Wakes and Were-Staffies of Bloxwich Renown

The Were-Staffie on Bloxwich Green (Steve Matthews).

The Were-Staffie on Bloxwich Green (Steve Matthews).

The following was written for Halloween 2009′s ‘Bloxwich – Believe it or Not!’ feature in The Bloxidge Tallygraph. Much of it is true, the rest is fiction, a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously. I leave it up to you to work out which is which!

Bloxwich Wakes are often mentioned in the village, and get confused with Bloxwich Carnival, but the two events were very different animals, the Wakes having a much earlier, and bloodier, origin.

The Wakes of old (woodcut).

The Wakes of old (woodcut).

Wakes, or fairs, have always been associated with merrymaking and licence, drinking, lechery and song, cussedness, gluttony and sinfulness. Much like a Saturday night in Walsall, in fact.  Saxons and Normans indulged in such ‘wakings’ long before they converted to Christianity and the early Churchmen took over those customs with the injunction that beasts might no longer be slaughtered by way of sacrifice to the devil, but for their own eating and the glory of God. Today, we just have hamburger vans.

The Wakes day in many Midland parishes is the day on which the parish church was dedicated, usually the Saint’s day after whom the church is named. In the case of Bloxwich the original saint was St. Thomas the Martyr, better-known as Thomas à Becket, who was canonised in 1173.  His festival was celebrated in medieval times on 29 December, presumably the date of the original Bloxwich Wakes.

Later, perhaps after the Reformation, the day may have been changed to All Saints’ Day, 1 November; whatever, this became the day of Bloxwich Wakes by local tradition and the acclaim of the people of Bloxwich, Harden, Blakenall Heath and Wallington Heath, and the date was adhered to for more than 200 years.

British Illustration of Bull Baiting, 1820.

British Illustration of Bull Baiting, 1820.

Apart from general drunkenness and debauchery, fighting and frivolity, not to mention cock-fighting and foot, pony and whippet racing, the Wakes also became associated with the then-popular ‘blood sports’ of dog-fighting and, especially in Bloxwich, bull-baiting, about which there is a strange story which is told separately.

Today both bull baiting and dog-fighting have long been illegal, since 1825 in fact, though one sometimes hears of convictions for dog fighting even today, but not, as far as I know, in Bloxwich!

Bloxwich Wakes in the 1870s is described vividly in the original Bloxidge Tallygraph, in genuine Black Country dialect.  At that time it was still held on The Green (now Bloxwich Park), but by then it was held on the third Monday in August. The Tallygraph of the day says nothing of bull-baiting or dog-fighting, nor should it, but it is known that the latter still went on, albeit on the quiet.

One dark, bloody tale rarely heard in public these days, though, does involve Bloxwich dog-fighting, and the foolish  behaviour of one young ‘bittie’ who, it is reputed, took on the devil in a dog-fight and paid the price…

The present Red Lion, Park Street, Walsall, 1965.

The present Red Lion, Park Street, Walsall, 1965.

In the late 1870s one John Holden of the Red Lion Inn, Park Street, in Walsall, bred a fighting dog of the Staffordshire variety, by the name of ‘Pilot’.  He was a powerful beast, savage, proud and undefeated. In fact, so successful was he that there was even superstitious talk of his master being in league with the devil, or having sold his soul in return for success.

One day John Holden and Pilot attended Bloxwich Wakes, the one hoping for some drunken debauchery and easy money, the other a few good fights – to the death…  It was evening-tide before they found both, in the moonlit yard at the back of the Blue Pig alehouse on Chapel Green, and late into the night Pilot battled, defeating all-comers with little effort, and much blood. In fact, so successful was he that gradually the betters and dog-owners drifted away, losing the last of their hard-earned pennies and returning home without even one final drink to console them.

Pilot.

Pilot.

It was getting on for midnight when a young lad by name of Jim Cooper, an apprentice bit-maker of Sot’s Hole, down Beech Dale way, rolled up at the Blue Pig, already full of drink after a day of revelry, and, apparently either oblivious of Pilot’s reputation or being so full of bravado and ‘Dutch courage’ that he cared nothing for it, laid down a wager on his dog ‘Nelson’ to win in a straight fight against Holden’s dog.

Holden told him to keep his money, for Jim’s dog, he said, would have no chance, and would certainly end up dead.  Cooper flew into a blind rage at this, insisting that the fight take place and, smiling softly, Holden accepted his bet.  Those few revellers still there egged them on knowingly and, laughing under a full Moon, Cooper, ale in one hand and dog leash in the other, led Nelson round to the yard at the back of the Blue Pig, where the fight began.

It was a short but terrible bout; seemingly equal at first, but before long the tide was turned against brave Nelson, and, weakening from loss of blood, with one final savage bite his throat was torn out and he lay, still and dead upon the hard, cold, bloodstained cobbles.  Pilot stood astride the steaming carcase and howled his fury and his pride into the night.  If pressed some onlookers would even swear afterward that, as he lifted his great, broad head to the Moon, his eyes flashed red, like smouldering embers in a dark pit.

Once upon a midnight dark, the green now known as Bloxwich Park...

Once upon a midnight dark, the green now known as Bloxwich Park...

Distraught and stumbling, Jim Cooper ran, welching on his bet.  This was a bad move, for the other dog’s owner was never a good loser, especially when he was a winner… As Cooper sped off into the night across Bloxwich Green, scurrying clouds covered the Moon, and Holden flew into a rage and loosed his dog again.  “Fetch him for me Pilot,” he roared, “Fetch him – let him pay his debt in kind if not in cash!” and chuckling low in his throat, he looked on as the powerful beast, jaws still slavering bloody foam, leapt to do his master’s bidding.

Within moments the dog had caught up with young Jim at the edge of the Green and, red eyes flashing in the dark, sank his teeth into the terrified bittie’s rear, receiving wild screams of anguish as his just reward.  But this was not enough, and he slashed and slashed until, weak with blood loss, Cooper fainted.  About to deliver the fatal bite, with young Jim cowered whimpering at his paws, Pilot paused, hesitating, ears pricked as if hearing a call in the distance, and so it was: “Pilot, come back, come back.  He’ll learn his lesson now, that’ll teach him,” called Holden.  Obedient, the dog spun and charged back into the darkness.

The Transmogrification...

The Transmogrification...

And as the clouds slowly uncovered the Moon, a truly terrifying sight was revealed… The savaged lad, lying in a pool of his own blood, began to change, shifting shape, becoming smaller, broader, stockier, darker, until at last he was a boy no more, but a black, brutal dog akin to Pilot before him. And pausing briefly to lick at the pool of what had been his blood, the first of the Bloxwich Were-Staffies stood, looked up, howled at the Moon and, eyes blazing, ran off across Bloxwich Green and disappeared into legend…

The next day, it is said, young Jim Cooper returned to his job beating bits and awl-blades in his little workshop at Sot’s Hole, and nothing more was said of that bloody night at the Blue Pig in Bloxwich, at least not where ears could hear. But what was whispered of only in legend, and in the smoke-filled back rooms of Bloxwich pubs for years to come was that, ever since, on the midnight of the Bloxwich Wakes, dogs across the two Bloxwiches, Little and Great, would howl at the Moon, and the next day livestock, and even cats, would be missing, with no evidence of where they had gone apart from deep pools of dark, dried blood.

The Turf, where time stands still.

The Turf, where time stands still.

What of young Jim Cooper? Well, he had no memory of these events, but once a year, on the night of the Bloxwich Wakes, he would disappear again, and next morning find himself naked on the Green, desperate for a pint of ale at the Turf, for which it was truly his curse to wait until opening-time.

