TAME PAST PRESENT FUTURE

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4. Bescot Junction

RiverTame RiverTame RiverTame FordBrook (Willenhall Brook) Elwell’s Pond M6 Wood Green Cemetery Wednesbury Forge N
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4.a – The Other Tame

Although the Tame Past Present Future project explored the River Tame that emerges in Oldbury, there are, in fact, two rivers that lay claim the the name ‘Tame’. The other Tame flows from Willenhall, through Darlaston, and meets the Oldbury Tame at Bescot Junction. This Tame was previously called the Willenhall Brook, which would make things less confusing, and for the sake of clarity, we will call it Willenhall Brook from here on, even though it is officially and locally known as the Tame.

There were once several spas and springs along the banks of the brook, one being consecrated St. Sunday with an inscription placed above it stating “fons oculis morbisque cutaneis diu celebris AD 1726”, showing that the water here was used to cure eye and skin complaints. Just below this spa white clay with yellow veins was collected and sold to the glove makers as ‘ochre cakes’, one of the local industries.

 

4.b – Saw & Gun Barrel Making at Wednesbury Forge

From the early 1700s Wednesbury Forge passed into the occupancy of the Willetts family, namely a John Willetts, who ran it as a rolling mill (at this time rolling was often called plateing or plating). The mill remained in the hands of the Willetts for over 100 years, for four generations of the family, and the family expanded the mill-site extensively, at first making saws, and then expanding into gun barrel making which became their staple trade by the 1750s.

In 1753 the mill was sketched by a Swedish visitor called Reinhold Angerstein, who also described the site. He noted that Willetts ran a rolling mill powered by two water wheels; one of the wheels, which stood in the centre of the mill, drove two rollers on one side, the other, with the use of a gear system, drove the slitting machinery on the other side of the mill. Metal would be rolled on one side, either to be taken over to be slitted, or would be rolled out as ‘flats’ for other uses. Leading up to this time the ‘flats’ (flat rolled metal) would have been used on-site for making saws; one man would hold the rolled metal under the blade punch (see fig. 2.) while another would hit the top of the punch with a sledgehammer to make the teeth (see fig. 3.).

Angerstein also described that “under the same roof as the rolling mills were two hearths for gun forging”, which utilised the rolling mills to hasten the process of getting the metal for the gun barrels the correct thickness. In other barrel forges the iron would have been forged by hand to the right size and thickness. The barrels were then welded by hand and then heated to a ‘cherry-red’ and “planed with a long plane-iron”, fashioned like a small saw (see fig. 4.). The next part of the process of making the gun barrel was to send it to a water-powered boring mill to be bored on benches, which would have been on-site, and powered by the River Tame. Lastly, the barrel would be polished on a bench (see fig. 5.) to a high polish.

All this needed a lot of water power, which sometimes ran short in dryer times, so the second Mr. Willetts had attempted to support this by wind power, building a brick windmill on the site (see fig. 1.). It was a consummate failure as Willetts was unable to work out how to take down the sails without stopping all the mill machinery, and it didn’t help that he’d built it over the mill pool, making it difficult to do so even under the best circumstances. The windmill became locally known as “Mr. Willetts’ Folly”. The windmill was later converted into a new grinding and boring mill for the barrels, where three new grinding pits were built, cooled and lubricated by Tame water. Paul Belford states that it was “probably the only wind-powered grinding and boring mill in the history of ferrous metalworking”, but this was probably because it was not one of those ingenious ideas that marked so much of the industrial period. Water power definitely won the day!

The grinding itself, whether water or wind powered, involved using grindstones to wear the metal to size and shape. This work produced a fine dust, which the grinders often inhaled, and was very hazardous to health. Grindstones could also explode, and the death of a grinder due to a stone breaking was recorded at Wednesbury Forge in 1767. The making of gun barrels continued past the death of the fourth and last Mr. Willetts in 1794, when Wednesbury Forge was taken on by his widow, who partnered with Hyla Holden, a local gun barrel maker, and related by marriage to the Willetts family (he had married a Mary Willetts in 1788). The mill was run by the two families until both Mrs. Willetts and Hyla Holden died in 1816; in 1817 Edward Elwell bought the site for making edge tools.

You can also see this article on our blog!

 

The Fordbrook – a forgotten tributary of a neglected river, by Robert Ginder

By Robert Ginder

Introduction and Overview

The Northern tributaries of the Upper Tame near Walsall consist of the Ford Brook, Bescot Brook, Fullbrook, Scott(e)brook, Holbrook, Shelfield, Clock Mill and Sneyd Brooks, plus a few lesser streams. Of these the Ford Brook emerging from Clayhanger Common in the north-east and eventually flowing through Walsall Town Centre (where it is also known as the Walsall Brook or Waters) is the most significant. These brooks defined many of the boundaries of the ancient Manor of Walsall, as shown in a survey of its bounds carried out in the early 17th C. This started from James Bridge on the main river near Darlaston, and proceeded downstream to Bescot, and then followed the Fullbrook eastwards for some way before turning north to join the Holbrook. The line of the Holbrook was then followed westwards towards the Ford Brook (then referred to as Broade Water). The traverse then becomes difficult to follow, but may have followed 2 unnamed tributaries of the Ford Brook which originated in North Walsall and formed boundaries of the western part of Rushall. The traverse then proceeded upstream on the main river system, taking in Shelfield, Stubbers Green and Clayhanger near Brownhills, before returning south towards Goscote and the Clock Mill Brook. It then circled to the north of Bloxwich and west to the Sneyd Brook, finally following the brook downstream back to James Bridge.

Looking at the first edition OS map of the 1830s, the Northern Tame basin can be seen to be largely contained between the Walsall-Bloxwich-Churchbridge and Walsall-Rushall-Lichfield roads, which were both turnpiked in 1766, and Watling Street/ Old Chester Road. It is ringed more closely by the emerging canal system which circumnavigated much of it. The Walsall Canal reached the Town Wharf by about 1800, whilst at about the same time the Wyrley and Essington canal passed about 1 mile to the north. The Walsall town level was at about 400ft, along with much of the surrounding countryside, whereas the W&E maintained the significantly higher Wolverhampton level of about 470ft. Such a height difference is important in the comparatively flat Tame Valley. Hence, after passing under the Walsall to Bloxwich turnpike at Pratt’s mill and wharf, the W&E canal and its Daw End Branch describe a major loop to the north, circling the northern Tame basin via Goscote, Fishley, Pelsall, Brownhills, Walsall Wood and Rushall, at one point taking the best part of 10 canal miles to travel a mile or so eastwards. It terminated for a time at the lime-workings of Hay Head, midway between Walsall and Aldridge. In early Victorian times the Walsall and W&E canals became joined via the Birchills flight ascending west of town, the Rushall canal descending from Hay Head in the east to the Tame Valley Canal in the south, completing the circuit of both Walsall and the Northern Tame basin.

The tributaries of the Northern Tame rarely crossed this canal loop, which was often close to the watershed. The loop enclosed much of the old Manor of Walsall, and also took in the separate manors of Goscote, Pelsall and Rushall. Goscote was generally under the same ownership as Walsall, but Pelsall was originally a detached part of Wolverhampton and Rushall was independent, although parts of it (Ryecroft and the Butts) were incorporated into Walsall in the late 19th century. All these areas, along with Walsall Wood, which was long a detached part of Walsall manor, are now included in the Metropolitan Borough. In many cases, tributaries of the Ford Brook defined the boundaries of these various areas and sometimes their original courses were fossilised in Parish Boundaries after the waters had been diverted elsewhere. It is worth noting that for a long time Walsall had two separate parts consisting of the Borough, which was restricted to the ancient town centre, and the vastly greater, but much less densely populated, Foreign, which encompassed all the outlying areas, apart from Pelsall and Rushall, including Greater Bloxwich, which is not part of the present study.

Prior to the canal age, industrial activities in the area were mainly of a domestic nature: small scale mining and quarrying and domestic metal trades, particularly lorinery and nail and buckle making. There were several small mills on the Fordbrook system – the main ones being Rushall/Butts Mill, which was one of the few in the area to be mentioned in the Domesday Book, Walsall Town Mill and the New Mills to the south of Town. There was also a charcoal furnace at Rushall, again quite a rarity in South Staffordshire. The arrival of the canals in the late 18th century can be said to have brought the Industrial Revolution to the Walsall area, encouraging large-scale coal, ironstone and limestone extraction, as well as major iron, brick and tile works. Whilst the main impact was in the Pleck and Birchills areas to the south and west, the neighbourhood of the Northern Tame felt some effect, particularly in the expansion of limestone mining in Rushall and north of the town centre to serve the coke-fired iron furnaces springing up in the heart of the Black Country. New industry also appeared along the W&E canal: furnaces in Birchills, a steam mill at the Bloxwich Road crossing, and ironworks at Goscote, together with coalmines at Birchills, Bloxwich, Goscote and Pelsall as well as in Ryecroft. Most of the mines were strictly part of the Cannock Chase rather than Black Country coalfield; the two being separated by the Bentley faults which splits the Northern Tame Basin.  Significant ironworks were also set up at Pelsall, and later deep coal mines were sunk in the Walsall Wood and Aldridge areas, along with large brickworks and tileries producing Staffordshire blue bricks and other ware.

