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Radical Bilston – George Barnsby

In relation to the industrial development of the Black Country, Bilston, or to be more precise Bradley which is part of Bilston, is truly unique. It was here in the 1700's that John Wilkinson set up the first furnace to smelt iron with coke and thus began the transformation from a green and pleasant land of craft villages to the industrial inferno of flaming furnaces, smoke belching chimneys of forges and workshops, smouldering mountains of coal being reduced to charcoal and ironstone calcining which became the Black Country. Here, awed visitors said, day was turned into night by smoke, and night into day by the glare of furnaces.

How Wilkinson learned to smelt iron with coal we do not know; this had been discovered by Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale who did not patent it. John Wilkinson operated furnaces at Broseley during the war period of 1756-73 and must have appropriated this priceless discovery for himself. Wilkinson was the Black Country's great innovator and first radical. He came from the Non-Conformist tradition which had challenged the claim of Charles I to rule by divine right, had beaten him in two Civil Wars, had executed him and set up a Republic. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 the Non-Conformists were heavily punished. They were not allowed to hold state or local government office and their ministers were not allowed to live within five miles of any corporate town. This led to an influx of Non-Conformists into non-corporate towns such as Birmingham where the greatest industrialists and innovators of the time such as Priestley, Watt, Boulton, Keir, Wedgwood etc. most of whom came from the same tradition, created the Lunar Society in Birmingham for scientific, and philosophic discussion and exchange of information.

Yet few of these powerful figures pioneering the new industrial society lived in a town which returned MPs to the House of Commons and their natural interests were in democratic Reform of Parliament which would pass legislation for free trade essential to the development of the new society. In this they were at one with their workmen who did not have a vote and also wanted reform of Parliament. An uneasy alliance therefore existed until 1832 when working men did the demonstrating and organising, but only the middle class were given the vote in the Reform Act of that year.

As Industry developed and towns expanded the conditions of life question further divided the so-called masters and their workers. The lack of sanitation and pure water brought the cholera of 1832 which devastated Bilston above all Black Country towns claiming 742 victims in a town of 14,000 people. Cholera returned in 1849 and almost annual epidemics of scarlet fever, whooping cough etc. decimated babies almost as fast as they were born. Slum houses without either sanitation or ventilation kept death rates of both adults and children high.

Conditions of work added to discontents. For the majority of people wages were low and often paid irregularly or in truck. The death rate from accidents in the pits was horrendous and only slightly less at furnaces and forges. Hours were long, twelve hour shifts were the norm at the beginning of the nineteenth century and only slightly less at the end.

Child labour was almost universal. Some children began work at the age of six. In the 1840s workhouse children were apprenticed to the mines at the age of eight and made to serve an 'apprenticeship' of 12 years.

Education was also almost non-existent. In Bilston in 1818 the only schools were Sunday schools. By 1843 the Cholera School, built with contributions from all over Britain was the largest school, and about 23% of children received a two year education, leaving school for work on average at the age of nine.

Social services were non-existent. Only the dreaded Workhouse and a pauper's funeral awaited those who, from poverty or infirmity, could not maintain themselves in old age.

But the greatest cause of poverty was the trade cycle. The Industrial Revolution proceeded in tempestuous cycles of boom when work was plentiful and labour flooded into the Black Country (many being rural workers dispossessed of their rights to common land by the enclosures in agriculture) followed by slump which brought mass unemployment and even starvation.

Such overall conditions were intolerable and working people protested and organised against these evils, despite the fact that from 1799 to 1814 the Combination Acts made it illegal to form either trade unions or working class political parties.

