William ‘Billy’ Meikle – Walsall Character and Renaissance Man

William 'Billy' Meikle, probably in the old George Hotel, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

William 'Billy' Meikle, probably in the original George Hotel, Walsall, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

William Meikle, popularly known as ‘Billy’, was born in Tipton, around 1858.  Of Scottish ancestry, connected with Galloway, he was the eldest son of John Meikle, a credit draper. He had a sister, Jean, and at least one brother, Douglas.   For some years they lived in Manchester, but because of the cotton famine which badly affected Lancashire in the 1860s the Meikles moved to Caldmore in Walsall when Billy was about seven.  Billy had attended St. Luke’s Church School in Manchester, and on his arrival in Walsall he became a pupil of Bridge Street Congregational School, later moving to Queen Mary’s Grammar School.

Original Bridge Street Congregational Chapel, Walsall, before 1894. (Walsall LHC)

Original Bridge Street Congregational Chapel, Walsall, before 1894. (Walsall LHC)

By 1873 Billy had left school, and attended art classes for a time. He did well at first, but his lack of concentration caused problems. One day he was sitting an exam and when the two men supervising began chatting he quickly became distracted. He recalled later “The argument grew that animated that I stopped work altogether, consequently I did not pass a single paper.” Fortunately for Billy, when he gave this as the reason for his failure he was allowed to resit the exam!

Billy Meikle at home, 26 Lichfield Street, Walsall, c1900. (Walsall LHC)

Billy Meikle at home, 26 Lichfield Street, Walsall, c1900. (Walsall LHC)

After school, Billy followed in his father’s footsteps, joining him as a credit draper. With customers in the Cannock Chase and Rugeley area, Billy’s first job of collecting the accounts, and later distributing goods, took him all around the district on his bicycle.   His father, meanwhile, saw to the manufacturing side of the business.  Over  the years, Billy occupied several business premises, but he eventually settled at 111 Lichfield Street, which is still there today with a blue plaque commemorating him on the wall.  He also lived at 26 Lichfield Street.

Billy Meikle (right) and friends, in The British Oak pub, Lichfield Street, Walsall, c1910.  (Walsall LHC)

Billy Meikle (right) and friends, in The British Oak pub, Lichfield Street, Walsall, c1910. (Walsall LHC)

It was not until about 1914 that Billy married his wife, Clara.  Apart from a happy married life and business, he also enjoyed many hobbies. He loved sketching and watercolour painting, and illustrated his own Christmas cards with local scenes.  Meikle also designed menus for local societies, and drew political cartoons for the local newspaper.

Walsall Photographic Society outing to Great Heywood, Staffordshire (Meikle left of centre), July 1902. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Photographic Society outing to Great Heywood, Staffordshire (Meikle left of centre), July 1902. (Walsall LHC)

He was a founder member of both Walsall Burns Club and, most significantly, Walsall Photographic Society.  Billy was an enthusiastic photographer, and hundreds of his pictures have survived, becoming an invaluable document of local life and buildings.  An active member of the Johnson Society and Walsall Curling Club, Billy was also a history enthusiast, and in 1918 he was co-opted onto the Public Library Committee.  Perhaps as a result of this, many of his photographs and writings were given to the Library on his death, which is how they have become preserved today at Walsall Local History Centre.

Walsall Curling Club, Walsall Arboretum Lake, Meikle marked by x, c1895. (Walsall LHC)

Walsall Curling Club, Walsall Arboretum Lake, Meikle marked by x, c1895. (Walsall LHC)

William 'Billy' Meikle's 'Baronial Hall', early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

William 'Billy' Meikle's 'Baronial Hall', early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

Billy was also a great collector of antiques, especially furniture.  He came across many bargains on his travels and was always one for a sharp deal.  One day he discovered a 17th century oak chest which was being used as a rabbit hutch. First buying the rabbit, he then purchased the ‘hutch’ on the premise that he now needed a hutch to house his new rabbit!  By similar devious means he also managed to acquire a valuable china bowl which was being used for eggs.  By the end of his life, his home had become a treasure-house of antiques.

