Smethwick: Social life

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.


A P Baggs, G C Baugh, C R J Currie, Johnson D A, 'Smethwick: Social life', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), ed. M W Greenslade( London, 1976), British History Online [accessed 22 July 2024].

A P Baggs, G C Baugh, C R J Currie, Johnson D A, 'Smethwick: Social life', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Edited by M W Greenslade( London, 1976), British History Online, accessed July 22, 2024,

A P Baggs, G C Baugh, C R J Currie, Johnson D A. "Smethwick: Social life". A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Ed. M W Greenslade(London, 1976), , British History Online. Web. 22 July 2024.


A wake, held in mid October, existed by 1826. (fn. 1) Its origin is not known; Harborne, Smethwick's mother parish, held its wake in September. (fn. 2) In the 1870s wake fetes were held on the Galton Grounds, a piece of open land behind the Swan in Oldbury Road. (fn. 3) By 1908 land adjoining the Moilliet Arms at Six Ways was used for a wake fun-fair. (fn. 4) In its heyday the wake lasted two days or more; by 1950, however, it had become 'a rather emasculated survival'. (fn. 5) By the 1860s there was also an annual Cape Fair, held on the first or second Monday in September. (fn. 6)

There was bull-baiting at the 1826 wake. (fn. 7) In 1835 it was expected that the chief attractions at that year's wake would be bull-baiting and prizefighting; (fn. 8) about that time a newcomer to Smethwick found that the only pastimes were bull- and bear-baiting, dog- and cock-fighting, 'and other low games'. (fn. 9) Bull-baiting and cock-fighting were held on open ground at Bearwood Hill between the Red Cow and the Sow and Pigs. (fn. 10)

A wooden theatre in Grove Lane, visited by itinerant companies of actors, was converted into a Salvation Army barracks in 1881. Nothing more appears to be known of it or of another makeshift theatre which about then stood at one end of Windmill Lane. (fn. 11) The Theatre Royal in Rolfe Street, built to the designs of Owen & Ward of Birmingham, was opened in 1897; it seated almost 3,000 and was claimed to be one of the largest theatres in the country. (fn. 12) It was closed in 1932 when its proprietors went bankrupt, was subsequently reopened for a few months for boxing matches, and was eventually demolished. (fn. 13) The Smethwick Empire in St. Paul's Road, built in 1910 to the designs of George Bowden & Son of Smethwick, was intended for use both as a theatre and as a cinema. (fn. 14) By 1930 it was being used solely as a cinema. It was closed in 1957 (fn. 15) and by 1971 had been converted into shops. The Windsor in Bearwood Road, built in 1930 to the designs of H. G. Bradley of Birmingham, had a stage; but it was designed primarily as a cinema and was opened as such. (fn. 16) For 16 years stage performances were rare. In the winter of 1946-7, however, there was a season of pantomime followed by several weeks of variety, and from the autumn of 1947 until 1957 the Windsor was run as a variety theatre. It then housed a professional repertory company until 1960. The building subsequently became an ice-skating rink and was still in use as such in 1971. (fn. 17)

The first purpose-built cinema was the New Cape Electric Theatre (later the Cape Electric Cinema), Cape Hill, built in 1911 to the designs of Oakley & Coulson of Dudley. (fn. 18) By 1917 the town had six cinemas (or seven if the Empire be included). By the early 1930s there were eight, five of them owned by a local man, Edward Hewitson (d. 1936), whose family retained its connexion with the cinema industry in Smethwick until 1970. (fn. 19) Seven cinemas were open in 1940 and six in January 1956. (fn. 20) By 1964, however, the Princes in High Street, a Hewitson cinema of 1930 designed in a derived artnouveau style by H. G. Bradley, was the only English-language cinema still open. (fn. 21) It was closed in 1970. (fn. 22) In 1971 there was no commercial cinema showing English-language films within the area of the pre-1966 borough; at the reopened Princes and the Beacon, Brasshouse Lane, Indian and Pakistani films were shown.

A subscription library and literary institute was maintained at Cape Hill by the mid 1850s. Its leading patron was John Henderson of the London Works, and his bankruptcy in 1856 left it in debt. A public appeal in 1858, however, enabled it to re-establish itself in a room at the Greyhound, Rolfe Street, where it reopened in 1859 as Smethwick Library and Literary Institute. It moved in 1862 to premises at the corner of Union and Cross Streets, and in 1871 to some rooms in the local board's public buildings. The town adopted the Public Libraries Acts in 1876, and a public library was formed in 1877 when the Institute transferred its books and other property to the local board. The library remained in the public buildings until 1880, when a free library and reading room was erected on an adjoining site to the designs of Yeoville Thomason of Birmingham. Before the First World War a reference library and a junior library were established. Open access was introduced in 1922-3; as a result more people used the library and a larger building was needed. The public buildings were no longer used by the council, and in 1928, after extensive alterations, they were reopened as the public library. (fn. 23) In 1966 the building became the central public library for the county borough of Warley. (fn. 24)

