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Bilston is a market town, ward, and civil parish in Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands. It is close to the borders of Sandwell and Walsall. The closest of these are Darlaston and Wednesbury, as well as Willenhall and Tipton.
Historically in Staffordshire, three wards of Wolverhampton City Council cover the town: Bilston East and Bilston North, which almost entirely comprise parts of the historic Borough of Bilston, and Ettingshall, which comprises a part of Bilston and parts of Wolverhampton.
Bilston was first referred to in AD 985 as Bilsatena when Wolverhampton was granted to Wulfrun then in 996 as Bilsetnatun in the grant charter of St. Mary's Church (now St. Peter's Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton). It is later mentioned in the Domesday Book as a village called Billestune, being a largely rural area until the 19th century. Bilsetnatun can be interpreted as meaning the settlement (ton) of the folk (saetan) of the ridge (bill).
Situated two miles southeast of Wolverhampton, it was extensively developed for factories and coal mining. Many houses were constructed in the Bilston area. Between 1920 and 1966, the council replaced most of the 19th-century terraced houses with rented modern houses and flats on developments like Stowlawn, the Lunt, and Bunker's Hill. By 1964 there were more than 6,000 council houses there.
Bilston has had a market in the town centre for many years.
Bilston Urban District Council was formed in 1894 under the Local Government Act 1894 covering the ancient parish of Bilston. The urban district was granted a Royal Charter in 1933, becoming a municipal borough and the Alderman Herbert Beach.
In 1966 the Borough of Bilston was abolished, with most of its territory incorporated into the County Borough of Wolverhampton (see History of West Midlands), although parts of Bradley in the east of the town were merged into Walsall borough.
Bilston Town Hall, dating from 1872, has now been refurbished and re-opened. It had been derelict for more than a decade after Wolverhampton Council discontinued its use as housing offices, but now operates as a venue for events, conferences, performances and occasions.
Bilston lost its passenger railway station in 1972, although goods trains continued to pass through the site of the station for a further decade. The town's new bus station opened in October 1991, interlinking with the town's Midland Metro station, which opened in May 1999.
The huge British Steel Corporation plant to the west of the town centre was closed in 1979, after 199 years of steel production at the site, with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs. Part of the site was developed as the Sedgemoor Park Housing Estate between 1986 and 1989, and a B&Q superstore opened on another part of the site in December 1993, forming the first phase of a new small retail park and industrial estate which developed over the next decade. The GKN steel plant to the south of the town centre closed in 1989.
Construction of the long-awaited Black Country Route began in the mid 1980s, with the first section being opened in 1986 and the second section in 1988. By 1992, the third phase of the route was complete, although the final phase wasn't completed until July 1995, by which time Bilston had a direct unbroken dual carriageway link with Dudley, Walsall and the M5 Motorway. The Black Country Spine Road opened at the same time, improving Bilston's road links with West Bromwich and Birmingham.
21st century developments in Bilston include the South Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy and the adjoining Bert Williams Leisure Centre, which form the centrepiece of the town's new Urban Village, which is planned to include an eventual total of more than 1,000 new homes.
St Leonard's Church
Christian worship in Bilston can be traced back to the original chapel, dating from 1090. In 1458, the chapel was replaced by St Leonard's Chantry. And a third renovated church was consecrated in 1733. The modern church dates from a rebuilding of 1826 and is thus the fourth church on the same site. The church has a stunningly modern appearance, being whitewashed inside and out, giving it a very neat and clean appearance compared to most English churches. In this respect, it resembles many American and German churches and some of the Russian Orthodox Churches. It is also unusual in having a chamfered square tower, giving it an octagonal appearance, in being surmounted with a cupola, a golden globe with weather vane and a fenced viewing platform. These are all extremely unusual features in English churches.
With the opening of the Birmingham Canal to the west of the town in 1770, industrial activity in the local area increased, with the first blast furnaces near the canal at Spring Vale being erected by 1780.
Few towns were more dramatically transformed during the Industrial Revolution as Bilston was. In 1800, it was still a largely rural area dependent on farming. By 1900, it was a busy town with numerous factories and coalmines, as well as a large number of houses that had been built to house the workers and their families. The Bilston coal mines were reputedly haunted by an evil spirit, so the miners brought in a local exorcist known as The White Rabbit.
Six new blast furnaces were erected there between 1866 and 1883. Five of these were producing a total of nearly 25,000 tons of steel per year at what was now known as Bilston Steel Works. The first electric powered blast furnaces opened there in 1907, and finally in 1954 the "Elisabeth" blast furnace was erected, creating 275,000 tons of steel per year. However, by the 1970s the steel works had become uneconomic and the Labour government of James Callaghan decided to close it, with closure taking place on 12 April 1979. The iconic "Elisabeth" was demolished on 5 October 1980. Local unemployment, which had been steadily rising for some years, was pushed even higher by the plant's closure. A former railway bridge which connected parts of the steelworks site remains in situ across the canal.
