A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 11, Telford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1985.
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GROWTH OF SETTLEMENT.
The original endowment of St. Leonard's priory seems to have consisted of the central part of what became the parish of Wombridge. About 1135 William and Seburga of Hadley and their son Alan gave land bounded on the east by a stream dividing Hadley wood from the king's wood (Wrockwardine wood), on the west by Springwell brook, and on the south by Watling Street. (fn. 1) Eastward and northward expansion by c. 1181 may have been indicated by Henry II's confirmation to the priory of 80 a. of assarts beyond the stream then bounding Wrockwardine wood. The king's grant was confirmed c. 1220 by John le Strange (II). South of Watling Street the lords of Leegomery (Ketley) and Wrockwardine and, evidently, the lord of Shifnal all had claims in 'the common wood of Wombridge'. About 1220 Thomas Tuchet, lord of Leegomery, gave the canons his rights in the wood, and boundary disputes with Shifnal manor were apparently settled c. 1269 when the lord of Shifnal granted the canons the whole of his bank of the stream dividing Snedshill wood from the canons' wood. The canons' parish evidently then extended well south of Watling Street, (fn. 2) perhaps to its full eventual extent and so including the north-eastern part of Ketley township. (fn. 3) In 1318 the Crown confirmed 30 a. of assarts to the priory. (fn. 4) By the earlier 16th century the priory was exploiting the local coal and ironstone reserves. (fn. 5)
Early lay settlement in the parish was perhaps along Watling Street. In the 13th century there may have been some settlement at a place called Staniford, on Watling Street where it was crossed by a stream flowing north from Hollinswood towards the priory and forming the western boundary of Snedshill wood. The stream was ponded there c. 1269, (fn. 6) when a Ralph of Stanford was mentioned (fn. 7) That area, on the eastern edge of the parish, was known as Oakengates by 1414, (fn. 8) and by 1447 the name Staneford apparently belonged to a settlement about 1 km. to the west just outside the parish; (fn. 9) the displacement of the name suggests that in the 13th and 14th centuries settlement straggled along the section of Watling Street that crossed the middle of the parish. At Oakengates, (fn. 10) perhaps so called because it lay at the edge of a large block of woodland, the priory owned four messuages and a cottage, overseen by a bailiff, in 1535-6. (fn. 11) Settlement grew with industry and mining between the 16th and 19th centuries, hamlets developing alongside mines and ironworks, notably at Ketley Bank. There was little cohesion, and only in the mid 19th century, when a market was established and the railways arrived, did Oakengates begin to assume an urban role.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Oakengates was a small hamlet, and at Wombridge there was probably little more than Wombridge Farm, on the priory site. (fn. 12) In 1672 hearth tax was paid by eleven householders in Oakengates and three in Wombridge; Ketley Bank householders may have been taxed with Ketley township. In the 1690s 80 families were said to live in Oakengates and Wombridge. (fn. 13) In the south of the parish the settlement at Ketley Bank, in existence by the early 17th century and then known as Coalpit Bank, (fn. 14) grew (fn. 15) to be the largest in the parish by the later 18th century. Most of its houses were probably built by the occupiers and were detached or semi-detached. There was some order to the western part of the settlement, with properties flanking the main road, but to the east the cottages sprawled up to the boundary of Ketley. (fn. 16)
In 1801 the population of Wombridge parish was 1,835 and it remained at that level until the 1830s when it began to rise, reaching 2,057 in 1841 and 3,113 in 1881. Increase was especially sharp in the 1850s (fn. 17) as the Lilleshall Co. began to develop the New Yard works. (fn. 18) In the 1880s population declined slightly. In 1898 Wombridge (pop. 2,876 in 1901) was the second most populous civil parish of the four that make up Oakengates urban district (pop. 10,906 in 1901); it was, however, the only one that did not continue to record slight declines after 1911 until all four C.P.s were amalgamated in 1934. In 1931 Wombridge had 3,405 inhabitants, Wrockwardine Wood 4,978, Priorslee 2,644, and St. George's 163. The U.D. as a whole did not record a higher population figure than that of 1911 (11,744) until 1961 (12,163). (fn. 19) Subsequently the trend was upward, particularly in the 1960s when much housing was built: within the area of the U.D. (abolished in 1974) population rose from 16,701 in 1971 to 17,552 in 1981. (fn. 20)
