“Slums” of the Black Country

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The West Smethwick Estate in the 1980s, from the collection of Kate Gordon.

We’ve come to the end of this series on some of the distinct areas of the Black Country that found themselves with a special stigma in the nineteenth century. Based on the Birmingham Daily Post‘s 1866 series on the sanitary condition I’ve had a look around some of the broader issues of housing, sanitation, labour, demography and democracy and I’ll finish with a quick summary and a look at how things don’t always change as much as we’d hope.

The Black Country is an inescapably industrial setting. A great quantity of scholarly research on the idea of the “slum” is set in London – a Great Wen indeed but quite different to Britain’s industrial cities. London is more vast and more diverse, and massively more documented. The social surveys of Mayhew and Booth, the slum fiction of Gissing and Morrison, the late 19th Century fashion for slum tourism – we don’t find these helpful sources up our own end. Yet the reality of millions of working-class Britons (and others) was in the down-at-heel, uncared-for sections of the urban, or semi-urban industrial setting. As Mayne says, “the slum is a myth”: although we’ve isolated examples within towns, they are just examples of an urban fabric spread more widely than the starkly-differentiated districts of London.

Housing: I haven’t posted on Carribee Island in Wolverhampton (here at least – I have elsewhere), as I wouldn’t know when to stop – I am after all writing an 80,000 word thesis on it. It’s notable that it’s where the Post correspondent started I think – it had a pretty infamous reputation. Dudley’s “Mambles” area is a similar example though: a dense, unhealthy and despised area, which nevertheless you’d find hard to describe as the worst in the town. The courts and alleys which made up the district were typical of the ad hoc, informally-built urban areas of the Black Country.

Public Health: Bilston is the archetypal disease-ridden town, famous for its cholera epidemics, although again it’s hardly alone: Willenhall was equally unclean, and we followed the reporter on a tour of the blackspots. Oldbury demonstrates the effect of physical isolation on a district – while the sanitary problems evident throughout the whole region were just as evident, Eel Street’s location on the edge of town, separated by the canal, seems to have created a certain, perhaps slightly melancholy, identity for the area.

An undated sketch of High Bullen, Wednesbury, by Maurice Chillington.
An undated sketch of High Bullen, Wednesbury, by Maurice Chillington.

Life on the edge: Although I’d suggest that situation on the urban periphery, separation by canal or railway line, low-lying ground etc., were indicators of where poor areas would develop, it wasn’t always the case. Wednesbury’s Oatmeal Square was possibly the most ill-famed in the town, and it’s bang in the middle of a high town. Nevertheless it still had a distinct identity familiar from accusations levelled at Carribee Island and The Mambles, that it was a place of ill resort – a red light district. That it undoubtedly was, but we do see the conflation in the public and political mind of vice and dirt that was so central to Victorian reform debates.

Reformers and the reformed: These debates were from a multitude of viewpoints and interests. Gold’s Hill in West Bromwich appears to be an example of good intentions missing the mark. The principles of improvement of the workers is evident, but the Victorian method seems to have been to cultivate the workers into the image of the middle-class, by adding (middle-class) religion and education etc. This was also the case in Lye, but here such outside influence was fiercely rejected by an entrenched, distinctive population that governed its own space fearsomely. Such territoriality was evident in a distinctly gendered way amongst the chainmakers of Cradley Heath too.

Mud house in Cross Walks, Lye.

Poverty and modernity: This whole series has been very helpful for me to work through and has raised a number of interesting issues. Most particularly, the longue durée of poverty, its persistence and the drag it places on the modernising intentions of others is really evident. I sympathise with the poor here mostly – who wants to have ‘modernity’ (whatever that means) thrust upon them? The court behind Darlaston’s White Lion Hotel shows this: the older processes which built the court were left in unsanitary disarray when the tide of urbanisation and industrialisation swept over Darlaston.

