Associated with The Black Country Memories Club
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The Railway arrived in Bilston in 1849. All this
brought about a rapid increase in the population, from 3000 in 1780 to
7000 in 1801 and 24000 by 1851. This lead to over crowding, bad housing
and insanitary conditions.
Labourers moving from other parts of the country tended to congregate in particular streets, courts or yards which sometimes took their names from their inhabitants. Local rural migrants in Shropshire Row, Later called Salop Street, Scots in Caledonia Street and Irish in Shamrock Yard.
Such conditions gave an idea breeding ground for
the cholera epidemic of 1832 which killed one in twenty of the
population of the town in 7 weeks. The shock brought about some
improvements in conditions, but it took a further epidemic in 1849
when another 600 people died to bring about real changes. A local
Board of Health was established in 1850 and became the Bilston Urban
District Council in 1894.
These bodies were responsible for providing Bilston with all the amenities expected in a town of its size - A Town Hall, Library, A market hall, Public Baths, Hospitals, A water supply, a sewage system, a fire brigade, parks, a cemetery and housing. Gas and electricity were also provided by private companies. In 1933 Bilston was incorporated as a Municipal Borough with Herbert Beach as the first Mayor.
Municipal independence was retained until 1966 when in a general re-organization of local government in South Staffordshire. Bilston was amalgamated with Wolverhampton. In the early 20th century there were still a few farms between Willenhall and Bilston. The road was bounded on each side by fields and there was an occasional house to be seen. During the 20th century the two towns almost merged into each other. Bilston became increasingly industrialized and the brochure for the 1933 Charter Ceremony mentions the manufacture of pig-iron , steel bars and strip, galvanised sheets, steel stampings and pressings.
Boilers, castings, bolts and nuts, tubes, aircraft components and hollow-ware amongst what it boasts are the hundred trades of Bilston. Most of these however were heavy industries all inter-connected and the town has suffered badly in periods of recession, first in the 1930s when it was included in Fenner Brockways book Hungary England and then again in more recent years. The revival of heavy industry in the war and post-war years did no last and establishment of newer industries has been largely insufficient to take up Bilston's surplus labour. The closure of he steelworks in 1979 was symbolic of the fortunes of the town as a whole.
In spite of decline, Bilston today is much better materially for the vast majority of people than at anytime in the past. Pictures taken as recently as the 1950's show appalling housing conditions coexisting with a period of industrial prosperity, and is true to say that the 'Good ole days' were by no means as good for everybody. However; through all these changes Bilston has retained it's individuality and something of its small-town character.
All around there are physical reminders of the best as well as the worst of all the phases it has passed through. The oldest building in the town is the Greyhound and Punchbowl Inn, a fine survival of the fifteenth century, but a great deal of Bilston's eighteenth-century houses have escaped the developer and their elegant proportions still grace all the main streets, although many are hidden on the ground floor by modern shop-fronts.
The nineteenth century also added some fine public buildings to the town-scape. The Town Hall, St Leonard's and St Mary's Churches, as well as St Leonard's Vicarage and many other private houses in the new streets radiating out from the town centre, all date from this period, as did the considerable number of nonconformist chapels, now mostly demolished.
The twentieth century's most significant contribution has probably been the construction of large estates of new houses to ease the over crowding which still existed in the town centre. Bilston indeed was at the forefront of planning in the 1930's when it employed Charles Reilly to implement his 'Village Green' ideas, in the building of Stowlawn estate in particular.
Up until 1951 a Mr. Beddows owned a few cows and they grazed on a field near the sewage beds on the Lunt Estate (the site of the ancient Lunt Piece) and he delivered milk to a few customers daily. He housed the cows in his stables in Becket Street, not far from the Lunt Estate. The agricultural land was all lost to industry and to housing.
The mid-century figures for employment in Bilston tell their own story. There was an overwhelming emphasis on metal work and mechanical engineering. The figures in the list show too an extraordinary increase in mechanical engineering, as new subsidiary industries developed and the town started to produce a wider range of goods.
A feature of industry in Bilston was the employment of females in the factories. The majority of this female labour was supplied by married women who went out to work to help with the family "purse". A small percentage had jobs such as cleaning offices, making and taking the tea round factory or as canteen assistants. The biggest percentage was employed inside the factories using hand-presses and such mechanical machines which did not require much skill but are very monotonous. In every factory the percentage of female labour was almost equal to that of the male labour.