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City redevelopment that failed the poor.


Carl looks at the demolition of many of Birmingham's main streets, carried out as part of Chamberlain's radical plan for the city Ill HEALTH and bad housing were the twin evils which bedevilled and blighted the lives of the Victorian poor in Birmingham.

The link between the two was inextricable, as was made graphically clear by Dr Alfred Hill, Birmingham's Medical Officer of Health in 1875. That year he drew attention to the difference in the annual death rate between wealthy Edgbaston, where it stood at just 13.11 per thousand people, with that of the poor St Mary's Ward, where it was twice as much at 26.82.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 people lived in this ward that covered the Gun Quarter and its environs. Their dreadful environment was called forth by William White, a well-respected Quaker and Liberal councillor. In a council debate in 1875 about the need to clear this area of its insanitary buildings and narrow streets, he declared that "scores upon scores of tenements are in a fearful condition of disrepair, and I could scarcely have believed, had I not seen with my own eyes and heard the facts from the tenants, that there are hundreds of leaky, damp, wretched houses, which are wholly unfit for human habitation, and only deserve to be condemned, when the council has the power to do so".

Damp walls and floors abounded in every direction, whilst the rubbish and dilapidation in whole quarters reminded White of Strasburg, which he had seen soon after it had been bombarded by the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

In passing through such streets as Thomas Street, at the back of Lichfield Street, "little else is to be seen but bowing roofs, tottering chimneys, tumble-down and often disused shopping, heaps of bricks, broken windows, and coarse, rough pavements, damp and sloppy! It is not easy to describe or imagine the dreary desolation which acre after acre of the very heart of the town presents to anyone who will take the trouble to visit it," said White.

With his own eyes, he had seen houses that were so small and low "that it is a matter for wonder how such places can ever have been put up for human habitation. In one case I found a house of only two rooms, about 9ft square each and 6ft 6ins high; and in this hovel lived husband, wife and four children, the eldest between 15 and 16."

Indeed, the concerned councillor had penetrated "court behind court, in which the space between a high wall on one side and the doors of the houses on the other was so narrow that it would not permit of my umbrella being placed horizontally between them. In this very place were two cases of smallpox and one of scarlet fever, and noxious odours were its pervading atmosphere. The infant mortality in such neighbourhoods is frightful."

It was for these reasons that William White supported the radical plan of Joseph Chamberlain, the powerful and dynamic mayor of Birmingham, to compulsory purchase the property in much of St Mary's Ward and to completely demolish it. This Birmingham Improvement Scheme was enabled by an act of Parliament under the Artisans' Dwellings Act of 1875.

In place of the cleared buildings a new and wide street was cut. Aptly called Corporation Street, after the Corporation of Birmingham, it was to run uphill from New Street to Aston Street. Demolitions began in August 1879 in New Street, opposite Stephenson Place, and by 1889 the first section from Bull Street to New Street was filled with fine new buildings - although work on the street was not completed until the turn of the 20th century.

This Parisian-style boulevard reflected Birmingham's dignity and position as the metropolis of the Midlands, yet as the prestigious new street advanced, the poor of St Mary's Ward were shunned. A slum was erased, but no thought was given to the needs of those who had lost their homes.

A major new civic and shopping thoroughfare was created which boasted leading stores such as Lewis's and impressive public buildings like the Victoria Law Courts; yet, and as with similar improvement schemes elsewhere in the country, this development that benefitted the middle class was paid for by the destruction of poorer workingclass neighbourhoods. In Birmingham this was an all too familiar story. The poor had pushed out of their homes to for the building of the Town 1830s), New Street Station (iand 50s), and for the financiaround Colmore Row (in the Now Chamberlain's grand destroyed a further 855 housthey may have been, but oncpoor received no compensatlost homes, as they were not owners. Moreover the counctake up the provisions in the ' Dwellings Act that allowed frehousing of those who were As a consequence, those walready been o make way Hall (in the in the 1840s ial sector e 1860s). d plan had ses. Decrepit ce again the tion for their t the property cil did not e Artisans' for the e displaced. who had lost adjoining their homes moved into the streets in the Gun Quarter anGreen. But there were too fefor them. Demand was high landlords put up rents, furthishing the already impoverisBirmingham's improvement may have gained plaudits bupoor.

