The History of Wolverhampton: How the City Evolved Over Time

January 23, 2024
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Wolverhampton, from a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon village, grew through medieval wool trade, industrial revolution, to a modern, diverse city adapting to post-industrial challenges.

History of Wolverhampton

The history of Wolverhampton entails a fascinating story of how a small village grew into the bustling city it is today.

When you walk down the streets of Wolverhampton, you’re walking through history carved out of wars, plagues, booms, and busts. But it doesn’t end there; in the midst of this turbulent history, Wolverhampton is a historic excellence that has kept its heritage up till today.

Wolverhampton’s story is one of perseverance, progress, and community. So, how did it all begin?

The story starts in the year 985…

The Origins of Wolverhampton: A Historical Timeline

Wolverhampton has a long and rich history dating back over 1,000 years. The area was first settled in the Anglo-Saxon period, with the name “Wulfruna’s farm” first recorded in 985 AD. As the town grew, its location along trade routes and proximity to resources spurred its development into a centre of commerce and industry.

Outlined below are major historical facts about Wolverhampton depicting the city’s origin, which we’ll explore in more depth later on in this post:

The Inception

The town was originally formed around a monastery founded in 985 AD by Lady Wulfruna, a Saxon noblewoman who resided in the Kingdom of Mercia. After the Norman conquest of England, Wolverhampton was granted a market charter in 1258, which helped it become an important market town for the wool trade. Merchants would buy wool from local sheep farmers and sell it to cloth makers. This trade was the foundation of Wolverhampton’s early economy and prosperity.

Metalworking and Coal Mining Era

As wool trade declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, metalworking and coal mining became the backbone of the local economy. Wolverhampton was a centre of metal production, especially of locks, keys and enamelware. The abundance of coal and iron ore in the surrounding area made it an ideal location for the industry.

Industrial Revolution Period

The Industrial Revolution brought factories and canals to Wolverhampton. The opening of the Birmingham Canal in 1772 and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal in 1771 turned Wolverhampton into a vital canal hub and distribution centre. The canals enabled the mass transportation of raw materials and finished goods, fueling further economic development.

Transition Into a Municipal Borough

Wolverhampton was incorporated as a municipal borough in 1848 under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 of England and Wales. It became a county borough in 1889, meaning it was independent from the South Staffordshire District Council. Wolverhampton was later granted city status in 2000 as part of the millennium celebrations.

From its Anglo-Saxon origins as “Wulfruna’s farm” to a centre of industry and commerce, the history of Wolverhampton tells the story of a village that has evolved over centuries into the city it is today. Its strategic location and natural resources have shaped its destiny as a historic market town, manufacturing hub, and modern city. Now, let’s turn the wheel of history into the middle ages.

Wolverhampton in the Middle Ages: The Rise of the Wool Trade

Wolverhampton grew rapidly during the Middle Ages, largely due to the rise of the wool trade. As the wool industry boomed in England, Wolverhampton became an important centre for the production and trading of wool and woollen cloth.

The Growth of the Industry

Wool was England’s most important export in the Middle Ages, and by the 12th century, Wolverhampton had established itself as a major wool production hub. Fulling mills were set up to clean and thicken woollen cloth, while dyers used plants and minerals to colour the wool in different shades. Many craftsmen were employed in the wool and cloth trades, including weavers, shearers, and merchants.

The wool and cloth trade brought great wealth to the town. Local merchants built lavish timber-framed houses and endowed churches and chapels. In fact, the wool and cloth trade contributed to the growth of other crafts and industries in Wolverhampton, including metalworking, leather production, and food processing.

Connections to the Wider World

One of the major Wolverhampton facts from history is that the city’s location along important trade routes linked it to other parts of England and continental Europe. This allowed wool, cloth, and other locally produced goods to be exported to markets across Britain and abroad. In turn, the town imported luxury goods, spices, and raw materials from places like London, Bristol, and mainland Europe.

Wolverhampton’s connections to the wider world also brought cultural influences from afar. Architectural styles, fashion, languages, and culinary traditions from other parts of Britain and Europe spread to the town. Migrants from Wales, Scotland and continental Europe were attracted to Wolverhampton by the prospect of work in its prosperous industries.

By the 14th century, Wolverhampton had developed into an important manufacturing and market centre. The rise of industry and trade during the Middle Ages transformed it from a small agricultural town into a bustling, cosmopolitan place with a diverse, skilled population.

