The death of a big, big man

I’d like to thank top reader, contributor and friend of the blog Richard Burnell for very kindly transcribing the following article from the Lichfield Mercury of Friday, 9th of February 1906. William Roberts was the almost legendary entrepreneur, brewer and philanthropist of Brownhills, a truly good egg – but also, I feel, quite the cunning rogue. Interestingly, he seems to have managed all this while apparently being almost illiterate.

William Roberts – a remarkable man.

So many myths about the man persist, I thought this was a fair summation of his life. You can see an image of the original article here – I’ll warn you now, it’s a big file.




We very much regret to announce the death of Mr. William Roberts, J.P., of Brownhills, which took place early on Monday morning at his residence the Station Hotel. The deceased gentleman, who was seventy-seven years of age, had only been confined to his bed since the new year, though he had been ailing for some time previously. Deceased had been attended by Dr. J. C. Maddever.

The deceased’s career was a somewhat remarkable one. Born in a humble station of life, he had, by his own perseverance and dogged tenacity, built up an extensive licensing business, and owned of the largest concerns in the brewing trade under priyate [sic] proprietorship in the Midlands. The son of a Waterloo veteran, he was born at Shenstone near to the Bull’s Head inn, in 1828. From here, however, he removed in infancy, his father going to reside at Brownhills at a farm house, now know as the “Tommy Shop.” As a boy he assisted his father upon the farm, and also worked form some time at the local collieries. It was here that he started his career as a navvy on the new line then being made from Walsall to Lichfield, but, displaying abilities far above the average, he soon rose to the position of a “ganger.” On the completion of the line he went to Durham, where he executed several contracts in connection with railways, which, at that time, were in their infancy. He had a large number of men under his control, and amongst the railway contracting, in which he took a large share, was the erection of the Stannidge Tunnel, between Stalybridge and Huddersfield, which is between three and four miles long. At this time he did a large amount of work in Lancashire and the North. While in this part of the country he became acquainted with his future wife, Miss Ann Bradley, the daughter of a shoemaker, whom he married at Yarm, in Yorkshire, in 1852, and who survives him. On the death of his father he made his venture in the licensed trade at the Tower Inn, Potter’s Hill, Aston. He, however, only remained here about nine months, and in 1860 he heard from an old inhabitant of Brownhills, Mr. Jospeh Marklew, that the Station Hotel was Vacant. Mr. Roberts immediately came over, and satisfactory arrangements being made with the late Mr. Harrison, of Aldershaw (Capt. W. B. Harrison’s father), he first became the tenant of the house and eventually bought it. At that time the hotel had nothing like the accommodation which it now possesses, but as the district became more populous and business increased, the house had from time to time to be enlarged. It is a curious coincidence that the deceased gentleman first entered as a tenant of the Station Hotel on February 4th, 1860, and died on February 5th, 1906 – Forty-six years almost to the very day.

Mr. Roberts owned no fewer that twenty-six licensed houses, all within a six mile radius of Brownhills. These included, in addition to the Station Hotel, where he resided up to the time of his death, six other houses in Brownhills, viz., the Shoulder of Mutton, the Royal George, the Wheat Sheaf, the Warrener’s Arms, the Swan Inn, and the Rising Sun. He also owned the Anglesey Hotel and the Globe Inn, Hednesford; the Crown Inn, Chadsmoor; the Crown Hotel and the Swann Inn, Cannock; Bridgtown Tavern, Bridgtown; Swann Inn, Wyrley; Freemasons’ Arms, Newton; the Spotted Cow Inn and the Spring Cottage, Bloxwich; the Newport Arms, the Elephant and Castle, and the Vine Inn, Walsall; the Boot Hotel, Walsall Wood; the White Lion, Pelsall; the Star Inn, Burntwood; the Vine (outdoor beer license) and the Yew Tree Inn, Norton; and the Muckley Corner Hotel, Muckley Corner. For the Anglesey Hotel at Hednesford the deceased paid £12,100, for the Spotted Cow Inn at Bloxwich, £8,000; and for the Vine Inn, Walsall, £6,000; the average price paid for the remainder being about £3,000.

Mr. Roberts also owned a large amount of private and business property in Brownhills and district. In addition to his licensing business, the late Mr. Roberts took a keen interest in agriculture, and was a large breeder of cattle, and especially of pigs. He was the owner of three large farming estates, including the Pipe Place Farm, of 300 acres; the Warren House Farm, of 90 acres; and the Lodge Farm of 65 acres.

