In Wellington you’ll find a series of life-sized portraits appearing on buildings around the centre of the town. They will feature a range of craftspeople, manufacturers and creatives from several centuries of Wellington’s history, all peering out from windows painted by artist Paula Woof. Some of our characters will be well-known to local people, others have been largely forgotten, but all represent something different about Wellington’s making heritage from the medieval period to the 20th Century.
Walk down Larkin Way until you reach the corner with Walker Street. On your left is a terraced cottage thought to date from the 1300s – making it the oldest-known building in the town. Archaeological excavations in 2010 unearthed evidence of horn-working from this period, suggesting that a horner lived and worked close by. Here, in the first of our painted windows, we imagine the scene in about 1350 when our unnamed horner is hard at work.
As you’ll see if you follow the trail, the horner is joined by aged local knight John de Charleton (1268-1353) who is trying out a new hunting horn. Once a member of the king’s household, John is by now is enjoying a quiet life back at Apley Castle a couple of miles up the road. Students of Wellington’s Charlton School will recognise the emblem on his tunic.
Animal horn is a natural thermo-plastic which is pliable when heated, and since ancient times it has been used to make a range of household objects including drinking vessels and combs, buttons and buckles, as well as basic musical instruments. In the mural you can see some of these wares hanging out in the sunshine.
Horners were often working in close proximity to tanners as both relied on the processing of animal remains. These were trades usually relegated to the fringes of settlements, and the street name of nearby Tan Bank has always implied that tanning took place here on what was, in the 14th Century, the edge of Wellington. Sadly we know little of the tanners, horn-workers or other craftspeople working in medieval Wellington, so artefacts like these horn fragments have been important in confirming their presence.
The year is 1811, and you’re looking up at Mrs Frances Houlston. She is the proprietor of F. Houlston & Son the Publishers, based at a shop nearby in the Market Place.
Frances Houlston started her business as a printers and bookshop with her husband Edward, probably in 1779, but following his death in 1800 it was mother and son who made the ambitious leap into publishing. Their earliest-known publication, now held at the British Library, was a version of Robinson Crusoe in 1804. In the years that followed, F. Houlston & Son built their reputation as publishers of moralising literature that appealed to a growing evangelical mood. Not only was a woman at the helm of this thriving business, but their best-selling writers were also women – Mary Sherwood and her sister Lucy Cameron amongst the most prolific. The firm was doing so well by 1826 that the family funded construction of a new chapel in nearby Tan Bank (a white building which still stands). A year earlier they had opened a new branch in the heart of London’s print trade, Paternoster Row. The Wellington printers and bookshop continued until 1850 when it changed hands and became Hobson’s – remaining as such until the 1970s. In London, meanwhile, the Houlston imprint lasted until the early years of the 20th century.
But who is Frances talking to at the window? This is Reverend Patrick Bronte who briefly served as curate at Wellington’s parish church. Frances has published two small collections of his poetry – ‘The Rural Minstrel’ and ‘Cottage Poems’. He’s very excited to see his work in print for the first time.
Neither collection launched Patrick into an illustrious writing career, alas. Some years later, far away in Yorkshire, literary success would be more forthcoming for his daughters Anne, Emily and Charlotte – the celebrated Bronte sisters.
The scene is set in 1778 on the day the Plimer Brothers left town. Here they are, hiding in the doorway – Nathaniel (born 1757) and Andrew (born 1763) who had both been apprenticed to their clockmaker father, also called Nathaniel. We don’t know where in town they were based, but trade directories from the following century highlight New Street as a hive of activity for craftsmen in wood.
Theirs was a trade that combined the precision of watchmaking with the skill and creative flair of cabinet-making. Grandfather clocks of this period, made by Plimer of Wellington, can occasionally be found on sale today. The two brothers chose a different path, however, and both left their home and their father’s trade behind when they were young men. Accounts suggest that they travelled for over two years throughout Wales and the West of England with a group of gypsies. They must already have had artistic ambitions as, when they arrived in London in 1781, they didn’t just look for work at any old household. Andrew found a position as a servant to Richard Cosway, the most revered miniaturist painter of the age, and Nathaniel was apprenticed to royal enameller Henry Bone. Both were ultimately trained by Cosway and went on to become highly successful miniaturist artists in their own right. A quick online search of their work reveals a vast portfolio of finely painted cameos of Regency high society, and today as then it is expensive and much sought after by collectors.
Exactly why the brothers left home and under what circumstances is unknown. Was it planned or hurried? Did they leave with their father’s blessing? Our scene imagines them sneaking away with no more than a few possessions – including their precious paint brushes, a hint at their future careers.
