A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
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By 1612 a wake was held at Walsall late in September. (fn. 1) It may thus have originated in festivities at the St. Matthew's day fair, but it coincided with the Michaelmas fair from 1627. (fn. 2) It was discontinued in 1895. (fn. 3) A wake has been held at Bloxwich from at least 1769, when the inhabitants fixed the date as the Sunday nearest to 16 August. (fn. 4) In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the wake has often continued for up to three days in the week following. (fn. 5) In the late 18th century it took place on 'the village green', (fn. 6) presumably Short Heath. By 1911 it was restricted to that part of the former heath between High Street and Park Road. In that year, however, Patrick Collins, the amusement caterer, bought land behind his home, Lime Tree House in High Street, for use as a fair ground. (fn. 7) The wake was held there until the land was sold in 1970. (fn. 8) Since then it has taken place on temporary sites. (fn. 9)
A traditional custom at Walsall was the throwing of apples, nuts, and hot copper coins from the guildhall windows to the assembled populace on St. Clement's day (23 November), when the mayor accounted. The distribution was followed by bobapple, bite-apple, and other games. It was abolished in 1860. (fn. 10)
A bull-ring at Walsall is mentioned in 1618. In 1804 it was claimed that there had been no bullbaiting for more than 20 years. Bull-baiting took place at Bloxwich wake until the sport was banned by law in 1835. (fn. 11) Bear-baiting was probably another traditional sport: a bearward occurs in 1590, and a place called the bear-garden, evidently on Church Hill, is mentioned in 1750. (fn. 12) In 1702 there was a house in the town known as the Cock House, perhaps a cock-pit, and in the early 19th century mains were fought in a cock-pit behind the New Inn, Park Street, during Walsall races. (fn. 13) Cock-fighting apparently remained popular at Bloxwich until the late 19th century, and there were centres in Field Street and at the Barley Mow, Goscote. (fn. 14) In 1855 police raided a cock-fight at the Brickmakers' Arms, Birchills. (fn. 15)
In 1599 John Persehouse the elder leased land in Holbrook field called 'bowling leys' to Roger Comberlege, reserving the right for himself and his friends to play bowls there. (fn. 16) The Persehouse family also had a bowling-green in Walsall field by 1693; it apparently descended with the Reynold's Hall estate. (fn. 17) In 1629 Edward Leigh of Rushall was imprisoned by the mayor for playing bowls on 'an open green' at Bloxwich. (fn. 18) There was a bowlinggreen at the Green Dragon in High Street by 1769, and by 1782 another in Birmingham Street, adjoining the Wheatsheaf. Both were still in use in 1813, when there was a third green at the Dog and Partridge, Windmill Street. (fn. 19)
There were race-meetings at Walsall from 1777 to 1871 and from 1873 to 1876 on a course in Long Meadow between the brook and the mill fleam. Until 1869 they were held in the same week as the Michaelmas fair, and it was stated in 1804 that they had been instituted as a substitute for bull-baiting at the wakes. In 1870 and 1871, however, they took place in October, and from 1873 in August. A grand stand designed by Benjamin Wyatt of Sutton Coldfield (Warws.) was built at the north-east end of the course in 1809 and demolished in 1879. (fn. 20) Occasional meetings have been held in the town in the 20th century: in 1942 one took place on a course near Mellish Road. (fn. 21) Races were held at Bloxwich by 1841. They coincided with the wakes, and plays and shows were put on at a temporary theatre on the course. The site of the original course is unknown; in 1866 the races were run in a field at Blakenall Heath, but they have also been held on the site of the present Leamore playing-fields. (fn. 22)
Mystery plays were performed in Walsall in the late 15th century: in 1494 the council ordained that groups of tradesmen should contribute to the repair and maintenance of the play garments. (fn. 23) In the late 16th and early 17th centuries visiting companies, including the Queen's, the King's, and the Prince's, put on plays in the guildhall, (fn. 24) where plays were still performed in the 1750s. (fn. 25) In 1766 William Siddons, later husband of Sarah Siddons, gave a performance of Douglas at a malt-house in Lime Pit Bank. (fn. 26) The assembly-room at the Dragon was used as a temporary theatre from at least 1787 to 1803. In 1802, however, J. B. Watson, an owner of theatres in several provincial towns, petitioned the mayor and justices for permission to build a permanent theatre in Walsall. A theatre in the Square was built by subscription in 1803; Watson apparently owned the business by 1813. (fn. 27) Performances were still being held there in 1841, but in 1845 the proprietors were evicted for arrears of rent. By the mid 1850s the building was occupied by shops or offices. (fn. 28)
