Willenhall History Society
Willenhall Urban District Council
How it all began
Cemeteries and Memorials to the War Dead
"Homes Fit for Heroes"
The Memorial Park
How it all began
Until the middle of the last century such local government as there was lay in the hands of the local Parish Vestry. In this respect Willenhall was something of an anachronism because, although it did not enjoy parish status until 1840, it had its own Parish Vestry and carried out all the functions of a parish, even to the extent of having its own workhouse and being responsible for its own poor. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 grouped parishes together to form unions for better provision for the poor and Willenhall became part of the Wolverhampton Union. By 1839 Willenhall's Workhouse, which had functioned since 1742, was closed.
For administrative purposes the village of Short Heath and part of Bentley came under the jurisdiction of the Parish Vestry, which, in addition to being responsible for its own poor, was also empowered to elect its own Chapelwardens, Parish Constables, Highways Overseers and Overseer for the Poor and to levy rates in order to finance these activities. It also had power to levy rates for the upkeep of the St. Giles Chapel of Ease.
The population explosion of the early part of the last century caused by the Industrial Revolution and the resultant epidemics such as the Cholera Epidemic of 1849 which devastated Willenhall made it obvious that some more efficient form of local government was required. In 1848 a new Public Health Act provided for the setting up of Local Boards of Health in urban areas and Willenhall was not slow to take advantage of these provisions for in 1854 the first Willenhall Local Board of Health was set up.
The first meeting of the board took place at 10.00am on September 18th 1854 at the Literary Society's room in Stafford Street. Those present included Richard Foster, Jeremiah Hartill, Joshua Froysell, W. Hodson, C. Green Junior, Henry W. Greader, Richard Hodson, R. Butler, Jonah Hartill, G. Morgan and G. Robinson with James Tildesley in the chair. Mr Ralph Dickenson Gough was subsequently elected chairman, an office he was to hold without break until 1880.
The main objectives of the board in those early days were to clean up the town, remove all nuisances (a nuisance was anything which could be described as being injurious to the health of the people), arrange for a supply of clean piped water to everyone, provide drains and deep sewers for the town and provide street lighting. All this was to take many years to bring to fruition but nevertheless a start was made. Provision was also needed for a Municipal Burial Ground and in 1857 the Board purchased the existing burial ground in Wood Street from the Methodist Church to meet this need.
In 1865 the Literary Society opened its new premises in Clemson Street and from then on the Board held its meetings there.
On March 26th 1820 the citizens of Short Heath petitioned for Short Heath, Lane Head and New Invention to separate from Willenhall and become a separate ward. No objections were raised by Willenhall and a government inspector attended a meeting in the Holy Trinity Schools on January 16th 1871 in order to hear their case. This resulted in Short Heath forming its own Local Board of Health in 1872 with local industrialist Henry Squire becoming its first chairman, an office he held until 1885.
In 1875 the Local Government Board was formed with general supervision over all local government matters and under the Public Health Act 1872 the country was divided into rural and urban sanitary areas with the Willenhall Board becoming the Urban Sanitary Authority with more extended powers.
The Elementary Education Act 1870 required that education was compulsory for all children and the Willenhall School Board came into being in order to build the necessary schools. This board remained in operation until Staffordshire County Council assumed responsibility in 1902.
A further step along the road of progress came with the Local Government Act 1892 which created urban and rural district councils again with more far reaching powers and both Willenhall and Short Heath became their own Urban District Councils.
Representation on the council was increased to 16 and election was on a first past the post system with the first election being held on December 17th 1894. The first meeting of the newly formed Willenhall Urban District Council was held on December 31st 1894 with Mr Jesse Tildesley as its first chairman. For the record the voting in that first election was as follows:-
Thomas Nicholls Russell St 1274
William Trubshaw Cemetery Rd 1201
Thomas Kidson The Grange New Road 1198
James Bloxwich Rd 1179
Daniel Knowles Bloxwich Rd 1099
Samuel Parkes 96 New Rd 1030
Isaac Pedley 2 Lower Lichfield St 1023
John Adams Stringes Lane 980
Jesse Tildesley New Rd 977
Lees 72 New Rd 956
George Taylor Upper Lichfield St 934
Henry Ellard 38 Gomer St 918
Thomas Hulse 1 New St 840
Tildesley 14 New Rd 775
Vaughan Langdale, New Rd 770
There were 11 unsuccessful candidates.
Almost from the beginning campaigns were waged to try and introduce the ward system but although the matter was discussed many times by the council it always failed to get enough support and it was not until the Staffordshire Review Order 1933 reunited Short Heath and Willenhall in April 1934 that the ward system was adopted and representation on the council was increased to 21 members with the Short Heath ward electing the additional 5. The newly formed wards of St. Giles, St. Stephens, St. Annes and Portobello each electing 4. The wheel had gone full circle after 62 years apart, and Short Heath did not like it any more than Willenhall did in 1966 when their town was swallowed up by Walsall and Wolverhampton to create two enlarged County Boroughs which themselves were further enlarges to create Metropolitan Boroughs within West Midlands County in 1974.
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Willenhall Fire Brigade
Prior to 1887 fires in Willenhall were dealt with by the town surveyor and the roadmen: the fire engine had to come from Wolverhampton. On 12th December 1887 during a meeting of the Local Board of Health, it was proposed that twelve volunteers from various parts of the town were to be asked to form the nucleus of a fire brigade. By 9th January 1888, twelve names had been submitted:-
J. Tyler G. Goodchild
E. Seckington G. Ecroyd
W. Chesney E. Lucas
J. Lucas T. Green
E. Raybone A. Law
M. Jobborn R.W. Stockham
Mr Baker, the Surveyor, appears to have been the Captain of Willenhall's first Voluntary Fire Brigade. The rudimentary Fire Station was a roof over a recess between two buildings in the old town yard in Upper Lichfield Street: the fire equipment consisted of a small handcart, 2 standpipes, 2 jets, and 100 yards of hose. The firemen's uniform consisted of a helmet, belt, badge and axe. Up until the election in August 1889 of Mr. J.H. James as Captain this equipment was used to cope with all the fires in Willenhall. Captain James immediately asked the committee for more equipment and also requested that modifications be made to the fire station. A fire escape ladder was provided, but the council refused to bear the cost of an engine, handpump and more hose saying that this would cost a penny rate which was unthinkable! The continuing delay by the council in the matter of the new equipment led to the resignation of the fire brigade, who locked up the station and handed the keys to the Town Clerk. Mr. James eventually persuaded the men to take up their duties again with the assurance that the council "would look into the matter further". It was not until May 1896, however, that the town's first fire engine was ordered from Shand Mason & Co at a cost of £145, and fourteen fire bells were fitted to the firemen's houses by the National Telephone Co. at a cost of £50. Before the installation of the fire bells, runners were sent to the fire station and the homes of the firemen.
