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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.