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Castle Hill - The Entrance to Dudley

Several of David Clare's postcards refer to Castle Hill as the entrance to Dudley, so we'll make it our starting point as well. The photo below was taken after 1900, but the postcard it adorned was never posted, and postcards notoriously stay on sale long after they go out of date. At left we have the old Station Hotel with a public drinking fountain in front of it. Although people could use it, its primary purpose was to refresh the horses toiling up and down the hill - and four can be seen below. Hiding the nearer trough is a small hand-cart, unusually balanced on a large thin, central wheel. The design might be to allow it to be towed behind a bicycle, though this one looks hand-powered only. Terry Brown says it looks very like a grinding machine that an itinerant would take from door to door, offering to sharpen knives or scissors.

To the right, the tramlines conquer the hill courtesy of electric power from the wires overhead, which are supported by the arms reaching out from the central lamp posts. These hefty lamp posts were characteristic of many tramways, and the bollard placed just in front was to protect each post from wayward horse-carts. In the process, these also provided a slim refuge for pedestrians crossing the street. At busy crossing places, sweepers would be at work to clear a path through the horse manure which would otherwise foul trouser-bottoms and long dresses (and was the reason for boot-scrapers outside old houses). The sweepers would get tipped half an Edwardian penny for the service - and would also sack up the manure to sell it to farmers.

looking up Castle Hill

Lastly, we have the lamp that dominates the centre of the picture. Despite its appearance, it was probably electric. It could have been a conversion from gas - probably in the 1890s or 1900s - but it might have been manufactured that way. This seems especially likely, given that there is no obvious sign of a bar sticking out just below the lantern for the gaslighter to lean his ladder against (bulb changing would be far less frequent, omitting the bar an attractive economy). It's often forgotten that technology is transitional so that old patterns are just adapted until the new technology finds its own way forward. This is why the earliest railway carriages looked just like stage coaches with flanged wheels added, the flesh-and-blood horses taken away, and an iron horse coupled up in their place.

old station hotelAnother view similar to the one above, but seeing more of the hotel and the drinking fountain. To the right is a capped figure with a cumbersome lifebuoy-shaped wooden tray slung from his shoulders. These trays were used for itinerant trading of very small items such as needles, cotton and so forth - hence allowing a large stock in that seemingly tiny "shop".

This card was posted on 24th June 1924 but probably based on a prewar photo. One thing done to refresh elderly cards (and respond to new demands from their clientele) was to reissue them in colour - usually overpainted by hand (and not always very well). In some cases, little more than the sky was done, as we see here, although some of the blue has migrated into the hotel's roof tiles and Tudor-style white panels.

Below, we see a much better example with the whole card coloured and most of it bar the Opera House roof done well. The result is a very attractive card, which is all the manufacturer and the buyer ever wanted. But some colouring systems were very crude and could severely degrade an image, destroying detail that would make them even more interesting today.

station hotel and opera house David’s collection does not include a full view of the Tudor-style black and white hotel, but enough can be seen to gain a good impression. Surprisingly the hotel was newly built in 1900 but survived only 38 years before being replaced by its current namesake. In front of the old hotel is an elaborate drinking fountain for horses and people, first erected in 1862 at the top of the hill where the Earl of Dudley’s statue now reigns, and moved down to this location when displaced. It survived here until 1962. There is a suggestion that it was relocated to a park somewhere; if so, we don't know where.

the opera house The Opera House opened in 1899 - just a year before the Station Hotel - with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. The print date is unknown, but this card was posted on 1st October 1914 and displays an advert for a twice-nightly performance of "10 Loonies / the Mad Musicians" from what can be guessed from posters to the right. They also hint at 10th June for something, and the trees suggest the photo was taken in Spring. Note the public weighing machine next to the gates by the shop.

In 1936 the building suffered a catastrophic fire, and as the Dudley Zoo opened alongside in 1937, photos show that the Opera House was in mid-demolition. Coincidentally, the Station Hotel, its partner in so many photos, came down within the year, having also shared almost exactly the same lifetime.

Text: Harry Drummond

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Postcards from David Clare's collection.

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