“Slums” of the Black Country: The Mambles, Dudley

A young girl in the Flood Street area of Dudley, 1954. Image from Alamy (click for link to buy)
A young girl in the Flood Street area of Dudley, 1954. Image from Alamy (click for link to buy)

I’ve had a wonderful time speaking on my research at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Archives recently – I’ve met tons of new people, heard anecdotes and stories and generally had a ball. I was discussing Carribee Island, a site of extremely poor housing, poverty and job insecurity, criminality (perceived, at least) and a very dense population, of whom a significant proportion were of Irish stock. When I talk to people about what I’m researching, the most evocative word is probably “slum” – its “Dickensian aspect” is easily understood. But like Alan Mayne, I try to steer clear of the word:

“Slums are myths. They are constructions of the imagination”.
Mayne (1993) The Imagined Slum

That’s not to say that the slum environment wasn’t real, far from it; but Mayne goes on to question why some areas take on this imaginative viewpoint and others, objectively very similar, don’t. In Wolverhampton terms, Carribee Island was grim; it wasn’t unique. a number of other areas had similar housing, sanitation and population problems: Little Brickkiln Street, Salop Street, North Street, and whole swathes between Horseley Fields, Walsall Street and Bilston Road. It’s also a word that really came to prominence towards the end of the nineteenth century (after Carribee Island was demolished) thanks to slum tourism (see Seth Koven’s wonderful book on this) and fiction, particularly in London; and one that became codified through well-documented slum clearance schemes during the mid twentieth century.

Certain areas however, were certainly seen as archetypes of urban degradation. A Birmingham Daily Post report of 1866 took a close look at certain Black Country towns as cholera started to bite in other parts of the country. The Mambles or Mumbles, off King Street, is the writer’s Dudley case study, and like Carribee Island “these outlandish names are enough to suggest the plague”.

In 1750 it was arable ground known as Danton’s Innage, to the South of Back Lane. This road soon became the more familiar King Street, and like all the industrial towns of the era Dudley swelled with incomers seeking work, and with cheap dwellings thrown up for them. It has to be said that commentators on public health tended to be on the hyperbolic side and that most towns were described as the worst in the country at some point: that’s certainly true of medical inspector William Lee, who described Dudley as the unhealthiest town in the kingdom in 1852. As in Wolverhampton, a scandalous report prompted a new, highly detailed survey to help the town fathers prepare for new-fangled public health schemes like sewerage. Dudley’s was prepared by Henry G. Roper in 1857 or so and can be viewed on Dudley’s website.

Lee pointed out a number of the worst spots in the town, preeminent amongst which appears to have been The Mambles (“Mumbles” on Roper’s map). It’s the area to the immediate South of King Street and immediate West of Oakeywell Street, and from the look of Roper’s map I’d suggest the worst of it was bounded by a Court No.4 at the South and a long, unnamed alleyway to the West. That’s just an acre and a half (now underneath Flood Street carpark), but crammed full of small houses with barely a privy between them. Lee described it thusly in 1852:

“Fifty or sixty houses, no water. All dirty, pallid, diseased, and some idiots. The people complain in the midst of their filth, of want of water. All so bad as to be indescribable; a man almost dying; a woman with half a face; children almost devoured with filth; prostitutes and thieves. The physical and moral condition of this place is indescribable.”
William Lee, 1852 (quote taken from the Black Country Bugle)

Here’s how the Post described it:

…a range of narrow courts, out of which it would be difficult for a stranger to find his way when once fairly inside it – is another fever nest and cholera bed. To adequately describe its filthiness and consequent unhealthiness would take up as much space as is here devoted to the whole town of Dudley. The houses are for the most part ruinous and tumbledown, the drains broken and filthy; the privies doorless, roofless, and running over, stand close to the houses; many of the alleys and passages are but three or four feet wide; in some cases to step out of doors is to step into a drain, into the fecal matter from some privy, into the runnings from some dung heaps, or into the human excrement lying about in all directions. So closely are the buildings packed together that privies, ash-heaps, and worse, run close up to the houses, and taint the very atmosphere of the food cupboards and dwelling rooms.
Birmingham Daily Post, 7th June 1866

1851 census
A possibly editorial note on the enumeration district cover sheet of the 1851 census.

Amidst such florid Victorian language, the 1851 census recorded over 300 people living in 65 houses in “Mamble”, a unexceptional density of either houses or people. We have just the one Irish collier family and an Irish tailor in there, marking an immediate difference between here and the “Irish station” of Carribee Island. In this highly-mobile age, the large majority of this poor population are Dudley born and bred.

The Mambles, as seen on Henry Roper's map of Dudley, 1857 (c) Dudley MBC 2015
The Mambles, as seen on Henry Roper’s map of Dudley, 1857 (c) Dudley MBC 2015

The Post condemned the “better classes” as hypocritical Christians and ineffectual politicians, and in a very modern way recognised that the poor who live there are unable to afford anything else, an instance in which press opinion was significantly ahead of political will. The Mambles were eventually cleared, although if the experience of elsewhere was replicated, most of the poor just found their way into neighbouring “slums”, such as the Old Dock area around Steppingstone Street. The poor continued to be held in an economic vice: unable to lift themselves out of poverty, and held in small regard by those with the power to improve their lives.

The constitution of the Mambles and Carribee Island reflect issues of poverty and housing in the present day, which persist most strongly in areas of high ethnic differentiation or of hyper-local non-differentiation. The 97% white ward of Castle and Priory in Dudley, one of the UK’s most deprived, became a battleground over immigration concerns in 2003 when BNP candidate Simon Darby won the seat, with Conservatives trading on the allegation that “seven asylum seekers will arrive in Labour Britain during the time it takes you to walk to the polling station and cast your vote in the election.” At that date, the number of refugee families in the ward was 23 out of 5000 households.

