A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
OFFLOW HUNDRED (part) WEST BROMWICH
The Growth of the Town, p. 4; Communications, p. 11; Manors, p. 14; Other Estates, p. 20; Economic History, p. 27; Local Government, p. 43; Public Services, p. 46; Parliamentary History, p. 50; Churches, p. 50; Roman Catholicism, p. 60; Protestant Nonconformity, p. 61; Hindus, p. 70; Social Life, p. 70; Education, p. 74; Charities for the Poor, p. 83.
WEST BROMWICH, (fn. 1) lying immediately north-west of Birmingham, was an ancient parish which became a borough in 1882 and a county borough in 1889. It was made part of the metropolitan borough of Sandwell in 1974. (fn. 2) The ancient parish and the original borough were 5,851 a. in area. (fn. 3) An adjustment of the boundary with Smethwick in 1897 added 8 a. (fn. 4) In 1928 645 a. at Hamstead were added from the urban district of Perry Barr. In 1931 332 a. at the Delves were added from the borough of Wednesbury and 727 a. from the civil parish of Great Barr; 371 a. were transferred to Wednesbury and a small area at Bescot to the borough of Walsall. The changes left West Bromwich with an increased area of 7,180 a. (fn. 5) In 1966 the borough was extended to 11,704 a. by the inclusion of most of the boroughs of Tipton and Wednesbury and by various boundary adjustments. (fn. 6) The present article is concerned primarily with the history of the area covered by the ancient parish of West Bromwich. Some account of the areas added before 1966 is given from the time of their addition. The earlier history of the Hamstead portion of Handsworth ancient parish added to West Bromwich in 1928 is narrated elsewhere; (fn. 7) otherwise the history of all new areas is reserved for treatment in future volumes of the Staffordshire History.
The ancient parish of West Bromwich has been described as 'a kind of peninsula' formed by a loop of the head-waters of the Tame. (fn. 8) The boundary was the Tame on the south-west, west, north, and north-east. On the south-east the boundary followed Park Lane and then Spon Brook to Bromford where the brook enters the Tame. (fn. 9) The area lies at the northern end of the low plateau which itself forms part of the South Staffordshire Plateau and extends southwards to Birmingham and the Rea valley. (fn. 10) The central part of the town lies around the 525-foot contour, reaching 568 ft. at the junction of Beeches Road and Thynne Street. Two spurs run from this high ground, one northwards to All Saints' Church and Stone Cross, one north-westwards to Hill Top. Between the two ridges flows Hobnail Brook, which was called Hobbins Brook in the late 17th century; (fn. 11) it rises near Hall End and enters the Tame below Hydes Bridge. On the eastern side of the ancient parish the land slopes down to 348 ft. at Forge Mill Farm. (fn. 12) The landscape is now mainly urban, but the south-eastern part of the area remains open country, though crossed by the M5 motorway.
West Bromwich is situated on the Coal Measures and straddles the exposed and concealed sections of the South Staffordshire coalfield. The northern and western parts of the ancient parish consist of Carboniferous shales and marls respectively. The southeastern part of the parish is beyond the coalfield's Eastern Boundary Fault, and there Carboniferous red sandstone overlies the Coal Measures. As a result it was the western part that became more heavily industrialized from the earlier 19th century. (fn. 13) Over the central high ground the drift consists of boulder clay, the western and eastern sides of the parish being largely shales and marls. There is sand and gravel around Greets Green and New Town. Along the Tame and Hobnail Brook the soil is alluvial. (fn. 14)
The settlement was originally known as Brom wich, a name in use by the time of Domesday Book and suggesting a village where broom grew. It was becoming known as West Bromwich by the early 14th century, probably to distinguish it from Castle Bromwich and Little Bromwich, both in Aston (Warws.). (fn. 15) The inhabitants of West Bromwich are traditionally known as 'throstles'. The name is said to derive from the 'numberless donkeys who browsed upon the open common lands and whose discordant bray was thus satirically alluded to under the name of the sweet-voiced thrush'. (fn. 16)
Before the later 18th century West Bromwich was thinly populated and rural; from the 16th century the iron industry was developing, and domestic nailing in particular was added to agrarian pursuits. The main settlement was at Lyndon to the south of the parish church, although the manor-house stood about a mile north-west of the church. There was also a medieval settlement at Finchpath by the river-crossing into Wednesbury; this eventually spread southwards up to Hill Top. Otherwise settlement in the parish consisted of small groups of cottages, or 'ends', around the Heath which extended south-west from Lyndon across the main Birmingham-Wolverhampton road; numerous cottages occur in 1723 as encroachments on the Heath. (fn. 17) There was also some settlement in the CharlemontWigmore area. (fn. 18) Sandwell in the south-east of the parish was the site of a small monastery in the Middle Ages and the home of the earls of Dartmouth in the 18th and earlier 19th centuries. (fn. 19) In the later 18th century the Heath, eventually the site of the new town, was still 'a warren full of rabbits and a long black common, intercepting the intercourse with Birmingham by a green sea of moor and barrenness'. (fn. 20) Nevertheless encroachment was continuing, notably on its eastern side. (fn. 21)
