3 Jul 2015
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Walsall Worthies

W. H. Duignan
- a Walsall Irishman at the Heart of the Town

One of the most remarkable and interesting personalities in the Victorian Midlands was Mr. William Henry Duignan, who at the time of his death in 1914 had been solicitor in Walsall for more than seventy years. Certainly, the history of Walsall and Rushall in particular owes him a great debt.

Born in Walsall of Irish descent on 16 August 1824, he was the son of Henry Duignan of Walsall and grandson of John Duignan, of Ardagh, County Longford, Ireland, who was a Master at Queen Mary's Grammar School.

Receiving his education at Walsall (where he studied under his grandfather) and Bromsgrove, W.H. Duignan went on to become a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (Ireland). Admitted a Solicitor in 1846, he was articled to Mr. G. Stubbs. His distinguished career saw him working in Walsall as a Solicitor, of the firm of Duignan & Elliot, and he was Clerk of the Peace for the Borough of Walsall for more than twenty-five years.

In the early years of his life, he took a strong and active interest in the town's civic affairs, and was elected a member of the Town Council twice, serving as Mayor of Walsall in 1868-9.

He was a man who held strong and original opinions on many subjects. In one specific case, he held a strong aversion to the presence of two Russian cannon on The Bridge (close to what was later to be the site of the first statue of Sister Dora), which were trophies of the Crimean War. Mr. Duignan declared that they were calculated to foster a warlike feeling, and were inimical to international peace. As a result, he took steps to stand for election to the Town Council, in which he succeeded, in order to propose, successfully, that they be removed. Subsequently, he retired to private life once more.

For most of his life he was a staunch and outspoken Liberal in politics. Not one for half measures, Duignan went through some stirring Black Country election scenes, but later was regarded by the Liberal Party as rather too candid a friend, as a result being seen in the last fifteen years of his life as a Conservative.

As with many contemporaries, Duignan was a multi-faceted man, balancing his work as a Solicitor with a Directorship of the Walsall Wood Colliery Company Ltd, being also Chairman of the Ashmore Park Colliery Company Ltd, and of the Staffordshire Financial Company Ltd.

Mr. Duignan was married three times over his long life. Firstly to Esther Jackson of Aldridge; then to Mary Minors of Fisherwick, and finally to Jenny Petersen of Stockholm in 1868. He lived, after his first marriage, in Bradford Street, later moving to Rushall Hall for twenty-nine years, of which historic house he wrote a short history. Later, he moved to The Close, and subsequently to Saint Ronan's on the Birmingham Road, finally residing at Gorway House.

Duignan had a great many interests apart from his work and local politics. Descended from a family steeped in literature and genealogy, he greatly enjoyed history (especially local), antiquity, family history, topography, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, old maps, travelling and coaching, and he amassed a fine library on those subjects. In that most clubbable of periods, he was a member of the Royal Societies Club, London; the Midland Club, Birmingham; and the Walsall Club, as well as supporting the remarkable Walsall Literary Institute, the centre of cultural life in the town, serving as a member of its Council for a number of years.

He was a close friend of W. Henry Robinson, the prominent local printer, publisher, journalist and astronomer who had founded the Walsall Literary Institute, and they thought nothing of taking their tricycles far afield by train and riding fifty miles or more in search of quaint English villages, churches, historic buildings and all the remarkable (but often bone-shaking!) journeys that the highways and byways of Victorian Britain offered.

One of the capacities in which W. H. Duignan was best known was as an antiquarian and etymologist, and he was the author of three widely circulated works on the place names of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. He was also an acknowledged authority on the history of roads and coaching. Walsall Local History Centre holds many of his diaries, historical notes, pamphlets and other papers in the Archives and in the Local Studies Library.

The later years of his life were, sadly, overshadowed by the collapse of the ill-fated Staffordshire Financial Company. Mr. Duignan died aged 89 at Gorway House on 27 March 1914, and is buried in Rushall Churchyard. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for his contribution to the civic and intellectual life of Walsall, his public-spirited work, and an historical legacy to the town and local counties that stands the test of time even today.

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: 03 August 2004