The industry remained prolific during the interwar years, but much of the housing was now sub-standard, and during the 1920s and 1930s, many of the older houses were cleared and replaced by new council houses that featured so many modern conveniences that were previously unknown to their occupants. Many of these houses were built on new housing estates previously occupied by coalfields or farmland, though some were built on the sites of older houses. The council housing revolution in Bilston continued after the Second World War, and for some time after the area became part of Wolverhampton in 1966.
By the end of the 1970s, almost all of the sub-standard housing in Bilston had been cleared, but the area was in the early stages of an industrial decline which put hundreds of local people out of work and saw unemployment reach its highest levels in living memory. Things have improved over the last 20 years with more businesses in the service sector setting up around Bilston, but unemployment is still higher than the local average.
Other modern day projects in Bilston include the Black Country Route (opened in phases between 1986 and 1995), that gave Bilston quick road links to important towns such as Dudley and Walsall, and the opening of the Midland Metro tram line in 1999, which gives a speedy public transport link to Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
- Captain George Onions VC, British soldier born in Bilston and awarded the Victoria Cross in August 1918.
- Bilston was the birthplace of the poet Sir Henry Newbolt and Nelson, New Zealand Mayor George Page.
- John Wilkinson, "king of the ironmasters", built a blast furnace in Bilston in 1748. He lived and died in Bradley, Staffordshire. His body was returned to his hometown of Clifton in Cumberland.
- Hugh Walters lived all his life in Bilston.
- James Fleet (born 1952) is a British actor. He is most famous for his roles as the bumbling and well-meaning Tom in the 1994 British romantic comedy film Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the dim-witted Hugo Horton in the BBC situation comedy television series The Vicar of Dibley.
- David Daker, born in Bilston in 1935, is a British actor. His best-known roles are in television. He played PC Owen Culshaw in Z-Cars, Jarvis in Porridge, Captain Nathan Spiker in Dick Turpin and Harry Crawford in Boon.
- Don Powell, drummer in the band Slade, was born in Bilston.
- Richard Salter began making the first spring scales in Britain in Bilston in the late 1760s.
- Steve Woolam, Born in Bilston in 1946 and died in 1971 was one of the founder members of the Electric Light Orchestra.
- Reg Lewis who scored both goals for Arsenal in their 2–0 victory over Liverpool in the 1950 FA Cup final was born in Bilston.
- Bert (The Cat) Williams MBE, goalkeeper in the 1940s and 1950s with Wolverhampton Wanderers (420 appearances) and also with the England squad (31 caps). Born in Bradley, Bilston in 1920 he died in Shifnal in 2014. He has a sports centre in his name in the town.
- Sir Bruce Forsyth made his first public stage appearance, billed as "Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom", aged 14 at the Theatre Royal in 1942.
From 1850 to 1972 there was a railway station in Bilston town centre, but passenger services were then withdrawn and the line via Bilston (from Wolverhampton Low Level to Birmingham Snow Hill) had been almost completely abandoned within a decade. The final stub of the railway, connecting a town centre scrapyard with the South Staffordshire Line at Wednesbury, closed in 1992, only to be re-opened seven years later as the first phase of the Midland Metro tram line between Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
Another significant development in the Bilston area was the A463 Black Country Route. With more and more cars on the road, the roads around Bilston town centre became increasingly congested as the twentieth century progressed. It became so severe that, by the late 1960s, the government had drawn up plans for a new motorway bypassing Bilston (and running from the A4123 near Coseley to Junction 10 of the M6 motorway at Walsall), which was scheduled to be completed by 1976. However, the plans collapsed and Bilston was condemned to increased congestion, for another decade at least.
The plans for a new dual carriageway were revived in the early 1980s. This time the planners had decided on a slightly different route, which would run much closer to Bilston town centre. The first phase of the road (to be known as Black County Route) was completed in 1986, though initially running around half a mile east of the A4123. It was extended in 1990 to Oxford Street in Bilston town centre. This expansion resulted in a number of buildings being demolished and some roads having to be re-routed while one road (Market Street) was completely obliterated. This new road changed the face of Bilston town centre forever.
During 1995, the final phase of the Black Country Route between Bilston town centre and Junction 10 of the M6 was completed. This new road has seen a major improvement in the traffic flow around Bilston town centre.
Arts and culture
At the Bilston end of the Black Country Route can be seen the group of wooden statues designed by Robert Koenig and called "Steel Columns." "This sculpture was made from 15 lengths of sweet chestnut which stretch up to 6 metres in height. The male and female figures depicted are based on those found in old Victorian photographs of Bilston. The title Steel Columns is a reference to Bilston's steel making background and the connection the figures had with this history."