The new fire engine (the first of its kind made by Shand Mason) required a crew of twenty two men. It was capable of delivering water at the rate of 100 gallons per minute and throwing jets of water 120 feet into the air. The engine was christened on 23rd February 1897 and named, after much deliberation, "Nil Desperandum" (This, incidentally, coincided with the first false fire alarm at the Liberal Club) Miss Lily Kidson performed the christening ceremony by breaking a bottle of champagne over the new fire engine.
At 4.30pm on Friday 16th July 1899 one of the biggest fires recorded in Willenhall broke out at Thos. Tildesley's timber yard in Railway Lane. The fire brigade arrived promptly but could not contain the flames until further help was received from Wolverhampton, Wednesbury and Bilston. Walsall's fire brigade refused to come out claiming that their men's insurance did not cover work outside the borough. The fire was under control by 9pm and the damage was estimated at over £2,000. Refreshments for the firemen were provided by Captain James at the Lion Hotel. The several fires that followed this pointed to the necessity of a steam fire engine. Recommendation for this was put before the council meeting on 10th December 1900 and a total of £700 was requested for:-
A new manual steam fire engine from Shand Moss £93
1,000 yards of hose £0
A double set of harness for the horses £3
Alteration to the Fire Station £25
This was opposed by Councillor W.E. Parkes who stated that the council's finances did not warrant borrowing such a sum of money for the fire engine at present. "a fire engine is not a necessity." The resolution to purchase was, however, agreed to (an extra halfpenny being added to the rates fund) and the council were requested to take over the management and insurance of the fire engine.
Fire in Willenhall were dealt with by the two manual engines which were pulled by horses - these having to be brought to the station and harnessed before the brigade could attend the fire - which resulted in many complaints of delay. By 1916 the brigade were asking for a motor fire engine, but it was not until 4th November 1921 that tenders were invited for the supply of such a vehicle. A subsequent order for a motor fire engine was placed with the Weybridge Engineering Co. on 31st July 1922 and delivery of same was expected by the end of August. It was capable of pumping 450/500 gallons of water per minute and was christened "Invincible" by Mrs. C. Pinson in September 1922.
In 1901 the fire station was reported to be next to the Town Hall in Clemson Street where in 1903 a fire alarm was erected and was later connected to the houses of the firemen by means of an electric call. Surveyors were sent to report on fire alarm systems in use in other towns during 1915 and a new alarm system was installed and eight alarm posts erected in various parts of the town. In 1916 John Harper's "naval hooter" was used to call out all firemen during working hours. The education authorities were also asked to provide fire appliances to all schools at this time. At a special meeting of the fire brigade, when all members were present, concern was expressed at the delay in attending a fire at Messrs. James (no address given) on 30th September 1927. The condition of the firebells was found to be unsatisfactory and a resolution was passed to ensure that the switchboard and bells were examined once a week.
The brigade still had only one driver and arrangements were made to train six additional firemen as drivers. It appears that a second motor engine was purchased about 1928, certainly when the brigade moved to Walsall Street in 1934/5 two motor fire engines were recorded. In 1981 the brigade moved to its present site in Clarkes Lane where it houses:- 1 prime mover, 3 demountable units (command unit, hazardous substances unit, breathing apparatus control unit) and one fire engine (pump rescue ladder). It is manned round the clock by four watches, each watch consisting of a Station Officer, Sub officer, Leading Fire-fighter and seven Fire-fighters.
No mention is made during the early years as to whether all the firemen had uniforms; certainly the captain and lieutenant were uniformed. It is recorded in the minutes of the fire brigade committee on 27th April 1904 that twelve caps, twelve whistles and two belts were purchased for the firemen (what ten of the firemen held their trousers up with is open to speculation). However, by about 1908 it appears all firemen were issued with proper uniforms and helmets. In 1918 a National Fire Brigade Union came into being and a crew of fully trained firemen became available to attend all fires in the area.
Before 1904 firemen were only paid for attending fires and the first mention of their payment appears in the fire brigade minutes of August 1904 when the scale of charges was issued for fires within and outside the district.
scale of charges
It is assumed that the charges were presented by the council to the recipients of the fire brigade's services; and as a consequence of the purchase of the motor fire engine a sum of £12.12.0d was added to the charges. As a result Bentley refused to pay the increased charges and their agreement was terminated. Wednesfield, however, were prepared to pay £30 per annum for Willenhall's fire services.
Resolution was passed in 1907 that all firemen were to "receive such fees as they had earned once a month from the council regardless of whether they (the council) had received their remuneration." This system of payment remained in force until about 1941, when along with 1,400 other similar fire brigades, Willenhall became part of the national fire service.
After the war in 1948 the national fire service was denationalised and Willenhall became part of the Staffordshire Fire Brigade until 1966 when it joined forces with Walsall Fire Brigade. From 1974, however, due to boundary changes, Willenhall became immersed into the West Midlands County conurbation.
In 1905 a retaining fee of £1 per annum was paid to firemen for cleaning engines and appliances and for cleaning and keeping in order the fire station. Mention of firemen's retaining fee was also made in January 1914, this being :- Captain £5 per annum, Lieutenant £3.10s, First Engineer £3, Second Engineer £2.15s, all others £2.10s. Due to the payment of this "retaining fee" the word voluntary was dropped from the fire brigade.
