Wolverhampton and the Urban Text

Simon Briercliffe is a first year doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, working on a project entitled “The Stafford Street Area of Wolverhampton c1800-1871: the relationships of space, housing, demography and ethnicity”. His interests are in applying spatial and digital theory and analysis to urban “history from below”, which is usually an excuse to study as many maps as possible. Simon can be found on Twitter (@sbriercliffe) and WordPress (http://uptheossroad.wordpress.com)

© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2015. All rights reserved. Wolverhampton 1889.

© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2015. All rights reserved. Wolverhampton 1889.

The map shown here is an unusual one for late-Victorian Britain, not for what appears on it, but for what doesn’t. The site of empty, undeveloped land is an odd one at a time when immigration into the industrial cities of Britain was still growing, and housing still in short supply. That’s particularly true of city centres such as that of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, which were usually the first to fill up. On three sides of this map that development is evident, but there’s a white hole in the middle.

It has often been said that it’s possible to read a landscape as a text, and in particular that urban landscapes are a sort of palimpsest – a medieval device of writing over used vellum to save the cost of new parchment.[i] With some notable exceptions in the twentieth century, urban development in Britain has tended towards the conservative and unregulated, which means that it’s often possible to trace, for example, economic or social history by analysing the city streets. Alan Mayne considered the urban landscape to be a kind of material culture, whether the historical environment is still extant or not, and that even the most comprehensively planned-out city is still a text that reveals history from both above and below: “in our cities’ physical fabrics are located the roots of all-encompassing and vernacular cultural milieux.”[ii]

The conflict over the use of space in a city is deep-rooted, and often reflects massive societal differences. In the capitalist culture of the nineteenth century, all space had a formal owner as a point of political principle as much as expediency. In a time when owner-occupation was extremely rare compared to today, this could range from a small landlord letting out his spare rooms, an institution like the church, or a large individual landowner. There’s also the occupants of the land of course, often only very tenuously connected to the owner. The nineteenth century also saw the growth of local government, who weren’t owners or occupiers but who did have a stake in, and a responsibility towards, any given piece of land within their jurisdiction. Their powers were curbed though by the overarching ideology of private property, an almost sacred right.

What that meant in practice, particularly in the industrial cities of Victorian Britain, was an unprecedented sprawl as migrants flooded in to find work, and landowners capitalised on the demand for somewhere for them to live. This took different forms: Leeds and Birmingham were characterised by endless miles of back-to-back terraces; the Lancashire cotton towns tended towards long rows of small, yarded terraces (my own great-great-grandfather lived in a tiny two-up, two-down in Burnley with his wife and seven children, all working at the mill). Often the first wave of immigrants outpaced the building industry and had to settle where they could – in the case of Wolverhampton, as in so many other towns, that often meant subdivided old houses that rapidly degenerated into that most fearful of Victorian fascinations, the “slum”.

The Victorian slum captured the imagination of Victorian society. The upper classes of London were known to “descend” into a neighbourhood such as this to experience the thrill of “slumming”,[iii] but many others were moved by the depictions in the novels of Charles Dickens, Mrs Gaskell, Arthur Morrison and even Benjamin Disraeli, whose 1845 novel Sybil not only attempted to reveal the crushing poverty in the industrial slums, but contributed significantly to the “Two Nations” debate that arose around the growing distance between classes in the first half of the century.

Social investigators like Friedrich Engels and Edwin Chadwick were similarly moved by the “housing problem.” Although approaching the issue from very different starting points, both were equally dismayed by the unsanitary squalor of the poor in English cities. For Engels, the nascent communist, the housing problem was part of a larger, systemic fault within capitalism, which tends strongly towards inequality and disadvantages the working classes. For Chadwick the utilitarian, the causes of poverty were less important than the public health crisis it created. Both responses were firmly rooted in the moral debates that often typified contemporary views (by outsiders at least) towards the poor: even such a singular character as Engels has been described as “in a number of fundamental ways a representative Victorian.”[iv]

Public health was one of the key Victorian reform movements, really kicking off with Chadwick’s publications at the very beginning of Victoria’s reign. The findings of these reformers very much fell into the anthropologist Mary Douglas’ thesis that dirt is “matter out of place”, a culturally defined subject.[v] The environment had surely changed during industrialisation: the Black Country, the mining region between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, is most famous for the air pollution which gave it its name. But the Victorian attitude towards dirt had also changed, thanks in no small part to the connection made by John Wesley between cleanliness and godliness. On this basis Chadwick’s mass of innovations, like social surveys, sewerage and drainage systems, sought to sweep away the dirt not only of the street and home, but of the ‘degraded’ moral character of the poor in particular.

When cholera or typhus struck a town, one of the first recommendations was to fumigate and to whitewash the walls of unsanitary houses with a lime wash.[vi] Rather than an attempt at shabby chic interior design, the lime wash was intended to clean away and start afresh, to wipe the slate clean. And in effect, that thinking explains the white hole on the map.

The link between housing and health had always been high on the agenda of reformers, but the reluctance of government to intervene in private property, combined with the laissez-faire horror of state provision, meant that any legislation put forward was strongly permissive – councils could, even should, deal with unhealthy areas, but didn’t have to. The pinnacle of this sort of legislation was the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, authored by the Conservative Home Secretary, Richard Cross – hence its more well-known title, the Cross Act. This gave boroughs the means to compulsorily purchase “slum” areas and demolish them, with the caveat that they must rehouse any population displaced. This was pretty novel – people were more used to mass displacements for, for example, railway termini, without any thought being given to the people whose homes were destroyed.

It’s telling that the later amendment act reduced the rehousing burden to half. It proved very difficult to rehouse groups of people through private enterprise, as Joseph Chamberlain and the Birmingham Corporation found out in their Cross Act-based improvement scheme.[vii] And therein lies the explanation for Wolverhampton’s white hole. These four acres of land were home to the most notorious part of the city, perceived as the red light district, the criminal district, the Irish quarter: the archetypal insanitary, overcrowded industrial slum.[viii] The neighbourhood to the East of Stafford Street, known as Caribee Island, is the subject of my research, and was wiped away in Wolverhampton’s improvement scheme at the beginning of the 1880s. It was some time before the newly laid-out roads – or indeed, the additional greenfield site that was purchased with rehousing in mind – were rebuilt into houses. In the meantime, the whitewashing just shifted the problems of overcrowding onto neighbouring districts. Or to put it another way, instead of just writing over a faded parchment, the Wolverhampton authorities applied a generous amount of Tippex to their urban palimpsest; it just took a lot longer to dry than they expected.

[i]G.H. Martin, ‘The Town as Palimpsest’, in Dyos (ed) The Study of Urban History, 1968

[ii]Alan Mayne, A barefoot childhood: so what? Imagining slums and reading neighbourhoods. Urban History 22 (1995), pp 380-389

[iii] Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, 2008, p.9

[iv] Steven Marcus. Engels, Manchester and the Working Class, 1974, p.256

[v] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966

[vi] R.J. Morris, Cholera 1832, 1976, p.173

[vii] Alan Mayne, The Imagined Slum, 1993, p.57

[viii] Roger Swift, “Another Stafford Street Row”: Law, order and the Irish presence in mid-Victorian Wolverhampton. In Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds) The Irish in the Victorian City, 1985, pp.179-206


4 responses to “Wolverhampton and the Urban Text

  1. Pingback: Tekkin’ the wammel up the cut: a landscape history | Up The Oss Road·

  2. Pingback: “Slums” of the Black Country | Up The Oss Road·

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