A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
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As early as 1309 the charter granted by the lords of the manor to the burgesses of Walsall stipulated that the market-place should be kept clean. (fn. 1) By the 17th century the authorities were giving regular attention to the demands of public health. The corporation paid for the sweeping of the streets in the town. (fn. 2) Thoroughgoing measures were taken when plague threatened in 1636 and 1637. In November 1636 the Walsall justices issued orders to prevent it from spreading to their area. The constable of the borough was to appoint four warders every day from 'the better sort' of inhabitants to watch the various entrances to the town and keep out any traveller unable to prove that he had not come from an infected place. Similarly the constable of the foreign was to appoint two warders, one to act at Great Bloxwich and the other wherever the constable directed. Innkeepers and victuallers were not to lodge anyone unable to prove freedom from contact with infection. Carriers living in the borough and travelling to London were not to bring their horses and loads into the town, and warders were to be appointed to keep them out or else conduct them through the town with a minimum of danger; the constable was to ensure that carriers returning home stayed in their houses and received no visitors. (fn. 3) Similar orders were made for the borough in June 1637, and in July a Walsall shoemaker was prosecuted for fetching leather from an infected street in Birmingham. (fn. 4) At the same time a woman from plague-stricken Birmingham was paid to leave Walsall. (fn. 5) Orders of the same sort were made in August 1665 after it had been discovered that carriers were bringing people and goods from infected areas, being able to make large profits thereby; also a man had died in Walsall of the plague that month. The measures were evidently effective. In November it was noted in the parish register that there were few burials during the months when many thousands died of the plague in London. (fn. 6)
The growth of the town produced the usual sanitary problems. The main problem by the early 1840s was inadequate drainage, which resulted in accumulation of filth and stagnant water in the courts and alleys. Such public sewers as there were discharged into Walsall Brook. The town authorities employed two scavengers, who emptied the cesspools and about once a week cleaned the streets. The standard of housing was claimed to be superior to that of many industrial towns; there were few back-to-back houses and no cellar dwellings. The general health of the town was considered good; typhus and ague were rare, although pulmonary disease was common. (fn. 7) There were outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1849. (fn. 8)
The improvement commissioners established in 1848 laid down a system of sewerage in the 1850s; it covered only the central part of the town, however, leaving Bloxwich and the other outlying districts without sewers. (fn. 9) Though the new sewerage meant that the brook ceased to be a drain in the town centre, by the mid 1860s it was polluted instead by the refuse from tanneries and skin-dressing establishments. At that time too drainage was still a problem in the numerous courts, and one writer blamed the landlords for leaving so many of them without tapwater although a piped supply was then available. Nuisances were also caused by pig-keeping and by failure to empty soil-pits, at any rate at seasons when farmers were too busy to collect night-soil for manure. Typhoid fever was endemic. Although some of the bad areas to the north of the town centre had been improved after the 1849 cholera outbreak, the writer considered that the problems would be solved only when the inspector of nuisances, whose authority was limited, had been replaced by 'a thoroughly independent medical officer of health'. (fn. 10) In 1871 a medical officer was appointed. (fn. 11) At the time of the smallpox epidemic of 1872 the poor-law medical officer listed the local causes favouring the spread of an epidemic as defective sewerage and overcrowding in courts badly supplied with water, the great number of unvaccinated children, and the difficulty of isolating infectious cases. (fn. 12) The medical officer of health in his first report in 1871 also noted the widespread keeping of pigs in crowded parts of the town as an evil. (fn. 13)
In 1882 the corporation bought Brockhurst farm on the Wednesbury boundary and in 1884 opened a sewage farm there. (fn. 14) A new works was completed there in 1894 and another in 1914 with extensions in 1925. Two smaller works for the outlying parts of the borough had been opened by the beginning of the 20th century. One lay just over the north-eastern boundary south of Willenhall Lane and had been closed by the mid 1950s. The other was situated on the north-western boundary at Goscote; it was extended c. 1960 and again in the early 1970s. In 1966 control of the Brockhurst and Goscote works passed to the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority.
