Bilston is about two miles south-east of Wolverhampton. It is an ancient site, mentioned in the Domesday Book, and was a small market town long before the Industrial Revolution. But it has a long industrial pedigree - iron, then steel manufacture having
been carried on here for at least 200 years. In 1790 a visitor to Bilston wrote that 'it is one of the largest villages in England, containing more than 1,000 houses'.
The first mention of the church was made in 1455 when Letters f Patent were granted for the 'Dedication of a Chantry to St Leonard'. Several residents made grants of land during the reign of Henry VI for the support of the church, including some 200 acres called Le Prieste Fields - now Priestfield.
The church of St Leonard is, said Pevsner, 'the very hub of the town'. There has certainly been a church on this site since medieval times, but the present one was built in 1825-26 by Francis Goodwin. There are some interesting memorials, including one to Mary Pearce, who died in 1836 and claimed descent from 'three children of King Edward the First'.
The curfew bell was rung regularly from early times to the middle of the 19th century. According to a law introduced by William the Conqueror, a bell was to be rung in summer at sunset, and at 8 o'clock in winter, when all fires and lights had to be extinguished. On one of the old Bilston bells was the inscription –
'I am called ye Curfewe belle
I ryngen att VIII or more
Too sende ye alle too bedde
And waken ye up att IV’!
The ringer of the 8 pm bell was paid 15 shillings per quarter.
The establishment of organised Noncomformity in the town dated back to 1775. The first chapel was in a street called Meeting Street, founded by a body called the Independents.
Industry, of course, often brought squalor and disease in its wake. In 1832 an outbreak of cholera killed 742 people in six weeks. A national appeal for help for Bilston raised some £8,000, and a quarter of that went towards a school for 450 orphans. However, little seems to have been learned, for in 1847 another outbreak took 730 lives. There is an area by the Penn Road where the corpses of those who died are said to have been flung into quicklime - not unnaturally there are also tales of ghostly cries and apparitions.
After coal and iron were found in the district, the forging of weapons and tools became a local art. Grindstone is a natural product of the area and this has led to the production of both natural and artificial abrasives, grinding wheels and grinding apparatus.
John Wilkinson was born in 1728 at Bradley. A commemorative plaque erected in Great Bridge Playing Fields (now in Walsall) by the Bilston Historical Society in 1956, recorded that Wilkinson erected the first Black Country blast furnace nearby in 1757-8. It was certainly worthy of commemoration, for this was the 'mother furnace' of the Black Country. The blast was created by leather bellows, but later Wilkinson and the Darbys of Coalbrookdale were the first ironmasters to adopt the use of an engine to provide the blast, which was needed for melting the ore. Wilkinson went on to make his fortune. He was buried, as he had requested, in an iron coffin!
In 1862 Sir Henry Newbolt was born here at the vicarage (since demolished). Sir Henry is perhaps best remembered for his sea songs, including Drake's Drum, and for the archetypal Victoria exhortation to 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'
In the Middle Ages, in common with many other towns and villages, Bilston people held an annual Watch Service in honour of St Leonard, their patron saint. His feast day was November 6th, and on the night before the parishioners would carry lighted candles into the churchyard, there to keep watch over their dead. The custom was called 'waking' or 'the Wakes', derived from a Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'to keep a vigil'. After the Reformation the custom lost its religious significance and became merely excuse for a holiday. The Wakes festivities would last several days. In 1930 the Bilston Carnival, held in June, was begun to keep alight the spirit of the old Wakes custom. Bilston still has something of the aura of a village, despite its modern expansion. It has its own museum, Bilston people having great, and justifiable, pride in their past. There are still some unspoilt 19th century houses and shops, and St Leonard's still exerts a peaceful influence.
The village information above is taken from The West Midlands Village Book, written by members of the West Midlands Federation of Women's Institutes and published by Countryside Books. Click on the link Countryside Books to view Countryside's range of other local titles.