Up until 1989 Willenhall still had a crew of "retained firemen":
L/Fireman Fred Clowes
Fireman Nick Coles
Fireman Ernie Rogers
Fireman Dave Bissell
L/Fireman Derrick Cooper
Fireman Terry Evans
Fireman Colin Simpson
Fireman Roland Powis
At midnight on 31st March 1989 due to reorganisation within the West Midlands Fire Service these men were officially disbanded.
Willenhall has every right to be proud of its firemen both past and present who have answered all calls, day and night, with speed and diligence for 106 years.
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Cemeteries and Memorials to the War Dead
One hundred years ago the current burial grounds of our town were St. Giles Churchyard and Wood Street Cemetery. The Short Heath Parish of Holy Trinity, although having a considerable sized churchyard at Church Road would have catered mainly for the population of that area.
By 1892 the Wood Street Cemetery was to be superseded by a New Cemetery which was planned with a site in Bentley. Wood Street Cemetery was originally owned by the Wesleyan Church who, it is believed, opened that ground in 1857. This Cemetery was taken over by the Burial Board, afterwards becoming part of the Local Board of Health, until 1894 when the Local Government Act set up the Urban District Council of Willenhall.
By the mid eighteen nineties Wood Street Cemetery had been used up to its capacity and a new Municipal Cemetery was needed, without doubt.
Bentley Cemetery was planned on a site of 10 acres plus, costing £150 per acre; the amount incurred by the council was £1,587.3.9d which included some charges for legal costs.
The land for the cemetery was provided by the Earl of Lichfield after the council in Willenhall entered into an arrangement with his Grace in 1894.
Documents show that a parcel of land upon which the new cemetery was planned was being used by Mr Tiffany Tildesley for crops. He claimed £50 compensation for loss of crops or damage to same.
The cemetery project became one of the most important schemes of the newly appointed Urban District Council of Willenhall. The town surveyor, Mr B. Baker, was instructed to draw up plans and specifications for the Sexton's Lodge and the Mortuary Chapel which stand in the entrance to the cemetery in Wolverhampton Road West at County Bridge.
Based on the plans an estimate of cost was produced and an application was made to the Local Government for a loan of £5,600 which was sanctioned after deliberation. The Committee prepared to commence the involved works. To everyone's shock the surveyor, Mr Baker, died and after a considerable delay a successor was appointed. By this time the Local Government Committee decided and demanded that an amended drainage scheme was needed. When, finally the tenders were opened it was discovered that the original estimate was undercosted by £2,029 necessitating another request for borrowed money.
After the delay the council was at last able to commence with the work, having accepted a tender by Mr. Owens of Wolverhampton. The drainage, paths and roadmaking were begun with the newly appointed clerk of works in charge. The cost was estimated at £1749 and the starting date was July 1896. The first phase was finished in 1897. Technically the work was excellent, the specification outlining road depth 21" of cinder, thoroughly rolled and finished with sand. Several thousand tons of the required materials were drawn up onto the site to make the access roads and paths possible.
The drainage of the cemetery site was the next contractual engagement. This was done by the use of an iron pipe which was laid under the canal which runs as a boundary to the cemetery on the west side. The pipe then ran over the Earl's land to the sewage farm due south of the site, the council agreeing to a right fee of £1 per annum. Tenders for this phase of work had been received, the lowest being £207 to which was added the sum of £25 for draining the canal for the laying of the pipework. This part of the contract took just six weeks.
Tenders for the chapels, lodge and the walls around the site were received and the tender of Mr. Thomas Tildesley was accepted, the estimate being £1657. He had commenced his work as the access roads were made good ending this schedule in July 1897.
It was envisaged that carriages and horses would drive through the archway between the two chapels which are visible from the main gate this being very beneficial in inclement weather. The cemetery office was the Sexton's Lodge in which was kept a large plan of the cemetery, every interment being marked upon that plan.
The whole site was fenced at a cost of £600, the work being carried out as Mr. T. Tildesley finished the walls.
In the planning of the cemetery a miniature park effect was hoped for. The council gave considerable thought to this end. Competition schemes were advertised for which prizes were awarded. One of the schemes was accepted. The planting of trees, shrubs and flower beds was carried out to conclude the laying out of the new cemetery.
The cost of lay out was estimated at £259 but actually cost £400 on completion.
Total cost of the cemetery on completion was £7,725-12-0d.
On July 16th 1900, a very fine Monday, the Bentley Cemetery was officially opened by Councillor Thomas Nicholls J.P., Chairman of Willenhall Urban District Council. Although the day was hot a good cross section of the population arrived at the opening. Some 2,000 people from the town were present to see the members of the U.D.C. drive down in brakes from the Town Hall.
A report at the time described the townsfolk as all classes - man in their working aprons, women leading their children by the hand, ladies dressed in finery, master men in silk hats, tradesmen and publicans.
The U.D.C. members were accompanied by the Revs J. Wright, W. Cooke and George Banks. All the council were present with the exception of Messr. G.F. Vaughan (Chairman of the Cemetery Committee), T. Hulse and I. Pedley. Those who attended were Councillors T. Nicholls J.P. (Chairman), J.W. Somerville (Vice Chairman), W.E. Parkes, W.R. Tildesley, J.H. James, C. Tildesley, J. Mason, Jesse Tildesley, E. Morris, C. Loat and S. Lister. Messrs R. Tildesley (Clerk), W. Webb (Deputy Clerk/Registrar), T.E. Fellows (Surveyor), J.B. Lees (Assistant Surveyor), H. Starkey (Sanitary Inspector), J.P. Baker (Architect), Dr. Bott and Dr. Tonks, Messrs William Harper, J. Henley, J.W.G.Starkey, J. Cluley, W. Henshaw, N. Haynes, Josiah Pedley, Enoch Tonks, A.B. Skelland, Ths. Bailey, George H. Kidson, E. Pinson, N. Marston, L. Trubshaw, H. Wolverson, Highes Jackson, Josiah Parkes, W. Bailey and others.
Only three ministers of the various denominations were present although all were invited. Several letters of apology were received but were not read out. The Rev. W.L. Ward of St. Anns had had a bereavement and had consequently cancelled other engagements also.
