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Barber Wilkes and the Lyne Purl well

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 11, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • The well post-war, still in use but with its days numbered

  • All Saints, or the Old Church, was once at the centre of West Bromwich, when Lyndon, or Lyne, was the most populous part

  • A rare image of

  • The well today, with a cage preventing its use, as well as obscuring part of the inscription on the stone

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THE WATER may have ceased flowing some years ago, but the old Lyne Purl well in West Bromwich remains close to the hearts of many of the town's residents.

We made a couple of references to the old well last year, with readers lamenting the fact that the once free supply of fresh, clean drinking water to anyone who cared to partake, was these days merely a caged off, dry tap and a stone commemorating what it had once been.

Robin Pearson, historian and former West Bromwich librarian, has kindly supplied us with the fruits of his research on the old well, and he writes:

"Today we all take fresh water for granted, but just over a hundred and fifty years ago it was a very precious commodity. People who had access to pure water were lucky and often guarded it with vigour. The Lyne Purl was one such case.

"In the time before West Bromwich became a proper town there was a local radical called 'Barber' Wilkes who did much to protect the rights of the people. One of his campaigns was to ensure continued access to the Lyndon well.

"Wilkes was something of an opponent to the ideas of the town's first mayor, Reuben Farley. It was rather ironic then after the failure to erect a new drinking fountain in honour of Wilkes that the Farley Fountain situated today on the High Street was dedicated by Farley in memory of his mother, and the role of Wilkes largely forgotten.

"Nineteenth century historians such as Joseph Reeves, Mary Willett and Frederick Hackwood all referred to the significance of the well. And all that history was written up in one of the volumes of the prestigious Victoria County History, published in the 1970s.

"More recently Edward Chitham celebrated the Lyne Purl in his scholarly West Bromwich: A History, published in 2009.

"It's a pity that where part of the well is caged over, it blocks one's reading of the words at the bottom of the slab. Perhaps Sandwell Council could lower the cage and do a little restoration work on the wording, especially as it is coming up soon to sixty years since Alderman Grant's gift. The Victorian writer who suggested the water could have made West Bromwich like Cheltenham or Leamington was perhaps being a little fanciful, but the well is still a significant part of the area's heritage."

Robin's research has yielded a short series of newspaper articles dating from September 1943, which give some insight into the fascinating Victorian that was Barber Wilkes, as well as the rare photograph reproduced here. The first item tells us:

"One of the most notable men who have lived in West Bromwich was 'Barber' Wilkes. With the passage of the years he has become almost a legendary character, a sort of modern King Arthur who championed the cause of the poor and oppressed, defied the powers that be in any cause which he believed to be right, and gained a great reputation as an upholder of the rights of the common people.

"Perhaps the incident for which he is best remembered was his successful resistance to the proposed closing of the Lyne Purl in 1848.

"The preservation for public use of that ancient spring ... won for him the gratitude of the residents of Lyndon, who relied upon it for their water supply, and had an unshakeable belief in its crystal purity.

"That event was celebrated with great rejoicing, and commemorated in verses.

"In spite of his great local reputation however, I have found in the course of my enquiries concerning 'Barber' Wilkes that very little is really known about his career, and much of that is far from accurate. I propose, therefore, to tell the story of his life, and as much of my information is derived from a contemporary account, published while he was yet alive, it may be accepted as quite authentic.

"George Wilkes, always known as 'Barber', was born in 1786, in the then isolated and very rural district of Wigmore. As he grew up he was described as a ruddy complexioned, mischievous boy.

"An incident has been recorded which shows that at quite an early age he displayed the characteristics which afterwards came to be pronounced. When he was only fifteen he and an elder brother took an axe and saw and levelled a fence which had been erected to block a footpath across the fields. There are no details of this extant, but I have been told that the footpath was one leading across Wartstone Fields, and the closure was made by the then Earl of Dartmouth. 'That was not the action of a future carpenter or woodman or labourer,' says one chronicler, 'but of a bold and defiant man of the people.'"

