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
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 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.