Over the years, Bloxwich folk realised that the only way to hold back the Were-Staffie, as it came to be known, was to leave a barrel of beer from the Turf and a tethered pig on the Green on Wakes night after closing time.  But the fear remained, and the howling at the Moon…

Which is why, all these years later, there are no more Bloxwich Wakes, and no more dog-fighting in Bloxwich.  If they were ever to return, well, who can say what might occur.

Cockney Charlie Lloyd and Pilot.

Cockney Charlie Lloyd and Pilot.

We know nothing more of John Holden after this, but we do know that he sold a dog called Pilot around 1880 to one Charlie Lloyd of New York, who took the dog to America, where he became famous for defeating Louis Krieger’s dog Crib on October 19,1881 outside Louisville, Kentucky for $1,000 a side.

Pilot had a long, proud and undefeated career fighting in the Americas, and died at a ripe old age. It is said that 99% of American Pit Bull Terriers are descended from ‘Charlie Lloyd’s Pilot’, so one might reasonably say that today, Pilot has come back to bite us, here in the home town of the man that bred him…

Stuart Williams

The Old Bloxwich Preaching Cross

The Old Preaching Cross, 1940 (W. Meikle).

It is not generally known that Bloxwich possesses one of the oldest and most complete ‘preaching’ crosses in the Midlands – although it is of two different periods.

The old preaching cross or column standing in All Saints churchyard, on the south side close to the church itself, has been an object of curiosity to generations of parishioners. We may safely designate it as a cross, since by no means all old crosses conformed to the true cruciform shape. But this cross is far older than the church itself, being probably the oldest monument in the borough, and very important.

Throughout the Middle Ages Bloxwich was a small agricultural village with a population of around 600. A Chapel of Ease to Walsall Parish Church was licensed for services at Bloxwich in 1413, but Bloxwich did not have its own separate parish until 1842. The chapel had a tower by the 1500s.

In 1790 it was decided that the chapel should be rebuilt and the tower altered. This work was completed in 1794. All Saints Church as it is today dates mostly from 1875-1877 when the earlier church, St. Thomas of Canterbury, was rebuilt and rededicated.

All Saints Church, Bloxwich, late 19th century

All Saints Church, Bloxwich, late 19th century

In 1940, when local historian Billy Meikle wrote about the Bloxwich Preaching Cross, he said that “The churchwardens are so jealous of this, their only historic treasure, that they have planted a grove of trees round it, possibly to protect it from local vandals or American ‘relic hunters’.  The cross is eighteen feet high, and cannot be seen from the church gates, even in winter when the foliage has gone.”

No records of the cross appear to have survived, nor was any indication of its full age discovered on it when it was restored in 1935. We are therefore thrown back upon the opinions of experts. All authorities are agreed that the practice of erecting such crosses goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Sometimes, in English villages, they were set up on the spot where the Gospel was first preached. As time went on, according to historians, the south side of every churchyard contained a cross.

The fact that the Bloxwich cross occupies this position, as well as the fact that it is of the primitive ‘shaft with steps’ type and betrays the wear of centuries of rain and frost, suggests a very early origin.  Professor Hearnshaw, of King’s College, London, once wrote: “I should date it 13th or 14th century (say A.D. 1300).”

The Old Bloxwich Preaching Cross, about 1950.

The Old Bloxwich Preaching Cross, about 1950.

Though not of the usual form, the cross itself consists of an eight-sided shaft, slightly tapering towards the top, and terminating in a later Jacobean capital surmounted by a Jacobean ball, both of the early 1600s.  It is mounted on a base of three stone steps.  Meikle commented that he had noticed that “…the churchwardens, although taking care of it one way, have allowed the contractor for the tarmac path round the church to lop off the corner of the bottom step (which is probably five centuries old) in order to continue the line of the gutter.  Fancy cutting the corner of an ancient monument so that the rain water could have a straight course, instead of a ‘wimple’ round the corner.  Notwithstanding this, the cross is in wonderful condition.”

The support of the stone ball had gone, leaving the iron rod which goes through the capital exposed.  Meikle thought this would certainly collapse in due course, and ought to be judiciously repaired “…not like a portion of Dudley Castle and other places which could be mentioned, but under the supervision of a local antiquary, if such there be in Bloxwich.”

He also noticed that at one time the centre of the steps had been clamped with iron staples, but these had rusted away except for the portions which were leaded into the stone.  An attempt to repair the clamping on the top tier had been made, but given up by the repairer as he had only been able to drill to a depth of three quarters of an inch.

Meikle went on “The shaft, which has been painted (another piece of folly) contains many initials carved on the surface, but I could find no date.”  He must have missed an 18th century date which is certainly visible now, but he concluded that the character of some of the lettering would indicate its dating back to about 1600, and the bottom steps “…would very likely be 13th century work.”

The Old Bloxwich Preaching Cross, 6 January 2009 (Stuart Williams)

The Old Bloxwich Preaching Cross, 6 January 2009 (Stuart Williams)

This coming festive season, perhaps readers of this article, whether Christian or not, might like to go and stand by the old Bloxwich Preaching Cross and reflect for a moment, as Billy Meikle may have done before them, on what Christmas may have been like for their ancestors all those centuries ago when there was no church, and no traffic to disturb their Yuletide contemplation.

Stuart Williams and Billy Meikle

Saint Mary’s in the Alder Village

St. Mary’s Church, The Croft and farm, Aldridge, early 20th century. (Walsall LHC)

St. Mary’s Church, The Croft and farm, Aldridge, early 20th century. (Walsall LHC)

The settlement at Aldridge dates from at least the Anglo-Saxon period.  Known as ‘Alrewic’ or the ‘Alder village’, it was already a thriving little agricultural community by the time of Domesday Book (1086), some twenty years after the Norman Conquest.  Aldridge is listed in the Domesday survey as farmland held by ‘Robert’ from his lord, William Fitz Ansculf, who was a major landholder in theWest Midlands.  From this period Aldridge was part of the Manor of Great Barr and Aldridge, but Aldridge was subsequently granted as an inferior manor to a local family.

In the Middle Ages, the Manor was held by a number of important local families, such as the Hillarys and the Mountforts, who were associated withWalsall.  The Jordans, a family of minor landowners in medieval times had risen to the status of lords of the manor by the 17th century and by the late 18th century the manor was in the hands of the well-known Croxall family from Shustoke.

Aldridge Church prior to 1798, with the old rectory. (Walsall LHC)

Aldridge Church prior to 1798, with the old rectory. (Walsall LHC)

The parish church of Aldridge, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, was originally thought to date back to around 1250, but in recent years a charter has come to light at Stafford Record Office which, although undated, belongs to the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th.  This concerns Robert de Barr, with one witness being Drogo of Aldridge and the other Widon, parson of Aldridge.  It contradicts the theory that the church was founded by Nicholas de Alrewych (of Aldridge), a minor official of Cannock Forest whose family received the manor of Aldridge in the 13th century and took their name from the village.

The effigy in the chancel of the present church was formerly thought to be of this Nicholas de Alrewych, but it is apparently that of a 14th century priest, which makes it more likely to be Roger de Elyngton, a rector of Aldridge c1345, who founded a chantry chapel and was given a position of honour as a resting place.

The church, which has been altered many times, probably replaced an original wooden building.  The oldest part is the nave and chancel, with a 13th century chapel being added on to the north side.  This was soon extended to form the north aisle.  The western tower and a short south aisle were added in the 14th century.  Later, a gallery was built over the north aisle for the schoolboys and another across the belfry arch for the girls.

Box pews belonging to local families faced in every direction and there were almost no seats for the poor of the parish.  The ground floor of the tower was used as a vestry.