The Daily Mail Man's Collar, of Horse Maimings fame, 1906. (Walsall LHC)

The Daily Mail Man's Collar, of Horse Maimings fame, 1906. (Walsall LHC)

Billy Meikle was a real character, his appearance often being as eccentric as his behaviour.  For some years, he sported an ‘Old Bill’ moustache, wore a deerstalker hat and smoked a Meerschaum pipe.  He was also a great practical joker.  On one occasion his japes brought him into connection with a famous incident which came to be investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes – the case of the Great Wyrley Horse Maimings.  When a Daily Mail reporter was dispatched hot-foot from London to report on the incident,  Billy managed to get hold of the man’s old shirt collar when he was staying at the George Hotel, and drew a coffin, skull and crossbones and a warning upon it, which must have given the reporter a shock when it was returned to him!

Presentation of an ornamental pipe to Billy Meikle, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

Presentation of an ornamental pipe to Billy Meikle, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

When Billy approached his 80th birthday he decided to record the many stories and anecdotes he had collected over the years for posterity, augmented by his own sketches, watercolours and photographs, in a series of eighty-three unpublished handwritten booklets, entitled Middle of the Midlands, which are also, fortunately, preserved at Walsall Local History Centre.

Billy Meikle died on 14 February 1943, aged 84, three months after his wife also passed away, leaving no children.   He is regarded with great affection by Walsall historians, who value both his remarkable legacy to the town and his sense of humour!

Billy Meikle at home, c1930s. (Walsall LHC)

Cheers! Billy Meikle having a drink at home, c1930s. (Walsall LHC)

While Billy was not always the greatest of artists or photographers, his work is invariably charming and interesting, and deserves a wider audience, and in 2009 I published a series of articles based on and augmenting his own writings about local history in the Walsall area.

This was followed up by an exhibition, and in 2010, in tribute to the man himself I wrote the book Billy Meikle’s Window on Walsall, which was published that Christmas by Walsall Local History Centre.  I hope I did him justice, and if I ever find a time machine, I’m going back to buy him a pint, give him a copy and listen to his tales first hand!

Stuart Williams


Walsall’s Greatest Airman – Flight Lieutenant Sidney Norman Webster

Flt Lt Sidney N. 'Pebbler' Webster, c1927

Flt Lt Sidney N. 'Pebbler' Webster, c1927.

Walsall’s history is occasionally illuminated by the remarkable stories of individuals from the town.  One such is Flight Lieutenant Webster of the Royal Air Force, who deserves to be known today as Walsall’s greatest aviator.

His fame, though forgotten by most locally, has spread world-wide, albeit it he is best known today by aviation enthusiasts and historians.

Aerial view showing Butts School, before 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Aerial view showing Butts School, before 1935. (Walsall LHC)

Born at 41 Borneo Street, Walsall, an ordinary Victorian terrace house, on 9 March 1900, Sidney Norman Webster was a fine student, educated at the old Chuckery Senior (1911-1914) and Butts Schools.

A good all round sportsman, he played football for the Walsall Schoolboy Association team and was captain of the Chuckery School First XI, also playing cricket for Walsall.  Yet few could have predicted his even more amazing achievements to come, when he would take to the air in the service of his country.

The 1847 Walsall Railway Station, 1965. (John Whiston)

The 1847 Walsall Railway Station, 1965. (John Whiston)

Webster, a handsome young lad and a bit of a daredevil who received the nickname ‘Pebbler’ due to his cheery freckled features, left school shortly before the Great War.  He first worked as a junior railway clerk, then in the office of S.E. Loxton, solicitor and Clerk to the Magistrates until, aged 17, he joined the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918.  Thanks to six months of hard training and his go-ahead attitude, on 27 September 1918 Webster was commissioned as an officer, of the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (Pilot).

Air Force Cross. (Crown Copyright)

Air Force Cross. (Crown Copyright)

His first tour of duty was as a Flying Officer in India, where in 1922 he was awarded the Air Force Cross for a record endurance flight.  Returning to England, Webster became a test pilot at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment.  On 21 May 1924 he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and in April 1927 was selected for the new High Speed Flight formed at Felixstowe to provide aircraft and crew for the Schneider Trophy contests.  Started in 1913 by French industrialist Jacques Schneider, the Schneider Trophy series were the greatest seaplane races ever held.  The trophy was a spectacular work of art costing 25,000 francs.