In 1882 the Walsall Health Society was established to spread knowledge of 'the Laws of Health' throughout the town and neighbourhood. The means proposed were lectures and classes, a library, publications, ambulance corps, and annual prizes. (fn. 15)
Under the 1824 Improvement Act many old buildings were removed to make room for new streets. (fn. 16) In the early 1850s dilapidated houses around the church were demolished as part of a general opening-up of the area. (fn. 17) In 1876 the corporation, as the urban sanitary authority, adopted the Artizans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 and proceeded with the rebuilding of the slum area around Townend Bank, 'peopled by the lowest and most depraved of the community'; 120 houses, with a population of 592, were demolished and replaced by new houses north of Blue Lane West. Other slum areas noted at that time were Peal Street, Church Street, Rushall Street, and Ryecroft Park (otherwise Ryecroft Street), but the medical officer of health considered that the Townend Bank area had the worst 'conglomeration of abominations' in the town. (fn. 18) By 1914 the corporation was considering a housing scheme, but it was not until after the Housing Act of 1919 that it in fact began to build. The first council house to be completed was in Blakenall Lane in 1920, and by 1939 nearly 8,000 council houses, flats, and bungalows had been built. Walsall was also the first borough in the country to provide small holdings for ex-servicemen after the First World War. In 1930 an extensive slum-clearance scheme was adopted, and by 1939 2,193 of the 3,030 unfit houses had been demolished and 10,912 people had been rehoused from unfit property. Building was resumed after the Second World War, and the 10,000th council house was opened in 1950 in Primley Avenue. (fn. 19) In the early 1950s the council started to build outside the borough with the extension of the Little Bloxwich estate into Pelsall. (fn. 20) By 1966 the council owned over 18,500 dwellings, including several estates of multi-storey flats. (fn. 21) Slum clearance too continued after the war. (fn. 22) Reclamation of derelict land was also undertaken. By 1953 580 a. of the 1,000 derelict acres existing in 1945 had been reclaimed and 2,200 houses and a number of schools and factories had been built there. Forty-four acres of low-lying ground had been reclaimed by controlled tipping. (fn. 23)
A well called Able Well, evidently near the junction of Ablewell and Rushall Streets, occurs in 1398-9; it probably existed at the beginning of the 14th century. (fn. 24) Official attention was being given to the town's water-supply by the 1630s. In 1637 the mayor paid a man 'for opening the pipes to let the water to the well in Rushall Street'. (fn. 25) It may have been Able Well, which was repaired in 1637-8, or the Ware Well, which was repaired in 1640-1 and was apparently situated near the junction of Lower Rushall Street and Ablewell Street where the name survives in Warewell Street. (fn. 26) A pump in Park Street was either installed or repaired in 1637-8. (fn. 27) In 1652-3 repairs were carried out to Heynes Well, presumably identifiable with Haynes's soft-water pump which stood at the south end of Ablewell Street in 1782. (fn. 28) Repairs were carried out to a pump 'under the hill', presumably at or near the top of High Street, in 1654-5. (fn. 29) A cistern mentioned in 1651 (fn. 30) may have had some connexion with the watersupply known as the town service which occurs in 1652-3; repairs were carried out then to the town service well and money was also spent on sinking a well and bringing water from it to the town service. The supply may have come from the springs on Vicarage Moor on the south-west of the town where new spouts were set up in 1663-4. (fn. 31)
In the later 1670s a new system of supply was constructed from Vicarage Moor. In 1676 the corporation commissioned a 'head of water house' there, with pipes to a cistern in High Street containing at least fourteen hogsheads of water and covered by a conduit-house. All or most of the work seems to have been carried out by 1677. The conduit was inscribed in gold letters and adorned with the town arms. (fn. 32) By 1782 the Vicarage Moor supply served High Street, Digbeth, Park Street, Rushall Street, and the northern end of Ablewell Street. (fn. 33) By 1830, however, the supply had become contaminated with gas, which was killing off frogs in the conduit. (fn. 34) In the mean time, at the beginning of the 19th century, the corporation had brought a supply of soft water to the town. (fn. 35) Under the Improvement Act of 1824 the public supply passed under the control of the improvement commissioners. (fn. 36)
