A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 11, Telford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1985.
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SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ACTIVITIES.
From the late 18th century Wellington town shared some of the social advantages of the county's ancient boroughs and had no rival in the country between Shrewsbury and Newport. On the eve of the First World War its attractions probably equalled those of many small market towns. In the mid 20th century, however, the urban district council did not respond readily to pressure for increased and improved public leisure facilities. (fn. 1) Only with the creation of Telford in 1968 and Wrekin district in 1974 did it become likely that considerable public money would eventually be spent on cultural and social amenities.
Seventeen Wellington alesellers were licensed in 1615 and one at Leegomery. (fn. 2) In 1753 there were forty, concentrated in the town and on Watling Street. By 1822 numbers had fallen, (fn. 3) but after the Beer Act, 1830, (fn. 4) beer retailers proliferated. There were thirty in 1856 (twelve in New Street) as well as thirty public houses and inns. (fn. 5) Numbers were not reduced (fn. 6) before the Licensing Act, 1904. (fn. 7) In 1982 there were c. 25 public houses and licensed hotels in the town and one at Walcot. (fn. 8) In the 16th and 17th centuries cards, shovelboard, and nineholes were played (fn. 9) and cock fighting continued until the 19th century, but cruel sports did not flourish as in the coalfield. (fn. 10) Bowls were popular by the 1840s. (fn. 11)
Outdoor recreation was not highly organized before the 19th century. Hunting took place on the Wrekin in the 15th century (fn. 12) and a fox hunt occurred near Wellington in 1759. (fn. 13) The main annual events for the working class were the Wrekin wakes on the first four Sundays in May; traditionally they ended in a hilltop battle. In the early 19th century they were discouraged by the magistrates and died out. (fn. 14) Wellington had a wake on All Saints' Day (1 November), if a Sunday, or the Sunday following, (fn. 15) and there was another at Walcot in the 17th century. (fn. 16) In the 1770s an annual Whit Monday 'jubilee' was held in the town with an open-air breakfast, a pageant, and an assembly or ball. (fn. 17)
By the 1840s there were race meetings for a time and a cricket club. (fn. 18) In 1856 the old rowdy sports seemed 'unworthy of the enlightenment of the age' and the 1861 Shropshire Olympian Games, held at Wellington, consisted chiefly of serious athletics. (fn. 19) In 1874 Wellington Horticultural Society (founded 1850) (fn. 20) began its annual show and athletic sports. (fn. 21) Wellington Town football club, formed in 1879, had professional players and its own ground by the 1920s. (fn. 22) It was renamed Telford United in 1969. (fn. 23) Wellington (late Wrekin) Golf Club had a course at Steeraway until 1909, when it opened one at the Ercall. (fn. 24) After the Second World War there were clubs for most outdoor sports. (fn. 25)
Although no public recreation ground existed before the 20th century, the Wrekin was much frequented (fn. 26) and the grounds of neighbouring mansions were available for outdoor events. (fn. 27) In the town the Green (or Bowling Green) was used for open-air gatherings in the 1770s (fn. 28) and still in 1854. (fn. 29) In 1910 J. C. Bowring's widow left land in Haygate Road for a recreation ground in his memory and the U.D.C. became its trustees in 1926. (fn. 30) The council, jointly with other authorities, bought recreational land on the Ercall in 1939, (fn. 31) and in 1945 J. T. M. Johnston gave Limekiln Wood to the urban and rural district councils jointly. (fn. 32) The U.D.C. was given a playing field in Orleton Lane in 1949 (fn. 33) and by 1981 Wrekin district council had several other open spaces in the parish. (fn. 34)
There was a corps of the Shropshire Volunteer Infantry by 1795. Called the Wellington Fencibles, their successors were disbanded in 1816. A Wellington troop of the Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry was formed in 1795 and it served continuously in various forms until 1914. A second troop, formed 1798, was absorbed into the first in 1828. From 1859 there was a corps of the Shropshire Rifle Volunteers, later the 4th Bn. King's Shropshire Light Infantry T.A. and later still the 5th Bn. The Light Infantry (V). In 1889 a battery of the 1st Shropshire & Staffordshire Artillery Volunteers opened a drill hall in King Street, which the battery's successors used as H.Q. until 1946. From 1947 Wellington again provided a squadron or troop H.Q. of the Shropshire Yeomanry. In 1983 the King Street hall remained Wellington's T.A.V.R. centre. (fn. 35)
By the 1770s regular assemblies were held for subscribers. (fn. 36) Large indoor meetings and entertainments were held in the market hall, (fn. 37) demolished c. 1800, (fn. 38) and in the successive town halls, (fn. 39) opened 1848 (fn. 40) and 1867, (fn. 41) until c. 1920. (fn. 42) Thereafter the lack of a large public hall was often regretted, (fn. 43) though halls belonging to churches, societies, and schools were sometimes available and functions could be held in the town hall's smaller hall (fn. 44) and at the privately owned Ercall Assembly Room, Market Street (opened 1880, (fn. 45) closed after 1937), (fn. 46) Forest Glen Pavilions, below the Wrekin (opened 1889), (fn. 47) and Wrekin Hall, Walker Street (opened 1908). (fn. 48) The Palais de Danse (later the Majestic ballroom; opened by 1934, (fn. 49) closed c. 1969), New Street, (fn. 50) and the nearby Town House (opened 1960) (fn. 51) were also available for social events.