Between 1826 and 1850 Oakengates developed from a group of a dozen detached houses and public houses, some thatched, which were surrounded by a quagmire in wet weather, into a 'good street' of 40-50 houses. William Charlton of Apley, lord of the manor of Wombridge 1802-38, was credited in 1842 with having promoted the improvement through his patronage from c. 1826. (fn. 21) By 1856, as well as public houses, shops, cobblers, and blacksmiths, there were other tradesmen including a hairdresser, a watchmaker and jeweller, and a bookseller and stationer. (fn. 22) Probably most buildings were erected by local tradesmen: in 1854, for instance, a block including the Charlton Arms was erected by Andrew Peplow, a beer retailer and brick maker. (fn. 23)
The new status of Oakengates was enhanced by the arrival of the railways between 1849 and 1861. The railways made Oakengates, like Wellington, accessible to the large populations between it and the Severn. (fn. 24) The town's range of commercial and professional facilities continued to expand: there were banks and a plumber there by 1870; a fruiterer, photographer, and private school by 1891; a fried fish shop by 1895; and an architect by 1905. (fn. 25)
The population of Oakengates continued to grow, and the town to expand, in the third quarter of the 19th century, when New Street, Leonard Street, and Slaney Street were built north of the existing main street. (fn. 26) In 1898 the town became the centre of a new urban district which took in Wrockwardine Wood and St. George's to the east and Priorslee to the south and south-east.
Divided from Wombridge and Oakengates by Snedshill wood and Hollinswood ('holly wood'), Priorslee, like the two woods, was part of Shifnal manor. (fn. 27) At Priorslee the priory built up an estate in the Middle Ages (fn. 28) and there was a 12th-century chapel. (fn. 29) A moat north of Priorslee, close to Watling Street, probably marks the site of a medieval assart farm. (fn. 30) Priorslee Hall, north-east of the village, was the only major house in the area later defined as Oakengates U.D. It was probably built shortly before 1728, apparently by Edward Jorden; his father of the same name, of Dunsley (Staffs.), had married Sarah, daughter and heir of John Wyke, who owned land at Priorslee. The hall was used as the residence of the managing partner of the Lilleshall Co. from the early 19th century until 1964, when it became the headquarters of the new town development corporation. (fn. 31)
Priorslee village remained small in 1752. (fn. 32) By the later 18th century, however, houses had been built to the north-west, probably by squatters, down to the western edge of Snedshill coppice and probably on the Oakengates road around Mumporn Hill. A more coherent development, that apparently took place in the 1820s, was Snedshill Barracks on the south-eastern edge of Snedshill coppice; (fn. 33) probably built for John Horton & Co., the barracks formed a T-shaped group of 29 houses with gardens. (fn. 34) About 1839 a group of brick terraces was built in Priorslee village for colliers at the Lilleshall Co.'s Lawn and Rookery pits. (fn. 35) In the third quarter of the 19th century building began to the south of Watling Street and St. George's, where School Street, Grove Street, and Lodge Road were laid out around Snowhill. (fn. 36)
In the last quarter of the 19th century there were no new developments (fn. 37) within the area defined in 1898 as Oakengates U.D. Two main settlements had grown up by c. 1875. The larger was Oakengates, four fifths in Wombridge parish and one fifth in Priorslee parish; half a mile to the east, separated from Oakengates by the Albion pit mounds, was St. George's, greatly expanded from the old hamlet of Pain's Lane (in Lilleshall parish) by new streets laid out at the south end of Wrockwardine Wood (fn. 38) and along the northern edge of Priorslee around Snowhill. (fn. 39) The two main settlements were distinguished by relatively well built terraced houses. In the area's subsidiary settlements accommodation was often worse: there was a preponderance of residual 18th- and 19th-century squatter, barrack, and speculative buildings. In 1896 the sanitary inspector was able to note that there was still overcrowding in the area, but that it was no longer of the former 'gross' kind with adults 'lodged promiscuously' together. (fn. 40)
The main subsidiary settlements lay to the south: at Ketley Bank, Snedshill, and Priorslee village. Northwards the only considerable settlements were two in Wrockwardine Wood, one straggling along New Road and Lincoln Road and another at Trench. In the 20th century those scattered settlements were expanded and drawn closer together by the growth of council and private housing estates; three of the main council estates were at Trench, Snedshill, and Ketley Bank; a fourth was built in the centre of Wombridge parish (around Walton Avenue, Hartshill, and Church Parade). Thus by 1981 only a few well defined areas remained unbuilt. In the north (Wrockwardine Wood) Cockshutt Piece and the extensive playing fields around the Oakengates Leisure Centre remained open, as did the area north of Wombridge church; in the south the overgrown pit mounds between Albion Hill and Snedshill still just separated Oakengates from the continuous housing between St. George's and Snedshill.