It was claimed in the early 1840s that the town had an abundant supply of wholesome water; the Park Street area was an exception, its supply having been drained away by the near-by mines. There were eight or ten public pumps in the town, and there was a pump in most of the courts; the better-class houses each had their own pump. (fn. 37) By 1852 the drawing off of water by the mines had become more widespread and water was generally scarce. (fn. 38) Walsall came within the area supplied by the South Staffordshire Water Works Co., which opened its first works in 1858 at Lichfield with a reservoir at Moat Hill in Walsall south of Wolverhampton Road. It was not until 1875, however, that all the higher parts of the borough could be supplied. (fn. 39)
There was an alum well in the Moat Hill area. In 1855 it was stated to contain a strong chalybeate water and formerly to have been a place of much resort, although lately fallen into disuse. (fn. 40) Its memory is preserved in Alumwell Road running south from Wolverhampton Road. About 1680 Plot noted that the well water at the house of the mayor, John Cumberlege, was aluminous. (fn. 41)
Washing-places maintained by the corporation occur from 1640-1. (fn. 42) One at the Bridge is mentioned in 1689-90 when a washing-stock was set up there, (fn. 43) and by 1782 there was a wash-house south of the Bridge. (fn. 44)
In the early 1840s Walsall had no open bathingplace or public baths. It was an offence to bathe in the canal and also in the old limestone pits of the neighbourhood, which were dangerous; the brook and the mill-stream were too shallow, and in summer the former was usually stagnant as well. (fn. 45) In 1850 Thomas Gamson opened the Vicarage Water Baths in Dudley Street on a site facing the present Bath Street, which took its name from them. They were supplied with spring water and consisted of a swimming-bath and shower- and slipper-baths. (fn. 46) There were baths in Littleton Street West between at least the late 1860s and the mid 1890s, owned by Elias Crapper and after his death in 1885 by James Crapper. (fn. 47) In 1896 the corporation opened baths in what is now Tower Street, with Bailey & McConnal of Walsall as the architects. They were demolished in 1959 and the Gala Baths opened on the site in 1961. (fn. 48) There was an open-air swimming bath in the Arboretum from 1912 to 1956; a children's lido was opened there in 1953. (fn. 49) An open-air swimming bath was built at Bloxwich by the corporation in 1922 in what is now Field Close, and the following year slipper-baths were added. The establishment was converted into covered baths in 1932. (fn. 50) By 1931 there was an open-air pool in Reedswood Park, which was modernized in 1964; there is also a children's pool there. (fn. 51)
A Self-supporting, Charitable, and Parochial Dispensary was established in 1829, but after the formation of the poor-law union in 1836 it was closed because of the improved medical relief offered by the union. (fn. 52) There was a cholera hospital at Townend Bank in the 1830s, (fn. 53) but for general hospital treatment Walsall had to depend on Birmingham and Stafford until 1863. (fn. 54) In that year Walsall Cottage Hospital was opened in a converted shop in Bridge Street, with members of the Sisterhood of the Good Samaritan from Coatham in Kirkleatham (Yorks. N.R.) providing the nursing. (fn. 55) It was at this hospital that Sister Dora (Dorothy Pattison) worked from 1865 until 1878. (fn. 56) The hospital moved to the Mount, a villa in Wednesbury Road, in 1868. (fn. 57) A disastrous explosion at the Green Lanes Furnaces of the Walsall Iron Co. in 1875 drew attention to the inadequacy of the building, and in 1878 a new hospital was opened on the site of the Mount; it was designed by Henman, Harrison & Perrott of London. (fn. 58) It was initially an accident hospital, and it was not until 1894 that medical cases were admitted. (fn. 59) In that year the name was changed to Walsall and District Hospital; it became Walsall General Hospital in 1918 and Walsall General (Sister Dora) Hospital in 1954. (fn. 60)
