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The old Market Hall that was full of characters

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 23, 2014

By John Workman

  • A view of Church Street, Bilston, looking towards High Street. The photographer just missed revealing the old Market Hall which would have been on the left-hand side

  • Bilston Market Hall (1892 - 1971), and below the interior showing many of the 140 stalls

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ANY market place worth its salt should be full of surprises, have a variety of merchandise and bargains to boot, colourful and interesting stalls, and sellers who perform like thespians on the stage, full of drama, excitement and above all entertainment.

This theatrical image may not be a common description of a Black Country market of the 21st century, but in days gone by the market was a hive of interest and character and Gerald Hanrahan has been kind enough to send us a history of the old market hall of Bilston town, providing us with the nuts and bolts of this fascinating tale plus a sprinkling of personal recollections he has of some of the people who performed to their audience, like the 'Lino' lady and the chap who smashed all the crocks to gain attention.

The old Market Hall in Bilston was officially opened in 1892, but Gerald's story starts a few years before when the town was first legally entitled to hold a market. "Prior to 1824 the market was a haphazard affair with a ramshackle of stalls and up-turned carts selling wares on Mondays or Saturdays. Bilston had begun to grow into a bustling Black Country town of some 12,000 inhabitants, and it was deemed necessary to incorporate a little organisation. Thirty-five trustees were appointed to entrust the work of the market to an inspector and his staff, and the proposed site for a market hall was on the corner of Church Street and Vine Street.

"A considerable amount of ground clearance took place, including the demolition of 37 houses and stables etc, and the land had to be bought leasehold due to a shortfall in funding. It opened on July 26, 1825, but it wasn't until 59 years later that the freehold was bought and the final instalment of money, amounting to £7,000, was paid.

"But Bilston needed a proper Market Hall, a building to be proud of, and the design and construction was entrusted to C. L. Wilson, the town engineer and surveyor. The finished building measured 46 foot high, 65 foot wide and 300 foot long and for a town the size of Bilston this was a building of mighty proportions.

"The market clock, donated by J.W. Sankey, measured a yard wide and had a ten day sequence; there were two rows of stalls in the centre, making them front-service selling; and altogether there were 140 stalls, 66 lock-up shops, 11 butchers shops and 8 fishmongers, each of which used marble slabs. There was however uncertainty on how best to light the hall, whether to use electricity or gas. Gas seemed the most likely option but a tender for its installation by a local gas company was extortionate. Brush Electric, a firm from Tipton, put in a tender that was accepted and Bilston Market became one of the first in the UK to be illuminated by electric light.

"In typical Victorian splendour the market hall was opened in August 1892 by Sir Alfred Hickman MP, and a special 'Golden Key' was provided for the ceremony. Market days were on Saturdays and Mondays and the hall remained open until midnight. However, during World War One and after the Zeppelin raid of January 31, 1916, opening hours were brought forward to 9pm on Saturdays and 8pm on Mondays. The opening times remained unchanged until WWII when the market closed at 6pm because of the nationwide blackout policy.

"During the postwar years Bilston Market welcomed back some star turns that had often frequented the outside market. There were the 'Men from the Potteries' who performed their acts using china plates, cups and saucers, invariably to the amazement of a watching audience. If the vendors failed to make a sale, one of them would throw the half dozen or so plates balanced on one arm into the air and they would smash with a loud crash onto the floor.

"This extraordinary behaviour worked in the Stoke men's favour as an even bigger audience returned to make purchases, feeling somewhat sympathetic to their failed sales pitch beforehand. What the audience didn't realise was that all the smashed crocks had been salvaged from a pot-bank in the Potteries and had already been thrown out as defects.

Then there was the 'Lino' girl dressed like a cowboy, with a leather apron and supporting a large money bag. She auctioned off rolls of lino, most 3yd x 2yd in size, which were rolled out on the tarmac by two young men always dressed immaculately in white shirts. 'This would grace Buckingham Palace' were some of the words she would use, followed by 'and we'll deliver to your home on Sunday for half-a-crown'.

"Another great salesman I remember was Ben, a Cockney with the gift of the gab. He could have sold sand to the Arabs on a good day, such was his patter with his audience, and you would always find him at his best at Christmas. They were all great characters and are all sadly missed. Oh for just a chance to sample a little of the old Bilston Market.

"The old Market Hall was demolished in 1971 and Bilston was never able to hold on to its characters and performers. Once upon a time the town boasted one of the best if not the best markets in the Black Country. Thank goodness memories live longer than dreams."

The market performers recalled by Gerald Hanrahan at Bilston, must have been mirrored by characters at other markets in the region in days gone by. Can you recall similar thespians of the market stalls at perhaps Wolverhampton or Walsall? If you have any stories to tell please email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or phone Bugle House on 01384 567678.

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