The year is 1842, and Wellington is Shropshire’s principal wood-working town. New Street in particular is teeming with craftspeople engaged in woodworking trades – there are at least 16 men in New Street trading either as chair-makers, wood turners, coopers, joiners, cabinet-makers, timber merchants or wheelwrights.
At least three of them are members of the Groom family – John the furniture-maker, Edward the wheelwright and the man you can see peering out of this window, Richard. He is a basket weaver who, since 1835, has also been operating as a timber merchant. Whilst looking up at this scene, bear in mind that all the items you can see could have been made in this very street – not just those made from wood, but everything down to Richard’s jacket, his hat and his pocket watch – and even the nails hammered into the wall.
Richard’s timber business went on to thrive and in the 1860s, under the management of sons Richard and Thomas, operations moved from New Street to premises off Bridge Road. Here they made products ranging from clothes pegs to heavy civil engineering timbers, and were reputed to be the country’s largest timber buyers. They are remembered today in Groom’s Alley.
The rise of The Grooms says a lot about Wellington’s growth during the nineteenth century. In those early decades, they were traditional craftsmen working from a modest high street workshop. By 1900, theirs was a thriving industrial enterprise with customers across the country and overseas – enabled above all by the arrival of the railway in 1849. When this family of industrious Methodists moved into Dothill Hall – one-time home to The Foresters, Wellington’s lords of the manor – it was a sign that this was a town where land and ‘old money’ was slowly giving way to newly-moneyed manufacturers.
Wellington’s wood craftsmen continued to prosper throughout the Victorian period and into the 20th century. While The Grooms built their timber empire, the Stone family of cabinet makers made a similar transition from mid-century New Street workshop to edge-of-town factory. In 1910 their Crown Works in Orleton Lane was making cabinets wholesale. And from 1890s, Henry Addison’s Waterloo Works – also in Orleton Lane – was turning out great quantities of school and church furniture to fill the huge number of new schools and churches being built. Stones’ and Addisons’ businesses did not survive the Second World War, whilst The Grooms continued into the 1970s.
You’re all the way back in 1590. Elizabeth I is on the throne, William Shakespeare is writing his first play, and here in Wellington John Clyberie is casting his first church bell.
The Clyberie family were casting church bells in Wellington for a century, beginning here near the end of the 16th Century and ending on the eve of the 18th Century. It has been suggested that John set up his foundry where the former Charlton Arms now stands, just around the corner from this spot in Plough Road. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for this, however, so in truth we have no idea where in Wellington he lived and worked.
John died in 1605 and was succeeded by Thomas and William – by now spelling their name ‘Clibury’. They were in turn succeeded by another Thomas in 1642, and Henry in 1673. A man named Bradshaw appears to have been the last to run the business in the 1690s, perhaps also a relative. We know from documents in the National Archives at Kew that in the early 1700s, Wellington had a pewter-maker called Bradshaw – so this may be the same man.
No bells were cast between 1642 and 1650, suggesting that the Civil War interrupted production – either because churches were not commissioning new bells during the turmoil of that period, or because the firm had switched to casting cannon. By the time it closed its doors in 1699, the business is known to have produced bells for over 70 churches in Shropshire alone. Wellington’s own church was not amongst them, but in neighbouring Wrockwardine three of the church’s six bells were cast by various generations of the Clibury family. You can also find Clibury bells in the churches at nearby Wroxeter and Upton Magna.
There were Cliburys bell-casting in Holt and Walsall in the later 1600s as well – suggesting that, having learnt the trade, some sons moved away to start their own businesses elsewhere.
The year is 1876 and you find yourself at what was then the office of The Wellington Journal, the local newspaper established by Robert Leake in 1854. At the first floor window are two men by the name of Samuel Corbett. One of them is Samuel Corbett Senior, born in 1819 to a brick-maker father and who trained as a blacksmith and whitesmith. In 1853 he bought property in Park Street which became the site of his iron foundry and by the time of the 1861 census, he was employing 18 men and five boys. The second man visible here is one of his sons, Samuel junior, who is sitting at the piano.
The elder Samuel also had an ironmongery shop here on Church Street, on the plot now occupied by a hair salon. In our scene, he is waving at customers entering his shop. By the time of his death in 1885, the business was amongst Britain’s best-known manufacturers of agricultural machinery – their prize-winning grinding mill iconic in their advertising. The Park Street business of S. Corbett & Son survived until 1974, whilst the ironmongery business – as W.Corbett & Son – expanded into the manufacture of galvanised tanks and other agricultural equipment, and still survives today at modern premises in nearby Hortonwood.