Cultural societies were not numerous before the 20th century. The infantry volunteers had a band by 1798 (fn. 52) as did the rifle volunteers in 1861. (fn. 53) There was a choral society in 1898 (fn. 54) and an orchestral and operatic society in the 1930s. (fn. 55) A successful town band was remembered in 1973. (fn. 56) The Wellington Repertory Theatre Club, formed by 1943, (fn. 57) was moribund by 1966 (fn. 58) and in the 1960s Wellington's cultural attractions were compared unfavourably with those of Oakengates. (fn. 59) In 1966, however, the Wellington Arts Association was formed and started an annual festival, (fn. 60) forerunner of the Wrekin and Telford Festival. (fn. 61) In 1971 the county council let the former Prince's Street school to the Wrekin Arts Association as an arts centre, (fn. 62) incorporating a small theatre, (fn. 63) and by 1973 the town had musical, choral and operatic, and dramatic societies. (fn. 64) A civic society started c. 1979. (fn. 65)
The short-lived Alhambra (later Playhouse) variety theatre, Tan Bank, opened in 1927; it became the Rechabite Hall. (fn. 66) There were two early cinemas: the Picture Pavilion, Mill Bank, (fn. 67) and the Rink Picture Palace, Tan Bank, both opened in 1911. The former closed in 1927. (fn. 68) The latter underwent two changes of name before becoming the Grand Theatre in 1914. (fn. 69) It became a bingo hall in 1975 (fn. 70) and had over 2,500 weekly attendances in 1980. (fn. 71) The Town Hall cinema, opened in 1920, (fn. 72) closed in 1959. (fn. 73) From 1975 the Clifton, Bridge Road, opened in 1937, (fn. 74) was Telford's only cinema. (fn. 75) Like the Grand Theatre it was occasionally used for stage performances. (fn. 76) Weekly attendances averaged over 2,600 in 1979, (fn. 77) but in 1983 it closed.
The earliest men's social club was perhaps the news room and billiards room established in 1846 at a shop in the Market Place. It had 45 members in 1851 (fn. 78) but closed after 1856. (fn. 79) A mechanics' institute in New Street, registered in 1848, included a library and had c. 70 members in 1851, (fn. 80) but by 1856 the town lacked 'any institution for the moral and intellectual elevation of the people'. (fn. 81) In 1859, however, the town's most enduring social organization outside the churches was formed, a branch of the Y.M.C.A. It took a lease of the Wrekin Buildings (including the Wrekin Hall) in 1913 and bought them in 1920. (fn. 82) In 1983 its wide ranging activities attracted c. 700 people every week. (fn. 83) By 1890 Richard Stone had opened a working men's hall (fn. 84) and in 1891 there was a Wellington Working Men's Union & Horticultural Society. (fn. 85) A working men's club met in King Street in 1900. (fn. 86) In the 1920s and 1930s ex-service men used the Comrades of the Great War Club, Haygate Road, and the British Legion. (fn. 87) During and after the Second World War the principal men's club was the Sir John Bayley Social Club, (fn. 88) which had licensed premises in Haygate Road in 1983.
