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Spon Lane, West Bromwich - a snapshot of our history

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 13, 2014

  • 1892 illustration of Kenrick's works

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WE are all able to identify our past and respective lives by the factories, houses, offices and similar buildings that surrounded us and in some cases still do.

Like historical milestones they tug at our memories bringing forth pleasant and no doubt an equally proportionate number of not so agreeable thoughts and emotions.

The maze and network of roads, streets, lanes and cul-de-sacs that constitute our region, when reduced to a single entity, can give a snapshot of a life which has long since gone, but which still pervades our current life in which our role is now the observer staring back at an ever receding and fading set of events.

West Bromwich has for generations been host to a multitude of industries, houses and individuals whose collective effort and input has left an indelible fingerprint on all it has touched.

By purposely breaking down this town to one small area it is possible to view all the complexities of these socially important factors and present as a consequence a wider perspective upon which we can all focus; and it is from Spon Lane in West Bromwich we commence our journey.

References to Spon Lane have been cited as early as the 1520s when it was simply described as a lane leading to Smethwick from the Birmingham/Wolverhampton road. Its origins are undoubtedly much more ancient as in a deed from the 1340s there is an allusion to an individual by the name of 'Willielmo ate Spon' from which the lane would have acquired some of its early ancestry. Other explanations for the derivation of the name Spon take us into the era of Richard the First and the Crusades. One theory suggests a West Bromwich combatant in these religious battles discovered a portion of the 'true cross' upon which Christ was crucified and he returned to our region with a splinter taken from it; these splinters are called, 'spona' and upon his return the soldier would have settled in the area now identified as Spon Lane.

It is further inferred that a holy well here would be positioned next to which a cross would be erected, and in close proximity to this, the relic – the spona – would be placed in a shrine; this is of course historical conjecture.

What is known is that a Spon Brook is mentioned in 1585 and a Spon Heath in 1633. It wasn't until the 1690s that it appeared by its current name.

Between the 1770s and 1790s those iconic firms of George Salter and Archibald Kenrick put down their industrial roots on or adjacent to the Spon Lane area. In fact this part of the town was now inextricably linked and for successive generations with the manufacture of springs and with the design and production of cast ironware. By 1819 Spon Lane had become one of the town's most highly populated streets, the area now starting to lose many of its former rural and agrarian aspects.

Two decades later we can make reference to one of the town's well known public houses. Standing at one end of Spon Lane was the town's original Bulls Head.

This had existed since at least the 1750s, the site of which was later to be occupied by the Dartmouth Hotel in 1834. This impressive building was regularly utilised for business and other official activities. Petty Sessions were held here until the 1850s and its central location meant it was a useful point from where coaches ran.

Between 1906-20 the tenancy was under the stewardship of William 'Billy' Bassett, a man with deep sporting roots in the town. He played for West Bromwich Albion from 1886-1899, making 261 appearances and scoring 61 goals. He later became Chairman of the club in 1908 until his death in 1937. It is said that upwards of 100,000 lined the streets for his funeral procession. The pub eventually closed in 1977 followed by its almost inevitable demolition.

It has been suggested that at one point in the late 19th century there were 27 public houses alone in Spon Lane. Some of the more unusually named were The Highland Laddie, the bizarrely titled Weighing Machine and The Champion of England, the latter of which was managed by boxer William Perry, the Tipton Slasher during the 1850s. The better known include The Flower Pot, Edward Woodward managing the premises for nearly a quarter of a century. Another watering hole of note was the Shoulder of Mutton, whose purposes altered completely by 1954 when it became the Spon Engineering Company.

An interesting addition to this list is the Cape of Good Hope which in 1831 was offered for sale and whose licensee a decade later was a Mary Mitchell who unusually at the same time appeared to be in receipt of poor relief. Returning to industry Archibald Kenrick & George Salter, as by the 1870s Archibald Kenrick was using its privately owned wharf at Spon Lane to transport its wares and by 1885 Salter's had purchased Bullock's Spon Lane foundry. Certainly not giants of either industrial or commercial history, John J. Bowater had established his works by 1856; these 'Manufacturers of Varnish, Paint & Enamel' proclaimed they were of 'the highest quality'.

A further company far removed from the forge and foundry and centred at Spon Lane was the printing works of Albert Cashmore. This Bristol born entrepreneur was resident in the town certainly by 1881, living with his widowed mother Emma at Newhall Street. When the works were established is uncertain, but as early as 1881 the 18-year-old Albert was already being catalogued as a 'printing compositor'. Some 20 years later he was firmly settled at his Spon Lane works advertising himself as both a printer and stationer.

The wide range of products manufactured in the town was diverse as it was numerous; the Stonehouse Works Company being just one more example. Among other items it produced were fertilisers and insecticides.

However, Spon Lane was no stranger to congregations of the faithful. As early as 1830 the records tell of a 'place of preaching' near the wharf and it is this which served as the foundation of a chapel in Spon Lane which was completed by 1841. I

In 1877 the chapel was re-built, 50 years later closing its doors when the chapel's loyal adherents had transferred to alternative premises at Smethwick. Even then the building continued, being transferred as it was to a metal pressings branch owned by John Smith Ltd.

When accounting for the history of the church, education always stands closely by in its shadow. In 1889 Spon Lane School on the corner of Parliament Street opened its doors, taking pupils at this period from temporary board institutions such as the Spon Lane Wesleyan School.

The building was subject to three extensions from 1911-31 and by 1944 it achieved the kudos of being one of the region's earliest Secondary Modern Schools. By the heady days of 1969 it amalgamated with George Salter School. The Spon Lane buildings clung on vainly for the next 12 months as an annexe to the newly-formed school until it and its long history was razed to the ground in 1971.

Spon Lane was home to a cinema. At the Dartmouth Square end of the lane stood the regally named Imperial. It had begun life in 1912 and like so many of its contemporaries had succumbed to the nation's social obsession with bingo by 1965. It had a further reprieve in 1969 when it was re-born as a cinema for a brief period, only for its death bell to be heard tolling within a decade.

Just at the parish boundary and strictly placed within the geographical confines of Smethwick we discover Spon Lane Railway Station which began its life of steam and shunting way back in 1852. Despite its significant importance within the town, its fate was consigned to the history books. Nationalisation came in 1948 and after 12 short years under the control of British Railways the trains ground to an untimely halt in 1960.

Our amble down Spon Lane ends by recounting the many shops and businesses that dotted this small corner of the town.

Taking 1936 as a snapshot of Spon Lane we have Levi Parker the butcher, Silas Lissimore a fish dealer and for your entertainment needs, the intriguingly named Arthur Maguire Medley would have furnished you with all your 'wireless' accessory requirements. Alas, Spon Lane is now a poor and dim reflection of those times mentioned above, with hardly a trace of its former glory days.

Walking down the lane today it is truly hard to imagine the bustling crowds and night time revellers who will have swarmed like industrious bees in and out of the pubs, shops and factories that dotted its length and breadth. It is true the town around Spon Lane has undergone many new developments in recent years, colleges, shopping centres and retail parks sprouting up at great speed. Whether these are welcome is purely subjective, but what is certain is that Spon Lane is now an emaciated shadow of its former self. However, its vibrant and rich past has provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the wider town's history and for that we are thankful.

What are your memories of Spon Lane? Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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