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 wake of unknown origin was originally held on All Saints' Day (1 November). By the 1830s it usually began on the first Monday in November and by the 1850s often lasted a week. Stalls were set up in High Street and shows housed in a field in Lodge Road and on open ground at the corner of High Street and Paradise Street. (fn. 1) In 1875, inspired by the example of the Wednesbury board of health, the improvement commissioners began a campaign for the suppression of the wake by forbidding the erection of stalls in the streets. (fn. 2) The wake, however, continued on other sites, and it even survived the Second World War, although 'in an emasculated form'. (fn. 3) Another wake, called the Gooseberry Wake and held at Cutler's End on the first Sunday in August, existed in the early 19th century. (fn. 4)
Bull-baiting was a feature of the November wake, although the baiting-grounds were usually on the outskirts of the parish. (fn. 5) Martin's Act of 1822, (fn. 6) intended to suppress the pastime, was supported by the vestry and the local clergy. (fn. 7) When a prosecution brought after the 1827 wake revealed that through faulty drafting the Act could not outlaw bullbaiting (fn. 8) local agitation in West Bromwich and neighbouring towns helped to secure its statutory prohibition in 1835. (fn. 9) A baiting at the 1835 wake is the last known; (fn. 10) the substitution from 1837 of gymnastics and 'rural' sports at the wake brought the pastime to an end. (fn. 11)
Cocking, first recorded in the parish in 1574, and dog-fighting were popular sports in the 1850s. (fn. 12) Some traditional festivities were still observed in the 1850s: Hallowe'en was celebrated and the custom of 'heaving' in Easter Week was popular in some districts. (fn. 13) May Day celebrations, with a maypole, were held in a field adjoining the Stone Cross inn until c. 1915. (fn. 14)
Samuel Adams, a music dealer, established the first public hall, St. George's Hall in Paradise Street, in 1859 in a building which had formerly been a Wesleyan chapel and then a school. The remodelled interior provided a much-needed room for concerts, lectures, and meetings. (fn. 15) Though replaced by the new town hall as the chief meeting-place in 1875, it seems to have been sometimes used for entertainments until 1891 when it was converted into a wire works. It became a cinema after the First World War and was still so used in the 1940s. (fn. 16) In the late 19th century the town hall was the main location for 'respectable' entertainment. (fn. 17)
In the 1850s Charles Udall, a publican, added to his Royal Exchange inn in Walsall Street a hall designed for 'free and easies'. It was later improved and turned into a concert hall and by 1869 was licensed as Udall's Music Hall. (fn. 18) By 1879, when it became the property of Walter Showell of Oldbury, a brewer, it was known as the Royal Exchange Theatre and, after partial rebuilding to the designs of Edward Pincher of West Bromwich, was reopened in that year as the Theatre Royal. (fn. 19) It was extended in 1890, burnt down in 1895, and rebuilt in 1896 to the designs of Owen & Ward of Birmingham. (fn. 20) It closed c. 1940. (fn. 21) Bennett's Theatre, Queen Street, a music hall, was open by 1869. It was designed to serve also as a Volunteers' drill hall and soon after was being used solely for that purpose. It later became a Salvation Army barracks and in 1903 the first factory of the Manifold Printing Co., subsequently Manifoldia Ltd. (fn. 22) The New Hippodrome (later the Hippodrome), at the Carter's Green end of High Street, was opened in 1906 as a music hall and from 1911 was being used for variety, plays, and pantomimes. After the First World War it became a cinema, though variety shows continued to be given. It was closed in 1922 and soon afterwards demolished. (fn. 23)
The first cinemas were opened in 1910: the Electric, with entrances in High Street and Paradise Street, in May, (fn. 24) and the Queen's, Queen Street, later in the year. (fn. 25) The Imperial, Spon Lane, designed by A. Bye, was established in 1912. (fn. 26) By 1928 there were seven, (fn. 27) and in the 1930s and 1940s as many as eight were in operation at times. (fn. 28) When the A.B.C., Carter's Green, closed in 1968 only two, the King's in Paradise Street and the Queen's, were left. The Queen's was demolished in 1969, after a period of several months during which it had catered for immigrants by showing Indian and Pakistani films. In the same year, however, the Imperial, which had been converted into a bingo hall in 1965, became a cinema once more. It and the King's remained open in 1970. (fn. 29)
A concert was held at the Bull's Head inn in 1819, and in 1836 it was claimed that music, 'chiefly cultivated in private families', was the principal amusement of the town. (fn. 30) There was a choral society in 1847, (fn. 31) and in the 1850s Concerts for the People were being given by amateurs under the patronage of James Bagnall. Most of the performers were local working people and large audiences were attracted. (fn. 32) A Philharmonic Society was established in 1869. (fn. 33) A new choral society which was formed in 1876, the earlier body apparently having lapsed, was disbanded in 1906. (fn. 34) In 1970 the town had an operatic society and a youth orchestra.
