“Decent housing for decent people”

The Icknield Port Loop of the Birmingham Canal Navigations is one of those swathes of dereliction, just outside of Birmingham city centre, that shouldn't really exist anymore. It's a long, inaccessible ribbon of water, a better home to fauna and flora than it ever was for humans. It was part of James Brindley's original canal, …

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“Slums” of the Black Country: Anvil Yard, Cradley Heath

Not far from the Lye Waste lies the ancient manor of Cradley. At the first talk I gave at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in the summer, somebody mentioned to me that I ought to check out Anvil Yard. It turns out, the history of this little yard has already been comprehensively written on the excellent Cradley Links site, so …

“Slums” of the Black Country: Waste Bank, Lye

The South Staffordshire coalfield defines the Black Country for many purposes, but as a culturally-defined region, its borders are highly porous. Wolverhampton is in or out, depending on who you ask; Walsall preferred to be out, at least in 1866. The coalfield knows no political boundaries either, stretching well into Worcestershire in the South (see this map Bob …

“Slums” of the Black Country: Town End Bank, Walsall

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 …

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

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 …

“Slums” of the Black Country: Darlaston

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 …

“Slums” of the Black Country: Oatmeal Square, Wednesbury

Our Birmingham Daily Post correspondent is concerned with the sanitary condition of the Black Country. Filth, smells, pigs, crowded courts - all acted as signals for diseases like cholera, typhoid, smallpox, that terrified the middle-class, newspaper-reading sets. This accounts for his willingness to skip over Tipton as one of the best towns in the Black …

“Slums” of the Black Country: Eel Street, Oldbury

The Post's next community is one I'm loathe to try and explain in detail. Oldbury was infamous as one of the most polluted towns in the country - so much so that Dr Janet Sullivan recently completed a top-notch PhD thesis on the environmental and biological costs of industrialisation in the town. For a quick overview of …

“Slums” of the Black Country: a tour of Willenhall

It comes as no surprise that our loquacious correspondent was a fan of the eminent art critic, writer and proto-environmentalist John Ruskin, whose prose was classically Victorian (read, excessively wordy). In his Birmingham Daily Post article of 11th June 1866, we are introduced to Willenhall via quotes from Ruskin's newly-released The Crown Of Wild Olive, whose preface describes the …