Willenhall is a considerable and populous place, situated midway between Wolverhampton and Walsall. It is in a low situation, on the banks of a brook. The town consists of one long street: the principal house was formerly inhabited by Dr. Wilkes, who was born here. It did not begin to flourish till the iron manufacture was introduced in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and it has since become populous. It is conjectured that a greater number of locks are manufactured here than at any other town in Europe of the same size; and in consequence of prosperity, many good houses have been built by the opulent manufacturers.
On the 13th of June, 1776, James Lees, of Willenhall, aged 63 years, exhibited a padlock and key manufactured by himself, which was not the weight of a silver twopence; and he said he would engage to make a dozen locks with their keys, that should not exceed the weight of a sixpence.
According to the population return for Willenhall, in 1811, the males were 2014; the females 1509: total 3523. Hence the males exceed the females in number in the proportion of 4 to 3. Similar returns were also made for the parishes of Wednesfield, Darlaston, Wednesbury, and Tipton. This disproportion of number can only be accounted for by the situation not being very congenial to the habits and general feelings of the sex.
The Church of Willenhall is considered as a chapel of ease to Wolverhampton; the patronage is in the principal inhabitants that inherit lands here, but the curate is also to be approved by the lord of the manor. Some time ago, there was a serious dispute between the Marquis of Stafford and the inhabitants, about the nomination of a curate, but the townsmen persevered, and carried their point.
The foundation of Willenhall Church was laid, May 6, 1748; and the edifice was opened for divine service October 30, 1749. It contains a monument, erected to the memory of Dr. Wilkes, in 1800; and we shall conclude the account of this place with a brief biographical account of that beneficent and ingenious man. Richard, the eldest son of Mr. Richard Wilkes, of Willenhall, and Lucretia, the daughter of Jonas Astley, of Wood Eaton, was born March 16, 1690, and received the rudiments of his education at Trentham. On the 13th of March, 1709, he was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge, and was admitted scholar in 1710. After passing through several gradations, he took the degree of Ba in 1717. He entered into orders, and preached at Wolverhampton, and for sometime at Stow, near Chartley; but in consequence of being disappointed in his expectation of preferment, he retired from the Church, and began to practise physic at Wolverhampton in the year 1720. On the 24th of June, 1726, he married Miss Rachael Manlove, of Lees-hill, near Abbots-Bromley, with whom he had a handsome fortune. He then retired from Wolverhampton, and returned to his natal mansion at Willenhall, where he became very eminent in his profession. He published a Treatise on the Dropsy; and during the time a destructive distemper raged among the horned cattle in Staffordshire, he published a pamphlet entitled, "A Letter to the Gentlemen, Farmers, and Graziers of the County of Stafford," on the subject of the prevention and cure of that disorder.
In the year 1747, during his recovery from a severe fit of illness, he amused himself with writing his own epitaph, which he calls a true picture from the life. It is rather to be admired for the originality and independence of the sentiments, than its poetic beauties, and is as follows:
"Here reader stand awhile, and know Whose carcase 'tis that rots below. A man's who work'd by reason's rule, Yet sometimes err'd and play'd the fool; A man sincere in all his ways, And full of the Creator's praise; Who laugh'd at priestcraft, pride, and strife, And all the little tricks of life; Who lov'd his King, his Country more, And dreadful party rage forbore, He told nobility the truth, And wink'd at hasty slips of youth. The honest poor man's steady friend, The villain's scourge, in hopes to mend; His father, mother, children, wife, His riches, honours, length of life, Concern not thee; observe what's here, He rests in hope, and not in fear."
His wife died in 1756, and in October the same year, he married Mrs. Frances Bendish, who died in 1798, at a very advanced age.
Dr. Wilkes was a skilful physician, and his prescriptions were often attended with success. His general knowledge was considerable, and his mind active, and always employed in some praise-worthy pursuit. He died at Willenhall, of the gout in his stomach, on the 6th of March, 1760, in the 70th year of his age, and was buried in the Church, where the monument before-mentioned was erected to his memory. His death was universally lamented by his friends and townsmen. He was an indulgent landlord, a good master, a friend to the poor, to whom he always gave gratuitous advice as a physician, and pecuniary aid; and that he was unassuming, the following brief account of himself and his ancestors will demonstrate: "My family," says he, "came out of Hertfordshire, and settled here about 300 years ago, and lived much in the same manner, for if one spent a little of the estate, it was recovered again by another. But as none of my brethren married, and I have no son living, the name of Wilkes will end in this town, and be forgotten with me." Dr. Wilkes was also a great antiquary, and collected materials for a History of Shropshire; but to the antiquities of Staffordshire his attention was principally directed.
Willenhall Spa rises on the north side of a brook which runs to the east. About 200 yards up the brook are several springs, one of which was formerly consecrated to St. Sunday. Below the spa, on the opposite side of the brook, white clay with yellow veins is found, which, when mixed and made into cakes, is sold to glovers by the name of ochre cakes. The whole country abounds with mines of coal and iron-stone