A significant development in the 1840s was the construction of the South Staffordshire Railway from Dudley to Lichfield via Walsall, crossing the Grand Junction line at Bescot, and following the river from there through Ryecroft and Rushall to Brownhills. Later a line from Wolverhampton to Walsall and on to Birmingham via Sutton Park crossed the Ryecroft area, having a station at North Walsall and linking with the South Staffs. Walsall became a significant railway centre for both passengers and freight, with Ryecroft an important junction which became the site of a major engine shed alongside the river in 1878.The railway gave a further impetus to the industrialisation of Walsall, with several significant manufactories being established, including tanning factories and other leatherworks near the town centre along the banks of the Ford Brook and Holbrook, which continued to grow in number into the early 20th century. The traditional lorinery trades expanded and also diversified into saddle and harness production, for which Walsall became a major British and international centre. With these developments, and the migration of coal mining activities in South Staffordshire from the Black Country to the Cannock Chase coalfield, the population mushroomed at a rate near 50% per decade in the mid 19th century.

 

Watermills

Four watermills are listed by Dilworth on or near the Northern Tame or Ford Brook, and are also shown on early maps: these are Rushall, Coalpool, Goscote and Clockmill. The last three all lie on minor tributaries of the Goscote/ClockMill branch of the much-divided Ford Brook; other branches go towards Clayhanger, Walsall Wood and Aldridge. There was also a bloom-smithy on a branch of the river at Goscote, and later a steam-powered corn mill near the brook at Shelfield. Little is known about these mills apart from Rushall, although Coalpool was operating as a blade mill up to Victorian times and Goscote functioned as a forge for part of its life. From about 1600-1800 there was also a charcoal furnace/forge on Lady Pool on the Lichfield road near Rushall Hall. Rushall Mill and Furnace are sometimes confused, but the former is almost certainly the one mentioned in the Domesday Book (one of only four on the Upper Tame) while the Furnace (visited by Plot in the late 17th C) lies about ½ mile further away at Lady Pool, which still exists complete with its dam wall. It was owned (or leased) by James Bourne in 1748, who was also a co-lessee of Bromwich Forge, and by John Churchill in 1788 along with Rushall Mill and possibly a nearby windmill.

Rushall Mill lies on Mill Lane between Ryecroft and the Butts in North Walsall and has also been known as Butts Mill. It was originally used for grinding corn but may have operated as a forge in the 18th C, using pig iron from the nearby furnace to produce wrought iron which was then processed into rod and bar iron in the slitting mill at Bescot (probably Friar Park or Bustleholme) for use in the local lorinery trade. One of the last owners of the mill was Joseph Smith, who was described as a ‘wealthy miller’ and whose son rose to become the Mayor of Wolverhampton. He may have also owned the windmill just north of Lady Pool, which is marked on Yates’ 1775 map, along with a coal mine at Goscote, where the family also purchased the manorship. Butts mill is included in early directories and the 1841 census. The next owner was William Flower, but later it became the site of a iron and brass foundry which is shown on the 1883 OS map but had disappeared by 1913. It was associated with Walsall Electrical Company in its final phase. The mill house survived into the 20th century, but became more-and-more derelict and was finally demolished. There was another foundry on the river just on the opposite side of Mill Lane from Butts Mill, and industrial buildings with a chimney were still visible here in 1972. The area to the west, which is now Mill Lane Nature Reserve, was formerly the site of Ryecroft railway junction and engine shed.

As illustrated (1), there is a pleasant walk north from Butts Mill, firstly following the line of the former mill pond and fleam to Cartbridge Lane, then crossing the river and taking the cycleway along the track of the former South Staffs line to Rushall, and returning via the Mill Island. A short diversion from Cartbridge will enable you to visit Lady Pool on the other side of the Lichfield Road

Canals

Both the Walsall canal (an extension of the Birmingham network) and the W&E canal reached Walsall around 1800, providing connections with Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the rest of the Black Country, and also further afield. The Walsall canal originally terminated in the town centre but was linked to limeworks in the Butts area by a tramway. For a period this tramway also connected with the W&E canal at Pratts Steam Mill on the Bloxwich Rd (via Mill Lane), and with other tramways near the Daw End Branch in Rushall, where there were further lime-workings. The section running from the Butts towards the Pratts Bridge continued to exist as a trackway into the 20th century. Later on, the Walsall and W&E canals were linked via a flight of locks at Birchills (replacing another tramway serving Birchills Colliery), and the W&E was connected to the Tame Valley Canal via the Rushall Canal. The W&E was also extended further north, with several arms serving the Cannock Chase coalfield in conjunction with a network of tramways and mineral lines. It also connected with the main canal network linking the Trent, Mersey and Thames, via long flights of locks that are now the subject of a restoration project. This canal, which was originally planned to serve coalmines north-west of Bloxwich and lime workings in Rushall, thus continued to supply coal from the Cannock Chase field to the Black Country and further afield until well into the 20th century, though its role was eroded by the railways.

As mentioned earlier, the W&E canal skirts the boundaries of the Ford Brook basin for much of its length, and the river system may not have been affected significantly by its construction, or even by the industry that occupied its banks. The upper reaches of a few streams did originally appear to extend beyond the canal, but it is unlikely that these were significant sources of water for the canal, which depended mainly on reservoirs at Sneyd and Chasewater. (These were so effective that the W&E was able to act as a feeder for the Wolverhampton level of the BCN Main Line.) It appears however that the river system had a role as an overflow for the canal, because there are several weirs, sluices and overflows draining into the system, as shown below, and some artificial cuts appear to have been made specifically for this purpose. This makes the original sources of the brooks difficult to discern, though the Ford Brook itself may have originally flowed from springs on Clayhanger Common similar to those which still exist today, as shown (fig. 3).

Railways:

Major changes were wrought in the 1840s by the construction of the South Staffordshire line from Dudley to Lichfield via Walsall, crossing the Grand Junction line at Bescot, and following the river through Ryecroft to Brownhills. The Chief Engineer was John Robinson McClean, who also planned and built ‘The South Staffordshire Water Works Company’ which piped fresh water along the railway track from reservoirs in Lichfield to Walsall, and later further on into the Black Country. This made a major contribution to local health, as the previous town water supply was inadequate to cope with the growth of the town and also suffered from contamination. McClean was also a part owner of ‘The Cannock Chase Colliery Company’ and was involved in laying a network of mineral lines within the coalfield that linked with the South Staffs, together with a branch from Ryecroft to Cannock, and on to Rugeley via Birchills and Bloxwich, that was added by 1860. Later a line from Wolverhampton to Birmingham via Sutton Park crossed the Ryecroft area, having a station at North Walsall and linking with the South Staffs. Walsall became a significant railway centre for both passengers and freight, with Ryecroft an important junction. It became the site of a major engine shed in Mill Lane in1878, which first supplemented and later replaced the earlier one to the south of town, providing employment for many local workers. It had 12 roads accommodating up to 48 locos. There were deep maintenance pits (which flooded when the river was in spate), coaling and watering facilities. However the sanitary provisions for the workers were primitive until the shed was refurbished in the 1950s. There was also a 60ft hydraulically-operated turntable that could be observed from either Mill Lane or from the ‘Alps’ at the back of the shed, which were created when the site was originally levelled, and were used to house an air-raid shelter during WW2. The turntable was unreliable, but it was also possible to turn engines around using the intricate network of local lines. A photograph of the sheds around 1890 with the ‘Sister Dora’ locomotive in front is shown (fig 5).

At its peak, Walsall became a busy hub, particularly on Market Saturdays, with up to 1000 movements per day including 200 passenger ones. However the Black Country was never a major area for commuter travel because of competition from trams, and later buses. Electrification of some of the routes was planned in the 1960s, and a site on the north side of Mill Lane was prepared for a new shed to house electric units. However this plan fell victim to the Beeching axe and only the line from Walsall to Birmingham was electrified, whilst all other passenger services from Walsall ceased. Ryecroft shed was closed in 1968 and demolished shortly afterwards, and the site (including the ‘Alps’) now forms part of the Mill Lane Nature reserve. The passenger line to Cannock and Rugeley has now reopened however, and a freight line from Bescot marshalling yards through Ryecroft and Sutton Park is also busy – both of these using diesel traction. The lines going north through Ryecroft are shown on the left view below. There were formerly twice as many lines, with the one to Wolverhampton diverting left and the right-hand line to Sutton Park being paralleled by the Lichfield line.

A interesting footnote concerning Walsall station is that the culverts taking the river under the town centre, shown on the right-hand view above, sometimes proved inadequate to the task, and the river took the easier course of descending the steeply-sloping railway line south of Butts Bridge, (which was previously double-tracked). Walsall station, which was well below the level of Park Street (the principal shopping street) thus became flooded and sometimes the Bridge area was also affected before the waters rejoined the river further downstream. This situation persisted until as late as 1980, when the culvert was doubled, finally making the station rowing boat redundant!

Roads and Road Transport

In the first half of the 18th century, the roads around and through Walsall were notoriously circuitous, narrow, ill-kept and dangerous in winter. The routes to Bloxwich, Cannock and Stafford and to Lichfield were little more than lanes but both connected with the turnpiked Watling Street/ Old Chester Road, which was the main route from Birmingham and London to the port of Chester. The route to Bloxwich passed initially to the west of Ryecroft through Birchills and along Green Lane, but was diverted along the more easterly Bloxwich Lane when it was turnpiked in 1766, at the same time as the Lichfield route. The southern part of the old lane known as Wisemore was bypassed by Stafford Street at the same time. The Lichfield route was straightened south of Rushall to bypass Cartbridge Lane, which partly followed the line of the Ford Brook. The road then crossed the Old Chester Road and Watling Street and passed through Lichfield on its way to the Trent at Burton. The turnpike improvements, together with better connections with Birmingham, put Walsall on the main coaching routes from London and Birmingham to Stafford, Shrewsbury and Chester. The proprietor of the George Hotel on the Bridge was a driving force behind some of these developments, and he was able to claim that the George had become the principal coaching inn in the county as a result. The turnpikes also facilitated the passage of carriers’ wagons, giving a considerable impetus to local trades.

