I’ve ummed and aahed a bit about what to write about the Post‘s report on Darlaston. It’s really the same old story: surface drainage, evils, abomination, bubbling and seething, stagnant, over-flowing, the cholera, back courts, and so on; there’s not a lot to add compared to previous outrages at Oldbury or Bilston. Despite the fact that the journalist’s visit was leaked to the authorities in advance, leading to a mass clean-up, Darlaston was in as filthy a state as any other town. As usual, it’s the less visible parts of the town that cause most consternation – the courts and alleys of the poor in the central district. However, these have a much longer history than the jerry-built mass housing that covered fields on the edge of the Great Cities of the Victorian age.
This map from two decades later outlines the first area mentioned in the report. Near the junction of King Street, Victoria Road and New Street is small, cobbled road named The Fold – as with Wolverhampton’s folds, it’s most likely to relate to an older history involving sheep. King Street itself is at least medieval in age, connecting the main Bilston-Walsall road with St Lawrence’s Church and Darlaston Green, on the way to Willenhall. The street layout around this ancient section of the town showed the persistence of medieval burgage plots, and there is further evidence of these narrow strips of land outside of town as well.
These agricultural tenancies were soon swamped by the vast mine workings of the industrialised Black Country (read here for a fuller outline of Darlaston’s extractive industry), except in the town itself, where patterns of land ownership clung on. Without delving into the maps in Walsall Local History Centre (I wish I had the time…) I can’t give a fuller outline, but typically during an age of mass immigration to towns, plots would be snapped up when available, leading to an anarchic, higgledy-piggledy urban form. That certainly seems the case in Darlaston.
At some point New Street, then New Road were built, and once houses were built along their length, the spaces behind began to be filled up. There’s no room for a thoroughfare, just enough entry space to get yourself – or if you were lucky, a barrow, into a small yard surrounded by small houses and their attendant utilities – wash houses or brewhouses, privies and ashpits, a communal water pump, hopefully working. It seems likely to me that The Fold once extended further, with houses either side; at some point in the early nineteenth century, the current Accord Housing Association Building, along with its listed brethren each side of The Fold, were built. Today, the site is covered by the back of Asda.
Although the building is nineteenth century, there was evidently a White Lion around there before that. It’s a coaching inn for a start, many of which sprang up around the turnpiking boom of the early 1700s; but it’s also mentioned in the dramatic story of John Wesley’s visit to the Black Country in 1743. The Darlaston Mob managed to drag poor Wes from his preaching point at High Bullen, Wednesbury, to the JPs at Darlaston, stopping for a quick half at the White Lion on the way.
Once the new corner buildings were built the court at back was effectively sealed off from traffic, only being enterable by 4ft wide alleyways. This matches an effect I’ve seen on Stafford Street and Canal Street in Wolverhampton in which pubs become ideal sites for these enclosed courts. I don’t know if this site was known by any particular name, for instance, but in Wolverhampton there’s Dog & Partridge Yard, Royal Oak Yard, and so on.
The White Lion had its own brewery/malthouse at the back and possibly at least one workshop – publican John Stanway is also listed as a gun lock manufacturer. Like many pubs at the time it served several purposes – an alehouse, but also an auction house, a site of post-mortem inquiries; the increasingly-decrepit malthouse was even the site of the Darlaston Local Board meetings from 1870 to 1888, which hardly seems a responsible site for decision-making. I’m reminded of Frank Mason’s note in his transcript of the Wolverhampton Town Commissioners‘ meetings that the minutes of these affairs, invariably held in the pub, saw a marked deterioration in handwriting during the evening…
Much of the problem with courts like this lay in their invisibility – they were out of site of the public and the owners, and thus out of mind. Those who did have to look at them were the powerless ones – the poor that had to live in such places. It didn’t matter to many people that building a slaughterhouse next to a residential yard might be a bit unpleasant; yet that’s recorded here. It wouldn’t matter to many that one drain out of the hundreds in the town was broken, except for the occupants of the two houses up to whose doors the stagnant sewage leaked. It wouldn’t matter to many people that a brick arch had broken down and lay unrepaired; but to the occupants of the houses backing onto New Street and New Road at the top left of the map, who shared a block of 4 privies with some gun lock workshops, this collapse uncovered the soil pit – a nice euphemism for the pit in which the waste of the privy sat around. Our correspondent describes the smell at length.
This court behind the White Lion wasn’t the worst in Darlaston; it wasn’t even the worst behind a pub in Darlaston. Viewing Noah’s Ark Yard (likely behind the Noah’s Ark Inn on Pinfold Street): the writer presumes this is named such “because some parts of it are always under water”. Yet the White Lion is as good as example as any. In Lefebvre‘s terms, such a site constrains ones spatial practice – an occupant is limited by what they can store there (not a horse, for instance, or some other income-generating supplies); but its invisibility creates hiding places and concealed exits that might benefit some and create hazards for others – in Marxist geography terms, a case of reproduction of space, in which the oppression of labour creates social ills.
This isn’t a slum of note – except in the hands of the Post writer it’s just another court behind another pub, in another industrial town. To landowners, town reformers, councillors and so on, it was a somewhat generic representation of a particular kind of space – that’s still important though, in influencing the minds and actions of the external conceptualiser. To those who lived there, the identifiability of the pub, the closeness of the alleys, the distinctive sights, sounds and smells of the surroundings make it a highly-relatable representational space. What it lacked in specificity, this court makes up for by speaking to us of all these courts, of a way of life across the Black Country that was overwhelmingly common and now completely disappeared.