Interior of St. Mary’s Church, Aldrodge, c1920. (Walsall LHC)

Interior of St. Mary’s Church, Aldridge, c1920. (Walsall LHC)

The bells were cast in 1738, and the clock was installed by 1754.  The Rev. Jeremiah Finch Smith was the first Rector of Aldridge after Barr had been made a separate parish in 1849.  He was instrumental in restoring and improving the church in the 1850’s.  A new aisle and vestry were added, the galleries demolished and the nave opened into the lower part of the tower.  The old pews were taken out and new ones, later replaced in their turn, were installed.  They were apparently the first pews without doors to be installed in Staffordshire.  Extra seats were added for the poor.

The font was given in 1853 by Mary Ann Allport in memory of her parents.  In 1881 the church was lit by gas as a memorial to Edward Tongue.  A new vestry was added in 1975.

Saint Mary’s Church remains one of the finest and most interesting buildings in Aldridge, especially since so much else was demolished in the 1960’s.   It continues to form the historic centre of this ancient town, once the ‘Alder Village’.

Stuart Williams

The Gorgeous George – Walsall’s greatest coaching inn

The George Hotel, The Bridge, Walsall, early1900s. (Billy Meikle)

The George Hotel, The Bridge, Walsall, early 1900s. (Billy Meikle)

It may be hard to believe today, but the heart of Walsall, The Bridge, was once graced by two generations of great inns.  Both named the George Hotel, the first was probably built in 1781 (Frederick W. Willmore says 1721) by Thomas Fletcher, the other replaced it in 1935.  Local historian, photographer, artist and draper Billy Meikle had the privilege of knowing both these establishments very well.

Thomas Fletcher, owner of the George Hotel, mid 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

Thomas Fletcher, owner of the George Hotel, mid 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

Located at the junction of Digbeth and Bridge Street, the first George Hotel, as Walsall’s top coaching inn, placed the town firmly on the map and, with assembly rooms added in 1793,  was an important centre for travellers and townsfolk alike long before the railway came to town.  The hotel accommodated many distinguished patrons, notably the Earl of Derby and Lord Hatherton.  It was also used as the headquarters of the local Conservative Party and was the scene of many disputes and riots during the lively elections of the nineteenth century.

The George Hotel and The Bridge before Sister Dora's statue of 1886. (Walsall LHC)

The George Hotel and The Bridge before Sister Dora's statue of 1886. (Walsall LHC)

In 1941, Meikle recounted how the old George had started out as “an ugly square Georgian building”.  According to Billy, two other Fletchers, brothers, were once proprietors of the Dragon Hotel in High Street, which Thomas had owned before building the George.  Apparently the brothers fell out and one of them, Richard Moore Fletcher, bought the George Hotel.  This must have been no later than 1813, as Pearce’s History & Directory of that year records Richard Fletcher as being of the “George Hotel Posting House, Traveller’s Inn and Coach Office, Digbeth”.

The George Hotel yard, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

The George Hotel yard, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

Fletcher rebuilt and expanded the George between 1821-1826, making it into, as Meikle says “one of the finest coaching houses in the country”.  Willmore noted that the hotel had stabling for one hundred and fifty coach horses.  In 1823 Fletcher added four great stone columns to a new Bridge Street entrance as part of a grand neo-classical portico.  According to Willmore, the columns, from Fisherwick Hall (demolished about 1804) near Whittington, Staffordshire, were purchased from the Marquis of Donegal in 1822 “for less than the actual cost of conveyance”.

The mighty portico of The George Hotel, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

The mighty columns and portico of The George Hotel, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

Meikle states however that a part owner of the building, Mr Frank Yates, told him the pillars were given free of charge to Fletcher, on the condition that they were never to be painted.  The hotel’s original entrance, in Digbeth, was much more modest, as Billy reveals in a watercolour based on an 1820 sketch by R. Fox, being a simple doorway up a few stone steps with some railings.

The old entrance of the first George Hotel, from a sketch of 1820. (Billy Meikle)

The old entrance of the first George Hotel, from a sketch of 1820. (Billy Meikle)

Billy Meikle says that Richard Fletcher was a remarkable character and a great benefactor to Walsall, and controversially states that it was he (not Thomas as recorded by others) who was the chief instigator of straightening the road from Scott Arms into Birmingham through Birchfields, replacing the previous bad, hilly road via Handsworth.

The George Hotel and The Bridge, c1895. (Walsall LHC)

The George Hotel and The Bridge, c1895. (Walsall LHC)

Meikle provides a sketch of a deed signed on November 26, 1830 by subscribers to the new road, each contributing £200, including Richard Jesson, Richard Moore Fletcher and J. Heeley of Walsall, John Gough of Perry Hall (subscribing £1,500), John Vaughn Barler of Perry Barr, Richard Fowler of Erdington, George Bragg and William Houghton of Birchfields, and a farmer, Charles Gallimore.  This needs to be looked into further.  In addition, Meikle states that Richard Fletcher also straightened a series of crooked lanes which now form the main road from Walsall via Stafford Street, Leamore, Bloxwich, Wallington Heath, Churchbridge and on to Cannock and Stafford.  These changes all benefited coach travel and local business.

The George Hotel, 1924. (Walsall LHC)

The George Hotel, 1924. (Walsall LHC)

Many coach services were run by the hotel, but with the rise of the railway this dwindled, until in 1893 Billy Meikle was one of a party which took the last journey in a coach owned by the George.

On that day the Duke of York and Princess May were visiting the Earl of Bradford at Newport House, Castle Bromwich, and were due to attend a service at the local church.  The George Hotel party left Walsall with the full intention of entering the church, but there was such a great crowd of Birmingham folk and policemen that they could not even approach the churchyard on their arrival.

The last coach from the George Hotel, at Sutton Coldfield. Billy Meikle top left, 1893. (Walsall LHC)

The last coach from the George Hotel, at Sutton Coldfield. Billy Meikle top left, 1893. (Walsall LHC)

The trip was not, however, entirely wasted – they made for the Bradford Arms, a fine old Queen Ann building which, as Meikle says, had “escaped the attention of that Arch Vandal the Brewer.”  They were sadly unable to obtain lunch there, so the coach proceeded onward to the Royal Hotel at Sutton Coldfield where they had better luck, and following a fine luncheon the party, including Billy Meikle, had their photograph taken outside the hotel.

Sadly, as Meikle reflected, by 1941 most of the people in that photograph had passed away, and the great days of coaching and the old George were but a fading memory.

Sheer historical vandalism - the demolition of the old George Hotel, 1933. (Walsall LHC)

Sheer historical vandalism - the demolition of the old George Hotel, 1933. (Walsall LHC)

In 1933, it was decided to replace the grand old George Hotel with a new building. And so Walsall’s greatest Georgian inn was consigned to the dustbin of the past in one of the worst examples of historical vandalism ever to take place in a town which was to become well-known for such acts. It was in many ways the beginning of the end of the great days of Walsall.

The second George Hotel, not long after completion, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

The second George Hotel, not long after completion, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Nonetheless, the magnificent new ‘Art Deco’ George Hotel of 1935, a creation of the era of steam, the motor car and the trolley bus, would also be a prestigious ornament to the town for many years, before itself falling victim to the vandals of ‘progress’ – but that is another story.

Stuart Williams and Billy Mekle

From Dixon of Dock Green to Gene Hunt: Walsall Police

Annual inspection of Walsall police force on the Arboretum Central Green by H. M. Inspector of Constabulary, 1929. (Walsall LHC)

Truncheon meet: Annual inspection of Walsall police force on the Arboretum Central Green by H. M. Inspector of Constabulary, 1929. (Walsall LHC)

Back in 1952, Walsall had the distinction of having one of the oldest police forces in the country. Constables were regularly appointed here as far back as the days of the Stuart Kings.  And long before Sir Robert Peel introduced his new police force (the ‘peelers’ or ‘bobbies’), there were regular “police” patrols in Walsall. In 1811 the town was divided into divisions and beats, watch houses were opened on each beat and there was a thorough system of watch and ward.