The Schneider Trophy.

The Schneider Trophy.

The 1927 Schneider Trophy race was held over 218 miles at The Lido, Venice, Italy on 26 September. Great Britain, Italy and the U.S.A. entered, but the greatest competition was between arch rivals Italy and Britain.  The R.A.F. team’s aircraft included two Supermarine S5’s, a Gloster IVB and a Bristol Crusader.  One of the S5’s was in the skilled hands of Flight Lieutenant ‘Pebbler’ Webster.

'Pebbler' Webster (top, rear) with R.J. Mitchell (centre) and his Supermarine team, 1927.

'Pebbler' Webster (top, rear) with R.J. Mitchell (centre) and his Supermarine team at Supermarine's Woolston factory, 1927.

The Supermarine seaplanes were specially designed by Staffordshire engineer R. J. Mitchell for the Schneider races and were the basis for his famous WWII fighter, the Spitfire.Thanks to him and his skilled Supermarine team, Webster had the best aeroplane for the job – defeating the competition, and proving the technology!

RAF Schneider Trophy Team at Venice, 1927

RAF Schneider Trophy Team at Supermarine's Woolston factory, 1927.

Sadly, one Italian competitor was killed due to engine problems in a training flight before the race.  The American aircraft was not up to the challenge and withdrew.

A section of the crowd along the waterfront of Venice for the 1927 Schneider Trophy Race

A section of the crowd along the waterfront of Venice for the 1927 Schneider Trophy Race.

During a hair-raising race which saw the flying of the remaining Italian result in a broken fuel pipe, causing him to retire, Flight Lieutenant Webster won in style, watched by 200,000 spectators, flying his S5 at an average speed of 273.01 mph with a fastest lap record of 281.54 mph.

Webster flying Supermarine S5 N220 to win the Schneider Trophy, 1927

Webster flying Supermarine S5 N220 to win the Schneider Trophy, 1927.

For this, Webster received a bar to his Air Force Cross, and congratulations from Walsall dignitaries and organisations plus his old schools – as well as from the King and the Air Ministry – but the greatest honour to come was back home.

Bravo, Old Chuck! 27 October 1927

Bravo, Old Chuck! 6 October 1927.

Webster returned to Walsall in triumph, on 6 October 1927, and was treated to a grand Civic Reception in the Town Hall, hosted by the Mayor, Joseph Leckie.  Huge crowds lined the route as he travelled in a Daimler limousine from Birmingham to Walsall, escorted by police and preceded by an honour guard from the Staffordshire Regiment.  In Walsall, Webster was surrounded by thousands of local people and feted as a true hero, even being welcomed by a party of Chuckery schoolgirls waving flags and holding high a banner “Bravo! Old Chuck.”

The Civic Group at Walsall, 27 October 1927 (Walsall LHC)

The Civic Group at Walsall, 6 October 1927. (Walsall LHC)

The following link shows a wonderful Pathe Newsreel film of Webster’s homecoming to teeming thousands of Walsall people:

IN HIS HOME TOWN – British Pathe.

Walsall crowds outside the Council House to welcome home their hero, 6 October 1927

Walsall crowds outside the Council House to welcome home their hero, 6 October 1927.

Before the reception, young ‘Pebbler’ stood proudly on a podium before the Council House, flanked by his mother, brother, the mayor and dignitaries, to receive a commemorative oak plaque from Alderman Leckie, and an illuminated address from the people of Walsall, who cheered him loudly and long.

Webster on the podium, Walsall Council House, 6 October 1927. (Walsall LHC)

Webster on the podium, Walsall Council House, 6 October 1927. (Walsall LHC)

In 1930, Webster Road, just around the corner from Walsall Local History Centre, was named after him, and for some years there was a commemorative plaque in the street, but this seems have been lost over time.

Webster remained in the R.A.F, progressing through the ranks of Squadron Leader, Wing Commander, Group Captain and Air Commodore in the 1930s-40s.  In World War II, his experience as a test pilot was put to good use as Liaison Officer to the Aircraft Manufacturing Group, and in 1944 he commanded the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, which had been moved to Helensburgh, Scotland, for the duration of the war.