After much enthusing and eulogising, Councillor Thomas Nicholls, in the name of Willenhall Urban District Council, declared the cemetery open and the proceedings finished with the benediction.
There are headstones in memory of military personnel killed in both 1914-18 and 1939-45. Research has found that out of 17 civilians who died as a result of enemy action over Willenhall during the Second World War 16 are buried at Bentley Cemetery. The burial record show that 16 victims were the result of two bombing raids over Willenhall, first in November 1940 and second in July 1942.
The Field Street Memorial which displays the military dead of two World Wars, 446 World War I and 93 World War II and 17 names for the civilians killed in air raids. 16 of these people are buried in Section 6, Bentley Cemetery. Many have very good and well attended graves situated in a part of the section which was allocated by the local authorities during the war.
Portobello Memorial record 312 men killed in action during the 1914-18 war. Short Heath (Lane Head) records 53 men in the 1914-18 war.
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I was working for a local architect before the 1939 war and did a lot of business with Willenhall Urban District Council and in particular with the Surveyor's Department. The Surveyor to the local authority, Mr N D Martin, invited me to become a member of the local ARP as he was forming a rescue party.
The party consisted of the following members:
Mr N D Martin, Engineer and Surveyor to Willenhall UDC
Mr H Schofield, Deputy E and S
Mr A Fogg, Superintendent of Sewage Works
Three members of the Surveyor's drawing office staff and myself.
We met every Sunday morning to carry out various exercises and did one all night duty at the ARP centre which was situated in the basement of the Council Offices. A bed was supplied in the drawing office of the surveyor's department. Mr W Tipler was the officer in charge of the centre.
The first big air raid was carried by the Germans on Coventry on the Thursday night - Good Friday morning 1940.
Five members of the rescue party left the ARP centre on Good Friday morning at 6.00 a.m. and travelled to Coventry to give assistance on rescue work. The journey was quiet until we reached the outskirts of Coventry. The damage was terrific, together with a vast amount of fires including the Cathedral. After some difficulty we found the ARP centre and were given three addresses to try and help the occupants. The first house we did manage to rescue a lady and got her to hospital but the other two were beyond help.
We left Coventry at about 5.00pm and arrived home at 9.00pm. A day I shall never forget.
Not long after this I was directed by the Ministry of Works to report to a firm of Civil Engineers and Building Contractors who had just started work on the Ordnance Factory at Featherstone and known to us as Bransford Lodge. The senior officer of the company decided to form a Home Guard section to cover the site of the works. You had no option but to join, it was an order. It was quite a large force of people and ten of us formed an Engineers Section. We had instructions twice a week after we had finished work by a regular soldier and we also did one night guard duty per week. When the Ordnance Factory was completed in 1942 I was transferred to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, looking out for and boring sites for open cast coal production. I did find two or three sites in Essington and worked these until November 1943.
On leaving the Ordnance Factory I joined Willenhall Home Guard Section and to my surprise they had an engineers section controlled by the friends from the Surveyor's Department. Again we had instructions from a regular soldier every Sunday Morning. Our Headquarters was the old Willenhall Football Club and Greyhound Racing Track in Temple Road. Again we did one night per week guard duty. The section built a rifle range under one of the covered areas and we practised quite often. A Home Guard competition was set up round the area for the rifle range and we managed to get to the final. The final was held at a rifle range set up under the stand of the old Bushbury end of the Molineux ground (Cow shed) and we won the competition.
I left the Home Guard in November 1943 when I was drafted to Southampton to help build the Mulberry Harbour boats. This was the experience of a lifetime. I left Southampton on May 15th 1944 to greet my daughter who was born on 16th May 1944.
D Day was June 6th 1944. The Birmingham Gazette on 23rd October 1944 reported the Mulberry Harbour saved a great loss of life after the worst June gale for 40 years. G.H. Giles J.P.
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The official opening of a swimming bath and public hall at Willenhall took place on Saturday afternoon, the ceremony being performed by Councillor John A. Parkes (chairman of the Council)
Erection of the premises, which have cost £23,100, began in February, 1938, and the Foundation Stone was laid in September by Councillor William Johnson (chairman of the Baths Committee).
Situated behind the Public Offices, the building is 124 feet in length and 64 feet wide, while the swimming bath is 75ft by 36ft, the depth varying from three to seven feet. There are also six slipper baths for men and four for women.
The balconies accommodate the dressing cubicles, which can be folded flat against the walls when public gatherings are held.
Councillor Johnson presided at the opening ceremony and there were also present Mr Geoffrey Mander M.P., the mayors of Walsall, Bilston and Tipton and the chairmen of Darlaston and Coseley District Councils.
Councillor Johnson remarked that that day they had achieved their ambition of 30 years to provide public baths for the town.
Councillor Parkes, in declaring the baths open, said that it had been thought that such a desirable social service was beyond their means.
"I agree it is always essential that a careful and watchful eye should be kept upon the rates, and that wise spending of public money should be the chief concern of every councillor.
"But even so I still maintain and am also convinced that Willenhall can afford this social service, and that the cost is money well spent. From a health point of view its value cannot be estimated."
Proposing a vote of thanks to councillor Parkes, Mr Geoffrey Mander remarked that when he was present at the stone laying ceremony in September last, they were faced with a grave international crisis. It was now not quite so hectic, but was quite as grave. He hoped all peace loving nations would be united, so that if a struggle did take place, it would be of a limited kind and that the issue may be decided without any physical struggle.
Following the opening ceremony swimming displays were given by Misses A.M. Hancock, C.E. Vinson, G. Morcom, E.M. Holden and L. Wylde and Mr J. Hancock.
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There had been a Public Library in Willenhall for forty five years before the formation of Willenhall UDC in 1894. The Willenhall Literary Institute was founded in 1849 and a library provided by public subscription. In 1865 after years of effort by the Committee and members to raise the necessary capital the Library in Clemson Street was opened and included a lecture hall, study rooms, committee rooms and offices as well as a library and reading room. In 1875 the building was taken over by the local authority after the adoption of the Public Library Act on 16th July 1874 to provide a Free Public Library for the town. This was paid for by a penny in the pound rate supplemented by rents for rooms in the library which were used for the Board of Health meetings
There are no records available covering the early years of the Literary Institute but the minutes of the Free Library Committee from 1874 provide a fascinating look at the way the library and halls were run by the Local Board of Health (which was then the only form of local government in the town).