Walsall Police were first established as a “modern” force in the town in 1832, because of the trouble expected at the approaching election. This was a sensible precaution given that the first election under the Reform Act (1832) was remembered for ‘the grave riots, confusion, and destruction of property which then took place’.

Landlord William Purchase of the Wheatsheaf pub in Bloxwich chats with a local 'Peeler', c1860s. (Walsall LHC)

Landlord William Purchase of the Wheatsheaf pub in Bloxwich chats with a local 'Peeler', c1860s. (Walsall LHC)

Strange as it may seem, in the early 1950s the town was still divided into divisions and beats and there were still watch houses provided, although they were then known as police boxes.  However, by that time there was change in the air. The “Team” system was to be adopted locally. More radio cars would be provided, and, although many of the men would still patrol on foot, there would be a much greater degree of mobility and flexibility.

By 1952 Walsall police officers numbered 153, excluding civilian clerks and telephonists. There was also a Women’s Section consisting of 1 Sergeant and 6 Constables. Walsall had employed Policewomen since 1915 and there was no doubt then, as now, that the Policewomen were performing a very useful service.

Detectives in Goodall Street Police Station, 1920. (Walsall LHC)

Detectives in Goodall Street Police Station, 1920. (Walsall LHC)

The Criminal Investigation Department at that time was well equipped and members of the department dealt efficiently with all kinds of crime. In fact, the work of the department had been so effective that over about 20 years, not a single major crime had gone undetected. The Detectives were all highly skilled, specially selected and instructed at Scotland Yard and other training centres. A fingerprint bureau and one of the best equipped photographic studios in the country had also been established in the department. Walsall was also fortunate to have the West Midlands Forensic Science Laboratory only a few miles away.

Walsall Police Car in Upper Rushall Street, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Police Car in Upper Rushall Street, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

In those days, as today (albeit a little faster now!) cars and motorcycles were frequently used by thieves and to combat the high-speed criminal it was necessary to have rapid means of communication and transport.

A black-painted 'Swallow Gadabout' motor scooter in use by Walsall police patrols. Seated is Police Constable (later Inspector) J. Brazier of Walsall Police, 1949. (Walsall LHC)

A black-painted Walsall-made 'Swallow Gadabout' motor scooter in use by Walsall police patrols. Seated is Police Constable (later Inspector) J. Brazier of Walsall Police, 1949. (Walsall LHC)

In Walsall the police telephone box and pillar system had been installed, giving telephone points at various strategic places throughout the Borough which were connected by direct line to Police Headquarters in Walsall. Also, any member of the public could use police telephones, free of charge, for calling the police, ambulance or fire brigade. By 1952 the ‘dial 999’ emergency telephone system was also operating in Walsall.  But there were no mobile ‘phones!

Walsall Police telephone pillar, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Police telephone pillar, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

One of the busiest departments in the early 1950s was the one dealing with traffic and communications. By 1952, an Information Room had been set up and the officer in charge was in constant radio communication with a fleet of fast cars patrolling the Borough 24 hours a day. Since the V.H.F. Wireless Scheme came into operation, many spectacular captures had been made and much good preventive work had been done.

Walsall Police Information Room, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Police Information Room, c1949. (Walsall LHC)

In addition to the Regular Force there was a strong body of Special Constabulary, all of whom were highly trained and skilled part-time voluntary police officers who turned out on special occasions.

Walsall's Special Constables at the Bandstand in Bloxwich Park, c1940-42. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall's Special Constables at the Bandstand in Bloxwich Park, c1940-42. (Walsall LHC)

But in 1966 huge change came about in local policing when the West Midlands Constabulary was formed, and Walsall Borough Police, together with the Wolverhampton and Dudley forces, ceased to exist as such, being merged within the new organisation.  Not long after, Walsall police became ‘E’ Division of the ‘new’ force, and the new Walsall police headquarters in Green Lane was opened.

As a result of the Local Government Act of 1972, which created new Metropolitan Counties and districts, a Metropolitan Police Force was planned to cover the new West Midlands County (Walsall had formerly been in Staffordshire).  The new area included all the Urban Districts stretching from Wolverhampton in the North to Coventry in the South.

West Midlands Police Logo.

West Midlands Police Logo.

On 1 April 1974, policing in Walsall was taken over by the new West Midlands Police, and a new high-speed age of county-wide law enforcement had arrived.  The Metropolitan Borough of Walsall was covered by ‘H’ division of the new force, headquartered in Green Lane.  By 1976, there were two Sub-Divisional Stations at John Street, Willenhall and Anchor Road, Aldridge plus three Section Stations at Darlaston, Bloxwich and Brownhills.  HQ of the West Midlands Police was, and remains, Lloyd House on Colmore Circus Queensway in Birmingham.

DI Sam Tyler and DCI Gene Hunt (right), 1973. (Courtesy BBC)

DI Sam Tyler and DCI Gene Hunt (right), 1973. (Courtesy BBC)

Today, the eras of the ‘clip round the ear’ delivered to yobs by the respected bobby on the beat, or the roar of a speeding Ford Cortina or Audi Quattro in pursuit of brutal blaggers, have long gone, and the police box has taken up residence in the hearts of sci-fi fans as a Timelord’s transportation.

Walsall Police Station, Green Lane, 2011. (Stuart Williams)

Walsall Police Station, Green Lane, 2011. (Stuart Williams)

But Walsall’s police are still out there, albeit often buried under piles of red tape and paperwork, and suffering ill-considered government cuts, patrolling the mean streets of our borough and doing in the digital age what is in many ways a much more high-tech, but also much more dangerous, job than their predecessors of the days of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Gene Hunt’.  These days, you can even find them hanging out on Twitter!  This article is dedicated to them.

Stuart Williams

Walsall’s Lost Railway Station

A train of the Grand Junction Railway.

A train of the Grand Junction Railway, c1837.

The railway came early to Walsall, but didn’t enter the town itself at first.  On May 4, 1837, the first railway line in the area opened – the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Warrington.  The local station, ‘Bescot Bridge’, was near the Walsall to Wednesbury road.  From here, coaches ran into Walsall, to the 18th century George Hotel on The Bridge.

Walsall Railway Station, 1888. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Railway Station, South Staffordshire Railway building, 1888. (Walsall LHC)

In 1847 the South Staffordshire Railway opened a temporary station in Bridgeman Place, linking with the Grand Junction line at Bescot Junction.  On April 9, 1849, the Wichnor Junction line to Dudley opened and connected with the Bescot to Walsall section.  A magnificent new station building was opened in Station Street.

Walsall Station flooded, 13 May 1886. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Station flooded, 13 May 1886. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Station gradually expanded from one set of up ‘up and down’ lines.  The South Staffordshire Railway opened the Cannock line in 1858, increasing passenger and coal traffic to Walsall and the Black Country.  In 1859, it was extended to Rugeley, and in 1861, the London and North Western Railway took over the Cannock line and widened Walsall Station to accommodate passing lines through the centre for mineral and freight trains, leaving two loops for passenger trains.

The Wolverhampton Line via North Walsall was opened in 1872 by the Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway, and by then the Midland Railway was negotiating for running rights to Walsall.  By the time they were established in Walsall, the station was becoming seriously congested.

