My PhD research on the Stafford Street area of Wolverhampton finishes, pretty much, in 1877: the date that Parliament approved the Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme which led to the demolition of Carribee Island, the laying out of Princess Square and the new bit of Lichfield Street, and so on. I’m focusing at the moment on how it was constructed in the public imagination into a problem space that required knocking down, so the actual demolition process, and what came after, is outside of my scope. However, after a really rich and detailed talk by Claire Jones on the apparent Great War street shrine in Little’s Lane, and a conversation with a former landlord of the Elephant & Castle (then of Stafford Street), I feel like there’s something worth following through here. Wolverhampton has nothing like the organisation present in Birmingham’s Irish Quarter; it will be interesting to trace a longer history here.
The 1877 Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme
It took several years for the Improvement Scheme to be completed, though not for want of paperwork and effort. The premise was simple: the Council could clear away this insanitary area, and private enterprise could be trusted to build new working-class housing for the displaced population both on the cleared site and atv a new site in Springfields. Following the 1875 Public Health Act, these had to be of a minimum standard (unlike the unregulated, jerry-built housing of before) and weren’t nearly so profitable as slum housing had been. So, when the first lots at Springfields were put up for auction in 1881, exactly zero were sold. A number were sold off within the condemned area though, reflecting its centrality and potential. There was a problem though: the Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act, under which the Scheme was completed, stipulated that replacement housing must be built before demolitions could start. And so, the scheme dragged.
That year’s census recorded the demolition in progress. In Cole’s Croft (in 1851, the most densely-populated and most thoroughly Irish part of the area), numbers 16 and 17 are labelled as “pulling down” and it looks like some of Castle Place and Castle Yard have been taken down already. A group of back-to-backs in Court 3, Back Lane, are now uninhabited, suggesting the residents had been evicted. We know that at least some residents had been moved out by this stage: in October 1880 a public meeting was held decrying how the evictions had taken place with residents having no place to go. The infamous Carribee Island was evidently first on the hit-list though: by April 1881, when the census enumerator went collecting, only five homes remained.
What’s particularly interesting is the social composition of the remaining houses. All the heads of the five households in Carribee Island had been born in Ireland. John and Ann Joyce had five boarders: Matthew Oliver, born in Ireland; Patrick and Ann Quinn, born in Ireland; Bridget and John Quinn, young children of Patrick and Ann, born in Wolverhampton. James and Winifred McCormack, Ann Mulroy, Patrick O’Hara and Patrick Casy were the remaining heads. This is pretty much as Carribee Island had been for thirty or forty years – just less sixty decrepit houses.
But in Cole’s Croft – which had had 100% Irish heads of household for the preceding three censuses, we see a different pattern. Cole’s Croft had been half vacant in 1871, a sign perhaps that the most desperate in town were in fact no longer desperate enough to live there – perhaps living standards were finally reflecting the unprecedented period of economics growth of the previous twenty years. It might also reflect council interventions, including intense regulation of Irish lodging patterns, and the locking-up of houses considered unfit for human habitation. By 1881 though, the aforementioned long depression was in full swing, and the boards nailed over the doors of condemned houses were being prised off once again. That year, only 22 (75%) out of the 29 occupied houses had Irish heads. This included widows like Mary Gibbons or Mary Nolan; unemployed labourers like Thomas Mitchell or Thomas McNish; Mary McAnally who sorted rags; Mary Flemming, a hawker and cleaner with four boarders; as well as the usual brick labourers, edge tool strikers, forgemen and farm labourers. But there were also English families, for almost the first time, and in similar situations: John Sheardon, a forge labourer with his wife Betsy and three children; Thomas Brandrick, an unemployed brick labourer living with his wife Mary, three children and a granddaughter; John Brewer, one of ten living at no.25 (including five boarders). He’s an important example as, like several families, he has an Irish wife – Bridget – and three children that therefore fit into both worlds (or, perhaps, neither).
1881 found Wolverhampton – as everywhere else – struggling with what economic historians have termed (and of course argued about) a “long depression” – trade didn’t really pick up until the end of the century. This was a struggle for the Black Country, whose iron mines were virtually exhausted, and whose coal-mining was past its peak. This was the period in which the region learned to diversify, which stood it in much better stead when facing much deeper slumps post-World War One. But at this stage, unemployment was evidently rife, and families were resorting to living once again in houses that weren’t fit to be lived in. It marks yet another turn in the history of Stafford Street: the physical environment that had come to define it in the eyes of the public was on the verge of disappearing forever. It’s no wonder artists like John Fullwood produced books of sketches commemorating “old Wolverhampton” round about now. This problem space was now all many people could afford; the process of truly solving the problem was going to take a long, long time. I hope to look at how it progressed in some coming posts.
 George Barnsby, A History of Housing in Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton: Integrated Publishing Services, 1976
 “Evictions under the Artisans’ Improvement Act”, Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial & General Advertiser, 16th Oct 1880