Associated with The Black Country Memories Club
Rheinhold Angerstein; the Swedish industrial spy came back to
Bilston, but Angerstein was only interested in industrial
production, but Lawley, Price and Page all quote a description of
Bilston, made in 1790, by an American who passed through the village
and who provides a more general picture. None of the writers who
this passage say where this description originated from:
"It is one of the largest villages in England, containing more than 1,000 houses. It is situate on a rising ground on the old Watling Street Road, from London to Holyhead, and the navigable canal (not long opened) from Birmingham to London. The Worcestershire and Staffordshire Canal also passes close by it, by which means it enjoys a constant and ready means of communication with the metropolis, the western parts and the numerous manufacturing towns between them. Some thirty coaches pass through here daily, and the London coach weekly. It is of ancient date, probably going back as far as Saxon times. The low many gabled, half-timbered, octagonal shaped houses of the Tudor age, are dotted about here and there, and inhabited by the gentry, and stand without any regard for regularity. The principle manufactures consist chiefly of Japanned goods, buckle-chapes, which are wrought to great perfection, iron screws, and recently erected iron furnaces and foundries, worked by the steam engines.
"The Chapel is a modern edifice, though built on the foundations of an ancient structure. It is covered with slate, has a square tower of brick, and contains six bells. There are likewise a dissenting chapel and charity school. The principle Inn is the Bull, and the population, recently much increased is 4,800".
By 1800 the whole nature of the town had changed, from a modest agricultural village to a stirring giant of industry. As we will see the town now did not have any governmental structures in place to deal with this radically changed situation. By this time the manorial courts had largely fallen into disuse, only operating – and probably not all that well – to register dealings in copyhold land. The magistrates, at Petty and Quarter Sessions, continued to play an important role, but mainly limited to dealing with such crimes as came before them from a town which lacked a police force.
Most of what had been done by way of governing the town, had been done by the Vestry of St. Leonard’s – in effect a committee of the chief men of the town – but the Vestry had very limited powers to deal with the new challenges. Everything that was done was done by what were, in effect, the voluntary efforts of those with an interest in improving the town. Dr. Rowlands, referring to the “new men”, including the enamellers Dovey Hawksford and John Bickley, says: “From about 1730 it was these men who took the lead in local affairs. They continued to fight for independence from the mother church of Wolverhampton, secured a new independent burial ground, restored the chapel several times, provided it with new bells and new fittings, including a fire extinguisher, and improved the surrounding paths and grounds. They built a new house for the curate, to which, at a later date they added ‘a necessary house’. In order to ‘augment the curacy’ they leased church lands to Burslem Sparrow, the coal-master. They built a crib, a new workhouse, appointed a crier and a schoolmaster. They used their business contacts in the service of the chapelry and themselves subscribed generously to the new undertakings”.
All of which is, no doubt, very commendable, but Dr. Rowlands also quotes the contemporary observer, Dr. Wilkes, who complained: “this village of Bilston, for want of some liberal person to govern it, is very irregular and many robberies and some murders have been committed by persons belonging to it, though great sums of money have been brought thither by toys”. Bilston was already getting a reputation.