And what about Samuel Junior, the family’s eldest son? Blinded by injury at just three months old, he did not join the family business but instead forged a career as a musician. He studied at Cambridge University and later gained a doctorate in music – the first blind student to do so. Throughout his life he worked as a teacher, an organist and a conductor. The young Samuel we see here is aged 24, and he has just published piano music for ‘The Wrekin Polka’ and a song celebrating ‘Captain Webb the Champion Swimmer’. He played the inaugural performance of the new All Saints Church organ in 1879, and served as organist at Wellington’s other Anglican church, Christ Church. He was later the organist at churches in Derby and Bournemouth, where he spent his final years.
Sponsored by Corbetts the Galvanizers, New Alexandra Works, Halesfield 1, Telford TF7 4QQ: www.wcorbett.co.uk
This is Sarah Smith – also known as Hesba Stretton – and the daughter of Wellington’s first postmaster. Here in 1876 she is aged 44 and by now a best-selling author of children’s stories. She has been writing under her pen name since she was 27 – ‘Hesba’ being an acronym of her own and her siblings’ names, and ‘Stretton’ an homage to her favourite Shropshire village of All Stretton.
Her breakthrough had come in 1859 when one of her short stories – The Lucky Leg – was secretly sent off to the Household Words magazine by Sarah’s sister, Elizabeth. The magazine’s editor, none other than Charles Dickens, wrote back to say he liked it and wanted more. Hesba Stretton’s career blossomed in the years that followed, reaching its peak with the story Jessica’s First Prayer which originally appeared as a serialisation in the Sunday at Home journal in 1866. After attracting scores of letters from captivated readers, it was published in book form and went on to become a worldwide hit, selling at least 2 million copies by the time of Hesba’s death in 1911.
By the time she is pictured here, Hesba had been living in the South East for almost a decade, but made return visits to her ageing father. This scene imagines her reading one of her books with local boy Samuel Parkes-Cadman who, at just 10 years old, was already working down mines in the Old Park area. Sunday School had fostered a love of reading and learning, and Wellington school master John Bailey saw promise in Samuel. Fast forward to the 1920s, and you would find him as a Congregationalist minister in New York City, a hugely popular preacher, newspaper columnist and pioneering ‘radio pastor’ regularly broadcasting to 30 million Americans. Walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge today and you’ll see signs for Cadman Plaza – named in his honour.
Here in Market Street you’ll find the back of a modern day butcher’s shop transformed into the front of a medieval cobbler’s shop. And this isn’t just any cobbler – this is the legendary Wellington Cobbler and The Wrekin Giant who, as every local schoolchild knows, were responsible for making of The Wrekin.
Walking along Watling Street one day, he came across a weary Welsh giant carrying a huge shovel of earth. Inquiring what he was doing, the giant replied that he had a grudge against the people of Shrewsbury and was on his way to damn up the River Severn and flood the town. Thinking quickly, the cobbler – who had many good customers in the county town – told the giant that he still had an awfully long way to go. ‘Look,’ he said, emptying the sack of shoes he was carrying home to mend, ‘I’ve worn out all these shoes walking back from there!’ Despondent at this news, the giant threw down his shovel of earth and scraped off his boots before turning home for Wales. The two mounds became The Wrekin and The Ercall hills.
The mural depicts the canny cobbler back at his shop, telling other traders of his extraordinary encounter moments earlier as the giant disappears in the distance. Look out for a potter, a cheese-maker, a butcher, a grocer and an woman selling eggs. There’s also a minstrel, strumming away in the corner. Those familiar with modern-day Wellington may recognise some of the faces!
We’re back in Wellington’s Victorian boom years – 1870, to be exact – and brewer Thomas Taylor is standing in the doorway of his newly opened Wrekin Brewery, tankard in hand.
Taylor’s new venture offered further proof that brewing was becoming big business for Wellington. Until the mid-19th century, brewing in Wellington had taken place on a domestic scale, not only in pubs but in people’s own homes – look through Wellington inventories of the 17th century, and brewing equipment often appears. Things changed in 1852 when The Shropshire Brewery was built on Wellington’s Holyhead Road, opposite the Old Hall. Eighteen years later, Thomas Taylor followed suit with his Wrekin Brewery, initially in this very building, before moving to new premises at the far end of the street (pictured) where Wilko’s now stands.
This original building became the brewery’s offices, and in 1903 passed to Charles Ensor as the base for his Wrekin Mineral Water Works in 1903. He was one of several ‘pop’ manufacturers in the town in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. After 1917 the business was acquired by O.D. Murphy, enabling his Pop Works on Holyhead Road to dominate the local soft drinks market. Murphy also acquired The Wrekin Brewery, building up the business and with it a portfolio of ninety pubs across the region. In 1966, after almost 100 years, Greenall Whitley bought the business and The Wrekin Brewery disappeared.