The Wolverhampton to Lichfield turnpike cut across the north of the area, and a fairly sparse network of minor roads connected the various villages and hamlets here. Closer to Walsall town, Coalpool Lane crossed the Ryecroft area in a north-easterly direction, whilst the Portland Street/Butts Road route made a parallel traverse nearer to town, and connected with Coalpool Lane via Mill Lane. The Bloxwich and Lichfield Roads became tramroutes in the late19th century, and the tram service was extended to Walsall Wood in 1903. The trams were initially horse-drawn, but later on steam and finally electric traction were used. The Walsall tramways were part of an extensive network stretching across the Black Country. Several routes were converted to trolleybuses in the 1930s, and this network expanded considerably during the 50s and 60s (including an alternative route to Bloxwich along Coalpool Lane) before being closed. The A34 trunk road was partly rerouted from Bloxwich Road/Stafford Street to the original Green Lane route at about the same time. The photographs (8 and 9) depict a steam tram from the 1890s and a trolleybus from the 1960s.

The Bridge

After passing through the Butts, the Ford Brook joins the Holbrook (flowing in from the north-east) to form the Walsall Brook, which then flows through the ‘Bridge’ area of the ‘new’ town centre (the original centre was clustered around the parish church of St Matthews on its commanding limestone outcrop). The brook runs mainly in culverts today, but was formerly a broad and shallow stream, crossable but liable to flooding. Walsall Town Mill was originally just upstream of the Bridge. This mill was not mentioned in the Domesday Book but appears to date back nearly that far. It was fed by a mill fleam which took water from the Ford Brook and possibly also directly from the Holbrook. The mill was in use intermittently up to the late 18th century when it became derelict, and in the early 19th century it was demolished and the stream culverted, with the levels of Digbeth and Park Street opposite being raised considerably. The river divided again near the Bridge to form the long mill fleam that feeds the New Mills which were situated about a mile to the south of town. A pre-war view of the Bridge is shown below, with the George Hotel, the Sister Dora Statue and St Matthews Church all prominent, together with trams which were replaced by trolleybuses in the 1930s.

After passing under the Bridge, the culvert runs just north of Bradford St, which was opened in 1831 as part of the relocation of the town centre. Bradford Place was added in 1866 and the cenotaph there erected in 1922. Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three men in a boat was born nearby. In January 1916, there was a Zeppelin raid on the Black Country which killed 35 people, not least the Lady Mayoress of Walsall, Mary Julia Slater. A bomb dropped in Bradford Place, killing or injuring several people including the Mayoress, who died later as a result of her injuries.

Spread of Town to the north

The 1775 map shows relatively few buildings in the Ryecroft area, mainly scattered along the Bloxwich, Lichfield and Harden Roads, and also in Rushall village. There were limestone workings in the south, sand and gravel pits in the north-west, and farms to the west. The principal farms were Ryecroft, Cartbridge (near the river) and Coalpool. The population of Ryecroft expanded rapidly in the 1830s due mainly to an influx of miners (probably both coal and limestone). By the end of the Georgian era, a distinct settlement had developed near Ryecoft Street between Portland Street and Proffitt St/Coalpool Lane on the road to Bloxwich, which was now known as Stafford Street. This included several terraces of workers’ houses, whose inhabitants included metal workers as well as miners. (This area, later known as Pig Sty Park, became one of the worst slums in Walsall before being demolished). St Peter’s parish church was erected near here in 1841.There were many other workshops of the lorinery and related trades along this part of Stafford Street and in Wisemore.

The Victorian period also saw rapid development, with housing and workshops eventually engulfing the Stafford Street, Lichfield Road and Butts areas, accompanied by churches and chapels, schools, shops, inns and beer houses. Workshops and factories producing buckles, horse ironmongery and leather goods, particularly saddles and harness, spread from their traditional bases in the old town centre, accompanied by brass and iron foundries. In particular tanning factories, saw mills, foundries and other substantial works were established near the river in the Butts. Housing spread further northwards along the Bloxwich Road and through the Butts from the 1870s. An unusual coal mining community was founded in Coalpool about 1850, including  a chapel and a pleasure ground. Ryecroft Cemetery was opened about 1900. Further housing spread through the North Walsall and Coalpool areas during the 20th century, while later on many Victorian and earlier buildings closer to town were demolished.

Leather Industry

The manufacture of horse ironmongery (lorinery) has long been an important specialism in Walsall. In Victorian times this expanded in scale, with more workshops and also factories such as that of John Dewsbury & Son, and Hampson & Scott being set up in the locality. Others, including firms such as Brookes & Son, also took on the manufacture of saddlery and harness.  Walsall became a major national and international centre for this trade. Both the leather and lorinery trades benefitted from the massive growth in the use of horses for local transport and in various industries in the Victorian era, and also from the significant requirements of the army. It is estimated that there were up to 3 million working horses in England, providing work for up to 7000 workers in the Walsall leather trades in and up to 1000 in the tanning and currying businesses. As the saddlery and harness market declined after WW1, the trade diversified into the production of a wide range of leather goods.

Walsall had a long history of tanning, but this was generally on a small scale until about the middle of the 19th century, when more significant factory-scale concerns were set up, benefitting from the proximity of the Ford Brook and Holbrook, and of good canal and railway links for the supply of the required skins, bark and lime. Holden’s was established near the Bridge in 1819 and grew into a major tanning and currying business on the banks of the Ford Brook. Another major concern, Handford Greatrex and Brother, occupied a site on the Holbrook just to the north of the town centre which had a long previous history as a tannery. By 1871 there were 3 further tanneries along Hatherton Street backing on to the Ford Brook, with the railway beyond, as shown in the 1930s view above. These included the Oak tannery in the distance next to Butts Railway Bridge, and the Albion on the corner of Albert Street, towards the bottom left of the photo. By the end of the century there were 7 tanneries, including one in Portland Street and one near the town centre in Darwall Street. The last to be established was the BOAK Ravenscraig works, which was erected in 1903 on the edge of the ‘Leather Quarter’ near the station, where there were many other firms involved in the leather preparation, saddlery and harness trades.  The number of tanneries declined gradually during the 20th century, with the longest-lived being Holden’s, which moved to Scotland in 1970 when its site, nestling in an unlikely position just behind the town centre shops in Park Street and Bradford Street, was redeveloped to accommodate the Saddler Retail Centre.

The illustrations below include an advert for Holden’s, depicting their factory on the Ford Brook close to the Bridge, and the BOAK works of 1903, together with a remnant of one of the Hatherton Street tanneries and a still-active saddlery in the Butts.

The Greatrexs were a significant leather family rivalling the Holdens, whose members were involved in several partnerships. One principal member lived at Moss Close, a substantial mansion on the site of lime workings mentioned by Plot in the late 17th century, the gardens of which were reputedly landscaped by Joseph Paxton. This Mr Greatrex came to a sticky end, being murdered by one of his sons in 1892! In the 20th century Moss Close became the prep school for Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Lichfield Street, and later housed its lower forms, before being demolished in the 1960s.

Many of the tanneries were also involved in other stages of leather preparation, such as currying and japanning. The buildings used were typically of 2 or 3 stories, built around a central courtyard that accommodated the tanning yards. The noxious processes involved in tanning caused considerable pollution of the river, not to mention a distinctive odour. This pollution added to that caused use of the rivers the town sewer, until a proper sewage system was provided in late Victorian times.  However the tributaries north of Walsall, passing mainly through rural areas, were much less polluted than many others in the Black Country. I can remember ’fishing’ trips from Essex Street in North Walsall in the mid 50s; first crossing the Sandhills at the end of the road, then along Coalpool Lane and round the back of Ryecroft cemetery, and finally across the Sixty-Steps railway footbridge to the riverbank. Here tiddlers and sticklebacks could be found, and frog spawn collected in season, to be taken home so that the gradual transformation into tadpoles could be enjoyed.

Mining and Quarrying

Walsall has long been a significant source of coal, ironstone and limestone. The area to the west was pock-marked with small workings in the Georgian period and there is also evidence of early mining activity in Bloxwich, and in the north-east. By the early19th century, there were more significant mines in Birchills and Goscote and there also appears to have been a mine in the Ryecoft/Coalpool area connected by a tramway to the W&E canal. These were succeeded by Victorian mines in the Bloxwich area to the north and west, whilst later on deeper mines of the Cannock Chase field were sunk further to the north-east. A few of the mines were linked with iron-smelting blast furnaces, for example those at Harden and Forest, just north of the canal, belonged to George Jones who owned the nearby ‘New Birchills’  furnace. However, there was little heavy industry in Ryecroft itself apart from foundries and brickworks.

The parish church of St Matthew and the surrounding site of the original town centre stand on Church Hill, which is a massive limestone outcrop emerging from the surrounding coal measures. The limestone dips to the immediate south and is overlain by sand and gravel beds that were worked until as late as the 1930s. Limestone was quarried from the sides of Church Hill for hundreds of years up till the end of the 18th century and was also extracted by tunnelling underneath. The Arboretum just to the north-east of the town centre was at one point the largest openwork quarry in the town. This site was previously part of the grounds of Reynolds Hall, which was owned by the Persehouse family, but demolished by John Walhouse on inheriting it in 1771, in order to extract the underlying limestone. After limestone extraction finished and pumping ceased, this quarry became flooded, probably due to the proximity of the Holbrook, which still passes close by. In 1845 the Mayor of Walsall, John Hyatt Harvey was unfortunate enough to drown there whilst taking his constitutional swim. Another man perished trying to rescue him. Afterwards the lakes and surrounding grounds were left to become wild until a company was formed in 1872 to lay them out for the enjoyment of the public. However the company went bankrupt in 1884 and the town council assumed responsibility. The Arboretum has been improved and added to over the years, with the Holbrook remaining an important feature, as shown below, and it is currently reaching the end of an extensive restoration project, though the renowned Walsall Illuminations are sadly no more.