The Smethwick Telephone was founded in 1884 by a group of Smethwick men who formed the Telephone Newspaper Co. Ltd.; several were active members of the local ratepayers' association, and it has been suggested that the Telephone may have been established to propagate the association's views. In 1886 or 1887 the Telephone's proprietors sold it to F. D. Perrot, curate of Holy Trinity Church. The newspaper had originally been printed in Birmingham, but by 1887 it had a Smethwick printer and in 1888 Perrot opened offices and a printing shop in Rolfe Street. When he left Smethwick later in 1888 he sold the Telephone to James Billingsley, at that time the only reporter employed by the newspaper. Billingsley, who moved the Telephone to larger premises in Regent Street in 1890, then to new offices in the same road, and finally, in 1908, to offices in Hume Street, remained proprietor and editor until his death in 1943. (fn. 25) His daughter, Kathleen M. J. Billingsley, then became one of the few women newspaper proprietors in the country and was managing director and editor at the time of her death in 1962. (fn. 26) In 1963 the Telephone became the Smethwick Telephone and Warley Courier and in April 1966 the Warley Courier and Smethwick Telephone. It was subsequently acquired by the West Midlands Press Ltd. and in October 1966 merged with that firm's Warley News to form the Warley News Telephone. (fn. 27)

From 1890 to 1895 and again from 1906 to 1949 the proprietors of the Weekly News, an Oldbury newspaper, published a Smethwick edition entitled Smethwick Weekly News, printed on the Weekly News presses. (fn. 28) Seven issues of a weekly Smethwick Globe appeared in 1895 before it was incorporated with the Midland Sun, a Birmingham newspaper. (fn. 29) Another weekly, the Smethwick Advertiser and Three Shires Indicator, was published for a few months in 1909 from an office in Hume Street. (fn. 30)

Smethwick Cricket and Athletic Club may date from 1835 and certainly existed in 1840. By the mid 1870s, as Smethwick Cricket and Quoit Club, it was playing on the Broomfield ground, which was still its home in 1971. (fn. 31) Cricket and football were marked by the influence of local employers. Thus in the 1880s Harry Mitchell formed a cricket team at the family brewery at Cape Hill (fn. 32) and helped to promote a football club there (Mitchells St. George's), (fn. 33) while Nettlefolds raised a works football club and organized sports meetings. (fn. 34) From 1894 Mitchells also held annual athletic sports at Cape Hill, with open events as well as races for its employees. They proved to be highly popular and still drew a crowd of 2,500 in 1908, even though several years of compaigning against 'the gambling element' had reduced attendances sharply. (fn. 35)

In 1899 Henry Mitchell presented the local Volunteers and the town with a drill hall, the adjacent Broomfield cricket ground, and a small park (now Harry Mitchell Park) as a memorial to his son Harry (d. 1894). After a public meeting in 1900 to discuss methods of making use of the gift the Smethwick Recreative and Amateur Athletic and Gymnastic Association was formed to promote and organize sport and leisure activities in the borough. Mitchell laid out the park as a recreation ground and provided gymnastic equipment for use in the drill hall. The hall was used by the Volunteers and subsequently by the Territorial Army until 1967 when, with some adjoining buildings erected by the army during the Second World War, it was handed over to the borough. Since then it has been developed as the Harry Mitchell Recreational Centre, which provides indoor sports facilities. (fn. 36) Hadley Playing Fields, Waterloo Road, were opened in 1962; they include a stadium which has been used for Midland athletic championships and is the annual venue of a large Sikh sports festival. (fn. 37) Thimblemill Baths in Thimblemill Road are among the largest in the Midlands and in the 1950s were used for international swimming matches. (fn. 38)

The first friendly society to be registered (though not necessarily the first to be formed) was the Smethwick Union Society, registered in 1836. The first societies were without national affiliations; but there was a lodge of the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows by 1841, and a lodge of the Loyal Wolverhampton Order of Odd Fellows was registered in 1845. (fn. 39) In 1876 there were 27 registered friendly societies, including several lodges of Odd Fellows, two lodges of Free Gardeners, a lodge of Modern Masons, and nine courts of the Ancient Order of Foresters. (fn. 40) William Caldow (d. 1892), a Scot who moved to Smethwick in 1841, became known as the 'Father of Forestry' in the Midlands for his work on behalf of the Order of Foresters in south Staffordshire and north Worcestershire. (fn. 41)