It was rebuilt in 1883, with a new main entrance in Park Street and separate booking offices for the LNWR and Midland Railways.  The LNWR owned the station itself, and their stationmaster was in control.  The old station, extended in the LNWR style, became used for parcels and administration.  The lines between Platforms 1 and 2 were reduced from four to three, forming the slow lines with the middle line being the ‘Down Passing Loop’.  Between platforms 3 and 4 were the fast lines, with the ‘town’ side of Platform 4 having the ‘Up Fast Loop’ beside it, giving platform 5.  Two short bays on the ‘down’ side of the station (toward London) were mainly used for parcel vans, and were known as ‘Cannock’ and ‘Sutton’ bays.

Railway Station entrance and theatres in Paark Stret, 1903. (Walsall LHC)

Railway Station entrance and theatres in Paark Stret, 1903. (Walsall LHC)

Around 1900, Walsall Station was working to capacity, with approximately 1000 train movements in just 24 hours, and provided jobs for more than 200 guards, porters, shunters, clerks and officials.

In March 1916 a fire damaged the booking hall, but due to the Great War the station could only be crudely patched up until hostilities ceased.  The undamaged iron and glass canopy forming the Park Street entrance was retained when an imposing new circular booking hall and concourse were built after the war.  Adorned with Grecian-style stone pillars, with leaded roof windows and walls lined with fine oak panels, this beautiful building, opened in 1923 by the LNWR District Superintendent, Mr. J.F. Bradford, is well remembered by local people.

Station canopy c1918. (Walsall LHC)

Station canopy c1918. (Walsall LHC)

From late Victorian times until World War II, Walsall Station was the hub of the town’s trade, travel and commerce.

Men of the Midland Railway Goods Yard, Walsall, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

Men of the Midland Railway Goods Yard, Walsall, c1918. (Walsall LHC)

Park Street showing Walsall Station decorated for King George V's Silver Jubilee, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Park Street showing Walsall Station decorated for King George V's Silver Jubilee, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

The Station Master in his skiff, Walsall, 1931. (Walsall LHC)

The Station Master in his skiff, Walsall, 1931. (Walsall LHC)

The station master was held in high esteem, and was always invited to public occasions. He even had his own rowing skiff for when the station was (frequently!) flooded by Walsall Brook, which was then open behind the station.

Class 3 Locomotive in Walsall Station, 1956. (Jack Haddock)

Class 3 Locomotive in Walsall Station, 1956. (Jack Haddock)

Jubilee class locomotive 45687 arriving at Walsall Station with Pines Express, 1958. (Jack Haddock)

Jubilee class locomotive 45687 arriving at Walsall Station with Pines Express, 1958. (Jack Haddock)

However, with the growth of the post-war motor industry, the station’s importance declined, accelerated by the ‘Beeching Axe’ in 1965 which left passenger trains from Walsall to Birmingham only.

Flooded Walsall Station, 1969. (Alan Price)

Flooded Walsall Station, 1969. (Alan Price)

Walsall Station was virtually defunct by 1977, when this service became hourly.

Walsall Station, 1978. (Alan Price)

Walsall Station, 1978. (Alan Price)

In late 1978 the town’s fine, prestigious old station was destroyed in an appalling act of historical vandalism, and replaced with the bland and boring Marks & Spencer’s and the Saddlers Centre shopping mall, opened in 1980. Hardly a fair exchange.

The station now became little more than a glorified concrete passenger halt, rebuilt with a tiny concourse and ticket office accessible via Station Street and the Saddlers Centre.

New Walsall Station entrance, Station Street, 1997. (Stuart Williams)

New Walsall Station entrance, Station Street, 1997. (Stuart Williams)

In the late 20th century, however, rail passenger services underwent a surprising national revival when road congestion began to escalate enormously, and on April 7, 1989, the Walsall to Hednesford service was reinstated under the auspices of Staffordshire County Council, West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, British Rail and local councils along the route.

New Walsall Station platforms, 1997. (Stuart Williams)

New Walsall Station platforms, 1997. (Stuart Williams)

In 1995, major improvements were made to Walsall station, funded by CENTRO with financial assistance from Walsall City Challenge and the European Regional Development Fund.  The station concourse was remodelled and new waiting rooms built, with a large, smart new canopy and glass fronted waiting area now extending over much of platforms 1 and 2.

EMU 323206 from Birmingham New Street on platform 1 of Walsall Railway Station, 1997. (Stuart Williams).

EMU 323206 from Birmingham New Street on platform 1 of Walsall Railway Station, 1997. (Stuart Williams).

The resurrection of Walsall’s railway services continued in the late 1990’s and saw the extension of the Hednesford line through to Rugeley and then Stafford, as well as the reopening of the Walsall to Wolverhampton service in 1998.

Today, under London Midland Trains, Walsall Station operates in partnership with CENTRO, Network Rail and Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council.  Newer trains have gradually been introduced, offering a pleasanter, more comfortable journey for local people.

Services have had their problems, with the disappearance of the direct Wolverhampton service, though there is regular public speculation on further potential for service expansion, but such developments are a long way down the line, if they happen at all.

It may be a very far cry from the grand old days of railways when the railway was the main transport hub of the town, but in 2011 Walsall Station can at least stand up and be counted once more.  It is to be hoped that its future will be even brighter.

Stuart Williams

The Bus Stops Here: Walsall Bus Station

Tilling Stevens Motor Bus DH904 at Bloxwich, 1916. (Walsall LHC)

Tilling Stevens Motor Bus DH904 at Bloxwich, on the Walsall-Hednesford run, 1915. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Corporation operated its first bus service on May 23, 1915.  The initial route ran from Walsall to Hednesford via Cannock, but this was just the beginning of an extensive network that, built up over many years, was to link the towns and villages of Walsall Metropolitan Borough into a very effective system of public transport.

On January 1, 1904, Walsall Corporation had taken over the running of all tramway routes in the Borough from the South Staffordshire Tramways (Lessee) Company Limited, that operated within the urban Black Country.

Tram No.46 ready for one of the last journeys to Bloxwich. Futuristic new 'trolley buses' on show to the public for the first time. The Bridge, Walsall,  29 Sept 1933. (Walsall LHC)

Tram No.46 ready for one of the last journeys to Bloxwich. Futuristic new 'trolley buses' on show to the public for the first time. The Bridge, Walsall, 29 September 1933. (Walsall LHC)

After World War One all municipal transport operations increasingly realised the great flexibility of and economic advantages of buses compared to trams.  On April 1, 1928 the first tramway replacement by bus took place, and in September 1933, Walsall Corporation ceased to operate tramcars, replacing them with electric trolley buses on the Bloxwich route and the joint Walsall to Wolverhampton service.

By 1934 Walsall Corporation ran 97 motor buses and 19 trolley buses. Bus terminals included Wolverhampton (trolley buses), Cannock and Hednesford, as well as Pleck via Pleck Road, situated on Townend Bank.  For Wednesbury, Darlaston via Pleck. West Bromwich, Caldmore and Palfrey circular Walstead Road routes, the terminus was located in Bradford Place, as it is today.

Bradford Place Bus Station, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Bradford Place Bus Station, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Bloxwich and Leamore trolley bus routes terminated on The Bridge, running via Townend Bank and Park Street. Bus terminals for Brownhills, Sutton Coldfield, Lichfield, Birmingham Road, Paddock circular, Bloxwich and Blakenall, Cannock, Chasetown, Chase Terrace, Burntwood, Hednesford via Pelsall, Norton Canes and Heath Hayes were situated in Darwall Street or Leicester Street.