After the closure of the theatre performances were given by travelling companies, and an amateur group, the Walsall Dramatic Club, was founded in 1865. (fn. 29) There was, however, no permanent theatre for some years. An Agricultural Hall built in Darwall Street in 1868 was used as a theatre from at least 1869. Between 1881 and 1883 the building was altered for use as a permanent theatre; it was known from c. 1886 as St. George's Hall, from c. 1891 as St. George's Hall and Theatre, and from c. 1895 as St. George's Theatre. It was again renovated in 1899 and was renamed the Imperial Theatre. In 1908 it became Walsall's first cinema. It was closed c. 1968 and in 1974 was a bingo hall. (fn. 30) By 1873 Charles Crooke was holding theatrical performances in the Alexandra Concert Hall, his former beer and wine shop on the corner of Park and Station Streets. By 1879 it was a variety theatre called the Alexandra Theatre; it was later known as the Gaiety Theatre. It was rebuilt as the Grand Theatre in 1890 to the design of Daniel Arkell of Birmingham and became a variety theatre again in 1899. It was converted into a cinema in 1931 and was burnt down in 1939. (fn. 31) Her Majesty's Theatre at Townend Bank was opened in 1900 and became a variety theatre in 1905. It was converted into a cinema in 1933 and was demolished in 1937. In 1938 the Savoy cinema, later the A.B.C., was opened on the site. (fn. 32)
Although the Imperial Theatre became a cinema in 1908, the first purpose-built cinema in the borough was the Electric Picture Palace in the Square, opened in 1910. (fn. 33) Two cinemas were soon afterwards opened in Bloxwich, the Central Picture Palace in the former Wesleyan chapel in Park Road by 1912, and the Electric Picture Theatre (or Palace) in High Street by 1913. (fn. 34) There were 6 cinemas in the county borough by 1925 and 9 by 1939; by 1962 only 5 remained. (fn. 35) By 1973 there was only one cinema, the A.B.C. at Townend Bank, which was converted to a triple cinema in that year. (fn. 36)
The guildhall was probably the chief centre for public assemblies until the 18th century. Not only were plays performed there, but by the 1750s concerts and variety shows also. (fn. 37) A new assembly-room at the Castle inn is mentioned in 1768, and in 1793 one was built at the George. By 1787 there was also an assembly-room at the Dragon. (fn. 38) In 1851 it was enlarged and provided with ante-rooms and a new front in Goodall Street, of brick with stone dressings in a classical style. (fn. 39) The assembly-room at the George closed between 1892 and 1896. (fn. 40) The rooms in Goodall Street closed c. 1895; (fn. 41) in 1974 they were used as a probation office. In 1866 the Walsall Temperance Association began building a hall in Freer Street, designed by Loxton Brothers of Wednesbury. Opened in 1867, it was used for public meetings, lectures, and concerts, and in 1931 it became a cinema. It was demolished in 1965. (fn. 42) A public hall was built by subscription at the junction of High Street and Wolverhampton Road, Bloxwich, in 1857; it is of brick with stone dressings, in a classical style. It was used for music, plays, lectures, and other entertainment, and as a drill hall. By 1941 it was a labour exchange. (fn. 43) In 1974 it was the gymnasium of the neighbouring Bloxwich Church of England school.
In the 1640s the corporation paid for music at the fairs, and in the 1750s concerts were held in the guildhall. (fn. 44) The Walsall Harmonic Society was established apparently c. 1819. In 1830 and 1831 it held concerts of vocal and instrumental music at the Blue Coat School in Digbeth, but nothing further is known of it. (fn. 45) A choral society was founded c. 1841, but it was dissolved in 1853. A Philharmonic Society for the pursuit of both vocal and instrumental music was established in 1863, and a Choral Union c. 1870. They amalgamated in 1880 as the Walsall Philharmonic Union. In 1889 the union was affiliated to the Science and Art Institute in Bradford Place and was renamed the Walsall Institute Philharmonic Union; it resumed its earlier style c. 1904. At some time between 1917 and 1920 it became the Walsall Philharmonic Society. It was disbanded c. 1936. (fn. 46) Several other musical societies were founded from the 1880s onwards but most were short-lived. (fn. 47)
The first public library in Walsall was a subscription library established in 1800 by Thomas Bowen, the Unitarian minister, in his house in Rushall Street. By 1813 it had been moved to a room at Valentine & Throsby's stationery shop in High Street. (fn. 48) A permanent library was built in Lichfield Street in 1830-1. It is a stuccoed building of Greek Doric design, fronted by a tetrastyle portico. (fn. 49) It originally contained a large hall, divided into news and reading rooms and surrounded by a first-floor gallery. It soon became dilapidated, and in 1847 was sold to C. F. Darwall, clerk to the magistrates. It was in use as a savings bank in 1851, but between 1853 and 1855 Darwall adapted it to contain the county court offices and a lecture hall on the ground-floor and a freemasons' hall on the first floor. (fn. 50) After the sale to Darwall the library and news-room were transferred to J. R. Robinson's printing works at the Bridge; they remained there until 1875 when the library was dissolved and the books were presented to the free library. (fn. 51) A second subscription library was established in 1898 and dissolved in 1903. (fn. 52)