  • 1. Staffs. Advertiser, 21 Oct. 1826.
  • 2. T. Presterne, Harborne once upon a time (1913), 76.
  • 3. 'Old Smethwick', 27 Nov. 1948.
  • 4. Ibid. 27 May 1950; Smethwick Telephone, 24 Oct. 1908.
  • 5. W.P.L., log-book of St. Philip's R.C. School, pp. 4-5, 40; 'Old Smethwick', 27 Nov. 1948, 27 May 1950.
  • 6. W.P.L., log-book of St. Philip's R.C. School, pp. 2, 21.
  • 7. Staffs. Advertiser, 21 Oct. 1826.
  • 8. Docs. at St. Peter's, Harborne, 14, Vestry Mins. 1829-57, f. 138.
  • 9. 'Smethwick and Round About', 16 June 1951.
  • 10. Ibid. 2 Dec. 1955.
  • 11. 'Old Smethwick', 27 May 1950; 'Smethwick and Round About', 23 Oct. 1953; above p. 133.
  • 12. Weekly News, 18 and 25 Sept. 1897. For Owen & Ward see Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1897).
  • 13. 'Smethwick and Round About', 23 and 30 Oct. 1953.
  • 14. Smethwick Telephone, 10 Sept. 1910. For Geo. Bowden & Son see Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1910).
  • 15. Smethwick Telephone, 4 Jan. 1930; ibid. 5 Apr. 1957, carrying its last advertisement and news that it is to close 'in the very near future'.
  • 16. Ibid. 4 Oct. 1930. For Bradley see also ibid. 27 Dec. 1930.
  • 17. Ibid. 21 Dec. 1946-22, Feb. 1947, 6 Sept. 1947, 30 Dec. 1960, 4 Jan. 1963; Warley News Telephone, 25 June 1970.
  • 18. Smethwick Telephone, 17 June 1911.
  • 19. Ibid. 6 Jan. 1917, 4 Jan. 1930, 3 Jan. 1931; Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1931; 1932; 1933), sub Cinemas; Warley News Telephone, 25 June 1970.
  • 20. Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1940), sub Cinemas; Smethwick Telephone, 6 Jan. 1956.
  • 21. Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1964), sub Cinemas; Smethwick Telephone, 27 Dec. 1930.
  • 22. Warley News Telephone, 25 June 1970.
  • 23. [H. P. Marshall], Smethwick Public Library, 18771927, 6-7, 9-20 (copy in W.P.L.); W.P.L., Smethwick Library, Reading Room, and Literary Institute cttee. min. bks. 1855-77; Staffs. Advertiser, 21 Aug. 1880; W.P.L., invitation to opening of new public library, High Street, Smethwick, 23 Feb. 1928; above pp. 110-11.
  • 24. Express & Star, 29 Mar. 1966.
  • 25. Warley News Telephone, 13, 20, 27 Oct., 3 and 10 Nov. 1966. There are files of the Telephone from 1887 onwards at W.P.L.
  • 26. Obituary in Smethwick Telephone, 7 Dec. 1962.
  • 27. Benn's Newspaper Press Dir. (1971); newspaper files in W.P.L.
  • 28. Warley News Telephone, 6 Oct. 1966; files of the Weekly News (from 1881 onwards) at W.P.L. The Weekly News became the Warley Weekly News in 1963 and the Warley News in 1966.
  • 29. The Times Tercentenary Handlist of English and Welsh Newspapers, Magazines and Reviews, 292, 296, recording holdings of B.M. Newspaper Library. Neither W.P.L. nor B.R.L. has copies of the Globe.
  • 30. File of the Advertiser in W.P.L. The B.M. Newspaper Library has the first 5 issues only: Times Tercentenary Handlist, 316.
  • 31. 'Smethwick and Round About', 3 Apr.-5 June 1953. For the date 1840 see V.C.H. Salop. ii. 195.
  • 32. V.C.H. Warws. ii. 404; V.C.H. Staffs. ii. 370.
  • 33. 'Smethwick and Round About', 3 Nov. 1951, 14 Mar. 1952.
  • 34. Ibid. 27 Aug. 1954.
  • 35. Smethwick Telephone, 12 and 19 Sept. 1908.
  • 36. Char. Com. files; 'Old Smethwick', 4 Nov. 1950; County Borough of Warley Sports Facilities Handbook [1969], 13 (copy in W.P.L.); 1st Ann. Rep. of Smethwick Recreative and Amateur Athletic and Gymnastic Association, 1900-1901 (Birmingham, 1901; copy in W.P.L.).
  • 37. Warley Sports Facilities Handbook [1969], 13-14.
  • 38. Souvenir programmes (copies in W.P.L.) of swimming matches between Gt. Britain and France (1956), Sweden (1957), and East Germany (1959).
  • 39. S.R.O., Q/RSf; 'Smethwick and Round About', 24 Nov. 1951.
  • 40. Rep. Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies, 1876, App. P, H.C. 429-1, pp. 407-8 (1877), lxxvii.
  • 41. 'Smethwick and Round About', 10, 17, 24 Nov. 1951.