The Grand Junction Railway passed through Bescot and skirted the boundary at Wood Green from 1837, but the railway wasn’t brought into the town until the Walsall-Dudley line of the South Staffordshire Railway was finally constructed in 1850, with Wednesbury Station being opened on 1st May, 1850. Although another new station was built in 1862, when the branch line to Darlaston was opened after the South Staffordshire Railway had been amalgamated with the London and North Western.
The Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Dudley Railway, later absorbed by the Great Western, was completed sometime before the section of line running through Wednesbury was actually opened on November 14th 1854.
The track was laid with three rails to accommodate both trains of the ordinary gauge and those of Brunel’s broad gauge. Until 1869 trains of both gauges ran to and from London, although all the local passenger trains travelled on the broad gauge.
Naturally, this new transport system helped to convey coal mined in Wednesbury. Unfortunately, in 1875, when Edward Smith’s company was endeavouring to work the “Thick Coal” seam which still remained very close to the Great Western Railway bridge across the river Tame, it was suddenly realised Queen Victoria travelled on this line during her journeys to Balmoral. Worried about her safety, Edward Smith offered to sell his mine to the railway company, which they duly declined. He therefore announced his intention of continuing to work the mine, declaring the railway company would be responsible for any accidents which may befall the “Royal Traveller”. This consequently resulted in a lengthy lawsuit which the Great Western Railway eventually won.
Children have always been fascinated by the huff and puff of steam and the rattling of engines with their carriages along the rails, but a group of boys from Darlaston were not satisfied with train spotting, they got up to some serious mischief on the Darlaston to Wednesbury line. They didn’t get away with their antics, and soon found their names reported in the local newspaper, the Wednesbury Herald. It was 1898, it wasn’t just a slap on the wrist and told not to be naughty boys – they were up before the “beak”. Ernest Colclough (15), Samuel Boulton (15), John Wright (14), William Cooksey (11) and Joseph Hingley (11) were in deep trouble. They were summoned for trespassing on the London and North-Western Railway.The defendants were caught by Detective Dyke, pulling at a signal wire trying to make the arm on the post go up and down. Cooksey and Hingley were fined a shilling, and the other three defendants, as they were older, were fined half-a-crown and costs.
There was also another group of youngsters who found themselves in hot water on the same day. Arthur Foster (14), Luke Beech (12), John Thorne (12), William Rotherham (9), Isaac Thomas (12) and James Page (12) were all charged with damaging telegraph insulators on the same stretch of railway track. The court heard they had damaged twenty three insulators in three weeks. In those days the presiding magistrate didn’t mess about, they were each fined one shilling and two pence – or three days in the cells!
Between 1875-86 there was a “Great Depression” in the iron trade, marking the end of the great age of Staffordshire coal and iron. It had gone through boom times during the Franco-German War (1870-71) but this was short lived. The prime reason for the “Great Depression” was due to the exhaustion of local raw materials. Of the trades dependant on iron, it was at Wednesbury the gunlock trade, and at Darlaston the gunlock and hand nail trades which suffered most severely which was no doubt the chief cause of unemployment. Many, many families struggled for survival.
A local Wednesbury man, David Jones, aged fifty nine, perhaps classed as unemployable, was among many men who had done no work for a number of years. The ‘Great Depression’ had affected him deeply, so much so, he had been heard many times to wish himself dead.
The following graphic article appeared in the Wednesbury Herald, “Cut to Pieces on the Railway”.
“On Wednesday night, when the 7.57 train to Birmingham drew up at Wednesbury Station the driver observed the mutilated remains of a man’s body lying on the downline from Birmingham. The top of the hand was taken clean off, the brains were scattered in all directions, the trunk was crushed severely, and an arm and a leg were found some yards away”. It was also reported that David Jones of Brunswick Park Road had been run over by the Zulu express which had passed through Wednesbury Station just before the arrival of the Birmingham train. Unemployment had hit him badly, the whole family income was almost non existent.
An inquest was held at Wednesbury Town Hall by the Coroner Mr H.A. Pearson, who gave this evidence…. “The deceased had suffered from a polypus in the nose, which caused great pain and also from acute sciatica. Nine years ago he attempted to commit suicide by hanging but was found by his wife, who cut him down. Three years ago he repeated the attempt, on which occasion the rope broke”.
When the jury returned they had no difficulty in deciding that the deceased David Jones had committed suicide at Wednesbury Railway Station whilst temporarily insane.
However, employment did take a turn for the better in 1902 when trade revived once more. This occurred when the independent existence of the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company was terminated, and together with two other large local firms and three more outside the district, was included in a newly created “combine”, the Metropolitan Railway. In 1911 Metro received from the Great Central Railway an order, one of the biggest that had ever been placed with a single firm, for 6,500 wagons. Of the work involved, perhaps the largest part went to the Patent Shaft at Wednesbury, for railway wagon underframes, railway wheels, axles and bogies.
The company was on track for success as it had greatly benefitted from the amalgamation of the companies, but on April 5th 1911 one of their engines came completely off the rails at Wednesbury. As with most accidents it soon attracted onlookers, therefore it wasn’t surprising that the local photographer, J.W. Bernard from Union Street, on hearing the news, dashed along to capture this shot. He arrived just in time to catch the engine being winched by a crane from the track while suited railway officials inspected the damage. Was it a “narrow scrape’ as the train left the station and headed for the tunnel?
Even though there are still accidents today, the railway is one of the safest modes of transport. But we do miss the old fashioned trains puffing serenely through our towns and the billowing steam at the station. How I wish we could enjoy the splendour of a gentler bygone era. But, it’s not all doom and gloom – have you noticed the ‘gravy train’ is still running?