined up with Matthew Boulton a Birmingham businessman. Their factory was at Soho Foundry, Smethwick where, incidentally, the author had his first job after qualifying as a solicitor. In 1782 Watt produced a rotary motion steam engine. This was a major breakthrough. It enabled the machine to drive many different types of machinery and not just produce an up and down pumping action which was fine for draining mines but not much good for anything else.

Factories making an ever increasing variety of items mushroomed all over the country. The Black Country was no exception. An abundance of iron, limestone and coal available locally stimulated the iron and steel industries. Watt’s invention stimulated many others, and by 1800 there were over 500 of Watt’s machines in mines and factories. The invention of the steam engine, and in particular the development of rotary motion, was obviously the stimulus for the creation of railway engines. The rapid development of the railways was in response to growing economic development throughout the country. The fundamental transition from employment being primarily in small workshops, making simple items, to employment in larger units of production using more sophisticated processes, was under way. This was both a stimulus for the development of the railways and a result thereof. These larger factories, with more sophisticated methods, provided a greater range of employment utilising a wider variety of skills. Although much of the work in factories was unskilled and poorly paid, the door was being opened for ambitious and able people, who had hitherto largely been confined to working on the land or in unskilled labouring jobs, to improve their skills and better themselves, The Jones family were typical of this progress.

Wolverhampton was founded in 985 AD when the Anglo Saxon King Aethered made a grant of land at Heantune to the town’s benefactress, Lady Wulfruna, who was probably the sister of King Edgar who died in 976. The grant of land covered an area bounded by Bilsatena (Bilston), Seeges League (Sedgley) and Tresull (Trysull). In 994 Lady Wulfruna endowed a minster church which stood on the present site of St Peter’s Church.

By the time of the Norman Conquest the population of the town was around 200. The settlement was surrounded by dense forests but was developing as a centre for trade. There are records of a market as far back as 1179. It is of interest that the market was still thriving some 300 years later when many of the neighbouring communities had ceased to hold weekly markets. This is a mark of the growing importance of Wolverhampton as a centre for trade. The wool trade was particularly important and a number of families, notably the Levesons, Ridleys, Jenyns and Cresswells, made their fortunes in wool, and had much influence in the development of Wolverhampton. Sir Stephen Jenyns, who had moved to London and become its Lord Mayor, did not forget his birthplace and founded the Grammar School in 1512.

A map produced by Isaac Taylor in 1750 shows that Wolverhampton was still a modest community compared with the size it is today. There was a cluster of houses around St. Peter’s Church spreading out for some short distance along the lines of the present day main roads. According to Taylor there were 1,440 houses and a population of 7,454 people.

Beyond the relatively small town centre there were substantial buildings, with appropriately large grounds, such as Graiseley Old Hall which is situated behind the Royal Wolverhampton School. Further out, Tettenhall was the boundary of the three Royal forests of Cannock, Brewood and Kinver.

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and the 19th century had a profound effect on Wolverhampton, as it did on many towns. Coal, iron and limestone were readily available in the area, and places such as Bilston next door rapidly became somewhat insalubrious places in which to live with the inhabitants living cheek by jowl with the furnaces. Whilst there were undoubtedly furnaces in Wolverhampton, the industry of the town depended far more on making articles from the basic iron and steel. By the early 19th century Wolverhampton was the most important centre for making goods from tinplate (sheet steel coated with tin) either painted in a plain colour or, increasingly, "japanned." Japanning is the process of painting with lacquer and varnishing with a hard varnish. Lock and key manufacture was another growing industry together with steel toy and jewellery making.

The development of Wolverhampton was greatly assisted by its situation. Communication is a vital element in the growth of any community. Wolverhampton was an established community of many years standing, and turnpike roads converged upon it. In the early 19th century there were daily stagecoaches to such diverse destinations as London, Chester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Holyhead, Gloucester, Bristol and Southampton. The railways rapidly began to replace these services and the building of the canals reinforced the establishment of the town as a centre for industry.

With the growth in its industry there was naturally an explosion in population. From 7,454 in 1750 the population had grown to 12,565 in 1801, 14,836 by 1811, 18,380 by 1821, 24,732 by 1831, 36,382 by 1841 (an increase of nearly 50% in 10 years), and 49,985 by 1851. The population continued to grow inexorably decade by decade, reaching 94,187 by 1901. In the first fifty years of the 19th century the population trebled. In the next fifty years of the century it almost doubled again. Where did they all come from? There was undoubtedly migration from the rural areas, but this was probably relatively minor compared with the influx of the Irish escaping potato famines of the early 19th century and the Welsh escaping the depression of the mining, iron and steel industries in Wales during this period. Wolverhampton and its neighbouring towns, "The Black Country" offered salvation. There were railways and canals to be built, coal to be mined, iron ore and limestone to be won, and the iron and steel works (and the many allied industries burgeoning at the time) to be manned.

This rapid growth in population was more than the infrastructure could cope with. Towards the end of the 18th century, when the population explosion was under way, the streets were unpaved, uncleared and unlit; drains or sewers, other than open ditches, did not exist, and the water supply was inadequate. In the early years of the 19th century there was some improvement. There were street lights in the form of oil lamps at every street corner, householders were obliged to clean the street in front of their houses every Thursday and Saturday, and ten new wells had been sunk. But it was not enough. In 1832 cholera struck. There were 578 cases and 193 deaths. Many of these were in the area off Stafford Street known as Carribee Island. The small alleyways housed stagnant ditches filled with sewage, a welcome breeding ground for disease. Cholera accounted for many of the largely Irish inhabitants living in the area. Wolverhampton got off lightly compared with neighbouring Bilston where there were 3,568 cases and 742 deaths in a population half the size.

In 1849 there was another cholera epidemic. The newly formed Town Council, which came into existence in 1848 when Wolverhampton was granted its Charter and officially became a borough, decided to do something about improving the quality of the water supply. They sought to take over the Waterworks Company but did not succeed until 1868. However, hygiene and the general environment gradually improved over this period under the influence of the central control of the Town Council.

Where did the Jones family fit into this social and economic background?

Return to the Introduction Return to the beginning Proceed to