Willenhall is a medium-sized town in Staffordshire, within the Black Country and contiguous with the surrounding towns of the Black Country conurbation with a population of approximately 40,000. It is found between Wolverhampton and Walsall and stands on the River Tame.
The northern border of Willenhall has always been adjoining green belt land, although Willenhall has expanded so much in the last 100 years that its northern border has shifted by about two miles. This is mostly due to housing developments in the Short Heath and New Invention areas.
As a town it is historically famous for the manufacture of locks and keys. As early as 1770 Willenhall contained 148 skilled locksmiths and its coat of arms reflects the importance of this industry to its growth.
Willenhall "is undoubtedly a place of great antiquity, on the evidence of its name it manifestly had its origins in an early Saxon settlement. The Anglo-Saxon form of its name Willanhale may be interpreted as 'the meadow land of Willa' - Willa being a personal name." Alternatively, the name may mean willow halh, the first element of it being the Old English wilgen 'of willows'. The Old English word halh meaning "a nook or corner of land, often used of land in a hollow or river bend."
The first record of the village of Willenhall is from the eighth century when a treaty was signed there by King Ethelbald of Mercia, in which Willenhall was referred to as Willenhalch. In 996 the town was referred to as Willenhale
In the Middle Ages, Willenhall was included in the parish of St Peter's Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, though a chapel of ease was built for worship. It was not until 1840 that Willenhall had a parish church of its own, St Giles. The present church is the third on the site, dating from 1867. The River Tame flows through the churchyard and was until recent years one of the few places where the water surfaced.
Willenhall was a small agricultural village throughout the Middle Ages. From Tudor times, the natural mineral wealth began to be exploited with ore being sent out to charcoal furnaces in nearby Cannock Chase. The iron product was then returned to be turned into small metal goods. Nails were a common product and by the end of 17th century Willenhall had a healthy hand trade, making grid irons, curry combs, bolts, latches and coffin handles. According to the Hearth Tax Returns in 1665, Willenhall comprised 136 households and 894 persons. The population did not increase dramatically until the 18th century when iron and coal began to be fully exploited. The town grew up around the Market Place and Stafford Street with many tiny streets crammed with houses, workshops and pubs. Evidence of the town's growing prosperity is still visible today in the Dale House, once the home of the Hincks family and 33 Market Place, the home of the Clemsons, both maltsters.
Willenhall suffered its very own great fire in 1659, when most of the town centre was devastated. Most common homes at this time were still made of wattle and daub with glassless wind-eyes (windows), properties easily razed by fire. Re-building where money allowed was in brick; The Bell Public House being a good surviving example from 1660, although now closed for business.
Willenhall's first workhouse opened in 1741 adjacent to what is now Upper Lichfield St, it was in operation for 100 years before merging with Wolverhampton. By 1801, the population was 3,143.
Poor housing and lack of any proper sanitation led to a cholera epidemic in 1849 when 292 people died. Many of those who died were buried in the Cholera Burial Ground "on land at the bottom of Doctors Piece." A commemorative plaque at the site reads:
THE PARISH OF WILLENHALL WAS VISITED BY CHOLERA IN 1849.THE FIRST DEATH BY THAT DISEASE TOOK PLACE ON THE 17TH AUGUST, THE LAST ON 4TH OCTOBER. IN 49 DAYS 292 PERSONS DIED, THE CHURCHYARD OF ST GILES BEING TOO CROWDED FOR FURTHER INTERMENT, THIS GROUND, A PORTION OF THE CHURCH ESTATE WAS (WHILE YET UNCONSECRATED) FIRST USED FOR BURIALS ON THE FIRST OF SEPTEMBER. ON THREE DAYS THE BURIALS WERE 15 DAILY THE WHOLE NUMBER INTERRED HERE AND IN THE CHURCHYARD BEING 211.
The epidemic shocked the town into improving conditions, and in 1854 the Willenhall Local Board of Health was founded, a forerunner of Willenhall Urban District Council which took over in 1894.
To reflect a growth in civic pride, several municipal buildings were erected: the Town Hall and Library building in Clemson Street in 1866, and a public baths in 1938. The clock in the Market Place was erected in 1892 by public subscription to the memory of Joseph Tonks, who was a doctor working in the town post-cholera. About the clock, Hackwood writes:
This was erected, as an inscription upon it testifies, as a memorial to the late Joseph Tonks, surgeon. "whose generous and unsparing devotion in the cause of alleviating human suffering" was "deemed worthy of public record."
He brought both health and sanitation to Willenhall but died at the age of 35. The memorial park was opened in 1922 in honour of those killed in First World War.
By 1901, the population of "Willenhall, minus Short Heath" was 18,515.
Twentieth and twenty-first centuries
Football came to Willenhall on 4 September 1905 when Spring Bank Stadium was opened in Temple Road, serving Willenhall Swifts FC. The club merged with Willenhall Pickwicks in 1919 to form Willenhall FC, who achieved swift success as Birmingham and District League champions in 1922. However, the club soon fell into financial problems and went into liquidation in 1930. Spring Bank Stadium was sold and converted into a greyhound track, which remained open until 1980. It was demolished soon afterwards and replaced by housing.
Football returned to Willenhall in 1953 with the formation of Willenhall Town FC, who play at a site on Noose Lane and play in the local leagues.
Two war memorials were erected in the town after First World War to commemorate the hundreds of men from the town who lost their lives in the conflict.
The entertainment industry in Willenhall was boosted in 1914 by the opening of the town's first cinema, the Coliseum. It was followed a year later by the Picture House. A third cinema, the Dale Cinema, opened in the town in 1932. However, the closure of The Dale at the end of 1967 signalled the end of cinemas in Willenhall after 53 years. The building was later converted into a bingo hall and since December 1999 has been a big chain pub.
