An Historical Walk around Stourbridge Town

An Historical Walk around Stourbridge Town

with
Dr. Paul Collins

 

 

Report of Meeting 8th July 2015

The weather was kind to us as around 60 people assembled beneath the Town Clock with the sun shining intermittently between the clouds. A cool breeze ensured that the temperature was just fine for a guided stroll in our historic market town.

Dr Paul Collins, founder member of 102.5 The Bridge radio station, King Edward VI student and enthusiastic local historian with a clear passion for Stourbridge was introduced to his audience by Mike Perkins and then off we set in what Dr Collins described as a lawful assembly, such was the unexpected large number of people, to the subway area at the bottom of Lower High Street to commence our guided tour. I must mention Pam (originally from Quinton) and Martin who had joined us from Cincinnati, Ohio. They were visiting family in Pedmore and wanted to know more about the history of Stourbridge, being aware of the glass making tradition.

He started by explaining the boundary between Amblecote and Stourbridge with the River Stour playing a key role in this. He exclaimed that he had stood on this very spot in 1969 when Lord Cobham unveiled a plaque (now missing) to mark the official opening of the Stourbridge Ring Road which was designed to deal with the traffic congestion in the town centre, pointing out where Mill Street used to run to the side of the former Woolpack Pub which marked the corner of the street. In this locality once stood Turney’s skin works which was powered by water from the River Stour and created parchment. He referred to the online video of the Stourbridge Ring Road, stating that the subways were constructed before the road itself due to the sandstone sub-structure underground and to avoid as much disruption as possible.

As we backtracked up Lower High St, Dr Collins informed us that Lower High St and Upper High St was originally one road which was continuously numbered from 1 to 177. John Bradley who died aged just 46, founder of the famous Stourbridge ironworks, built a fine house in 1816 which is now 6&7, featuring what was described as a Strawberry Hill Gothic style.

Strawberry Hill Gothic Architecture in Lower High Street, courtesy of Martin Cook

The next building of interest as we walked on a few yards is Stourhurst, formerly the branch of the Worcestershire Waterworks Company, evidence of this organisation can be seen in their annotation of the ironworks in the pavement in several parts of the town.

Many buildings in Stourbridge have been lost over the years, including the Congregational Hall but the distinct Unitarian Church of 1788 remains operational as a listed building though “executive apartments” are now available in the former Sunday School building which has also been used as a fitness centre.

Street signage was the next historical topic with Dr Collins referring to Giles Hill and Wheelers Hill both narrow streets adjoining Lower High St. So too is Queen Street which is now a “road to nowhere” though it used to be one of the main routes to Wollaston before the Ring Road was constructed.

The next impressive building is the former King Edward VI Grammar School for boys founded in 1552, the oldest part being the cylindrical tower with a distinct weather vane dating to 1871. The building was extended by the addition of a new school hall in 1931 but retains its old majestic character, being built with local firebrick. Ornamentally the waterspouts are shaped as animal heads. The campus continues to be extended as the now college continues to lead in academic achievement. Famous alumni includes Robert Plant, musician and former front man of the legendary band Led Zeppelin, the writer Samuel Johnson and Grant Baynham (from TV’s “That’s Life”) as well as a few members of the Amblecote History Society and Dr Collins himself!

Opposite the college is the old “talking picture house” dating back to 1920, originally called the Scala. The Scala Cinema first opened on 11th October 1920 with Isobel Elsom in "The Edge of Beyond", with Miss Elsom appearing in person. Designed by Birmingham architect Joseph Lawden in a Classical style, the narrow facade was framed by two columns that had terra cotta Hathernware tiling on its surround. Seating was provided in the auditorium on stalls and circle levels. It was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in September 1942, and was re-named Savoy Cinema on 20th September 1943. It was re-named ABC in 1968, and refurbished in 1978, with seating reduced to 780.The ABC was closed on 6th November 1982. It was gutted internally and converted into a supermarket. Later used for storage, in early-1999, it was converted into a gymnasium, known as the Academy Health Club. On 8th April 2006, part of the building was opened as Heaven, a lap-dancing club. The facade remains basically unaltered though now sadly is beginning to show its age. Many in the group would have memories of ‘going to the pictures’ here - on a personal note I vividly remember being taken by my parents to see Zulu. In the foyer there were some exhibits of the battles in glass cases - spears, shields, uniforms and rifles, most exciting for a young boy to gaze upon!

