A Tale of Two Squares: St. John's and St. James's

by Maureen Hunt

with photos by David Clare


This is the story of two squares in Wolverhampton, one of which survives, the other of which does not. What is their story? And why did one survive and the other not?

One square is St. John's, situated near the top of Snow Hill; it is still in existence. The other is St. James's, which was sited near the top of Horseley Fields; it was demolished in the 1960s.



This early twentieth century postcard shows St. John's church and the high brick wall which hid the gravestones from the residents' view.
The origins of the squares and their churches

When St. John's was built it was only the second church in Wolverhampton. The town was expanding and another church was felt to be urgently needed. The site chosen for St. John's was to the south of the town in what appears on Isaac Taylor's map of 1750 as practically open countryside. Although details of the plan are not clear it seems that the new church was intended to serve an area likely to see expansion and that the church was intended, from the start to have a square around it. The church was opened, though not complete, in 1760 and the square appeared around it a number of years after its completion. The fact that four roads meet the square in a symmetrical way (Church Street, Bond Street, George Street and a short street opposite Bond Street leading to Church Lane) strongly suggests development according to a plan.

St. John's Square really was what its name implied, a square surrounding a church of the same name. But St. James's Square was in existence at least 50 years before St. James's church was built. Further this square was a few hundred yards away from its church, which seems to have taken its name from the square, rather than the other way around.

As John Roper observed:


A later postcard shows the church and the wall on the other side of the square. To the right the houses of the square can just be made out.
"The name of this area of the town has baffled historians. Long before the church was built, the large Georgian Square was known as St. James's, but there is no record of any connection with this particular saint in the Middle Ages."

The Square was not exactly square and it had only two streets leading to it, one from the north-west corner leading to Horseley Fields and the other from near the south-east corner leading to Union Street.

The first map showing both of these areas is Godson's map of Wolverhampton. This map, dated 1788, although of poor quality, gives the names of all the streets in Wolverhampton at that time, together with the number of houses and their inhabitants. Although by this date St. John's church had been built for some time, as yet there were no dwellings in the Square itself, though Bond Street, leading from Temple Street through to the church, is mentioned as having nine dwellings and forty inhabitants.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the town, St. James's Church was still fifty years away from being built; but St. James's Square was already in existence and it too had nine houses and forty inhabitants. This may suggest that, as a residential square, St. James's had at least chronological priority. Indeed the general direction of development seems to have been much more towards the east than the south and this must have been considerably assisted by the opening of the canal in 1772.

By 1792, as shown in the Wolverhampton Rate Book , there are still no houses in St. John's Square, but Bond Street seems to have grown. The nine dwellings have increased in number to fifteen. St. James's Square has five premises mentioned:

Sapwell, Jos - Bucklemaker - St. James' Square.
Walford, Obadiah - Victualler - St. James Square.
Millington, John - Keymaker -2 St. James Square.
Evan, Thos: - Joiner (also a huxter) - St. James Square.
Cadwallader, John - Locksmith -9 St. James Square.

The squares in the nineteenth century

By 1809-11 the trade directory still does not mention St. John's Square, but now, as well as Bond Street, George Street is listed. This indicates that at around this time, the link road between St. John's Church and Snow Hill was being built upon. In this particular directory St. James's Square is not mentioned either. But a "Horseley Fields Square" is. Presumably this was the same square.


St. James's Church. In the gothic style, the church was completed and opened in 1843. The architect was a Mr. Egington and the builder was a Mr. Snow of Leamington.

A property sale advertisement in the Chronicle in 1817, gives a clue to the building of the first houses in St. John's Square.

The advertisement refers to the sale of three messuages in St. John's Square and Bond Street and a "new erected" dwelling house in St. John's Square "together with the school thereto adjoining".

So this is presumably the time the Square began to take shape. Coincidentally, appearing in the same newspaper was an advert for sale of a very large amount of timber, the property of Obadiah Walford of St. James's Square. 

Clearly Obadiah was not just a licensed victualler. As the timber appears to be on the premises in St. James's Square we perhaps have an indication that the square and its area were already becoming more commercial and less residential than St. John's. In 1840 the two churches, St. John's and St. James's, became linked together for a day. The date was Tuesday the 18th August 1840. That was the day the foundation stone for St. James's was laid. The Chronicle for 19th August had an extensive report of the proceedings, which occupied almost a whole day, starting with a service at St. Peter's, with the Bishop of Lichfield in attendance. Refreshments were then taken and by 4.30 a procession had assembled at St. John's, from where it proceeded, on foot, to the site of St. James's, nearly a mile away. The Chronicle noted that "his lordship, who wore his episcopal habit, was an object of considerable curiosity to the crowd, who completely lined the way from George Street to Horsley Fields". The object of curiosity formally laid the foundation stone, then hopped up onto it to address the crowd. In his address he refereed to the "spiritual destitution" of this part of the town and the need for the church. When he had finished these few kind words, the Rev. W. Dalton made a speech in which he also "forcibly portrayed the spiritual destitution of the town". A crowd of "several thousand persons, who appeared to take a lively interest in the day's proceedings" then dispersed. How the crowd might have expressed its lively interest in being told they were spiritually destitute is not recorded but the speeches do show that the Horseley Fields area had expanded rapidly, an expansion which had been assisted by the opening of the railway.