But let’s get back to our scene in 1870 and find out who Thomas is talking to. This is auctioneer John Barber, whose business in Church Street alongside the railway line still survives as Barber’s Estate Agents. Barber is looking across at the Market Hall – itself just a few years old at this time. He had been instrumental in building the Market Hall in 1866, securing the future of a medieval institution which had been homeless since the demolition of the old Market House, in the Market Place, in about 1806. Barber’s Market Hall still stands today, housing scores of small businesses.
Here on the side of The Pheasant Inn on Market Street, we find two 20th Century Wellington makers – one a native and one passing through. This scene imagines them having a celebratory drink in the summer of 1945 as Second World War comes to an end.
This is Norah Wellings, considered by many experts to be the finest ever English designer of soft toys. She began her career with the Chad Valley Company here in Wellington during 1919 and, in partnership with her brother Leonard founded the Victoria Toy Works in 1926. Norah initially rented an office at the family plastering business in Victoria Avenue, where she began to manufacture dolls with just six employees. Acquiring much larger premises at the former King Street Baptist Chapel in 1929, Norah eventually employed around 250 staff and established a reputation for quality that quite literally traversed the globe.
That global success began in 1930 when The Victoria Toy Works opened a London showroom, and following a starring role in the Harrod’s Christmas toy window, Norah went on to supply products to leading department stores around the world. At the height of production, around 70% of items manufactured at the King Street plant were made for export. Many other dolls found their way abroad via shipping companies, such as Cunard, and 100,000 were supplied annually to the Royal Navy, the company’s largest individual pre-war customer. Look carefully at the mural and you’ll see the Jolly Boy Sailor and several of Norah’s other popular designs on the shelf behind her.
In 2008, more than twenty years after his death, The Times named Philip Larkin Britain’s greatest post-war writer. He is pictured here in 1945, aged 23 and two years into his role as Wellington’s reluctant librarian. These were also the formative years of Larkin the writer, however, and in 1945 his first novel Jill was being prepared for publication. This was also the year he produced his first poetry collection, The North Ship, which you can see in the mural.
Having been rejected by the military due to flat feet, the recently graduated Larkin had taken the job of Wellington’s town librarian in 1943. He arrived at a building that had changed little since its opening in 1902 – complete with its original, and presumably quite elderly, caretaker-librarian! Larkin found himself single-handedly maintaining not only the library’s inadequate stock but also its faulty boiler and gas lamps, over the course of a working day which ran from 9am until 8.30pm in the evening. The time he was able to dedicate to his own writing proved invaluable, however, and his three years spent in Wellington were crucial in his development as a writer, as well as moulding his attitudes towards life, love and relationships. You can find out more about Larkin’s time in Wellington here.
Controversial for some of his opinions and aspects of his personal life, the greatest critique of Larkin here in Wellington is that he described the town to a friend as ‘a hole of toad’s turds’. You might notice said toad sitting on the window sill!
The year is 1660, and Thomas Wright is at work in his dye house. Thomas is at least the second generation of cloth dyers in his family – his father Francis was a Wellington dyer in the early 1600s, his son Francis will follow him, and another Thomas Wright, recorded as a dyer in 1702, may well be his grandson.
The Wrights’ business was located just around the corner from here in Walker Street, probably in buildings that were known as Wright’s Tenement. Dyeing had been a taking place in Wellington since the Middle Ages and, by the 1600s, was a significant business for the town. We know that the Wrights were prosperous thanks to inventories taken when they died. Thomas lived in a comfortable, well-furnished home, and his dye-house was large and well-equipped. So detailed was the inventory that we can reimagine his workshop in some detail – two vats, two furnaces, one lead vat and two troughs – and there was yet more in his press-house. In fact, every object you can see in this scene was listed amongst his possessions after he died in 1662.
In this era before synthetic dyes, fabric was coloured by dyes sourced from nature. Amongst Thomas’s stock were various kinds of plant material with names barely familiar to us today: madder and redwoods to make red, woad and logwood to make blue, fustic to make yellow and logwood, galls and sumack to make black. Indigo from India was used to supplement woad in creating blue dye, the best originating in Lahore.
In the background you can see an Indian dye merchant showing off his stock of indigo to Thomas’s wife, Magdalene. Its unlikely that any such trader ever made it all the way to Shropshire, but his presence reminds us that trade with the sub-continent brought the colours and scents of the East even to small towns like Wellington. And who’s that standing in the doorway? This is Reverend Richard Baxter, the influential theologian born at nearby Rowton whose teaching won him many influential friends – and enemies – in this age of political and religious turmoil.
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