Saturday, 19 June 2010

Wednesbury - "the worst place in the world"(?)

Wednesbury is a small town located in between Walsall (where I currently live) and Dudley (where I grew up) and was once described by jean wearing, mullet haired TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson as "the worst place in the world" (so make of that what you will). It certainly isn’t the prettiest of places but then again the Black Country isn’t generally noted for its attractive scenery.

If the place name seems oddly familiar it may be because you’ve seen it from the M6 motorway. If you can tear your eyes away from the glass fronted RAC building or Walsall FC’s Bescot Stadium with its enormous billboard and glimpse in the opposite direction you may spot in the distance the parish church of St Bartholomew crowning the highest point in Wednesbury, possibly on a site once sacred to the Saxon god Woden. So if you are ever stuck in traffic on the M6 near Junctions 8, 9 and 10 (which is quite likely most days) here are some interesting facts (and a fair few boring ones) about Wednesbury to help pass the time.

A useful shibboleth is that the place name is pronounced “Wenz-bur-ree” similar to how Wednesday is spoken. If anyone says “Wed-nes-bury” point at them and laugh.

The town of Wednesbury is one of the oldest in the area, the probable site of an iron age fort (burgh) or hill (barrow). Wednesbury is reputed to have been fortified by Ethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred, in 916 to protect the borders of the Kingdom of Mercia from Viking raids.

The Domesday Book describes ‘Wednesberie’ as a manor consisting of ploughland and meadows surrounded with dense woodland. ‘Colepits’ are known to have been dug by 1315 and the industrial development of the town began.

With ‘Wednesbury Forge’ established in 1597 and pottery, including the renowned ‘Wedgebury’ ware, produced in bulk from the 1400s Wednesbury was perhaps the most important and wealthiest manufacturing town in the West Midlands before the Industrial Revolution

William (Lord) Paget, Secretary of State for Henry VIII and a Knight of the Garter order was born in the town.

During the English Civil War men of the Shropshire milita heading towards the siege of Dudley castle shot a local after he refused to tell them where the nearest pub was. Speaking of which, the oldest pub in the town is Ye Olde Leathern Bottel, in Vicarage Road, which is believed to date from 1510. They keep their beer well but it is surprisingly expensive for the area.

Just north-west of Junction 10 was the location of Bentley Hall where, on 9th September 1651, Charles II stayed after his defeated at the battle of Worcester. Nothing remains of the Hall but its location is now indicated by a cairn.

John Wesley, the famous Methodist preacher, was beaten up there (several times, in fact) but also preached to Francis Ashby (one of the founders of Methodism in America).

Artist and muse Kathleen Garman was also born in the town. She married the famous sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. This is one of the main reasons that the couples’ personal art collection is now in a purpose built £21million gallery in nearby Walsall.

The local museum has a very nice collection of Ruskin Pottery. The factory itself was in Smethwick. There is also a sword which belonged to John Ashley Kilvert of the 11th Hussars. It was used by him during the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25th October 1854 during the Crimean War. He was wounded at the battle and left in a ditch until nightfall, when he was discovered nearly frozen to death. He was taken to Scutari Hospital where Florence Nightingale was in charge of the nursing staff. Settling in Wednesbury after retiring from the army, he was elected Mayor of the town in 1905.

And finally, for any sporting anorak types, Wednesbury Rugby Union Club is home of the tallest posts in the world at 38.26m. Yep, that’s just over 125ft high.

I only mention all this because on one of the many day trips taken by my brother and myself during May was a visit to Tewkesbury, Gloucestshire. A definite must see is Tewkesbury Museum that contains an excellent model of the late medieval battle in May 1471. In a happy coincidence I spotted a local knight’s banner/shield - that of Sir Henry Beaumont II of Wednesbury. I only recognised the name because it was mentioned on an excellent website dedicated to the Battle of Blore Heath. I’d been looking at names of local knights that had fought alongside, or against, Lord Dudley at that battle and one of these was Henry Beaumont.

Model of the battle at Tewkesbury Museum (Beaumont's banner is the sixth from the right)


After looking at the site again I read that is believed that a Henry Beaumont may (note the word ‘may’) have fought at Blore Heath in 1459, although I assume this was Henry senior as the younger Beaumont would have only been in his early teens (approx. 13) and therefore legally too young to fight. Medieval families had the unfortunate habit of giving the oldest male the same Christian name as his father so it gets very confusing trying to trace anyone though the period, the Beaumont’s were related through marriage to Lord Dudley’s through one of his daughters.

Henry Beaumont of Wednesbury's Banner (based on information at Tewkesbury museum)
Henry Beaumont II, knighted after the battle of Tewkesbury, fought on the Yorkist side for Edward IV. Beaumont died in November of the same year, aged 25 (possibly from injuries?).


So although it definitely isn’t worth visiting for a day trip or probably even for a motorway break, Wednesbury certainly isn’t the ‘worst place in the world.’