“Slums” of the Black Country: Oatmeal Square, Wednesbury

Read of Hobbins Street, Wednesbury, c.1933. Pic via Sandwell Archives - click pic for link.
Rear of Hobbins Street, Wednesbury, c.1933. Pic via Sandwell Archives – click pic for link.

Our Birmingham Daily Post correspondent is concerned with the sanitary condition of the Black Country. Filth, smells, pigs, crowded courts – all acted as signals for diseases like cholera, typhoid, smallpox, that terrified the middle-class, newspaper-reading sets. This accounts for his willingness to skip over Tipton as one of the best towns in the Black Country, sanitarily speaking – an active Medical Officer of Health, effective sewerage and waste removal procedures and a willing populace made the town (and to a lesser extent Wednesbury) pretty happy environments.

Birmingham Daily Post, 14th June 1866. Click to enlarge.
Birmingham Daily Post, 14th June 1866. Click to enlarge.

The vivid language of filth makes an exciting story, but such a narrow focus causes our man to miss some of the underlying causes of such environmental hazards. I find a peculiar willingness to conflate cause and effect in the “representational spaces” of Victorian poverty (the views of ‘outsiders’). Filth, vice, poverty, radicalism, drunkenness, foreignness all seem to merge together into what Felix Driver called ‘moral geographies‘. Confusing correlation and causation missed some of the key drivers of poverty and led to some fairly offensive assumptions about the poor.

In Wednesbury, the example of Oatmeal Square, “formerly one of the vilest courts in the district, both sanitarily and morally,” is used to show the benefits of remodelling and stricter management of tenants. This spot, near the junction of High Street and High Bullen, had had houses and privies demolished, drainage added, pumps erected and new brewhouses (for washing) built. The “gentleman resident” of Wednesbury who had bought the property and carried out the renovations had since insisted on a maximum size of family and a strict limit of one lodger per household, and as such the square had improved immeasurably. The “accumulations of filth which often arise from neighbours’ squabbles or from the idleness of unclean tenants” were dealt with by an employed cleaner. I’m reminded of the model dwellings being built in London at the time. Beautiful new homes were erected for those of the working-class willing to submit to various rules: no employment to be carried on at home, no noxious smells, no lodgers, no public drinking etc. So bye-bye employment for women to make ends meet, traditional working-class conviviality, and so on. Model dwellings companies also had to charge a stiff rent to make ends meet, pricing such homes out of the market for the lower end of the working-class spectrum; if you were unable to take in lodgers to make ends meet, how could you afford such a place? So the poor were excluded to the worst environments, places where no-one else wanted to live because of their moral or sanitary reputations. What’s the cause or effect here?

An undated sketch of High Bullen, Wednesbury, by Maurice Chillington.
An undated sketch of High Bullen, Wednesbury, by Maurice Chillington.

If you could afford to live in the new Oatmeal Square, however, you’d likely find it an improvement on its predecessor. For a vastly overcrowded little spot you might wonder where the space to carry on the oldest profession would be amidst all those bodies, yet Hackwood’s history of Wednesbury from 1884 insisted that Oatmeal Square was “once notorious for harbouring prostitutes.” Certainly just five years prior to the Post reports, William Parker’s brothel in the square was causing much consternation. In November 1861 Parker was reported to the council by the Inspector of Nuisances; in December the Sanitary Inspector visited:

Last night I visited Parker’s, in Oatmeal-square, and found that he has three houses as brothels, taken in the name of Mary Ann Dennis, with whom he lives. Each house consists of one room up and downstairs, measuring about 11 feet by 11 feet. There are two beds in each room upstairs. They have eight prostitutes, six of whom have come within a few days, one from Ramsgate, one from Bilston, one from Birmingham, one from Westbromwich and the other from Walsall. The houses were full of navvies, bullies and thieves. In fact it is the worst place that I ever was in. The girls pay 2 shillings per week for lodging, and he receives 3d. in the shilling and 6d. in 1s. 6d. and so on, of all moneys received from their prostitution.”
Staffordshire Advertiser – Saturday 07 December 1861

In 1865, just before the works by the sound of it, Oatmeal Square prostitutes again found themselves in the news. The Birmingham Daily Post reported “Early amusements at Oatmeal Square” that Clara MacDonald, Emma Walters, Julie Garnstone and Jemima Griffiths, “all noted prostitutes living in Oatmeal Square” found themselves before the magistrates. In this case, the charge was not prostitution but disorder – two of the women were found, stripped and having a stand-up fight surrounded by a ring of onlookers. When a policeman appeared the circle broke and fled into neighbouring houses (this anti-authority territorialism is a common theme – in Wolverhampton police found themselves chasing into Carribee Island, and suddenly bombarded from all heights and by all residents), except for one girl that the policeman caught. Her honour was defended by William Roden, a travelling smith, who decided to attack the bobby with a half brick in a cap. No wonder helmets were considered a worthwhile part of the uniform.

The fact that the Sanitary Inspector was also the Inspector of Police speaks volumes. His two capacities must surely have conflated vice and filthiness in his mind. Cleanliness was confused with godliness, and as powers of regulation around health and housing began to creep in, so too did the prostitute fall under legislation. Judith Walkowitz’s classic Prostitution and Victorian Society notes the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 (sometimes considered a stealth legislation) as the first of many laws aimed at making prostitutes, like the rest of ‘the poor’ or ‘the environment’, inspectable – although calls in Wednesbury to crack down on such behaviours proved unpopular and costly.

For Walkowitz, prostitutes were pretty much ordinary women, endowed of the same values and opportunities as their poor peers in other professions. Their lifestyle choice was less moral than practical, a temporary “refuge from uneasy circumstances.” Sometimes it was an “alternative to proletarianization” – selling your body was seen by some as preferable and less soul-destroying than selling your labour. Neither was a route out of poverty, or away from a precarious existence. In Wednesbury as elsewhere, prostitutes were an accepted part of the townscape, their vice and dishonour as much an economic inevitability as the filth and disease of the poor.

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