The first meeting of the committee took place on June 18th 1875 and the Board received possession of the building, books and effects as from June 30th 1875. David Marsh was appointed as Librarian and Hallkeeper at a salary of £26 per year and free residence, gas and coals; he also received 5% commission on rent of halls and classrooms and fines for non compliance with byelaws.
At this time the library took 7 daily, 9 weekly and 10 monthly papers and the bookstock of the library was categorized as follows:
548 volumes fit to be admitted to the new library
141 volumes needing binding
199 imperfect copies which may be sold
171 thoroughly bad and suitable for burning
30 volumes outstanding and not produced
The books were classified into various categories and a printed catalogue produced:
History, Biography and Travels
Law, Politics and Commerce
Arts, Science and Natural History
Poetry and Drama
Magazines and Periodicals
Mr Isaac Pedley was especially involved in the running of the library for many years, having encouraged the local board to adopt the Free Libraries Act. He was the main promoter of fundraising, including a bazaar which swelled the total to £800, for a new Reading Room which he opened on March 2nd 1880. The Committee recorded a vote of thanks to Mr and Mrs Pedley for a presentation reading desk and copy of the Holy Scriptures fixed in the new reading room. Cartwright's Monthly Review for December 1899 recorded that "if for no other public work the name of Mr Isaac Pedley should - and will be - held in high esteem by the present and future generations for his furtherance of the cause of the Willenhall Free Library".
The Free Library operated without any major incidents until 1885 when the Librarian, David Marsh, died and his wife, Mrs Eliza Marsh, was appointed. The proceedings of the committee carried on every month to supervise the running of the library. It appears that very few, if any, books were purchased for the library; in July 1889 circulars were printed asking for a contribution of books with the result that Mr Wm Johnson gave seven and was subsequently appointed to the committee.
There were obviously a few problems with some of the people using the library - in September 1890 the librarian was requested to place a notice in the Reading Room with respect to persons entering into conversation in an audible tone. By December 1891 it was necessary to write to the Inspector of Police to allow a constable to occasionally visit the Reading Room. In December 1892 Mr D. Johnson asked if anything could be done to "remedy the evil of betting men visiting the Reading Room" This was discussed at various meetings but in March 1893 the matter was adjourned "sine die" and nothing was done at this time.
In 1894 the Library was closed for several months because of a smallpox epidemic. Mrs Marsh resigned in September and was replaced with Mr Kimberley, who was chosen from eight candidates. His salary was £1 per week. A sub committee was appointed and found that "the condition of the books on the shelves of the library leaves much to be desired", they classified the books into five classes:
Books seldom used in moderately good condition
Books of a similar character which have decayed on the shelves
Books in moderately good condition
Books in indifferent condition
Books in very bad condition. The further issue of these books may be distinctly harmful to the public health.
The sub committee desired to bring to the recollection of the committee that "no new books have been added for some years. They feel that to have a library from which all modern thought is excluded is to have a library unworthy of any town in the closing decade of the nineteenth century". They proposed spending £100 on new books.
This was the position when the new Willenhall UDC took over the running of the library and things could only get better! By May 1896 Mrs Kimberley was acting as Librarian and Mr R W Stockham was appointed as Rate Collector and Librarian in June 1896. In September 1896 surplus magazines and books were offered to Wolverhampton Workhouse and Cottage Homes but they declined to accept them so they were placed in the Fire Station for use of the Fire Brigade.
On February 5th 1897 the Committee felt it was unable to carry out its duties owing to constant heavy interest on building debt and felt "it would be most desirable to free this building from debt in commemoration of Her Majesty's long reign". To this end the Smallpox Relief Fund balance and the Barnsley Relief Fund were transferred towards the reduction of debt in May 1898 and the balance of the loan at Bilston District Provident Society (£153.12s.3d) was paid by February 1899. More mundane matters also occupied the committee - on 6th May 1898 the Librarian was authorised to obtain a new doormat! On 7th November 1902 the matter of betting was again addressed - it was resolved that betting news was to be obliterated from all papers before being placed in the reading room.
In 1934 the library was reorganised on the open access system and the stock was recatalogued and reclassified. The stock consisted of about 12,000 volumes but the lending department was only open from 4.30pm to 8.30pm each evening except Friday. The Reading Room was open from 9.00am until 9.00pm daily. The age limit for children was ten years.
Mr R W Stockham resigned as Librarian in Jun 1936, after serving the town of Willenhall for forty years, and having combined his work as Librarian with that of Chief Fire Officer. He was appointed "Consultant Librarian" at a salary of £60 per annum until 31st March 1937 and £50 pa thereafter. Mr Reginald W. Bowdler was appointed at a salary of £200 pa and a Junior Assistant at £52 - £65 pa.
Mr Fred Lamb became Librarian in November 1946 and remained in charge until Willenhall UDC merged with Walsall in 1966. He went on to become Director of Library and Museum Services for Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, retiring in 1979. Mr Lamb certainly made an impact on the running of the library - in five years the bookstock was doubled and a series of activities based at the library included school visits, extra mural work, exhibitions, holiday information service, a Literary and Debating Society and concerts to further the policy that the library should be the cultural centre of the community.
In 1951 the Library occupied most of the ground floor of the Clemson Street building, the UDC having moved its offices to the new Town Hall in 1934. It comprised an Adult Lending Department with a quick reference section enclosed by glazed screens, Children's Department, Reading Room, Service Counter and Offices. The upper floors were let to the Willenhall Branch of the British Legion. The UDC intended to build a new library on the site of the Wakes Ground but it was not until 1969 that the library moved to new premises when the ground floor of the Town Hall was taken over after the demise of the UDC. The Clemson Street building, which had served the town as a library for 104 years, was demolished and the site is still a car park.
On April 3rd 1948 a part time branch library was opened in part of Holy Trinity Schools, Coltham Road, Short Heath. This was replaced in 1960 by Forest Gate branch library in New Invention, built to serve the ever increasing housing estates in the area.
