Bilston in 1817


Description from A Topographical History of Staffordshire by William Pitt (1817)


Bilston is a large and populous place, three miles south-east of Wolverhampton, and though generally comprehended within that parish, is a distinct township as to all parochial purposes: it is principally inhabited by manufacturers of japanned and other wares, and colliers and workmen employed in the extensive iron-works established here. A branch of the Tame passes through Bilston, and a long line of the Birmingham canal intersects the parish, by which an active and constant communication is kept up with all parts of the kingdom: the great London road to Holyhead passes through it. Bilston has been long celebrated for its vast mines of coal, iron-stone, quarry-stone, and clay: here are also numerous furnaces for smelting iron ore, forges, and slitting-mills. It has been asserted that more iron is made in Bilston-fields than in the whole kingdom of Sweden.

The Chapel, dedicated to St. Leonard, is a perpetual curacy within the exempt jurisdiction of Wolverhampton, but the right of nomination is vested in the inhabitants at large: it is a neat modern edifice, fitted-up with much taste. A sharp contest for this curacy took place in 1813, which was decided in favour of Mr. Leigh by a great majority. Here are also two Dissenting chapels, and an excellent charity-school.

Of the Coal Stratum: The white coal is very good, either for shops or other use; the tow coal and brazils are good furnace coal, and the other strata are characterized further on. In working these mines, the coal is generally raised up the shafts in skiffs or skips, by the force of a small steam-engine called a whimsey: these skiffs, when loaded, weigh from half a ton to fifteen hundred weight each, more or less. The shaft is sunk through the different strata, and to the bottom of the main coal. The opening, called the gateway, is the first work of the miners after sinking the shaft: it is made in the under-stratum of coal, from 8 to 10 feet in height, 9 feet wide, and is carried through the whole extent of the work: excavations, called stalls, are then opened from the gateway, from whence the coal is got for use, leaving sufficient pillars between the stalls to support the roof.

The skiffs are loaded in the stalls, and drawn to the shafts by horses, which are let down the shafts and kept in the mines for that purpose; the understratum of coal is got first, after which the incumbent strata are let down more easily in large blocks, and afterwards broken smaller by pikes or wedges: long iron prongs are used to force down the upper coal when it cannot safely be come at with the pick, and scaffolds are raised to bring the workmen in contact with the upper coal.

The thickness of coal here, including the brooch coal, exceeds 10 yards, and a cubic yard of coal weighs about a ton, so that this mine contains, in its perfect parts, 10 tons of coal to each square yard of surface on the earth, which would be upwards of 48,000 tons per acre; about one-third is left in pillars, and a good deal lost in rubbish, besides which there are often faults, and defective parts, containing extraneous matter, so that it is reckoned very good work if 20,000 tons are raised for use from an acre, which is supposed to be sometimes done, and more generally from that down to 12,000 tons per acre; but this is to be understood of the old mine only: the new mine, taken in all its practicable parts, is supposed to be quite equal to the old mine in coal, and much superior to it in ironstone, as strata of good coal are asserted to have been discovered lower down.

The mines of Bilston and its neighbourhood contain, in the old mines and the new, an abundant supply of iron-stone and coal, not to be exhausted in any reasonable given time, and new sources of supply have been ascertained, that will last beyond calculation: the long upper level of the Birmingham Canal passes through them in a zig-zag lengthened course, with collateral branches, and other canals in all directions, so as to accommodate every part at a small distance. The working of these mines has been carried of late years to a great extent; not only the coal-trade, but the number of iron furnaces has been increased, and the business done at each of them much extended.

Towards the latter end of the year 1815, and the beginning of 1816, considerable derangement and stagnation took place in some of these iron-works and mines, occasioned by a combination of unfortunate causes and circumstances. The orders for iron by government were slackened, or suspended, in consequence of the general peace; the war price of provisions had been high, and the miners' and colliers' wages raised in consequence to five shillings per day, and the iron sold too low to indemnify the masters' expences; large issues of copper and silver tokens and paper-money were made to pay workmen's wages; the tokens and paper-money fell into disrepute, and some bankruptcies ensued, and others were distressed for means to go on, till many workmen were thrown out of employment, and were obliged to beg their bread. Some riots ensued, which were obliged to be quelled by the military.