 A key effect of the failure of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 was that democratic politics could not develop and protests by working people were necessarily expressed only through violent means. The main cause of violence was bad harvests and the consequent high price of bread. There were Food Riots in the Black Country in 1765, 1766, 1768, 1776 and 1780. In 1800 riots in Walsall spread to Dudley and a letter from a Bilston magistrate stated that the rioters were dispersed by the Dudley cavalry with one man killed and many wounded.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was greeted with great enthusiasm by all democrats. But in 1793 Louis XVI was executed and war declared by France on England whose government had continued to support the ancient regime. The same year Habeas Corpus was suspended and in 1799 the Combination Act outlawed completely trade unions and working class political parties until 1824.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 instead of the expected prosperity there was a slump and mass unemployment until 1822. Miners, including those of Bilston, were on strike at the end of 1815. Colliers were said to be 'wandering about the country, begging'. Distress funds were opened in most towns, but in February 1817, the commander of the military forces occupying the Black Country could say that in Bilston 'little gratitude was evinced for the help given' and be was afraid that 'itinerant demagogues would incite the people to tumult'.

Another peak of distress occurred in 1819. By this time political clubs were being formed and working class newspapers circulated widely.  Sidmouth (the Home Secretary) was informed that in Bilston arms were being stored and the commander-in-chief was ordered to 'do what he could'. The same month an address from the Members of the Birmingham Union Society to the People of England was found circulating at the Capponfield Ironworks near Bilston and its author was subsequently prosecuted.

From 1826 to 1833 there was a second Long Depression of mass unemployment and deep poverty. The main political result of this period was the 1832 Reform Act which gave the vote to employers and the middle class but not to working people. Agitation for this Act was organised by local Political Unions based on the model of the

 Birmingham Political Union. The Bilston Political Union was formed in 1831 led by the middle class 'respectable' of the town such as Rev.W.Leigh of St Leonard's, Rev.H.S.Fletcher of St Mary's, chapel wardens, the surveyor of highways etc. but its main core of support was the working class. The decisive event persuading the land-owning dominated government to pass the Reform Act was probably the meeting organised by the Birmingham Political Union in May 1832 when 200,000 people are said to have gathered to demand the vote. Several hundred Bilston people must have marched with the largest contingent, the Great Northern Division of 100,000 Black Country people.

By the 1830s both trade unions and working class parties had won a precarious legal existence and Co-operative societies were soon to join them. All three developments are linked with the name of Robert Owen who was also the pioneer of Socialism. Owen believed that the evils of capitalism at that time could only be overcome by the peaceful transition of society to Socialism. This was to be achieved by collectivist colonies with the necessary factories and workshops adjacent to them. Owen however was a 'rationalist' who did not believe in Christianity and the combination of Socialism with so-called atheism was more than the church and chapel establishment could stomach. Owenism was therefore met with unprecedented hostility and vituperation. Bilston Socialists were more than ready to engage Christians in verbal combat to the detriment of the intended purpose of their existence which was to raise support and funds for the sole Socialist colony then in existence at Queenwood in Hampshire.

Bilston was the Black Country town where Owenite Socialism took deepest root. In 1838 a branch of Owen's Association of all Classes of all Nations was formed and a Social Institution established. Social Missionaries addressed public meetings advocating Socialism and claiming the superiority of rational thought over religious 'superstition'. At first the Socialists prospered, but soon a stained glass window of their premises was broken, 'superstitious fanatics had the Christian charity to pull down our placards advertising meetings', and the Socialists were evicted from their premises, despite a promise by their landlord that they could stay as long as they paid their rent. The Bilston branch survived until 1842, but by then, the most important agitation of the century had begun. This was Chartism.


Chartism was an attempt through three separate mass petitions between 1839 and 1848 to persuade Parliament to grant the vote to working men. Although it failed in its purpose at the time, five of the Six Points of the Charter have since been conceded, only the demand for Annual Parliaments not so far being accepted.

The first Chartist petition was in 1839. This was the period of the third Long Depression of the first half of the nineteenth century lasting from 1838 to 1843. Most Black Country towns participated through the revival of their Political Unions controlled now by working people as the middle class had obtained the vote in 1832. But of Bilston we know nothing; perhaps the ravages of the 1832 cholera had swept away potential working class leaders.

