Yesterday I had the pleasure of a visit to Bilston. I recognise that that’s not an ordinary sort of statement, but I liked it. Firstly I had a go on the tram, which I’ve been waiting for since moving to the Midlands. It’s actually not all that exciting an experience, but it’s a nippy little thing regardless. It’s on the line of the former Great Western Railway, opened in 1854 as the Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Dudley Railway, and it’s dead handy for West Brom, Wednesbury or Bilston. I’m looking forward to the completion of the extension to New Street, as well as the approval of the next phase using the old South Staffordshire Line between Stourbridge and Walsall – that would be great.
Bilston itself is a lot like many brutalised town centres I’ve visited – a historic, unique sort of place buried under a 1960s pedestrianised precinct and a shopping centre. I could cite Halesowen or Wellington as examples. But I was glad to see that it was far more bustly than most similar town centres on a Tuesday afternoon though; doubtless the vicinity of Majors fish and chip shop helped. As recommended, I tried the orange chips (but not the battered mince pies).
In parts, Bilston is really quite attractive: the thoroughly unusual St Leonard’s is quite striking, and there are some stunning examples of Victorian civic architecture. My favourite was the beautiful former School of Art.
I was in Bilston for the next talk in my Block Capital training, on the historical context of social housing in the Black Country. Fascinating stuff, particularly thinking about the land things are built on. Bilston is an almost archetypal Black Country town in that it’s right on the coalfield, was completely dominated by heavy industry, and was surrounded by coal mines. On the map below I’ve marked the extent of built-up Bilston in 1887; I’ve also marked collieries and works in the vicinity – the town was thoroughly surrounded, and cut through with canals and railways.
The environment round about was full of slag heaps, disused mines and industrial remains. The scenery changed very little for many years – looking at the large-scale view, the only thing to change in the first part of the twentieth century is the increasing size and scale of the Steel Works at Spring Vale. In the 1930s there’s evidence that this derelict land is being reclaimed – the area of Bunker’s Hill Colliery has been turned into a golf course, and the site of the Peacroft Colliery is covered with housing estate.
Although the steelworks continues to dominate the surroundings, the town really starts growing post-war, joining the dots with over nearby settlements like Willenhall and Priestfield. The Stow Lawn estate, built by Bilston UDC, arrives in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the 1980s it’s only the canals that keep Bilston separate from Darlaston, Bradley or Ettingshall. Today, even the vast steelworks has surrendered, and the area is an industrial estate.
Bilston clings on to its industrial heritage as do many towns in the region. A wider look at the area shows how industrial sites still hug the canals, 160 years after the railways signalled their death-toll. The reclamation of closed railway lines and the sustained growth in waterway use means that it remains an interesting little town – the Craft Gallery and the Robin 2 (and Majors) ensure that it’s worth a visit.