The Post’s next community is one I’m loathe to try and explain in detail. Oldbury was infamous as one of the most polluted towns in the country – so much so that Dr Janet Sullivan recently completed a top-notch PhD thesis on the environmental and biological costs of industrialisation in the town. For a quick overview of some of the health hazards found here, have a look at her research poster on the subject, as well as another on mapping the development of the town, which won UoB’s poster competition in 2012. Particularly noxious was the effect of chemical and copper works on the upper reaches of the River Tame, something that has been explored by the Tame Past & Present project.
The town was therefore in pretty bad shape, and like Willenhall no one area was identified as the town’s “slum”. As is becoming clear, in terms of health at least there was such widespread disease, dirt and poverty that it was hardly worth the effort applying the label. I’ve picked just one area (from a list of many in Oldbury, it has to be said) to see what I can find out about it from my desk.
When I was a bairn we took a holiday in Wales where river fishing was available. It was all very novel, although we (by which I mean my dad, the only one of us who knew what to do) caught very little – one small trout and one lively eel. The latter was shiny, quick, and most definitely a fish. If nothing else we learn of shortcomings in Victorian zoology when our writer suggests that “like the creature, half-fish half-reptile, from which it takes its name [Eel Street] nestles in filth.”
The whole of Oldbury “nestles” to some extent, surrounded by the hilly south-east Black Country terrain. It’s difficult to feel like today’s Eel Street particularly nestles, but then the terrain of Oldbury today is quite different. In 1866 this cross-shaped street constituted a cluster of housing enveloped by massive industrial works, mostly brickworks with kilns a-blazing. Beyond them were the huge marl holes from which clay was dug, filled with unpleasantly-coloured water that you definitely wouldn’t go swimming in. It was separated from Oldbury town on its north-east side by the Birmingham Canal, acting presumably as a dormitory for brickmaking families (although there’s evidence of a sizeable boatmen’s community too).
Although only about 500ft E-W and 200ft N-S, Eel Street was home to over 120 houses in the typical Black Country style, with street-facing houses filled up with courts at the back. In this case, most homes are built as back-to-back, in the style common to Birmingham at the time.
The biggest contemporary grievance with back-to-back housing was ventilation. The miasma theory of the spread of disease held sway – localities where noxious gases descended to and hung around could be alleviated by proper ventilation through the house to prevent accumulation. It was all proved incorrect by the discovery of germ theory, but led to the condemnation of many back-to-backs – many deserving of condemnation for other reasons, it must be said.
Far more dangerous actually was the proximity of foul privies, and this was noted in Eel Street. One house had a bedroom built over the privy (it’s not hard to imagine how unpleasant this was), and it’s unsurprising that our correspondent found typhoid fever and measles in such close confines. In fact, we find elsewhere that parts of the street “had not been free from fever or other disease for years”(Birmingham Daily Post, 24th May 1866). Such diseases – and cholera, if it came – would be exacerbated by open drains in the street, where residents of the front of the back-to-back dumped their waste to save the trip through the entry “to poison their back neighbours”. That’s not even to mention other grievances – in 1867, the town’s inspector of nuisances (see a great article by Christopher Hamlin on these under-researched bureaucrats) was called to Eel Street to view the large number of pigs wandering around. There followed a comical exercise in administrative inefficiency resulting in the Inspector and two policemen chasing a pig out of the street, only to be sued for damages by Rowley, owner of said pig (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 12th April 1867).
The courts formed by blocks of back-to-backs would have been little worlds. Certainly this lifestyle fostered community spirit like little else and was still in evidence in the 1950s (see this story of life on Eel Street). Carl Chinn and Chris Upton have written on back-to-back life in Birmingham, and I found Bill Bramwell’s chapter in Kearns and Withers’ Urbanising Britain, on the territoriality of the little court world in Birmingham fascinating. Yet our writer notes how the poor construction of the houses, the complete lack of water, the want of any sort of effective drainage, all meant that real life in the court was hard, dangerous and disgusting, and not to be romanticised.
Bramwell noted (as Chinn does elsewhere) the territorial dominance of the matriarch in courts like these. But a quick scan through old newspapers reveals a tougher life for women. In 1884, 6 teenagers from the Eel Street block were charged with rape of Mary Ann Rollings, dragging her into the Radnall Brickworks (shown on the first map). They were discharged when Rollings admitted that “some of the defendants… had taken liberties with her previously” – this was assumed to be consent on Rollings’ part…
Some of the most affecting stories though concern not life in these parts, but death. 5-year-old William Price of Eel Street drowned in the canal in 1914, and Richard Wilcox (17) was electrocuted while working at Albright & Wilson in 1915. In 1894 the 19-year-old landlady of The Tiger, Mary Ann Allot, apparently driven mad after the death of both parents, stared into her mirror and cut her own throat. In 1889, two star-crossed lovers, Joseph Harvey and Elizabeth Bates, took their lives together – not in some Veronese chamber, but in the Titford Pool. The most gruesome story is no doubt that of the two brewery workers who in 1873 (under the influence and spoiling for a fight) forced a colleague into a brewing tub and proceeded to scald him with steam until “the flesh came from his back in pieces.”
So life was as tough in this little enclave as it was anywhere else in the Black Country. The physical separation that the canal and marl holes caused must surely have dictated not only spatial practice internal and external conceptions of the area (see Lefebvre). But it would require much deeper research to prove that Eel Street was an exception to the hard, but typical, Black Country community.