In Wellington you’ll find a series of life-sized portraits appearing on buildings around the centre of the town. They will feature a range of craftspeople, manufacturers and creatives from several centuries of Wellington’s history, all peering out from windows painted by artist Paula Woof. Some of our characters will be well-known to local people, others have been largely forgotten, but all represent something different about Wellington’s making heritage from the medieval period to the 20th Century.
Here on the side of The Pheasant Inn on Market Street, we find two 20th Century Wellington makers – one a native and one passing through. This scene imagines them having a celebratory drink in the summer of 1945 as Second World War comes to an end.
This is Norah Wellings, considered by many experts to be the finest ever English designer of soft toys. She began her career with the Chad Valley Company here in Wellington during 1919 and, in partnership with her brother Leonard founded the Victoria Toy Works in 1926. Norah initially rented an office at the family plastering business in Victoria Avenue, where she began to manufacture dolls with just six employees. Acquiring much larger premises at the former King Street Baptist Chapel in 1929, Norah eventually employed around 250 staff and established a reputation for quality that quite literally traversed the globe.
That global success began in 1930 when The Victoria Toy Works opened a London showroom, and following a starring role in the Harrod’s Christmas toy window, Norah went on to supply products to leading department stores around the world. At the height of production, around 70% of items manufactured at the King Street plant were made for export. Many other dolls found their way abroad via shipping companies, such as Cunard, and 100,000 were supplied annually to the Royal Navy, the company’s largest individual pre-war customer. Look carefully at the mural and you’ll see the Jolly Boy Sailor and several of Norah’s other popular designs on the shelf behind her.
In 2008, more than twenty years after his death, The Times named Philip Larkin Britain’s greatest post-war writer. He is pictured here in 1945, aged 23 and two years into his role as Wellington’s reluctant librarian. These were also the formative years of Larkin the writer, however, and in 1945 his first novel Jill was being prepared for publication. This was also the year he produced his first poetry collection, The North Ship, which you can see in the mural.
Having been rejected by the military due to flat feet, the recently graduated Larkin had taken the job of Wellington’s town librarian in 1943. He arrived at a building that had changed little since its opening in 1902 – complete with its original, and presumably quite elderly, caretaker-librarian! Larkin found himself single-handedly maintaining not only the library’s inadequate stock but also its faulty boiler and gas lamps, over the course of a working day which ran from 9am until 8.30pm in the evening. The time he was able to dedicate to his own writing proved invaluable, however, and his three years spent in Wellington were crucial in his development as a writer, as well as moulding his attitudes towards life, love and relationships. You can find out more about Larkin’s time in Wellington here.
Controversial for some of his opinions and aspects of his personal life, the greatest critique of Larkin here in Wellington is that he described the town to a friend as ‘a hole of toad’s turds’. You might notice said toad sitting on the window sill!
Further up Market Street, towards Market Square, you’ll find the back of a modern day butcher’s shop transformed into the front of a medieval cobbler’s shop. And this isn’t just any cobbler – this is the legendary Wellington Cobbler and The Wrekin Giant who, as every local schoolchild knows, were responsible for making of The Wrekin.
Walking along Watling Street one day, he came across a weary Welsh giant carrying a huge shovel of earth. Inquiring what he was doing, the giant replied that he had a grudge against the people of Shrewsbury and was on his way to damn up the River Severn and flood the town. Thinking quickly, the cobbler – who had many good customers in the county town – told the giant that he still had an awfully long way to go. ‘Look,’ he said, emptying the sack of shoes he was carrying home to mend, ‘I’ve worn out all these shoes walking back from there!’ Despondent at this news, the giant threw down his shovel of earth and scraped off his boots before turning home for Wales. The two mounds became The Wrekin and The Ercall hills.
The mural depicts the canny cobbler back at his shop, telling other traders of his extraordinary encounter moments earlier as the giant disappears in the distance. Look out for a potter, a cheese-maker, a butcher, a grocer and an woman selling eggs. There’s also a minstrel, strumming away in the corner. Those familiar with modern-day Wellington may recognise some of the faces!
John Clyberie was the father of a Wellington bell-making dynasty which lasted for a century, beginning in the reign of Elizabeth I and ending on the verge of the 18th Century. Here we see the father of that dynasty, Here he’s depicted casting the firm’s first bell in 1590 – also thought to be the year William Shakespeare wrote his first play, incidentally. It has been suggested that Clyberie set up his foundry here in the vicinity of the former Charlton Arms, just around the corner from this spot in Plough Road. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for this, however, so in truth we have no idea where in Wellington he lived and worked.
John died in 1605 and was succeeded by Thomas and William – by now spelling their name ‘Clibury’. They were in turn succeeded by another Thomas in 1642, and Henry in 1673. A man named Bradshaw appears to have been the last to run the business in the 1690s, perhaps also a relative. We know from documents in the National Archives at Kew that in the early 1700s, Wellington had a pewter-maker called Bradshaw – so this may be the same man.
No bells were cast between 1642 and 1650, indicating that the Civil War interrupted production – either because churches were not commissioning new bells amid the turmoil or because the Cliburys had switched to casting canons. By 1699 when the business ended, it had produced over 70 bells for Shropshire churches alone.
Meet Thomas Taylor the brewer and John Barber, the auctioneer. Ask old Wellingtonians to point out the Wrekin Brewery on Market Street, and they’ll tell you it was demolished in the 1960s, on a site now occupied by Wilkinson’s. In fact, the original premises for this great Wellington business were further up the street and still stand today – right here. It was opened in 1870 by Thomas Taylor, and provided confirmation that brewing was big business for the town.
Until the mid-19th century brewing in Wellington had taken place on a domestic scale, not only in pubs but in people’s own homes. Look through Wellington inventories of the 17th century, and brewing equipment often appears. Things changed in 1852 when The Shropshire Brewery was built on Wellington’s Holyhead Road, opposite the Old Hall. Eighteen years later, Thomas Taylor followed suite at this site in Market Street with his Wrekin Brewery – a business that would last for almost 100 years, thriving in particular between the world wars under O.D.Murphy.
Here, back in 1870, we see Thomas Taylor stood in the doorway of his smart new brewery, and deep in conversation with John Barber the auctioneer, whose business in Church Street alongside the railway line still survives as Barber’s Estate Agents. Barber is looking across the road to the Market Hall – itself just a few years old at this time. He had been instrumental in building the Market Hall in the late 1860s, and in so doing secured the future of an ancient institution in the town.
Once all ten murals are complete a guide will be produced to assist you with walking the entire trail. The accompanying text is based on research by local historians including Allan Frost, Marc Petty and Rob Francis.
The project is the idea of local community group Wellington H2A. Wellington Town Council is a partner on the project, and funding is being provided by Telford & Wrekin Council’s Pride in Your High Street Fund.