Some history on Cradley Heath in the County of Staffordshire
Home of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the now-exiled Heathens Speedway Team and, at one time, the Black Country Bugle, the old Black Country town of Cradley Heath was once famous for hand-made chains and nails. In fact, Cradley Heath was, at one time, the world centre of chain manufacture. The anchors of many ocean-going liners would have had a chain manufactured in or around Cradley Heath.
The name of Cradley Heath is Anglo-Saxon and translates as 'Crada's Clearing in the Woods.' A forge was first established here in the seventeenth century by Dud Dudley. This was at Cradley Forge between Cradley Heath and Quarry Bank where Mousesweet Brook meets the River Stour. It is thought that this was the site where he made his first experiments using coal to smelt iron.
Gradually, from this seminal period, Cradley Heath developed on the north side of the Stour into a industrialised squatter settlement. The town was once packed with small workshops and cottages where workers grafted over furnaces and remains of this can be found at nearby Mushroom Green. Any trip to Cradley Heath should incorporate a visit to this picturesque pocket of the region. One should remember however that life was not too pretty here during the industrial revolution. By the end of the 19th century a thousand tons of chain was produced per week in Cradley Heath. It was common for sheds to contain five or six women workers, each at an anvil, and a pole running across the room from which dangled chairs for babies so that a mother could rock her child as she worked. Conditions were terrible and life expectancy was short. One of the old chain shops at Mushroom Green has been restored and demonstrations of traditional chain making are occasionally given in the building.
The former stadium of the Cradley Heathens is a short distance from Mushroom Green. It has been completely flattened now as a housing development has taken its place. There was once a pit mound next to the stadium colloquially known as 'Scotman's Hill' because it afforded free views of all the speedway action. Racing first started at Dudley Wood in 1947. When I was a young kid, I used to go in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the big names were Ivor Brown, Roy Trigg and Bernt Persson.
I am glad I went to Dudley Wood in what was the stadium's halcyon days. The atmosphere was terrific. Even though the team's league position was fairly low, there would be great anticipation amongst the crowd making their way from Newtown. We would walk along the dirt track along the side of the stadium to the sound of engines being tuned up and the greyhound dogs howling. We would emerge near the Victoria Inn where there would be a hot dog van, blokes selling rosettes and badges, somebody yelling "get your programme." They even sold goggles for those who wanted to protect their eyes whilst they stood on the bend where, during races, the gravel would spray into the crowd. As a youngster you soaked it all up.
I am not sure of the attendance figures in the late 1960s but it was probably a few thousand on a good night - there was always a good roar for a Heathens win. I was talked into going to a dog meeting towards the fag end of the stadium's life and the place was a pitiful sight. Thankfully, my enduring memory will be that of the speedway during the height of its popularity.
The area between the Five Ways and the train station is known as Lomey Town. The old Workers' Institute building that stood here has been removed to the Black Country Museum. The Institute was constructed with money left over from the public donations made in support of the women chainmaker's strike of 1910. As such it was one of the town's most significant reminders of Cradley Heath's close association with the chain-making industry.
It is worth noting the shape of the High Street. Even today it has a slight dip. This is because on the night of February 18th, 1914 a 200-yard stretch of the road collapsed due to a mining subsidence. The cost of repairing the damage to both the road and buildings [some had been broken almost in half] was £25,000 which was a colossal sum of money in those days.
Upper High Street leads towards Old Hill via the curiously-titled Spinner's End and Reddal Hill. A new housing development close to the library was once a large railway station for goods. After it closed it was a great place to play along with Bearmore Bank. Reddal Hill was once a self sufficient community has been almost completely flattened for a road widening scheme that never happened. However, the Waggon and Horses, a pub set back from the main road is one of two surviving properties.
In the 21st century Cradley Heath has become something of a one-shop town as much of the 'old' place was pulled down for the construction of a large metal box called Tesco. A leading economist once put forward a strong argument that big supermarkets lead to a net loss of jobs. Tesco may employ quite a few people but when the store forces the closure of other shops and services, plus the logistics that supported them, it creates joblessness rather than jobs. In addition, money spent in large supermarkets whizzes off to head office and does not remain in the local economy thus diminishing the multiplier effect, the consequence being that regional spending decreases.
As this was once my stamping ground, I am allowed to state that Cradley Heath is a shadow of its former self. Most of the interesting buildings have gone. The cinemas went years ago and the retail experience is pitiful. Even Saint Luke's Church was forced to shut its doors. There are just a handful of pubs where once there were over forty. I could cry in my beer.
An important historical image showing the chain shop of Harry Stevens Limited, a firm based in Oak Street between Reddal Hill and Newtown. The business passed to son Mark Stevens and, following his death in 1958, the business was wound up. The men and women were probably glad of a short break in production to pose for this photograph. Based on this image, it would appear that the company specialised in small chain - not that the labour involved was less strenuous. It is interesting to note that all of the women are very young. Up until the 1980s, Oak Street was a very noisy thoroughfare with heavy stamping forming the soundscape for local residents. I should know - our back garden wall backed onto those in Oak Street.
