I was recently musing over a few old photographs taken in the vicinity of the Bonded Warehouse and especially one of a goods engine running on the opposite side of the canal towards the old goods yard – canals and railways in perfect harmony. I thought it might be worthwhile and of interest to our followers to compile a pictorial and historically factual article for the Trust’s website about the area. I knew I needed more material so I contacted my old school pal from King Edwards and fellow Trustee, Paul Collins, to see if he could contribute. As expected Paul was very forthcoming and confirmed that he had quite a few photographs of the area that would wonderfully illustrate the way that this industrial heart of Amblecote looked not so long ago. More than that, Paul kindly volunteered to write the text for the article and this is published below, written in Paul’s own inimitable style – we hope you enjoy it!
Lance Cartwright, SNT Trustee
Anyone who has cause to pass or linger by the junction of Canal Street and High Street, and glance across the road to the Mill Race Trading Estate, can have little appreciation of what a cacophonous and malodourous experience would have greeted them a century ago. It was a Symphony for the Senses – in three movements.
Imagine you are standing on the narrow pavement at the end of Canal Street. Look left towards the tower of Holy Trinity Church. A century ago one’s view would have been dominated by Stourbridge Gas Works. Scan right, look ahead and slightly left at the warehousing on the Mill Race Trading Estate, back 100 years one would have seen the offices of Stourbridge Town Goods Station. Look more fully right, and a century ago one would have beheld the long multi-storey ranges of Turney’s skin works. These, being water powered, were the ‘mill’ whose ‘race’ bequeathed its name to the present scene. Each of these former occupants made their own peculiar and distinctive contribution, and combined to create a ‘treat’ for the ear, eye, and nose.
The progenitor of this activity occurred in the 1830s, when the canal – properly known as the Stourbridge Town Arm was extended slightly at its Stourbridge end with the building of a 210m (230 yards) basin to serve William Orme Foster’s Ironworks, which was situated on the opposite side of Lower High Street to the Canal Company offices. Known as the Town End Arm, access to this basin was by means of a short tunnel beneath the street, the height of which was restricted by the need to maintain a level road surface above, and through which most boats with cabins could not pass.
With the Town End Arm and its basin in place, land adjoining it became an ideal site upon which to build a new gas works to serve Stourbridge. This was established at Amblecote in 1835 by a company of six shareholders who became incorporated by the Stourbridge Gas Act of 1855. They purchased a large flat two-acre site adjoining the canal basin and leading up towards Holy Trinity Church. Under the Stourbridge Improvement Act of 1891, the commissioners were given powers to buy the company within five years and in 1893 the undertaking was bought for £105,300 and run as a local utility. The works converted coal into town gas – a smelly mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide by means of huge ovens. This gas was then stored in huge gas holders before being piped to factories and houses as fuel. Producing town gas required vast quantities of coal and yielded many by-products, including coke, coal tar, sulphur and ammonia. Dyes, medicines such as sulphur drugs, saccharine, and dozens of organic compounds were made from coal tar, and for bringing in the coal and carrying away these by-products, the canal was ideal.
However, not all the coal bound for the gas works reached it. In January 1867, one William Hill, a canal boatman, was charged at the insistence of his employers, Messrs Wood & Co., coal merchants of Bromley, with taking a quantity of coal from the boat under his charge while on its way to or from Stourbridge. The prisoner was defended by Mr Bushbury. It appeared from the evidence that Hill was taking a load of coals to the Stourbridge Gas Works, and that near Dock Pool he threw off about 2cwt. which was wheeled away by his son, who came to receive it. After unloading at Stourbridge the boat was re-loaded with coke, and while this was being done Hill contrived to take about 2cwt. of coal off a boat standing near, and concealing it under the coke. This was conveyed away as before. He pleaded guilty, and Messrs Wood & Co., expressing a desire that the prisoner be leniently dealt with, he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour!
Thus is gained the first movement in this ‘Symphony for the Senses’ – the imposing visual mass of the buildings and the olfactory orchestration of smells so characteristic of a town gas works.
From August 1861 the Town End Arm basin was served by the West Midland Railway, who opened an inclined line worked by a winding engine to it. It is unclear when this line last operated, but it is generally believed to have been around 1870. Tragically, it was still in use in 1869, as an inquest was held on Tuesday evening 21 December by Ralph Docker, Esq., Coroner, at the Britannia Inn, King Street, on the death of Edward Beech, aged 66 years. It appeared that the deceased was sent from the Stourbridge Ironworks to fetch a man from the top of the incline at Amblecote. He had got onto the east side of the street, when some wagons were going up, and upon the wagon reaching him he attempted to get on to one of them to ride, unfortunately he did not secure a firm grasp, but fell and one of his legs slipped between the spokes of a wheel. The result was his foot was smashed, and his leg was amputated by Mr. R. L. Freer, surgeon, but the deceased did not survive the injuries and died on Friday 17 December. A verdict of ‘Accidental death’ was returned.
William Orme Foster’s Ironworks closed c.1870, and in 1878 the site was cleared to allow the enlargement of the canal basin and the erection of a goods station, with a substantial goods shed providing canal to rail transhipment facilities. The total contract for this work was £9,321, and it was completed by 01 January 1880, when the new goods station came into use. Running parallel with the new Stourbridge Town passenger line, past the new Town Station, the single track goods line descended on a very steep gradient of 1-in-27, requiring guards to travel outside their vans with their hands at the hand brake, in case of incident. At the basin there were two goods sheds, a transhipment shed and goods and private sidings, one of which was for the Gas Works. One line crossed High Street and ran along Canal Street to serve John Bradley & Co.
