“Slums” of the Black Country: Quarry Lane, Bilston

bilston1832

Bilston, c.1832. Map found in Wolverhampton City Archives & Local Studies. Click to enlarge.

Bilston, c.1848. Map found in Wolverhampton City Archives & Local Studies.

Bilston, c.1848. Map found in Wolverhampton City Archives & Local Studies. Click to enlarge.

If there’s been some research into Carribee Island in the past, and a little into the Mambles in Dudley, there’s almost nothing to be googled on another of the Birmingham Daily Post’s ‘low-lights’ of the Black Country, the next in a series of exposées on the shocking sanitary conditions of the Black Country. Quarry Lane in Bilston doesn’t feature by name on the first edition OS map, and you can’t ascertain the “slum”-like conditions as you can in Dudley or Carribee Island. Nevertheless, as you pull into Lidl on Bilston High Street, you’re treading in the blackened footsteps of generations of colliers, working men and women into one of the least healthy and most unloved parts of any Black Country town.

Of all the black country towns Bilston is the blackest – the most dismal, dilapidated and desolate
Birmingham Daily Post, 7th June 1866

To the Post‘s Special Reporter, Bilston epitomised the dirty, uncultured, unlovable Black Country. A sense of grime and smoke pervades the report, although he is swiftly drawn to the “narrow, noisome courts opening out into alleys, covered ways and little fetid squares.” Despite Bilston being one of the few sewered towns in the area, this picture of dirt, poverty and poor housing would be as familiar a story to observers of the urban environment in 1866 as it is to historians.

Bilston’s sewers were installed as a special measure after two devastating episodes of Asiatic Cholera. This gruesome disease was the most terrifying of all the terrifying epidemics of the nineteenth century. Its causes, means of transmission and suitable cures were unknown, and it affected rich and poor alike when it struck. In an era when many felt themselves to be “modern” now, its progress across continents could be tracked, but not halted, just as frighteningly as plague had once been. The outbreaks of cholera in Bilston in 1832 and 1849 killed over 700 people each time around, making it one of the worst affected towns in the country. The subsequent culverting of the filthy Bilston Brook and the installation of sewers no doubt helped, but didn’t entirely prevent cholera reoccuring.

Undated drawing of Bilston Brook, from the Wolverhampton History website.

Undated drawing of Bilston Brook, from the Wolverhampton History website.

Cholera is a water-borne bacterial disease, as the wonderful story of John Snow in Soho shows. When drinking water is drawn from affected sites, like communal pumps, brooks and rivers, it incubates within a couple of days, so water passed from the body and returning to such sources (we’re talking human waste here, which was far from separated from drinking water in the mid-nineteenth century) passes the infection on. Houses sharing water sources, those in close proximity to each other or to infected watercourses etc., are all fair game and in towns, that doesn’t mean just the houses of the poor.

Bilston, c.1871

Map of Quarry Lane area, Bilston, c.1871

Nevertheless, certain areas established reputations as hard-hit fever nests, and in Bilston the chief of these was Quarry Lane. Lying below the level of the High Street, filthy water was regularly washed down towards the brook, made worse by the close confinement of individuals in tightly-packed houses. It certainly had its share of disease in the 1832 epidemic, as this list of victims demonstrates (although the whole town was afflicted as well).

The whole place is a filthy dilapidation, pestilential as the Valley of Death, disgusting as the rotting corpse of a diseased drunkard.
Birmingham Daily Post, 7th June 1866

Cholera in London, and methods for its prevention. It appears an epidemic was a good time to press the case for temperance, even though brewed/distilled liquids may even have been healthier than the drinking water.

Cholera in London, and methods for its prevention. It appears an epidemic was a good time to press the case for temperance, even though brewed/distilled liquids may even have been healthier than the drinking water.