The population was small as well as scattered. In 1086 there were 10 villeins and 3 bordars. (fn. 22) There were 172 poll-tax payers in 1377 (fn. 23) and 116 households in 1563. (fn. 24) The Protestation Returns of 1642 were signed by 398 men in West Bromwich. (fn. 25) In 1666 194 people were chargeable for hearth tax and 117 were exempt. (fn. 26) In the 18th century the growth of the iron industry caused a large rise in population. (fn. 27) By 1773 there were just under 1,200 houses in the parish, (fn. 28) and in 1801 the population numbered 5,687. (fn. 29)
The Heath was inclosed in 1804, and by about 1820 it was becoming the new centre of West Bromwich. (fn. 30) The population of the parish had risen to 9,505 by 1821, (fn. 31) and in the next few years the rapid growth of mining and the iron industry led to an even greater increase. It was estimated that by 1829 the population had increased some 50 per cent to over 14,000, (fn. 32) and it had reached 15,327 in 1831, 26,121 in 1841, and 34,591 in 1851. (fn. 33) 'What a town of a place this West Bromwich is!' wrote a visitor in 1828. (fn. 34) In fact he exaggerated the extent of the development. In the early 1840s an observer commented that a town of West Bromwich hardly existed since the population was distributed in groups over the western side of the parish. (fn. 35) David Christie Murray described West Bromwich about the time of his birth in 1847 as 'a rather doleful hybrid of a place—neither town nor country'. (fn. 36) Another writer, recalling the mid 1850s, stated that the population was 'sparingly and irregularly distributed, or grouped in certain areas into colonies or rookeries, without any sort of arrangement or sanitary consideration whatever'. (fn. 37) Nonetheless West Bromwich in the mid 19th century was for many a very desirable place in which to live—'a West-end suburb' for 'the retired and thriven iron and coal masters, carriers, and factors of the Mining District which surrounds it'. (fn. 38) At the same time there was much poverty, and many small tenants were unable to pay rates. (fn. 39)
In 1901 the population of the borough numbered 65,175. (fn. 40) The enlarged borough had a population of 81,303 in 1931 (fn. 41) and 96,041 in 1961. (fn. 42) From the later 1950s many immigrants, mainly Jamaicans and Indians, were settling in West Bromwich, particularly in the Beeches Road, Lodge Road, and Spon Lane areas in the south of the borough; in 1961 the population included 1,132 people born in Jamaica and 128 born in other Caribbean territories, 677 born in India, and 146 born in Pakistan. (fn. 43) The landscape has changed considerably in the 20th century, notably with the building of large housing estates since 1919 on derelict industrial land as well as in open country; the 1960s saw extensive redevelopment, old housing and factories giving way to new.
Notable people connected with the town include two holders of the manorial estate, Sir Richard Shelton, solicitor-general from 1625 to 1634, and Dr. Walter Needham, the 17th-century physician and anatomist. (fn. 44) Two of the incumbents, Edward Stillingfleet (1757-82) and William Jesse (17901814), were notable Evangelicals. (fn. 45) The Legge family was the leading local family for a century and a half after William Legge, Baron Dartmouth, bought the Sandwell estate in 1701. Lord Dartmouth, a Tory statesman during Queen Anne's reign who was created earl of Dartmouth in 1711, retired from political life after the accession of George I in 1714; he died in 1750. (fn. 46) His grandson the 2nd earl (d. 1801) was a prominent statesman under George III and was noted for his Evangelical piety. (fn. 47) Augustus Legge, the fifth son of the 4th earl of Dartmouth and bishop of Lichfield from 1891 to 1913, was born at Sandwell Hall in 1839. He left a request that if he was no longer bishop of Lichfield when he died, he should be buried at All Saints', West Bromwich. In the event he died as bishop and was buried in the Close at Lichfield. (fn. 48)
Other noteworthy natives of West Bromwich are Walter Parsons, the giant blacksmith who became porter to James I; (fn. 49) John Blackham (1834-1923), founder of the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon movement; (fn. 50) the brothers David Christie Murray (1847 1907) and Henry Murray (1859-1937), novelists; (fn. 51) and Madeleine Carroll (born 1906), film actress. (fn. 52) Francis Asbury (1745-1816), 'the John Wesley of the Western World', (fn. 53) was born at Hamstead in Handsworth but spent his early years at Newton; the cottage where he lived is preserved as a museum. He was a Methodist class leader in West Bromwich. He went to America in 1771 and in 1784 was made one of the two superintendents, or bishops, of the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States of America. (fn. 54)
James Keir (1735-1820), chemist and industrialist, settled in the Midlands after serving in the army during the Seven Years War. He lived at Finchpath Hall at Hill Top from 1770 and was buried at All Saints' in 1820. (fn. 55) James Eaton (1785-1857) served in the Téméraire at the battle of Trafalgar and, as signal midshipman, repeated Nelson's message to the fleet. He had settled in West Bromwich by 1837, and by 1839 he was living at Hill House, where he died. For a few years in the early 1840s he owned an interest in the Heath Colliery Co. (fn. 56) John Bedford (1810-79), president (1867) of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference, was minister at the High Street chapel from 1846 to 1849. (fn. 57)