2019 Conference blogs – A large family of small shopkeepers

Judith Davies, University of Birmingham, A large family of small shopkeepers: the Wood family of Dudley in the middle decades of the nineteenth century


This blog is based on detailed research into the shifting power structure in mid-nineteenth-century Dudley, Worcestershire. Boyd Hilton dated the changes in urban history that led to the emergence of a ‘shopocracy’ from 1820.[1] The expression was more widely used in the mid-1830s but with differing connotations.[2] Hilton noted that there was a wide range of economic and social differences between the growing numbers working in retail, but he reserved the term ‘shopocracy’ for ‘those in the middle who wielded formal political power … and who were predominantly Liberals’.[3] This discussion notes that a political upheaval took place in the 1830s which saw many shopkeepers in Dudley starting to wield political influence for the first time and considers how the Wood family illustrated aspects of an emerging shopocracy.

Wood family origins

Little is known about Thomas Wood senior (c. 1770-1829), except that he was a cordwainer and, in later life, a blacking manufacturer. Thomas married Rebecca Dudley (1770-1856) in 1791. The Dudleys were a well-established, local family of small manufacturers, best known as the owners of a thread mill. Rebecca was six months pregnant when she married Thomas in Birmingham by special licence. Several of their children died in infancy, including the first-born, but eight reached maturity. The family shop, which they rented, was located in the middle of Dudley’s market place, in a range of shops aptly named ‘Middle Row’. This apparently unplanned development hampered the market place from performing its intended function. The Town Commissioners, established by act of parliament in 1791, attempted to tidy up the town centre and sought to demolish Middle Row, but it was a slow process. After Thomas died in 1829 Rebecca continued the blacking manufacture for several years. She was probably helped by their unmarried daughter, Mary Ann (1797-1875). When the Town Commissioners were allowed money from the market tolls, they were able to increase the tempo of compulsory purchases to clear Middle Row. Rebecca’s landlord agreed the sale of her shop in August 1838 and Rebecca was given till 1 November ‘to quit’.[4] The two women relocated to residential property a few streets away and, if they had not stopped already, that was the end of the blacking manufacture.

The siblings

Unlike Mary Ann, the other seven siblings all married and, fittingly for a family that originated in the middle of the market place, they all became shopkeepers, with their shops ranged around Dudley’s town centre (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. High Street, Dudley, looking up into the Market Place: a Milton postcard, c. 1900-1910.


The photograph was taken from the corner of Wolverhampton Street looking towards the Market Place. On the right of the picture, Wood’s grocers is the double-fronted shop to the left of the Old Bush Hotel. This was William’s main shop, one of the first of the Woods’ shops to be established and, possibly, the last to survive. Thomas’s shop, later his ‘vaults’, was about three doors up from William’s. Their parents’ house and shop had been in Middle Row, which was located in the middle of the Market Place, behind where the drinking fountain can be seen in the centre of this picture.

The following list names these siblings and enumerates their shops. As the rest of this discussion concentrates on the three eldest men, a few more facts about the other four have been included here.

Thomas (1799-1877) – apprenticed as a draper. Opened his own drapers but moved into wines and spirits, firstly with George, then alone. (Figure 2 shows Thomas’s double advertisement.)


Figure 2

Figure 2. Thomas Wood’s double advertisement. Reproduced from J. Bentley, History, directory and statistics of Worcestershire. Vol.1 (Birmingham, 1840?).


By 1840, Thomas was moving from being a draper to becoming a wine and spirit merchant. For a time he probably ran both businesses from the same premises. This illustration shows the same outer portions of the advertisement being used for both undertakings.

Edward (1801-1882) – clothier, dealer in plate and pawnbroker. (Figure 3 shows Edward’s largest establishment.)

Figure 3

Figure 3. E Wood & Son, bill-head. Courtesy of Dudley Archives and Local History Service


Edward’s outfitters and plate shop was probably the largest of any of the Woods’ establishments. Although it says E Wood & Son over the main entrance, his two eldest sons predeceased him and the other two were either unwilling or incapable of taking over. Presumably the figures in the doorway with boxes or signs over their heads are mannequins!

William Chrysostom (1803-1867) – grocer. As well as his main shop, he or his sons opened several branches.

Sarah Dudley (1805-1885) – married Samuel Sedgley, a grocer till he went bankrupt. They left Dudley and became publicans. As a widow, Sarah described herself as a wine merchant.