The present Willenhall Library remains in the Town Hall building and continues the library tradition in the town. Computer issue systems, videos and viewdata points help to provide a modern library service which would still, however, be recognized by the Victorian philanthropists who helped to set it up - its main purpose is still to lend out books to the population of Willenhall.
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"Homes fit for Heroes"
The period after the end of the First World War was a very important one with regard to housing problems not only in our local area but throughout the country.
"To let them (our heroes) come home from horrible water-logged trenches to something little better than a pig sty would, indeed, be criminal..... and a negation of all we have said during the war, that we can never repay those men for what they have done for us." (Walter Long, President of the Local Government Board, in Richard Reis, The Home I Want, 1918)
It was to be Lloyd George and his cabinet who began to plan a housing policy and the slogan "Homes fit for Heroes" was familiar across the land. Towards the end of the war 41% of conscripts were medically unfit for military service, the cause of which was thought in many cases to be poor housing.
The first compulsory housing act after the war was the Addison Act of 1919, this placed the responsibility for providing sound houses for working class people with the local authority and required them to assess what houses were needed in their area and to provide them. The government offered financial assistance with these houses in excess of a penny rate. These houses were also to be at a fixed rent, regardless of the cost of building them.
Let us see therefore what effect this national act had on council housing in Willenhall in the period between the two wars.
The first meeting of the Housing and Town Planning Committee of Willenhall UDC was on 25th November 1918, when they provisionally approved that land should be bought on behalf of Willenhall UDC in Temple Road, Fisher Street, Wolverhampton Road, Wellington Place and Field Street.
In June 1919 it was recommended that the first homes to be erected should be those of Type B. The first land to be purchased was in fact that in Temple Road, which was bought from Mr. W.H. Tildesley for £3,100 on 19th August 1919. It was, however October before the first plans and estimates were submitted to the council..
Fisher St. 46 houses at a cost of £39,039-3-6d
Temple Rd. 74 houses at a cost of £62,961-3-6d
The Park site was the next to be considered by the Housing and Town Planning Committee, a price of 1/3d per square yard was agreed upon in 1920 and the land was subsequently purchased under a compulsory purchase order from Messrs Banks, Martin, Lockley and Millington.
In May 1920 the Surveyor reported to the Housing and Town Planning Committee that he was not satisfied with the progress being made by Mr. Hickin, the builder who was erecting the houses in Temple Road. Mr. Hickin informed the Surveyor that the problems were due to a shortage of builders. A lot of discussion followed in the next few weeks with regard to the delays in the building of the houses, with constant assurances from Mr. Hickin that the problems would be sorted out, but he only had six bricklayers on the site. Eventually a resolution was passed that unless Mr. Hickin made greater progress the matter would be referred to a higher authority.
In October 1920 the rents were set out for the houses in Temple Road.
Type A 9/- per week plus rates
Type B 11/-
per week plus rates
In November 1920 the tender from Sir Robert McAlpine and Co. of £282,156 was accepted to build 250 houses in Wolverhampton Road and the Park site.
16th December 1920 found Mr. Hickin once again in trouble with the houses in Temple Road, once again citing a lack of skilled workers as being the problem, but he hoped that the houses would be ready by the end of December.
On 10th January 1921 there was a special meeting of the Town Planning and Housing Committee on the site of the new houses in Temple Road to inspect them and then decide who would be selected to occupy the first houses. The following applications were approved:
Alfred E. Smith, Thomas Aston, William J. Amos, Harry N. King, William Stevens, Frederick C. Taylor, Benjamin Evans, Samuel F. Walker,
The following year saw the formation of the Temple Road Municipal Tenants League. Amongst their first requests were the erection of fencing, followed by applications for planning permission for a variety of buildings; a Mr. Brier wanted to build a motor shed and Mr. Bowler a fowl house. Within a few weeks problems were beginning to appear, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Harris were not paying their rent regularly and the clerk was authorised to take whatever steps were necessary. The clerk was also instructed to deal with the problems found by the Sanitary Inspector. On 22nd November 1922 they were asking the UDC to reduce the rents. By August of the following year, 1923, the houses were already being renovated, it would appear that Mr. Hickin didn't get all the problems sorted out.
October 1924 saw the first tenants of the Wolverhampton Road site. They were: J. Aston, A. Baker, W. Boulter, B. Brittain, A. Bugmore, E. Burrows, J. Constable, P. Evans, J. Fairbank, W. Fox, W. Francis, N. Goodwin, J. Griffiths, J. Hill, H. Jackson, W. Jones, G. Kidson, S. Leek, L. Legge, C. Ludgard, G. Marston, G. Matthews, R. Murray, G. Nicholls, B. Powell, J. Rowley, H. Richards, J. Sambrook, H. Springthorpe, L. Taylor, S. Thomas, D. Walton, C. Watkins, F. Williams,
The rents of the Type B houses were 7/6d per week plus rates and for Type C houses 9/- per week plus rates.
The cost of building houses was rising steadily and by February 1927 the parlour type houses being built in Pinson Road were costing £450 each. It would seem that new materials were being tried; asbestos cement downspouts and guttering were being used instead of cast iron ones as a test. It was to be many years later before the full horrors of asbestos were discovered.
New sites were being built throughout 1927 and 1928 and a look at the councillors of the time gives us some indication as to who the new roads were named after. Councillors Webster, Hobley, Lawrence, Aston, Perks and Pinson were some of the names involved.
Mr. Hickin was in trouble again in October 1928 when he was given seven days to make good the defects in the houses he had recently erected on the Park site. Whether he did or not is not recorded but by September of 1929 there was a further list of complaints about the houses built on the Park site.
The Housing Act of 1930 led to the proposed building of 600 houses over the next five years, 251 of which would house families moved due to slum clearance. This is the first reference to slum clearance in Willenhall although other areas of the Midlands, especially Birmingham, had been involved in slum clearance for many years. The 1935 Act dealt further with this problem.
1935 saw a report to the Planning Committee about the proposed sale of council houses and, although there are very few further details, it would appear that council house sales have been going on for some considerable time.
