Hide and seek

This week, we lost another historic building to a fire in Walsall. I covered the event here. on my 365daysofbiking Tumblr and one of the side effects on YouTube. The Stymaster lamented it, as did the Hippo. Today, there’s a report in the Express and Star that it wasn’t arson, but the report is so scant, I’m a bit at a loss with it. If it’s not arson, it’s certainly convenient to developers who’d rather not be troubled with old buildings here in Walsall and a Council that bends over backwards to acquiesce to their every whim.

I’m aware that there are differing views on this – regular reader and Brownhills Blog contributor Andy Dennis this week put up a spirited defence of the the modern progression, which I salute and admire him for. I have to say, however, that Andy’s position is one that scares me. Yeah, buildings being derelict – like the hugely important Shannons Mill was or the BOAC building – are an eyesore. It is, however, up to civic leaders to fight for, rather than abandon to chance, the preservation of our heritage. Many towns and cities in the UK have made virtues of their past historical architecture – Bristol, Liverpool, Salford, Cheltenham – so why can’t we? Old buildings are difficult, but they are our collective identity. Without them, we’re a pattern engineered town full of strip-malls, tin superstore sheds and identikit flats thrown up with timber frame and cheap brick.

The civic response in Walsall has always been to give up, give in and celebrate the tawdry new commercial dream. Modern architecture in Walsall is on a continued fail cycle started in the sixties. Lack of vision gave us the Overstrand to destroy the view of the church, Townend Square to carve up the south of the town centre obliterating a lovely old hotel, and the Saddlers Centre instead of a gorgeous Victorian station. The new college and Tesco are aberrations thrown up on the cheap by a brazen, grasping company not held to any social account, the Asda on Church Hill proving that we learned nothing from the debacle that was the Overstrand three decades before. Every decade we now seem to be locked into the cycle of dealing with the bad decisions of two decades before. As the Overstrand comes down, we await the next edifice with a mixture of world-weary derision and trepidation. The only decent modern building in Walsall of recent note is possibly the Art Gallery, mainly because the council were largely kept at arms length where they couldn’t wreck it.

Today, then, in pictures from the past, I’m sharing some urban exploration pictures of the Jabez Cliff works – some taken only a short time before it’s death – to hopefully illuminate the plight of our heritage here in Walsall. This was a noble, well-built headquarters, abandoned and left to dwellers, junkies and vandals. This is our communal history in it’s death throws. I pay tribute to the photographers who braved this place to record it. Please click through to their galleries on Flickr.

I personally find it sickening.

Jabez Cliff and Co Walsall URBEX

The brickwork in the frontage was gorgeous and bold. The building would have made great flats. Picture from the amazing Flickr photo stream of Indy 500.


I always find the abandoned detritus in a place fascinating. Great picture from Flickr user Hev Ince.

Rubber Stamps

Rubber stamps discovered in the old building by Indy 500 and posted on Flickr. She has a great eye for odd things and her Urbex galleries are a joy.

Lonely Toy.

Again, the stuff that gets left behind. This meant something to somebody once. An odd picture spotted in VERY URGENT photography's Flickr photo stream.


The fabric of the building seemed reasonably intact in the images posted by Hev Ince, taken in May, 2010 and uploaded to Flickr.


The former works became increasingly overgrown, as nature claimed it back - the eventual fate of most abandoned buildings. Photo by donebythehandsofabrokenartist and posted on Flickr. This was taken last May.


From the open door in the corner, you can see the site owners didn't care for security. Presumably they're now content with the outcome as another headache is lifted. Another lovely Flickr shot by donebythehandsofabrokenartist.


The former Jabez Cliff works - like Lime House and many other abandoned buildings in Walsall - was a favourite, peaceful haunt of junkies and the dispossessed, because access was easy. Why were the owners not forced to improve security? Grim stuff posted by Hev Ince on Flickr.

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18 Responses to Hide and seek

  1. stymaster says:

    It struck me how short, terse, and light on detail the report stating it wasn’t arson was. Almost as if the speculation must be quashed, quickly.

  2. scott says:

    Just watched your youtube video, and wondered if the matrix sign near Borneo Street was actually telling you what was happening, or just to take a break as usual?

    • Yes it was, except it was too late for anyone to take evasive action. Should be at Rushall Square if you ask me. If you want to see what it said theres a picture on my 365daysofcycling mini-blog linked from the sidebar.

