The Incredible Shrinking Anvil Stones!

In Bloxwich Park, the first thing one notices when entering from High Street is an intriguing relic of what was once the keynote trade of Bloxwich – the making of awl blades, needles, nails, spurs and other light metalwork.

Today known simply as ‘The Bloxwich Anvil Stones’, this monument was created to commemorate the workers involved in those industries.  This article aims to not only continue that commemoration, but also to highlight the ‘ups and downs’ of the anvil stones over the years.  Here, then, is the story of the “Incredible Shrinking Anvil Stones”…

Awl Blades of Bloxwich Repute

Walsall Corporation raised this mound of old anvil stones as a monument to the “bitties and tackies” who practiced their cottage industries around what was first known as ‘The Short Heath’ or Bloxwich Green, and later as Bloxwich Park.

Bloxwich Anvil Stones, 6 September 1915 (Billy Meikle)

The stones – small glacial boulders found in local farmers’ fields – had holes chiseled into them, and were used to support small iron and steel anvil blocks upon which were beaten out all kinds of metal items, but most particularly “awl blades of Bloxwich repute” – for which the town was world-famous from the early 19th century onwards.

Awl blade maker’s workshop, Sandbank, 1915 (Billy Meikle)     

From Green to Park

The majority of the old Bloxwich Green was re-shaped into the new Bloxwich Park in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1888.

The old green was surrounded by the cottages and workshops of the “bitties and tackies”, especially on the Sandbank side, and many were demolished over the years, with only one or two relics surviving past the building of the Sandbank flats in the 1960′s.

Awl blade maker’s cottage, Sandbank, 1915 (Billy Meikle)

By the turn of the 19th century, the old anvils had been replaced with cast iron slabs and the stones were thrown out.  In time, the industry became more mechanised and mass-production came to the fore, but even this era has now ended for awl-blade production in Bloxwich during the past twenty years, a sign of Britain’s ongoing industrial decline and falling standards.

Sandbank, 1915 (Billy Meikle)

Decline and Fall

The memorial itself has had a slightly chequered history.  It was first set up in the park in 1905, and was reset in 1915, around the time when Billy Meikle took the earliest known photographs of it, shown here.

Bloxwich Anvil Stones, 6 September 1915 (Billy Meikle)

It was reset again in 1925-1928, and the shape was slightly different, as is shown in this section from a postcard of about 1930 (below).

Bloxwich Anvil Stones, c1930

In 1941, the stones featured in ‘Bloxwich in History’ by D.E Parry, a booklet which later inspired E. J. Homeshaw’s seminal history of the village and town ‘The Story of Bloxwich’ (1955).

Bloxwich Anvil Stones, 1941 (D.E. Parry)

The photograph reproduced by Mr. Parry was heavily retouched, and therefore cannot be relied upon for accuracy, but it looks as if the stones had again been re-arranged, albeit only slightly, by this time.

Bloxwich Anvil Stones with railings, 1955 (J.W. Wiggin)

By 1954-55, however, the stones had mysteriously shrunk in height again – this time significantly.  In the photograph by J.W. Wiggin (above, from ‘The Story of Bloxwich’), about a quarter of the stones seem to have disappeared compared with Meikle’s photographs of 1915.

The anvil stones went into gradual decline in the following years as the mound was left to fall into  disarray and some stones either fell or were pushed from the top to lie around the base.  Some stones disappeared, ‘liberated’ by party or parties unknown, and there were sightings of the odd stone here and there but no apparent evidence of how they got there.  I myself saw two of them in front of the Walsall Central Library in the years before the paving was replaced there.  After which, they were never seen again.

The Rockery Era

By 1988, the increasingly tumbledown and overgrown state of the monument, resembling a poor quality rockery, was noted by Mrs. Edna Marshall of the Bloxwich Local History Society (which group is now sadly defunct).  Thanks to her we have a photographic record of the state of the anvil stones at that time.

Bloxwich Anvil Stones, 1988 (Edna Marshall)

But the last straw came in early 1990, when it was discovered that the remaining anvil stones might be disposed of during a tidying up of Bloxwich Park.  On March 21 of that year, Council workmen moved in to remove the stones and rip out an avenue of holly trees, reported the Express & Star newspaper (22/3/1990 p5).