Mentioned in despatches in 1932 and 1945, in 1946 he was appointed a C.B.E. and Air Officer Commanding R.A.F. Hong Kong, later having two spells of duty at Coastal Command.

Flight Lieutenant S.N. Webster (centre without hat), on return to England, 1927

Flight Lieutenant S.N. Webster (centre without hat), amongst the crowds on his return to England, 1927.

Made an Air Vice Marshal in 1947 and retiring in 1950, Sidney Norman ‘Pebbler’ Webster died on 5 April 1984.

He deserves to be remembered by Walsall folk as a local lad who reached for the sky, who put the town on the world map, who helped protect us throughout his remarkable flying career – and who exemplified British ingenuity, adventure and daring at its best.

Stuart Williams

From the Earth to the Moon – Highgate Windmill

Highgate Windmill Cottage garden, late 1800s

Highgate Windmill Cottage garden, c1904 (Photo by Arthur Farrington, courtesy John Griffiths).

Church Hill in Walsall is the highest and steepest section of a long ridge dropping gradually away towards the south, fading out before it reaches Broadway.  Caldmore occupies the western flank of the ridge, and Highgate the crest and eastern side.

Highgate enjoys long views to the south and east, and is separated from central Walsall and the partly industrialised Caldmore area by the lie of the land.  It is also the location of one of the Borough’s most interesting buildings – Highgate Windmill.

This windmill is unique in the Borough, being the only significant remains of this type of building, though a second windmill used to stand behind the White Lion Public House in Caldmore.  There were also once windmills on the northern boundary of Bloxwich. But little or no trace of any of these others remains today.

The top of Highgate Road was once known as Windmill Lane, and is situated about a mile from St. Matthew’s Church, to the south.  The old miller’s cottage adjoins, its gable flanking Highgate Road.  The mill tower is Grade II Listed.

Highgate Windmill beyond greenhouses, late 1800s

Highgate Windmill beyond greenhouses, c1904 (Photo by Arthur Farrington, courtesy John Griffiths).

The remains of the mill, built around the beginning of the nineteenth century,  tower strikingly above the surrounding houses.  Although the sails are long gone and the upper section has been modified and added to over the years, the mill is still a remarkable sight – and all the more interesting because of its varied history. The tower has a slight taper until the later cylindrical portion is reached; it is roughly five storeys – some fifty feet – high, with a crenellated top, also added later.

Mentioned in the Birmingham Gazette, Highgate Windmill came up for sale by Edward Rigby in both 1826 and 1828.  We know that Thomas Jennings worked it from 1835 to 1841, and in 1841 the Midland Counties Herald shows it being advertised by local builder M. Salt with a shop and cottage.

Shortly thereafter, it was purchased by Mr. Moses Eyland, founder of the famous Walsall firm of buckle and spectacle makers Eyland & Sons, Ltd, of Lower Rushall Street (that factory having been converted into apartments in recent years).  His son Charles Eyland, Mayor of Walsall 1857 – 58, inherited the property, having left his house in Lichfield Street for Hope Cottage, which stood in its own grounds adjoining the mill.  During the Eyland ownership the mill was worked by James Griffiths, who lived in the cottage opposite the malthouse, and it seems to have fallen into disuse between 1864 – 1868.

Ordnance Survey map, 1885

Ordnance Survey map, 1885.

After this Charles Eyland removed the mill machinery, including the two grindstones.  Appreciating what a wonderful view could be obtained from the top storey of the tower, Mr. Eyland rebuilt, raised and comfortably furnished the top room, fitting a fireplace and laying a carpet.  Often he would go up for a quiet smoke and to contemplate the fine panorama.  To aid his viewing he arranged a mirror on the camera obscura principle, so that the four compass directions could be seen in one glass.

In 1890 Charles Eyland died, and the mill passed to Charles Newbold Eyland, who moved into Hope Cottage with his family.

