Early Walsall

1. Thomas Newton and Family

Born on 22nd October 1810, Thomas Newton lived an interesting life, highlights of which were recorded and published in the Walsall Observer in 1887 and 1888. He came from a wealthy background and was an innovator in the industries of saddlery and metalwork for saddlery. He also produced a trade catalogue for Walsall in 1871.

His two brothers, who he wrote about in his annals, connected him with the colonies. He sent his brother Will, who he describes as reckless, on a seafaring trip to San Francisco soon after 1848 with a cargo of goods, to act as his agent in the growing American colonial market. The first two shipments made good profits, which were banked with Barings, one of the first banks established to organise the finance of the Slave Trade. Will later disappeared when he joined the Gold Rush 49ers and blew himself up while blasting for gold.

His youngest brother was more successful and, in 1849, went to Tasmania to set up kangaroo skin leather production, where he “founded a colony and made a fortune”. The British colonists wiped out the local Tasmanian population in the late 19th century.

Thomas Newton


2. The Elwells

Edward Elwell was Thomas Newton’s uncle. He traded plantation goods and later adopted a new abolitionist stance.

His granddaughter, Georgina Elwell, published the diary, “A Lady of Wednesbury Forge 1868 – 69”. She wrote of a round of social engagements and church meetings. Georgina Elwell later married Peter Potter, believed to be the son of the earlier Peter Potter who was an associate of the Walsall abolitionists.


Peter Potter image courtesy of Claudette Chambers.


3. The Aristocracy

The Line of the Earl of Bradford

Originally known as Baronet Newport, the title Earl of Bradford was held from the 1620s by the Bridgeman family, who owned much of Staffordshire, including most of Walsall, during the time of British slavery. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies, many of the Bridgemans and their relatives by marriage are known to have been merchants and bankers. They were directly involved in the East India Company, who formalised and controlled the British slave trade. There was also a connection by marriage with the Willoughby family in the late 17th century, who are listed in the Somerset Council archives as plantation owners in Barbados.


4. Merchants

Most merchants in Britain at the time would have been involved in slavery, and at that time it was seen as a respectable trade. At its height, most trade from British ports was connected to the slave trade, or supplying the colonists and plantations.

The Mellish family were merchants trading from London and Portugal (the Portuguese were most prominent in the slave trade before Britain). According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies, Samuel Cunard (1787 - 1865), who married into the family, was a merchant and ship owner. Mellish Road is named after a branch of the family who lived in Walsall. The Stubbs family, a large and influential family in Walsall from 1760 onwards, were also merchants (Wilmore’s “History of Walsall”).


5.Hawe Family

The Hawe family, who lived in Caldmore from 1530 onwards, welcomed Edward Jervis into their family by marriage. He was Viscount of St Vincent in the Caribbean in 1826. He would have had interests in the local administration and governance there at the time. Slavery was not abolished there until 1833.


7. What Was Walsall Like Then?

At the beginning of the 18th century, Walsall was a small town and “Walsall Foreign” stretched up through Bloxwich. The boundaries of the borough today would have been parts of South Staffordshire. There was a big divide between rich and poor, which dictated the way people were treated.

Current boundary of Walsall superimposed (Green) and original boundary (Red)


The Market

The market has always been a feature of Walsall Town Centre, with a wide variety of stalls including a famous pig market. It was possible to sell your wife at Walsall market. This was a kind of ‘poor man’s divorce’, but was not legally binding. It was also an entertainment for passers-by. Usually, a previously arranged mutual agreement would be made with a new “husband” and the deal would be sealed with the payment of a few shillings and plenty of beer all round. A wife sale in Walsall market was reported in the Wolverhampton Chronicle in 1837. She was led around in a halter and sold, before witnesses, for 2s6d to a nailer from Burntwood.



Pubs and beer houses were a way for the working classes to escape their harsh working lives. Pubs also offered other kinds of entertainment – one pub is listed as having 36 brothels registered on the premises. Some pubs, such as the Green Dragon, would compete to bring in customers by having exotic and unusual acts, plays, comedians and even wild animals.

In the High Street, people could visit the seven-foot giantess and the 37-inch lady dwarf. Fox hunting was popular with the local gentry, while the poor took part in cock fighting, dog fighting and even bull baiting.


Early Black Presence in Walsall

In those days it was rare to see a Black person, especially in a small town like Walsall.

In 1754 and 1756, Matteaux Solomon, “the wonderful black” performed a slack rope balancing act at the Town Hall (housed at the time in the Guild Hall, which is now Sofia’s restaurant) to rave reviews in the local paper The Arris Gazette. For one of his shows he was on a double bill with “The English Learned Dog” who could read, write, calculate and knew languages.

Matteaux Solomon, “the wonderful black” image courtesy of Claudette Chambers.


Newspaper advertisment of Matteaux Solomon performing in Walsall.


Francis Barber was the African assistant of Dr. Samuel Johnson, writer of the first dictionary. He was born in Jamaica around 1735, and was brought to England by a plantation owner who sent him to Lichfield as a valet to Johnson in 1752. Two years later he was given his freedom. Johnson paid for Barber to be educated and, when Barber married, Johnson allowed his wife and children to move into his house. Johnson died in 1784, leaving Barber an annuity of £70 and a gold watch. Barber and his family settled in Burntwood and worked at the local school. Francis Barber died in 1801. His descendants still live in Staffordshire today.

Francis Barber, image courtesy of Claudette Chambers.


In 1791, Walsall auctioneer John Heeley presided over what is reputed to have been the last slave sale in England. The advert for the sale, which took place in the Bakers Arms in Lichfield, describes the sale of a Negro boy from Africa of about 10 or 11 years old.

Scan of newspaper

In 1756 Catherine Walker, who had lived at Shutt House in Aldridge, bequeathed her black servant John Williams a sum of five pounds upon her death.

Shutt House, Aldridge.


George Africanus


George Africanus 1763 in Sierra Leone (which became a United Kingdom British colony in 1787). He arrived in England in early 1766, and was baptised George John Scipio Africanus, a Negro boy belonging to Benjamin Molineux of Wolverhampton. The Molineux family paid for his education and later on he was given apprenticeship to be a brass founder. George Africanus went to live in Nottingham at the age of 21, where he met a local girl, Esther Shaw. They were married and started up a business as a servants’ register office. They had seven children, but only one survived to adulthood. He died in 1834 and was buried, along with his wife, in the churchyard St. Mary's Church, Nottingham.