George Osborne, minister at the Old Meeting from 1785 to 1792, was connected with the foundation and maintenance of what has been claimed as the first public library in West Bromwich; the books were kept at the Swan inn. (fn. 35) In the late 1820s William Salter, a New Street bookseller and printer, kept a newsroom, (fn. 36) while from the 1830s several libraries and newsrooms were established. (fn. 37) The Free Libraries Acts were adopted in 1870, (fn. 38) and a library designed by Weller & Proud of Wolverhampton formed part of the group of public buildings erected in High Street in the 1870s. It was opened in stages in 1874-5. (fn. 39) A subscription library (which operated until 1934) was added to the existing public library departments in 1884. (fn. 40) In 1907 the library moved into its present home, erected at the expense of Andrew Carnegie in High Street on the site of the market hall and the Heath iron warehouse and adjoining the old library. It is of brick with stone dressings and has a façade with Ionic columns and an interior decorated with coloured tiles, stained glass, and murals; the architect was Stephen J. Holliday of West Bromwich. In 1924 the reading room of the old library became the borough's council chamber. A junior open-access library was opened in 1929, and in 1937 open access was introduced in the adult library. (fn. 41) The West Bromwich Technical Library, housed in the Technical College, High Street (now the Engineering Division of the West Bromwich College of Commerce and Technology), was established in 1960. It is open to the public. (fn. 42)
The Oak House, Oak Road, presented to the borough by Reuben Farley, was opened as a museum in 1898. (fn. 43) The cottage at Newton where Francis Asbury, the Methodist pioneer, spent his early years was acquired by the corporation in 1955 and opened to the public in 1959. (fn. 44)
A newspaper called the West Bromwich Reporter was being published weekly in 1869 (fn. 45) and probably dated from 1863. No more is known of it. The Wednesbury Advertiser, founded in 1859, had by 1868 become the Wednesbury and West Bromwich Advertiser; but it was always published at Wednesbury, and in 1872 West Bromwich was dropped from the title. (fn. 46) In 1867 William Osborne established the weekly West Bromwich Times, which he printed and published at his office in High Street. It had ceased publication by 1872. (fn. 47) There was a West Bromwich Weekly News in 1878; (fn. 48) it had been published by William Britten in High Street since at least 1876 and had probably been founded in 1871. (fn. 49) By 1880 the publishers were the Midland Printing Co., also in High Street. It continued to be printed and published at West Bromwich until 1904 and thereafter at Oldbury, where the publishers merged it with an existing Weekly News to form the West Bromwich, Smethwick and Oldbury Weekly News (subsequently the Oldbury Weekly News). A short-lived West Bromwich Echo, printed and published in Paradise Street by Joseph Bates, appeared weekly in 1879. (fn. 50)
The weekly Free Press, a Liberal paper, was founded in 1875. (fn. 51) When its proprietors, the Free Press Co., went into liquidation in 1878 J. A. Kenrick, a leading West Bromwich Liberal and a member of a prominent local family of ironfounders, bought the concern and went into partnership with F. T. Jefferson, a lawyer who had been the secretary of the Free Press Co. In 1882 the business moved from Hudson's Passage to High Street. From 1886 to 1894 Jefferson also published The Labour Tribune, a Radical paper which described itself as 'the organ of the miners, ironworkers, nut and bolt forgers, &c., of Great Britain' and aimed at a national readership. (fn. 52)
In 1896 another Liberal weekly, the West Bromwich and Oldbury Chronicle, was established by Astbury & Jewell in Paradise Street. Its early years, like those of the Free Press, were financially insecure, and there were several changes of ownership as well as several slight changes of name. (fn. 53) J. L. Astbury became the sole proprietor in 1903. (fn. 54) The South Staffordshire Newspaper and Printing Co. Ltd. was formed in 1905 to take over the Chronicle and some other local papers, but it went into voluntary liquidation in 1910 and from then until 1912 the Chronicle was run by its printer, Joseph Wones. In 1912 the paper was acquired by its present owners, the Dudley Herald Ltd., now Midland United Newspapers Ltd. Later the same year the paper became the Midland Chronicle for West Bromwich and Oldbury. (fn. 55) The Chronicle's layout and appearance were from its early days more popular in design than those of the rival Free Press. Its acquisition by a publishing group gave it greater financial stability. Kenrick & Jefferson Ltd., on the other hand, gradually lost interest in the Free Press and in 1933 sold it to the proprietors of the Chronicle, who merged the papers to form what is now the West Bromwich Midland Chronicle and Free Press. (fn. 56) The local government changes of 1966, by which Wednesbury became part of the county borough of West Bromwich, prompted the West Midlands Press Ltd., proprietors of the Wednesbury Times, to increase the coverage of their paper and to alter its title. The first issue of the West Bromwich News and Wednesbury Times appeared in April 1966. (fn. 57) Like the Chronicle the News has offices in West Bromwich but is not printed in the town.