After the rejection by Parliament of the first Petition in 1839 and the subsequent imprisonment of its most prominent leaders, it took time for the movement to revive. But by 1841 branches of the National Charter Association were set up in the Black Country. Bilston was to become the largest branch in the Black Country and one of the largest in the country. Like the Socialists, the Chartists met at Ball Court which included an open space able to take crowds of five thousand, as well as large rooms. Bilston Chartism became strong enough to support for a short while a Female Chartist Association, a Chartist shop and a Chartist school; few Chartist associations in the country achieved this.

The new Petition secured more than 3 million signatures of which Bilston was said to have provided 5,400. The Bilston Chartist Association grew to 1,000 members and in March 1842 organised a vast procession through Bilston to welcome the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor. Local leaders such as John Stiran, Francis Langston and his school mistress wife, John Cadley etc. were joined by Joseph Linney from Lancashire who became the most famous Bilston chartist.

In May 1842 the second Petition was presented to Parliament and rejected. The Chartists then faced the problem which they never solved -what to do next. Continued peaceful protest was not likely to be effective and only a small minority advocated violence. But the situation was complicated by the desperate economic position in perhaps the worst year of the nineteenth century. Strikes were endemic from May and in August came a great national strike of miners which included the Black Country. In Bilston it was said that the peace of the town depended on Joseph Linney and if Chartism had been as strong elsewhere as in Bilston the government would have been forced to concede the vote and pass measures to relieve the almost universal distress.

But Chartism was not as strong elsewhere and the government eventually felt its way to arresting the leaders and both strikes and Chartist agitation subsided. At least four Bilston miners were sentenced to transportation for life. Joseph Linney was sentenced to fifteen months hard labour in Stafford Gaol for using seditious language and six months for attending an illegal meeting.

After 1843 full employment made the Charter agitation less urgent and Chartism settled down to an organisational existence which lasted until 1860. An innovation from 1843 was the Chartist Land Plan. This was an attempt by Feargus O'Connor to settle Chartists on the land as free holders when they would automatically obtain the vote. Members paid a small sum weekly and when they possessed a £1 share their names went into a ballot for a plot of land on one of the five Chartist colonies. At least seven Bilston people were allocated four, three or two acre plots with a bungalow on different estates. Chartists supported their successful comrades, donating seed, tools etc. and help in emergencies. The nearest estate to Bilston was Great Dodford, near Bromsgrove, and Black Country chartists made regular visits of celebration or aid.

A third Petition was organised for 1848. It coincided with both a trade depression and revolutions in many European countries including France. When it was presented to Parliament vast security forces of police and the army were mobilised to prevent any outbreaks of violence. But this was unnecessary. The rain poured down and the 4 million was bundled into a cab and taken to Parliament where many of the signatures were said to be from the Duke of Wellington, or 'Pugnose' and other unlikely people. The Petition was again rejected and this was considered to be the end of Chartism. In fact it wasn't. Although activity was at a lower level than before Bilston provided leadership of the movement from 1850 to 1856. A Reform Bill of 1859 again raised hopes that manhood suffrage might be achieved, but when this failed the national leadership gave up the ghost with Black Country Chartism still in existence. Seven years later, the 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to working men in towns and much of what Chartism had tried to achieve passed into law.


The main reason for the decline of Chartism was that from 1850 depressions became less frequent as Britain entered its Workshop of the World phase and Bilston its period of greatest productivity. This lasted barely twenty five years and was followed by the Great Depression In 1874 lasting on and off until 1895.

During the years of regular employment trade unions developed in the Black Country and Bilston contributed much to the advance of the coal mining and iron trade unions. A continuity with Chartism was maintained during the period of prosperity when no working class political party existed by the growth of Secularism. This was another rationalist movement opposed by those religionists of Church and chapel supporting the establishment and one can identify old Bilston Chartists such as John Jones a barber, and H.V Miera.

From 1870 there were four frenetic years of prosperity and the mining trade unions gained a drop in hours from 11 to the prized 8 hour day. Secularists turned to Republicanism large aristocratic landowners were monopolising vast tracts of land and the continuing neglect of public duties by Queen Victoria showed that the monarchy was unnecessary.