In general, the wool and cloth trade laid the foundations for Wolverhampton to become a leading industrial town in later centuries. Notably, Wolverhampton began to enjoy some industrial manufacturing boost from the start of the 18th century.

18th Century Wolverhampton: Industrialisation and Transport Links

The 18th century marked a period of major change in the history of Wolverhampton. As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, the city became a hub for manufacturing and industry. New transport links also connected Wolverhampton to the rest of England, fueling its growth.

Canals and Railways

Between 1771 and 1772, the Stafford Street and Worcestershire Canal were completed, linking Wolverhampton to Birmingham and other parts of the English canal network. This enabled the seamless transport of goods and raw materials into and out of the city, supporting its industries.

Several railway lines were also constructed in the 1800s, including the Grand Junction Railway in 1837, which connected Wolverhampton to Birmingham and London. The railways brought greater mobility for people and faster transport of goods, further driving Wolverhampton’s economy.

Industrial Growth

Wolverhampton was ideally located to become an industrial centre. It had access to natural resources like coal and iron ore as well as water power from local rivers.

The following summarises major events that drove industrial growth:

  • The metal trades grew rapidly, especially the production of locks, keys, tools and japanned ware (decorative metalwork). At this time, it was safe to call Wolverhampton “The Locksmith Capital of the World.”
  • Coal mining also expanded to meet demand from factories and railways. Dozens of coal mines opened around Wolverhampton, employing many local workers.
  • Manufacturing of cars, motorcycles and bicycles began in the late 1800s, with companies like The Star Motor Company and Sunbeam setting up in Wolverhampton. Today, the latter has been transformed into the Sunbeam apartment complex, offering modern housing options in the heart of Wolverhampton.

The Industrial Revolution propelled Wolverhampton into a major commercial and manufacturing hub. Advancements in industry, transportation, and technology in the 18th century paved the way for the city’s economic success and prominence in the Victorian era.

Victorian Wolverhampton: Industrialisation and Innovation

Victorian Wolverhampton was a period of industrialisation and innovation. During this era in history, Wolverhampton grew rapidly into a major centre for manufacturing and trade.

The Victorian period saw Wolverhampton become a leader in the metal trade industry. Numerous foundries and workshops produced a wide range of metal goods like locks, keys, tools, and enamelled products.

Wolverhampton was also renowned for the production of japanned ware — decorative metal goods coated with enamel. The Japanese process was invented locally, and the city became the heart of japanned ware manufacturing.

Culturally, the city thrived in the Victorian era. Several theatres were built, as well as the Civic Hall, Central Wolverhampton Police Station, and Art Gallery. The Central Library opened in 1902, providing public access to knowledge and education. Churches of many denominations were also constructed to serve the spiritual needs of Wolverhampton’s growing population.

The Victorian period was truly transformative for Wolverhampton. In just a few decades, it rose from a small market town to become a powerhouse of manufacturing and commerce. The city’s landscape, economy, and society were reshaped during this time, establishing the foundation for Wolverhampton’s 20th-century period.

Fun Fact: Wolverhampton was the first British town to introduce automated traffic lights in 1927. This was situated between Princess Town and Lichfield Street corner.

Wolverhampton in the 20th Century: Decline of Traditional Industries

Wolverhampton went through immense changes in the 20th century as traditional industries (such as coal and steel production) declined and new opportunities arose.

The Decline of the Coal and Steel Industries

After powering the Industrial Revolution early on, coal mining and steel production slowed down. As coal seams were depleted and cheaper sources of coal and steel were found abroad, the history of Wolverhampton showed that the industries could no longer compete. Collieries and steelworks closed, leaving many unemployed. This dealt a major blow to Wolverhampton’s local economy.

The Wolverhampton City Council had to find new ways to attract businesses and jobs. Civic leaders promoted Wolverhampton as an ideal location for manufacturing and commerce. Some companies that opened new factories included Goodyear, Lockheed and Sunbeam. Although not as prominent as coal and steel, these industries keep Wolverhampton economically viable.

Wartime Production

When World War II began, Wolverhampton’s factories (such as Lockheed) were converted to produce goods for the war effort. Everything from aircraft components to military vehicles was made in the city. Women entered the workforce in large numbers to keep the factories going after many men joined the armed forces. The increased economic activity and jobs kept the city afloat during this time.

