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The hidden history of Bradley village

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: June 05, 2008

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BRADLEY people are justly proud of their manor, which sits in the shadow of Bilston, one mile to the south-east, and in six weeks time they will be commemorating the death one of the most influential figures ever to feature in the Industrial Revolution; his name was John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson.

John Wilkinson was a larger than life character who was born in Cumberland in 1728 and arrived in Bradley in 1766 to erect the Black Country's first blast furnace. The Bugle will be digging deep into the history of this remarkable man and his overwhelming influence on the development of Bradley in a few weeks time nearer the 200th anniversary of his death, July 14th. But for now we are going to take a closer look at some of Bradley's other historical gems which appear in off-the-beaten-track locations.

On a recent visit to the area, John Goalby, an officer based at the Bilston East Local Neighbourhood Partnership, kindly offered to give the Bugle a guided tour, despite the rain and very wet conditions underfoot. He has worked at Bradley for a year having previously being based at Bloxwich, and in that short space of time has become a firm believer in the notion, supported by other historians, that Bradley should be officially declared the birthplace of the Black Country's industrial revolution, thanks to Iron Mad Wilkinson. At the moment he is helping to boost awareness of this important period in the region's history, both for current Bradley residents and the wider community.

According to the 1834 White's Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, Bradley was then "a small village and manor in the township of Bilston, remarkable for its extensive coal and ironworks and the phenomena described as pseudo volcano."

The pseudo volcano was a stratum of coal, about four feet thick and eight or ten yards deep, that had been burning for at least fifty years by the 1830s, and is still locally referred to these days as The Fiery Holes.

"John Wilkinson Esq., is lord of the manor, which is tithe free and was formerly the property of the Hoo family, whose old hall here has long been used as a farm house."

A more general description of the area includes references to the work going on in Bradley at the time: "At the numerous iron works around Bilston, the powers of the steam engine and other mechanical improvements, are extensively employed; and the hissing of the blast furnaces, the clanking of the forge hammers, the dusty appearance of the workmen, and the various operations upon unwieldy masses of red-hot iron, combine to excite an idea of terror in those who are unaccustomed to such noisy scenes."

Bradley is a much quieter, calmer place today, and underneath a grey, rain laden sky, a few of its more closely guarded secrets came to light. Across the opposite side of the canal from the John Wilkinson School, there are a few grassy knolls within the school grounds which look as though they were added as a playground feature when the school was built in the 1970s. However they are in fact industrial mounds that existed at the time of John Wilkinson over two hundred years ago and were situated adjacent to one of his ironworks, now the site of the school.

The canal itself, built to serve the burgeoning iron works of the late 19th century, shows, from its extreme width, that it was once a very busy waterway. It once continued underneath Tup Street Bridge on Bradley Lane, but has long since been filled in, and now terminates at a basin next to the British Waterways Workshop for the Midlands and South West, where replacement canal lock-gates are made.

The workshop manager kindly allowed us a few minutes to wander round and suggested we took a closer look at the pump engine shed during our brief visit. The yard is a holding area for many brand new lock-gates, hewn out of European oak trees, some of which were planted during the Napoleonic wars, and harvested in Scotland, cut, fitted, painted, and made ready for dispatch to canals the length and breadth of the land. Nearby there was an example of an old, worn-out lock gate that has seen better days, and a few yards further on an old narrow boat that had been left high and dry.

The pump engine shed, a brick-built, one-storey edifice that stands alongside the canal towpath a hundred yards or so from the workshop, is a typical example of an industrial building of the 19th century. Apart from it being an attractive building in its own right and containing a pump that draws water from a great depth to feed the canal system, it is also the site of a double tragedy during the First World War.

On January 31st, 1916, the night of the infamous Zeppelin raid across Britain, the first bomb was dropped on Bradley from Zeppelin L19 under the command of Captain Loewe, at about 8.10 pm. It scored a direct hit at Pothouse Bridge basin in Bradley, sinking several narrow boats. At the time a tram was passing over the bridge, and a man on board hearing the noise panicked and ran to the canal, jumped in and drowned. At the parish rooms of St Martin's Church, the local choir was rehearsing when the terrific blast from the bomb shattered the windows in all directions. By following the moonlit canal the Zeppelin's next bomb hit a row of houses, one of which was entirely demolished. Another bomb that dropped in the pumping station ash mound did no harm, but the fourth proved fatal to a couple sheltering on the tow path at the side of the Bradley Pumping Engine. Frederick Fellows, a delivery man for Wardell's Mineral Water, was killed outright, and Maud Fellows, a barmaid at the Old Bush pub was badly injured, and died later of her wounds inside the pub. A plaque on the wall of the pump engine building, unveiled by Dennis Turner MP in 1994, marks the spot where the bomb fell.

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