Wolverhampton's Listed Buildings

The Church of St. Mary

Oxford Street, Bilston

Listing:  1827-29. By Francis Goodwin. Early English style. The listing includes the Cooper memorial and the walls, railings and gates.


Pevsner:  This is .. a Commissioners' church and it is Gothic.

Jill Fellows, A History of St Mary's Church, Bilston 1830 - 1980, published by the church, 1980

Comment:  Not a usual design at all.  Its massing gives it an ark like quality.  Contrast this with Goodwin in classical mode at St. Leonard's.  

This is a genuine Commissioners' church in that they provided the whole cost of £7,749.  Perhaps as a result of this there were 538 private pews but 956 free pews.  (All the seats became free in 1905).

The petition to the Commissioners was presented in 1825.  The site purchased was "Gozzard's Croft" and cost £907.10.0d.  The foundation stone was not laid until 29th May 1829 and the furniture was not bought until well in to 1830.  So the dates in the listing, 1827-29, perhaps ought to be 1829-30.  The contractors were Samuel Buxton and Son.

The arrangement of the church is odd and the parishioners like to say that it was built back to front - and that the architect committed suicide when this was noticed!  The tower is at the cardinal and liturgical east end; but the three doors there, which look as if they ought to be the main entrance, only give access to two vestries and a passageway which links the two behind the altar.  Inside the east end is not apsidal, as the exterior would suggest, but presents a large flat wall to the congregation.  The main entrance is where you would expect, at the west end, which end is also apsidal.  It is all very odd but one can hardly suppose that an architect like Bidlake, closely watched by the Commissioners, made a mistake.  It is made somewhat odder by the stained glass window above the west entrance, the text on which is arranged to be read from the outside of the church not, in the usual way, from the inside with the sunlight coming through.

The Rev. Henry Newbolt was the incumbent from 1860 to 1866.  Thus Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), the patriotic poet, was born in Bilston.  He occasionally returned to Bilston and did so to open the centenary church gala in 1930.  

This drinking fountain stands against the railings facing Oxford Street. 

The inscription reads: 

"To perpetuate the name of Joseph Percival beyond the days of those who knew him as an old and honoured inhabitant of Bilston this fountain is dedicated to the public by his son in law John Mason 1866"

Inside the graveyard, on its west wall, there is a large slate slab, very well inscribed, with these words:

Erected by the Brethren of St. Mary's Miner's [sic] Guild In memory of brother Thomas Briggs who with seven fellow sufferers was killed in a coal pit at West Bromwich by an explosion of fire damp Aug 13 AD 1844 aged 36 years leaving a widow and three orphans to the mercy of God.

A sermon is his tombstone
"Prepare to die" his text
He was the first that left us
But who shall be the next!

The sophistication of the carving contrasts oddly with the naivety of the wording and the verse.  But it speaks volumes about what life was like.  Presumably the widow and children got some money from what must have been a mutual assurance society and they were not left entirely to the mercy of God whilst large sums were spent on this memorial. 

The churchyard contains a large number of these gravemarkers of iron plates.  St. Leonard's has some too but they seem to be a speciality of the district - after all this was one of the great iron and steel making towns and Iron Mad Wilkinson had had his works not a mile or two away. 

There are one or two of these double markers (but none of them in St Leonards).

The graveyard has recently (2004-5) been recovered from a jungle of growth and a few of these unusual grave markers were revealed. 

Note that the headstone is inscribed on what looks as if it ought to be the reverse.  Each one has a small stone at the foot (almost invisible in this case).  Any information about this style of grave marker would be gratefully received.

There cannot be many tombstones proudly proclaiming that the deceased was a tax collector, but this one does: Thomas Oadams Late Officer of Excise.

It is excellent to be able to record here that all the inscriptions in the graveyard are being transcribed (by the same volunteers who cleared it and are now turning it into a garden of great community value).

Behind the graveyard were St. Mary's Schools, which were turned into a British Restaurant during the Second World War.  The whole site was closed in 1956 and council houses were built all over it.