During the 19th century, much deeper underground mines known as the Hatherton and Portland Street or Littleton Street Limestone Mines, were sunk between the town centre and the Ryecroft and Butts areas to the north, providing lime for the burgeoning coke-fired blast furnaces of the Black Country and also for agriculture and building stone (including the nearby Lime House). These were the largest and most extensive mines in the town, with five shafts descending to as far as 300 ft. By 1876, they stretched north from Albert Street (south of Littleton Street) to Portland Street and Butts Road, and from Hatherton Street westwards almost to Stafford Street, passing under both the river and the South Staffs Railway. By the time the mines closed in the early 1900s, they may have extended as far north as St Peter’s church. They were owned by James Adams in the early days, followed by Elias Crapper, who was also a coal-master and brickmaker as well as the proprietor of the nearby swimming baths, up to his bankruptcy in the 1880s. Louis Lavender was the final owner of the mines until the lessening demand for lime and flooding hastened their closure in the early 20th century.  The mines have left a legacy of subsidence in the area that has necessitated significant demolition and hindered its redevelopment.

There were further limestone workings about a mile to the east of the town, close to the Aldridge border, consisting mainly of quarries, but shallow shafts were also sunk. The site at Hay Head is particularly interesting. This area, which was once the terminus of the Daw End branch of the W&E canal (until it was connected to the Tame Valley canal by the Rushall canal), is now a nature reserve, where the old canal arm, the upper reaches of the Holbrook and the old workings intermingle. Remains of an engine house can also be seen. In 1813 these workings were owned by a company which included the executors of the late John Wilkinson, the renowned iron master, and they may have previously been owned by Wilkinson himself, together with the Earl of Dudley, and hence may have supplied the earliest coke-fired blast furnaces of the Black Country. With the exception of a short hiatus around the time of Wilkinson’s death in 1808, Hay Head appears to have been active from the mid 18th to the late 19th century. In 1851, White’s Directory stated that ’The grey limestone, raised in immense quantities from the Hay Head mines, is surpassed by none in the kingdom for its extraordinary adhesive properties, and its strength and durability, hence it is in great demand for the building of docks, locks and bridges and for stuccoing buildings’ (including many in Walsall). Some industrial remains at Hay Head are shown below, together with flooded former lime pits near Daw End, both nature reserves today.

For hundreds of years, the greatest concentration of limestone workings was however in the Rushall and Daw End areas. As time progressed, the original shallow workings became uneconomical and deep shafts were sunk. Amongst others, Winterley and Daw End Lime Works had a long lives extending well into the 20th century, along with the Linley Lime Works (also known as Linley Caves or Caverns) which was the largest of all. At that point the lessening demand, along with flooding problems that necessitated pumping, drew an end to  production. Linley, which started as a drift mine but later had shafts over 200 feet deep, was a source of attraction both during its working life and afterwards. Numerous visitors found ‘caverns of immense extent’ with an underground lake, which were sometimes brilliantly illuminated to produce a scene ‘of immense wonder’. More prosaically, the final use of the caverns was for storage of ammunition during the Second World War, until problems with damp intervened.

In Ryecroft and neighbouring areas, sand, gravel and brick clay were extracted; the sand being of high quality suitable for glassmaking and sand-casting as well as building. Around the end of the 18th century, these quarries were owned by the James and Charles Adams. The Adams were a prominent local family whose members were frequently Mayors of Walsall during this period. After this there were Victorian brickworks owned by Frederic Parkes close to the site of the later North Walsall Schools in Essex Street. When this area was developed in the early 1900s, he transferred operations to the west of Bloxwich Road, but the sandpits lying near the Walsall-Wolverhampton railway line remained in use for a while. The area at the end of Essex St, known locally as the Sandhole or Sandhills, was later owned by Charles Corbet-Walker, a former Mayor, who eventually bequeathed it to Walsall Town Council as a permanent playground for the local children. In addition to being a shortcut for workers to the Ryecroft sheds, the Sandhills were used for landfill until WW2, after which the lower part was levelled to act as a sports field, including a football pitch used by the local Coalpool Tavern team and occasionally by North Walsall Schools.  Some sand and clay remained alongside the railway lines at its edges until the Sandhills were landscaped in the 1970s and 80s, when part of the site was used to relocate the Infants School.

Industry in Pelsall, Aldridge and Walsall Wood

Pelsall area

Just north of the Bentley Fault, the lower seams of the Cannock Chase series initially lie at a shallow depth. The seams then dip in a northerly direction towards Pelsall and Brownhills, so that the upper seams in the series appear at the surface.  Some of these would have been mined in early times where they remained shallow, but workings were plagued with water problems which severely inhibited larger scale operations. In 1717 George Sparrow applied for the lease of a Newcomen engine (the first example of which had been erected near Dudley a few years earlier) to drain his pits at Pelsall. Early mining was also inhibited by poor communications, and Pelsall was a small isolated village until the arrival of the Wyrley and Essington Canal just before 1800.  The area had a mixed economy where the meagre returns from farming on the poor soils were supplemented by small-scale mining and domestic metalwork such as lorinery, nail and chain manufacture. The arrival of the canal prompted more widespread exploitation of the area’s mineral wealth and during the 19th century the population expanded from less than 500 to over 3500. Industrial development benefited from the arrival of entrepreneurs like William and George Gilpin, Joseph Wilkes, Boaz Bloomer, Elias Crapper and John Starkey. Several of these became significant benefactors of the local community, along with the Charles family who succeeded the Husseys as major local landowners.

Two earlier canalside developments were at nearby Goscote, where a foundry and colliery were established by Bradley and Co in the early 19th century, and also a brickworks. In the 1830s a foundry at Goscote operated by Messrs Otway and Wennington was described as being the oldest and most extensive in the district, casting cylinders for steam engines of every power as well as other items including cannon.  It was operated by Edward Wright from the mid-century when both the manufacture and repair of steam engines were undertaken. The nearby Pelsall Iron and Brass Foundry, which was established by Joseph Wilkes, also produced steam engine parts, as did the Yorks Foundry at Pelsall Wood. These firms primarily satisfied the requirements of the Cannock Chase Coalfield for both pumping and winding. Close by was the Pelsall Hall Colliery which is most notably associated withJohn Starkey. This had 2 sites with 2 shafts each extending over 150ft below the surface which were connected to the canal at Goscote by a tramway. This colliery is most notorious for a catastrophe in 1872 in which 22 miners lost their lives. This was caused by breaking into unmapped old workings which had become flooded, possibly due to the proximity of the Clock Mill Brook. Most of the victims escaped the water but were trapped below ground and died from inhaling carbonic acid gas. Over 30,000 onlookers assembled in a silent vigil after the disaster, while the renowned Sister Dora tended to the needs of the women waiting at the pit-head. The Pelsall Hall colliery continued until the end of the 19th century.

Shown above is the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company, which operated from 1832 to 1892, and was the largest iron making and coal mining concern in the area. It operated up to 4 blast furnaces, about 2 dozen puddling furnaces and several interconnected coal mines via 12 shafts; the latter being known as the Pelsall Wood Colliery. It also took over the Newlands Colliery which had initially been run by the Gilpins, and operated brickworks at nearby Heath End. Water was a major problem in the pits, initially tackled by pumping at individual sites but later by specific pumping stations discharging into the canal. The works, which were established by the Fryers and later run by the Bloomer family, extended over a canalside area between the Ford Brook and its Clock Mill tributary, and were also connected to the South Staffs (LNWR) railway.  By 1870, over 800 men and boys were employed and metal was exported worldwide, so it was a significant concern rivalling many of those deeper within the Black Country. During the slump towards the end of the century, the company carried out a modernisation scheme to help it to combat foreign competition, but unfortunately the bank withdrew support, prompting voluntary liquidation in 1892.

The nearby Fishley Collieries are also worth mentioning; these had 6 shafts on 4 sites lying on the Bloxwich side of the Clock Mill Brook a little to the west of the Pelsall Wood No 12 shaft. The pits were interconnected, but separated from others in the locality by an underground water rib or barrier. They were served by the Lord Hays branch of the canal and were owned and run by Fredrick, George and Richard Thomas, operating from before 1865 until their demise in 1909. At this locality, the deep seam was over 350 ft below the surface. Both Fishley  and other nearby collieries in the Cannock Chase field suffered from severe water problems and the cessation of pumping at Fishley seriously affected pits further north in spite of the presence of the water barrier.

Aldridge and Walsall Wood

The Eastern Boundary Fault of the Cannock Chase Coalfield splits into two over a region between Aldridge and Brownhills, with the Vigo Fault continuing northwards whilst the Clayhanger Fault describes a loop to the west before the two rejoin near Brownhills. These faults are never much more than a mile apart, but enclose a significant deep coalfield that includes five collieries known as Speedwell, Leighswood, Coppy Hall, Aldridge and Walsall Wood. The area is overlain by a significant thickness of marl, which deepens in a northerly direction to as much as 300 yards near Clayhanger, and was much exploited for brick and tile making. Because of this overlay, the area was known as a concealed coalfield, with all the workings relatively free of nuisance water and pumping engines not required. The seams also dip significantly to the north, by as much as 30 degrees locally, which is much greater than elsewhere in the field, and added to the difficulties of extracting the coal. The area is divided from north to south by the W&E canal, and is also intersected by the Shelfield Brook and several of its tributaries, while the Clayhanger source of the Ford Brook lies near its northern end. After the sinking of the pits, the area was served by branch lines from the South Staffs railway to the west and the Walsall-Wolverhampton (Midland) line to the south. The depths of the mineshafts ranged from 850 feet at Speedwell to 1750 feet at Walsall Wood, one of the deepest in the coalfield.