The growing population of Willenhall around the turn of the 20th century led to increased overcrowding and a need for new properties to be built. In 1920, the town's first council houses were built in Temple Road. Over the next 50 years or so, thousands of new private and council houses were built, mostly expanding on developments up to three miles north of the town centre.
By the late 1970s, the local industry was in decline, and by the year 2000 most of the town's lock-makers had closed or relocated. The former Yale factory was demolished in 2009 and replaced by a Morrisons supermarket which opened in January 2010.
However, the town's high street retains many of its old buildings which have been local landmarks since the turn of the 20th century or earlier.
- Church of England:
- St Giles'
- St Stephen’s
- St Anne’s
- Holy Trinity
St Giles' Church began as a chapel of ease within the parish of Wolverhapton, of which the parish church was St Peter's. In 1846 Willenhal became a parish in its own right and st Giles became a parish church.
St Giles’ Chapel was the most ancient chapel in the town of Willenhall and was probably built in the early 14th century. The mediæval church was demolished in 1748 havving begun to decay and the new church was completed in about two years, and in 1750, the new church was again open for worship. In 1848, it became a parish church of the Church of England in Willenhall.
St Stephen’s and Holy Trinity were finished in 1854, and St Anne’s was built about 10 years later.
Willenhall is famous for the manufacture of locks, and the Locksmith's House (The Lock Museum), dating from Victorian times, demonstrates how one particular family of lockmakers lived and worked at the very beginning of the 20th century. This small museum is managed by the Black Country Living Museum and is open for pre-arranged group visits, including educational programmes for schools. The Locksmith's House is situated in New Road.
To make trading easier, the New Road (a toll road) was built before 1820, acting as an effective bypass for the main high street. Outside the town itself, settlements grew up around local industries. The area around Lane Head and Sandbeds had a thriving mining community and Portobello grew around the brickmaking industry. There was a lot of coal mining in the Willenhall area until the 19th century when the industry came to a dramatic halt after a strike when the mines were flooded and lost forever.
Lockmaking began in the area in Elizabethan times mainly in Wolverhampton, Willenhall and Bilston. Eventually it became concentrated in Willenhall, where lock making had begun as a cottage industry with many families producing locks and parts for locks in sheds or outhouses at the rear of their homes. Because long hours bending over their work tended to produce workers with humps on their backs, the town became known locally as 'Humpshire'  and is still regarded as such with affection by many locals.
As late as 1956 there were still local men who had humps. Some public houses even had holes in the wall behind the wooden bench seats to allow their patrons to sit comfortably with their hump in the hole. The last example of such a pub was demolished in the early 1950s. The Bell Inn in Market Street was an example of such a pub with curved holes in the walls to allow hump backed drinkers to sit up straight. Rushbrook's was a bakery in Market Street, Willenhall. In 1853, Rushbrook's struck their own "Rushbrook Farthing", a tradesman's token widely in use in the area. In the early 1960s the Spring Vale Tavern in St Anne's Road was renamed The Rushbrook Farthing in remembrance of this unusual practice.
"Much of the town centre is a designated conservation area. Within the next few years Willenhall Town Centre is set to undergo some regeneration. Currently the outskirts of the town centre are lined with abandoned factories, although most have been demolished and will be replaced with new flats. It now has a numbr of supermarkets within its borders.
If funding is given the go-ahead to extend the Midland Metro tram system, one of the possible extensions is the 5 W's Route, to run from Wolverhampton to Wednesbury by way of Wednesfield, Willenhall and Walsall.
There were plans to reopen Willenhall Bilston Street railway station, which was one of two old railway stations in the town (the other being Willenhall Stafford Street railway station), however recently funding for the line which the station would have served has been axed and the service was then withdrawn in December 2008. Therefore, plans for the reopening of the station have currently been scrapped.
Sights of the town
The main landmarks include: The Locksmith's House museum in New Road; the cholera burial ground in Doctors Piece; St Giles Church; the bandstand in Willenhall Park; the Clock Tower, The Bell Inn, the malthouse (now Davey's Locker shop), and the Lock and Key sculptures in the market place; Dale House (now a restaurant) and the Dale cinema (now a Wetherspoon's pub); the Toll House (now a restaurant), and the old Town Hall (now the library) in Walsall Street.
- Football: Willenhall Town FC
- Rugby Union: A club formed by some employees of Rubery Owen in 1966. They are based in nearby Essington.
- Willenhall Memorial Park
- Fibbersley Nature Trail and Reserve
- Rough Wood Chase
- The Summers
- Coppice Farm Open Space
- Stefs Basement
In June 2014, Willenhall adopted a town flag, in a competition run by local media.
The flag (designed by Adam Leonard) is in red and blue, the main colours of the arms of the old Borough of Willenhall (a shield familiar locally as it appears on the shirts of Willenhall Town FC). The symbols - padlocks, keys and a castellated vertical division recalling the pins of a locking mechanism, represent the towns famous lock-making industry. A crown above the crossed keys represents royal patronage, as Queen Elizabeth I granted permission to the town to manufacture royal locks, and the towns subsequent status as 'king of lock-making'.
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- Cholera in Willenhall, http://jshercliff.demonweb.co.uk/willenhallhistory/cholerabook.htm Accessed 23 March 2011.
- Hackwood, FW., The annals of Willenhall, Reprinted by Echo publications, 2010, p. 121.
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- The Parish Church of St. Giles' Willenhall
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- Willenhall History, http://www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk/articles/Willenhall/Contents.htm#contents. Accessed 23 March 2011.