A cricket club was formed in 1828. (fn. 58) No more is known of it, but it may have been an ancestor of the present West Bromwich Dartmouth Cricket Club. Dartmouth, established in 1834, (fn. 59) was for some years early in its life apparently known as the Victoria Cricket Club; the present name was subsequently adopted as a compliment to the earls of Dartmouth, who have always been the club's patrons. (fn. 60) From 1837 the club played on the Four Acres, part of the Dartmouth estate, and in 1920 Lord Dartmouth provided the present ground in Sandwell Park. The club plays in the Birmingham and District Cricket League. (fn. 61) There is a West Bromwich Cricket League, which in 1969 consisted of 14 teams playing in two divisions. (fn. 62)
West Bromwich Albion Football Club (the 'Throstles') was founded in 1879 as West Bromwich Strollers by a group of men from Salter's spring works. (fn. 63) Men from Salter's continued to be prominent in the club for many years. Several of the early players lived in the Albion district of West Bromwich, and within a year of its foundation the club adopted its present name. The club took its first enclosed ground, in Walsall Street, in 1881; in 1882 it moved to the Four Acres; and in 1885 it moved to a larger ground in Stoney Lane and became a professional club. It was a founder member of the Football League, established in 1888. In 1900 it moved to its present home, the Hawthorns, at the corner of Birmingham Road and Halford's Lane.
In 1803 there were 10 friendly societies in West Bromwich, with an estimated membership of 500. (fn. 64) By 1813 there were over 700 members of friendly societies; (fn. 65) the number of societies at that date is unknown, for registration was generally unpopular in the Black Country and those which registered represented only a fraction of those in existence. (fn. 66) About 1832 a writer estimated that there were at least 40 such groups in the parish, 'including sick clubs, money clubs, clothes clubs, and clubs for land or furniture'. The oldest society was then 56 years old, but most had been founded in the previous 20 years. (fn. 67) Many of the clubs were in fact ad hoc bodies which broke up after a year or two; money clubs, as a West Bromwich collier stated in 1843, were little more than attempts by butties to promote drinking in a particular public house. (fn. 68) There were, however, more permanent groups, and, despite the prejudice against it, registration increased in the 1830s and 1840s. Purely local clubs—such as Woodhall's Friendly Society (1812), which met fortnightly at the Red Lion, Thomas Woodhall's public house near All Saints' Church—were supplemented in the 1840s by local branches of national organizations—the West Bromwich Loyal Tenerife Lodge of Nelsonic Crimson Oaks (1846) and several lodges of Odd Fellows and Odd Women. In addition there was at least one occupational society, the West Bromwich Miners Friendly Society (1841). (fn. 69) By 1876 there were 70 registered societies, mostly dating from the 1860s and 1870s. (fn. 70) The growth of friendly societies and benefit clubs was encouraged by some employers. Archibald Kenrick (d. 1835), for example, organized a benefit association among the workers at his Spon Lane foundry; (fn. 71) in 1812 Edward Elwell the younger, another iron-founder, was president of Woodhall's Friendly Society; (fn. 72) about 1854 John Bagnall & Sons set up a sick club and contributed largely to the funds; (fn. 73) and T. B. Salter (d. 1887), head of the spring-balance firm, started a sick and burial club for his employees. By the early 20th century George Salter & Co. operated schemes which anticipated subsequent national welfare and insurance legislation. (fn. 74)
In 1856 the West Bromwich Association for Working Men, a body modelled on the Wednesbury Recreation Society, was formed, with the strong support of industrialists and the gentry, to provide lectures, concerts, and social intercourse. (fn. 75) A working men's club and newsroom was established in a large house in High Street in 1876 largely through the efforts of the local branch of the Church of England Temperance Society. When the club's committee decided to allow the consumption of beer on the premises a total abstinence group split off and in 1878 opened a temperance coffee house in High Street, modelled on those already established in Birmingham. (fn. 76)
The Y.M.C.A., after working for four years in a coach house and stables in New Street, moved in 1888 to new premises in St. Michael Street. The building has an impressive façade, in a pointed Gothic style with moulded brick decoration. By the end of the 19th century it was a centre of both social and educational life in West Bromwich. In 1965 the Association moved to temporary premises elsewhere in the town and in 1970 to a new hostel in Carter's Green with accommodation for 70 residents and a large sports hall. (fn. 77)