Public agitation as a result of the smallpox epidemic of 1868 led the corporation to build an isolation hospital in Deadman's Lane (then changed to Hospital Street). It was opened in 1872 when Walsall was already suffering from another smallpox epidemic. During a new outbreak in 1875, however, it was not until Sister Dora took charge that people were willing to use the hospital, and it seems that only in that way was a further epidemic avoided. (fn. 61) It was reused during a smallpox epidemic in the 1890s and again during a diphtheria epidemic in 1924-5. (fn. 62) Meanwhile in 1900 a smallpox hospital was opened in Sneyd Lane, Bloxwich; it was retained until 1948. (fn. 63) The diphtheria epidemic emphasized the need for better accommodation, and in 1929-30 the council built an isolation hospital at Goscote; a tuberculosis sanatorium was opened there in 1933, and the hospital was again enlarged in 1936. From 1949 it dealt only with chest cases and with preconvalescent cases from other Walsall hospitals. The building of a geriatric unit was begun in 1973. (fn. 64)
The poor-law guardians opened an infirmary, designed by H. E. Lavender of Walsall, at the workhouse in Pleck Road in 1896. It was taken over by the corporation in 1930 as a general hospital and named Manor Hospital. The workhouse itself, which was renamed Beacon Lodge, became St. John's Hospital after the Walsall Hospital Management Committee was set up in 1948; it was subsequently developed as the geriatric unit of Manor Hospital. (fn. 65)
Bloxwich Maternity Home dates from 1929. It occupies the house on the corner of High and Reeves Streets previously called the Manor House and bought by the corporation from the Foster family in 1927. (fn. 66)
In 1751 the feoffees of the corporation lands and revenues conveyed 2¼ a. on the east side of the lane later called Bath Street to trustees for a burial ground. It was consecrated in 1756. (fn. 67) Its maintenance was a parish responsibility. (fn. 68) An inquiry in 1854 or 1855 revealed not only gross overcrowding but its use as 'a playground for children, a pasture for sheep, and a resort for dissolute characters, who actually converted the tombstones into gaming tables'. (fn. 69) It was closed in 1857 except for interments in vaults and brick graves, and completely in 1954. (fn. 70) It was subsequently laid out as a public garden.
By the mid 1850s too the graveyard at St. Matthew's was full and that at St. Peter's was waterlogged. (fn. 71) In 1857 the town council, having been constituted a burial board, opened a 13-acre cemetery, with separate chapels for Anglicans and Nonconformists, south-west of what is now the junction of Queen and Rollingmill Streets. (fn. 72) It became overcrowded, and in 1894 the corporation opened another cemetery of 28 a. at Ryecroft. Separate chapels were provided for Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Nonconformists, but as a result of Nonconformist pressure there was no religious distinction in any part of the burial ground. (fn. 73) By 1972 it covered 40 a. and was nearing its capacity. (fn. 74) A crematorium was established there in 1955. (fn. 75) With the opening of Ryecroft, Queen Street cemetery was closed for general burials. (fn. 76) It was closed completely in 1969, and in 1972 work began on its conversion into a public garden known as Sister Dora Garden; Sister Dora's grave was to be preserved. (fn. 77)
In the later Middle Ages the chief police officer of the borough seems to have been the bailiff. There is reference in 1455 to his staff 'used from of old for the keeping of the peace'. (fn. 80) He was apparently responsible for the enforcement of early-16thcentury ordinances against unlawful games and late 'sitters up'. (fn. 81) A borough constable occurs by 1377 and a foreign constable by 1458. (fn. 82) Serjeants were appointed in the borough court at Michaelmas by the early 16th century, (fn. 83) and two serjeants-at-mace were established by the 1627 charter. (fn. 84) In 1618 watchmen are mentioned. (fn. 85) During the plague threat of 1665 the watch was used to control access to the town at night, a separate system of warders being used during the day. (fn. 86)