Mr. Roberts had been identified with the public life of the locality for a very long period. He was first elected a member of the old Brownhills Local Board in 1877, and sat continuously until 1894, acting as Chairman in 1892-3-4. After an absence of three years, he was elected at a bye-election to a seat on the Urban Council, as it then was. In 1904 he was again appointed Chairman, succeeding Mr. J. Lloyd, and being re-elected in 1905, he thus held the office at the time of his death. He took a deep interest in all the affairs of the Council, and was ever prominent in bringing forward schemes for the benefit of the rate payers. He had no doubt to contend with much opposition at times, but having once formed his opinions he maintained them both inside and outside the Council Chamber. Particular mention should be made of his work in connection with the Sewage Farm. He was a regular attendant at the ordinary and committee meetings of the Council, nothing but illness preventing him from being present. He took a prominent part in the erection of the Public Buildings at Brownhills in 1887, and in 1898 gave a steam fire engine to the District Council. From time to time he made handsome donations to various local charities, including two donation of £100 each to the Walsall Cottage Hospital, £100 to the Hammerwich Cottage Hospital, £105 to the Wolverhampton General Hospital, £100 to the Royal Orphanage, Wolverhampton; £100 to the Queen’s hospital, Birmingham; £100 to the General Hospital, Birmingham; £25 to the Wolverhampton Eye Infirmary; and £25 to the Birmingham Eye Hospital. During the great coal strike in 1893 he supplied free meals daily to a large number of the local strikers who were destitute. He also entertained the old people and others upon the occasion of the King’s Coronation, and at other times the inhabitants of the locality enjoyed his hospitality.

In politics the deceased was a staunch Conservative, and at one time occupied the position of Chairman of the local Association. He was also a Churchman, and formerly held the office of warden at St. James’ Parish Church. He also gave a portion of site upon which the Mount Zion Primitive Medieval Methodist Chapel is now erected. The deceased was a great believer in the Friendly Society movement, and he was a member of most of the local Lodges, including the Oddfellows, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, and the Foresters, the Free Gardeners, and many others.

Immediately the death of Mr. Roberts was announced, the flag at the Public Buildings was hoisted half-mast high, and everywhere there were signs of the respect in which the deceased was held. Much sympathy is expressed with the widow.

The funeral will take place at St. James’ Church this morning at half-past eleven o’clock.

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36 Responses to The death of a big, big man

  1. Dave Cresswell says:

    From my basic family tree research he adopted one of my relatives Clara Cresswell (become Bagby) after her father died in a mining accident. She was born about 1869 and died on 9th August 1942 and would have been my great Grand Aunt if Ive linked things up correctly. She married a John H Bagby and he passed away before her on 16th March 1936

  2. warren parry says:

    What a fantastic character he was. What Brownhills men are made of.

  3. pedro says:

    “He, however, only remained here about nine months (Aston), and in 1860 he heard from an old inhabitant of Brownhills, Mr. Jospeh Marklew, that the Station Hotel was Vacant. Mr. Roberts immediately came over, and satisfactory arrangements being made with the late Mr. Harrison, of Aldershaw (Capt. W. B. Harrison’s father), he first became the tenant of the house and eventually bought it.”

    With the passage of time I think the Lichfield Mercury (1906) have things a little mixed up here, as the mentioned Mr Harrison of Aldershaw(e) was in fact Mr William Harrison Junior (1798-1877). His abodes was were Station Street in Walsall, Norton Hall and Eastland House over in Leamington.

    Aldershawe was acquired around 1860 by Captain WB Harrison (1836-1912), no doubt with a bit of help from his old man.

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the Harrison family may owned at least one inn that they leased out, and eventually sold out to William Roberts. A cynic would say that the miners may have been given tokens in their pay to be exchanged at the Station Hotel!

  4. Clive says:

    Great piece of work lads, well done to all involved. Looks like he was a nice bloke!

  5. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    many thanks! A super read and a fascinating character. Where was the Royal George pub?

  6. pedro says:

    Remarkable character indeed, locally born, returning to his roots and living among the community till his death.

    His Conservative political ambitions remained at a local level and did not stop him having genuine concern for the less fortunate.

    A contrast to other absentee landlords.

  7. Andy Dennis says:

    In reply to Dave Cresswell.
    Where was Lime Tree Villa, 14 Pelsall Road, Brownhills? Is it the same place as 14 Pelsall Road, now?
    To begin at the beginning …
    Clara Cresswell was born in the spring of 1869 and baptised at Ogley Hay on 2 May, last child of John Cresswell and Pamela (formerly Owen), who lived at Church Street, near the Shoulder of Mutton. I believe her father, a railway labourer, died shortly before her birth (first quarter 1869). Pamela appears in 1871 a widow with six children and a lodger, Charles Cooper, a coal miner from Nuneaton. It appears Pamela and Charles married before 1881.
    In 1891 and 1901 Clara Cresswell was recorded as a servant at the Station Hotel, which was the residence of William Roberts. When he died in 1906 Clara was among the executors to his estate of £153,747 3s. If Clara was adopted, it seems likely that this was after the 1901 census.
    In 1901 Charles Cooper had another wife, Sarah, and in 1911 was living at 1 Church Street.
    In 1911 Clara, now Bagby, was at Pelsall Road, Brownhills, with her husband John Bagby, a nail manufacturing employer, whom she had married in 1910-11 (according to the 1911 census married less than one year).
    In 1939 “Clara A R Bagby” married Alfred J Turner. From what follows, I suspect Clara Ann Roberts Bagby was daughter of John Bagby and Clara (Cresswell).
    Then, on 19 Jan 1943, the London Gazette (p579): Re CLARA BAGBY, Deceased. Pursuant to the Trustee Act, 1925. NOTICE is hereby given that all creditors and others having any claims against the estate of Clara Bagby late of “Lime Tree Villa”, 14, Pelsall Road, Brownhills, in the county of Stafford, Widow, who died on the 9th day of August 1942, and whose Will (with a first Codicil thereto) was proved in the Principal Probate Registry on the 8th day of January 1943 by the Public Trustee Clara Ann Roberts Turner, and Joan Roberts Bagby … [thre rest is gobbledygook].
    Probate Registry: BAGBY Clara of Lime Tree Villa 14 Pelsall-road Brownhills Staffordshire widow died 9 August 1942 Probate Llandudno 8 January [1943] to The Public Trustee Clara Ann Roberts Turner (wife of Alfred Joseph Turner) and Joan Roberts Bagby spinster. Effects £58190 9s 2d.