  3. Andy Dennis says:

    To improve on the way we, as a nation, preserve our heritage requires a political choice with staying power. For example, Amsterdam and Delft (and other places) in the Netherlands are maintained because the government has a rolling programme of grants to help owners with doing the right rather than the cheap thing. In England, on the other hand, people who own listed houses and other buildings are left largely to their own devices and those who can’t afford Welsh slate or cast iron guttering (or double-glazed hardwood sash windows to keep down the fuel bills) when replacements are needed get precious little or no help, but are harrassed by the authorities when they do what they can afford to keep the rain out. Unless we recognise that heritage is a public good and not a private service then opportune fires and unsympathetic repairs will continue to happen.

    The best use for the Jabez Cliff buildings would indeed have been to redevelop the site for residential, retaining the older workshop frontages and replacing the more recent additions with something truly modern that says Walsall both respects its past and moves boldly into the future. However, no developer will build at a loss, so how much does the tax payer think it is worth? We could, perhaps, put to work those upon whom the free education we provide is wasted so they are too knackered to cause trouble in the evenings … Well, they would have worked for the likes of Jabez Cliff all those years ago!

  4. kate Goodall says:

    There seems to be an online conspiracy theory that either politicians or planners are wandering round the borough with zippos at the ready. Who decides if a fire is down to arson or not? Is it not the Fire Service? I’ve worked with some senior fire officers over the last so many years, and they’re, quite rightly, nobody’s puppets. They’re also dedicated professionals. If the Fire Service have investigated a fire scene, I’m inclined to go with their findings.

    I don’t agree that the new college is an aberration. I think it’s a great building, both inside and out. If we want Walsall’s young people (and older ones of course!) to be skilled-up and ready for work, we have to offer more than the dated old building on St Paul’s Street did. Tesco…well…a supermarket is always going to be a supermarket. Wish I’d taken a pic of the Tesco I went to in Moscow in 1995 though!

    And the Art Gallery. I wonder when we’ll stop calling it the New Art Gallery? Not built at arm’s length from the Council as far as I know. It’s probably fair to say though that the NAG wants to stand proud as an internationally renowned gallery, rather than part of Walsall Council. Fair enough; it has to maintain status in the art world in its own right.

    Having had my rant, I do agree how sad it is to see buildings of note disappear. My Mom worked at the George Hotel, as well as a leather place in Leicester Street, many years ago. I’m glad one of them has been restored and retained.

    • To be fair, I don’t think politicians or planners are running around with zippos. Developers – the usual driver behind these situations – are shrewd enough to know that they don’t need to take direct action. All you need to do is drop security subtly, and the usual suspects will do the rest. The idea that these buildings are hard to secure is cobblers, frankly. It just costs money.

      I’m interested in the assertion that this wasn’t arson, as the building had long since had the electricity cut off. Since diesel trains don’t emit burning smuts (usually) it does make the range of possible unintentional causes quite limited. The lack of specification of the cause is also a little odd.

      The fact is that developers – and I’ve spoken to a fair few – almost universally share the view that these buildings are a pain and hard to dispense with. Councillors get fed up of dealing with complaints related to such sites – drugs, vandalism, ASB – so when the inevitable happens, we’re expected to be ‘relieved’ and ‘welcome’ the easy way out. It stinks.

      The college wasn’t a straight choice between St. Paul’s campus and the bent tin can. There was a third option of building something decent that won’t give structural pain in a decade. Walsall College now is still scandalous in that it I the only major FE college in the UK with no direct public transport support. That it is is a scandal and shows just how little forethought went into the plan. Tesco must still be pissing themselves, while a commercially naive educational establishment flounders financially.

      The Art Gallery genesis was interesting. There’s a book in there somewhere about the attempts by certain individuals to interfere with everything from architectural design to collections policy. People engaged with the project and in certain circles know exactly what I’m talking about.

      Best wishes


    • stymaster says:

      There’s certainly no suggestion from me that planners or politicians have the unleaded in one hand and a zippo in the other. The developers or owners? Not so sure. Property developers are a hard-nosed bunch, and old buildings are expensive and difficult to reuse.

      The College? It’s ok, just a bit wood metal and glass fashionable. Undoubtedly better than the old one I studied at. Tesco, however, along with Asda, is just plain hideous, and it seems wrong that we can lose so many great buildings yet freely allow all comers to build a load of shite in our town. Glance over from Crown Wharf at the newish flats that would embarrass a communist bloc country in the 70s.