Policing arrangements proved inadequate during Jacobite riots in 1715, 1750, and 1751 and during riots caused by economic distress later in the century; even the presence of troops in 1750 and 1751 was ineffective. (fn. 87) Supplementary measures were therefore taken. Deputy constables were sworn during food riots in 1766. (fn. 88) In 1767 the foreign vestry agreed that the cost of prosecutions for thefts committed within the foreign should be met out of the poor-rate; offenders had too often not been prosecuted by their victims because of the expense involved. (fn. 89) An association for the prosecution of felons was formed for the parish in 1771 (fn. 90) and another for the Bloxwich area in 1814. (fn. 91) In the winter of 1811 a patrol was formed for the town, apparently an attempt to revive the watch. The town was divided into six districts, each with a watch-house; the cost of equipment was met by the constable out of the poor-rate. (fn. 92) In October 1812 the court leet appointed sixteen deputy constables for the borough and eighteen for the foreign. (fn. 93) The Improvement Act of 1824 provided for a night watch, and watchmen were appointed in 1825 and 1826. They were discontinued, however, because the rate permitted was inadequate. The inhabitants of the main street in the town then raised a subscription to maintain a watch, but that scheme too was soon abandoned. (fn. 94) In December 1831, with the district in a disturbed state owing to a miners' strike, 600 special constables were enrolled. During the election of 1832 more were enrolled and troops were brought in on election day. In addition a permanent police force was established consisting of a superintendent and three officers. The corporation fitted up a building next to the churchyard as both a police station and a fire-engine house, but it was 'of a very inferior description', the cells in particular being unwholesome. (fn. 95) In 1836 the parish lock-up at Bloxwich was handed over to the police. (fn. 96) In the same year the watch committee ordered the appointment of extra police to serve on Sundays. (fn. 97) A new central police station was built in Goodall Street adjoining the guildhall in 1843. (fn. 98) It was replaced by a station in Green Lane in 1966. (fn. 99) Bloxwich police station was apparently at Short Heath in 1861 and in Harrison Street by the 1870s; a station was built as part of the public buildings in Station Street in 1882-4. (fn. 100) In 1966 the control of the borough force passed to the West Midlands Police Authority. (fn. 101)
The parish was maintaining a fire-engine by the later 18th century. At one time it was kept in the west porch of St. Matthew's, but by the 1790s an engine-house had been built near the lich-gate. (fn. 102) The Improvement Act of 1824 authorized the commissioners to provide a fire-engine. (fn. 103) The parish, however, continued to maintain its own 'engines', (fn. 104) and it was the corporation which in 1832 fitted up the fire-engine house by the churchyard. (fn. 105) In the early 1840s there were two engines in the town, one belonging to the Norwich Union Fire Office and kept in Lichfield Street, the other belonging to the Birmingham Fire Office and kept in premises on the corner of Bridge Street and the Bridge. (fn. 106) It was presumably because of such alternative arrangements that in 1840 the vestry had resolved to sell 'the parish engines' and engine-house; the building was demolished during the improvement of the area in 1852 and 1853. (fn. 107) The corporation formed a fire brigade in 1879, with its main station at the borough offices in Goodall Street and sub-stations at the police stations in Stafford Street and at Bloxwich; in 1888 the brigade was placed under the control of the chief constable. A central fire station was opened in 1930 in a converted tannery in Darwall Street. (fn. 108) It was replaced by a new station in Blue Lane West opened in 1974. (fn. 109)
In 1826 the improvement commissioners opened a gas-works on a site later covered by Arboretum Road. Designs for a roof 55 ft. long and 29 ft. in span, with members of cast and wrought iron, were prepared by J. U. Rastrick, the civil engineer, in 1825. (fn. 110) By 1848 the works could not meet the growing demand for gas, and under the Improvement Act of that year a new works was built by the commissioners in Wolverhampton Street in 1850. (fn. 111) In 1876 the corporation took over the interests of the commissioners and in 1877 those of the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Co. in the borough. (fn. 112) In 1877 it opened a works at Pleck. (fn. 113) The manufacture of gas was transferred to the new works, but the Wolverhampton Street works was still used as a storing station in 1895. (fn. 114) The commissioners leased the first works out at a large rent which enabled them to keep the improvement rates low, and in 1882 the council announced that the profits from the gasworks were such that there was no need for a borough rate. (fn. 115) With nationalization in 1949 the undertaking passed into the control of the West Midlands Gas Board. (fn. 116)
