Readers will recall that a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to contact local author, and former resident of Brownhills, Gerald Reece.
Fortunately, we managed to connect up. Gerald has been very kind and has communicated extensively with me about local history, the timeline of mining in our area, and his researches into Engine Lane. He’s working on some very exciting stuff which I shan’t divulge, but when it sees the light of day (Gerald hasn’t finalised how that will happen yet, so stay tuned), it will shed a whole new light on stuff we’ve been working on here on the blog.
Gerald now lives in Devon, so it really is wonderful that he’s devoting so much time to Brownhills from afar.
The author has been very generous in sharing some of his research material with me, and I’d like to thank him for his time, patience and generosity in sending me some great stuff, which with his permission, I shall share in the coming weeks. There’s one particular thing which I know will blow your socks off… please be patient while I get it scanned.
I now understand far more about how Gerald researched things, and the huge amount of work he put into his totemic work ‘A Walk into History with Gerald Reece’ – bear in mind, mostly before the advent of the internet. The volume of legwork here cannot be understated. I will talk more about that work later. If you can find one, please buy a copy.
In the meantime, here’s something Gerald sent me from 1988. It’s a local history card on Brownhills. What strikes me most about it, is the honesty, particularly the last paragraph, but it’s delivered in the inimitable Reece style. I’ve digitised the text so it can be indexed by search engines and accessible to history seekers.
I thank Gerald for his time and a true act of felicity. I look forward to his future work.
The text reads:
Although the history of Brownhills goes back only two hundred years, the area on which the town stands has a history dating back to prehistoric times. Long before the Romans built Watling Street important ancient trackways crossed here. There are records of remains of an ancient burial mound at Catshill and of a reputed Roman watch post at Knaves Castle which have long since been destroyed. Encroaching upon the boundaries of five ancient manors, Brownhills is steeped in history.
The name first appeared on maps and documents in the early 18th century. The area along Pelsall Road, then Wolverhampton Lane, was settled by coal miners. The lands belonged to the Hussey family, Lords of the Manor of Norton Canes. The Wyrley and Essington Canal was opened in 1797. Norton Pool, now Chasewater, was built in 1799 as a reservoir for the canal system. The heath lands of Ogley Hay were enclosed in 1838, providing farming land for the growing population. Early in the 19th century Coppice Side was settled and pits spread north towards the Rising Sun. A horse-drawn tramway was built linking the workings with the canal loading wharves.
Ogley Hay, being originally extraparochial, that is outside any parish, was declared a Parish in 1838 but there was no parish church until 1851 when St. James’s Church was built. With the coming of the South Staffordshire Railway in 1850 the High Street, then called the Old Chester Turnpike Road, with a toll gate at Anchor Bridge, became an important trading area. With the railway came two men who shaped the future of the town. John Robinson McCiean, arailway engineer, opened up the pits around Chasewater, built the Anglesey Branch Canal and railway line and founded the South Staffordshire Water Works. William Roberts, a pit boy and a ganger on the railway, became a local magistrate, Chairman of the Council, owner of public houses, farms and numerous properties in the area. He was also a great benefactor to the town. He took over the Station Hotel in 1860 and presided over it and Brownhills until his death in 1906.
In 1858 a railway line was cut through the middle of the early mining settlement and the community moved east towards High Street and Ogley Hay. Mining ‘ghettos’ were formed around St. James’s Place and Ogley Square, now the site of the Wheatsheaf in Ogley Road. A coffee house on the corner of High Street and Lichfield Road, opened in 1854. It’s Library and Reading Room soirees and theatre evenings became the cultural centre of Brownhills. In 1913 it became the first Working Men’s Club in Brownhills. After several changes of use, it has now been demolished.
In 1877 Brownhills Local Board of Health was formed, giving control of the town to a locally elected council. The first Board meetings were held at 14 Pelsall Road. In 1882 the Board Offices were built and the distinctive clock added in 1911. In 1894 Brownhills Urban District Council was formed, lasting until amalgamation with Aldridge in 1966 and finally being swallowed up into Walsall Metropolitan Borough in 1974.
Coal remained the main industry until the 1950’s. The Grove Colliery explosion in 1930 killed fourteen local miners. Brownhills was born on coal and may die with its decline-a recent survey into the reopening of the coalfields met with a negative response from the community. While outsiders play Monopoly with the High Street and decide where the next major road will cut through, Brownhills waits.
Places of interest:
The Bridge and its buildings
The Nature Trail: Along a disused railway line from Engine Lane to ‘The Rising Sun’, Chasewater.
Text written by Mr. Gerald Reece of Brownhills for Walsall Local History Centre. 1988.