The Windmill abandoned, c1900

The Windmill abandoned, c1900. (Walsall LHC)

About 1919 the tower was struck by lightning, knocking down a piece of the parapet.  One evening several men arrived claiming they had been asked to repair the roof.  Their ‘repairing’ consisted of stripping the old place of its lead, and away they went with a haul worth many pounds, never to be seen again.  Deprived of its protective covering the roof sprang a leak and the inside walls were marked.  The general soundness of the brickwork, however, remained a tribute to the workmanship of bricklayers in days gone by.

On the death of Charles Newbold Eyland in 1925, the mill was bought by George Skidmore of Sandwell Villa, Sandwell Street, a member of the firm of buckle makers of Windmill Street.  At the time Mr. Skidmore was famed for his remarkable record in playing cricket for more than sixty years.

Mr. Skidmore, who had for many years been interested in astronomy, supervised the rebuilding of the tower, re-pointing the brickwork and raising the parapet by about two feet, adding to the crenellations, so that it could be converted into an astronomical observatory.  The floors were relaid with concrete on the oak beams, intending the construction to be more solid than ever, and new stairs were built.  George Skidmore then installed a large equatorial refracting telescope, and at the time spoke with pride of its fine lens, its view finder, and its clockwork motor drive whereby it was possible to set the telescope on any star and ensure that it would be followed in its course across the heavens.

Mill Cottage and the Windmill, 1938

Mill Cottage and the Windmill, 1938.

During the Second World War, Highgate Windmill’s commanding position made it the natural choice for use as an observation post by local Air Raid Patrol wardens, and for years it was manned by them every night.

Highgate Windmill, 1964 (Walsall Observer)

Highgate Windmill, 1964 (Walsall Observer).

By the 1960s however, the mill had fallen into disrepair, becoming covered in ivy, and it appears to have changed little since then, though it is now much less overgrown.

Today, Highgate Windmill remains privately owned, and although not open to the public, it is a fascinating sight from Highgate Road and the footpath between there and Folly House Lane.

Stuart Williams

Walsall’s Victorian Jubilee Memorial – Walsall Science & Art Institute

Walsall Science and Art Institute 1888

Walsall Science and Art Institute, 1888. (The Walsall Album)

With long-awaited improvements to Bradford Place bus station imminent, now seems a good time to look back at the most important and prominent feature of that place, and in my view the most handsome building in Walsall town centre – the old Science & Art Institute.

In January 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, William Kirkpatrick, Mayor of Walsall, issued to his fellow citizens an appeal asking them to emulate the good example of the Prince of Wales – who was then suggesting the erection of a grand central Institute building in London to be called the Imperial Institute – by erecting in Walsall a building suitable for housing the Science and Art teaching of the schools then in existence, which were being carried on under difficult conditions at the Station Chambers, Station Street.

Lord Bradford had already given a valuable central site off Bradford Street, subsequently renamed Bradford Place, and the result of the Mayor’s appeal and enthusiastic efforts was the erection of one of the finest buildings in the town, as Walsall’s memorial of the Victorian Jubilee.

The story of the Institute is one of long and gradual growth, eventually  becoming the centre of technical and adult education in the town.

Goodall Street Baptist Chapel early 1900s

Goodall Street Baptist Chapel, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

The first local move towards teaching popular and elementary art was made around 1861, in a Night Class for the teaching of drawing at the schoolroom of Goodall Street Baptist Chapel, encouraged by Rev. Alfred Adolphus Cole.  The teachers gave their services free of charge, and the pupils paid a penny per night, which was expended in supplies.

About 1869, a Government School of Art was established in Bridgeman Place with Mr. W. H. Duignan being  chairman, Mr. W. H. Robinson honorary secretary, and Mr. Mulligan accredited master.  Around the same time, Government Science Classes began in the Wesleyan School Rooms, Ablewell Street, Mr. Cox being chairman, and Mr. Brocksop hon. secretary.

Bridgeman Place late 1800s

Bridgeman Place, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

On 1 October 1872, a meeting was held at the Station Chambers to unite the Art Classes and Science Classes, forming the Walsall Science & Art Institute, with Sir Charles Forster, M.P., as president, Rev. Alfred Adolphus Cole chairman, Mr. Brocksop hon. secretary, and Dr. Maclachlan treasurer.  It commenced without funds, a source of many difficulties in years to come.