The onset of the Great Depression from 1874 killed Republicanism and gravely weakened the trade unions. Living standards plummeted back to those of the 1840's with actual starvation reappearing. The Black Country was hard hit by the Great Depression. The ironstone deposits had been exhausted and the area did not adapt well to cheap steel made possible by the Bessemer process. The great ironworks either moved to the coast or closed. The wasteful exploitation of the magnificent ten-yard coal seam led to flooding of the mines and the collieries closed too. Bilston as the area of earliest development suffered even more than most and by 1871 its population was declining. This marked the end not only of Bilston's industrial supremacy, but of the influence of its working class movement; what it lost in regional influence however, it made up for in local individuality.

Ten years through the Great Depression, socialism reappeared in the Black Country in 1884. It took the form of two Marxist bodies, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League. At the same time the Fabian Society was formed which became the direct predecessor of the Labour Party. The Socialist League was captured by the Anarchists and in the Black Country took strong root only in Walsall where the Walsall Anarchist Bomb Plot of 1892 occurred when local and foreign Anarchists were sentenced to many years of imprisonment for allegedly making bombs intended for use In Britain. Walsall anarchists had penetrated to Bilston however and there was a considerable anarchist element in subsequent working class activity in Bilston.

In the 1890's as the Great Depression was coming to an end there was a fresh injection of socialist ideas and activities with the Cheerful Socialism of Robert Blatchford's newspaper Clarion which brought the famous Clarion Cycling Club, social clubs, natural history societies, drama clubs etc. In Bilston there was a Clarion Cinderella which gave 300 of the poorest children Christmas treats and organised summer outings.

In 1893 all Socialist societies and the trade unions came together to form the Independent Labour Party and it was through this organisation that the first Labour councillors were elected. The twentieth century brought the Boer War with its jingoism which much of the Labour movement opposed as an imperialist war. This brought a temporary halt to the progress of the Labour movement, but from 1910 to 1914 in a period of high prosperity there was a great trade union movement of the unskilled, semi-skilled and women known as the Great Unrest. This, for the first time, by raising wages from 18/-d. per week for unskilled men to 23/-d. brought the wages of such workers to a subsistence level. In this movement, Bilston played an important part. In 1911 a branch of the Workers' Union was opened at John Fellows'. Two months later the shop steward was sacked and workers ordered to leave the Union. This they refused to do and they were locked out. Only fifteen men and 50 women were involved. Pickets were arrested en masse and fifty strikers were summonsed as 'disorderly persons' and fined. Some refused to pay and were sent to prison. This strike eventually failed, but it had alerted Bilston and the Black Country to the possibilities of organising for a living wage. By 1913 much of the Black Country was on strike and with scanty strike pay exhausted, starvation was only being avoided by the support of the population. In Bilston there was violence as strikers attempted to storm the factory gates at Fellows' Works. Eventually the employers had to negotiate the 23/-d. minimum for unskilled workers and 24/-d. for semi-skilled workers. These strikes were notable for the public sympathy they aroused and the trade union participation of women whose wages were raised by the agreement to 121-d.

It should have heralded the dawn of a new age. Instead, the 1914-18 war broke out and everything was changed for ever.


When the Great War broke out in 1914 the Labour movements of the world were pledged to oppose it. They claimed that it was an Imperialist war waged for colonies and working people should not be killing each other in the interests of capitalists. These promises were quickly forgotten as Socialist Parties and trade unions hurried to join the war efforts. Only the Russians remained true to the resolutions of the Socialist International.

But some resistance to the war persisted led by the Independent Labour Party and as the slaughter mounted, opposition to the war centred on Conscription. This was seen as destroying the last bastion of liberty which separated us from the barbarians we were said to be fighting. When, in 1916 Conscription was introduced resistance to the war intensified. In 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out and had an immense effect on world opinion. By 1918 the Labour Party was opposed to the continuation of the war on the grounds that it was being deliberately prolonged to win more colonies. By the end of the year Germany collapsed in revolution as did most of Europe and thus the war ended.