With women hanging on to their bonnets, it looks like this was a blustery day in Cradley Heath. The photographer is stood in the centre of Five Ways and is pointing the lens along the High Street towards Old Hill. It is a busy scene with plenty of shopping and business activity. A clothing bazaar occupies the corner position to the right. A dray waggon is parked outside the Talbot Hotel on the left. Some of the properties at this end of the High Street have survived into the 21st century.
This is a close-up of the south side of the High Street from near Five Ways. None of the buildings in the near distance made it to the end of the 20th century and many were replaced well before the end of the century. The corner site, seen here trading as a clothing bazaar, was redeveloped during the inter-war years for a branch of Burton's. With element of art deco, this did have some architectural merit but the ground floor was subsequently ruined by the insertion of a hideous frontage by a hardware retailer. In this photograph taken in the Edwardian period the retailer is maximising the external display by hanging clothing on poles over the pavement. A sign for Griffiths can be seen a few doors away. This family would be synonymous with this retail space for several generations.
On the opposite side of the High Street many of the properties seen here have survived into the 21st century. The brewery dray is delivering to the Talbot Hotel. Coming back towards the Five Ways there was a chemist's shop, a business that was located here for decades. At No.94 Samuel Walker operated a clothing shop. The young woman on the pavement under the sun blind is possibly an employee in this store. Just out of shot on the extreme left is the Five Ways Hotel which, at this time, was kept by Stephen Deeley.
Many more photographs of Cradley Heath to follow. I have an extensive collection of images for this town.
"One of the most disgraceful riots ever known in this neighbourhood took place here on Tuesday, and although we have not as yet heard of any
deaths resulting therefrom, it is almost a miracle that a great many lives have not been sacrificed. A great deal of ill-feeling has existed for some time between the
Liberals of Cradley Heath and the Conservatives of Rowley, in consequence of the opposition the Cradley people met with their endeavours to adopt the Local Government Act
at Cradley Heath, and it has been rumoured for some time that at the election they would pay off old scores. For the purpose of carrying out their designs they were
assisted by about 700 roughs from The Lye and Halesowen, who, being much annoyed at Mr. Amphlett's success on the previous day, came over to help on the disturbance.
Early in the morning a party of constables were despatched from Dudley, but on reaching Cradley Heath they were most brutally set upon by a party of roughs, who pelted
them with great stones. Many of them were badly hurt, and had to make the best of their way back to Dudley. The roughs, who were now very numerous, and seeing none of
their opponents, thought they might make their way up to the headquarters of the Conservatives, at Old Hill; but near the Reddal Hill School they met a party of
police and a number of the Rowley people. Near the Reddal Hill School there is a very steep hill, and there is generally a pool of stagnant water at the bottom. The
police and party unfortunately were nearly at the bottom of this hill, and the roughs at the top, who, as soon as they saw the policemen, rushed on to them with great
force, and precipitated them to the bottom. A general fight ensued, the object of the roughs being to force their opponents into the water, and to plaster their faces
with mire. This they ,in a great many cases, succeeded in doing, but with the police retaliating there was a regular skirmish in the mud and many faces were quite
unrecognisable, and what with blood and dirt were most hideous to behold. The roughs at last succeeded in obtaining the victory and drove their opponents back to Old
Hill, Shortly afterwards, a cab was seen approaching with a red curtain to the window, and this being taken to be a Conservative badge, although the cab was engaged by
the Liberals, they at once smashed the windows and other parts of the cab, the driver with difficulty making good his escape, after receiving several severe blows from
stones. The riot now began to assume a very serious aspect, the roughs breaking everything which came in their way, smashing windows and knocking down everyone who had
on a blue ribbon. A special messenger was at once despatched to Brierley Hill for a detachment of soldiers, who were known to have arrived from Birmingham. They quickly
made their way to Cradley Heath, but the roughs were so elevated with their victory over the police, that they determined to show fight, and kept their ground until many
of them were severely injured by the cutlasses of the soldiers. The neighbourhood was in a great state of excitement, and many of the women turned out to help their
husbands. The soldiers succeeded in restoring order for a short time, when it was announced that 500 roughs had arrived at Old Hill from Dudley to help the Conservatives.
This immediately roused the Liberal roughs, who went to meet them, and after a short parley both sides agreed to go into an adjoining field and settle matters. The field
was at once nearly filled, and the roughs taking off their coats went into it in earnest. The police thinking it useless to interfere quietly watched them at a distance.
Mr. Isaac Spooner, stipendiary magistrate, rendered valuable assistance in endeavouring to allay the disturbance, but when our parcel was dispatched all was in the
greatest excitement, and the fight was raging with unabated vigour."
