I am currently part-way through a PhD at the University of Birmingham, undertaking a project tentatively entitled “The Stafford Street Area of Wolverhampton c. 1800-1871: relationships of Space, Demography, and Ethnicity“. So without wanting to give the game away too much, here’s a quick précis of what I’m researching. If you wish to use any of the information from this, or from the whole blog, please kindly acknowledge where you found it, or better still get in touch – I’d love to hear from anyone with an interest in the subject.
Stafford Street in Wolverhampton is today a mixture of University buildings, and Victorian shopfronts, running between the ring road and Princess Square – here it meets Broad Street which goes East towards Wednesfield, the railway station and the canal. It’s a slightly shabby corner on the North-Eastern side of the city centre, its back streets either composed of late Victorian terraces or blasted through with the ring road, and its shops a mixture of takeaways and, ahem, Private Shops. Littles Lane exists as a stub on the opposite side of Ring Road St Patrick.
150 years ago, it was still a shabby part of Wolverhampton, but looked very different. Rather than the wide thoroughfares of today, the streets were still at their medieval widths, and built up to maximum density. Behind the street frontages were a maze of some of the poorest, most haphazard houses in the town. Built cheaply and quickly during the town’s rapid industrial expansion, many suffered from very poor construction, lack of access to water or waste disposal – or perhaps, too much access to stinking rows of privies pressed up to the back of some of these buildings. The distinct courts were known by a variety of colourful names: Back Lane, Dog & Partridge Yard, Coles Croft, Brazier’s Yard and, most (in)famously, Carribee Island.
I say infamous because the area was held in pretty low regard by those leaving historical records – the press, the town council, the police and so on. It was one of the most densely-populated parts of town, for a start: one street in the 1851 census demonstrated an average 10.25 people per one-up, one-down, 10ft square cottage with no water, communal privies and sewers that ran down the middle of the street. As well as being massively overcrowded then, it was also a public health risk. The area was one of the (comparatively) few in Wolverhampton that were hit hard by cholera when it attacked. You might call it a slum – I find that a problematic term.
The census return for that street also shows us the other big association for the area: 100% of heads of household were born in Ireland. 1851 saw the first successful potato harvest in 5 years as a result of An Gorta Mor, the blight that crippled Ireland’s millions of subsistence farmers. This is a vast topic, but to limit it to a few years of strife in Ireland completely misses the point – its political, economic and demographic effects were felt globally for decades. Wolverhampton saw its already substantial Irish population balloon to over 6,000, or 8% of the population – the majority of these were found in the Stafford Street, Canal Street, Littles Lane and Carribee Island area. The majority lived amidst tremendous hostility and poverty, as they did in industrial cities up and down the land.
As a geographer by background, my particular research interest is in how people use and used their space – their homes, their streets. As a human being, my particular interest is in telling the stories and fighting the corner of those who slip through the cracks, those with no voice. As a historian, I get to combine these two things to try and tell a spatial “history from below”. The philosophical juice behind my research comes from Henri Lefebvre, the unorthodox Marxist of 20th century cultural theory. In his 1974 book The Production of Space he outlined a way of thinking about space that – to me – sits very well with the aim of telling the stories of those who didn’t leave records.
One of the tricky things about researching this area is that almost nothing of it remains to the present day. In 1877, Wolverhampton Council passed an Improvement Scheme which went on to demolish the whole area, as well as creating the Eastern part of Lichfield Street as a grand boulevard through former ‘slums’. I’m therefore aiming to reconstruct the space of the area by comparing historical maps with the sorts of sources social historians love – censuses, trade directories and the like. I’m currently teaching myself the dark arts of Geographic Information Systems – essentially, playing with maps and calling it research.
And the rest
I give regular talks on my research in different parts of the area: find out more here. As well as studenting, I’m a freelance historical researcher. I’ve had the pleasure to be involved in some great projects recently, at the Black Country Living Museum and as part of the HLF-funded Second Generation Stories project. I’m always interested to hear if you are looking for historical research or writing projects – please get in touch.