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.
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.
DEATH OF MR. W. ROBERTS, J.P,
A REMARKABLE CAREER.
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.