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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.