It comes as no surprise that our loquacious correspondent was a fan of the eminent art critic, writer and proto-environmentalist John Ruskin, whose prose was classically Victorian (read, excessively wordy). In his Birmingham Daily Post article of 11th June 1866, we are introduced to Willenhall via quotes from Ruskin’s newly-released The Crown Of Wild Olive, whose preface describes the destruction of beautiful Surrey valleys and waters by man. Alighting at Bilston Street railway station (Stafford Street station not opening for another 6 years), he is immediately confronted with a similar complaint to Ruskin’s: “no more pestilential stream ever flowed by the habitation of man” than the Willenhall branch of the River Tame. In Ruskinian prose of his own, he reckons that
Thirty years ago this stream, limpid, pure, sparkling in the sunlight came laughing down amongst its rushes, spreading life and health, and pleasantness throughout the then little town of Willenhall. All kinds of wild flowers grew upon its banks, and wily trout lived upon the mayflies that giddily rose and fell upon its ripples.
Birmingham Daily Post, 11th June 1866
(PS – make sure you read up on the Black Country’s river here – it’s a fascinating history) After citing the seventeeth century romanticist Richard Johnson, he goes on to bemoan its present filth, attributable mostly to pigs and the Local Board of Health. Instead of focussing on a “slum” as elsewhere though, today we are taken on a tour of an unsanitary town – a fun resource for a spatial historian. Using the 1887 first edition of the Ordnance Survey, we can attempt to track a few things our correspondent was complaining of, and even replicate the walk in modern-day Willenhall.
Noting the drainage of various filths into the Tame at Waterglades, our reporter friend heads North on Bilston Street, crossing through Love Alley onto Bow Street where he notes several open drains taking filthy water down to the brook (and more pigs). Similarly to Bilston, this general filth is blamed for the ravishes of cholera, which overtook Willenhall most severely in 1849. A particularly foul spot was New Inn Yard, behind the New Inn (later The County) on Walsall Street. Here, the foul drains remain although (as I’ve found in Wolverhampton) the common cures of removing pigs and whitewashing buildings were in evidence.
Houses appear in slightly better condition in “Morfield Lane” (sic – better known as Morfital Lane, aka Gipsy Lane). It’s tricky to identify the seven houses noted here – owned by one owner and let for 4s a week with no water, hemmed in by piggeries, refuse heaps and lockmaking workshops. At the bottom of Walsall Street (I guess by where Ye Olde Toll House is now) were accumulations of poorly-drained waste, which sometimes flooded the road but were always at least a yard or two across. After crossing that, the tour continued up King Street, where a three-month “accumulation of the ashes and refuse of six houses” was spotted at the corner of Cannon Street, then (I guess) along Cannon, Church and Lower Lichfield Streets, which are foul-smelling from the gasworks refuse (on Lower Lichfield Street). In taking this path, our reporter will have missed out perhaps the most sombre reminder of the town’s public health problems – the cholera burial ground on Doctor’s Piece, which was commemorated the year after this publication with a special stone.
We’re really motoring now, as we follow our reporter and his guides along Union Street (now underneath Morrisons, and later the site of the Yale lock factory) and perhaps cutting through alleyways to Leve Lane and John Street, both still extant, although – according to the Post, completely different to 150 years ago. Providence Square, John Street, is perhaps the worst locale we’ve encountered so far, a court of back-to-backs severely hit by cholera in 1849. One of the houses is “tenantless, and full of abominations”, an expression that might have hit a particularly frightening chord with our zealously Protestant Victorian readership.
The Crown Tavern (perhaps on the Market Place?) fronted a typical example of a dilapidated Black Country “court”:
“a close alley… at the top of which, close by several houses, there is a privy with its soil-pit so full that when the women clean down the yard, the foecal matter runs out with the water and overspreads the place. The drainage in some places flows all over the yard, there being puddles two or three feet wide and some inches deep, and there are ashpits that have not been emptied for nobody in the yard knows how long. Fowls roost in one of the brewhouses, and there are several pigstyes, one of which, by way of preventing epidemic diseases, has been whitewashed inside, and another, by way of encouraging such diseases, is full of manure.
Birmingham Daily Post, 11th June 1866
Portobello, somewhat to the East of Willenhall, is treated to a section of its own. This area was dense, very informal and highly noxious from the account here – and today, that section lies mostly under the Portobello Island, buried along with the high rise towers that replaced it. Bennet’s Buildings, Gingerbeer Yard, Brickkiln Street, New Street and the Red Lion Inn on North Street are all mentioned as diseased, dirty and dangerous.
I mentioned before that “slum” was a highly problematic expression, with its implications of exceptionalism, separation, perhaps (im)moral distinctness. As our reporter in the Post is at pains to point out, such areas were the norm not the exception in industrial towns, particularly if you were poor or working class. Today’s housing crisis is chronic but nothing new; thousands of souls lived in totally insufficient housing in the mid nineteenth century. Willenhall is a prime example of every industrial town in the land at that time.
Further reading: I’m not the only one to propose a historical walk around Willenhall – this one is much more wide-ranging and well presented.
Follow the walk yourself: You can follow this walk on a modern map at Google Maps, and walk it yourself. It’s a bit less noisome these days…