Science and Art Institute foundation stone laying, 20 June 1887

Science and Art Institute foundation stone laying, 20 June 1887. (Walsall LHC)

The foundation stone was laid on 20 June 1887 (Jubilee Day), by the Mayor (Mr. W. Kirkpatrick), as the first Chairman of the Building Committee; the opening ceremony was performed on 24 September 1888, by Sir Charles Forster, Bart., M.P., assisted by Alderman E.T. Holden, J.P., as succeeding Chairman of the Committee.

The Institute building in Bradford Place was then thought to be a somewhat plain but imposing design, the front and sides being faced with the best patent red bricks, the window dressings, arches, gable copings, ornamental panels, finials, etc, being of best light buff terracotta.  The architects, whose designs were selected in competition, were Messrs. Dunn and Hipkins, of Birmingham.  The total cost, inclusive of furnishings and fittings, was about £6,000.

The maintenance of the Institute, with its numerous staff of qualified professors and competent teachers, was supported by Government grants, and supplemented by annual subscriptions of the citizens of Walsall.  Over the years, it expanded, incorporating a Technical Day School under Mr. W.F. Blay as Headmaster.

The Municipal Institute, early 1900s

The Municipal Institute, early 1900s. (Walsall LHC)

In 1897, it was transferred to the Town Council and renamed ‘Walsall Municipal Science & Art Institute’, and c.1908 the School of Art moved to Goodall Street, to the former Free Library building.  By 1914, huge demand for courses caused an overflow into other buildings.  In 1915 the need was expressed for a new Technical College on a site with potential for future expansion, but it was to be a long time before new premises were built.

Zeppelin L21 (LZ61) in Germany

Zeppelin L21 (LZ61) in Germany.

The Great War of 1914-18 came, and the town suffered from the depreations of the Kaiser’s airmen in the great Zeppelin Raid of 31 January, 1916.  After leaving Wednesbury that evening, flying the L21, its commander Kapitänleutnant Max Dietrich headed North for Walsall. The first bomb there landed on a Congregational church. A preparation class of children from a local primary school was meeting in the church but no-one was injured, although a man walking by outside died instantly, the top of his head having been removed by debris or blast. Dietrich flew over the centre of Walsall and his last bomb fatally wounded Julia Slater, the town’s mayoress, as she rode on a tram in Bradford Place. Windows were also blown out of the Institute nearby.  Walsall Cenotaph now stands on the spot where this, Dietrich’s final bomb, fell.

In 1926 the old Municipal Institute was renamed Walsall Technical College.

Bradford Place, aerial view, 1920s (Walsall LHC)

Bradford Place, aerial view, 1920s. (Walsall LHC)

In 1935, the Wisemore slum clearances began, eventually creating a suitable area for a new college.  Building was due to start in 1939, but was interrupted by World War 2, and at this time the premises in Bradford Place were given over to training women to work with industrial machinery to enable them to become factory hands.  It was not until after the war that work continued on the new college, and in 1952 the main college became based at Wisemore, now St. Paul’s Street, as the Walsall and Staffordshire Technical College.

Bradford Place, 1935

Bradford Place, 1935. (Walsall LHC)

The old Institute became the college Annexe, and so it remained, eventually serving as part of the renamed Walsall College of Arts & Technology, housing the painting and decorating department.  In 2001 that work moved to new premises in Green Lane, and the original building’s future became uncertain. A few years later, it was purchased from Walsall College by Globe Property Ltd, who currently use it as office accommodation.  Recently, its successor as Walsall College was demolished, and in the past year has been replaced by a new Walsall College complex, off Littleton Street West.

The grand old memorial to Queen Victoria was still at the heart of the town in the Golden Jubilee year of a second Queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in 2002.

Bradford Place, 23 July 2011 (Stuart Williams)

Bradford Place, 23 July 2011. (Stuart Williams)

Today, Walsall’s wonderful Science & Art Institute, a striking reminder of the great days of the town and the borough, can surely feel proud to have served so well for more than a century.  Hopefully it will have an equally important use in the future. Next time you get a bus in Bradford Place, stop by and read that foundation stone, put in place by the great and good of Walsall for the service of its people, so long ago.