In 1936 20% of the recently built houses in Elm Street were designated to be let only to tubercular families. September 1937 saw a severe storm in the area and number 11 Aston Road was damaged by lightning. Its tenant, Mr. Pedley, applied for a grant of £3 to effect repairs and this was given to him.
The first homes especially built for the elderly were bungalows in Rose Hill. These were built without baths and an advert placed in the Bilston and Willenhall Times asked for applications for people over the age of 65 and with no children to rent these bungalows at a weekly rent of 14/-.
This brief look at the first twenty years of council housing in Willenhall has looked at the first purchases of land, through to slum clearances and the first purpose built bungalows for the elderly and highlighted some of the problems along the way. Perhaps some of those early tenants or their descendants can tell us what it was really like to live in the houses.
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The Memorial Park.
The citizens of Willenhall first turned their thoughts to the creation of a park for the town shortly after the Urban District Council first came into existence in 1894 but at that time it was no more than an unfulfilled dream as the council had more pressing matters on which to focus their minds. One of these was the need to complete the deep sewering of the town and the provision of new sewage beds at County Bridge, work which had been in process for some years.
The other pressing problem was the need to find alternative burial facilities in the town as the existing cemetery in Wood Street was rapidly filling up.
Both these projects were costing a great deal of money so it was hardly surprising that other less urgent schemes were put aside for the foreseeable future.
In 1917 with the Great War drawing to a conclusion the town began to consider how best to commemorate the lives of the many men who had died in the conflict and a committee was formed, to be known as the War Memorial and Town Development Committee to consider how best this could be done and to set about raising the necessary funds to finance the scheme. Mr. T Kidson was appointed as Chairman.
Work began immediately to raise the necessary funds to finance the scheme and at a meeting of the Urban District Council on February 4th 1918 it was announced that the War Memorial and Town Development Committee were proposing to donate 24 acres of land to the council for the provision of a park plus a further £1,200 towards the cost of providing fencing, also 965 square yards of land at the corner of Stafford Street and Field Street was to be laid out as a "War heroes" Memorial as part of the larger park scheme.
On February 3rd 1919 with hostilities now over the town Surveyor was instructed to level and prepare the land at the corner of Stafford Street and Field Street in readiness for the first part of the scheme and on February 22nd 1919 plans were revealed in the press for a suggested Park and Garden City Scheme. In addition to the provision of a suitable memorial with name tablets it was also proposed to purchase 5acres of derelict land on the western side of the town. 24 acres of which were to be laid out as a park and the remaining 26 were to be given over to the council to create the grandly titled "Garden City Scheme". Towards this they had already acquired 42 acres.
The scheme immediately captured the imagination of the people of Willenhall and a considerable sum of money was already in hand. It was estimated that the cost of land, legal fees etc. would be in the region of £5,000 with a further £200 needed to fence the park. The lay out of the Memorial Gardens together with memorial and name tablets was estimated to require a further £500. It was also proposed to provide a suitable award to those soldiers from the town who had been decorated for bravery in the field and this was estimated to cost £300. Towards this an amount of £6,000 had already been raised and it was confidently expected that the remainder would quickly be forthcoming.
The land which had been purchased was of the worst possible kind being derelict land which had been heavily mined and was now covered completely by pit waste and stagnant water. It was an utter eyesore and plans to convert this into a park together with a useful and attractive residential quarter seemed ambitious to say the least.
Planning was largely in the hands of Mr T Edgar Fellows, the town's surveyor, together with Mr W.T. Bowlby, the Cemetery Superintendent, and in the initial stages advice was sought from the Midland Reforesting Association as to the best type of trees to plant bearing in mind the nature of the soil which was available. It was recommended that 7 acres be planted with the usual mixture of Alder and Birch together with some special kinds of trees in a prominent position and a strong shelter belt of Poplar.
The first stage of the Memorial programme was completed on September 30th 1920 when Lord Dartmouth unveiled the obelisk of Portland stone in the memorial gardens. The name tablets were to follow later. Meanwhile work on levelling the site for the park was under way with the work being carried out by unemployed ex-service men who were, it is believed, paid the princely sum of £l per week. The cost of this work was estimated to have been £12,000 towards which the Council received a grant of £7,145 from the Unemployment Grants Committee, a scheme set up by the government to provide much needed work for solders returning from the war. The work, which was largely carried out manually, was proceeding well and by early 1922 the Park was beginning to take shape. On March 6th 1922 the conveyance formally transferring the ownership of the Park from the War Memorial and Town Development Committee to the Urban District Council was signed and sealed and at the same time a tender from Messrs E.C. and J Keay Limited Structural Engineers of Darlaston for supplying and fixing fencing and gates on the site for £1,000.8s. was accepted although the contract was not actuary signed until May of that year.
In 1926 a grand scheme to build an open air swimming bath together with changing cabins was considered but this scheme never got off the ground. Meanwhile in 1927 a sand pit was added to the children's playground and in 1928 a further 5 acres was enclosed bringing the total area of the Park to 33.8 acres.
While all this was going on Councillor Ambrose Aston was busy in the town persuading people to donate trees, Peacocks and other birds for the aviary and seats with which to further adorn the Park. The Avenue of Lime trees which runs from the Dartmouth Avenue gate still stands as testimony to his efforts and the money to pay for the clock together with the turret which adorns the now vandalised pagoda was also raised by him. This work cost a total of £159.14s.6d. and was aided by a substantial donation from the Locksmiths Society to commemorate the election of Miss Luker to the Council. This work being completed in 1931.
Work was also going on to build houses on the Summerford Site (now known as the Park estate) on the land donated by the Committee as a part of its war memorial programme, and for his Herculean efforts Councillor Aston was honoured by having not one but two streets named in his honour, Aston Road and Ambrose Close. Probably the only councillor to be so honoured.
On June 2nd 1922 the name tablets which had been erected on either side of the obelisk and which contained the names of 396 soldiers who had given their lives were dedicated by the Reverend H.P. Hyatt.
