A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
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Walsall early became the meeting point of several roads—from Lichfield, Sutton Coldfield (Warws.), Birmingham, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Darlaston, Wolverhampton, and Stafford via Bloxwich. Until the 18th century, however, national traffic routes avoided the area. By the 1740s Walsall's importance as a manufacturing centre, the fact that heavy traffic was making local roads ruinous and dangerous, and the rise in the cost of carriage of goods all led to a demand for improved roads. In 1748, in response to a petition from Wolverhampton 'and places adjacent', the first turnpike Act affecting Walsall was passed, dealing with part of the road to Birmingham and with the roads to Sutton Coldfield and to Wolverhampton and beyond. (fn. 1) Nearly all the main roads were turnpiked before the end of the century; they were disturnpiked in 1870. (fn. 2)
The road from Walsall to Rushall, Walsall Wood, and Lichfield probably existed by the earlier 13th century; it was mentioned by name in the early 14th century. (fn. 3) Until the construction of Lichfield Street in the early 1830s the road left the town along Rushall Street and what is now Ward Street. (fn. 4) It was turnpiked in 1766 as far as Muckley Corner (in Pipehill, in St. Michael's, Lichfield) on Watling Street. (fn. 5) By the early 19th century there was a tollgate (Butts gate) at the junction with Butts Street, but it was moved c. 1840 to the bigger road junction to the north-east. (fn. 6)
The road to Sutton Coldfield, which occurs in 1349, linked the town with the London-Chester road on Sutton Coldfield Common and so was the way from Walsall to London. (fn. 7) The causeway from Wood End to the church, on which work was carried out in 1692, was presumably part of the road; the work included the setting up of posts, rails, and turnstiles to keep horses off. (fn. 8) The stretch from Walsall to Sutton Coldfield Common was turnpiked in 1748. Turnpiking was discontinued in 1772, but the road was again turnpiked in 1788. (fn. 9) A toll-gate was erected at the junction with the Birmingham road under the Act of 1748, the only gate which the Act allowed in the parishes of Walsall and Aldridge. Known as the Birmingham gate by 1824, it was still in use in the earlier 1840s but was subsequently replaced by gates further along the two roads. (fn. 10) The course of the Sutton road was realigned between the World Wars. (fn. 11)
The road to Birmingham occurs in the early 14th century and was probably in use by the mid 13th century. (fn. 12) It ran to Great Barr in Aldridge and then continued via Hamstead and Handsworth to the Birmingham-Wolverhampton road at Soho Hill. (fn. 13) The stretch to Great Barr was turnpiked from 1748 to 1772. (fn. 14) The stretch to Hamstead was turnpiked in 1788, and the straight course along Birmingham Road replacing the curving line along Jesson Road and along Park Hall and Lonsdale Roads apparently dates from about that time. (fn. 15) The continuation to Soho Hill was turnpiked in 1809. (fn. 16) As mentioned above, there were successive toll-gates at the junction with the Sutton road and near the present junction with Broadway.
