Chris Upton recounts the ups and downs of a fine Georgian mansion which fell into disprepair but found a new lease of life.
Record offices turn up in all sorts of places in the West Midlands. Two of them are in public libraries, another two are in old schools and one is attached to a museum.
Over in Wolverhampton, however, they have undoubtedly stolen a march on their neighbours and taken over a Georgian mansion. Quite a change from the time – not so long back – when the archives were housed above a supermarket.
Not only that, but a Georgian mansion with a bird’s eye view of one of the most famous football stadiums in England.
Molineux House, appropriately, stands next to the Molineux football ground, a place of quiet contemplation cheek-by-jowl with a theatre of raucous noise.
I remember what used to be called the Molineux Hotel from my teens, when “faded grandeur” hardly began to sum up what had happened to the old lady. One room was set aside for drinking, one for drugs, and another for anti-social activity, and you didn’t dare to go upstairs. How times have changed.
It’s a real bonus that a building set aside to preserve Wolverhampton’s past should itself have enough history in and around it to fill a book. But I have to make do with 900 words or so.
The founder of the Molineux fortune was one John Molineux (1675-1754), who made his first packet selling Black Country hardware – brass and iron – in Dublin, before returning to Wolvehampton to set up as an ironmaster in Horseley Fields to the east of the town.
By 1744 he was established enough to turn some of that capital into land. Owed £700 from an unpaid debt John Molineux accepted a house on Tup (now North) Street as part payment, together with around eight acres of grounds.
John gave his new house a fresh facade, and his youngest son, Benjamin, who inherited it, added substantial wings. With extensive views across the surrounding countryside, Molineux House was the perfect rus in urbe, with one foot in industrializing Wolverhampton and one in rural Staffordshire.
A sense of that rural idyll is conveyed by a painting by the French artist, Reinagle. It shows Benjamin Molineux out hunting with his black servant, Scipio Africanus, on the land called Mr Molineux’s Close, against a backdrop of St Peter’s church and the ironmonger’s Georgian mansion.
Benjamin had also inherited his father’s knack for making money. He exported ironware to Dublin, imported Caribbean rum into Wolverhampton, invested in canals and other stock, made astute loans and steadily turned himself into one of the most respected businessmen in the Black Country.
And if Benjamin had surpassed his father, so Benjamin’s son, George, rose higher still, becoming a town commissioner and the first Wolverhampton man to be appointed high sheriff of Staffordshire.
The Molineux family finally severed its connection with the house that still bears their name in 1856, when the mansion was rented out and its contents auctioned off. By then the area to the south had changed utterly, filling up with a mixture of terraced streets, back courts and factories. This is what happens when you build too close to a growing town. The Molineuxs were happy to be rid of the family seat; the main problem was finding a buyer for it.
To the north of the house, however, things looked very different. Much time and money had been spent turning John Molineux’s old hunting grounds into elegant formal gardens. A very different sort of terrace tripped down the hill to lawns and an ornamental pool.
If the house itself struggled to attract interest, there were plenty of takers for the gardens, and a line of Wolverhampton entrepreneurs moved in to stage outdoor entertainments in the grounds. There were open-air concerts and fetes, balloon ascents and (this being the Black Country) boxing matches. Evidently blood sports had not entirely disappeared from Molineux House.
The most ambitious of the owners was undoubtedly Oliver Edgar McGregor, a Scot whose determination to make full use of the pleasure grounds knew no bounds.
He put paddle boats on the pool, put on Highland Games and numerous other sporting activities. In 1869 McGregor even had the temerity to create his own version of the Great Exhibition.
As for the house which stood, somewhat forlornly on the hill, Oliver McGregor had plans for that too, and in 1871 announced its forthcoming conversion into a “family and commercial hotel”. And when the grounds were sold to the local football club in 1889, the hotel looked set for a bright future.
But bright futures have a habit of getting tarnished. The streets that once surrounded the Molineux Hotel were knocked down, the perennially thirsty football fans were only around once a fortnight, and a vast and forbidding ring road was cut between the town and the hotel. The Molineuxs might have appreciated this divorce, but it did nothing for passing trade.
The hotel finally closed in 1979, and attempts were made by a succession of owners to have it demolished. Wolverhampton City Council can take considerable credit for not allowing this to happen. But having fended off a series of attempts to knock it down, the ball was fully in the council’s court to find an appropriate use for it.
That transformation into Wolverhampton Archives is now complete, and there’s even a little parterre in front to remind us of the formal gardens which once surrounded it.
So Molineux House is once more a place of quiet tranquillity...just as the builders move in to start the expansion of the football ground next door.