John Lawrence (1807-1848) – grocer, also moved into malting but died comparatively young. His widow became a publican.

Benjamin Dudley (1811-1865) – tobacconist (briefly tried other things). Left Dudley and moved to Worcester, possibly because of personal matters, but remained a tobacconist and after he died his widow continued the business.

George (1813-1870) – a grocer early on, an auctioneer at times, but best known as a wine and spirit merchant. He was the only one of the married siblings to be childless.


In the early 1830s the Woods positioned themselves as anti-establishment and pro-parliamentary reform. The 1832 Reform Act made Dudley a one-member parliamentary borough and enfranchised several male members of the family. Whereas Rebecca’s wider family, the Dudleys, voted Tory, the Woods voted for Sir John Campbell, the Reform candidate. Several of the Woods also became nonconformists. Edward and John attended the Independent chapel, William tried the Independents but soon moved on to become a Unitarian. Benjamin was a Methodist. Thomas remained an Anglican but, rather a rarity in Dudley, he was a liberal Anglican and opposed the way that church rates were being enforced in the parish. As the established church, the Church of England had the power to levy a local rate to pay for its own upkeep. This levy was chargeable on all rate-payers whether they were Anglicans or not.

The struggle for parliamentary reform in Dudley stirred up political animosities that spilled over into the church rates controversy. A disputed church rates poll in 1834 led to many rate-payers refusing to pay and Thomas was made an example of, with the churchwardens taking his case all the way to the highest court for ecclesiastical law, the Court of Arches in London.[5] Two of the witnesses supporting Thomas were his brother William and his brother-in-law, Samuel Sedgley. The case dragged on until 1837 when the ruling went against Thomas who was told that he had to pay the rate plus costs of about £1,000.[6] That same year saw a renewed struggle against church rates in Dudley with Edward and William amongst the leaders of those who refused to pay and consequently suffered distraint of goods. Edward had a watch seized from his pawnbrokers, which he valued at £3 and William had loaves of sugar taken to the value of £8 6s 6d.[7] The controversy continued in Dudley longer than in many other towns. In 1848 both Edward and William were again amongst those having goods distrained, though the nature of the items has not been recorded.[8] Thomas spoke out in support of the men who had genuine conscientious objections to paying church rates. He argued that the distraints were not fair, particularly as he could name magistrates ‘and other influential gentlemen’ who had not paid the rate.[9]

Joining the establishment?

In April 1834, the heightened political atmosphere caused by a parliamentary by-election seems to have pervaded the Town Commissioners’ meetings and, after a rumpus, ninety-five new Commissioners were sworn in on one day. Many of these were shopkeepers, including Thomas, Edward, William and their brother-in-law, Samuel Sedgley, as well as some of their wider family.[10] Opportunities for achieving positions of power and influence in the town began to open up, if only slowly. In 1836 the Dudley Poor Law Union was established with positions for ten elected Guardians from Dudley Parish. Thomas was elected one of them in 1848. In 1853, the Town Commissioners were replaced by an elected Board of Health made up of fifteen men with both Thomas and William being successful in the first poll. Thomas was one of only seven men who served on all three bodies. Edward did not continue in public office as long as the other two but all three were noted as Liberals. As well as gaining political influence, their well-established businesses gave them economic clout and they increased their social standing in more intangible ways. For instance, Thomas served a spell as the president of the local licensed victuallers association. Edward was the single largest donor for a new Congregational chapel and allowed the use of his garden for chapel fund-raising events. William was particularly successful at diversifying his business interests. He built up a well-rounded property portfolio and his obituary noted that he had been chairman of the directors of the Dudley Gas Company for several years.[11]

The move away from living over the shop

Reminiscences by Elliot Hollier, a leading figure in Dudley in the second half of the nineteenth century, contrasted the number of shopkeepers living over their shops in 1901 (‘not one in twenty’) with the situation seventy years earlier when ‘all the shopkeepers lived over their shops’.[12] Thomas stayed in the town centre, possibly because he was widening the scope of his ‘vaults’, renamed ‘the Crystal Palace’, and increasingly offering entertainment. It may have suited his business interests to remain living on the premises. However, William and Edward provide early examples of the move away in the 1850s. William went to a house on higher land on the eastern border of the parish. Edward maintained living accommodation at one of his shops but in 1857 he also had a large house built on the higher ground east of Dudley, just over the Rowley Regis parish boundary in Oakham. The section of map in figures 4 and 5 shows a stretch of Oakham Road and the location of several large houses. Living here were some of Dudley’s elite, including coal and iron masters and one of the town’s principal solicitors. Edward was the first shopkeeper to build a comparable house and move in amongst them.