Almost back to the Town Clock we pause while Dr Collins spoke about the numerous key buildings in this vicinity. Firstly, Nicholls & Perks, quality wine and spirit merchant on the site of a former public house way back in 1797. Dr Collins told us about the sandstone cellars underneath the retailer which extend as far as King Edward’s School. Next was the Market Hall (1773) which was of great importance in those days when Stourbridge was a significant centre for the emerging wool and iron trade. Originally the Market Hall, resembling the one in Bridgnorth, also served as a turnpike and housed the Town Hall as well - such a pity for Stourbridge that the building was demolished. In 1827 the new Market Hall was built primarily acting as a Corn Exchange.

The Town Clock is a well-known landmark for the town and is actually the second clock to be sited here. It was first erected in 1851 and was originally driven by a shaft into the Market Hall in which the mechanism was based. Today’s clock now has an internal mechanism but the pedestal still retains match-striking plates near the base as a legacy of the past. Across the square the Old Bank stands empty awaiting redevelopment, it is actually the “new” Old Bank replacing a previous construction. Opposite to this is a building which was once the Central Hotel - Dr Collins had been lucky enough to have recently been around the interior which still retains its hotel characteristics in such aspects as stairs, corridors and offset rooms.

Entering Upper High Street, the façade of Burton’s is very evident as you look skywards to glimpse a faded Burtons logo against what is described as Art Deco Egyptian architecture. The design of the Burton buildings synergized with their marketing brand which was designed to lure people who couldn’t afford a suit into their stores. Each Burton building apparently had two foundation stones laid by members of the Burton family, unfortunately only one is still visible, though everyone remembered the Burton brand.

Walking up the now hub of retail activity in the town Dr Collins pointed out a number of alleyways which originally served to provide shortcuts from the busy main street and to avoid pedestrian and vehicular, albeit horse drawn, traffic congestion.

The Talbot Hotel has considerable history as a coaching inn. The original structure dates back to the 1630s and had significant stabling which remains in situ at the rear of the solid and imposing frontage. The Talbot became a place where people met and did business with a number of organisations setting this up as their base. It became a social centre for Stourbridge and remains active as a centrally located hotel.

Architecture played a big part of the guided tour and it is important to look up and see the variety of styles that exist above the shop frontages, for example the detail above My Sister’s Chalet & The French Connection; above Lloyd’s Bank (the only building in the top end of the High St to display a property number - 134) which still displays the original beehive logo of this Birmingham founded bank; Mark & Moody’s shop with the print works to the rear and the air vents at pavement level still depicting M&M in their design and of course the red brick/terracotta Post Office built in 1885. The post-box here is quite unusual in that it is oval in shape and has two posting slots - previously used for inland and international postage. Dr Collins enthusiastically ushered the group to the rear of the Post Office and shared with us the history of Barlow’s Yard where the Alhambra theatre once stood. Around 1840, references are made to this third Stourbridge theatre being established in Barlow’s Yard, off the High Street at the rear of the “Coach and Horse” inn, the site of the old post office in course of erection at the time. Again, so handy to a pub! At the end of the 19th century the Alhambra was being managed by a Mrs Eliza Patch, who had taken over what was described as a mountable theatre on the death of her husband, and who was, by all accounts, something of a character. Stourbridge actor Chris Gittins (of The Archers fame) recalled, in a lecture on local theatres: “It was always a joy to play in, for the tiniest whisper could be heard everywhere. With its low ceiling covered with painted canvas and the long horseshoe gallery which terminated only a few feet above the stage, it was an intimate place.” A number of entertainers who were later to go on to greater things trod the boards at the Alhambra including the Lye born actor, Sir Cedric Hardwick and singer Gracie Fields. The Alhambra closed finally in 1928. Eliza Patch is buried in the Wollaston churchyard.