The first colliery to be worked was Coppy Hall, which was sunk in 1857, but then passed through several hands until being taken over first by the Leighswood Company in 1874 and eventually by the Aldridge Colliery Company in 1881. However part of the workings were operated independently until 1909, employing over 300 men. Speedwell had its origins in a trial shaft sunk in 1849, but was productive from 1867 to 1889, when it too was sold to the Aldridge Company and connected to their workings. Aldridge, Leighswood and Walsall Wood collieries were all sunk in 1874, but Leighswood Colliery soon went into liquidation and was purchased by the Aldridge Company, continuing to operate until 1930, and employing over 750 men in 1906. Aldridge Colliery itself operated for 62 years, employing about 700 men in the early 1900s, and over 1000 just before its closure in 1936. The closures were inevitably responsible for considerable hardship in the locality. Like several others in the area, the colliery also operated a large brickworks which produced Staffordshire Blue Bricks of high quality, and continued to trade as the Aldridge Brick, Tile and Coal Company from 1936. There were also several independent brick and tile manufacturers in the locality. Clay extraction and the manufacture of brick, tile and other building products continue in the area, as shown below, with the Ibstock and Salveson works being significant.

Because the coalfield was of limited extent, all collieries eventually ran out of reserves, but the largest colliery, Walsall Wood (shown above), endured for 90 years up to 1964. This also had a brickworks attached, with its own basin on the adjacent canal as well as separate railway connections. As the workings extended underground, further extraction rights were negotiated beyond those with the Earl of Bradford, the local Lord of the Manor. One significant case was with the trustees of Queen Mary’s Grammar School Walsall, for rights under a farm which lay to the south of the (still existent) Black Cock Inn.  As usual, both rent and royalties were involved plus compensation for any damage caused. The workings at Walsall Wood eventually extended as far as those of the Aldridge Colliery a mile or so south, but the surrounding faults were not penetrated even though trial borings were undertaken.

Unusually the mine was ventilated by a furnace near the bottom of the Upcast Shaft that burned ordinary mine coal, which was very cost effective. This was not replaced until after the mine was nationalised and, being the last of its kind in operation in the country, it became an object of

pilgrimage. At the time of nationalisation in 1947, the colliery employed over 900 men and

produced about 6,000 tons of coal per week, but by the time of closure in 1964 these figures had almost halved.  The mining caused considerable subsidence of the surrounding land and it is today difficult to believe that the canal, which is now often perched on high embankments, once followed the contours of the land. The area became quite built up in the 50s and 60s and damage claims for Walsall Wood virtually equalled those for the whole of the rest of the coalfield. After closure, the vast void created by the interconnected workings of the coalfield was exploited for a number of years by a liquid effluent disposal company. Old clay workings were also used for landfill, and the area today is generally characterised by industrial, trade and housing estates, although significant open countryside remains. Some of the former industrial sites have been allowed to return to nature as public open spaces or nature reserves. Pelsall and Clayhanger still have their commons, although these are mere vestiges of the extensive wood and heathlands that dated from when the area was part of Cannock Forest, diminishing until they were finally enclosed in 1876.

 

Main sources

Victoria History of the County of Stafford: Vol XVII: Offlow Hundred (Part)

Godfrey Edition reprints of Old OS maps, with their useful historical summaries

Michael Glasson’s books on Walsall Trades

Various publications of the Cannock Chase Mining Historical society

Ray Shill’s books on the Black Country Canal network

Several others books and items on Walsall by: John Boynton, Henry Green, Jack Haddock, Philip Liddle, Geoff Marshall, Thomas Pearce, Frederick Willmore and others

White’s and Kelly’s Trade Directories.

Most of the historical images are downloaded from Walsall Council’s Click-in-Time website

The assistance of staff at the Walsall Local History Centre is gratefully acknowledged

All colour photographs are taken by the author.

The Upper Tame between Wednesbury and Tipton including a heritage walk

BY ROBERT GINDER

Background –  Tame Past and Present

The Black Country is divided into two distinct parts by the ridge that runs in a south-easterly direction from Sedgley to Rowley. The north-eastern part contains the basin of the Upper Tame. The river initially wanders northwards from its primary source near Oldbury, and then skirts just south and east of Wednesbury, before turning to the south-east at Bescot, midway between Wednesbury and Walsall, and continuing in the same general direction to the Birmingham boundary. The river falls from about 500ft near its source to about 300ft as it exits the Black Country, though most of its basin lies between 450 and 350 feet.  A typical gradient along the river and its main tributaries is about 1 in 500, roughly 10ft per mile, which explains why such long mill fleams were sometimes needed to obtain sufficient head of water to drive watermills. The river basin is almost encircled by the 473 ft contour of the BCN. The Main Line starts from Smethwick, going through Oldbury, Tipton and Coseley to Wolverhampton, and then onwards (as the Wyrley and Essington canal) to Wednesfield, between Walsall and Bloxwich, and then through Pelsall,  Brownhills and Walsall Wood to Rushall.

The simple river route described above, with the addition of a few tributaries, is a fair representation of the upper reaches of the Tame today. However, this description belies the fact that, in former times before the Black Country earned its name, the river system was much more extensive and complex. Upstream of the turning point between Walsall and Wednesbury, the system could be thought of as having 3 main parts. These are (or were!): the Oldbury/Dudley/Tipton system, branching from south of Wednesbury and fed by streams flowing down from the Sedgley-Rowley ridge; the Darlaston/Bilston/Willenhall/ Short Heath system, branching from Jamesbridge between Walsall and Willenhall, and fed partly from high ground near Sedgley in addition to the more moderate slopes towards Wolverhampton, Wednesfield and Bloxwich; and finally the Walsall/Goscote/Rushall/Pelsall/Shelfield/Clayhanger system, which branches from south of Walsall and is fed from the higher ground beyond Pelsall and towards Bloxwich, Brownhills, Walsall Wood and Aldridge. Some of the upper tributaries were further divided by areas of higher ground, for example at Wednesbury, Coseley, Walsall and Bloxwich.

These 3 systems are clearly distinguishable on early maps, but today only the Walsall system running north and east through the town and beyond is anything like complete (apart from the ‘main-line’ upstream to Oldbury). The disappearance of many of the streams over the past 250 years or so is due, of course, to the industrialisation of the Black Country that earned it its name. Coal mining was a prime cause, because of the tendency of nearby water courses to be diverted into mine workings, exacerbated by the severe effects of subsidence on the contours of the land, which caused fissures in their beds and generally altered drainage patterns. The presence of large accessible reserves of coal in the Black Country encouraged the construction of the canals, which these had a further adverse effect on the river. Brindley regarded rivers primarily as potential water sources for the canals, but the operators of the 40 odd mills on the South Staffordshire Tame would obviously have had other views! The need to protect their interests (and the provisions incorporated into the various Canal Acts) meant that the initial phase of canal construction in the late 18th century had less impact on the river system than might have otherwise been the case. Even so, several parts were diverted or incorporated in some way either into the canals themselves or their accompanying ditches. In addition, water pumped out of the mines was mainly returned to the canals rather than the river, depleting the flow of the latter. Water passing down the canal system was often pumped back to its summit levels rather than passing into the lower reaches of the river, though some would have escaped into the river system via canal leakages and overflows.

Such depleting effects on the river continued with the canal and railway developments of the 19th century, which involved greater engineering works that had a more severe impact on the landscape. The first main-line railway locally was the Grand Junction, which opened in 1837, running along part of the Upper Tame. It was followed by South Staffs line of 1849, which crossed the Tame several times between Dudley and Bescot, and ran along the valley of the Fordbrook tributary from Bescot through Walsall to Brownhills Once again, streams were diverted, culverted or canalised or simply filled in where this was possible. Subsidence problems continued, although the coal mining industry in the central Black Country contracted from the mid 19th century onwards.  For example, several sections of canal which originally followed the contours of the land were ultimately perched on embankments up to 30 feet high in order to maintain their levels, whilst others which were originally in deep cuttings ended up level with their surroundings. However in later Victorian times, the work of the South Staffordshire Mines Drainage Commission, which sought to alleviate the flooding of mines by improving surface drainage (and also by underground works and more effective pumping) may have had a beneficial effect in restoring and improving old water courses.

Latterly in the 20th century, the spread of roads, housing and industrial and retail parks across the Black Country has taken a further toll. Only 50 years ago, more segments of the old river system were still identifiable, although often diverted or isolated from their original courses. However, more recently, the construction of major dual carriageways and motorways through the area, particularly the M6 and its complex junctions with the M5 and at Gravelly Hill, together with the almost total engulfment of the remaining open land for various developments, have continued the destructive trends of the previous 200 years. The trend seems likely to continue with the construction of the proposed HS2 link to Curzon Street Station in Birmingham. The routes of some old water courses have been fossilized in parish boundaries (in the present case between Wednesbury, Tipton and West Bromwich) and studying these can be revealing.

It is perhaps ironic that many of the canals and railways that impacted on the river system have now themselves disappeared from the scene. About a third of the BCN canal system has been lost, although this trend has been halted and even reversed in a few cases. A substantial part of the railway system has been closed post-Beeching, with the appearance of motorways and due to diminishing goods traffic with the closure of much local heavy industry. (Apart from the main lines, Black Country railways always focused more on goods rather than passenger traffic, as the latter was largely catered for by the tram network, and later by trolley and motor buses.) A few parts of the railway system now have new lives as footpaths or cycleways, whilst the Midland Metro, which uses the former GWR line between Wolverhampton Low Level and Birmingham Snow Hill, is being upgraded, and may be extended to other parts of the area in the future.