Anvil stones dumped near the back of the “National” school, in Bloxwich Park, March 1990 (Edna Marshall)

According to that report, Bloxwich Councillor Sid Wright said that the people of the town were outraged by what had been done.  He said he was demanding to know on whose authority the stones and trees were removed.  He said the area of the park off High Street had only just been declared a conservation zone and what had been done amounted to desecration.  He said there had been discussion about improving parks in the town, but as far as he was concerned the area planning committee had given no approval for the removal of the monument or the trees. A spokesman for Walsall Council said in response  that major refurbishment was in progress and that the anvil stones were to be relocated as a “prominent feature at the new entrance to the park area”.

The Walsall Advertiser  (29/3/1990, p8) reported  in a piece headed “Residents win ‘stones fight’” that having petitioned the Council to leave the stones in their original form, Bloxwich residents had met with success.  It said that Edna Marshall “led the protest at a public meeting on the refurbishment plans this week.  She said “Quite a lot of Bloxwich people were annoyed to hear that the anvil stones had been removed from the park.  They do not want the old stones altered and made into an entrance”.  She added “The stones have been in the park since before the First World War and are unique, they should be left alone.”

After hearing the residents’ objections it was decided to put the stones back in the park in a “special arrangement”, the Advertiser report concluded.

Romancing the Stones…

All was not rosy in the park, however.  The independent spirit of Bloxwich was not dead, and this was made clear when local people were once more roused to anger.  More than six months passed and Mrs. Marshall was writing to the Walsall Chronicle complaining that the anvil stones were still “on a rubbish pile” and that many of the stones “have now been stolen.”  Apparently nothing had yet been done about the “special arrangement”.

Something was eventually done in 1991, but it did not meet with the approval of the people of Bloxwich!  I suppose one man’s “special arrangement” could be seen as another’s “poor quality rockery”, as the following photograph illustrates!  Certainly that was the opinion of local people and councillors.

The “Special Arrangement”, 1991.  Photo courtesy Bloxwich Past & Present (Steve Attwood)

The Express & Star (14 September, 1991, p4) reported that “A scheme to renovate a relic of Bloxwich’s industrial past has fallen on stony ground.  Councillors in the town are not impressed by the rearrangement of a pile of old anvil stones which had been preserved as an historic monument.  Leisure services officials are now having to re-think the scheme in an effort to restore the stones to their former glory.”

“We want our stones back as they were,” said the Mayor of Walsall, Councillor Alan Davies who represented Bloxwich.  The result of the improvement scheme was not what people had expected, he said.

Apparently there were eight non-anvil stones in the centre of the original monument to raise up the height, there being 26 in total at the time of “refurbishment”.  When the “rockery” was laid out after the original complaints, these stones were left out, leaving the genuine stones half-buried and far from prominent.  They were then surrounded by a brick border.

In the Express & Star report, Mr. Alan Grocott of Leisure Services was quoted as saying “We still have the surplus stones, and it looks as though we will now put them back in the pile to restore it to its original shape.”

The monument mound was finally restored (what there was left of it) in 1992, after much campaigning.  I remember at the time dealing with several Walsall Council workers (from the Parks Department) who arrived at Walsall Local History Centre one day and declared that it was their task to restore the Bloxwich Anvil Stones to their former glory, and had we got any photos?  Indeed we had, I was delighted to provide them, and you can see some of them on this page.

So the workers went forth, and did a good job with the materials at hand – the remaining anvil stones and a concrete mixer!


Restored Anvil Stones monument, 1992 (Edna Marshall)

Certainly, the final version of the “restored” monument looks a lot better than it did in the “Rockery Era”, though it has to be said that there is probably more concrete than anvil stones at its centre!  A small plaque and a decorative circular brick border were added to set the anvil stones in context, and that was that.

Today, while they may be somewhat reduced in stature, the Bloxwich Anvil Stones remain an important tribute to the local workers of the past, whose living was hard-earned and whose skills were  hard-won.  They are also a tribute to those people of Bloxwich and their representatives on Walsall Council who decided they would stand up for Bloxwich and not let their history disappear!


Bloxwich Anvil Stones, 2002 (Stuart Williams)

The Edditer, 21 August 2007

Acknowledgements

My thanks go to George Jevons for some of the early history of the Anvil Stones and especially to Edna Marshall for telling me about her campaigning and supplying me with photos and newscuttings.  Thanks also to Walsall Local History Centre and Steve Attwood for photographs.

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