4 Jul 2015
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The Bell Inn at Willenhall

There are, traditionally, certain buildings that come to form the core of a community, around which the social and spiritual life of a village, perhaps later a town or city, grows. Early on, churches were very much at the centre of such development, but later the alehouses and pubs of a place often came to be just as much at the heart of things, socially and historically, and it is the same today. Both kinds of building come to be treated with reverence - for very different reasons! So, it is often the case that the oldest buildings in a community are its churches and its pubs, and both can be great survivors.

The Bell Inn, 1908

Today, the longest surviving public house within Walsall Metropolitan Borough is the historic Bell Inn, located in Market Place, Willenhall.

The town of Willenhall has been a thriving industrial community since the seventeenth century, when the discovery of coal and iron encouraged the development of metal trades. Its famous lock industry was originally based on small, family businesses operating from tiny workshops in the yards behind their homes. Many pubs opened in Willenhall to supply the thirsty lockmakers, miners and foundry workers - in 1851, 38 pubs and 23 beerhouses served a population of about 9,000.

The commercial centre of Willenhall, the Market Place, was particularly well endowed with inns, the oldest and most famous of these being the Bell, fortunately still with us today. The Bell Inn was almost certainly built in 1660, the year after the great fire which devastated the formerly half timbered and thatched centre of Willenhall and changed the look of the town forever. At one time the Bell had a large sign which proudly announced that date above the upstairs window, and the back portion of the house is certainly very old. It was regularly used as a stopping place for the coaches which once travelled through the town.

For many years during the eighteenth century, Mrs Mary Thomas, nee Clemson (a prominent local family originating in Tettenhall, and leaving behind them a Willenhall street of the same name), was landlady at the Bell, having succeeded her husband, landlord William Thomas, on his death in 1763. She died in 1791 at the age of 70 plus. Next door to the Bell is a fine Georgian house, 33 Market Place, once the home of John Clemson, miller and maltster, of the family mentioned above.

The Wakelam family who later kept the Bell until 1880 were also identified with this house and the Bull's Head Inn for more than a century. Francis Wakelam was landlord in 1864. By 1880, John Lacey was running the Bell, and during the 1930's and at least until 1940, Walter Kay was publican.

Now in the 21st century, and having seen a great deal of history, the Bell seems little altered from the outside, apart from the large downstairs bay window put in after 1951. In recent years the inn has been refurbished and various old features rediscovered and restored. A few other pub buildings in the Borough date from the seventeenth century, but the Bell Inn is the only one which has been in continuous use as a public house over the centuries, and it still proves popular with its regulars and those who come to shop in the town's old traditional market.

Today Willenhall is possibly the richest part of the Borough for pub historians. Many of the pubs are on old sites and several have survived the past century largely unaltered - there are fine examples of Victorian tile and terracotta decoration in a number of pubs. But the Bell Inn, now more than 340 years old, perhaps tells the tale of the drinkers and merrymakers of old Willenhall best of all.

Contact Information
For further information on Walsall Local History Centre please contact :-
Centre Manager
Walsall Local History Centre
Essex Street, Walsall WS2 7AS, U.K.
Tel : (U.K.) 01922 721305- (International) +44 1922 721305
Fax: (U.K.) 01922 634954 - (International) +44 1922 634954
E-mail:  General Information: localhistorycentre@walsall.gov.uk
Last modified: 07 October 2004