An description of the walk now follows, illustrated by aerial photographs from the English Heritage Britain from Above website and the author’s own photographs taken recently. Further information on: the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company, Leabrook Ironworks, the South Staffs Railway, the South Staffs Mines Drainage Commission and the Russell Family is given at the end of the article.

The walk

1: Monway Field

This walk starts from the Midland Metro station of Wednesbury Parkway and takes in parts of the Walsall and Tame Valley Canals, the South Staffordshire railway line, the Oldbury branch of the River Tame, Toll End, Great Bridge and various sites of local industrial history, before returning to Wednesbury Town Centre. An alternative start/finish point is Wednesbury Bus Station.

Leave the Metro station by the north exit and walk out onto Hallens’ Drive. You are now on the site of Monway Field, originally one of Wednesbury’s ancient fields. Here in 1785, following the cutting of the first section of the Walsall canal to Broadwaters (Moxley), Wednesbury’s first coke-fired blast furnace was erected at Hallens’ Ironworks. John and Samuel Hallen themselves went bankrupt in 1796, but by 1800 the business had grown to include a Foundry, Forges, Slitting and Rolling Mills, Warehouses, two brick kilns and several workers’ cottages on a 2½ acre site that also included mines of coal, ironstone and clay, along with further properties at Tipton, Darlaston and Wednesbury. The works were advertised for sale by John Wheeler in 1817. The L-shaped Monway branch from the Walsall canal lay just to the north. This was opened in 1812 and the Victoria Ironworks was founded here in 1830 by Daniel and David Rose. The Patent Shaft and Axletree Company set up their Brunswick Works here in 1838 and through various acquisitions grew to become the largest employer in the area in the later 19th century and persisted as a steel producer as late as 1980, as described later.

In the aerial photo below the Brunswick Works of Patent Shaft lie close to the centre with the Monway works behind to the left. The GWR line cuts diagonally across the foreground passing over Leabrook Road near the works, and then serving Wednesbury station near the bottom right-hand corner. Between Leabrook Road and the station a branch departs to join the northbound South Staffs line which opened in 1849 to link Lichfield, Walsall and Dudley. It was eventually connected with all the lines linking Wolverhampton and Birmingham (the Grand Junction, the Stour Valley, the Great Western and the Midland line via Walsall and Sutton Park). The Darlaston loop line from the Grand Junction line at James Bridge enters the picture at top centre, and passes under the Holyhead road and alongside the Brunswick works before joining the South Staffs line near Wednesbury Town Station. Passenger services on this loop served a station in Darlaston town from 1863 to 1887, but it was primarily a goods line. The aerial photo also shows the Old Park Works in the top right-hand corner.

Walk westwards along Hallens’ Drive to the roundabout and take a path on the left leading to the towpath of the Walsall canal. Between the Metro station and the canal the Lea Brook tributary of the River Tame would have formerly crossed your path, flowing in a south-easterly direction. Nearby was a fork in the stream, with one branch continuing towards Moxley whilst another led south-westerly towards Tipton (see later).

On the other side of the canal, opposite the entrance to the Monway Branch formerly stood Lea Brook Chemical Works. For much of the Victorian period this was owned by William Hunt, and produced both acid and alkali in considerable amounts. Large quantities of salt were required in the manufacturing processes and these were transported by canal, mainly from salt works in Droitwich, but also from Stafford. In return the salt works were supplied with slack from the South Staffordshire coalfield. Hunt’s owned their own fleet of boats, delivering and collecting chemicals and waste products throughout the region. Presumably less hazardous waste products from the factory found their way into the nearby Lea Brook. In 1898 the Hunt’s firm was merged with the similar business of Chance Bros to form Chance and Hunt, with factories in Leabrook, Smethwick and Oldbury.

3: Southwards to the Leabrook Road.

Walk south along the canal towpath and pass under the bridge carrying the Metro. Just south of here was formerly a railway interchange basin serving the GWR – evidence of the fact that the railways and canals worked in harmony for many years to serve the interests of Black Country industry, rather than the former simply replacing the latter. The next bridge, which takes the towpath from the east side of the canal to the west, is Wiggins Mill Bridge. Wiggins or Willingsworth Mill was situated on a nearby pool formed by diverting the Lea Brook. This pool was formerly in the grounds of Willingsworth Hall, which was owned by the Parkes Family, who were important local ironmasters during the 17th century. Before the cutting of the initial section of the Walsall canal, Wiggins Mill operated first as a corn and then a blade mill before being engulfed in the Willingsworth Furnaces and Ironworks. These were to dominate the west side of the canal until the Second World War and were amongst the last producers of pig iron in the Black Country.

Just north of Wiggins Mill Bridge on the west side of the Walsall canal was the Gospel Oak Branch. This short branch was opened in 1800, about the same time that the Walsall canal was completed, and was planned as a link between this canal and the old main line of the BCN (later known as the Wednesbury Oak Loop). However the plan was dropped in favour of the Toll End Communication route further south, which was completed in 1809. Nevertheless the Gospel Oak Branch had a useful life, with several arms and basins along its short length, serving Willingsworth Colliery and Ironworks and the Gospel Oak Ironworks. As was common at the time, these were connected with the canal via tramways.

The Gospel Oak Branch may have partly followed the line of the southern arm of the Lea Brook, which is shown on Yates 1775 map as having its source close to Tipton Old Church on Upper Church Lane, close to the old main line. This stream may well have been an early victim of canal construction and mining operations in the area.

4: Leabrook Works

The towpath then passes under Leabrook Road. Near here, on the east side of the canal, stood the Leabrook Ironworks of John Bagnall & Sons. This is one of some half-a-dozen ironworks in the vicinity during the 19th century, including Leabrook Forge, Leabrook Furnace, and from about 1845, Old Leabrook, New Leabrook and Leabrook Patent Ironworks (later Leabrook Tubeworks). However these may not have all been separate concerns, although the last 3 certainly were.

Just past here the canal was crossed by a railway line known as the Princes End Branch This was one of several links between the South Staffordshire line and the various lines connecting Wolverhampton and Birmingham, The Princes End Branch left the South Staffs just south of Wednesbury Town station and connected it with Stour Valley line in Tipton, providing alternative routes from Walsall to Wolverhampton and to Birmingham. This line was constructed around 1860 with stations at Ocker Hill and Princes End, but closed to passengers in 1916 (after a previous closure from 1890 to 1895) although goods traffic continued until 1958. It can be seen cutting diagonally across the top right-hand corner of the aerial photograph shown below.

The photo shows Leabrook Tubeworks in the foreground and  Leabrook ironworks just beyond, on the opposite side of the canal. Leabrook Road cuts across the bottom left-hand corner of the photo. The South Staffs line itself can be seen on its embankment just beyond the Princes End loop, passing under the Great Western line as it approaches Wednesbury. The Tame can be seen flowing between the South Staffs and Princes End lines before veering right to pass under first the South Staffs line and then the Great Western in the distance. The Lea Brook tributary diverts left from the main river as it veers right, and then passes under the Princes End line. Further works can be seen where the river and railway lines cross and several areas of flooding are also apparent. These areas form part of the later sections of the walk.

5: On to the Tame Valley Canal

The towpath beyond the Princes End Branch was dominated up to the 1970s by the imposing Ocker Hill Power station to the right of the canal, with its 3 cooling towers which were a landmark for miles around. This station, which is shown in the next aerial view, was originally opened in 1902 and supplied electricity to much of the Black Country. it became a ‘selected’ station with the building of the National Grid in the early 1930s and became part of the Central Electricity Generating Board before closing in 1977.

Continuing along the towpath you will come Doe Bank Bridge, which can be seen to the bottom left of the aerial view. This bridge now leads from the towpath to the Black Country Spine road, which is best avoided, but if you turn right at the bridge, and then bear left you will cross the interesting Ocker Hill Tunnel branch of the Walsall canal. Only a short section of this was ever navigable and this is today occupied by a Canal and River Trust base and by private moorings lurking behind a high security fence.

Beyond the navigable section was a tunnel which communicated with the Ocker Hill Pumping Station, which was opened in 1784 to re-circulate water from the Walsall (Broadwaters) level of the canal system back to the Wolverhampton level some 65 feet higher. In the 20th century the tunnel branch was also used by the nearby Ocker Hill power station.

Continuing along the track, you will come to the Toll End Road. A short distance to the south the road passes over an old canal bridge under which the Toll End Communication canal once ran, as it neared the end of its course from the Birmingham level in Tipton down to the nearby Walsall level. Only a few traces of this canal now remain, but its course is parallel by one of the few remnants of the Tipton Brook.

According to Yates 1775 map and the 1830s OS map, this tributary of the Tame had its origins on high ground in the Sedgley and Gornal areas, and then flowed eastwards through Tipton before joining the main river near Toll End, serving watermills at Bloomfield and Horseley on its way (the Bloomfield mill later became part of James Keir’s Chemical works, whilst the Horseley mill was the foundation of the Horseley Ironworks). The path of the brook across Tipton is reasonably clear on Yates map, but much less so on the 1830s OS. This may be partly due to the construction of the Toll End Communication canal (in the 1800s), but may well have been exacerbated by subsidence, leakage into coal workings and the presence of swags etc. However, the later large-scale OS maps from about 1880-1910 show a multiplicity of drainage channels in this area, which are presumably the work of the South Staffs Mines Drainage Commission described later. With a bit of imagination it seems possible to reconstruct something close to original path of the Tipton Brook using these drainage channels. However, like many other parts of the Tame system, much has disappeared under the developments of the last 50 years or so. Nonetheless short stretches of this brook still appear on today’s maps, notably at the back of Tipton Cemetery, and here, where it passes under the Walsall Canal and Black Country Spine Road before its outfall on the main river.

