Having tackled Brum and Wolverhampton, it only makes sense for me to read up about my local ring road, the tight little three-lane collar around Stourbridge Town Centre. Maybe all the fun stuff about the previous two is buried in Googledust, but there are plenty of fun videos and articles about the building and the opening of the ring road, back in November 1969. There’s also some goodly ancient maps, and we’ll take a look here.
The growth of Stourbridge (at that stage the hamlet of Bedcote, on the River Stour between Oldswinford (or the old swine ford) and Amblecote) really took off in the 1300s, when the town’s crossroads location made it an important meeting point between the Coventry-Wales road and the Chester-Bristol road – this was well before Birmingham became important enough to mention. It also explains the name of Coventry Street – then a major route, this is now just a little road notable for the Duke William pub; the bulk of it was later renamed Birmingham Street and is now the A458 towards Lye.
The 1781 town plan is probably the earliest map of Stourbridge in any detail, and it’s pretty recognisable. The High Street is pretty much where it always was, and if the map featured buildings you’d certainly find many still there today, including the Talbot Hotel and the King Edward VI grammar school. Branching off this to the East is the aforementioned Coventry Street, to the West is New Street (now buried under the hideous new Tesco) and Rye Market Street, now simply Market Street. At that time, way pre-ring road, Rye Market Street continued onwards towards Kidderminster, and is now known as Worcester Street, the far side of New Road. The map is somewhat difficult to follow on a modern map, as it’s not exactly geospatially derived; but the gist is there; more helpfully, so are buildings of note for reference. See for instance Rye Market Street – the town plan makes it look like it heads aways off down Lion Street. In reality, St Thomas’ Church has been on Market Street since the 1730s. A modern redraft is incredibly helpful here, well done to this website for putting that together.
By 1837, things are much neater in the cartographical sense and the town is filling out nicely. New Road was built at the end of C18, and plenty of smaller streets and courts began to fill out the town centre. This was the era when Stourbridge was a booming industrial small town, home to the movers-and-shakers in the glass world as well as the nearby iron, coal and other limestone works. The Talbot was the meeting point of the captains of industry, the canal brought coal and world-famous glassware into town, and the alleys and courts of Coventry Street and Angel Street swarmed with notorious prostitutes and beggars. Gotta love capitalism.
1880s, and the town is almost recognisable in its layout. The outskirts in particular are very similar – the old quarter (presumably then the new quarter), the land south of town with a big accessibility gap where the Oldswinford hospital is, and so on. Population has clearly boomed – it doesn’t look like the crowded courts of the centre of town have gone anywhere at least, so there’s no evidence of social mobility, dispersal or improved living standards there at least.
After that, very little changed until the late sixties – the one major exception being St John’s Road, acting as a bypass for an increasingly congested town centre in the 1930s, and a bit of joining up on the west of town, like Bath Road between New Street and the extension of New Road. Ariel photos from the 30s show the original windy route of the high street particularly well in contrast to the straight lines around it. Then boom; modernist town planning hits the Black Country.
In fact, by this stage, there wasn’t a great deal of new route in the ring road. But there was still no through route without avoiding the town centre, and a ring road, at the time at least, really wasn’t an unreasonable solution. And so the corners were smoothed off where St John’s Road crossed the High Street and met New Road; a curve cut the corner where New Road met Bath Road. The big change was on the northern side of town, where a collection of smaller roads were blasted through to make a new section of Bath Road. This is the section most obviously pushed through – there are big drops to one side, and high rise flats replacing the lost housing on the other.
On the north-eastern side, it was mostly industry and infrastructure that was disrupted. Various works had to go or be moved as a new section of St John’s Road replaced Mill Lane and cut off Duke Street and Coventry Street. The Foster Street railway bridge, rebuilt in 1957, was knocked down as the whole of the famous Stourbridge Town Branch Line beyond Town station was lifted in 1967. But even where existing roads provided the route, they were widened to three lanes, shot under with underpasses, and generally made as free flowing as possible.
As so often with urban infrastructural schemes like this, it’s had its positives (certainly the town centre is not a traffic-clogged nightmare like it must have been previously, although it’s not without its own problems); but also its negatives. The concrete collar analogy holds true here as well, and it’s hard to make underpasses ever appealing. As a result, the town holds onto its facilities by grit and hard work; it’s no longer an easy destination, though it might be an easy route around. Tesco’s is opening soon, for good or for ill. Whether that eats the town up any more than Merry Hill already has remains to be seen.