John Fullwood, Old Buildings Walsall (Called Town's End Bank)
John Fullwood, Old Buildings Walsall (Called Town’s End Bank)

The End: The beginning of the end for the Victorian “slum” came in the 1870s with the passing of the Cross Act which enabled councils to knock down and rebuild unhealthy areas. I stress that this was the very beginning though; it took many years before much progress was made. Carribee Island was pulled done under this scheme, as was Town End Bank in Walsall, but they were rare examples. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that wholescale slum clearance schemes became common across the Black Country.

Slum tropes: Words like “low” and “dark” have literal meanings of course, but have long been applied to moral and living conditions as well. In the nineteenth century districts started to be referred to as low or dark areas, and it’s no wonder that the colloquial adjective “slummy”, meaning low-lying and boggy, began to be applied to them. It’s currency as a terminology really took off after the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty in the late nineteenth-century East End, hence aforementioned slum fiction and tourism. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that it became a formalised, objective term – although as any historian will tell you, objective is a subjective phenomenon.

Foundry Lane, Smethwick, 1934 – house scheduled for slum clearance. Pic from Sandwell Community History and Archives Service.

Clearance: Slum clearances are found in official records predominantly from the 1920s onwards, reaching their peak in the post-WW2 push for housing suitable for all. With Lloyd George’s campaign for “Homes Fit For Heroes” and the growing availability of municipal housing in new suburban estates, more and more areas were labelled slums but the campaign to replace them remained fairly halting between the wars. Smethwick for instance, a Black Country town I didn’t get to, suffered with a simple lack of space for building the necessary houses – many of its homes were built over the municipal border in Oldbury. By the outbreak of WW2, all of its back-to-backs had been demolished and 4759 houses had been built by the Borough. (All these details from the Victoria County History)

Malthouse or Sandfield Point, West Smethwick. Photo by Lorna.
Malthouse or Sandfield Point, West Smethwick. Photo by Lorna.

After the war, Atlee’s Labour government pushed council housing as a cure for social and medical ills and this discourse took hold and gathered momentum. In 1945, 6,000 homes in Smethwick were still considered substandard, although it wasn’t until 1958 that slum clearance really took hold. Many mid-century city dwellers were affected by these schemes, for better or worse; many were rehomed in modernist, futuristic new council schemes. The Block Capital project recently examined this in the Black Country and showed how widely varied the results of these schemes were. In Smethwick, space again remained an issue: their high-rises were some of the Black Country’s highest, and they again built in Oldbury – the Kingsway Estate in Quinton, for instance.

To finish, it’s important to note that the idea of a “slum” never went away; it just became flexible. In 1970, ATV recorded residents at Boulton Court in Smethwick showing dissent over the “slum-like” conditions of their high-rise accommodation – complaints that were echoed many times over many years. The term is out of favour in this country in current discourse, I think, but we’ve little hesitation about using it to describe the favelas of Rio or the informal shanty towns of Mumbai (both of which have inspired both fiction and slum tourism). Perhaps like sweated labour and industrial accidents, global capitalism has exported the “slum” to today’s most powerless: the poor, out of sight and out of mind.

5 thoughts on ““Slums” of the Black Country

  1. Simon, I saw your talk on Caribee Island and meant to ask at the time but didn’t -have you come across the role of the Wolverhampton Freehold Society in mortgaging property there? And is the same (or similar/successor) to the Second Wolverhampton Building Society? Any help appreciated Paul


    1. Hi Paul,

      I’ve not come across the Freehold Society at all actually, just in passing in Wolverhampton history books. I’ve still got a fair few newspapers and title deeds to wade through though, so I’ll keep an eye out…


      1. Simon, I need to contact you regarding a possible exhibition at Wolves archives; is this the appropriate forum, or how do I contact you directly? It would be about the artistic representation of the changing face of Victorian Wolverhampton but we would like to include your work on Caribee Island. I need to update you on the proposal. Cheers Paul


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