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A History of Bilston 

Part 4 of Bilston's History

Dr. Rowlands says that by the end of the 1600s it was the local gentry who were exploiting the mineral wealth of the area: “Mr. Hoo of Bradley had a quarry of building stone, and William Robbins of the Mansion house had a coal-work at the Croft, where in 1692 he employed Benjamin Wood of London to build him an engine to draw water there, which required four men to keep it going. Samuel Pipe, esquire, had an agreement with William Clarke, coalmaster, of Wednesbury to get coal and iron”.

But things were changing: by 1760 “the Hoo family had much increased their interests becoming lords of the manors of Bradley, Barr and Wednesbury, but ceased to reside in Bilston after 1720. The Perry's too, in their many branches, scattered. The Pipe family died out. William Robbins lived fifteen miles away and ‘only came over to collect his rents or more often sent for them’. Later he moved to London. New men with new fortunes made from new trades came to the fore. In the short period between 1716 and 1730 when trades are given in the register there are 240 references to buckle-makers, 61 to toy-makers and 44 to chape-makers. These trades readily adapted to the introduction of japanning and enameling about 1720”.

It might also be noted that all of these industries, with a few exceptions such as iron production, can be described as cottage industries, in that they were usually run, on a small scale, by large numbers of people operating on their own in their own houses and backyards. They would mostly have sold their products not directly to the consumer but to “factors”, who bought from many makers and sold the bulk of good thus accumulated to merchants, wholesalers and retailers. If, for instance, we think that Bilston mass produced enameled boxes we have to remember that this was not mass production as we know it today, with everything being produced by a large company in a large factory; but it was mostly a very large number of individuals and family, each producing small quantities. But there are indications of bigger operations, employing people outside the family, in both enameling and japanning.

It is well known that coal, of high quality and in many thick seams, underlies most of Bilston. The earliest reference to the mining of coal which Lawley gives is one of 1315. At that time coal was not much used for any purpose – wood was too plentiful and the making of charcoal was widely practiced.

But in time, with the near exhaustion of wood and charcoal, coal became more and more in demand for domestic and industrial purposes and the good people of Bilston did all they could to meet this demand – short of working the mines efficiently. The whole area around, and even within, the village, was covered by small bell pits. This industry continued, to some extent at least, until the early 20th century but most of the pits had been worked out before then. Nearly all the mining was carried out by one man/family operations.

The first material to be quarried in Bilston was stone for grindstones, the local stone being of a very fine grain and producing high quality grindstones. This work continued into the 20th century. Plott says: “The grinding stones dug at Bilston are so fine, and of so small a grit, that they are only useful for thin edged tools, such as knives, razors, &c. and are better than the grinding stones brought out of Derbyshire”.

A second material to be quarried was casting sand. Plott’s Natural History of Staffordshire mentions it: “I met with a sort of sand at Bilston, so very fine that it is hardly palpable. It is of a deep orange colour and it is sent for by artists living at a great distance and used by them to cast metal with”.

And the third, and commercially most important quarry activity, was for limestone, which was used in part for agricultural purposes, though mainly, and more and more, as a vital flux in the making of iron and steel.

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