“Slums” of the Black Country: Gold’s Hill, West Bromwich

Gold's Hill Crossing, where the footpath from Bagnall Street crossed the South Staffordshire Line on its way to Gold's Hill Colliery. Behind the railway line, the remains of the Danks Branch meet the Tame Valley Canal, and in the background, the cooling towers of the Ocker Hill power station. Photo from RMWeb.
Gold’s Hill Crossing, where the footpath from Bagnall Street crossed the South Staffordshire Line on its way to Gold’s Hill Colliery. Behind the railway line, the remains of the Danks Branch meet the Tame Valley Canal, and in the background, the cooling towers of the Ocker Hill power station. Photo from RMWeb.
Birmingham Daily Post, 19th June 1866
Birmingham Daily Post, 19th June 1866. Click to enlarge.

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.

Hill Top, c.1900. Photo from Old West Bromwich Photos.
Hill Top, c.1900. Photo from Old West Bromwich Photos.

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.

Carte de visite of W.H.Bagnall. Image from Grace's Guide, click for link
Carte de visite of W.H.Bagnall. Image from Grace’s Guide.

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 present-day remains of the Danks Branch (c) Captain Ahab, 2010
The present-day remains of the Danks Branch (c) Captain Ahab, 2010

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.

Obituary of William Bagnall, Staffordshire Advertiser, 22nd August 1863.
Obituary of William Bagnall, Staffordshire Advertiser, 22nd August 1863.

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.

Bagnall Street, Puddingbag Street, Pikehelve Street and the Birmingham Canal, 1890. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1890.
Bagnall Street, Puddingbag Street, Pikehelve Street and the Birmingham Canal, 1890. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1890.

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.”

Remains of the canalside wall on Bagnall Street, by Steve Wilcox. Steve has posted a number of photos of the area including the Miner's Arms, opposite the stub of Puddingbag Street, and the remains of the South Staffordshire Line under the new Black Country Route, on his photography blog.
Remains of the canalside wall on Bagnall Street, by Steve Wilcox. Steve has posted a number of photos of the area including the Miner’s Arms, opposite the stub of Puddingbag Street, and the remains of the South Staffordshire Line under the new Black Country Route, on his photography blog.

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. 



  1. Morning All, if you can let me know where I can find any info on Bagnall St, Pikehelve St, and Pudding bag St, I would be most grateful.
    All my family came from the golds hill area, but you just can’t get any info?

    07976 378101.


    1. Hi Dave, what sort of info are you looking for? If it’s people, you can search through Ancestry or FindMyPast – I think on some things you can even search by street name. There’s also the British Newspaper Archive – a lot of what I get is by searching there. Finally, try Sandwell Archives: http://www.blackcountyhistory.com is the best place to start.


      1. Hi Simon,
        Thank you for your prompt response.
        It was pictures, or anything really I was after.
        I will start with the Sandwell link, and take it from there.Terry Price (A personal friend) has been very helpful to date.
        Thanks again Si.


    2. I think the Golds Hill area is on the Wednesbury side of the Black Country Route between Wednesbury and West Bromwich. All developed now into commercial units. My great great grandfather lived there too. Edward Henry Baggott


      1. I have several pictures taken from the Terry Price books, and 2 in particular outside Marthas pub, in Pikehelve st, with my grandfather Charles Mogg, and 2 of my Uncles on it (Rather & William Price)
        A friend kindly let me look around his factory built on the site of the pub, and when he lifted up some of the cladding sheets at the rear of the building, low and behold the Ceramic Toilet urinals are still in place!!
        I went back to the 30’s & 40’s when I saw it.
        Any info I will get to you.