"Disgraceful Riot at Cradley Heath"
Birmingham Daily Gazette : November 26th 1868 Page 5
"Benjamin Parkes, Philip Willetts, Charles Rock, and William Stevens, youths, pleaded guilty to charges of
obstructing a public footpath, on Sunday, the 26th ult. Police-Constable Cooper said he was on duty in plain clothes on the day in question, and saw the defendants
with several others, clustered together on the footpath, at the corner of a road in Cradley Heath. Willetts used very bad language. The defendants did not recognise him
until they saw him writing down the names which he knew, on which they "skedaddled." It was a frequent practice for youths to assemble at the place. Defendants
said they were only talking about going to a tea party. Parker said the officer only charged him "because he had a spite against him." The defendant Willetts,
had been twice, and Parker four times, previously convicted. It was the first offence of the others. The Bench said they thought Parker and Willetts were a bad lot,
and fined them £3 each, or two months; and the others 5s. and costs each, or fourteen days. They afterwards reduced the fines of the two first-named to
40s. and costs each."
"Obstructing a Footpath"
County Advertiser & Herald for Staffordshire and Worcestershire : January 8th 1876 Page 6
"James Lane, anchor manufacturer, of Cradley Heath, was charged with employing a youth named John Griffiths after two
o'clock on Saturday, the 11th ult. The youth was put in the box, and stated that on the day named he was allowed no dinner hour, and his master asked him to
work during the afternoon. Defendant was fined 40s. and costs."
"Factory Act Prosecutions"
Birmingham Daily Post : November 6th 1884
"Yesterday morning a chainmaker named Samuel Walker , of Corngreaves Road, was found dead in an outhouse.
About seven o'clock his wife left him at work in the chain shop, and a few minutes afterwards, upon going to look after him, found him suspended from
Birmingham Daily Post : May 29th 1885
"About half-past six on Thursday evening a terrible explosion of gunpowder occurred at Cradley Heath, resulting in the death of two
children and in serious injuries to three others. The explosion took place at the promises of Mr. Henry Mould, ironmonger, of 134, High Street, Cradley Heath.
It appears that Mr. Mould received a consignment of about 200lb of powder on Thursday, and this was deposited in a detached store situated about fifteen yards at
the rear of the shop, and some six yards from a row of half a dozen small cottages. Several children whilst at play discovered grains of powder strewn about the
yard, and began to set fire to them with lighted paper. They gradually approached the door of the store, where there was a quantity of scattered grains, which
formed a train communicating with other powder inside the storehouse. Unaware of their danger, they ignited the powder, the result being that a tremendous
explosion instantly ensued, the whole of the kegs being blown up. The store was completely wrecked, the bricks lying in all directions, and falling upon the
unfortunate children, most of whom were buried in the debris. Such was the force of the explosion that the windows of the six cottages were blown out, and the
buildings more or less damaged, together with the adjoining shop of Mr. Birch, baker, and also the establishment of Mr. Mould. The explosion was heard a distance
of more than half a mile. it was found that Lilly Birch, about five years-old, the daughter of the Mr. Birch before mentioned, had sustained terrible
injuries, and she was picked up dead. Another child, Thomas Lot Ellingham, two years-old, died on the way to the Guest Hospital, at Dudley; to which
institution were also removed Florence Billingham, aged eight years-old, and her brother James, six years-old, both being seriously injured.
Laura Tipton, ten years-old, was also hurt, but was treated at her home. Shortly after the occurrence Mr. T. Standish, surgeon, Mr. D. Denne, and another
medical gentleman, arrived, and rendered prompt aid to the sufferers. It seems that the powder had been removed to the store by George E. Milward, Mr.
Mould's assistant, who swept out the place about half-past five o'clock, and it is supposed that either the kegs had leaked, or the contents of the store had
been swept into the yard with the dust. Yesterday the condition of the three children who are in the Guest Hospital, Dudley, was much the same as on Thursday night, when
they were admitted. All are burnt about the hands, wrists, face, neck, and scalp, Adam being the worst injured of the three. The surgeon at the institution gives but
slight hope of his recovery."
"Explosion of Gunpowder at Cradley Heath"
Birmingham Daily Post : April 9th 1887 Page 5
"Last night information was received by Police Sergeant Hayward, of Cradley Heath, of the death of John Thomas Westwood, aged one year and
eight months, son of Thomas and Alice Westwood, who reside in Corngreaves Road, Cradley Heath. On Thursday an inquest was opened before Mr. Topham [deputy coroner]
respecting the death of another of Westwood's children, a girl named Edith, two years and nine months old; and at the enquiry some painful revelations were made as
to the filthy state of the home where the deceased's parents resided, and the emaciated and dirty condition of the children. The inquest was adjourned until the 27th
inst., in order that a post-mortem examination of the body might be made, and this was done yesterday. The death of the second child, which occurred about
seven o'clock last night, caused the affair to assume a much more serious aspect, and the parents of the children were immediately arrested by Police Sergeant Hayward,
who was accompanied by Superintendent Wollaston on a charge of manslaughter. The facts of the case have been reported to the coroner, and an inquest will be held on the
body of the boy who died last night. The parents will be brought before the magistrates today, and remanded pending the completion of the inquest."
"Arrest of Parents at Cradley"
Birmingham Daily Post : December 21st 1889 Page 5