The south-western corner of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.
By 1851 there were 42 dwellings in the square, a number which was to remain constant until the east side was demolished in the 1960s. The Trade Directory of 1851 shows that St. John's seems to have been quite a fashionable part of Wolverhampton to live in. Under the heading of "Gentry" there are 6 people listed as well as a professor of music (who was also the organist of St. John's), a portrait and historical painter, two school masters, a dressmaker and a furrier.

In addition there were two boarding houses, a ladies seminary, and a classical & commercial school. Samuel Tonks is also listed and, although he lived in Church Street, it seems that he was the owner of the Brass & Bell foundry, at the western end of the Square. Also listed was "Gibbons, James, Factor, St. John's Square."

St. James's Square, at this time, only had one person listed under the heading "Gentry", while the rest of the Square's 32 dwellings were occupied by roughly the same professions as its counterpart. It too boasted of two ladies seminaries, two teachers, a day and evening school (run by Charles Trevor) and Monsieur Willenboard Buscot - Professor of the French Language. John Fell & Co. were the Brass Founders of this Square. The notable ale house of St. James's Square was the George Inn, sometimes referred to as the "George III". A John Lane was the victualler there in this year of 1851.

As well as the same respectable trades that St. John's Square had, St. James's had two coal merchants and two corn and seed merchants. Perhaps these last two trades were carried on in this Square because of its close proximity to both the canal and railway.

The electoral register for 1879/80 shows that St. John's Square was still holding on to its status, with a surprisingly similar list of occupations to that of 1851.

Read the details of the 
electoral register

The squares in the twentieth century

In the 1901 Red Book there were seven people listed under "Private" in St. John's Square. Other listings of interest are the "Central Registry Office" and, under the heading of "India Rubber Goods Merchants", is the "Wearwell Cycle Accessories Co". A. G. Haselock (jnr), a file and rasp manufacturer is also shown. There were three credit drapers, no less than three professors of music, and a pianoforte dealer. The square was probably becoming more commercial and less residential with the continued expansion of Wolverhampton as an industrial centre and the development for industrial purposes of the land south of the square.

No "Private Residents" at all are listed for St. James's Square in 1901. There were only six trades people noted at all:

Nail & Tack (Cut) Mf., Wootton Bros.
Paper Box Mf., Mulliner & Co. (& Printers)
Provisions Merchants, Cozens W & Co.
Fell J & Co., Brass Founders.
Wing & Webb, Hardwear Merchant.
Licensed Victuallers, "George III", M. A. Voyce.


The western side of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

Notice that the George III pub was still in existence and that Mulliners, the printers, and Cozens, Provision Merchants, were also there. These three remained in the Square right up until the Square's demolition.

By 1930, surprisingly enough, some of the families living there are still the same but again this is more noticeably so in St. John's Square than in St. James's

By the year 1948, both squares were becoming decidedly rundown. In the Wolverhampton Chronicle, 15th April 1948, an article by Kenneth Bird was already lamenting "the drab facades of the buildings and the pervading air of decayed elegance" of St. John's Square. He attributed the square's descent in the world to the building of galvanising plants in the vicinity and the power of the car to sweep people out into suburbia. 
The north-western corner of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

The vicar, the Reverend J. Hartill, complained to him of vandalism, the use of the church's stained glass windows for catapult practice and "acts of horrible desecration", with piles of refuse in the churchyard and vaults smashed. He blamed local children. A local business man, M. H. Costley, who operated an export business from the church end of George Street, told Bird: "I can remember this square 60 years ago [i.e. about 1888] and things were very different then. I used to go to school in the square. The master was a man named Bratt, who didn't believe in sparing the rod. Mischievousness or a failure to master the principles of reading, writing and arithmetic lead to a good thrashing across one of the desks. He was a real old-fashioned pedagogue, with a high collar and a bow tie. When I walked to school I used to watch the horses drawing phaetons away from the bigger houses. It was a very picturesque sight. In particular I used to take notice of Mr. Richard Briscoe, founder of a now famous business house. He was a most imposing gentleman who used to live at 10 George Street. Later he moved to Chillington Hall". But another local, a Mrs. E. Hall, insisted that the neglect was comparatively recent, apparently in the last twenty years or so.


Another view of the north-western corner of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.
The lists for the electoral registers of 1955, show to what extent the Squares' population had dropped in number. St. John still had thirty-five addresses registered as having voters living there, while St. James's Square had only three.

On 25th July 1956 the Birmingham Post took up the theme.