I’ll hopefully explore some other “slums” of the Black Country over coming weeks, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had ancestors in these areas, if you have any other details you can pass on, and particularly what you’d think of as a Black Country slum, and why you think that.

11 thoughts on ““Slums” of the Black Country: The Mambles, Dudley

  1. One thing that caught my eye on first reading was the mention of the Birmingham Daily Post and their condemnation of the “better Classes” as hypocritical Christians and ineffectual politicians.

    I had looked through the archives of the Post for information concerning George Kynoch and the ammunition works at Witton in Birmingham. I have also read many pieces concerning mine owners and accidents in the Lichfield Mercury.

    To my mind there is a great contrast between the two papers. Here we can see the Post, to a great extent, tells it as it is. Whereas the Mercury sits way back on the fence for many issues.

    Maybe the shares in the Mercury were spread across the mine owners?

    Any road up, the Post article seems to be the third in a series on the Sanitary Conditions of the Black Country. I had to smile at the…

    “Our Black Country neighbours, even the best informed, do not know the real state of their own district.”

    In an earlier edition from December 1861 there was a letter to the paper referring to Dudley, and complaining of a disgusting sight under the heading of “Anatomical Museum”, inviting youths to go and see the exhibition, and to the lowest locality of the town, namely, the top of the Mambles, the very centre of prostitution and vice.

    Of course the Post does not give us any idea of who the “better classes” may be!


    1. Editorial standards driven by industrial interests? The very idea!

      The series of articles are wonderful reading, and I’m hoping to blog through a couple more of the pieces soon. I think the series was perhaps directed towards the “better classes” – those living in the poor parts Black Country towns would certainly have known “the real state of their own district”! My guess is that local politicians got most of the blame, and not without justification in many cases.

      I hadn’t seen that about the Anatomical Museum though, that’s fantastic! Anatomical is probably the correct word!


  2. Looking back at the article from the Birmingham Dail Post, I wondered if I could find someone of the “better classes”. While I had been checking through the Newspaper Archives for mentions of the Mamble it is not surprising that a great many were associated with the courts. One of the magistrates caught my eye, being Captain Bennitt, due to the spelling. (Not that anyone took much notice of spelling in those days.) Arguably, a magistrate would come from one of the better classes.

    A Google of Captain Bennitt came up with a mention in the Black Country Bugle. He was the Captain of the Dudley Troop of the Worcs Yeomanry Cavalry that had suppressed the nail makers in the Dudley Riots of 1842. He became a Deputy Lieutenant of Worcs and Lord Mayor of Dudley in 1833/4.

    The chap was William Bennitt born around 1800. In the 1851 census he resided at Stourton Hall, age 51 with wife Sarah, 6 children and 11 others, Coal and Iron master. In 1871, being 71 years old he had moved to Coalville Square, Kensington with a couple of servants. In 1881 he was at Powis Square, Bayswater at the age of 81.

    Bennitt was on the Committee of the Dudley Dispensary. In December 1860, along with Rev Downing, he was trustee to distribute nearly £400 left by a Peter McParlin to the destitute and poor of Dudley.

    It appears that he was involved in the Dudley and West Brom Banking Company, and had estates, together with the mines and minerals beneath, in Oldbury. There were at least four Blast Furnanes, several pairs of pit shafts.

    He died on Christmas Eve of 1884, leaving a personal estate of just over £1,500.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Information from “Social Conditions of the Black Country, 1800-1900” by Barnsby….

    The enquiry (by Lee, 1852) started one hour late and at that time there were only 12 to 14 people present. These included Samuel Cook, Dudley’s Chartist leader. The Enquiry lasted for nine days and during that time Cook hardly left Lee’s side. The Enquiry was opposed by Isaac Badger and the Town Commissioners….

    ….the Dudley Board of Health made little improvement over the years. In 1871 Dr Thorne made a report to the Privy Council on the prevalence of typhus at Dudley and the sanitary condition of the Borough. In 1874 Dr Ballard was sent by the Local Government Board to report on the progress made since 1871. Ballard’s report is one of the most scathing indictments of a local authority ever penned….

    ….at the Mambles one wretched privy serving 13 or 14 houses choked with excretement; in a private lodging house a family living in a room over the large and stinking privy from which nothing separated the inhabitants but the floorboards….

    Ballard also reported on the water supply and quoted no 1 Court, Newell Street where there was one well for seven houses. Sewage from neighbouring houses was brought by surface drain to the base of the pump and seeped into the well. The houses were owned by an alderman, JP and chair of the Public Works Committee. These conditions had existed for many years and the landlord had repeatedly refused to lay on Company water. Still pursuing councillors Ballard found wretched cottages belonging to another councillor close to an open sewer from the town….


    1. The same Ballard did a report for Wolverhampton around the same time. I wonder if he did he a job lot rate for the whole Black Country! The report was very similar in tone to Dudley’s by the sound of of it – councillors all over were guilty of being slum landlords, making them the biggest hypocrite of the lot…


  4. Having recently purchased Tales of Old Dudley and reading about the Mambles in there, I’ve just discovered your site while trying to locate where it was on Google and I’m glad I did. I have recently moved into Dudley and have now discovered a branch of the family tree that had a lot of connections to Dudley so will be trying to find out as much as I can.

    Liked by 1 person

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