New Walsall Corporation AEC Regent Buses at Birchills Depot, c1931. (Walsall LHC)

New Walsall Corporation AEC Regent Buses at Birchills Depot, c1931. (Walsall LHC)

With Birchills Bus Depot approximately one and a half miles distance from Walsall town centre, the Transport Manager became aware of dead non-profit mileage with buses operating morning and evening rush hour services. In 1933, surplus land in Darwall Street between the Post Office and the Central Fire Station was rented to park twelve buses. Drivers and conductors travelled on the Bloxwich route to book off duty and deposit takings. This was a well planned exercise by the management, stressing the need for economy during the 1930s depression years.

Despite the uncertain employment situation at this time, the Government of the day helped relieve unemployment by supporting new council housing estates within the borough, leading to expansion of new and extended bus routes. This required more buses so the Council and Transport Committee agreed to build a central Bus Station.

Walsall Bus Station under construction, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Bus Station under construction, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Fortunately, the old Blue Coat School in St. Paul’s Street was moving to new, modern premises recently built in Springhill Road. The old school site was chosen for the new St. Paul’s Bus Station. On February 5, 1935 the Transport and Town Planning Committee met to consider plans for the layout of the Bus Station. It was also decided that the Corporation Transport offices situated between the Imperial Cinema in Darwall Street and the Midland Bank on The Bridge would be closed, with the new offices incorporated within the new Bus Station.

The Bus Station lengths were to run from North to South.  In addition a garage was proposed to be erected to cover the Bus Station, and it was suggested that Walsall bound trolley buses be diverted via the Wisemore from Stafford Street to The Bridge then depart via Park Street.  However, these latter two options never materialised.

Bus stop for Sutton Road and Birmingham Road buses, adjacent to the old bus offices, The Bridge, Walsall, c1930. (Walsall LHC)

Bus stop for Sutton Road and Birmingham Road buses, adjacent to the old Corporation Transport offices, The Bridge, Walsall, c1930. (Walsall LHC)

The new Corporation Transport Offices built adjacent to the Priory Hotel  were substantial and luxurious, with a canopy on the frontage, a clock on the roof,  modern toilets and an Inspectors Department.  There was also a Parcel Office at ground level.  Situated above were the General Manager and Assistant Manager’s offices, plus the Wages and Financial departments responsible for all transport employees.  These offices cost £16,378 plus £365 for the canopy.

Walsall Bus Station not yet complete, before the Walsall Corporation Offices were added, July 1935. (W. Bullock)

Walsall Bus Station not yet complete, before the Walsall Corporation Offices were added, July 1935. (W. Bullock)

Birchills Depot continued to deal with Conductor’s ticket supplies and paying in of takings after daily schedules.  Buses began to use the loading bays even before the new Transport Offices were occupied, in July 1935, and prior to the official opening on September 23, 1937.

Walsall Bus Station, late 1940s. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Bus Station, late 1940s. (Walsall LHC)

All buses entered the new Bus Station via Hatherton Road, which was a dual carriageway, with surplus buses parking along its length to St. Paul’s Street.  Buses then departed onto The Bridge then via Lower Bridge Street for their destinations. In 1950 some properties in lower Stafford Street, by the junction into Wisemore, were demolished to enable Bloxwich and Leamore trolley buses to divert, via St. Paul’s Street, to terminate via a circle opposite St. Paul’s Church and then use a surplus northerly-facing loading bay.

Walsall Bus Station, 1950. Note many buildings since lost. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Bus Station, 1950. Note many buildings since lost. (Walsall LHC)

This magnificent new Bus Station continued to serve the town for many years, with occasional modifications to the layout and construction of the bus shelters, and eventually, with the changing of ownership of bus services to other operators, Walsall lost its own Corporation Transport system, but that is another story.

Walsall Bus Station showing trolleybuses, June 1969. (Alan Price)

Walsall Bus Station showing trolleybuses, June 1969. (Alan Price)

Today, the once smart 1930s Corporation Transport Offices building, long since abandoned by Walsall Corporation, has recently acquired new life, in part, as the home of Dino’s cafe, with the possible future addition of shops within the building.

The old Walsall Bus Station itself was sadly swept away in the early 21st century by a futuristic new St. Paul’s Bus Station officially opened on August 2, 2001, under the auspices of CENTRO, which today manages much of the public transport infrastructure in the West Midlands.

This striking but controversial and problematic new building, attempting, not entirely successfully, to shelter many buses and passengers alike under one roof, has received both approbation and opprobrium, but one thing is certain.  St. Paul’s Bus Station remains as important a hub of public transport for the modern Walsall Metropolitan Borough as its predecessor was all those years ago.

Stuart Williams

Co-written with Walsall transport historian Jack Haddock

From Red Books to the Red Planet – W. Henry Robinson

William Henry RObinson, Red Book 1912. (Walsall LHC)

William Henry Robinson, Red Book 1912. (Walsall LHC)

William Henry Robinson (1847 – 1926) is little known today amongst the people of the town in which he lived most of his life, yet they have much to thank him for.  It was he, and his father before him, who published many of the books, and one of the newspapers, which reveal so much of the town’s history to Walsall historians.

For many years, this prominent local Victorian was at the heart of the cultural life of Walsall and, true to the tradition of his time, Robinson, who was a printer, publisher, journalist, author, historian, astronomer and cyclist, spent many hours in the pursuit of knowledge for his own edification and for the benefit of others.

Robinson's Steam Printing Works, 8 The Bridge, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

Robinson's Steam Printing Works, 8 The Bridge, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

His father, John Russell Robinson, brought him to Walsall from his home at The Hollies in Cannock, after his birth in 1847.  J. R. Robinson set up a printing, publishing, stationery and retail emporium on The Bridge, Walsall – the ‘Walsall Steam Printing Works’ (about where Millets used to be until recently).  In 1856, he also founded the original ‘Walsall Advertiser’  which for many years was one of Walsall’s most prominent newspapers (and no relation to the present rag, which has never been published in the town).  Although the old Walsall Advertiser ceased publication on Christmas Day, 1915, it can still be read on microfilm at Walsall Local History Centre.

In 1872, J.R. Robinson began publishing a successful and popular series of town directories known as the Walsall Red Books, providing a guide to events, local government, institutions and societies etc, and a street by street directory in later editions.  Henry Robinson later took them over, and they went from strength to strength under his management.  The Red Books were sold to T. Kirby & Sons Ltd in 1911, and ended in 1939.  Now scarce, they have become a valuable resource for local and family historians in the area.

After completing his education at Mr. Jackson’s Grammar School in Aldridge, William Henry Robinson entered the family business.  Following the death of his father, young Robinson took over the business at the age of 21, and made a great success of it.

Offendene, 1904. (Auction Catalogue)

Offendene, 1904. (Auction Catalogue)

On 7th January 1874, aged 27, Robinson married Lydie Agnes Schnabel, aged 21, at St. Matthew’s Parish Church, Walsall. She was of German extraction and the daughter of Frederick Schnabel, Professor of Languages.  They lived for many years at ‘Offendene’, a substantial house on the corner of The Crescent and Sutton Road, sadly replaced in the 1960s by a small apartment block.

Advertiser Office, 133 Lichfield Street, 1906. (Walsal Red Book)

Advertiser Office, 'The Walsall Press', 133 Lichfield Street, 1906. (Walsal Red Book)

Under Mr. Robinson’s leadership the Walsall Advertiser thrived, expanding into larger premises at 133 Lichfield Street in 1907.  This building (still in use opposite the Central Library) had been built around the 1840’s and now entered a new lease of life, as the headquarters of The Walsall Press and the Walsall Advertiser.  From here, Robinson also continued to print private and business stationery, as well as literary and historical publications, including some of his own books and important local histories such as the work of Frederick Willmore.

Donati's Comet of 1858.

Donati's Comet of 1858.

