2. Life in Wolverhampton 1849 - c.1866

Gale says that Samuel Griffiths' general interest in iron dates back at least to 1849, for it was in that year that he started to publish his Iron Trade Circular.

By 1850 he was doing well enough to build Whitmore Reans Hall. Anthony Rose says: "Until 1850 there were less than 50 houses in the area, but that year Councillor Samuel Griffiths, an ironmaster who had a somewhat shady reputation, built Whitmore Reans Hall on the site of the principal buildings belonging to Whitmore End House and Farm." He adds: "The building had huge walls, which ran along Lower Street with a drive up to the house via a gated entrance in Evans Street." Later the hall was owned by the Evangelist Brothers and then became St. Winifred's Girls' Home. Rose comments: "The grounds were often used by local schools for nature trails and had a number of apple trees where much scrumping took place". Of the Hall's later history, Rose tells us that two high-rise flats now "stand roughly where Whitmore End House stood almost 160 years ago".

At some unknown date he became a town councillor in Wolverhampton. In assessing him as a councillor, Jones, wrote:

Mr. Councillor Samuel Griffiths was a clever man. He had a wonderful gift of language, his voice was either sympathetic or cheerful and loud. Having great power of facial expression, he could be the jolliest friend - lively and witty - or could appear the most simple, open-hearted person imaginable. When wishing to gain his end he could plead with pathos and eloquence; but he never lost sight of the "main chance."

Griffiths was concerned, as a councillor, in the great water scandal of 1854 and 1855. Jones, of course, objected to his conduct, which does seem to have been a little heated, perhaps because the affair was bad for his business; but it was Griffiths who proposed an honest solution which was nearly that which eventually sorted out the matter.

Read about Griffiths' role in the affair

And he was still a councillor when he was involved in a local bank's cessation of trading. According to Gale he went bankrupt in 1857, but recovered and carried on. Of this affair Jones writes:


Wolverhampton, being in the centre of Staffordshire, was the capital of the coal and iron trade. The town was surrounded by large numbers of smelting furnaces and collieries. For some time past the iron and coal trades were in a low and depressed condition. The miners of the district were on strike against a proposed reduction of wages, many of the smelting furnaces were closed down, and men were discharged every week by hundreds. Owing to this state of things several of the largest and most respected merchants and ironmasters in the town previously deemed solvent suddenly failed to meet their engagements, having liabilities which it was hopeless for them to attempt to discharge.

The principal bank, known as the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Bank, suddenly stopped payment. As the news spread crowds of people rushed to the bank to read the notice on the closed doors. Despair seemed impressed on every face, small groups of people stood about here and there, talking to each other in whispers; fear and dismay haunted those who felt they had lost their all. Among the largest debtors to the bank was Councillor Samuel Griffiths. This was the man who made a disturbance at the Council Meeting when the difficulty occurred in reference to paying the cost of the defeated Waterworks Bill. Mr. Griffiths sneeringly told the members to pay the debt themselves. The same man now became an insolvent. Mr. Griffiths owed the bank £163,547, and was the principal cause of the stoppage. The bank, after being closed for three weeks, opened its doors again, much to the satisfaction of the inhabitants. …

If his speculations did not turn out successfully, he was reckless and daring. He is said to have completely hoodwinked the manager of the bank.

During his insolvency he dressed in shabby, threadbare clothes, and wore an old, battered hat. Meeting a friend in the street, who looked at him with surprise, he laughed, and, with a wink in his eye, said: "Old fellow, will this do for an insolvent ?"

Jones rather implies that Griffiths had managed to keep at least some of his money. Certainly, he recovered from the disaster and by 1860 he is listed in the official Mineral Statistics as operating blast furnaces at Bilston and Wednesbury.

His ‘merchanting’ continued, though by 1861 he was described as a ‘metal broker’ (Harrison Harrod & Company’s Directory 1861).

At sometime about now the very large japanning company, Walton's, of Old Hall, went into liquidation and all its property was auctioned off.  Griffiths saw this as a new business opportunity.  Jones, in his book, "The Story of Japan, Tin-Plate Working and Bicycle and Galvanising Trades in Wolverhampton", gives this somewhat jaundiced account of this episode in Samuel Griffith's entreprenurial life:

This gentleman was of a sanguine and enterprising temperament and having made money by speculations in the iron trade, went to the sale and bought a large number of the best patterns.  Seeing an empty factory, which stood near the Old Hall, he took it, intending to take the customers of the old firm by offering Walton's patterns at reduced prices.  To make sure of the venture, he offered higher wages to some of the workmen.  But it was soon seen that Griffiths had made a huge mistake;  knowing nothing of the trade himself and meeting fierce competition from other firms in the trade before him, he rapidly lost his money, and after struggling for about ten months, being disappointed at the result, he closed his works and went back to his iron trade speculations.

In 1861 he stood for Parliament, unsuccessfully. An election poster of the time, dated "Wolverhampton, 28th June, 1861"  but signed only  "An Elector"  weighs into Samuel.  Amongst the welter of abuse the writer suggests that almost anyone would be a better candidate because "I reject the uncharitable surmise that there are others in the Borough degraded to his level".  Other parts of the tirade give us some hints about Samuel's business and other activities.  