On the subject of theatres Dr Collins confirmed that the first theatre was unsurprisingly located in Theatre Street which was eventually lost to The Ryemarket shopping complex. Arriving at the site of the current Wilkinson’s Store reminiscence of Owen Owen, Stringers and prior to that as the Central Theatre which became the ODEON (Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation) ensued, as a former employee of the retail stores was present in our group. Also remembered fondly by many was the Country Girl café and milk bar adjoining the cinema - many a romance perhaps started there and finished in the back row! Dr Collins then told the story of a huge safe embedded in concrete which was put in place by Martin’s Bank on this site - it was immovable and remained there until the building was demolished in 1986. Incidentally, the first Deutsch Odeon, built in a Moorish style, opened not too far away at Perry Bar, Birmingham in 1930. The King’s Super cinema in Stourbridge could be accessed by yet another less obvious alley immediately to the left of Daybreak’s convenience store. Other stores which were popular in their day and were remembered by most included Timothy Whites, Boots, Mark & Moody’s (especially for their eclectic music collection) and MacFisheries - all now gone from the High St.

Progressing up the High St towards Pizza Express more alleys were identified and remnants of the tramway were pointed out in terms of plates attached to buildings from which overhead tram line cabling supports were attached - never spotted those before! Isaac Nash Jnr, a member of Stourbridge Council hated trams. He made it difficult for the transport channel to exist by making unreasonable demands of the service such as insisting that the tracks were in the gutter and that the High St be sound proofed with wooden blocks - the tram company undeterred imported thousands of wooden Jarrah blocks at great cost as it was only available as an import from Australia to meet his demands and the tram service functioned for many a year. Dr Collins is co-incidentally the author of 'By Tram From Dudley' which takes a route-by-route look at the development, operation and run-down of the tramway system which once linked Dudley to Brierley Hill, Stourbridge, Netherton, Cradley Heath, Pensnett, Kingswinford, Wordsley, Kinver, Lye, Wollaston, Old Hill and Blackheath.

The Pizza Express building, formerly Cranages Café, is a very important building both locally and nationally according to Dr Collins, for it was here that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page often met to set the foundations for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Led Zeppelin. It’s a true and often recalled story that my wife’s mom who worked here as a waitress returned home from work one day to tell her daughter (a big Led Zep fan) that she had needed to ask ‘the boys’ to kindly refrain from flicking cigarette ash on the carpet - how embarrassing mother!

At the corner of Foster Street is an impressive building, Bordeaux House, which now serves as a branch of the West Bromwich Building Society. It was built, as is depicted in the façade, in 1894 by Edward Rutland whose name is commemorated by the adjoining Wetherspoon’s Pub. The façade itself is very complex, detailed and depicts features associated with grapes, vineyards etc., hence the building name Bordeaux.

Bordeaux House, courtesy of Martin Cook

Foster Street acted as a junction for the tramway to The Lye (you have to call it The Lye). At this point the line to The Lye branched off. Its junction was operationally awkward as cars bound for The Lye needed to run past Foster Street and then reverse, taking a single right-hand curve into the street. Dr Collins took the opportunity at this point to mention the Agenoria, the first steam train to work in the Midlands. It was built in 1829 by Foster Rastrick & Company in Stourbridge for service on the Earl of Dudley's Shutt End Colliery Railway in Kingswinford. He also mentioned the famous Stourbridge Lion which was one of the three Rastrick locomotives ordered for America, arriving in New York aboard the John Jay with two other locomotives in May 1829, history fact which Dr Collins claimed would be known by the majority of US citizens.

At the top end of the town we once again mustered by the original line of New Street, scene of more “ring road carnage” - Thompson’s Housewives’ Corner had long since gone, despite the retail of its speciality of tripe, which was not on the ration book. The store predominantly however sold fresh fruit and vegetables and claims to be the first store in Stourbridge to sell frozen food. The last building saved in this area was The Chequers pub which has recently been quite tastefully extended by Wetherspoon’s right up to the boundary of the ring road.

From here we could espy the grand red-brick Stourbridge Library building, built in 1904 as an Arts and Technical Institute before becoming the girl’s school prior to their relocation to Redhill. The library is now destined to be converted into residential premises and was originally built on the sites of Roberts’s leather grindery. A clock tower was later added to the library by Isaac Nash Jnr and is now for sale. The limestone building just past this tower was the 1875 County Court building and marked the end of the tramway.