Continue south on the main road towards Great Bridge, crossing the path of the former South Staffs line, which served a station (Great Bridge North) on the left of the road.  At the roundabout cross Great Western Way, which follows a short stretch of the former Great Western line from Birmingham Snow Hill to Oxford, London and the South-West, This line served a separate station (Great Bridge South) on the right of the road. Two rather impressive stone lions, possibly inspired by the British Railways wheeled-lion emblem, dominate the roundabout.

Walk down Market Place and to the left, you will get the first real glimpse of the River Tame flowing under the road on its way to pass under the nearby Walsall canal. Take the next turning to the left to access the canal towpath.

Walk northwards along the towpath, passing under a railway bridge which carried the South Staffs line over the canal. Cross the canal at the next footbridge which takes you under the Black Country Spine Road and into Bagnall Street.

Some remnants of the South Staffs line can still be seen at this point, heading for Wednesbury, including part of a short branch leading to the former canal-rail interchange basin nearby, one of many on the canal system where goods could be transferred from boat to train and vice-versa. The basin is still in water but is very overgrown and potentially quite hazardous! The Eagle Furnaces formerly lay alongside the canal near here; these were established about 1800 and passed through a number of hands before being demolished to make way for the interchange basin

Just south of the basin, the river emerges from under the canal and can be seen again for a while before disappearing again under the embankment of the Spine Road.

When you have had your fill of this interesting area, cross back over the footbridge and return to the canal towpath.  Opposite here, the Danks branch formerly left the canal, branching northeast to serve Bagnalls’ ironworks at Golds Hill. Next to the towpath stood Great Bridge Iron and Steelworks, which was most notably associated with the Solly Brothers, who also had interests in the New Leabrook Ironworks mentioned previously and in furnaces at Willenhall. A little further north, just past the former junction with the Toll End Communication canal (where the Tipton Brook passes under the Walsall canal) were the Crownmeadow Colliery and Brickworks and the Crown Ironworks. A little further upstream on the river, near its confluence with the Tipton Brook, was a further mill known as Tipton Forge alias Moore’s Mill alias Toll End Mill, which operated as a slitting mill around 1800 and later became part of Toll End Ironworks until the site was engulfed by the Toll End sewage works in late Victorian times.

The towpath next passes over the entrance to the Ocker Hill Tunnel branch described earlier and then comes to the junction with the Tame Valley Canal, where there are 2 landmark iron bridges giving access to its north and south towpaths. Go under the first bridge and cross the second, which takes you onto the northern towpath, and then under the redbrick bridge which takes the Black Country Spine Road over the Tame Valley canal.

The wide and straight Tame Valley canal, which was one of the last parts of the BCN network to be completed in the 1840s, now lies before you. The area is festooned with pylons and transmission lines, which are associated with the electricity distribution centre situated in a large compound between the towpath and the Spine Road. This stretches either side of the river, which here emerges from under the canal and can be seen flowing in a north-easterly direction towards Wednesbury.

You now approach another fascinating area where the Danks Branch of the Walsall canal once terminated, just north of the present Tame Valley canal at Golds Hill Colliery. A footbridge which connected the colliery with the Bagnall’s Golds Hill Ironworks crosses the canal at this point, and just beyond is a further bridge accommodating the one remaining rusty track of the South Staffs line which we met earlier near Great Bridge.

More power lines come in from various directions, focusing on the electricity distribution centre on the left, and looking almost scenic in the late afternoon sunshine!

From the railway bridge over the canal there is a choice of 3 routes to the point where the railtrack passes under the Midland Metro tramline, just south of Wednesbury. The first route, which is simply to follow the railway line along its embankment, gives a good view of some more modern industry to the east.

For the alternative routes, instead of following the railway, bear left close to the electricity compound, and descend to a small footbridge crossing the river.

From here you can follow the course of the river, passing a large lake on the right, and rejoin the railway line at its river crossing (by scrambling up the bank!).

Alternatively, you can cross the river footbridge and ascend the embankment of the former Princes End line. Following the embankment towards Wednesbury, you will see a large artificial mound on the left with a footpath ascending to its summit.

On the northern end of this barrow-like mound, facing towards Wednesbury, is an impressive metal monument known as Sleipnir. This is a 20 feet high stainless steel sculpture on a concrete base and is possibly the largest horse statue in the UK. It depicts an 8-legged horse leaping into a ‘dynamic new future’, with its flame-like tail representing the area’s industrial origins. Sleipnir was the warhorse of the Norse god Odin or Wodin, hence the connection with Wednesbury. It is one of 3 landmark features on the Metro line and was unveiled by the Princess Royal in 1999.

After enjoying the view, descend to the South Staffs line where it passes under the Metro.

At this point it is useful to look at another aerial photo, which shows a southerly view towards the Hilltop area on the Wednesbury/West Bromwich border. The Great Western/Metro line can be seen to the left of the picture with various loops and branches where it passes over the South Staffs line near the bottom left corner. The Princes End branch departs to the right of the main South Staffs line, just before the latter crosses the river, which itself can be seen curving around the lake pictured previously. The Tame Valley canal crosses the middle of the picture, with the New Crown Tubeworks along its banks, and with the South Staffs line crossing it on the extreme right.  An older works nearer to Wednesbury, known as the Old Patent Tubeworks, is bounded by the two main lines and by the river on its south side. Both these tubeworks were associated with the well-known Russell family. On the higher ground just beyond the Tame Valley canal, the curving line of the Old Wednesbury canal can be seen at its ‘Birmingham’ level some 45 feet above, terminating in a basin after crossing an aqueduct over the Great Western line.

To return to Wednesbury Town, go under the Metro bridge and exit from the railway line into Potter’s Lane (this might involve finding a suitable gap in the fence, as the line is not a public right-of-way). Turn right and then left into Perry Street and on to the junction at the end of Lower High Street, which takes you back into the town. And finally:

Earth-craft sparks Creation from Mould to Ingot – Igniting Pride and Forging Industry from Searing Streams of Gold (with thanks to Morrisons and the Wednesbury Poet Laureate)

Further information

The Patent Shaft and Axletree Company

Patent Shaft set up their Brunswick Works on Monway Field in 1838 to exploit a novel method of fabricating stronger iron axles for railway wagons – an opportune time at the dawn of the railway age. In 1852 Patent Shaft purchased the adjacent Victoria Works which were then owned by Fletcher, Rose and Co. Nearby were also the Monway works of Marshall and Mills, who specialized in making high quality gun-barrel iron for which they had a worldwide reputation. In 1854 the Monway Axle and Tyre Works was also set up here by Lloyd’s Fosters and Co, who owned the nearby Old Park Works, which produced structural ironwork, wheels and axles and parts for steam engines, including complete locomotives. This firm, which started by opening a coal mine in 1818 and then built an ironworks and foundry, was to the forefront of technical improvements in the iron industry, introducing hot blast to their furnaces in 1849, and using waste gases from the furnace to preheat the blast in 1857. In 1865 they became the first Black Country firm to produce mild steel by the Bessemer process – heralding the ultimate decline of the Staffordshire wrought iron industry. The combined firm employed over 4000 men at this stage, including miners, but were shortly to get into difficulties over the construction of Blackfriars bridge. In financing a contractor to enable the work to be completed, Lloyds Fosters incurred a loss of a quarter of a million pounds, necessitating the sale of the business to the Patent Shaft, which thus became the largest such enterprise in the area, and by far the biggest employer in Wednesbury.

Patent Shaft contracted somewhat in the depression of the late Victorian period, with the Old Park Furnaces going permanently out of blast, but expanded again after becoming part of a larger conglomerate in 1902.  The nearby Willingsworth Furnaces, which by the turn of the century were the only blast furnaces still in use in Wednesbury, were taken over in 1907 and were not dismantled until after the Second World War.  Amongst many other products, bridges, the double-decked trailers for the local steam trams, and frames for railway wagons were manufactured at Patent Shaft, and also some of the earliest battle tanks during World War 1. Further take-overs and amalgamations occurred after the war and the Old Park works became separated, making tanks again in World War 2 and railway wagons and electric locomotives afterwards. Patent Shaft concentrated on steel making after the second war and still employed 1500 people in 1961. However the firm suffered in the general decline of the 1970s and the works finally closed in 1980 and were demolished. Subsequent open-cast mining obliterated most traces of the works, including its unusual canal arm.

Leabrook Ironworks

The Leabrook Ironworks of John Bagnall & Sons was one of some half-a-dozen ironworks in the vicinity of the river and canal during the 19th century, including Leabrook Forge, Leabrook Furnace, and from about 1845, Old Leabrook, New Leabrook and Leabrook Patent Ironworks. However these may not have all been separate concerns, although the last 3 certainly were. Leabrook Forge appears to be the oldest, having been established in 1803 by Michael Tony and then passing through a number of hands. It may later have been known as Old Leabrook. On Sherriff’s map of 1812 the area where the canal crosses Leabrook Road was occupied by Doe Bank Colliery (a name perpetuated by a nearby canal bridge) and Leabrook Furnace stood nearby. On the 1830s OS Map Leabrook Mill appears in this location and it seems possible that Leabrook Mill, Forge and Furnace were closely related..

For a brief period around 1820 Leabrook furnace was associated with the Bagnall family of ironmasters, although their main enterprises at this time were Gold Hill Furnaces and Golds Green Ironworks. These were situated close to the main river and the Danks Canal Branch further south. Gold’s Hill ironworks were built around an old mill known as Gold’s Mill which was succeeded by a corn mill known as Gold’s Hill Mill that operated well into the Victorian era. A little further upstream on the river, near the confluence with the Tipton Brook, was a further mill known as Tipton Forge alias Moore’s Mill alias Toll End Mill which operated as a slitting mill around 1800 and later became part of Toll End Ironworks until the site was engulfed by the Toll End sewage works in late Victorian times.

