Black Country Bugle
Warm welcome in the Black Country for French general
IT’S hard to believe it was ever there. Barely a trace of it remains now. Yet Wednesfield Heath was once the location of Wolverhampton’s main link with the outside world – its first railway station.
It opened in July 1837, situated a mile away from the town’s centre in what is now Heath Town, but its life as a leading passenger transport hub was short-lived; after only 17 years it had been eclipsed in importance by Wolverhampton’s more central High Level and Low Level stations.
Sadly, it had gone by 1965. Station Street had been renamed. High-rises had obliterated Railway Street. Only the tracks that once brought travellers here from all over the country were left as a bypass.
But on a certain Saturday in 1838, an expectant crowd gathered at the entrance of Wednesfield Heath Station, awaiting the train from the north. A buzz of excitement grew loud as an approaching train was heard and its lanky, smoke-belching chimney came into view. There was hissing and clanking as the locomotive ground to a halt. Then carriage doors opened… and onto the platform stepped Marshal General Jean-de-dieu Soult, 1st
Duke of Dalmatia, former dread enemy of this sceptred isle, accompanied by his son.
Soult had been Napoleon’s governor of Andalusia during the Peninsular War. He had fought British troops in many of the Emperor’s famous battles, including Austerlitz and Jena and he had been a senior commander at Waterloo.
After Napoleon’s defeat, he had shrewdly switched loyalties to support the restored Bourbon monarchy, and following the revolution of 1830 he sided with the new king Louis Philippe, who rewarded him with the title Marshal General of France. And now he was at Wednesfield Heath, Wolverhampton.
As ironworkers and miners with their wives and children gathered round the eminent visitor, one eager collier pushed forward with outstretched hand and said, “Thee’ll shak hands wi’ me, wunna?”
To the delight of the crowd, Soult, responding to the gesture if not comprehending the dialect, grasped the miner’s calloused hand and shook it warmly. There was cheering as the great man and his son made their way to the carriage that would bear them to the Swan Hotel in High Green (now Queen Square) where another welcome awaited them.
Soult had been sent to England as French Ambassador earlier that year and had been at Queen Victoria’s coronation, where his former foe the Duke of Wellington had caught him by the arm and said: “I have you at last!”
In his quest to learn something of leading English industries, he had been drawn to Wolverhampton, the centre of iron-making. The day after his arrival, the Soults attended Mass at St Peter’s and St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in North Street. Then, on the Monday, they visited the Chillington Ironworks, which had opened in 1822 on the site of Stowheath Manor, Bilston. Everywhere, they were greeted warmly.
Soult, who would go on to serve three times as Prime Minister of France, made it known that he was so impressed by the welcome afforded him in Wolverhampton that it seemed as if the English, unable to kill him in battle, had been determined to kill him with kindness.