Figure 4.png

Figure 4. OS 25 inch map of Dudley, 1881-2. By permission of the National Library of Scotland.


This shows a section of Oakham Road, a stretch of high land that was favoured by members of Dudley’s elite, including coal and iron masters. Edward had a house built here in 1857.


Figure 5

Figure 5. OS 25 inch map of Dudley, 1881-2. By permission of the National Library of Scotland.


Close-up map showing Edward’s Wellfield House. The OS map shows a fountain and two fish ponds in the garden but there was also a vinery, fernery and propagating house. Wellfield House was built into the hillside overlooking the fine view from Oakham, though, as can be seen, the other side of Oakham Road was an area disfigured by mining.


Despite their prosperity, none of the brothers’ families was untouched by Dudley’s scourge of having the lowest average life-expectancy in the country. Thomas, Edward and William together lost six sons between the ages of twenty-three and forty-four, men who would have been expected to help take the family businesses forward. The effect was most devastating on Edward’s business. With his two eldest sons dead and the remaining two either unwilling or incapable of taking over, Edward made the decision to sell up shortly before he died.[13] The scale and location of Edward’s house probably provide the best testament that at least one of the Wood siblings managed to join Dudley’s elite. Although this short study has only concentrated on three brothers, it has shown that they achieved high levels of social, economic and political standing in Dudley. They all remained Liberals and fit Hilton’s parameters for being members of a shopocracy. It is also worth noting that, although operating in a male-dominated society, the widows in the family, that is Rebecca, one daughter and two daughters-in-law, all either carried on their husband’s businesses or began a new one.


[1] B. Hilton, A mad, bad, and dangerous people? England 1783-1846 (Oxford, 2006), p. 161.

[2] For instance, Richard Cobden saw the shopocracy as a bulwark against established privilege but, for Bronterre O’Brien, the shopocracy, particularly in France, was made up of swindlers.

[3] Hilton, A mad, bad, and dangerous people?, p. 161.

[4] Dudley Archives and Local History Service (DALHS), Town Commissioners’ Minutes, Volume 2 (1832-53), 29 August 1838. Three of her sons were present when this was agreed.

[5] Lambeth Palace Library, Arches H 532/1-26 & 27-29, Court of Arches, nineteenth century case papers, Baker and Downing against Wood, 1835.

[6] Wolverhampton Chronicle, 17 & 24 May 1837.

[7] DALHS, PO/340, Church rates! Seizures in Dudley during the year 1837 (n.p., n.d. [1837?]).

[8] Thomas Williams, a Quaker miller, claimed he had had almost £50 worth of goods seized: twenty-four sacks of flour, four bags of beans and eighteen bags of peas. Worcestershire Chronicle, 21 June 1848, p. 5. Also: Worcester Journal, 22 June 1848, p. 3.

[9] Worcestershire Chronicle, 21 June 1848, p. 5.

[10] DALHS, Town Commissioners’ minutes, Volume 2 (1832-1853), minutes for March/April 1834 and lists of men taking the oath.

[11] County Express; Brierley Hill, Kidderminster, Stourbridge and Dudley News, 6 April 1867, p. 5.

[12] County Advertiser & Herald for Staffordshire and Worcestershire, 22 June 1901, p. 4. Note: his first name was sometimes spelt Elliott.

[13] Edward’s wife died on 18 January 1882 and by 11 February he had put the house and businesses up for sale. Dudley and District News, 11 February 1882, p. 1 etc. However, Edward himself died on 20 February 1882.

For more detailed references please e-mail: JMD158@bham.ac.uk

Judith Davies’s first degree was in Politics and Russian Studies at the University College Swansea and she worked as a librarian in Northamptonshire before taking early retirement in 2011. After returning to her native Black Country, she successfully completed the M.A. in West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham where she is currently studying part-time for a PhD in History on the subject of political, religious and social change in Dudley, Worcestershire, c.1815-1867.

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