  2. i was born in bagnall street and walked to my grans in st pauls cresent ,my granddad used to walk us up the canal by the minors arms and other times we would walk up pikehelve street past cashmores then walk up to mr botts house latter built on by geddises timber ,latter years the canal was filled in but i remmeber my granddad fishing by the minors arms great days spotting steam near the hill top tunnel walking past the old canal, gone with regreat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t remember the streets myself but my grandad and his family were all born and lived in the area. Pikehelve, Bagnall and Puddingbag Streets all feature in my family tree 🙂 It was a close knit community so I bet your ancestors and mine knew each other 🙂


    2. Hi Mr Mullaney, I was brought up around golds hill, and my grandfather and mother were both born in Pikehelve St and Pudding bag st respectively. I went to see a friend in Pikehelve st at his factory there last month, he lifted up the sheeting at the back of his factory, only to reveal Urinals which were still there from Merthas pub, circa 1932. in the Terry Price book, there is a picture of the pub with my Grandfather, and 2 uncles on it, one of the Arthur, shot his self in an entry in 1948.
      Any other info you may have please let me know.
      Kind regards


  3. hi dave grigg i am sure i remember a david grigg it may or not be you i knew shaun philips /cliff sims/martin wesson all from golds hill are iv loads of photos of steam for scrap at cashmores/use to go to st pauls sunday school mr andrews /13 bagnall street where i was born friends there derek greaves alan grandby john connup kevin bott & family


  4. Yes my uncle Charles Mogg was born in Bagnall St, and a friend Roy Abraham. I went to school with kevin Bott, a rich bastard who even had his own Horse! something never heard of them days.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. re david grgg my grandad knew charles mogg he is in a phone with him in trerry prices book.yes i remember his horse they lived by the canal witch ran to hill top railway tunnel great days.kevin bott died 2017 around november /christmas time ,nice chap rip.


  6. I came across your wonderful and honest article today while researching the Bagnall family. John Bagnall was my three times Great Grandfather and as you would expect most of what I have found comes from the press and industry books. They therefore give a glowing account of all that the family did which will only be half the story as history is written by the victors as they say. I enjoyed reading that while they tried, they made mistakes and I’m sure would have been as ruthless as the next man. You may or may not be aware of this picture in the National Archive of the Golds Hill School and Works http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/gacdb/search.php?mode=show&id=24199
    Of John Bagnall’s descendants I have found 8 Vicars and 16 that were killed in action in WW1.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Big Thank you all you guys for bringing back happy memories, as all the landscape is changing and soon it will all be forgotten.
      I have toured the WW1 Battlefields on many occasions, and always look through the footage of WW1 to see if i can see my grandfather who was in the Royal Artillary Field horse reg. Needle in a hay stack.
      Any new info please let me know. I am 63 but run my own business in Wednesbury/West Brom, os always keen on any new info.
      Sorry to hear about kevin Bott, he would have been my age RIP.

      Kindest regards all enjoy the sunshine. xx


  7. hi dave grigg hope alls well yes great memorys and great days at st pauls church and st pauls cresent.ken mullaney aged 62 sorry not been intouch due to cancer illness.


    1. Hi ken,
      Sorry to hear about your run in with the big C, and I hope you can conquer it.

      Please keep in touch when you get a chance.
      Kindest regards

      Dave Grigg


  8. What a great resource this is and thank you for your hard work. I came across Golds Hill in the court transcript of the trial that took some of my Wheway ancestors across to Canada as British Home Children. Apparently – and to cut a very long story short – the oldest daughter of the family used to walk her siblings across to Golds Hill when they had no food, to an aunt who was the sister of her deceased mother. They were in Smethwick at the time and the distance was given as 3 miles, but if it was nearer Wednesbury than West Bromwich I think this is an underestimate. I had never found any reference to Golds Hill outside this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In the Terry Price book, there are pictures of the foggy Bagnall st, which runs from the bottom of Harvills Hawthorn down to Eagle lane, Tipton.
      Pikehelve st (Which was 2 streets, Pike st, and helve st) where there were3 pubs in it at any one time, and again there are pictures in the Terry Price book.
      My family off my mothers side, MOGG, all were born in this street, and in particular, my mother and grandad, and round the corner was Pudding Bag st, oppersite the miners arms pub, separated then by the canal.
      I dread to think what the houses were like but can imagine something from the Dickens era?
      My mom told me when she was 2 years old that the wives used to cue up outside the marthas pub on friday afternoon, to get the money off the husbands, before they drank it all!
      This was 1934, and my first wife dies of a back street abortion, which I have a copy of the post mortem, done by the coroner then, Lion Clark. Another uncle shot himself in an entry in Pikehelve street, so not all good memories.


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