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Walsall’s Stargazing Clergyman

By Stuart Williams, Snr Archives/Local Studies Assistant

Revd A A Cole late 1800s

Revd Alfred Adolphus Cole, late 1800s

If you live in Walsall today, you can hardly have missed the evidence of a man whose importance to the town is still visible and significant, yet you are unlikely to have heard his name  – Alfred Adolphus Cole.

Cole was born in Gloucestershire on November 4, 1821, and first became a Baptist Minister in Padstow, Cornwall.  Later  moving to West Haddon, Northamptonshire, after twelve years he moved to Walsall, where he dedicated the rest of his life to the service of its people.

Goodall Street Chapel, corner of Goodall St/Freer St, early1900s

Goodall Street Chapel, corner of Goodall St/Freer St, early1900s

Revd Cole’s work centred on the Goodall Street Baptist Chapel (now demolished), on the corner of Freer Street.  By the 1960s the chapel had been sold to the local Freemasons, becoming a Masonic Hall, and oddly enough it was later used as a music venue, becoming one of the first places where a now world-famous heavy metal band – Black Sabbath – performed. 

For thirty-three years, Revd Cole worked hard to improve the lot, both spiritual and material, of both his flock and the other people of Walsall.  During that time, Cole became prominent in the religious and intellectual life of the town and was beloved by his congregation. 

Always supportive of any movement which aimed at the advancement of the people, he enthusiastically assisted all local intellectual and educational works.  As a result he became one of the leading lights of the Walsall Literary Institute which, run by local business man, publisher, journalist and amateur astronomer W. Henry Robinson, boasted over one thousand members by the 1890s, and met regularly at the old Temperance Hall in Freer Street as well as other places.

The Temperance Hall, Freer Street, 1930

The Temperance Hall, Freer Street, 1930

 Like the broad-based institute itself, Revd. Cole combined his many literary interests with the other arts and sciences.  He was a poet, composing many hymns. An enthusiastic and skilled astronomer, he built a large telescope from scratch, making every component himself, even grinding the lenses.  He was also interested in geology.  An artist, he sketched, and also hand-carved the stone columns decorating the interior of his Chapel.

Cole helped establish Walsall’s first Free Library, opened in Goodall Street in 1859, and wholeheartedly supported the Cottage Hospital and the work of Sister Dora, her colleagues and successors, by serving on numerous Hospital Committees for twenty-nine years. 

Unsurprisingly, with all this community involvement and his other interests, Cole eventually became the prime mover behind the Walsall Science & Art Institute, the direct ancestor of the present-day Walsall College.  He had encouraged the first local teaching of popular and elementary art from about 1861, in a night class held in his Chapel’s schoolroom. 

About 1869, a Government School of Art was established in Bridgeman Place.  Around the same time, Government Science Classes began in the Wesleyan School Rooms, Ablewell Street.  In 1872 the art and science classes united as the Walsall Science & Art Institute, with Sir Charles Forster, M.P., as president, and Revd. A. A. Cole as chairman, to which role he enthusiastically devoted over twenty years.

In January 1887, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, William Kirkpatrick, industrialist and Mayor of Walsall, appealed to the people of Walsall to raise funds for a dedicated institute building.  Lord Bradford gave land in Bradford Street (the area renamed Bradford Place), and the result of the appeal and the enthusiastic efforts of Revd. Cole amongst others was the fine building which still stands today. 

Science and Art Institute foundation stone laying, 20 June 1887

Walsall Science and Art Institute foundation stone laying, 20 June 1887

Its foundation stone was laid by the Mayor on June 20, 1887 (Jubilee Day), and the building opened on September 24, 1888.  For more than a century, generations of students went on to enjoy a fine technical, scientific and artistic education there.  The Institute gradually expanded, incorporating a Technical Day School under Mr. W.F. Blay as Headmaster. 

Walsall Science and Art Institute, Bradford Place, about 1888

Walsall Science and Art Institute, Bradford Place, about 1888

Retiring in 1890, Revd. Cole died on February 10, 1893, and was buried in Queen Street Cemetery, with a simple service at Goodall Street Chapel.  His funeral was attended by the great and the good of Walsall and his many friends in the town, who universally expressed a deep sense of loss and the debt that Walsall would always owe him.

The Science & Art Institute gradually evolved over time, becoming ‘Walsall Municipal Science & Art Institute’ in 1897, and around 1908 the School of Art moved to Goodall Street, taking over the original Free Library which had been replaced by a new one in Lichfield Street two years earlier.  In 1926 the old Municipal Institute was renamed Walsall Technical College, which was to be succeeded after the Second World War by a new establishment at Wisemore, later known as Walsall College of Arts & Technology, which in time rededicated the original College building to the study of art and design and the practical skills of painting, decorating etc. 

When the College decided to move to a new building in Littleton Street just a few years ago, the grand old Institute was sold off, and it is now used as offices by a Globe Property.

Revd Alfred Adolphus Cole was a man of distinction as a preacher, a man of intellect, an artist and a scientist, and a very real benefactor to the people of Walsall in so many ways.  He deserves to be well-remembered today, and there could be no better local monument to both Queen Victoria and to the good Revd than the Walsall Science & Art Institute and its fine educational legacy in the town.