There is also an interesting description of Barber Wilkes's physical appearance. Though only of medium height, he was 'strong and stalwart', with broad shoulders and muscular arms, which made him look quite out of place in a barber's shop. What did suit him to the role, apparently, was the love of gossip, and an interest in the goings on of the town's people, which marked out all the best barbers.

Wilkes began his business at Mayers Green, and within a few years had made enough money to have his own house built a short distance away, in what was then known as Virgin's End, after a pub located there, famously run by three spinster sisters.

Known for his interest in local and national affairs, Barber Wilkes led a large group of locals to a Birmingham demonstration in 1832, to support a petition for working men to get the vote. He even had the word 'REFORM' printed on his mobile barber's basket, and painted on the front of his house; the latter leading to the naming of Reform Street.

Not surprisingly, his Tory customers were appalled and he lost their business; but this was more than compensated for by the great number of Whigs who then determined to put business his way.

Also among the items which Robin has unearthed, is a short article from 1943 which suggests that the old well was not in great shape during the war years, but that its forthcoming restoration was just a matter of waiting until peace time and something like normality to return. There is also an indication of its great age:

"The Lyne Pearl (sic) is not to remain in its present condition. The owner of the land on which the Pearl is situate informs me that when the war is over and he can complete the development of the estate, he intends to enclose the spring in a stone casing and make its water available for the use of the public. This is good news, for it would be very regrettable if such a link with the historic past of West Bromwich were to disappear. This may realise the hope of a local power, who many years ago wrote:

Down to the vale this water steers, how merrily it goes;

It will murmur on one thousand years, and flow as now it flows.

"Recently I came across an indication of the great antiquity of the Lyne Pearl. In September 1885 it was reported to the Town Council by the Borough Surveyor that he had made an investigation and found that the water came through the hollow trunk of a tree, but that it was impossible to discover the source of the spring. Now it is an historic fact that in the days when the Normans occupied Britain they used the hollowed trunks of trees as pipes for the conveyance of water, and excavations in London have brought to light many of these primitive water mains.

"The adoption of this method at Lyne Pearl is evidence of the great length of time during which the spring has been used by the local inhabitants. When the investigation was made two samples of the water were taken and it was reported were 'found to be polluted'.

"Bearing in mind, however, what happened when the ancient well at Mayers Green was closed and the pump taken away, giving rise to what was described as a local revolution, the Town Council forbore to prohibit the use of Lyne Pearl, and contented themselves with posting a notice near it stating that the water was not fit for human use.

"One of my correspondents has raised the point whether the spring should not be called Lyne Purl. He suggests that this is the correct designation, and that the spelling, 'Pearl' is a corruption. I have found it spelled both ways, but the name 'Pearl' seems to be the older one.

"Both Reeves and Hackwood used this form of spelling, and as the word is descriptive of the gentle murmur of a stream, its application in this case would seem to have been natural on the part of those who gave the spring its original appellation."

The aforementioned Joseph Reeves, in his 'History of Westbromwich' of 1836, gives an informative account of the area around the well ...

"LYNE, or Lyndon, was the centre of the parish till the close of the last century. Some people have thought it very strange, that the Old Church was built where it is, but if one of our forefathers that has gone off the stage of life only 100 years, was to make his appearance, the venerable old man would inform us that in his day, the Church was not only in the centre, but the most suitable place in the parish. Lyne was the most populous ... at the commencement of the eighteenth century.

"The Cross stood in the corner opposite the old preaching house, and lately a butcher's shop has been erected upon the site. A part of the premises occupied by Mr L Gilbert, and within a few yards of the cross, was the prison.

"The stocks stood in Lyne (and) within the last twenty years many of the old half-timbered houses have been taken down, and in taking down some opposite the Pearl, several old pieces of silver coin were found; the writer has a silver piece of Queen Elizabeth's found there."

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