About Stourbridge, the town and it's history

Stourbridge is a difficult town to categorise, it is not a picture postcard tourist destination in the conventional sense but it is right on the edge of glorious countryside. Stourbridge is a "real" town, that has developed naturally over the centuries. While parts of the town are industrial it also has very attractive suburbs, some areas are very affluent, others not. In many ways Stourbridge is true middle England and the people who live here are very loyal to the town. Stourbridge has an extensive "old quarter", with well looked after houses, largely victorian. Other favoured areas of Stourbridge tend to be to the South and West of the town centre, Norton and Oldswinford, towards Hagley and villages such as Churchill, Clent, Kinver and Belbroughton.

Photo © H. Jack Haden

A brief history of Stourbridge From the book Stourbridge in Times Past by H. Jack Haden © 1980 Stourbridge - Sturbrug or Sturesbridge as it is spelt in the 1255 Worcestershire assize roll - evidently owes its name to an ancient bridge erected across the River Stour which, until recently, formed the boundary of the counties of Worcester and Stafford. The medieval township lay within the more extensive manor of Swynford (or Swinford) which, as the name indicates, was called after a ford - possibly situated near the present riverside estate called Stepping Stones. The settlement lay within what was the inferior manor of Bedcote, a name that survived into this century as that of one of the mills so important to the growth of the local community and is still retained as a street name. Swinford is mentioned in a Saxon charter of about 950 AD and, spelt Suineforde, is mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday Survey, when the manor was possessed by William Fitz Ansculf, one of the most powerful of the Norman lords, who was able to supervise his great estates in the West Midlands from his hilltop castle at Dudley. This William also held Pevemore (the present day Pedmore) lying to the south of Stourbridge, and Elmcote (now Amblecote), which is a parish on the northern bank of the Stour in Staffordshire until recent years yet within the diocese of Worcester. Until it was created a separate ecclesiastical parish in 1845, it formed part of the parish of Old Swinford - the word "Old" having been added centuries earlier to distinguish it from the adjacent parish of Kingswinford or Swinford Regis. The manors of Old Swinford, Bedcote and Pedmore changed hands from time to time during the Middle Ages as a result of political upheavals and the changes of fortune of their overlords. It is questionable whether these great feudal lords ever visited these manors, the supervision of the peasant's customary service and the collection of dues and fines being left to their stewards. The Lytteltons, seated a few miles away at Frankley until their house there was destroyed during the Civil War causing them to move to Hagley, acquired the superior manor of Old Swinford in 1564 and they were the dominant local family until the 17th century when, having fallen from favour and lost much of their wealth through involvement in the Gunpowder Plot and the Royalist and Roman Catholic causes in Stuart times, they were superseded by the Foleys whose wealth was based on the rapidly expanding iron industry. From their forges and mills powered by water wheels on the River Stour and other rivers and streams members of the Foley family built up substantial fortunes which were supplemented as a result of judicious marriages into wealthy and influential families. Large estates were acquired notably in North Worcestershire, South Staffordshire and Herefordshire and, in due course, became a barony. Said to have been impressed by a sermon given by a Puritan divine, Richard Baxter, on the proper use of wealth, Thomas Foley (1616 - 1677) founded (at Old Swinford) a school for boys who on completion of their education were put out as apprentices. Virtually the whole of the parish of Pedmore was set aside by Foley to form part of the endowment of his Old Swinford Hospital whose original buildings still stand - one of the most impressive architectural features of Stourbridge. Transformed from a charity school for poor boys, the Hospital is now a highly esteemed boarding school, also admitting selected day boys from the neighbourhood, but much of its land at Pedmore has been sold by the feoffees in order to extend the premises and bring the educational facilities up to the standard required to afford the boys the opportunity to obtain places at a university.

However, Oldswinford Hospital was not the first school to be established in the ancient parish. It is recorded that the stipendiary priest at the Chantry of Holy Trinity, founded in 1430 in Lower High Street, Stourbridge kept a school in 1548 and was "charged to teach the poor children of the same parish" and when, with other religious houses, the Chantry was suppressed at the command of Henry VIII, the school was continued, granted a charter by Edward VI and endowed with property from the income of which the school was maintained and the master paid. The school's most famous pupil was Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer, author and formidable conversationalist who, during his brief stay in 1725-6 is said to have learned "a great deal from the master", the Rev. John Wentworth.
Over the centuries Stourbridge developed slowly as a prosperous market town. The right to hold a weekly market with two fairs each year was granted by Edward IV in 1482 to the Dean and Canons of St George's Chapel, Windsor (who then held the manor) and was renewed by Henry VII in 1486 to the Earl of Ormond, now the lord of the manor, as reward for his services in the Wars of the Roses.