The road to West Bromwich via Fullbrook apparently existed in the later Middle Ages since Tame Bridge carrying it over the West Bromwich boundary existed then; and it was a Walsall man, Thomas Mollesley, who left money for building a new bridge there in 1452. (fn. 17) The road left Walsall along New Street, Sandwell Street, and West Bromwich Road. (fn. 18) The present route via Caldmore along Corporation Street West and West Bromwich Street was in use by the 1880s. (fn. 19)
The roads to Wednesbury and Darlaston, which follow the same route as far as Pleck, were sufficiently important in the Middle Ages to have bridges carrying them over Park Brook. (fn. 20) Until the opening of Bradford Street in 1831 the route from the town centre was along Peal Street, Dudley Street, and Vicarage Place, (fn. 21) and it was presumably that road which occurs in 1355 as the highway running through Caldmore to the walk-mill. (fn. 22) The Wednesbury and Darlaston roads were turnpiked in 1766 along with the present Pleck Road, which runs from the point where the two roads diverge north to the Wolverhampton road. (fn. 23)
The road from Walsall to Stafford, crossing Watling Street at Churchbridge in Cannock, originally ran through Little Bloxwich. It is said to have continued via Fishley to Great Wyrley, but there is evidence of a route via Yieldfields, where a road called Stafford way is mentioned in 1576 and 1617. (fn. 26) The road was turnpiked in 1766, and its course was then altered to run through Great Bloxwich. (fn. 27) By the early 19th century there was a toll-gate at the junction with what are now Blue Lane East and Portland Street; it was known as the Flax-oven Gate by 1824. About the mid 1840s it was moved north to cover the junction with Deadman's Lane (now Hospital Street) and Proffitt Street but continued to be known as the Flax-oven Gate. A second gate had been erected by 1816 on the Bloxwich side of the junction of Green Lane and Bloxwich Road. (fn. 28) Green Lane forms an alternative route to Bloxwich via Birchills; Somerfield Road, which forms the direct route into Bloxwich from the cross-roads at Leamore Lane, dates from the later 1920s. (fn. 29)
Other old roads crossed the parish missing the town centre. One, which occurs in 1591, ran north of the town to Rushall mill, from the Wolverhampton road along Blue Lane, Portland Street, Butts Road, and Mill Lane. In 1593 the stretch between Walsall Park and Wombridge Ford was declared to be impassable in winter and the inhabitants of the foreign were ordered by quarter sessions to repair it. (fn. 30) Another road ran north from the Darlaston road at James Bridge and over the Wolverhampton road to Bloxwich, following approximately the line of the present Bentley Mill Lane, Bloxwich Lane, and Fryer's Road; (fn. 31) the road to Harden that runs from Bloxwich Lane along Leamore Lane and Harden Road evidently existed by the later 16th century. (fn. 32) The road from Leamore to Goscote via Blakenall Heath, along the present Blakenall Lane and Green Rock Lane, occurs c. 1300. (fn. 33) The lane running from Harden to Goscote (now Well Lane) occurs in 1544. (fn. 34) It was presumably part of the high road from Harden to Pelsall mentioned in 1509. (fn. 35) The road from Wolverhampton to Lichfield via Wednesfield and Brownhills runs through Bloxwich, crossing Sneyd Brook at Sneyd bridge, which existed by the later 16th century; it was presumably the 'Wulvernewey' which occurs in the northwestern part of Bloxwich c. 1300. The section east from Little Bloxwich was mentioned in 1634. The road was turnpiked in 1748 and disturnpiked in 1772. (fn. 36) The road from Great Bloxwich to Hilton via Essington Wood occurs in 1576 and was presumably the present Broad Lane; (fn. 37) it was turnpiked in 1766 and disturnpiked in 1830. (fn. 38)
Several road improvements were carried out in the 1920s, largely to provide work for the unemployed. (fn. 39) The most important was the construction of the Broadway ring-road to the east and south of the town centre, incorporating Denmark and Foden Roads by the Arboretum and continuing to Wallows Lane at Bescot. It was completed in 1929. It was originally called the Ring Road, but with the extension of the borough in 1931 that name was felt to be inappropriate and it was changed to Broadway. (fn. 40)
The south-western part of the pre-1966 borough is crossed by the M6 motorway. The stretch as far south as Bescot was opened in 1968 as part of the extension of the motorway south from Dunston. Its continuation into West Bromwich where it joins the M5 was opened in 1970. (fn. 41)