Apart from his passion for literature, Robinson was a keen amateur astronomer, tracing his interest back to Donati’s Comet of 1858.  A Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and member of the British Astronomical Association, he brought the wonders of science and the literary talents of the day to Walsall, for the benefit of local people, in his capacity as founder member and Honorary Secretary of the Walsall Literary Institute, formed on 25th July, 1884.

He was responsible for its day-to-day operation, organising social events and lectures for the Institute, many of which took place in the Temperance Hall, Freer Street (later the Empire Cinema, now destroyed) including personal readings by such authors as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, talks from well-known scientists and explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and Fridtjof Nansen, and soirees with talented musicians and singers.

The Temperance Hall, Freer Street, Walsall, 1930. (Auction Catalogue)

The Temperance Hall, Freer Street, Walsall, 1930. (Auction Catalogue)

On 30th October 1895, Walsall Literary Institute recognised Mr. Robinson’s many years of enthusiastic voluntary service, presenting him with the princely sum of 100 guineas and a fine new astronomical telescope with which to pursue his stargazing hobby.  Present on this occasion was Sir Robert S. Ball, the Victorian equivalent of Patrick Moore and a prolific lecturer and author.  Royal Astronomer for Ireland at Dunsink Observatory, and later head of the Observatory at Cambridge University, Sir Robert had became a good friend of Robinson as well as a regular visitor to Walsall, and in 1899 he became President of Walsall Literary Institute.

Sir Robert Stawell Ball, Vanity Fair, 1905.

Sir Robert Stawell Ball, Vanity Fair, 1905.

At its peak, the Institute had more than a thousand members, and Robinson remained Hon. Secretary until it closed in 1911, acknowledged throughout as the power behind its enormous success.  Retiring not long after, Mr. Robinson spent the next several years pursuing his hobbies and writing newspaper articles on local history and astronomy, which offered a small respite for the desperate times endured during the Great War of 1914-18, but the end of an era was approaching, in more ways than one.

The late William Henry Robinson, about 1926. (Walsall Red Book)

The late William Henry Robinson, about 1926. (Walsall Red Book)

William Henry Robinson died on Wednesday 17th February 1926 at 85 Highgate Road, Walsall, survived by three sons, six daughters, and ten grandchildren, his wife having died in 1901. His funeral service took place at St Matthew’s Parish Church on Saturday 20th February 1926, followed by cremation at Perry Barr, and his ashes are interred in the family grave at Rushall Church.

His legacy to the people of Walsall is a remarkable mix of culture, science, history and letters unrivalled in his adopted home to this day.

Stuart Williams

Walsall’s Wonderful Arboretum and its Lodge

Walsall Arboretum from the air, about 1930. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Arboretum from the air, about 1930. (Walsall LHC)

The ‘jewel in the crown’ of Walsall town is, perhaps, its famous Victorian park, The Arboretum, and the setting of that jewel is entered through the historic gateways of a fine old Victorian building – the main Arboretum Lodge, with its distinctive clock tower.

The Lodge about 1900. (Walsall LHC)

The Lodge about 1900. (Walsall LHC)

Once home of the legendary Walsall Illuminations festival of lights enjoyed annually by millions since its inauguration in 1952, Walsall Arboretum itself has its origins in another much more ancient activity in the town – limestone mining.

Hatherton Lake, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

Hatherton Lake, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

The area now occupied by the Arboretum was originally part of Rushall until 1876.  Limestone had been quarried in the vicinity since at least the late 18th century, with the Persehouse family demolishing Reynolds Hall so that the very profitable quarrying could continue.  However, operations had ceased by the 1840’s, leaving two great pits to fill up with water, both from the nearby stream and from springs and general drainage.  The larger of the two pits, now lakes, was named Hatherton Lake by 1845, and the fine old row of houses now known as Victoria Terrace just to the north was in fact built as Hatherton Lake Villas by the early 1850’s.

Hatherton Lake, c1910. (Walsall LHC)

Hatherton Lake, c1910. (Walsall LHC)

In 1858, demand was growing for a public park to be made in the area, and indeed the lakes and surrounding land had been informally in use for fishing and walking for many years.  From 1868, Lord Hatherton’s agent began to support the idea of a park to improve the locality and encourage development.

Walsall Arboretum about 1920. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Arboretum about 1920. (Walsall LHC)

In 1870, the Walsall Arboretum & Lake Co. Ltd was formed, as a commercial company leasing the land from Lord Hatherton and Sir George Mellish in 1873.  The area leased comprised the two lakes and seven acres of land, which was to be laid out as an arboretum (tree park) or pleasure grounds and gardens.

The Arboretum, from the roof of Queen Mary's Grammar School, about 1920. (Walsall LHC)

The Arboretum, from the roof of Queen Mary's Grammar School, about 1920. (Walsall LHC)

The park, with lodges and boundary wall designed by Robert Griffiths of Stafford, County Surveyor, was opened in 1874, charging a 2d admission fee, but failed to become a commercial success, and it was taken over in 1877 by a committee which was able to make the park pay its way at last.

Captain Boynton at the Arboretum testing his life-saving dress, 1875. (Walsall LHC)

Captain Boynton at the Arboretum testing his life-saving suit, 1875. (Walsall LHC)

Many attractions brought people to the Arboretum over the next few years, including a band of Zulu warriors, a steam launch (The Lady of the Lake, which later sank in heavy rain and was raised by Henry Boys for use on his New Mills Boating Lake) and Captain Matthew Webb, the famous Channel swimmer, who braved the icy waters of Hatherton Lake, as well as Captain Boynton, who demonstrated his remarkable life-saving suit on the lake.

However, pressure grew for the Borough Council to take over, and in 1881 they obtained a 3 year lease of the land and opened Walsall Arboretum as a free public park.  The town purchased the freehold in 1884, and so it was to become part of our local heritage.

Walsall Arboretum Lodge, about 1910. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Arboretum Lodge, about 1910. (Walsall LHC)

The Arboretum Lodge had been opened as the main entrance to the park in 1874.  Built with a tall clock tower in dark red brick, central to a symmetrical composition, flanking bays contain gates below a depressed gothic arch and slate saddle-back roof, linking to two storey bays below a stepped gable with stone dressed tripartite windows.  Chimney stacks are at the extremities, with that on the right showing its original crenellated pot.  Low single storey end bays stand below slate saddlebacks, with stepped gable ends and double lancets stone dressed.  All in all, this was, and is, a fine and imposing entrance to such an impressive park.

Arboretum Lodge and tiny traffic island, July 1969. (Alan Price)

Arboretum Lodge and tiny traffic island, July 1969. (Alan Price)

However, the Lodge, like the under-funded facilities of the park, became the subject of some criticism over the ensuing years.  At one time it lost its pinnacles, which had been blown off the gable, and the four-faced clock which had long been promised was not in fact installed until 1886.  Prior to this, the four round holes in the tower had been blanked off with black boards, and this was not seen as a satisfactory situation, especially as trams began to run regularly along Lichfield Street towards the end of the 19th century and a public timepiece was now seen as a necessity.

In June 1886 the Town Council resolved to carry out some minor improvements, and a drinking fountain was installed just inside the lodge gates at a cost of £8.  On 5th August the Mayor duly turned on the fountain and drank the first cupful.  Plans were finally made to install a clock in the lodge tower, but with only two faces, one facing the park, the other Lichfield Street, at a cost of £35.

The Arboretum Lodge Clock, about 1910. (Walsall LHC)

The Arboretum Lodge Clock, about 1910. (Walsall LHC)

However, the townspeople felt that this was penny-pinching, and at their next meeting the Council resolved to fund the full four dials, at a further estimated cost of £15.  This now-familiar clock was formally started by the Mayor on 30th September 1886, and within a few months it was illuminated by gaslight.  The lodge, and its fine new clock, were to symbolise Walsall Arboretum from then onward.