Surrounded by heath and hills suitable for rearing sheep and with a plentiful supply of clean water for washing wool, like many another English town, Stourbridge became a centre for producing woolen cloth. The local coal, limestone and fireclay had been exploited on a small scale from early times but it was the 16th and 17th centuries that saw the birth of the great industrial complex later to be called the Black Country. The dawn of the 17th century saw also the introduction of the glass industry to the district by "gentlemen glassmakers" from France who had been forced to move their glassworks from woodlands to areas where there was coal with which to fire their furnaces.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century was felt strongly in Stourbridge where the woollen trade declined - to fade away early in the following century - and the production of ironwork, edge tolls, nails, chain, bricks and heavy engineering took over. The opening of the Stourbridge Canal in 1779 vastly enhanced industry's prospects and the beginning of the railway age led to a rapid expansion of the iron industry, the large works of John Bradley and Company being developed alongside the arm of the canal that linked the town with the outside world. Bradley's works had the distinction of producing the Stourbridge Lion, the first locomotive to run on rails in America - on 8 August 1829. Industrial expansion encouraged population growth, improved living standards and social amenities.
Spectacular development marked the 19th century. The bridge over the Stour was widened, the roads were improved and the railway arrived in Stourbridge, a piped water supply and gas were provided, a drainage system made life easier and more healthy, rows of terraced houses and impressive villas were erected, the Oldswinford parish was divided to form new parishes for which churches were built, the ancient parish churches of Oldswinford and Pedmore were rebuilt, the Nonconformists built chapels, the introduction of compulsory education meant the building of schools and civic pride led to the building, on the site of the old Corn Exchange, of a handsome - by Victorian standards of taste - Town Hall to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Local Government had been rudimentary until the Stourbridge Improvement Act of 1868 reconstituted an elected Board of Town Commissioners with greater powers to control and improve local services. A further step in local government was taken in 1894 when Stourbridge, Lye and Wollescote and the parish of Amblecote obtained Urban District status with Pedmore becoming part of Bromsgrove Rural District.

By this time Stourbridge had become an important local railway centre; steam trams had been replaced by electric trams, there was extensive house building, the Public Baths were erected in 1901, through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie Stourbridge was provided in 1905 with a Public Library with an Art and Technical School and a Girl's Secondary School on its upper floors. Stourbridge was acknowledged to be one of the most progressive and pleasant towns in the Midlands. Lye, Wollescote and Stambermill, a major cemtre of the holloware industry whose streets echoed with the thump, thump of hammers and olivers on forgings, possessed fewer amenities but a profusion of public houses and places of worship. Amblecote, the smallest Urban District in the country, was even more closely linked with Stourbridge for within the parish was the Corbett Hospital which served the whole area, the Stourbridge Gas Works, Stourbridge water undertaking, Stourbridge cricket and football ground and considerable industrial premises including glassworks and clay mines whose products were invariably labelled "Stourbridge". Pedmore parish was still predominantly a rural village, most of its acreage being farmed, but the population was growing with the building of substantial houses by Black Country businessmen.

The ambition of some of Stourbridge's leading public figures was realised in 1914 when the Urban District was granted a Charter of Incorporation and became a borough. World War I brought prosperity to its industries and with the return to peace the town council embarked on impressive improvement schemes, especially the building of municipal houses. Despite industrial unrest and growing unemployment in the late 1920s and early 1930s very significant progress was made in improving living conditions. In 1929 the district's greatest public benefactor Ernest Stevens, a millionaire holloware manufacturer, presented the Studley Court estate to Stourbridge; it was to be known as Mary Stevens Park in memory of his wife and the house was converted into the Council House. The following year Lye and Wollescote Urban District Council received Wollescote Hall estate, in all some 89 acres, which became Stevens Park.

Although in some ways distinctive communities, Stourbridge and its neighbouring parishes were becoming more closely involved and in 1932 Lye and Wollescote Urban District and Pedmore parish were incorporated in the borough. It was not until the implementation of the Boundary Commission's recommendations in 1966 that the major part of Amblecote Urban District was brought into Stourbridge Borough - that part to the north of the Stourbridge to Brierley Hill railway line being transferred to Dudley County Borough. The resultant well balanced unit of local government was to be short-lived for under a further reorganisation in 1974 the whole borough was absorbed into the new Metropolitan District (later to become the Metropolitan Borough) of Dudley within a new county called West Midlands torn from the ancient counties of Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire.