Class distinction, democracy and proper drains.
John Betjeman, In Westminster Abbey
The protagonist of Betjeman’s satirical poem unwittingly summarised the approach of mid-Victorian society to many issues. As we’ve seen, poor drainage is one of the emblematic signifiers of a unsanitary area, and was the consistent complaint of the Post‘s correspondent. It almost goes without saying that the areas poorly drained are those inhabited by the working class, and usually the poorest amongst them – an example of the uneven geographic development associated with capitalism by geographers such as Neil Smith. Today, we’ll have a look at democracy, and the tendencies which shaped responses to poor housing.
Charting the development of governance in an urban area is a headache, and Walsall’s is no different, but as the final stop on the Post tour that’s where we’re heading. Thankfully, the Victoria County History gives you all the detail you could hope for. For our purposes, modern Walsall begins in 1824 when an Act of Incorporation provided the town with a Board of Commissioners to be able to charge rates to make improvements such as street lighting:
They consisted of the mayor and capital burgesses, the recorder, the town clerk, the vicar of Walsall, the headmaster of the grammar school, the steward of the manor of Walsall, the churchwardens, and the overseers of the poor, all ex officio, and 46 others with a property qualification of £1,000, nominated by the Act.
Victoria County History
In 1835 the Commissioners’ responsibilities were partly transferred to the new Borough, replaced by a brand new set of commissioners in the 1848 Walsall Improvement and Market Act. At the time of our article, June 1866, the Corporation and Commissioners were coexisting, sometimes being the same actual people, with differing and varied responsibilities. This set-up managed to get some things done, but is a good example of the general bureaucratic confusion of the age. That Walsall’s sanitary condition was not worse is credited to “an extremely active Inspector of Nuisances,” rather than to any organisation. By 1876, the bodies were effectively merged into one body to levy and spend rates.
I’ve written elsewhere about local government’s inexpert approach to the novel problems of an industrial age. Despite the sweeping changes we see in hindsight in the nineteenth century however, it could well be argued that this period was much less novel when actually lived through – new modes of governance came and went across the Black Country for many years before this, and the “externalities” of capitalist production, like pollution and overcrowding, were hardly new either. I’m becoming sympathetic to (some of) the viewpoints expressed by Peter K Andersson at the Journal of Victorian Culture blog, that we “prefer to think of the Victorian period as the precursor to the modern world, forgetting that it was just as much, if not more, a product of the early modern world.” Thanks too to Helen Rogers for pointing out the discussion about periodisation in the JVC around Richard Price’s British Society 1680-1880, which reflects on these issues as well.
The economic desirability and political indesirability of levying rates is something I’ve come across many times in Wolverhampton. Typically, town councils would have loved to raise taxes to fund some specific improvement schemes, but were reluctant to pass them because ratepayers (just like today) could be, let’s say, uppity. You were both a ratepayer and a voter if you met a certain property-owning condition, a full citizen distinct from the non-property owning class. Politicians even invoked the spectre of tyranny in France when any threat arose to the principle of private property.
This, of course, made improvements to the housing of the poor tricky. How can you force landlords to make changes to property that the state has no control over? Legislation was therefore tentative and permissive for the whole of the Victorian era. In Walsall, the biggest change came as a result of the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act, prepared by Sir Richard Cross, Disraeli’s Home Secretary. It expanded on an earlier, Liberal Act (the Artisans and Labourers Dwelling Act 1868, aka the Torrens Act), which was the first to compel owners to make amendments to their property. The Cross Act lowered the compensation and re-housing requirements a little, and it was to this act that Walsall applied. (For more on these, the classic texts are Wohl’s Eternal Slum and Gauldie’s Cruel Habitations).
Town End Bank sits on the North-East of Walsall town centre, at the confluence of three roads out of town. You’d be in the right place if you walked around the block containing Poundland and Pure Gym now, at the end of Park Street. John Griffiths has done an excellent summary of this small area on Walsall Life, including a link to a digitised 1875 map by Aulton of the town centre. He includes a description of the area as filled with “smoke and lime-kiln, gasworks and Irish hordes,” which of course piqued my interest. He also notes the opening of a Ragged School in the area and its rapid closure due to the deleterious effects of the environment upon the health of the children. The same story is found in Carribee Island, Wolverhampton. Certainly the area was considered worthy of clearance. The mayor came out with this astonishing quote, which is sadly reminiscent of much of the demonising rhetoric around the poor and jobless today:
“Many of the tenants have been for generations the sloth of the idle and the profligate and abounded in associations which are disgusting to public morality and common decency. The very soil on which they stand is known to be saturated with disease and death, while the whole district seems to be given over to drunkenness and dissoluteness.”
Quoted in “For Want of Due Regulations: Public Health and Housing in Walsall 1800-1914” (Walsall Chronicle, 1984)
Walsall’s was a small scheme by comparison with others. Only eleven schemes were granted outside London, including powers to loan Wolverhampton £207,330 for their scheme for Carribee Island and Lichfield Street; and £1.5 million for Chamberlain’s grandiose Corporation Street project (read Alan Mayne for the full story on this). By comparison Walsall only borrowed £15,000. This is evident when the two maps are compared – there’s no real change in the street layout as there was in Wolverhampton. There are some annotations on the OS map that seem to mirror a projected tramway.
The two photographs below give the clearest indicator of what’s happened. W.B. Shaw’s “before” photograph shows the block of buildings surrounded by various roads, while the pre-1900 photo shows the empty space. The 1:500 below even shows the lamp-post so prominent in the picture in the South-East of the block, which helps us to pinpoint the pictures.
Lovely as Shaw’s picture is, it doesn’t really show us what the block was like. A more honest impression might be gotten from John Fullwood‘s beautiful sketch – from a more southerly angle, this shows the variation in roofline and the design of buildings more clearly. From this and the anonymous painting above we can see pub signs (perhaps the Oddfellows Arms or the Waterloo Tavern), a pawnbroker’s ball symbol and draped washing – shop fronts with dwellings attached.
The cleared area was around 9,000 square yards, with a population of 600, and extended to take in parts of the surround streets. Some new dwellings were built, but only for 342, leaving the surrounding areas to become even more overcrowded.
The Cross Act as legislation was never wholly satisfactory in improving the conditions of the poor. It stipulated that all displaced residents must be rehoused before work can begin, and that new houses must be built for at least half, an obstacle which severely limited many schemes, including Wolverhampton’s. Chamberlain’s scheme only managed to achieve this by the introduction of municipal housing, which was certainly not Cross’s intention. In Wolverhampton, the new land laid aside at Springfields failed to sell for some years, leaving the demolition of the “unhealthy area” in limbo. For most commentators (and it’s hard to see a way around this), it was just another proof that private capital could not and would not meet the needs of the working classes for a decent home. It wasn’t until sweeping changes in housing policy post-WW1 that we saw true change in this sort of attitude.