Arboretum Pavilion, about 1914. (Walsall LHC)

Arboretum Pavilion, about 1914. (Walsall LHC)

In 1900, local architects were invited to submit plans for a pavilion to include
refreshment room accommodation. Mr H E Lavender’s plans were chosen.  The Pavilion opened in May 1902, and that year tennis courts and bowling greens were built on the northern side of the brook in the extension. The park became a venue for sports days, school fetes and hot air balloon events.

Band of the 5th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, at the Bandstand, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

Band of the 5th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, at the Bandstand, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

In 1924 the current bandstand was built, opening in April.  Constructed by Walter Macfarlane and Co, it replaced the previous bandstand, dating from 1874.  Plans had previously been laid for an enclosure facing the bandstand, where seating was later provided on ledges stepped into the hillside.

Showman's Engine, possibly owned by Pat Collins, entering the Arboretum Extension, 1930s. (Walsall LHC)

Showman's Engine, possibly owned by Pat Collins, entering the Arboretum Extension, 1930s. (Walsall LHC)

The Arboretum was to be extended several times over the years, and between 1891 – 1952 it stretched south-eastwards, gradually increasing to cover 145 acres. This gave room to hold much larger events such as fun fairs.

Walsall Illuminations, a section, 1952. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Illuminations, a section, 1952. (Walsall LHC)

Today, the park is best known as the one-time home of Walsall’s famous Illuminations (now sadly closed) and as the host to many other wonderful public events throughout the year.  It is currently undergoing an occasionally controversial, but generally much-needed, major refurbishment by Walsall Council, which has shattered the peace within its  walls for a while.

But it will soon be possible to once again walk in peaceful solitude through these tranquil gardens, beneath the ever-watchful four eyes of the Arboretum Lodge tower, and to contemplate the foresight of our Victorian ancestors who bequeathed us all this great gift so many years ago.

Stuart Williams

Things that Go Bump in the Borough…

The 17th century White Hart oub, Caldmore, Walsal, early 1900s.

The 17th century White Hart pub, Caldmore, Walsall, c1896.

Over the centuries, creepy tales of ghosts and ghouls, legends of mystery and imagination, and fragments of ancient folklore become inextricably intertwined with the history of every town, and whatever you believe about the origins of ghost stories, these old legends are firm favourites with those who like to tell tall tales by the fireside, ale in hand, long into the night.

There are a few particularly memorable local stories of the supernatural, perhaps the most popular of which relate to The White Hart.  The legendary home of the ‘Caldmore Ghost’ is a very old and picturesque house, later used as a pub, located on Caldmore Green, just outside Walsall town centre.

Now wonderfully restored for shared use, The White Hart is thought to date back to the second half of the seventeenth century, and was probably built by George Hawe (died 1679).  This remarkable listed building is the object of great local affection, despite the dark legends associated with it.  Since it was built it has gathered around it a shroud of many chilling stories, which may or may not be old wives tales.

The Caldmore 'Hand of Glory'.

The Caldmore 'Hand of Glory'.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century The White Hart was renovated, and, during the work, a child’s arm was found hidden in an attic chimney. The arm has become known as the ‘Hand of Glory’, traditionally a hand cut from a hanged felon and dried in the prescribed manner.  Then, either by lighting the fingers themselves or using the hand as a candle holder, the Hand was supposed to stupefy any person seeing it, thus enabling a burglar to ransack a house without being caught.  It was generally believed that the flames could not be blown out by any ordinary person and that milk was the only liquid able to extinguish the candle.

This grisly object, now on display in Walsall Museum, seems to be a medical specimen, dissected by a surgeon and injected with formalin to preserve it.  It certainly does not date from the time when the house was first built.  However, popular legend refuses to accept such a dull solution.

There are many other tales of haunted happenings, into modern times, and The White Hart has become known as the home of ‘The Caldmore Ghost’.  I present here for your interest a photograph taken in 1925 of the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Clarke, allegedly ‘taking the pulse’ of this legendary spectre.

Dr. Clarke 'taking the pulse' of the Caldmore Ghost in 1925. (Walsall LHC)

Dr. Clarke 'taking the pulse' of the Caldmore Ghost in 1925. (Walsall LHC)

Other subjects of spooky speculation around the Borough include, of course, the old vicarage of St. George’s Church on Darlaston Green, the haunted Area Dispatch Office at Walsall Bus Depot, the spirited old lady at the Manor Arms in Rushall, the spectral West Highland terrier of Sutton Road, and the Ghost Train of the Leighs Wood Line at Shelfield!

St George's Church, Darlaston, c1970. (Alan Price)

St George's Church, Darlaston, c1970. (Alan Price)

Bloxwich is also the haunt of many a terrifying tale, and I well remember in my youth being told of the ghostly Flying Nun of Wallington Heath, who had supposedly committed suicide at the Convent there.

The former King's Arms, Wallington Heath, Bloxwich, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

The former King's Arms, Wallington Heath, Bloxwich, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

This story may derive from the alleged haunting of the Old Kings Arms, a former coaching inn on the site which later became the convent of St. Paul of Chartres, by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered at the inn. There are still a few older people in the neighbourhood who can remember their parents hurrying past the spot or refusing to venture that way at night.

The former 1874 Bloxwich Police Station and Library, 2010. (Stuart Williams)

The former 1874 Bloxwich Police Station and Library, Harrison St, 2010. (Stuart Williams)

Then of course there are more recent reports of footsteps upstairs in The Spring Cottage pub, Elmore Green Road, Bloxwich – or the beer-chucking ghost of the Memorial Club in Harrison Street!  Of course, not many people know that the old part of the ‘Memo’ is Bloxwich’s first Branch Library, and second Police Station, in use from 1874.  The old house’s former cellar was used as a gaol cell, as the rusted hinges down there testify.  Is a former prisoner or spectral librarian causing a ruckus? Who knows…

Supernatural goings-on in Bloxwich have not been limited to reports of ghosts, though.

The Old Bull's Head and Wishing Tree, Park Rd, Bloxwich, 10 June 1927. (Billy Meikle)

The Old Bull's Head and Wishing Tree, Park Road, Bloxwich, 10 June 1927. (Billy Meikle)

More than once I have referred to the story of the Bloxwich Wishing Tree which once stood near the old Bull’s Head pub in Park Road.  This time I’ll conclude by returning to that story by quoting a spooky poem from the book ‘Ghosts & the Folklore Around Barr Beacon’ by Andrew Perrins, sadly now out of print:

Ballad of the Wishin’ Bush

Sum airty years ago in Bloxidge town,

A tale told there is so well known;

About a quaint ode wishin’ tree,

By th’ Bull’s Yed for all to see.

Now a local blade, he did enjoy,

A pint or two upon the sly,

In that said pub within th’ town,

Those quarts ov ale, ‘e drunk ‘em down.

Now ‘is wife she was so much vexed,

In fact, she was a touch perplexed,

To know ‘er bloke went astray,

Drinkin’ each nite an’ ev’ry day.

She med a wish so th’ tree would fall

Upon ‘er spouse to stop ‘im all,

From a drinkin’ in that wretched pub,

A curse she uttered upon the shrub.

But th’ tree, it missed an’ ‘it th’ inn

Uzby escaped by th’ thick ov ‘iz skin,

Now th’ wife, she took it all to ‘art,

An’ on that day she did depart.

‘Em say th’ bush’s growin’ still,

So do mek a wish if yoh will!

Whether all of these tales are the result of ghostly materialisations or are due to the effects of some other kind of spirits, who can say?  I for one keep an open mind, especially at Hallowe’en…

Stuart Williams

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