Associated with The Black Country Memories Club
The dominant feature of the industry in Bilston was Stewart and Lloyd's Steel works, situated on the side of the canal to the west of the town, which was the major employer. It was eventually nationalised under the name of the British Steel Corporation By the middle of the 20th century the town was characterised by large areas of derelict land, central over crowding and compression. There was an intermixing of housing and industry even within the heart of the town as houses had developed into workshops and factories.
The growth of communications - road, rail and canal - had tended to constrict the town physically and rendered the approach to community development a difficult problem. The lack of diverse industry, which necessitated the entry of each generation into a declining occupation, resulted in a perpetuation of social conditions which presented a picture of slums and overcrowding to a degree that was considerable for the size of the town. In the years after the Second World War plans for reconstruction were drawn up and extensive slum clearance and the building of new housing estates took place.
But as the century wore on so Bilston's economic circumstances worsened as the country's plight worsened. Bilston, with its reliance on a single large steel works and a metal working industry, was particularly hard hit. The single most notable event was the closure of the steel works. Unemployment figures ran at record levels. The deterioration of the town centre was a particularly noticeable consequence. The end of the century saw something of an upturn, with new roads being built to foster new industrial and commercial development. Some industrial activity remains but the town seems, to many, to be slowly finding a new and quite different role, as a commercial, service and residential area. The old way of life and the old communities have all but gone.
The High Street with it's extension Church Street, was the main shopping thoroughfare of Bilston. Until the early nineteenth century it was also the main through road of the town, carrying the highway from Wolverhampton to Wednesbury which at that time ran along Wolverhampton Street and along High Street and Church Street to join Swan Bank. Church Street was also the early market-place of Bilston, so it was fitting that the town commissioners decided to build the market hall there in 1892. In earlier times in Bilston, it was customary for the wealthier citizens to build their homes on the main street. The only one now standing is the Greyhound and Punchbowl Inn, former home of The De Bilston family, but a number of others also once stood on the street, including two believed to have belonged to different branches of the Perry family.
The Street was also well provided with places of entertainment - numerous Inn's and public houses, the original Bilston Theatre in the Market Place and later a number of cinemas. High Street and Church Street have under gone many changes over the centuries, many old shops and the market hall being demolished. To be replaced with a modern shopping centre, which include the indoor and outdoor market and also more recently the pedestrianization of the town centre. The Wellington road was constructed in the early part of the nineteenth century as the new turnpike road.
Before that time he road from Wolverhampton ran along Wolverhampton Street, High Street and Church Street, before passing through Swan Bank to Bridge Street and on to Darlaston. Swan Bank was known as the Broadway and was obviously a focal point of the new road. Two coaching Inn's, The Fox and The Kings Arms, as well as the post office, we're situated here. In later times trams and trolleybuses ran along this route and the tramways waiting room was also located on Swan Bank. The Kings Arms was used as a court room when the traveling justices came to town and also served as a lock-up for prisoners awaiting trial. Mount Pleasant is the section of road from Bilston to Willenhall. It is not known how it got its name, but certainly in the nineteenth century it was a pleasant part of town. Some of the wealthier families such as the Bruetons had set up home there and it's Windmill gave it a semi-rural air. The town end of mount pleasant provided amenities including, the Globe Inn, The Theatre Royal and the police station close to hand. Bilston's history is reflected in the landscape of the town today. We are lucky to have a large collection of photographs documenting life in the town over the past century.
Agriculture was certainly, for centuries, Bilston’s main industry. Originally it would not have been much more than subsistence farming but, as surpluses were produced and an expanding economy made specialisation possible, sales and exchanges in a market would have developed. Bilston, as we have seen, had a market from an early dat e and it was centred on the market cross. The medieval market probably served only local needs but would have gradually expanded, though probably limited, or at least slowed down, by the proximity of the large, regional market, at Wolverhampton.
Bilston market may have had some dealings in wool, as wool was the mainstay of the English medieval economy. The streets and alleys called “Folds” possible reflect this industry but it is most likely that the major trade in Bilston wool was through the very large wool market in Wolverhampton. On the other hand nearly all wool eventually went through London and London merchants and, Bilston being on the main road to London and on the London side of Wolverhampton, it is possible that Bilston people traded directly with passing merchants. In fact, in England generally, far more wool was sold directly to merchants than was sold through markets and Bilston was well placed for this sort of trading. A more specialised agricultural product was flax, which was not only grown in the locality but processed too. The parish registers contain many references to flax workers especially flax dressers. Presumably the large amount of water needed for retting the flax came from the brook.
The market would also have been a principal outlet for local artisans, of the sort which existed in every place of any size – makers of footwear and clothing, corn and seed merchants, carpenters and joiners, and the like. When other industries started in Bilston is not clear but we know that by the 1700s several industries had appeared. Bilston’s industries developed because there was coal, iron ore and limestone underlying it. (It might also be pointed out that there was no very great water supply in Bilston and that good means of transport to areas of consumption were conspicuously lacking). In addition to the raw materials; you need knowledge and entrepreneurial skills and it must have been those characteristics which enabled Bilston to develop industrially. They would have been hampered by the lack of a river for water and distribution, but perhaps helped by the fact that there was no large landowner to hamper development by withholding land and no guilds to stifle the widening of skills.