The silver thread of history links past, present and future, and in the ancient town of Walsall that thread is long indeed, and sometimes tangled.
The name of Walsall is thought to derive from Old English ‘Walh’, from the Saxon term for a Briton or Welshman, and ‘H(e)alh’ meaning ‘a sheltered place’. Mysteriously, Walsall was omitted from William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book (1086) – no-one knows why.
Medieval Walsall was cross-shaped, with the highest point, Church Hill, at its head where a church has stood since at least 1200 and St. Matthew’s Church, originally All Saints, contains a 13th century inner crypt. Other points reached down to Town End, and along Peal Street and Rushall Street.
Walsall market has been held since about 1220 and Walsall thrived as an important, primarily agricultural, market town for hundreds of years. However from the 1500s local coal, ironstone and limestone enabled light metalwork to become the traditional industry of Walsall. Horse bits, stirrups, buckles and spurs were made locally for centuries, and from this lorinery trade developed the manufacture of saddlery and leather goods for which the town became famous.
The Industrial Revolution encouraged these small industries to grow on a huge scale and many foundries, ironworks and mines opened, exploiting new canal and railway networks. Indeed Walsall, which was long dubbed ‘The Town of 100 Trades’, once had seven railway lines, but Beeching’s savage destruction of many local railways in the 1960s and the ‘redevelopment’ of Walsall’s remarkable railway station in the 1970s cut back local services dramatically. They have been improved since, but their glory days are lost in the mists of time.
The extraction of limestone for industry and agriculture left a legacy of subsidence problems in Walsall over many years – the town gaining a reputation for being ‘built on thin air’.. More positively, two quarries were flooded to create the Walsall Arboretum lakes. The Arboretum opened commercially in 1874, but became a free public park in 1885, and has since been extended and, more recently, undergone major refurbishment.
Walsall’s population tripled during the 1800s, as people came to work in the town’s prospering industries. Much of the housing was poor and has since been demolished. Unfortunately, redevelopment during the last 175 years also resulted in the loss of most of Walsall’s fine historic buildings, though a few gems, including the Walsall Science & Art Institute in Bradford Place, the Victorian Arcade, the Guildhall, the former Green Dragon pub, St. Matthew’s Hall, the Edwardian Council House and Town Hall, and the Carnegie (Central) Library remain.
Photographs courtesy of Walsall Local History Centre.