    • Dave Cresswell says:

      Thank you for that additional information. Some of it I already managed to gatehr and have now been able to link another Clara Cresswell I had down as Clara Bagby

  8. David Evans says:

    HI Andy
    the 1906 figures are amazing. I understand that we need to add three zeros to them to give today’s relative values.
    thank for your endeavour in this matter.

  9. David Evans says:

    HI Andy
    1906;- £153,747 becomes £14,719,737 in todays money. (This is
    David….(more like two zeros!)

  10. Pedro says:

    Going back to Andy’s Eliza article we see an estimated £95,000 left by William Harrison Jnr in 1877

    In 1912 the property alone left by WB Harrison was of value £200,000.

    In 1937 WE Harrison’s gross estate was £1.4m!

  11. pedro says:

    “…and in 1898 gave a steam fire engine to the District Council…”

    July 1899…

    A fire broke out in the rickyard of the Swingbridge Farm, in the occupation of Mr Howdle. The Fire Brigade attended with their steam fire engine and found four ricks of straw ablaze in close proximity to the farm buildings. The canal being close at hand, an ample supply of water was obtained, but it was impossible to save the ricks.

    The fire was however prevented from reaching the buildings…The cause of the outbreak is unknown, but it is a curious fact that though several rick fires have occurred since the fire engine was presented by Mr Roberts, nearly twelve months ago, no fires had occurred previously in the district for years.

    and at the Brownhills UDC meeting of February 1899 the Inspector of Nuisances reported that the Steam Fire Engine went into a hole 6ft 6in long, and 3ft wide in Highbridge Road. This hole had been there for some days, and the engine was damaged. The engine has now been put in repair.

  12. jane taylor says:

    Hi Bob. The article on William Roberts is very informative and good reading. May I ask you if you have posted (anywhere) that we are selling The Swan? A customer came in tonight asking us why we are selling up so soon? When we looked at Him blankly he said he had read it on one of your blogs?
    Just to confirm to anybody that might read this….we are here to stay. Business is fair (could be better but could certainly be a lot worse) and we still have plenty of remedial works to carry out. The pub frontage is ongoing. It should have been finished by now but the great weather has been against us since Geoff started the work. It does however look so much more appealing now, even in its unfinished state.

  13. pedro says:

    No one has given any answer to David’s question as to the situation of the Royal George Pub.

    I have looked on a few old maps and can find many of those mentioned, but not the Royal George! It is not mentioned in the Archives, which is interesting, as most pubs are usually mentioned, if not for someone disturbing the Peace!

    • pedro says:

      From Kelly’s Directory 1884 the Royal George was still wherever it is situated!

      The governor being Thomas Yates.

      • pedro says:

        At the Staffs Quarter Sessions

        Compensation For Licences….Royal George, Brownhills (beerhouse and wine , ante 1869), £2,500

        Tamworth Herald 8 Jan 1927

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  15. pedro says:

    On the 16th Sep 1871 the Tamworth Herald says that William Roberts’ application for renewal of licence at the Station Hotel came up for a second time.

    At the first Superintendent Hill had objected on the grounds that there was a large room that was used for musical and other performances, akin to theatrical performances.

    This time the licence was renewed.

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  17. Pedro says:

    William Roberts in May of 1899 presented each inhabitant of the BUDC area, that had reached the age of 80, the sum of 5s. This was to coincide with the 80th of Queen Vic.

    (from Lichfield Mercury and the names are supplied)

  18. pedro says:

    There is a record of the sale of some of the Big man’s estate in the Lichfield Mercury of Fri 29 May 1914.

    Auction of the late W Roberts estate at the George Hotel, Lichfield.

    Pipe Place Farm, 270 acres, and let at a rental of £403 10s, failed to find a purchaser, and was withdrawn at £8000.

    Pasture land at Muckley Corner sold to Mr J Thorpe (Erdington) for £120.

    Seven cottages and a shop at Muckley Corner, let at £76 14s, sold at £750 to Mr Hencock.

    Mr Shorthouse gave £130 for arable land at Muckley Corner.

    Muckley Corner Wharf sold for £200 to Mr Handcock.

    Mr Bett gave £200 for a cottage let at £13 a year.

    Warren house Farm, let at £128 5s, being free of tithe land tax, was withdrawn at £2,500.

    (…the sale goes on for dwellings, shops and properties in Hendnesford and Cannock.)

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