Lost Buildings of Wolverhampton

The Old Hall
By Sue Whitehouse

Sometimes something as ordinary as a street name can give us valuable clues about the history of an area, and Wolverhampton city centre is packed with many tantalising examples: Cheapside, Skinner Street, Blossom's Fold, Berry Street and Victoria Square.

But, perhaps one of the most interesting is Old Hall Street. A quick look at the collection of archive maps held at the Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies, in Snow Hill, soon answers one question. Yes, there was indeed an Old Hall where the modern street is currently located. But who lived here, when was it built, what did it look like and when did it disappear?

The plan of Wolverhampton by Isaac Taylor, dated 1750, provides some of the best evidence we have for the appearance of the Old or Great Hall. This shows a large, square, water-filled moat with an arched causeway bridge over the west side. The inside of the moat is walled with towers to the north east and south east corners.

A coloured version of part of Isaac Taylor's map.

The hall itself is shown as a building three storeys high, with gardens and orchards nearby. A water colour sketch, dated 1830, held in the archives, confirms this description. The view, taken from the east, clearly depicts the moat wall, and one of the corner towers with the hall itself rising beyond.

The building itself survived until 1883, so we are fortunate to have photographs, taken during demolition, by someone who obviously recognised that this was a piece of the town's history worthy of recording. The hall had two wings with a central section, which produced a classic H plan building, of brick construction with stone quoins, and transom and mullion windows. 

Stylistically, the evidence points to the mid to late 16th century as the most probable date of construction.

The hall was built by the Leveson Family who had acquired their wealth in the wool trade during the 15th century, and, as a result, had become one of the most powerful families in Wolverhampton. It is possible that they were building on the site of an earlier house. Moats are normally associated with the Mediaeval period and it would be unusual, but not unknown, to construct one as late as the 16th century. However, the size and form of the moat may point to another explanation. It could have been created as a decorative garden feature.

The Old Hall must have been the scene of much activity during the 17th century when Thomas Leveson sided with the Royalist cause during the Civil War and, for a short time, Wolverhampton became directly involved in events of national importance. But, sadly, this also resulted in the destruction of many early records of the town, by soldiers who had to be temporarily billeted at St Peter's Church during one of the King's visits.

On mid 19th century maps, the building is referred to as Turton's Hall and it appears that the Turton family either purchased or leased the hall towards the end of the 17th century. The Turtons modernised their new home by lowering the roof and inserting in some places some of the latest sash windows. The equivalent of double glazing today, perhaps!

In the later 19th century, the Hall was no longer a family home and was being leased by William and Obediah Ryton, who lived in part of the house but largely turned it over to use as a factory for japanning and the production of tin plate goods.

What remains of the building today, as uncovered during the 2002 excavation. On the left is the moat and to its right is a mixture of original stonework and 19th century brickwork.

This area of the town had become highly industrialised and the 1871 plan of the town shows a densely populated area in which it is difficult to pick out the hall. From this we can conclude that some time between 1830 and 1871 the old moat was filled in and built over.

There is a fascinating description of the hall dating from this period of industrial use contained in a book in the borough archives by W. H. J ones, on the history of the japan and tin plate trades. It appears that the former grandeur of the building was still apparent in the interior. The old oak staircase led to the former state ballroom where women and children were employed in wrapping the goods made on the premises, and the bedrooms were put to use as store rooms. On the ground floor the kitchens were being used for the industrial processes.

An ignominious end for a fine old building which must have once been the pride of the town and the Leveson family who built it. The Old Hall was finally demolished in 1883, and 16 years later a new teacher training college was opened on the site and Old Hall Street was created.

Recent excavations have unearthed a part of the massive five-foot thick stone foundations of the brick built hall and part of the wide and deep moat. Today the site is a pleasant tree lined street and the college is now itself a fine Grade II listed building in its own right and part of the exciting new Learning Quarter of the city.

But how wonderful it would have been if only our predecessors had had the foresight to preserve the Old Hall in all its glory for our present generation rather than just leave us with distant memories and a street name.

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