Lloyd George hastened to call a khaki election and won decisively. In Bilston the victor was Brigadier-General T.E.Hickman, a son of Sir Alfred Hickman the ironmaster and the largest employer in Bilston. His Labour opponent was another military man Colonel J.Kynaston, surgeon and physician who had a local practice at Hurst Hill. Kynaston promised a League of Nations and democratic control of foreign policy, nationalisation of the land and major services such as the railways, Home Rule for Ireland, a vast house building programme to end the slums etc.

Bilston was not an easy place to rule after the war. In 1919 there was a riot when two or three men alleged to be the worse for drink were said to have attacked the police and were taken to the police station. Two soldiers on leave then demanded that the men be released and some thousands then surrounded the police station and set it alight. Three men were finally charged with assaulting the police, rioting and causing malicious damage. Their lenient sentences of a fine of 301-d. each and costs reflected the anxiety of the authorities to avoid inflaming the situation of servicemen mutinying and other large scale riots that had been taking place elsewhere in the country at that time. Even then, one of the guilty men Samuel Dando said that he was going to China the next week and the authorities 'would have to run for their money'.

From 1921 the vision of a 'world fit for heron' dissolved with the reappearance of mass unemployment and deep poverty. Bilston unemployment which had been 253 in October 1920 rose to 3,727 by December 1922. This was about one third of all men of working age. Two issues arose. Once unemployment benefit had been exhausted men were thrown back on the starvation scales of the Poor Law. Campaigns were therefore waged with great militancy to extend the periods of unemployment benefit and to raise both unemployment benefit and Poor Law rates. As Bilston was part of the Wolverhampton Poor Law union, Bilston protests took place within the overall Wolverhampton struggles which were massive. In addition, the right to work or maintenance campaign was resurrected from pre-war days and enormous pressure exerted for local schemes of employment financed by the government.

As unemployment subsided slightly a Labour government was elected in 1924 but was short lived. It might have been re-elected but the forged Zinoviev letter suggesting that a Labour government would be a tool of the Bolsheviks meant a return to Tory government. However, at this election Bilston returned its first Labour MP. John Baker, an official of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. In 1926 the General Strike took place. This was in support of the miners whose wages were to be slashed and all trade unionists knew that if the miners were defeated the wages of everybody else would fall. The strike was solid in Bilston particularly in the iron and steel trades and in public transport. The strike was called off after nine days by trade union and Labour, Party national leaders who had not wanted 'the strike in the first place. When this was announced strikers at first thought that they must have won, but the betrayal gradually sank in and much victimisation took place. Despite this defeat a second minority, Labour government was elected in 1929. This was overwhelmed by the mass unemployment of the Depression of the 1930s. Labour leaders demanded massive wage cuts, which the national Party refused to accept and Ramsay MacDonald deserted the Labour Party to set up a 'national' government with the Tories. This was the last straw and both militancy and electoral support for the Labour Party waned.

The 1930's was a miserable decade. The rise of Hitler, the policy of appeasement of fascism, the defeat of the elected Spanish republican government by a revolt by Franco with massive support from Hitler and Mussolini, a split in the Labour movement regarding an alliance with the Soviet Union which was the only policy that could have prevented war led to the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich and the inevitable World War II.

Bilston had lost its Labour MP in the 1931 debacle, but the gloom was slightly lifted by the success of the Bilston branch of the Co-operative Society and its Women's Guild and the extraordinary episode of Ben Bilboe.

