In Old Willenhall Town

June 13, 2017 in Features, Willenhall by Stuart Williams

Market Place and Dr Tonks' Memorial Clock, Willenhall, c1904

Market Place and Dr Tonks’ Memorial Clock, Willenhall, c1904

By Stuart Williams

Senior Archives/Conservation Assistant

Willenhall (then known as Willenhalch, Anglo-Saxon for ‘the meadowland of Willan’) was first mentioned in the eighth century, when King Ethelbald of Mercia signed a treaty there.  Domesday Book (1086) records ‘Willenhala’ as a very small settlement.

In the Middle Ages, Willenhall was a small agricultural village with a chapel, within the parish of Wolverhampton.  It was not until 1840 that Willenhall had its own parish church, St. Giles; the present church dates from 1867.

Original St Giles' Church, Willenhall, c1865

Original St Giles’ Church, Willenhall, c1865

In 1666, Willenhall’s population was about 300.  In the 1700’s, however, iron and coal began to be fully exploited and the population increased dramatically.  The town grew up around Market Place and Stafford Street with many tiny streets crammed with houses, workshops and pubs.

No. 1 locomotive, Holly Bank Colliery, Short Heath, c1891

No. 1 locomotive, Holly Bank Colliery, Short Heath, c1891

Around Lane Head and Sandbeds was a thriving mining community, and Portobello grew around brickmaking.  Coal mining was important in the Willenhall and Short Heath area until the early 20th century.

Legalite Casino Club (formerly the Dale Cinema), Willenhall, 1969 (Alan Price)

Legalite Casino Club (formerly the Dale Cinema), Willenhall, 1969 (Alan Price)

Willenhall’s most famous industry is lockmaking.  In Elizabethan times this grew up mainly in Wolverhampton, Willenhall and Bilston, becoming concentrated in Willenhall by the mid 1800’s.  In 1855, there were 340 local lockmakers, mostly in small workshops, making locks entirely by hand.  Young apprentices filed the metal, resulting after many years in their having hump backs, and giving Willenhall the nickname of ‘Humpshire’.  Famous Willenhall lockmakers include Josiah Parkes & Sons, Yale & Towne and John Harper & Co.

Josiah Parkes lock factory, Willenhall, 1922

Josiah Parkes lock factory, Willenhall, 1922

Poor housing and lack of proper sanitation led to a cholera epidemic in 1849 when 292 people died.  The epidemic shocked the town into improving conditions and in 1854 the Willenhall Local Board of Health was founded, a forerunner of Willenhall Urban District Council (1894).

Grant of Coat of Arms to Willenhall, 1935

Grant of Coat of Arms to Willenhall, 1935

Reflecting civic pride, several municipal buildings were erected, including the Town Hall and Library in Clemson Street in 1866.

Bandstand, Willenhall Memorial Park, c1922

Bandstand, Willenhall Memorial Park, c1922

The Memorial Park opened in 1922, honouring those killed in the Great War. It remains a popular location and focal point for public and community events, including the annual Willenhall Carnival.

Carnival float, Willenhall Memorial Park, 1930s

Carnival float, Willenhall Memorial Park, 1930s

Willenhall became part of Walsall Metropolitan Borough in 1966 but remains a proud,  independent-minded Black Country market town with a strong identity and heritage.

Willenhall Market, 1969 (Alan Price)

Willenhall Market, 1969 (Alan Price)

 

Stuart Williams