Returning to the Bagnalls, a partnership involving John Bagnall and his five sons was formed in 1828 and, over the succeeding years up to 1860, Imperial, Caponfield and Toll End Ironworks were added to the empire along with Leabrook itself and thirteen collieries. The Bagnalls were major benefactors of their workers, particularly in the sphere of religious and general education, endowing  a well-respected school as well as the nearby St Paul’s church. In 1873 the firm became a limited company, but went into receivership in 1883. All the furnaces and ironworks except Leabrook and Imperial were sold off or dismantled and Imperial was absorbed into the nearby Patent Shaft complex in the 1890s. Leabrook works and the Bagnall name continued into the 20th Century, being owned by Noah Hingley and Sons from the 1920s, apart from a brief period of nationalization, and finally becoming part of the Lloyd Group.

Leabrook (Patent) Ironworks stood on the opposite side of the canal. These works are mainly associated with the Chillington Ironworks Co and the Barker family, who were prominent citizens of Wolverhampton, and also Alfred Hickman who was another great South Staffordshire ironmaster. The works were sold to Foster Bros, another important iron family, in 1887 and converted into a tubeworks and the business continued into the second half of the 20th century.

South Staffs Railway

The first railway to cross the Black Country was the Grand Junction, which provided a connection between the London-Birmingham and Liverpool-Manchester railways. On its way, it cut between Walsall, Wednesbury and Wolverhampton and passed close to the River Tame between Aston (where the river had to be diverted) and Willenhall, crossing it at Bescot Bridge where there was a station serving both Walsall and Wednesbury.

1881    Pleck curve and Pleck station opened allowing more direct service from Walsall to W’ton

Staffordshire line from Dudley to Lichfield via Walsall, crossing the Grand Junction line at Bescot, and closely following the Tame and Fordbrook between Dudley Port and Brownhills. The Chief Engineer was John Robinson McClean. After the railway opened in 1849 he took a 25-year lease on it for a payment of £10,000, thus becoming the first person ever to be the sole owner of a main-line railway. With the financial backing of several businessmen, he planned and built ‘The South Staffordshire Water Works Company’ which piped fresh water under the trackbed from reservoirs in Lichfield to Walsall, and later on to Dudley, making a major contribution to local health. McClean was also an engineer on the GW line from Wolverhampton to Birmingham and on the Tame Valley and Rushall canals. He was a part owner of ‘The Cannock Chase Colliery Company’ and was involved in laying a network of mineral lines within the coalfield that linked with the South Staffs. McLean transferred his lease of the line to the LNWR in the 1860s for a payment of £100,000. He became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers from 1864-5 and MP for East Staffordshire in 1878.

The first section of the South Staffs line to open was between a temporary station at Walsall and Bescot, connecting with GJ to  Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Soon direct services began from Walsall to Lichfield, Dudley (via Wednesbury) and to Wolverhampton via a curve at Bescot. In 1852 a more direct line opened from B’ham (New St) to W’ton (High level), known as the Stour Valley, crossing the South Staffs at Dudley Port. In 1854 a new steep curving section was built to link Dudley/Sedgeley Jn on the South Staffs line to Dudley Port (HL) station on Stour Valley. In the same year, the Great Western Line opened from B’ham (Snow Hill) to W’ton (Low Level), crossing the South Staffs at Wednesbury, and connecting with the rest of the GW network via Dudley. In 1863, a loop line was constructed from the GJ  at Jamesbridge to join the SS at Wednesbury, with a station at Darlaston. In the same year, a further line from Wednesbury (known as the Prince’s End Branch) provided connections with Stour Valley Line to B’ham and W’ton at Tipton, and served stations at Ocker Hill and Prince’s End. In 1881 the Pleck curve (and Pleck station) opened, allowing more direct service from Walsall to Wolverhampton.

Several of the local passenger services in the Black Country proved uncompetitive when tramways were introduced and passenger services on the Darlaston Loop stopped in 1887 and on the Princes End line in 1916. In 1964-5 all services on the line closed to passengers apart from Walsall-Bescot (and on to B’ham), but a  service from  Walsall to Cannock resumed in 1989, while in 1999 Midland Metro services started using the former GW line between Wolverhampton and Birmingham (Snow Hill), crossing the former SS line at Wednesbury

South Staffordshire Mines Drainage Commission

The Commission was set up in the 3rd quarter of the 20th century in an attempt to combat flooding in Black Country coalmines and halt the decline of the industry at a time when coal production was increasing elsewhere. Flooding made it difficult to recover much of the coal that was present, and meant that considerable expense was involved in pumping out the mines, hence discouraging further exploitation of the coalfield. The presence of many small independent collieries in a limited area meant that co-ordinated activity in both surface and underground drainage and in pumping was necessary to achieve effective and cost-efficient results. Such co-ordination had previously been sadly lacking.

One of the major problems was leakage into the workings from natural drainage channels (principally tributaries of the Tame) due to damage to their beds arising from subsidence caused by mining activities. Hence rainfall, instead of being conducted away from the area, leaked from the streams into the mine workings. Much of this water was subsequently pumped out of the mines into the canal system, but a considerable proportion (around a quarter) found its way into the streams, drainage ponds or swags of the area and could potentially re-enter mine workings several times before finally being conducted away.. Furthermore, there was also a continuous battle to maintain the water-tightness of canals in the subsiding landscape, and leakage from them was also a concern, particularly from the many basins that branched off the main system to serve individual canalside enterprises . There were also several canal overflows that drained into the river system.

The Commission, which consisted mainly of colliery owners and ironmasters, commenced under an initial act of 1873. Its work was carried out in 3 overlapping phases: firstly to improve surface drainage by improving existing streams and cutting new drainage channels where necessary; secondly the improvement of underground connectivity so that pumping would be more effective, and finally the improvement of pumping equipment and the installation of new engines where necessary.

The surface drainage work must have had a considerable effect on the river landscape. Approximately 300 miles of surface water works were renewed or repaired out of an estimated total of about 500 miles of streams in the South Staffordshire Coalfield.  Flow rates were improved by widening and straightening the courses, cutting new channels and changing levels where necessary, whilst water-tightness was improved by puddling the beds. The work was confined to the region south of the Bentley Faults and its main focus was in the Tipton, Wednesbury and Bilston areas. Bentley, Oldbury and Kingswinford were also included but the latter two areas did not participate in the underground remedial work which was the second part of the Commission’s task.

This second phase aimed to provide new underground channels that would prevent the accumulation of water in inaccessible pounds and hence simplify the work of pumping. The final phase involved either paying existing mine owners for their pumping operations or taking over such operations directly. The commission also set up new pumping stations at strategic points, mainly near the Walsall Canal or Old Main Line in Tipton, for example at Summerhill / Moat Colliery near Tipton Old Church. The work was paid for by a levy on minerals extracted, but this levy inevitably grew as time went by, and pits became uneconomical and closed, ceasing pumping. Some blamed the levy for making mining unprofitable. However the work undertaken was quite effective, reducing the pumping need to less than half of the original 50 million gallons a day.

The Commission continued into the 20th Century, although very little of the Tipton coalfield remained active at this point in spite of the large potential reserves available. In the 1920s, it was decided that the Tipton area should be abandoned to its watery grave, and that the much-indebted SSMDC be discontinued.

The Russells – A  Family of Tubemakers

In 1816 John Russell set up a tube works on the corner of Wellcroft Street, Church Hill, in partnership with his brother James, who ran the business. In 1823 James left and founded Crown Tube Works at the High Bullen, after securing a patent for butt-welded tube from Cornelius Whitehouse The invention revolutionized the industry, enabling  tubes to be made quickly, cheaply, and in longer lengths. As a result Crown Works led the industry and became well known throughout the world. Unfortunately success came at a price. Other manufacturers still using the old methods  greatly resented the company, and tube workers who had lost their jobs because of the introduction of the new process, were very angry. James Russell built a high brick wall around the works, topped with iron spikes, to keep out the hostile crowd and prevent anyone stealing the secrets of his process.  John subsequently founded John Russell & Company. After his death in 1853 much of the manufacturing moved to the new and larger Alma Tube Works in Walsall, but the company also continued to use the old Wellcroft Street works, and also founded the Old Patent Works to the south of Wednesbury.

By James’ death in 1849 the Crown works employed around 200 men producing well over 4 million feet of tubing a year. Afterwards, the works were run by his son John James Russell, who added a foundry to make tube fittings and built a mechanic’s institute for the workers, complete with a library, classrooms and lecture hall. Due to financial difficulties the business was transferred to a limited company; James Russell & Sons Limited, in 1866. John became chairman and most of the shares were purchased by the company’s employees. The Crown Works retained its dominant place in the industry in spite of other large UK manufacturers, and exported its products to many countries including France, Germany and Russia. By 1889 nearly 1,100 people were employed at the works, and before the turn of the century the company opened a galvanizing plant at Darlaston.

However a proposal for much-needed modernization of the works led to a disagreement between the directors which got so bad that the business could not continue, and as a result most of the capital was acquired by John Russell & Company who set about the task of sorting things out. The new owners found that the factory was “a rabbit warren of small shops impossible to supervise”. Many of the antiquated machines were only suitable for scrap, the men were obstructive and the foremen had no control over them.  They were very critical of the management, who had no accurate means of stocktaking or analysis of sales, and hardly ever visited their depots.

The decision was taken to close and demolish Crown Works and temporarily transfer the business to their Walsall factory and the old Wellcroft Street works at Wednesbury. They also opened a new tube works at Runcorn and built a new Crown Tube Works at Hill Top, near the railway and the Tame Valley Canal. Unfortunately both ventures were unsuccessful and the company sold out to Stewarts and Lloyds in 1929. Just before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Crown Works were equipped with shell-making equipment to produce shell forgings as part of the war effort.