Stuart Williams

Saint Matthew’s Hall and the Walsall Free Library

The Old Court House (Saint Matthew's Hall), early 1900s

The Old Court House (Saint Matthew's Hall), early 1900s (Walsall LHC)

It seems timely at the moment, what with yesterday’s re-opening of the old Walsall court house in its new/old incarnation of Saint Matthew’s Hall, to speak of libraries in Walsall, with their  old and honourable tradition of service to the town and its people.

Many of you reading this will be regular users of Walsall Central Library in Lichfield Street, but how many realise that this particular building is more than a century old, and that libraries as an institution in Walsall go way back in history?

The first public library in Walsall was a paid subscription library established in 1800 by one Thomas Bowen, a Unitarian minister, in his Rushall Street home.  This was moved, by 1813, to a room at Valentine & Throsby’s stationery shop in High Street.

A permanent, purpose-built library, however, was first constructed in Lichfield Street, in 1830-1.  This magnificent Georgian building, originally named Saint Matthew’s Hall,  still exists, on the corner of Leicester Street, in what we call Leicester Square.  The building, one of the most imposing in the town, is of Greek Doric design, built in brick, stone and stucco, and fronted by a tetrastyle portico.  This early library originally contained a large hall, which was at one time divided into news and reading rooms, surrounded by a first-floor gallery.

The library was not a commercial success, and by 1847 the building was in a state of disrepair, and it was sold to C.F. Darwall, Clerk to the Magistrates.  In 1851 it had become a savings bank, but between 1853 – 1855, Mr. Darwall modified it so that it could house the Walsall County Court offices as well as a lecture hall on the ground floor plus a Freemasons’ hall on the first floor.

Following the sale to Darwall, the contents of the library and newsroom had been transferred to John Russell Robinson’s printing works on The Bridge, roughly where Millets shop stood until a year ago.  The books and papers remained there, latterly under the care of his son, W. Henry Robinson, a prominent printer and publisher, until 1875 when the subscription library was closed down and the books were presented to the new Free Library (see below).

The history of Saint Matthew’s Hall did not end there, however.  In the 1990s, the County Court moved to Upper Bridge Street, to the former Co-op Kenmare House, and the Old Court House became a popular bar, restaurant and nightclub.  Over the years that also became run down, and having had a short period as a Martha’s Vineyard, it closed last year.

Yesterday, however, this fine old building came full circle in a way – it re-opened under its original historic name of Saint Matthew’s Hall – as a library-themed Wetherspoons pub celebrating the history of Walsall.  I wish them luck with their new venture.

Walsall Free Library, Goodall Street, late 1800s.

Walsall Free Library, Goodall Street, late 1800s. (Walsall LHC)

In 1857, Walsall adopted the Free Libraries Act, and a new building was opened in 1859, in Goodall Street, where it remains today.  In 1872 it was converted into a newsroom, and a library and reading room built over it.  The building was extended in 1887, and in 1890 the upper room was modified to house an art gallery, museum and reference library – direct ancestors of those same institutions in 21st century Walsall.

Walsall Carnegie Free Library, c1920s.

Walsall Carnegie Free Library, c1920s. (Walsall LHC)

The Free Library in Goodall Street was replaced in 1906 by the much larger and more central new Free Library present Central Library in Lichfield Street.  It was built with funds provided by the famous Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who founded many libraries and also donated the enormous dinosaur skeleton cast which is to be found in the foyer of the Natural History Museum in London.  J. Gibson of London designed the new Walsall Library in the Baroque style.

In 1965, a large extension was built on the right hand side of the Library, and named the E.M. Flint Gallery after Miss Ethel Mary Flint, herself an artist and chairman of the Borough’s Library & Art Gallery Committee.  The controversial (because of its radically different modern architecture) extension housed an art gallery as well as rooms for lectures and exhibitions.  In 1967-8, a Museum of Leathercraft was established there, using items from the Museum of Leathercraft in London, which eventually transferred its entire collection to Walsall in 1971.

E.M. Flint Gallery extension, 2011.