Its reporter, W. P. Kirkman, again mentioned the "lost, neglected air"; and again interviewed the vicar, the Reverend J. Kirkham, who pointed out that, since he came to the living in 1931, "not a single new house has been built in the parish and whole streets of houses have been pulled down". Kirkham found another business man to lament the situation. Mr. J. W. Whitehead then had his printing works in the south east corner of the square. He recollected that even when he first came to the square, in 1896, the wealthy private residents were beginning to move out. He was now preparing to move his works to new premises on Snow Hill, in anticipation of the council's plans for a new road being approved.

But Kirkham comments that industry (which he would have noted all round) seems to have passed the square by and he found only 2 "miniature factories". One was a tinsmith, who ran a two man business making tin boxes for motor car accessories. But he did notice the popularity of the Spirit Vaults, which was on the corner of the Square and George Street, which had for years been an off licence but now had a six day licence (presumably our of deference to the church) and a large clientele. 
The north-eastern corner of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

Kirkham noted that it was the needs of modern transport that had sounded the square's death knell. He was referring to the coming ring road. But he might also have noted that it was the car which had done so much initially to lead to the square's decay.


The eastern side of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

Also in 1956, on 5th June, an article appeared in the Birmingham Post about what had happened to St. James's Church. Because of declining attendances the church had been closed in September 1955, and the parish had been split, part of it being added to St. Peter's and the other part of St. Stephen's. 
An accompanying photograph shows the church being demolished but, the article points out, some bits of it were going to newer churches: St. Peter's, Rickerscote (near Stafford) was to get the stone pulpit and font, the oak screen and the bell; and St. Joseph's, Merry Hill, was to get the organ, the lectern and some of the church plate. Presumably these scattered fragments of St. James's still exist.
But both squares were now embarking on important phases of their lives. For one of them there was partial survival and renewal; for the other, destruction. St. John's Square had clearly deteriorated badly. No doubt it was going down hill before the Second World War. Lack of maintenance during that war would have made things worse. As soon as post war reconstruction might have started the areas would have been blighted by the threat of the ring road and slum clearance.
Another view of the eastern side of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

It was a fate shared by many Georgian and Victorian areas throughout the country; and the spirit of the times was to demolish and rebuild. The east side was flattened and replaced by a ring road.


A final view of the eastern side of St. John's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.
Not until the mid-60s did the enthusiasm for destruction wane. The result was that many buildings on the west side were pulled down to be replaced by modern offices.

The new office block on the north west of the square, designed by Twentyman, Percy and Partners for the Borough Council, won a Civic Trust Commendation for its "courageous attempt to re-establish an 18th century square.

The new work has a strong link in scale and rhythm with 18th century practice and the colour relates well with the church and its surroundings".

The Trust was not so flattering about the other new buildings on the north side. The whole of the east side was demolished, making the square no longer a square, though it retains that name. The church, whose congregation had been somewhat boosted by its joining with the Lithuanian Church, was saved by a massive appeal, conducted nationally. The whole church was eventually re-cased, an enormous undertaking largely financed by Sir Jack Hayward.

St. James's Square had no reprieve. Its church had gone. People had moved out of the area , largely because of the massive slum clearance scheme on that side of town.

The square, fallen on hard times, spent its last days with a few scattered businesses in the old buildings and a bus terminal occupying its roads.


The western side of St. James's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.


Another view of the western side of St. James's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.
The square eventually fell to the sixth and final stage of the ring road.

So thoroughly has it vanished that who now could point, with confidence, to the place where it once stood?

Conclusions

Throughout the history of the squares and churches, the impression given is of St. John's superiority over St. James's. St. John's was always the "better" area. The fact that it was largely planned, and that it centred on a fine classical church, always gave it the edge over the more industrialised St. James's, with its distant and architecturally undistinguished church. It may well be significant that the residents of St. John's Square appear to have stayed living in the same house from one generation to another, while in St. James's Square, the residents seemed to be "just passing through".


The north-eastern corner of St. James's Square. Courtesy of David Clare.

The preference for St. John's over St. James's is reflected in the numbers of photographs in the Wolverhampton Borough Archives. St. John's church has thirty-five photographs and its Square thirty-three. St. James's has only three photos of the church and four of its Square, two of these being the same picture from a slightly different angle.

Perhaps the ultimate humiliation in the history of the square and church of St. James's comes with its failure to be remembered in the current ring road names. Surely the most obvious name for the final stage of the ring road should have been "St. James's"? But, it seems, some patriotic person (probably not a Wulfrunian), decided that as St. George's, St. Andrew's and St. Patrick's were all included around the ring-road, St. David's should be also. The fact that St. George's, St. Andrew's and St. Patrick's are all names of churches that either once stood, or are still standing, on or near the road and that St. David's never was, seems to have eluded those responsible. Surely, if for that reason only, the name of the final stage of the road, should have been St. James's.


Note: there are more photos of St. John's Square before demolition in the Borough Archives. They are mostly by John Roper. But note that at least one of them has been printed back to front and care may be needed in identifying that photos and others.
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