Quarry Lane, or Street as it became known, remained a tangled maze of cottages until after the Great War, when it came down to be replaced by “homes fit for heroes”. The Post reporter was shocked by the wan appearance of the tenants, who crammed in “seven or eight in a room, with a doorless privy full to the brim at the side of the house”. As in Dudley, our reporter falls on the opposite side of what we often think of as the prevailing Victorian point of view. Rather than to blame the poor for their own condition (an argument thrashed out for years to come), he mentions that the tenants could probably help by cleaning up, but why should they when they are expected to herd into unfit rooms just because they are poor? Why should they when none of them own their property and even the amenities are shared? In a foreshadowing of arguments over council estates, for instance, he suggests that “what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

I’m coming to like our correspondent. He (and I’m not stretching probabilities too far to suggest it was a he) is truly outraged not just at the state of things, but at those who’ve caused it – not the tenants, but the landlords and the municipal powers. He raises arguments many years ahead of the time in which they’d become widely accepted, and proposes solutions which became commonplace years later.

He also has quite the turn of phrase, so I’ll leave you with his description of Bilston:

Viewing the place from some one or the other of the cinder heaps that form its outskirts, the eye seeks in vain for the grateful relief of one single patch of herbage, one solitary green tree or hedge row… The irreverent opine that it must have been made on the last night of creation, out of incongruous odds and ends.
Birmingham Daily Post, 7th June 1866

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7 Responses to “Slums” of the Black Country: Quarry Lane, Bilston

  1. Pedro says:

    There does not seem much written about the living conditions in Bilston after the second big Cholera Epidemic of 1849, and it was 16 years after the setting up of the Local Health Board that the Post correspondent wrote the article, in 1866. Conditions were still very poor!

    Thanks for drawing attention to a little-covered subject.

    Also in 1866 I believe that the Hickman family bought Springvale Works.

    Looking another seven years into the future, in September of 1873, a chap called David Bailey of Thompson Street, Bilston rather sarcastically wrote to the Editor of the Post. His letter is reproduced under the heading Typhoid in Bilston.

    David describes in detail the disturbing conditions in the area called Batchcroft, which included Thompson Street. Towards the end of his letter he says…

    “Sir, there are people in the these streets who cannot rest contented. They, two years ago, petitioned the commissioners to channel, kerb and pave the streets, and at the same time agreed each to pay his proper share of the cost; but the work remained undone…. And now typhoid fever is paying us a visit, attracted, one would think, like the ducks and pigs, by the open sewage in our unpaved gutters; but of course, that cannot be the case, for we have it on the authority of a commissioners meeting that everything that can be done, has been done, and will be done, to prevent the fever from becoming an academic.”

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  3. Pedro says:

    The collection of articles on the sanitary conditions of the Black Country, appearing in the Birmingham Daily Post during June of 1866, give a remarkable insight. But how were they regarded at the time?

    For Bilston a look at the “correspondence” to the Post is interesting. I suppose that it is not unusual for residents to rally in defence of their district, while acknowledging the situation is very poor.

    One man takes exception to the reference of being the “the epidemic centre of the Midland counties, and composed of the odds and ends of creation….there is nothing in nature comparable to it in either dismalness or abominations.”……What ground for isolation and contempt? What other Black Country town is free from all these things; and what ground have any for supposing that Bilston is any worse than they, especially when it is remembered that this is one of the two Black Country towns in which there is a proper sewage carried out?

    Another says the Press in general has written mis-representations of Bilston. Two years ago being described as being the blackest and most demoralising possible to conceive. He did not have the intention to derogate the value of the article but to call attention to a few observations….”Of all Black Country towns Bilston is the blackest, the most dismal, dilapidated and desolate.”…. He points to the levelling of the old pit mounds where young green shoots of corn are growing. The iron trade failures have not been recovered and so Bilston can not be called the blackest with other towns more extensively engaged.

    A third wonders what the sun was doing, that he did not shine on Bilston while the artist drew his sketch. Or was the gentleman looking through dark-coloured spectacles at the time. This he was informed was an effective means of deepening the shades. “Dismal, dilapidated and desolate is a bold, wavy stroke of the brush, but overdrawn.Speaking literally, I would say the phrase is tempting alliterative, though not true.”

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