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Bilston in 1835

BILSTON, a market-town in the parish of Wolverhampton, in Staffordshire, 113 miles N.W. from London, and about two miles S.E. from Wolverhampton. It was, until recently, accounted merely a village, and had no market or fair ; but having risen to great importance, and possessing a population exceeded by few towns in the county, it obtained, in 1825, the grant of a market, held on Monday and Saturday, and of two annual fairs, toll free, held on Whit-Monday, and on the Monday preceding the Michaelmas fair at Birmingham. By the Reform Bill, Bilston, with other adjoining townships, was admitted to a participation in the franchise of Wolverhampton, and it contributes about 500 qualifying tenements to the general constituency. The number of houses was 2,988 in 1831, when the population amounted to 14,492 persons, of whom 6,996 were female. Bilston extends nearly two miles in length, and is situated upon a rising ground on the great road from London through Shrewsbury to Holyhead, and that from Birmingham to Manchester, Liverpool and Chester. By these roads and still more by the Birmingham and Staffordshire canal, which passes in the immediate vicinity of the town, and its various branches, it possesses the greatest facilities for transmitting its manufactures, and the heavy- products of its mines and foundries, to the eastern and western as well as northern coasts, and to the interior of the country. Bilston owes all its importance to the introduction of the iron works : it previously consisted of only a few private houses ; but standing in a district possessing considerable mines of coal, iron-stone, quarry-stone, and clay, it rapidly increased in extent and population. The town, which is irregularly built, contains a due proportion of good and substantial houses in its principal streets : the numerous dwellings of the people employed in the different works are dispersed in all directions in the neighbourhood. There are numerous furnaces for smelting iron-ore, with foundries, forges, slitting-mills, steam-engines, and the various works necessary for the preparation of iron. The town is intimately connected in interest with Wolverhampton. Their proximity and their increasing wealth and population render it probable that the buildings of the two towns will soon be united. The manufactures of tin, and of every kind of japanned and enamelled wares, with that of iron, from nails and wire to the heaviest and bulkiest articles, are largely carried on at Bilston. Coarse pottery is made with the clay which is found in the neighbourhood in much abundance. There is also here a deep orange-coloured and almost impalpable sand, which is much used in the casting of metals ; the neighbourhood is noted for a quarry, the stone in which lies in twelve horizontal layers, each of which increases in thickness from the surface downwards, so that the lowermost is about a yard in thickness. Plot mentions a person who got from this quarry a stone eight yards long, naturally so very even that it did not bevel or depart from the true level above an inch. Cisterns, troughs, &c., are made of the stone, some of which is curiously streaked with black. Plot also mentions that the grindstones dug at Bilston are much finer than those obtained in Derbyshire ; they are used in sharpening thin-edged tools, as knives, razors, &c.

The town contains two churches : that of St. Leonard was erected in 1826, in the place of one which was which was built about the middle of the last century : that which previously stood there was erected in the reign of Henry VI, and having become old and ruinous, was then taken down, with the exception of the tower. It accommodates 2,000 people. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the jurisdiction of the dean of Wolverhampton, the income of which is stated in the recent returns at £635 per annum. It is in the gift of the inhabitants. The other church, dedicated to St. Mary, is a handsome structure, erected in 1829, at an expense of £7,223, in the later English style : it accommodates 1,400 persons, and has 956 free sittings : the minister has an income of £83 per annum. The Methodists, Baptists, and Independents have also places of worship in Bilston. A court of requests for the recovery of debts not exceeding £5 has been established in the town. There is a charity school, in which a few boys are clothed and educated.

This town suffered a dreadful visitation of cholera in the months of August and September, 1832, the particulars of which have been impressively detailed in a pamphlet by its minister, the Rev. William Leigh. It appears that 3,568 persons were affected by the disease, out of which number 742 perished in the course of six weeks. The public sympathised with the inhabitants on this trying and afflicting calamity, and no less a sum than £8,536, 8 shillings, 7 pence was collected in behalf of the poor surviving sufferers. A useful and substantial building has been erected, called the ‘Cholera Orphan School,’ in which 450 orphan children are educated, part of whom, together with upwards of 100 widows, are still receiving a weekly payment out of the fund.

At Bradley, a hamlet in the township of Bilston, there is a phenomenon which has attracted much attention. A fire in the earth has now been burning for more than a century, defying every attempt which has been made to extinguish it. The inhabitants call it ‘wild-fire.’ It has reduced several acres of land to a mere calx ; but this calx furnishes a very excellent material for the repair of the roads, and the workmen in collecting it often find large quantities of excellent alum. The surface is sometimes covered for the extent of many yards with sulphur, in such quantities as to be easily gathered. We are informed that the wild-fire at Bradley is now nearly extinguished, the combustible matter being very much exhausted.