In 1918 the Lilleshall Co.'s houses in the district generally lacked proper sewerage and drainage and were often badly designed and built and in disrepair, lacking back doors or opening windows. Oakengates urban district council recommended that the company should immediately demolish some houses and modernize others. (fn. 41) Between 1919 and 1922 the U.D.C. itself built 185 houses in Woodhouse Crescent (at Trench, in Wrockwardine Wood), Walton Avenue (Wombridge), and Freeston Avenue (Snedshill) after an earlier scheme for 70 had been rejected by Dr. Christopher Addison, minister of Health, as 'completely inadequate'. The first two estates were on previously undeveloped land and the third replaced Snedshill Barracks, which were demolished. (fn. 42)
The Addison programme ended with demand for council housing in Oakengates U.D. still unsatisfied and rising, and in 1925 the council's rent collector was regularly offered bribes by would-be tenants. (fn. 43) In the later 1920s and early 1930s, following the 1923 and 1924 Housing Acts, about 50 more council houses were built at Hartshill, Walton Avenue, and Freeston Avenue and there was a little council-approved private building. (fn. 44) Slum clearance began after the 1930 Housing Act, with c. 50 houses initially listed for demolition over five years, (fn. 45) replacement houses being built at Church Parade, Freeston Avenue, and Priorslee Road and in Gower Street, Wrockwardine Wood. By c. 1935 the U.D.C. had built 313 houses. (fn. 46) Even so they relieved only the most acute cases of bad housing; families that did not live in grossly overcrowded accommodation had virtually no chance of being allotted a house, although representatives of organizations like the Salvation Army were at times given houses. (fn. 47) There were some local environmental improvements in the later 1930s, the most noticeable being the removal of the Charlton Mound from the town centre by the International Voluntary Service for Peace on the initiative of J. E G. Cartlidge, vicar of Oakengates 1928-47. (fn. 48)
A major scheme of 1939 to build 74 council houses was interrupted by the war with only 16 completed, and in 1943 over 200 new houses were still required. (fn. 49) In 1947-8 building was restarted with prefabricated dwellings: 66 'Dyke' (concrete panel) houses were built, mainly at Church Parade, and 34 aluminium bungalows in Hayward Avenue and Mart Avenue. (fn. 50) In the early 1950s the U.D.C. built 'Gregory' flats and the 26-house Grove estate at Snowhill; (fn. 51) they were followed in the mid 1950s by 70 houses at Hartshill and c. 150 houses and 10 old-age pensioners' bungalows at Ketley Bank. (fn. 52)
During the 1960s there was extensive residential development around Oakengates as slum clearance continued. In 1962 the U.D.C. erected 34 of the Lilleshall Co.'s prefabricated 'Dorran' bungalows at Snedshill for old-age pensioners. (fn. 53) Wombridge Farm was demolished c. 1965 and the speculative Newfield Garden Village estate built. Speculative estates were also built to the north (east of Trench Pool) and south (off Canongate) at that time (fn. 54) and the U.D.C.'s Ketley Bank estate expanded to c. 450 houses. (fn. 55) In the 1970s and early 1980s more council housing was built in Wrockwardine Wood, (fn. 56) near St. George's, (fn. 57) and at Snedshill. (fn. 58) Telford development corporation's Wombridge Common estate, 165 dwellings 1975- 8, was its first housing estate in the northern area added to the new town in 1968. (fn. 59) In the late 1970s Priorslee village was conserved and modernized as a speculation by the corporation and enlarged by private builders. (fn. 60)