Under heavy criticism, thbelatedly built 104 dwellings Street and Lawrence Street in was obviously much too few. matters even worse, their miweekly rental of 5 shillings (2great for unskilled men and who could not earn more thnd Gosta w dwellings and her impovershed.

t scheme ut it failed the e council s in Ryder n 1891. This w. To make inimum 25p) was too street traders an 17s 6d (87.5p) in a week - whilst widows and abandoned women would be fortunate to earn as much as 10 shillings (59p) weekly.

Amongst the streets cleared for Corporation Street were Thomas Street, John Street, Lichfield Street, Stafford Street and the Gullett. From the mid-1800s, large numbers of Irish folk from Roscommon and Mayo had settled here amongst the poorest of the English. Despite the difference in their ethnicity, they shared what all the poor shared - bad housing, an unhealthy environment, high death rates, hunger and hardships. They were also unfairly damned as havens of criminals and the workshy.

The Gullett was a particularly infamous street which supposedly was filled with ruffians and villains. In reality, its people were amongst the poorest in the city and were mostly widows, children and the elderly. However, the negative image of the Gullett suited the purposes of the supporters of the Corporation Street Improvement Scheme, for it allowed them to gain support for the need to sweep away "dens of vice" so close to the Council House and the middle-class shopping thoroughfare of Bull Street.

As it was, the Gullett did not completely disappear and part of it was renamed Ashley Passage. This was its third name, for prior to the 1830s, it was known as The Ditch. Running from Coleshill Street to the junction of Vauxhall Street, Lichfield Street, Aston Street, Lancaster Street and Steelhouse Lane, it is shown thus on Westley's Map of 1731.

There are some suggestions that the Gullett was named after a landowner called Ashley Gullett, but it seems more probable that it was so called because it was narrow like the gullett in the human body. This suggestion is given weight by an article on the sanitary condition of Birmingham in the Morning Chronicle of October 1850.

The writer, Charles MacKay, explained that "in some of the narrow lanes, even more wretched than the courts (yards), known by the name of 'the Gullets',' and of which there are several in the town, the deficiency of water was even more deplorable, and the deficiency of privies still more deplorable".

Amongst the other streets to disappear for Corporation Street was the short Balloon Street, off Brick Kiln Street, which itself came from Lancaster Street. Interestingly it may have commemorated an event on January 31, 1785 when a Mr Harper was the first person to rise up above Birmingham in a balloon.

He made his ascent from the tennis courts in Coleshill Street, not far from Balloon Street, and is said to have gone a distance of 57 miles in 80 minutes. It is also believed that the first Primitive Methodist Chapel in Birmingham was started in Balloon Street in 1826.

Next week: The consequences of Chamberlain's radical plan to modernise Birmingham's centre.

''Now Chamberlain's grand plan had destroyed a further 855 houses. Decrepit they may have been, but once again the poor received no compensation for their lost homes, as they were not the property owners


Looking up the Gullet (top) from its south end in about 1882, shortly before it was cleared from the map of Birmingham. This photo is courtesy of the Library of Birmingham and is from the Birming-ham Improvement Scheme Collection. The photos in the collection were taken by James Burgoyne, who had a photographic studio on the Coventry Road; the statue of Thomas Attwood (left), the celebrated leader of the Birmingham Political Union, at the top of Stephenson Street and looking across New Street to buildings that would be knocked down for the cutting of Corporation Street; the same view after the cutting of the first section of Corporation Street in the 1880s (above right) and (right) a woman standing in a yard in Thomas Street, which was also demolished in the 1880s
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 11, 2014
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