Bilboe came to Bilston at a time when Fenner Brockway was writing a book called Hungry England. Bilboc brought him to Bilston ofwhich he wrote that it gave the impression of a district devastated by war, with houses more suited to chickens than human beings. Unemployment in the iron trade was 64% in January 1932. Bilboe came from an Ironbridge family that travelled the fairs. He settled in Bilston and became a leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement which at that time, as elsewhere, was dominated by Communists. In 1932 the Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communists stood in all four Bilston wards without success and Bilboe stood again in 1932. In 1933 Bilboe led mass protests against a government work scheme in Loxdale Street because of poverty wages below trade union rates. Bilboe was arrested and charged with uttering words likely to cause a breach of the peace. When bound over he refused to accept the verdict and he was taken to prison. While in prison he was returned to the New Town ward sandwiched between two Tories. Bilboe proved a militant councillor urging better housing and social services as well as championing the unemployed. Bilboe was returned in 1935 as an official Labour candidate at the top of the poll. With a secure base in Bilston he became a. County Councillor where be became a champion of rural workers. In 1938 Bilboe had to defend his Bilston seat. No other ward was contested, but reactionaries were determined to oppose the radical Bilboe. He swept home by 1,197 votes to 485. During the war Ben Bilboe joined the forces, but was invalided out to become the Civil Defence Officer at Bridgnorth. After the war he returned to Bilston where he became mayor in 1947 and an alderman of both Bilston UDC and Staffordshire County Council. He remained totally committed to the poor. He considered his Council work a full-time job and scraped a subsistence where he could. He died as poor as he had lived. No one will ever again see the like of Ben Bilboe.


The Second World War began with the Phoney War when Chamberlain was more concerned to send what arms we had to Finland to fight the Russians than to fight the Nazis. This was followed by the German invasion of France, the total collapse of that country, and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. No wonder that most people felt that Chamberlain and the Appeasers should go. Even when Churchill became Prime Minister there was still suspicion because of Churchill's anti-working class record. Hence a People's Convention movement for a People's Government in 1941 found considerable support and only Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 dispelled all doubts and it became a People's War to defeat fascism.

From this time, a powerful development of the Shop Stewards movement in Wolverhampton and Bilston factories brought Joint Production Committees with employers and war production burgeoned.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 allied resources were gradually built up for D-day and the war in Europe ended in May 1945 with the grim disclosures of Belsen and the Holocaust.

Before the end of the war in Asia, Churchill had called another khaki election, but working people, while thanking him for leading them to victory, decisively voted for the first majority Labour government with a renewed vow never to return to the old poverty, unemployment and war. In Bilston Will Nally became the Labour and Co-operative MP. In 1951 the local Council became Labour and remained so until 1966 when Bilston was merged with Wolverhampton.

But high hopes were once again disappointed. War-time agreement with the Russians turned to Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Only the economy was different and after the war came thirty years of full employment when Harold McMillan could proclaim that 'You have never had it so good.'

The iron laws of capitalism continue to prevail, however, and from1974 (exactly one hundred years after the first Great Depression) unemployment returned. From 1979 came the Thatcher years. Nationalised industries were privatised and 'fat cats' enriched themselves. Unemployment soared nationally to three million. Then came the deliberate destruction of our industries. The first was the car industry on which so many Bilston livelihoods depended. Michael Edwardes was brought from South Africa to destroy the trade unions at British Leyland. In 1979 Derek Robinson was sacked and the policy of trying to save the British car industry was abandoned with the resulting current fear, that foreign owners will close Longbridge.

 Further closing down of the smokestack industries epitomised by Rubery Owen and Patent Shaft & Axle Tree led to the final betrayal with the closure of the Bilston Steel Works (which was still profitable) in 1981.

Since then, Thacherism has been discredited and we now have the New Labour government of Tony Blair. This certainly represents the vast majority of the British people at the present time. But history will move on and Radical Bilston will continue to change.

G.J.B November 1999

This summary has been compiled from two books by George J.Barnsby:

The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750-1867, 233 pages. - £6.

Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939. 578 pages. - £12.

Both of these books are available from bookshops or from the publishers:

Integrated Publishing Services, 141 Henwood Rd, Wolverhampton,

West Midlands WV6 8PJ.

Further free copies (financed from the profits of the above books) are available from the above address. Similar free booklets are also available for Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Dudley and Stourbridge.