Owing to the continued depression of the coal and iron-trades, and consequent discharge of workmen, a number of colliers determined amongst themselves to make their case known to Government, and adopted the novel plan of yoking themselves to several waggons laden with coal, having previously drawn up a Petition signed by several Magistrates, which they intended to present to the Prince Regent, together with the coal. Accordingly, three teams of this description set out for the metropolis, each waggon having about 50 men yoked to it; whilst others took different directions. One of the waggons proceeded by the route of Worcester, another by Coventry and Birmingham, and a third by Stourbridge.

They proceeded at the rate of about 12 miles a-day, and received voluntary gifts of money, etc. on the road as they passed along, declining to ask alms: their motto, as placarded on the carts, being: "Rather work than beg." To prevent their progress to the metropolis, police magistrates were sent from the Home-Department Office, who met two of the parties, one at St. Alban's and another near Maidenhead, and told the men that they had adopted wrong means to procure relief, and persuaded them quietly to return. They were allowed the value of their coals, which were left to be distributed to the poor, and sufficient means were given them to reach their homes.

The conduct of these distressed men was most exemplary: they listened with the greatest attention and respect to the advice of the Magistrates, and after obtaining a certificate of their good behaviour, returned with the waggons to their families and friends. A similar proceeding took place a few miles from Chester: the Magistrates of that city met the third team, dissuaded the men from further persisting in their ill-advised undertaking, and gave them £20 for the coal, with which they were perfectly satisfied, and immediately returned to their own neighbourhood. The novelty of this affair created some sensation in London.

In 1811, Bilston contained 1,848 houses and 9,646 inhabitants. A particular species of sand is found at Bilston, of an orange colour, and so extremely fine as to be scarcely palpable: it is much used in the casting of metals. Here is also dug an excellent gritstone, in great repute for setting the finer sorts of edge-tools. The quarry-stone lies in beds one above another (according to Plott) twelve beds deep, "every bed being thicker than that above it: the lower bed is about a yard thick, of which they make troughs, cisterns, etc. Some of the tables rise so large and even, that Mr. Hoo got one eight yards long, and not varying an inch in thickness: some of the stone is also curiously streaked black, whereof there are elegant patterns at Mr. Gough's, Perryhall."

Bradley is a hamlet situated to the south of Bilston. Bradley-hall, an ancient possession of the Hoo family, is now converted into a farm-house: here is abundance of excellent coal and iron-stone. In opening a colliery at Bradley, about four years since, the roof of the mine fell, and incarcerated a number of men and boys, all of whom, except onc man, were extricated from their perilous situation, and providentially recovered, though they had been without food for several days. Sir Joseph Scott, Bart. of Barr, is one of the proprietors of this estate, in right of his wife, a daughter and co-heiress of Mrs. Whitby.

Bradley Moor is remarkable for a curious phenomenon called the mild-fire, occasioned by a vein of coal having taken fire in the earth, which has continued to burn for a number of years, but it is now nearly extinct.

Near Bradley are the extensive iron-works of Fereday, Smith, and Co. supposed to be the largest establishment of the kind in the world. The powers of the steam-engine, and other mechanical improvements, are here employed to great advantage in the wielding of ponderous hammers of two or three tons weight, and huge rollers are acted upon to separate the dross from the metal while in an almost fluid heat: castings of iron, weighing from ten to twelve tons each, are made in one piece, and bars of one to four inches thick, are sheared off with astonishing facility. The iron is here wrought from the ore to the nail-bar, and afterwards manufactured into a great variety of articles of convenience or commerce: many of the boats employed upon the canal are constructed of plates of iron.

The hissing of the blast furnace, the clanging of hammers, the dusky appearance of the workmen, and the various operations upon unwieldy masses of red-hot iron, combine to excite an idea of terror in the spectator:
"The ponderous hammer falls,
Loud anvils ring amid the trembling walls.
Strokes follow strokes, the sparkling ingot shines,
Flows the red flag, the lengthening bar refines.
Cold waves immersed, the glowing mass congeal,
And turn to adamant the hissing steel."