Under powers acquired in 1890 the corporation launched an electricity undertaking in 1895, with a generating station on part of the gas-works site in Wolverhampton Street. (fn. 117) A new power station was built at Birchills in 1914-16. (fn. 118) It was transferred to the West Midlands Joint Electricity Authority in 1927 and quickly extended; the corporation, however, continued to distribute current. (fn. 119) In 1948 the undertaking passed into the control of the Midlands Electricity Board. A new power station was opened at Birchills in 1949. (fn. 120)
In his will of 1550 Richard Stone left money for the repair of 'foul ways about Walsall'. (fn. 121) In 1552 or 1553 one of the bells at the church was broken and was sold with the consent of the parishioners 'to the amendment of divers bridges and highways about their town which were very noisome to the king's people passing that way'. (fn. 122) Walsall was one of five places ordered by quarter sessions in 1587 to repair thier common ways. (fn. 123) The bequests of William Parker (d. 1616) included £150 for the repair of the roads in Walsall, Bloxwich, and Rushall, the inhabitants of each place having the right to decide how their £50 should be spent. (fn. 124) Soon after the grant of the charter in 1627 the new corporation tried to secure exemption from county rates for the maintenance of bridges, having twelve of its own to repair. The county quarter sessions granted exemption in 1664 on the ground that the corporation was 'at very great charges' in repairing bridges and highways within the borough and foreign. (fn. 125)
With the opening of the railway a 'light van' was introduced to convey passengers between the station and the George. (fn. 126) In 1884 the South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Steam Tramways Co. Ltd. introduced tram services from Wednesbury and Darlaston to Pleck and thence through Walsall to Mellish Road; there was also a service from Walsall to Bloxwich, and a depot was built at Birchills. (fn. 127) The routes were electrified in 1892, Walsall being one of the first towns in the country to have electric trams; the public service was opened at the beginning of 1893. The undertaking passed under the control of the British Electric Traction Co. Ltd. in 1897 and of Walsall corporation in 1901; it continued to be leased to an operating company until 1903. The Bloxwich line was extended to the end of High Street in 1902, and in 1904 new lines were opened from the centre of Walsall to Willenhall, to Walsall Wood, and along Birmingham Road to the borough boundary. Motor buses were introduced by the corporation from 1915, the first being from Bloxwich to Hednesford in Cannock. In 1928 buses began to replace trams, and the last tram ran in 1933, on the Bloxwich route. The central bus station in St. Paul's Street on the site of the former Blue Coat School was opened in 1935; offices were opened there in 1937. Trolley buses were introduced in 1931, from Townend Bank to Willenhall, and a full service throughout the borough came into operation in 1933. The Birchills tram depot was converted for the new form of transport. Trolley buses were withdrawn in favour of motor buses in stages between 1965 and 1970. The corporation transport undertaking passed to the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive in 1969.
By 1767 there was a post office in Digbeth, and by 1780 it was in Rushall Street. About 1800 it moved to the Bridge. There were several more moves during the 19th century before a general post office was opened on the corner of Darwall and Leicester Streets in 1879. The present general post office on the opposite side of Darwall Street was opened in 1928. (fn. 128) Bloxwich was on the route of a horse-mail between Walsall, Cannock, and Penkridge established in 1829. (fn. 129) There was a post office at Bloxwich by 1851; the post office opened in High Street in 1898 was replaced in 1972 by one in New Street. (fn. 130)
Parks and libraries are treated elsewhere. (fn. 131)