Post-War Rebuilding

After the war ended, Wolverhampton had to rebuild both physically and economically.

Parts of the city had been bombed during air raids, and homes needed to be reconstructed. At the same time, factories transitioned back to peacetime production.

Some companies that had opened during the war continued operating, but others closed down. It took some time for employment rates to recover across the city.

In the post-war era, Wolverhampton also saw modernisation in the form of new civic buildings, infrastructure and housing. Several high-rise tower blocks were built to provide affordable housing.

Roads were improved, and the first section of the Wolverhampton Ring Road was built in the 1960s. The Wolverhampton city centre falls outside the area known as the Black Country and was redeveloped with the Mander Shopping Centre opening in 1968.

Bit by bit, Wolverhampton reinvented itself in the 20th century. Despite difficult periods of economic hardship and change, civic initiatives helped the city evolve into a centre for commerce, manufacturing and trade. The traditional heavy industries of coal and steel were gone, but new opportunities were created, and a more diverse economy emerged. After this period, Wolverhampton persevered and moved forward, shaping the city into what it looks like today.

Wolverhampton Today: Regeneration and Reinvention

The history of Wolverhampton shows that the city has undergone massive changes in recent decades. Once reliant on manufacturing, the city has had to reinvent itself in the 21st century. West Midland towns emerged, and old industrial areas transformed into new residential and commercial zones.

Continued Development

The iconic Sunbeam Motor Car Company factory is a prime example of regeneration within the town. Built in 1905, it produced cars for over 70 years before closing in 1981 after multiple acquisitions.

The historic redbrick building sat empty for decades until the UK luxury property developers at Paragon Living converted it into stylish apartments, preserving its original character. This adaptive reuse of heritage buildings is a hallmark of Wolverhampton’s revival.

A Place to Live

New apartment complexes, like the Sunbeam redevelopment, attract young professionals to live and work in the Wolverhampton city centre. The retail sector has also grown to cater to this demographic. For example, the Mander Centre Shopping Mall, opened in 1968, has been revitalised with upscale stores, restaurants, and a cinema.

Today, Wolverhampton ranks among the best places to live in the West Midlands. If you plan on calling this city home, check out our guide on the nice areas to live in Wolverhampton.

Thriving Tourist Attraction

Cultural destinations are another draw for visitors and residents alike, adding to the abundance of things to do in Wolverhampton for fun. For example, the Grand Theatre, opened in 1894, hosts major productions, while the Wolverhampton Art Gallery houses European paintings as well as contemporary art. In addition, the city’s industrial past is commemorated at the Black Country Living Museum, an open-air museum with historic buildings, vintage vehicles and costumed interpreters.

While manufacturing was once the foundation of Wolverhampton’s economy, today it’s rooted in the service, retail and tourism industries. By preserving its heritage yet embracing modernisation, Wolverhampton has successfully transformed into a cultural and commercial centre in the West Midlands. The reinvention of this city, through developments such as the Sunbeam apartments complex, demonstrates how a place can evolve with the times yet keep its sense of identity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Wolverhampton called Wolverhampton?

Wolverhampton gets its name from Wulfrun, who founded the town in 985. The name originates from the Anglo-Saxon “Wulfrūnehēantūn,” meaning “Wulfrūn’s high or principal enclosure or farm.” The prefix “Wulfrun” was added in 1070, following the Norman Conquest, distinguishing it from other towns named Heantune or Hamtun.

When was Wolverhampton founded?

Wolverhampton was established as a town by a woman named Wulfrun in 985. However, it was formally incorporated as a municipal borough on 15 March 1848 under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and later attained county borough status in 1889.

What is Wolverhampton famous for?

Wolverhampton is renowned for its significant contribution to metal manufacturing, stemming from the development of Staffordshire’s ironstone and coal deposits in the late 18th century. Today, it continues to manufacture a diverse range of goods, including rubber tires, paints, and various metal foundry outputs.

What did Wolverhampton used to be called?

Wolverhampton used to be called Heantune or Hamtun before the Norman Conquest. It was not until 1070 that the prefix “Wulfrun” was added to the name.

How old is the city of Wolverhampton?

The city of Wolverhampton is about 1,039 years old as of 2024 since it was founded in 985.

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