This provided the second movement in this ‘Symphony for the Senses’ – the visual excitement and interest from the hustle and bustle of a railway goods yard, plus the auditory one from the scatter clatter so characteristic of shunting, and the chuffing of small pannier tank goods locomotives, especially struggling back up the steep 1-in-27 gradient towards Stourbridge Junction.
Finally, to savour the delights of Turney’s skin works. William Jonadab Turney (1841-1895) moved to Stourbridge from Nottingham in the 1860s. He took over a skinnery established by Joseph Pitman in the 1830s, around the time that the Town End Arm basin was built. Pitman turned sheep’s skin into leather and parchment, the latter essential for the drafting and preservation of legal documents known as ‘indentures’. Of advancing age by the mid-1860s, Joseph Pitman sold it on to William Turney, who modernised the processes, such that whilst in 1867 its output had been 1,000 skins a week, it had been expanded to deal with 65,000! His works also had private sidings at the Town Goods Station. By using fragments of the skins and bones that Joseph Pitman had thrown away, Turney was also able to make glue, and an additional £1,000 a year. It made him few friends however; skin works are notoriously ‘fragrant’, and the glue making produced a stench which offended and brought forth protests from residents in and around Lower High Street.
This provided the third and final movement in this ‘Symphony for the Senses’ – the sight of smoke from chimneys; the sound of ratline machinery, and the olfactory cocktail combining the production of leather, parchment and glue.
What then happened to our former neighbours opposite the Bonded Warehouse …? The public Gas Undertaking was transferred to the West Midlands Gas Board by virtue of the Gas Act, 1948. It was knocked down in 1966 and a more efficient and less polluting works built there, but a need for gas storage remained and a single gas holder was retained. Under the powers of the Gas Act 1972 the British gas industry was restructured and the British Gas Corporation established. Stourbridge’s old gas works gave one final reminder of its former presence when, on Monday 08 January 2007, work began to demolish the last remaining gas holder. Local residents were told that they may experience the smell of coal tar ‘drifting over the area’.
Use of Stourbridge Goods Station declined in the early 1960s with the closure of branch sidings built off it to serve local firms and the nearby town gasworks. The last train to leave the station departed on 30 April 1965, and all work officially ceased at the yard on 05 July 1965, although the line remained open until 20 September 1965. The track was lifted by October 1967.
William Turney and Co.’s tannery closed down in 1957. The premises were acquired as a warehouse by the J. Hickman Group of Brierley Hill, which became part of the LCP Group of the Pensnett Trading Estate, who developed the area as the Mill Race Trading Estate. The buildings withstood the construction and opening of the Ring Road, which followed the line of the former Mill Street, and were demolished early in 1973.
Turney’s business did however leave quite a legacy to the Stourbridge area. Joseph Pitman, whose business he acquired, eventually became chairman of the of the Stourbridge & Kidderminster Banking Co., also serving as Chairman of Stourbridge Waterworks Co. ln the 1861 census he is recorded as a tanner living on a private income at The Hill and aged 74. He had given £200 towards the cost of erecting Amblecote Parish Church of which he became vicar’s warden in 1867. He died on 14 March 187l aged 84, and his house and extensive grounds were bought by the Stoke Prior Salt King John Corbett and opened as the Corbett Hospital in 1893.
William Turney himself was Chairman of Stourbridge Board of Town Commissioners in 1874; 1880; 1881; 1883; 1884, and 1887. ln the 1880s he campaigned vigorously but unsuccessfully to obtain a charter of incorporation for Stourbridge and surrounding districts and he gave £1,000 towards the £4.000 it cost to build Stourbridge Town Hall, which opened in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Until 1882 he lived at Parkhill in Love Lane, Oldswinford, which is now Elmﬁeld School, before moving nearby to Heath House, which half a century later became the Council House. His son Henry was primarily responsible for establishing Stourbridge Volunteer Fire Brigade and he was also an active member of Stourbridge Cricket Club, and held the lease of its ground at Amblecote. William Turney’s son-in-law, Randle Lamb Mathews, a qualiﬁed solicitor, also served two terms as Mayor of Stourbridge between 1924 and 1926.
Dr Paul Collins, SNT Trustee
The following Image Gallery shows more photographs of the area which hopefully many of you can relate to either as a local resident, worker at those sites or merely have an interest in the history of Amblecote. simply Click on each photograph to enlarge it.
The image gallery shows many aspects of the area with maps, aerial photographs, pictures of the High Street off which Canal Street and Millrace Lane now adjoin – I’m sure that many readers will be able to relate to those scenes, recalling how it used to look before the impressive industrial buildings were removed.
I have to thank Paul very much for the effort he has clearly put into this work which I found to be a most interesting read, remembering much of this sensory landscape from distant memories of my days at school in Stourbridge from 1966, though of course industrial production activity had very much closed down by then and redevelopment plans were starting to emerge. The smell of the tannery does however linger in my nostrils!
If anyone has any old photographs or stories associated with this article we would love to hear from you and potentially add your information to this web page.