      I’ve got nothing but respect for the Fire Service: I worked for them for several years, including 1 hot summer of chasing fire engines around the county trying to fix the radios because they were too busy to stop. The E+S story, however, rings alarm bells because of it’s terseness: usually they’re only too ready to pad things out a bit. If it wasn’t direct arson in this case, it *was* a lack of care and security as shown in the urbex photos. Hundred-year-old buildings don’t spontaneously combust, and we’re all expected to cheer when we’re “finally rid of the eyesore” when old buildings are allowed to rot/fall down/mysteriously catch on fire.

    • martin says:

      I think it’s the New Art Gallery, as in ‘gallery for new art’ rather than the ‘new gallery for art’ but that could be cobblers….

  5. martin says:

    Did anyone else see Nick Crane’s programme about Ludlow?
    The tale of how their Tesco got built contrasts starkly with Walsall’s…a council with vision and the courage of its convictions ‘persuaded’ Tesco build something in keeping with its surroundings.
    And, oh! how I laughed when Mad Mike said he thought he would he and Handy Andy would be remembered as the men who got rid of the Overstrand – they’ve obviously given up on improving schools, reducing youth unemployment, evening out the disparity in life expectation between the east and west of the borough, but they’ve got rid of a building in the town without it burning down.
    Well done boys.

    • stymaster says:

      I did. I didn’t care much for that Tesco either, but at least an effort was made.

      • martin says:

        That’s my point, the planners made Tesco make an effort.
        Our planners just seem to roll over and let developers walk over them – you only have to look around the town to see that it has been happening for decades.
        They drag their heels over big developments until either developers or vandals take things out of their hands.
        The developments that do go ahead are average at best, downright ugly at worst.
        I suppose you only have to look at how the Civic Centre was crudely nailed on to the Council House to see that there is a lack of cohesive vision; or look at the Electoral Registration office or the bus station; look at the old photos of the station as it was and marvel at the replacement.
        How do you get a planning department that has some sense of pride in the town it oversees?
        Sadly, they can’t even close down the ‘illegal’ car washes that are springing up …. and in any case, they’re too scared to take really decisive action because car washes provide the only jobs being created in the borough these days
        Seems to me it’s just another example of lack of vision and leadership from both senior officers and councillors

  6. Andy Dennis says:

    Ludlow. The essential point in planning terms was that Tesco wanted build outside the centre where this would draw trade away from the existing shops. According to the programme, it took 9 years to persuade Tesco to build near the centre and this appears not to affected trade for local businesses adversely.

    In terms of design, it is very difficult, and usually impossible, to refuse planning permission on design grounds, partly because it is so subjective. However, in a town like Ludlow there is a character to be observed. Just what style of building would you demand from a developer in Walsall? How much of your Council Tax would you spend on this?

  7. Andy Dennis says:

    Walsall rolls over. Not so. Walsall Council has a long and distinguished record of (often unseen) challenge to the big retailers who usually want to put stores in places that draw trade away from existing centres and other developers. Many of the worst proposals don’t see the light of day. They don’t just let anyone put anything just where they please without strong justification.

    Asda wanted to build on the Black Country Route (a bit like putting Brownhills Tesco by the M6-toll junction). By then, there was prescious little left of Darlaston, but there would be nothing at all now if the Council had not fought Asda in a public inquiry lasting a whole month. At the time this was the biggest inquiry into a single development proposal and the 4 staff involved clocked up over 1300 hours of (unpaid) overtime. The cost to the Council was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and to Tesco possibly in millions. It did, however, return Asda (which they said in evidence would be bricked up for 50 years) to the centre and saved land for hundreds of other much needed jobs.

    In Walsall, Tesco would have got planning permission one way or another to build where the college is now, taking its trade even further from the centre. Forcing them to recycle their old store on The Bridge was not open to the Council. One benefit of the current arrangement is that there is a new college. I quite like that, by the way.

    I agree it’s far from ideal, but the Council’s planning strategies and policies are trumped by national policies which are not even as good as wishy washy on design (and now in draft on “sustanable development”). Then there is the sheer financial muscle of major developers who can afford the best lawyers and technical experts and typically spend 5-10 times more than the Council can afford. The Council has some outstanding planners and other staff, but they are limited in number and resources and cannot afford a fight unless pretty well everything is in their favour. Right is often not might. The very fact that the public usually remains silent is also a handicap. Where were you when the public inquiry took place? Where was your letter? Where was your alternative design? Where was your placquard outside the Council House? Darlaston residents and shopkeepers were there when it mattered. People power can work, but it only works if people execise it.

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