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THE DEMISE OF BILSTON BOROUGH COUNCIL
 Reg Aston

Bilston´s first local government control was a Board of Health established in 1850. This was replaced 44 years later with an urban District Council of which Mr S.B.Cole was its inaugural chairman.  

Bilston Town Hall was built in 1872 and its Market hall was opened in 1891.   After being controlled by the U.D.C. for 39 years Bilston was granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1933. The Charter was presented by the Earl of Harrowby (Lord Lieutenant of the County) on September 18th 1933. The ceremony was held in Hickman Park and Councillor Herbert Beach had the distinction of becoming the Borough´s Charter and first Mayor. Over the years Bilston´s councillors took pride in the good and well being of the townspeople and its first considerations were housing and provision of amenities for residents.

On 1st April 1966 the new County Borough of Wolverhampton came into existence. The new extended borough consisted of the original County Borough along with the Borough of Bilston, the Urban districts of Tettenhall and Wednesfield; parts of the urban districts of Coseley, Sedgley, Darlaston and Willenhall; and parts of the parishes of Lower Penn, Wombourne, Wrottesley, Brewood and Essington.  

Proposals for change had first been announced in 1957 with the publication of the Local Government Bill. This proposed that five new county boroughs should be created in the Black Country: Dudley, Smethwick, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.  

Bilston was at that time a borough in its own right and feelings ran high against the proposal with the belief that the town would lose its civic pride and identity. A campaign was launched under the slogan "Bilston for the Bilstonians"  and the Bilston Defence Committee was formed. They arranged for a symbolic coffin to be delivered to Bilston Town Hall to represent the death of the town should the take over go ahead. A plot of land was secured in Hickman Park so that the coffin containing historical documents, relating to the town's former life, could be buried. Local councillor and fish and chip shop owner, Bob Cambell, served his chips in a paper bag printed with the words "If Wolverhampton take over, you've had you chips".

Such was the determination to fight the proposal, and in defiance of its association executive, the Bilston branch of the Conservative Party agreed with the local Labour Party not to oppose each other in the then forthcoming municipal elections. A document was signed by five representatives from each party at a private meeting held in Bilston Town hall and was handed to the Town Clerk, Mervyn Williams. Those named were Councillors F.J.Oxford, E. Beards, R.Campbell, R.Bradshaw, J.Goodman (Conservatives), Alderman J.V.Lavender, Councillors E.W.Bold, G.H.Jones, W.J.Philips and Mr Harold Humphries. The truce had been reached to enable both sides to devote their combined energies to assisting the fight against the local government proposal.

A protest petition was organised by Mr & Mrs J. Edwards of Price Crescent, Bilston and within a few weeks thy had collected more than 17,500 signatures against the proposal. Their efforts were much appreciated by the local council and at council meeting Councillor Oxford successfully moved a resolution recording the council's thanks to Mr & Mrs Edwards for their" pioneer work". I t was his sincere hope that they would defeat "these horrible and disgusting proposals that have been made as a so called solution to a so called problem that exists in the south".

As public opinion against the takeover increased, Alderman Vic Lavender commented that, if the commission had any regard to the wishes of the people, then the County Borough proposal could not go through. Alderman Jones added he had been pleasantly surprised at the unanimity shown at the town's protest meeting and was proud to think the people of Bilston wanted to keep what was theirs by right and did not want anyone to come in and steal it.

Staffordshire County Council did put forward a suggestion of an alternative amalgamation of Bilston, Tipton and parts of Coseley. However the Government announced, in August 1962, that the County Boroughs would be created and were set to take effect 1st April 1964. The decision by Wednesbury, Darlaston, Bilston, Willenhall and Sedgley councils to contest the legality of the Local Government Commission inquiry delayed events. This High Court action took place in May 1965. Despite several appeals they were forced to accept the battle was over in October 1965. The West Midlands Order 1965 was approved by parliament on 16th December 1965 to come into effect on 1st April 1965.

The retiring mayor of Bilston, Councillor Harold Humphries said "We have made our protest - unsuccessfully, so now we are going to do our damnedest to make this merger work. We have had a fair deal from Wolverhampton on this matter. Now we are only anxious that we should be well-represented on the new council".

Bilston's two longest serving senior officers, Mr A.F.B. Sidwick, Borough Surveyor (45 years), and Mr H.Carder, Borough Treasurer (43 years), retired shortly before the amalgamation. Both were presented with gold watches on behalf of Bilston Borough Council. The presentations were made by Mayor Harold Humphries at the final meeting of the town council in March 1966. Mr Sidwick was closely associated with the work involved in the petition for the Charter of Incorporation in 1933 and had the distinction of being the first and last surveyor of the borough.  In the elections for the new enlarged Wolverhampton County Borough a number of the former Bilston councillors were elected. These included Tom Larkin and Harold Humphries in Bilston East along with Dennis Turner. The elected representatives in Bilston North were local author and furniture dealer, Walter Hughes, Bilston High Street fish & chip shop owner Bob Campbell and former mayor Walter Fellows. The only surviving Alderman was former mayor Ernest Bold who was elected in the Ettingshall district along with G.H.Mould and A.E.Woolley.  

On 17th January 1968 a public meeting was held in Bilston Town hall to discuss a five shilling rent increase. However the meeting culminated in a resolution being passed calling for Bilston to opt out of the Greater Wolverhampton Borough and proclaim UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). Former mayor of Bilston, Mr Walter Fellows, who was Chairman for the evening, asked who was in favour and almost every hand went up. Secretary of the United Bilston Tenants Association, Mr Ken Gretton stated he would approach local MP Bob Edwards and ask him to propose an Amendment to the Order passed by Parliament under which Bilston became part of Wolverhampton. It proved that after all the protest meetings and petitions had failed to prevent the unwanted marriage many Bilstonians were still fighting to pull their town out of the unhappy alliance.

Rumblings of discontent persisted for several years with a number of long serving council representatives expressing their opinion. Alderman Ernest Bold made it clear he did not think the amalgamation was running smoothly. Councillor Harold Humphries also joined in: " I´m absolutely fed up with the slurs that are cast on Bilston". Former mayor Walter Fellows added: "Certainly the conflicting statements of frustrating ambiguity that have been proffered by Wolverhampton have done little to disperse the cloud of resentment and doubt that is a permanent part of the Bilston scene."

This resentment continues to this day, especially amongst older Bilstonians, who remain convinced that Bilston has been largely ignored by Wolverhampton and that not enough was done for the town when the large local industries started to collapse, one by one.

 
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