The time had come for the Council to elect a Committee to manage the park and on April 17th 1923 the following formed the first Parks Committee C.H. Pinson, G.H. Kidson, J.A. Harper, G.G. Evans, A. Aston, N. Marston, R. Hobley, J. Tyler, (all from the Council) and J.T. Kidson, G. Bellamy,J.H. Ash, M. Slater and G. Anslow were elected as non council members.
On May 1st a successful application was made by the council for permission to borrow a sum of £400 to lay out 5 red gra tennis courts with a small wooden pavilion for changing and on June 12th a set of Bye Laws for the Park was submitted to the Ministry for their approval and by August 14th these had been approved and the councils seal affixed. Nets and posts were also ordered for the tennis courts.
All was now set for the grand opening and on Saturday September 29th 1923 the realisation of a dream which had taken 6 years to bring to fruition was at hand. A procession formed up at the Town Hail and,accompanied by the local Member of Parliament Mr George R Thorne, made its way to the main gate of the Park in Pinson Road where Mr R. Tildesley, who presided over the proceedings, handed a souvenir key to MrT Kidson, the chairman of the Parks and War Memorial Committee who unlocked the gates and the assembly then moved to the bandstand where Mr Kidson formally declared the Park open. In his address he stated that the total amount raised by the committee was £10,043 and the total cost was £10,003. leaving a balance of £40 which had been used for the provision of seats for the bandstand, the base for which had been provided by Messrs Rowbotham (Birmingham) free of charge. Of the sum raised, £936 had been donated by the workers of Willenhall.
The tennis courts were afterwards opened with a match between teams selected by Councillors T.H.P. Hyatt and H.H. Griffiths.
Although the Park was now open to the public work still went on the enhance the beauty of the Park and also to see that it was used to the fullest extent for the benefit of the town. On May 6th 1924 it was announced that Band concerts would begin at the bandstand on a regular basis during the summer months. Since the opening of the Park a good deal of further levelling had been done and a natural amphitheatre formed round the bandstand which would accommodate a large concourse and enable everyone to hear and see. The two principal bands in the town would occupy the bandstand on at least three occasions each and the Salvation Army had indicated their willingness to give several concerts on Sunday afternoon. The concerts continued until 1954.
On December 20th 1924 Messrs Carvers Ltd Timber donated a large and small seat for the park and on April 8th 1924 the Council decided to erect Public Conveniences near the Pinson Road gate at a cost of £300. In 1925 Messrs J.A. Harper and R. Carter donated an ornamental drinking fountain near to the Dartmouth Avenue entrance.
The first Willenhall Carnival to be based in the park took place on Saturday September 4th 1926, proceeds to be in aid of the Willenhall Nursing Association. This was to be the first of many and in order that admission charges could be made to the park the council readily agreed that the park would be closed to the public at noon on that day.
In 1929 work began on the levelling of the Recreation Ground which was eventually completed in 1932 but it was not until the summer of 1936 that organised summer games were allowed on the field and not until September 1936 that the council allowed football to be played on it for the first time.
On March 30th 1933 Messrs A.M. Griffiths, a firm of builders who had benefited considerably from Willenhall's council house contracts offered to provide a shelter on the original children's Playground and later that year a bell was donated by another firm of local builders Messrs J. Hicken. For years the tolling of the bell told people that it was time to leave as the park was about to close. Also in 1933 further additions of birds for the aviary came from Messrs R. Ferry and T. Lewis.
In 1937 a new children's playground together with a Lido was laid out near the Pinson Road gate to replace the original playground which stood on the Noose Lane side of the Park. Money for this came from the Brighter Willenhall Carnivals which had been a feature in the Park since 1926.
On October l1th 1939 it was announced that Mr W.T. Bowlby, the Parks and Cemeteries Superintendent whose efforts had done much to bring about the creation of the Memorial Park, retired and was replaced by Mr J.A. Bullars who had previously occupied the post of Parks Foreman at Wakefield.
The Advent of the second World War brought further developments to a temporary standstill but a Day Nursery was erected adjoining the Children's Playground and this enabled children to be properly cared for in the daytime whilst their mothers went to work assisting the war effort in the local factories. In many cases fathers were away serving with the forces .
In the report on Derelict Land in the Black Country by S.H. Beaver issued by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in June 1945 the Park was commended as an example of pioneer development, as it was created on the site of one of the worst areas of derelict land in the district. It was quoted as one of the outstanding examples of what can be done to rid the Black Country of these undesirable features.
As part of their post war programme to continue with the development of the Park the Council converted the tennis courts from Red Gra to all weather and added a Bowling green and Putting green.. boats for the use of children were used for a time on the pool but this was not entirely successful and was abandoned The large pool on the Aston Road side of the Park known locally as The Devil was also filled in and the space used to create an additional football Pitch.
In December 1948 the Ministry of Health confirmed a Compulsory Purchase Order from the Council in order that the Park might he extended to the west as far as Noose Lane by the inclusion of some seventeen acres of additional land. it was the Council's intention, as soon as circumstances permitted, to develop the major part of this land to provide additional playing fields, at an estimated cost of £60,000 and it was originally hoped that facilities would be provided for cricket, football and netball as well as a running track and pavilion but they eventually had to settle for something less ambitious. The Park now covered a total area of about 50 acres.
On June 14th 1954 a was reported to the council that the bandstand was in a very dangerous condition with the roof trusses badly corroded and in September of that year the decision was made that the bandstand should be demolished. By now attendances at the band concerts which had been such a feature in the Park for many years had dwindled and no attempt was made to replace it.
In 1966 Willenhall ceased to exist under the Black Country Re-organisation with the majority becoming part of WalsaU who at the same time became responsible for the management of the Memorial Park. Since then a small portion of land once occupied by the railway track of the old Midland Railway Company together with its station have been landscaped and added to the Park and a new entrance created from Memorial Close.
The Memorial Park which was once the pride and joy of earlier generations of Willenhall townsfolk suffers today(1994) from vandalism by an uncaring generation and lack of funds to maintain and supervise it properly on the part of the Walsall Metropolitan Borough.
Since this article was first written a large grant from the National Lottery is helping to restore the Memorial Park to something of its former glory.
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Willenhall History Society Website 3.2.2008