Walsall adopted the Free Libraries Act in 1857, and a library building was opened in Goodall Street in 1859. Designed by Nichols & Morgan, it is of brick in a Renaissance style. (fn. 53) In 1872 it was converted into a news-room, and a library and reading room was built over it. (fn. 54) The building was extended in 1887, and in 1890 the upper room was converted to contain an art gallery, museum, and reference library. (fn. 55) It was replaced in 1906 by the present library in Lichfield Street, built with funds given by Andrew Carnegie. (fn. 56) The new building is of brick with stone dressings and was designed in a Baroque style by J. S. Gibson of London. (fn. 57) Open access was introduced in 1931. (fn. 58) In 1965 an extension was built and named the E. M. Flint Gallery after the chairman of the borough's library and art gallery committee; it included an art gallery and rooms for lectures and exhibitions. (fn. 59) In 1967-8 a museum of leathercraft was established there with items lent by the Museum of Leathercraft in London, which transferred its entire collection to Walsall in 1971. (fn. 60) In 1974 the first-floor of the original building was reorganized as a gallery housing the Garman-Ryan art collection, given by Lady (Kathleen) Epstein in 1973. (fn. 61) The first branch library in Walsall was established in Harrison Street, Bloxwich, in 1872. (fn. 62) It later moved to the public buildings in Station Street built in 1882-4. (fn. 63) Separate accommodation for the library was provided in 1948 in a temporary structure in Pinfold. (fn. 64) The present library in Elmore Row was opened in 1960; an extension containing a hall used as a theatre and lecture room was opened in 1964. (fn. 65)
From the earlier 19th century several monthly magazines were established in Walsall, but all have been short-lived. The first was the Walsall Note Book, which appeared from July 1830 to June 1831. Founded by J. L. Chavasse, it included articles and letters on local affairs, local history, religion, and scientific subjects, short stories, and verses. (fn. 66) Later periodicals of a similar type included the Walsall Monthly Magazine and Journal of Popular Literature (1855-6); (fn. 67) the Walsall Observer and Repository of Local Literature (1862-3); (fn. 68) and the Midland Magazine (1880). (fn. 69) The Walsall Whip and South Staffordshire Charivari (1881-2) was a Liberal political and satirical magazine. Two other monthly magazines, the Walsall Tatler (1909) and the Walsall Enterprise (1927-8), included gossip and articles on local affairs and women's fashions; the Enterprise also ran articles on sport. (fn. 70)
The earliest known Walsall newspaper was a weekly Walsall Courier and South Staffordshire Gazette, established in 1855; its publishers, Newey & Foster of New Street, claimed that it would be 'equally suited for all classes . . . really a Walsall family newspaper'. (fn. 71) It was evidently short-lived. A weekly Walsall Guardian and District Advertiser was established in 1856 and was continued, with various modifications to its title, until 1869. It was apparently never printed in Walsall, and in its later issues contained little or no Walsall news. (fn. 72) Another weekly, the Liberal Walsall Free Press and South Staffordshire Advertiser, ran from 1856 until 1903, when it was incorporated into the Walsall Observer. (fn. 73)
The Walsall Advertiser and Newspaper was established in 1857 by J. R. Robinson, a Walsall printer and bookseller. It started as a free advertising-sheet containing a little local news. In 1892 it was enlarged, began to provide normal news coverage, and became a penny newspaper. The title became simply the Walsall Advertiser. In 1916 it was renamed the Walsall Pioneer and District News. Its politics had been Unionist since its transformation in 1892, but from 1916 it became more closely identified with Conservative policies. In 1922 it too was incorporated into the Walsall Observer. (fn. 74) W. H. Tomkins, a Walsall printer and bookbinder, ran a weekly Walsall Herald from January 1861 until January 1862. (fn. 75) A Liberal weekly, the Walsall News and General District Advertiser, was established in 1865 by the brothers John and William Griffin, who printed and published it until May 1867. It was then continued in other hands until 1872. (fn. 76) F. W. Willmore mentions a Walsall Standard among the news papers founded in the 1850s and 1860s, naming the editor. (fn. 77)
The weekly Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle was established in 1868, under a slightly different title, by John and William Griffin. (fn. 78) It has absorbed three rivals and in 1954 became again (as it had briefly been in the 1920s) the town's only newspaper. In 1974 the head offices and printing works of its proprietors, the West Midlands Press Ltd., were in Leamore Lane, Bloxwich.