There were Conservative and Liberal clubs by 1885 (fn. 89) and a Socialist Society was formed in 1897. (fn. 90) The Shropshire Labour Reporter, published in Wellington, was revived in 1904. (fn. 91) A Liberal and Labour Association existed c. 1912. (fn. 92) The Morris Hall, off Church Street, given by J. K. Morris of Shrewsbury in 1929 and rebuilt 1936, was the headquarters of Wrekin divisional (later constituency) Labour party (fn. 93) until it moved to Hadley c. 1971. (fn. 94)
In the 20th century indoor sport was enjoyed at the swimming pool, Walker Street, provided by the U.D.C. in 1910, (fn. 95) and at a privately run billiards hall on Tan Bank, opened by 1934, (fn. 96) where nationally known players sometimes competed. (fn. 97) In 1964 the county council opened the Wrekin Youth Centre at Bennetts Bank. (fn. 98) By 1976 Wrekin district council had plans for a combined sports, arts, and community centre south of Walker Street, and in 1981 a new swimming pool was completed. (fn. 99)
Newspapers were published in Wellington from 1849 to 1965. In 1849 (fn. 100) Robert Hobson (fn. 101) founded the Railway Messenger or Wellington Advertiser, successively renamed the Wellington Advertiser in 1850 and the Shropshire News and Mineral District Reporter in 1855. (fn. 102) In 1854 (fn. 103) Thomas Leake (fn. 104) founded the Conservative Wellington Journal and General Advertiser, (fn. 105) which absorbed its rival in 1874 (fn. 106) and became the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News. From 1874 to 1876 the Liberal Shropshire Examiner was published in Wellington. (fn. 107) In 1885 (fn. 108) the owners of the Shropshire Guardian (the county's leading Liberal paper) founded the Wellington Standard. In 1892, however, the Journal absorbed the Standard and its Liberal contemporaries published in Shrewsbury, (fn. 109) the Guardian, Eddowes's Shrewsbury Journal, and the Shropshire Evening News. (fn. 110) The Wellington Journal's circulation grew from 4,550 in 1864 to over 40,000 by 1900 (fn. 111) and stood at 48,000 in 1965, (fn. 112) when it passed from Leakes Ltd. to the Shropshire Star & Journal Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Midland News Association Ltd.), moved to Ketley, and was renamed the Shropshire Journal. (fn. 113)
There were circulating libraries in the later 19th century (fn. 114) but in 1902 no reading room 'worthy of the name'. (fn. 115) In that year the U.D.C. adopted the Public Libraries Act, 1892, (fn. 116) and was given the former guardians' and parish offices in Walker Street by H. H. France-Hayhurst of Overley Hall. (fn. 117) The library's resources were inadequate by the 1940s (fn. 118) and complemented by Boots' and W.H. Smith's subscription libraries, (fn. 119) but the county council took it over in 1949 (fn. 120) and in 1962 an extension was declared open by the poet Philip Larkin, (fn. 121) librarian 1943-6. (fn. 122) In 1980 the library had the biggest book stock in Telford. (fn. 123)
The earliest welfare clubs were the benefit societies recorded in Wellington from the later 18th century. In the later 19th their role passed to local branches of national or county organizations. A Union Society was formed in 1761 at the Bull's Head, and benevolent societies in 1772 and 1774. (fn. 124) A freemasons' lodge at the Talbot lasted from 1789 to 1798. (fn. 125) At least 15 friendly societies were registered in the earlier 19th century, usually at public houses. (fn. 126) A district of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (Manchester Unity) was established in 1843; the town had three lodges and 506 members in 1898. By then there were two courts of the Ancient Order of Foresters, a lodge of the National United Order of Free Gardeners, and a tent of the Independent Order of Rechabites (Salford Unity), (fn. 127) which later had a hall on Tan Bank. (fn. 128) Several friendly society branches remained in the late 20th century. (fn. 129)
Wellington's three later lodges of freemasons were formed in 1852, 1934, and 1952, and by 1969 lodges from Ironbridge and Oakengates also met in the parish. In that year the five collaborated to open the former Constitution Hill school (bought 1966) as a masonic hall for east Shropshire. The three Wellington lodges had 187 members in 1980. (fn. 130)
A savings bank flourished 1818-89 (fn. 131) and had 692 depositors in 1851. (fn. 132) The Wellington, Dawley Green, Ketley, & Shropshire Building Society, registered 1851, (fn. 133) had 126 members in 1886 (fn. 134) but closed c. 1893. (fn. 135)
In the late 19th century welfare work was done by the Ladies' Association for the Care of the Friendless, to rescue delinquent girls, and a division of the Shropshire Needlework Guild. (fn. 136) A Rotary Club started in 1929. (fn. 137) In 1961 an Old People's Welfare Committee built a social centre, the Belmont Hall, off New Street, (fn. 138) and in the late 20th century the usual welfare organizations had local branches. (fn. 139)