During the later 18th century the improvement of the roads brought a great increase in traffic, and several coaching inns were opened. By 1754 a coach between Wolverhampton and London passed through Walsall, leaving Wolverhampton on Mondays and London on Thursdays; it called at the Three Swans in Walsall. (fn. 42) At the end of 1757 it was announced that the post would pass through the town three times a week. (fn. 43) The Shrewsbury Machine between Shrewsbury and London called at Walsall by 1769, (fn. 44) and two years later a wagon plying between Shrewsbury and Coventry and taking passengers as well as parcels was calling at the Angel in Park Street. (fn. 45) From 1771 there was also a fly between Shrewsbury and Birmingham which called at the Castle. (fn. 46) The New Inn in Park Street just north of the Bridge was advertised for letting in 1774; 'newly erected and complete', it was described as 'conveniently situated for the reception of noblemen and gentlemen travelling through Walsall', and its business was increasing daily now that various turnpike roads had been 'made exceeding good'. (fn. 47) By 1780 Walsall was on the route of a London-Birmingham-Holyhead coach. (fn. 48) The George at the junction of Digbeth and Bridge Street was built in 1781 by Thomas Fletcher, who until then had been at the Dragon in High Street. It became the main coaching inn of the town, and in 1834 it was claimed that 'its internal arrangements and its external appearance rank second to none in the county'. It was particularly distinguished by its pillared portico, which was erected in 1823; this was brought from Fisherwick Hall, demolished some years before. An assembly-room had been added in 1793. (fn. 49) The building was bought by the corporation in 1927 and demolished in 1934. A new George hotel was opened on the same site in 1935 and closed in the early 1970s. (fn. 50) In Bloxwich, with the diversion of the road north to run through Great Bloxwich instead of Little Bloxwich after its turnpiking in 1766, the coaching trade enjoyed by the King William inn at Little Bloxwich passed to the King's Arms at Wallington Heath (later the convent of St. Paul of Chartres). (fn. 51) The coming of the railway to Bescot in 1837 killed most of Walsall's coaching trade. In 1841, however, there were still coaches to Birmingham from the George, while omnibuses ran to Birmingham and Wolverhampton from the George and the Three Cups. (fn. 52)
The bridge carrying the thoroughfare between Digbeth and Park Street over Walsall Brook occurs c. 1300 as the bridge of the town of Walsall. (fn. 53) It was described as a stone bridge in 1618, (fn. 54) but in 1724 over 3,000 bricks were bought for it. (fn. 55) A map of 1763 shows eight arches. (fn. 56) Although the corporation was still paying for its repair in 1824, (fn. 57) it had become a county responsibility by 1830 when Lord Bradford was given permission by the county quarter sessions to alter it at his own expense under the direction of the county surveyor as part of the improvements then being carried out in the area. (fn. 58) Although the structure still exists, it had been covered over by the 1870s. (fn. 59) It may be identifiable with Old Mill bridge which also occurs as a corporation responsibility in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (fn. 60) Another bridge was built to the north in the mid 1820s, a balustraded structure carrying the new St. Paul's Street over the brook. (fn. 61) It too disappeared with the building up of the area. (fn. 62)
There were two bridges carrying the road to Wednesbury and Darlaston over Walsall Brook and the mill fleam near the New Mills. Walk Mill bridge, apparently on Walsall Brook, occurs between 1603 and 1677 and was a corporation responsibility. (fn. 63) New Mill bridge occurs regularly in the corporation accounts from 1641 until the beginning of the 18th century, but it was subsequently rebuilt by either the county or the turnpike trustees and ceased to be a corporation responsibility. (fn. 64)
There were several early bridges over Sneyd (or Bentley) Brook on the western boundary. Sneyd bridge on the Wolverhampton-Lichfield road occurs in 1576 and 1617. (fn. 65) Park bridge on the WalsallWolverhampton road occurs in the early 19th century; (fn. 66) the site is now covered by a motorway access point. James Bridge on the Walsall-Darlaston road existed by the 1330s, and an abbot of Halesowen gave land in West Bromwich for its maintenance. (fn. 67) By 1625 it was a stone bridge maintained by the corporation, but by 1825 it was a county responsibility. (fn. 68) The lower part of the north side of the present structure probably dates from the early 19th century; it was widened southwards early in the 20th century. (fn. 69) Bescot bridge on the Walsall-Wednesbury road occurs c. 1300. (fn. 70) By 1825 it too was a county responsibility. (fn. 71) The site is now covered by a motorway access point. It may be identifiable with the Wednesbury bridge for which the corporation was responsible by 1657. (fn. 72)
Fullbrook bridge which carries the road from Walsall to West Bromwich over Full Brook on the southern boundary existed by the earlier 19th century and was then maintained by the corporation. In 1863 the county quarter sessions ordered that it should be repaired and added to the list of county bridges. (fn. 73)