Retracing our tracks (no pun intended!) the group went back down the High St towards the Town Hall, passing the site of the first Tesco supermarket in Stourbridge, a two level store with an escalator - Café Nero now occupies part of the site. Stourbridge Town Hall is a mighty building constructed in red brick and featuring a huge tower under which sat the Stourbridge Council Chamber which contained a safe used to secure deeds and ledgers. A star burner gas lamp was used as a forced air ventilator to extract tobacco smoke from within the hall - it is still very much visible today.

Amblecote History Society, and guests, gather near Stourbridge Town Hall, courtesy of Martin Cook

Attached to the wall of the Town Hall at pavement level is an Ordnance Survey trig point, a small metal plate, which without being pointed out would easily go un-noticed.

Going down Market Street now with Dr Collins pointing out further landmarks and describing their history - Mesh & Lace is a building which is timber framed inside (as was McDonald’s at the top of the High Street !); Paula Jayne’s used to be Taylor’s café (a popular haunt of the Grammar Grubs) and marks the end of the Corn Exchange building; Smithfield Market on the site of the old fire station and so called because of the cattle market heritage. Dr Collins also informed us that there used to be a horse racecourse in the vicinity of appropriately named Racecourse Lane but this sporting venue faded out in the 1850’s. In March and September there used to be a 3 day horse fair which was very reputable and sustained by the railways. The Institute and Social Club built in 1936 is a fine example of art deco, with its stained glass window a prime feature. The bridge on its architrave is relevant to the Stour and of course the book motif refers to the prime use of the Institute as a library for newspapers and books. Stourbridge boasts Dudley’s only grade 1 listed building, St Thomas’s Church which was built in 1730 - Dr Collins urged any of the group who had not ventured inside to do so, describing the interior decoration as gorgeous. St Thomas’s became a parish church in 1876 and the adjacent Church Hall is very much alive with all sorts of activities. Fresh from the press: the Church has just been awarded a stage one development grant from the Heritage Lottery to fund essential repairs, installation of an accessibility ramp and provision of internal toilet facilities.

Cutting down another narrow alley just before Blunt’s Shoe Shop we witnessed the destruction of Victoria St and Theatre St which is now the location of the Ryemarket and the multi-story carpark which now looks its age and is a blot on the landscape - very dull, uninteresting and in need of a good refurbishment. Carlisle Hall, a gift to the citizens of Stourbridge by Ernest Stevens remains in place and now operates in part as Platters Café. From our vantage point on New Road we have good views of the spires of 3 churches: New Road Methodist, the Catholic Church and St John’s CofE. Behind us we see the Aldi store, formerly a B&Q outlet and a car retail business on the site of the former Kings Hall. Interestingly though the ring road passes straight through here past Haywood House it is the only part of the road which could be constructed without damage to existing properties as the verges were sufficiently wide and grassed. Oddly though a number of streets which adjoined the original road are now cut-off as dead ends. The last leg now as we pass into a slightly wider alley, Court Passage, past the Court Chambers which served the Magistrate’s Court just up the road. The building retains an impressive art deco frontage with fine stained glass, now playing host to Bassam’s Jewellery and AK Nails & Beauty.

So on emerging back onto the High Street near Bordeaux House the guided historical tour of our beloved market town concluded with Mike Perkins summarising the evening as being educational, amusing and most worthwhile. He warmly thanked Dr Collins for his informed and ongoing commentary, presented him with a certificate from the Society, and also expressed gratitude to the group who had turned out in unprecedented numbers. A special thank you from me to Martin Cook, a new Society member, for taking some excellent photographs of key buildings (some included in this report) as a record of the walk. Many memories had been stirred and much new knowledge of Stourbridge shared during the walk. Fortunately the ‘old days’ of Stourbridge have been captured in some excellent black and white photographs which members and visitors might like to see: Stourbridge Photographs.

It had been a memorable evening and one which had seen the Amblecote History Society briefly stop the traffic down the High Street as we crossed over to view the next historic sight in Barlow’s Yard! There’s always a first time for everything and this was one of those occasions. As most of the group dispersed and headed for home a small group then headed to the Duke William pub but they will remain anonymous! We only went there to get a good view of the curved rear brickwork of the Mark & Moody print works, honest!

For more information please visit: www.amblecotehistorysociety.org.uk

 

Lance Cartwright, Amblecote History Society, PR & Communications Officer.

 

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