... Mr. Griffiths has (he says) " for years been largely engaged in the staple trade of the district." He has also been a chemist and a dealer in grease and oil, and he has failed hitherto in every commercial business which he has undertaken. Failed utterly! the dividends under his triple insolvencies having been so mean as in many instances to deter creditors from encountering the trifling cost and trouble of proving their debts! He has therefore been "largely engaged" at the expense of his creditors. His last failure was recent, and the wreck total. After every failure he became more "largely engaged" than before; but from the ruins of the last he has risen not merely self-renovated like a phoenix, but with the potent power of renovating others, for he has emerged not only to return to the "staple trade," and become a purchaser of costly works, but also to establish a Bank!

A later passage hurls more allegations at our hero:

... bear in mind the minor incidents in the career of Mr. Griffiths. Recur to his action against a Fire Insurance Company, the defence, the compromise! his prosecution and imprisonment for infractions of the excise laws; recollect how "largely engaged" he was in the bubble speculations of 1845; his quarrels and recriminations in our Town Council; his prosecution for personating a voter at a parliamentary election; his prosecution at Petty Sessions for an assault !

Read the full text of the 1861 poster

One would like to have more details of all this.  It is not even clear whether the prosecutions were successful. One should bear in mind that political pamphleteering in the early nineteenth century was not noted for its restrain but, even so, there must be something behind all this.

Jones's account of this election also does not do Griffiths many favours:

In 1861 he came forward as a candidate for Wolverhampton in opposition to Villiers and Weguelin, Liberals, and A. Staveley Hill, Conservative, and fought the election with great vigour. When the candidates were nominated at the hustings erected in St. James's Square, Samuel Griffiths had gathered his ironworkers together in hundreds, who stood in front and shouted: "Griffiths for ever!" and, with their howls, shouts, and groans, drowned the voices of the other candidates and their friends. Mr. Griffiths made a long speech in favour of working-men, promising them all sorts of privileges if they would vote for him. They shouted: " We will! Griffiths for ever !" But when the poll was declared, it was found that Griffiths was at the bottom! At that time votes were only taken from £10 householders, and hardly any of his workmen had votes.

Griffiths again became a bankrupt, and, although he still did business as a metal broker, he seemed to gradually fall out of sight, and went to live at Winchelsea, where he died suddenly. One redeeming feature in his character was that, although he failed in business several times, he always managed to pay the local tradesmen and shopkeepers in full, and was open-handed and generous to the poor.

Jones obviously had difficulty in coming to terms with this roistering and enthusiastic man with what were, to Jones, an odd mixture of bonhomie, charitable intent and doubtful business practices. Maybe Jones's report of Griffiths' sudden death was a kind of wishful thinking, for Griffiths was far from dead but alive and well and living in London. Perhaps the idea that he was dead reflects on his later complete disappearance from Wolverhampton life. But that was not co come for a few years yet.

By 1862 Griffiths was in partnership as an ironmaker with E. B. Thorneycroft and was probably involved financially in other ironmaking concerns.

In 1865 he again intervened in a Parliamentary election for Wolverhampton but does not seem to have stood. That intervention is evidenced by a large poster he issued from Whitmore Reans Hall on 5th July 1865. The poster covers a number of matters with enthusiasm and a certain lack of order and direction. The burden of it is to reassure voters that, contrary to reports, he has not said that he will not stand at the election and may in fact do so. But in fact he did not and his old opponent, Mr. Weguelin was again returned.

Read the full text of the 1865 poster

There is also evidence of another public appearance by Samuel in the form of a surviving programme for the Grand Amateur Concert of the Wolverhampton Alliance Cricket Club.

Presumably the Samuel Griffiths Esq. who was in the chair was our Samuel Griffiths.  

 Whether he was really a cricketer or not, or whether this was a publicity effort in advance of the election, we do not know.  But this sort of activity would have suited his rumbustuous character.

His own Iron Trade Circular shows Griffiths to be still in the iron trade in 1865, but from then on his connection with the manufacturing side of the iron trade seems to have declined, for his name is missing from subsequent lists. The Griffiths family history, as supplied by Joan Bird, re-inforces the idea that Griffiths was not doing well at this time. Joan Bird writes:

Samuel's brother Thomas was a pork butcher and married widow, Thirza Bradley in Birmingham in 1844. They had 11 children between 1845 and 1865.

It seems that at some stage Thomas left the country for an unknown
destination, possibly to avoid debt, at which time Thirza and the children
were helped out financially by Thirza's family. It is not known where they
lived at this time, but stories from the late Emma Jane Dunn, daughter
of Thirza Wills nee Griffiths, suggest that at some stage they spent time in Essex.

By 1866 Thomas had returned, and the family seemed to have been living at Whitmore Reans Hall prior to leaving England, as a death notice for Thomas' son Samuel who died in Victoria, 1917 refers to "Thomas and Thirza Griffiths, formerly of Whitmore Reans Hall, Wolverhampton". Whether they lived with Samuel, or had bought the property from him, is unknown At this time Thomas was in debt again, and part of a letter to Thirza or Thomas from an unknown person, - possibly Samuel's wife, mother, or a sibling, mentions that Samuel paid up these debts, and found money for their fare to Australia, at great financial difficulty to himself.

In August, 1866 Thomas, Thirza and family sailed on the "Champion of the Seas" for Australia.

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