The place-name 'Yolebruge' which occurs in the earlier 13th century may refer to a bridge carrying the old road to Lichfield over the Holbrook near what is now the centre of the Arboretum. (fn. 74) A bridge there was evidently maintained by the borough in the early 19th century. (fn. 75)
After the failure of plans to build a canal to Walsall in the 1770s and 1780s (fn. 76) the branch of the Birmingham Canal between Ryders Green in West Bromwich and Broadwaters in Wednesbury was extended to Walsall in 1799 under an Act of 1794. It ended at a wharf in Marsh Lane near Townend Bank. (fn. 77) A tramway between the wharf and John Walhouse's limestone quarries on the Rushall boundary was built in 1823; by at least 1832 it also served the quarries at Daw End in Rushall. (fn. 78)
The 1790s also saw the building of the Wyrley and Essington Canal, opened in 1797 from the Birmingham Canal at Wolverhampton to the Trent and Mersey Canal near Lichfield under Acts of 1792 and 1794. (fn. 79) It loops through the Bloxwich area. A branch to Birchills was built about the same time. It was little used after the opening of the Walsall branch of the Birmingham Canal in 1799, and c. 1800 it was dammed off and left dry. (fn. 80) It was evidently in use again by 1819, (fn. 81) and by 1832 it was linked to a limeworks at Shaw's Leasowes by a tramway. There were also tramways between local works and the Wyrley and Essington Canal in the Birchills area. (fn. 82) From 1825 there were various schemes for a junction between the Birchills branch and the Walsall branch of the Birmingham Canal, and a link was built in 1840-1 consisting of a flight of eight locks. (fn. 83)
Two other branches of the Wyrley and Essington Canal were built c. 1800, the so-called Lord Hay's branch from Fishley to the Lords Hay coal pits in Essington and the Daw End branch from Catshill Junction in Walsall Wood to the Hay Head limestone quarries. The Lord Hay's branch was abandoned in 1930, and the Hay Head end of the Daw End branch had become disused by 1939; both were filled in under an Act of 1954. (fn. 84) In 1847 the Rushall Canal was opened from the Daw End branch at Longwood Junction south to the Tame Valley Canal, completing Walsall's canal system. (fn. 85)
When the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Warrington was opened in 1837 a station was provided at Bescot Bridge (also known as Walsall station) on the Wednesbury road near the borough boundary. A branch to Walsall had been planned but was not built; instead a 'light van' conveyed passengers between the station and the George hotel in the centre of the town. Bescot Bridge was closed in 1850, but in 1881 Wood Green station was opened on the site; it was closed in 1941. (fn. 86)
The railway came to the centre of Walsall in 1847 when the first part of the South Staffordshire Railway was opened from Bescot. A station was opened in Bridgeman Place but was replaced in 1849 by a new one in Station Street. The 1849 building, which is in a Jacobean style, still forms part of Walsall station, but a booking hall was opened in Park Street in 1884. It was burnt down in 1916, rebuilt, and reopened in 1923. (fn. 87)
New lines and new stations continued to be built until the 1880s. In 1849 the South Staffordshire line was extended north-east to the Midland Railway at Wychnor, and Rushall station was opened on the Walsall boundary in Station Road; it was closed in 1909. (fn. 88) A branch was opened from Ryecroft Junction to Cannock in 1858 and extended to Rugeley in 1859; in 1858 stations were opened at Birchills and Bloxwich. Birchills became a halt in 1909 and was closed in 1916; Bloxwich was closed in 1965. (fn. 89) The Wolverhampton & Walsall Railway was opened in 1872 with a station, North Walsall, in Bloxwich Road and was extended east as the Wolverhampton, Walsall & Midland Junction Railway in 1879. North Walsall was closed in 1925. (fn. 90) As a result of the extension Cooks opened an office in Walsall in 1879 to provide excursions. (fn. 91) In 1881 a loop was opened from the South Staffordshire line at Pleck Junction to the Grand Junction line at James Bridge with a station, Pleck, in Bescot Road. Pleck was closed from 1917 to 1924 and again for passengers in 1958. (fn. 92) The closing of Bloxwich in 1965 left Walsall station as the only one in the borough, and by then, as a result of the Beeching Report of 1963, there were passenger services to Birmingham only. (fn. 93)
The corporation established a municipal airfield in 1935 just beyond the borough boundary in Rushall and Aldridge. (fn. 94) It was licensed for public use the following year. In 1938 a newly built factory on part of the airfield was leased to Helliwells Ltd., a firm making aircraft components, and an additional lease was granted to Helliwells School of Flying Ltd. in 1943. The airfield was closed in the late 1940s.