I’ve come across a couple of people lately who have mentioned that they grew up in the “concrete jungle” in Smethwick, online and in the flesh. It’s one of those folk names that will never be recorded officially, but that everyone from there knows; it proved to me just this morning the limitations of Google and the power of Twitter. In fact it refers to the West Smethwick RDA, a wedge of land in between the New Street-Wolverhampton and Snow Hill-Stourbridge lines that was redeveloped in the 1960s by Warley County Borough. Here’s the ever-wonderful Aerofilm website’s photo of the area in 1937, showing the whole area. In the foreground is Spon Lane bridge over the BCN Main Line Canal; alongside the canal is the Stour Valley Line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton; and over both towards the top left of the picture is Telford’s original 1829 Galton Bridge and the newer bridge carrying the GWR’s Stourbridge line, opened in 1867. Between Spon Lane and the two railway lines is the redeveloped area.
As you can see from the photo and the map below from the following year, the area was densely built up and surrounded by industry. The Oldbury Road running through the centre was the key route between Birmingham and Dudley, and it’s just possible to make out a tram on it above. To the North is a large Hollow Ware factory, to be joined by a pre-fab estate post-war; to the West the vast Chance Bros. glassworks. It’s also possible to make out the curve of the canal feeder running from the Titford Branch to the Smethwick Summit.
Smethwick benefits from a very early OS town plan, and this gives fantastic detail – you can see the types of houses very clearly. There’s a mixture of terraces with ginnels interspersed with some that seem to have been converted to back-to-back. Most have a small yard with outbuildings; an occasional group have gardens. There are pumps in most back yards – so certainly no running water… We also have chapels for the Salvationists, Primitive Methodists and Congregationalists; pubs including the Waggon and Horses and The Vine (so fewer than I would have expected); an infant/primary school and a station – Smethwick Junction, later known as West Smethwick, closed when Galton Bridge station was built and the line diverted to go via Snow Hill.
All in all, this was an area ripe for redevelopment in the frantic 1960s, when Birmingham, Dudley and towns all over the country were waking up from the horrors of war just 15 years before and realising that in this brave new world there were still people living in Victorian slums. West Bromwich was the first authority in the Black Country to press on with a high-rise future, approving the first phase of Yew Tree Gardens in 1953. By 1967, when work started on Malthouse Point and Sandfield Point on the south side of Oldbury Road, high-rise flats were to be found all over the region, in ever-increasing heights.
As discussed before, the post-war Atlee government had a bold vision for council housing, but by the early fifties public opinion was very much of the view that the pace and cost of building homes truly fit for purpose was just too slow and too high, and a cheaper alternative was sought. It was found by building upwards. Yew Tree Gardens were six storeys high when they were built under Churchill’s Conservative administration, with Harold “SuperMac” MacMillan in charge of housing. In 1967, Labour and Harold Wilson were in power, but the die had been cast. In that year (with Anthony Greenwood as housing minister), three 20-storey-plus blocks were approved in Heath Town, two at Eve Hill and two more at Tanhouse, Cradley.
And so the concrete jungle was born. Not only were there two high-rise blocks, but row upon row of interlinked, thematically-named, low-rises. I cite for example Conway Drive with Wansbeck, Clyde, Witham, Deveron, Avon, Elan, Trent and Thames Courts. I wonder how many of the new residents had visited Banff, where the Deveron meets the Moray Firth, or the Elan Valley in the desert of Wales; I wonder whether such bucolic names were intentionally calming. The whole zone was completely transformed: housing stock was demolished, the feeder was culverted, Oldbury Road was converted to dual carriageway.
Unsurprisingly with hindsight, this Utopian dream was not to last and the jungle became a byword across the West Midlands for crime, unemployment and all the other social ills associated with such estates. Sandfield and Malthouse were blown up in 2002, and the whole area cleared for the new Galton Village development.
This particular concrete jungle was way before my time in the Midlands, but I know similar low-rise sprawls well, such as Broadwater Farm and Ferry Lane in Tottenham. They’re eery, confusing places – things aren’t where you expect them to be, and buildings join in unexpected ways. Heath Town is a similar, inorganic heap. I have every respect for those trying to convert three-dimensional, non-street-based living into a normal thing; but I don’t think they’ve managed it yet.