Art and craft works of local significance from the eighteenth century are displayed at Bilston Craft Gallery, which also has a temporary exhibition space where local art and crafts are often displayed. The craft gallery also hosts workshops for children and families and where some school trips take place.
John Major, prime minister of the UK from 1990 to 1997, had family living in nearby Walsall,
Bilston has 15 primary schools, and two secondary schools – South Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy and Moseley Park School, which was originally Etheridge Secondary Modern (formerly Fraser Street Schools), and Bilston Boys' Grammar School. Manor Primary School, which used to be a secondary school, is sometimes incorrectly believed to be in Bilston, but is actually in Woodcross which is within the Wolverhampton-governed part of Coseley.
Bilston had a Cholera Orphan School which was opened on 3 August 1833 following a severe outbreak during the second cholera pandemic (1829–51) which had left 450 orphans in Bilston after the death of 742 sufferers. The Royal School, Wolverhampton has similar origins.
In 1862, Bilston was scandalised by the case of David Brandrick, the "Bilston Murderer". The story was heavily covered by all the local papers, but according to a report in the Windsor and Eton Journal, Saturday 11 January 1862, Brandrick was hanged outside Stafford Jail that morning for the murder of John Bagott, a clothier and pawnbroker.
Brandrick, 20 at the time, and two friends had got drunk one night, had then broken into Mr Bagott's shop in the early hours, who had been disturbed and investigated. A fight broke out and the unfortunate Mr Bagott was bludgeoned to death with a metal fire poker. Brandrick's accomplices, Maddocks and Jones, who both pointed the finger at Brandrick, were both also convicted of murder, but reprieved at the last moment, leaving Brandrick alone to hang for the murder. A large crowd watched the hanging, and allegedly some people took up places at eight o'clock on Friday night to get a good view.
In recent years, Bilston has been the scene of several high-profile crimes, some of which highlight the town's growing problem with knife and gun crime and gang culture.
On 30 September 2007, the body of 16-year-old Shane Owoo was recovered from a flooded clay pit near the Lunt estate. Two Wolverhampton men, Christopher Lewis and Marvin Walker, were found guilty of manslaughter on 25 April 2008 and sentenced to five and a half years in prison. The jury at Birmingham Crown Court heard that the pair had frogmarched Shane Owoo to the pool amid allegations that he had stolen a bicycle from one of the defendants. A third man, Tobias Davies, received a 12-month prison sentence for assaulting Shane Awoo, but had not been present when the other two men attacked him and chased him into the pool where he drowned.
On 28 July 2009, 47-year-old Moxley pub landlord Swinder Singh Batth was shot dead in the town centre outside Gavin's Sports Bar. Jasbir Singh Takhar, of Coseley, and Sukwinder Singh Sanghera, of West Bromwich, were jailed for life a year later for the murder; it was established that they had been attempting to shoot someone else. The trial judge recommended minimum terms of 29 and 28 years respectively. Five other people received prison sentences of between 21 months and three years for conspiracy to commit violent disorder in connection with the crime, while a sixth person received a three-and-half-year prison sentence for witness intimidation.
On 21 November 2009, 50-year-old Dudley man Daniel McCalla was shot dead at the town's Tropical Harmony nightclub.
On 10 July 2010, 34-year-old local man Thomas Berry was stabbed in Church Street during a fight between two gangs. He died in hospital the next day. Local man Ricky Shaw, a 23-year-old bodybuilder with convictions for drug dealing and violence, was found guilty of Mr Berry's murder on 25 February 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum term of 27 years. He was also found guilty of attempting to murder another man in the fight as well as wounding another and also assaulting his own brother.
On 11 November 2010, 31-year-old Lee Douglas was found shot dead at a house in Arthur Street.
On 24 November 2016, 37-year-old Lisa Skidmore was raped and murdered and her house set fire to in Mill Croft, Bilston.
The town had its own parliamentary constituency from 1918 until 1974, which also included nearby Sedgley and Coseley. However, it was then incorporated into Wolverhampton South East, where it has remained since, and under further boundary reorganisation it could be divided into up to four parliamentary seats, with the bulk of the town being divided between two reorganised Wolverhampton seats but smaller parts of the town being absorbed into Dudley and Walsall constituencies. However these plans have been shelved for the time being.
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- "Anglo-Saxons.net : S 860". www.anglo-saxons.net. Retrieved 22 August 2020.
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- "Hugh Walters". Archived from the original on 8 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2020.
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- Wolverhampton Council, Black Country Route Sculptures[permanent dead link]
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- "Knife killer gets 27 years". www.expressandstar.com. Retrieved 22 August 2020.
- "Bilston murder probe house still sealed off". www.expressandstar.com. Retrieved 22 August 2020.
- "Bilston murder: Man charged with raping and killing nurse Lisa Skidmore « Express & Star". www.expressandstar.com. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
- "Politicians unite to fight Bilston boundary plan". www.expressandstar.com. Retrieved 22 August 2020.