The Black Country is constructed not just upon topography but upon geology. Mines can only be built where there’s something to mine; other sorts of works require proximity to those materials; infrastructure is built around, and to meet the demands of, the geology. The communities that build up around such environments therefore tend to be ad hoc, at the whim of profitable extraction, and physically separated from more traditional urban communities that are not built on top of mines. The problems associated with such areas are therefore different. West Bromwich in 1866 was a new, but bustling Black Country town. It had its own urban problems – our writer notes New Street, Walsall Street, The Lyne and Church Fields as being somewhat noxious, but on the to-do list of the Board of Commissioners. His ire is most reserved for the outlying districts of the town, particularly those communities based on the mines between West Brom and Wednesbury. Whether or not you – or he – would call them slums, is debatable, but many of the problems faced in more typical “slums” are just as evident here.
The area around Hill Top and Harvills Hawthorn actually has a long and distinguished history. A little further West though, our 150-year-old mental map takes on that familiar scarred landscape of a Black Country mining district, criss-crossed with canals and railways, and dotted with chimneys and shafts. We’re on Bagnall Street, and the name is key here: the community of Gold’s Hill owes much of its existence to the Bagnall family.
John Bagnall was one of a number of Shropshire ironmasters who moved into the Black Country in the late 18th century (cf.‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson). He founded his company in 1800 in Toll End, just on the opposite side of the recently-built Walsall Canal and went on to construct the Gold’s Hill works around the older stretch of the Birmingham Canal. It boomed during the prosperous middle years of the 19th century, benefiting from the new South Staffordshire Railway, a now-lost branch of the BCN (the Danks: see Captain Ahab’s exploration) and the new Tame Valley Canal, opened 1844.
The Bagnalls didn’t construct Bagnall Street originally, but they certainly built it up enough to warrant naming if after themselves. Along the banks of the Birmingham Canal, they also built Pike Street, Helve Street and Pudding Bag Street on either side of the Birmingham Canal (this stretch is now filled in, but was the original, 1769 canal from Hill Top to Birmingham, later known as the Balls Hill Branch of the Wednesbury Old Canal) to provide houses for their workers. John Bagnall, along with the five sons he partnered with in the firm, were noted for their “kindly, genial disposition” and William Bagnall (1797-1863) in particularl was concerned with “those institutions which he knew to be for the moral and spiritual welfare of the work-people and their families.” He was so “beloved by the poor, and his loss lamented, that thousands manifested their affectionate respect, by attending his funeral” (obituary in Institution of Civil Engineers, 1865). Bagnall appears then in the tradition of the kindly, paternal, Victorian master – he built a school in 1854, and gave over the firm’s old offices for use as a mission chapel. In 1850, they built a church at their Capponfield site in Bilston, and this was taken down and re-erected as St Paul’s Gold Hill in 1882. Capponfield had dwindled with the firm’s fortunes by the 1850s, so the church was recycled; but by the time it was completed, the Gold’s Hill Ironworks had gone the same way, and closed.
As usual, without a thorough dig through Sandwell Archives, I can’t give too much detail about the construction dates or style, so we have to take the Bugle at its word here. My guess is that the streets were erected around the 1840s, and at some point shortly after, Pike and Helve Streets were merged to become Pike Helve or Pikehelve Street. Quite why they were named this I’m not sure – a helve is a wooden shaft for an iron pike, which were surely outdated technology by the mid 19th century. BrownhillsBob notes an area known by this name around Pier Street, Brownhills – any ideas Bob? Puddingbag is clearer – it’s a common term for a cul-de-sac, a street only open at one end like a pudding bag. A quick browse in the BNA reveals local examples in Worcester, Coventry, Norton Canes, Glascote, Burslem, Rugby and Birmingham, and it was an alternative name for New Street in Wolverhampton, a cul-de-sac which ran off what is now Princess Street. If you believe Victorian estate agents, the dwelling houses were “substantially built” – five in Pike Helve Street were put up for sale in 1857 labelled such, occupied by “Millington, Tune, Laws, Barrett, and one void” (Birmingham Journal, 18/4/1857). A council report in 1867 shows that a new street, Pikehelve had been “made” in that year (Birmingham Daily Post, 8/8/1867) – that may be a different street, or it may mean that the council only adopted it that year.
The Birmingham Daily Post report complicates the story of the beneficent master and his grateful subjects. Despite the existence of the odd Bournville or Saltaire, for most capitalists providing high-quality housing was not on their radar. The Bagnall family provided somewhere for education, which was excellent and reasonably progressive; and somewhere for religion, which is a nice thing even if their choice of Anglicanism might not suit the more typically Nonconformist Black Country worker’s taste. It’s useful too for everyone for a workforce to live close by to their work. But the reforming spirit of the times didn’t quite filter down into these houses – little attention seems to have been paid to adequate drainage or water supply, in particular. Privies were too close to houses, which will have affected the structural integrity of the buildings as well as making the water that collected on the street, somewhat rank.
A common problem, but a marked one here was the lack of water. I can just about acknowledge pleas of ignorance in building standards – the siting of privies etc. had yet to be proved as a link to disease, and drainage was still something of an undisciplined art. But access to water is perhaps the most obvious thing a house could require. It wouldn’t be unusual for this to be a pump in the street, but in Puddingbag Street residents had to walk some distance on the best of days, up to a mile in the summer when the wells ran dry. Wells, mark you – piped water was a luxury for these residents. They even resorted to canal water, which absolutely repulses the modern mind; but this canal, that Telford referred to as a “crooked ditch,” eventually became too bad even for this, “on account of the offensive refuse matter running into it from some adjacent works.”
Victorian capitalism was far more complicated than its raw economic impulse appears. While there were many employers who exploited their workers without a thought (the truck system is perhaps the most egregious example), there were plenty more who, often out of Christian concern, sought to improve the lives of their workers. To modern eyes their ways and means can seem wrong-headed – improvement was on the basis of religious or education schemes to be tacked on top of the workers’ lives, rather than by ameliorating the underlying failures of capitalism in inadequate housing, job security or public health; improvement from the bottom-up, you might say. My natural tendency is to castigate all capitalists, even the Bagnalls, for exploitation of labour, but to do so would be to fail to understand both the good intentions and the fundamental failures of understanding in employers like this. They worked within worlds of class, prejudice and society that dictated, to a large extent, those things they saw as “improving” – just as we do, in fact.