E.M. Flint Gallery extension, 2011. (Stuart Williams)

In 1974, the first floor of the ‘new’ Free Library building – by then known as Walsall Central Library – was reorganised as an art gallery housing the Garman-Ryan Collection, which was given by Lady Kathleen Epstein in 1973.  The ground floor of the extension became  the Children’s Library, where it remains today, and part of the upstairs became Walsall Museum’s Local History Gallery.

Following the completion of the New Art Gallery at Town Wharf in 1999, the Garman-Ryan Collection was removed to the new building, and the old gallery became vacant.  In due course it was refurbished and rebuilt as a superb specialist public Reference Library and Flexible Learning Centre.  Transferred from the ground floor of the Library and dramatically expanded, the busy and popular new facility offers the best in reference books, periodicals and business information as well as public internet access, multi-media, video conferencing, word processing and homework facilities.

Walsall Central Library 2011

Walsall Central Library 2011. (Stuart Williams)

In summer 2002, the familiar main entrance of the historic Central Library was closed, and a new entrance in the form of a 21st century glass atrium was created between the original building and the E. M. Flint gallery extension housing the Children’s Library.   The space vacated on the ground floor when the Reference Library moved upstairs has been used creatively to extend the Lending Library, adding a remarkable air of spaciousness to the newly refurbished room.  At the same time, a public lift was added in the atrium, offering greater convenience for the disabled and the many other visitors wishing to visit the Reference Library and Walsall Museum.

Sadly, due to the spate of government cuts since the last general election, Walsall Museum’s busy and popular temporary exhibitions gallery – the E.M. Flint Gallery as was – was mothballed earlier this year, and several staff made redundant, leaving only the otherwise excellent Changing Face of Walsall gallery and associated Education Room.

Today, Walsall’s old Central Library – the Carnegie Free Library – retains much of the character of the original genteel establishment, representing nearly two centuries of librarianship in the town, while continuing to push forward the boundaries of what is now know as information science.  Using modern technology undreamed-of by Walsall’s first librarians, the people of the borough, young and old, can now take full advantage of computerised resources and the internet, exploring both books and the realm of cyberspace in the Flexible Learning Centre at the Central Library – and in many of its borough-wide branches.

In the enlightened spirit of its predecessors, making information and learning available to all, it is to be hoped that, despite it seems inevitable future cuts, the modern 21st century Walsall Central Library and its several fine branches around the borough will continue to be vitally important centres for public access to knowledge, culture and entertainment in the town for many years to come.

But I say to you now, dear reader – use it or lose it! Like much of old Walsall that has already disappeared, you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

Stuart Williams

Welcome to The Borough Blog

Various people have been badgering me for a while to start a local history blog for the Walsall area.

I’ve resisted this up till now because of other commitments, but I thought to myself this week, “Why not?  After all, it would be a good excuse to dust off all my old – by definition – local history articles…”  And add a bit of commentary on happenings and matters historical and heritage across the borough and beyond.

So here it is, for good or ill (you judge!) – The Borough Blog.

I’ve made a point of not calling this “The Walsall Blog” or using any other specific place name, even though a lot of the history will be that of the town of Walsall.  That’s because Walsall Metropolitan Borough is not a place, it’s an administrative district, and I know only too well that pride of place lies within all of the towns and villages, no matter how large or small, within that district.

They are all unique, and have their own character, their good points and bad points – and they are certainly not all Walsall, which is, in its own right, an ancient early medieval market town with a fascinating and colourful, if not always happy, history.

Incidentally, this is not the only blog in this area covering history – there’s my other effort flying the flag for the even more ancient village of Bloxwich and district, The Bloxidge Tallygraph, and the excellent Brownhills Bob’s Brownhills Blog which, amongst other things, has given local history in the Brownhills area a much-needed boost online.  So go and have a look at those after you’ve been here, will you?

Speaking of history, many of the old photographs you see here are kindly provided by Walsall Local History Centre, the archives and local studies service for Walsall Metropolitan Borough – for which grateful thanks. You’ll find many more on their excellent photo website – Walsall A Click in Time.

Anyway, enough waffle for now.  On with the history!

Stuart Williams