The Walsall Recorder, a half-penny weekly which stated that politically it stood for 'Liberalism and Labour', was established in April 1906 and ran until April 1907. (fn. 79) The weekly Walsall Times and South Staffordshire Advertiser was established in 1925 by E. F. Cope, proprietor of a Walsall printing firm. He intended to break the monopoly then enjoyed by the Walsall Observer, and continued the paper until his death in 1954. Later that year the Times was incorporated into the Observer. (fn. 80)
In 1836 a Walsall Literary Society was founded. (fn. 81) Nothing further is known of it, but in 1841 the Walsall Philosophical Institution was established in connexion with the library. It continued until 1875. (fn. 82) A Walsall Lecture Institute was founded c. 1868, (fn. 83) and in 1876 there was a Literary Institute which met weekly in the Borough Club in Freer Street; it had about 60 members. (fn. 84) Both foundations were apparently short-lived. A new Literary Institute was founded in 1884, holding weekly lectures in the Temperance Hall. It opened a reading room in Bridge Street in 1889; the room was moved to Lichfield Street in 1891 and was closed in 1896. In 1910 the institute was disbanded. It was revived from 1928 to 1934. (fn. 85)
Walsall Cricket Club existed by 1833; at first it used a ground at the Chuckery, but it moved to one at Windmill in 1847 and remained there until c. 1850. During those years the Chuckery ground was occupied by another club, the Tradesmen's. During the 1850 and 1851 seasons both clubs apparently stopped playing, but in 1852 the Walsall Cricket Club was re-formed and took a new lease of the Chuckery ground. It remained there until 1909 when a new ground was opened at Gorway. The club still occupied it in 1974. (fn. 86) An Independent Cricket Club was founded at Bloxwich c. 1848; it may have been the Bloxwich Cricket Club which existed by 1863 and by 1911 had a ground in Stafford Road. It was disbanded during the First World War but was re-established c. 1928 with a ground in Lichfield Road. It became Bloxwich Stafford Road Sports Club c. 1935. (fn. 87)
Walsall's first football club was established in 1873 in connexion with Walsall Cricket Club. By 1882 there were 30 clubs. The most important were Walsall Swifts, founded in 1877, and Walsall Town, founded in 1879. In the 1880s the two clubs had adjoining grounds at the Chuckery. In 1888 they amalgamated as Walsall Town-Swifts, becoming Walsall Football Club in 1896. The united club moved from the Chuckery to a ground at Maw Green in 1893 and to one in Hillary Street in 1896. It returned temporarily to Maw Green in 1900 but since 1903 has played on the Hillary Street ground, known since at least 1931 as Fellows Park after H. L. Fellows, then chairman. (fn. 88) The principal Bloxwich club was Bloxwich Strollers, which existed by 1893. By 1895 it was playing on a ground in Little Bloxwich Lane. About 1901, however, it moved to a field behind the Red Lion, Leamore, the club's headquarters from at least 1910. The ground was taken over by Bloxwich Football Club c. 1933. The Strollers was disbanded c. 1934 but was revived after the Second World War. (fn. 89)
The first known friendly societies in Walsall were formed in the 1760s, and the first known societies in Bloxwich in the 1770s. (fn. 90) By 1803 there were 10 societies in the borough and 13 in the foreign, with a total membership of 1,864. (fn. 91) In 1813 there were some 30 or 40 societies in borough and foreign, with a total membership of 1,786. They included gift clubs, benefit societies attached to chapels, and six lodges of national orders such as Odd Fellows and Loyal Britons; it was claimed that Walsall had more friendly societies than any other town in Staffordshire. (fn. 92) The primacy, if true, was not maintained. In 1876 there were 36 registered societies in Walsall (fn. 93) and 13 in Bloxwich. (fn. 94) Most had been established in the 1860s and 1870s; none of the 18thcentury societies, and only 4 of those founded before 1830, had survived. Among the Walsall societies in 1876 were 12 lodges and one juvenile branch of Odd Fellows, 8 courts and one juvenile society of the Ancient Order of Foresters, a division of the Sons of Temperance, and a sanctuary of the Ancient Order of Shepherds. The Bloxwich societies included 2 lodges and 2 independent societies of Odd Fellows, 2 courts of Foresters, a lodge of Free Gardeners, and 2 lodges of Benevolent Brothers.