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Little alley with a shady history.

Byline: chris upton

Central Birmingham is not awash with quaint old street names like some places.

There's no Land of Green Ginger just off Corporation Street. Hill Street does what it says on the tin, and the only curious feature about New Street is that it is one of the oldest roads in the city.

Needless Alley, however, stands out as different from the rest. The little passage which runs north off New Street is a miraculous survivor. For one thing, you would not have expected a narrow alleyway like this to have escaped the redevelopers. From the late 18th century onwards Birmingham's town planners set about eradicating the passages, shuts and alleys from the map, seeing as the unsavoury, threatening and useless for commerce.

Yet if anything - and if the maps are to be believed - Needless Alley got ever narrower in the 18th century, as the buildings either side of it squeezed it.

The survival of the alleyway was certainly never assured. In 1829, for example, they said it was about to come down, and one of the local papers - the Birmingham Journal - dubbed it needless by name and needless by nature. There were plenty of other ways to get from New Street to St Philip's without disappearing (perhaps forever) down such a dark tunnel. Temple Street and Bennetts Hill were much more respectable.

That said, many men did disappear down it, and rarely for the right reasons.

In short, Needless Alley was a "disorderly street", full of "disorderly houses".

What that meant, when it was used in court, was that it was frequented by prostitutes and, of course, by their clients.

In the space of a couple of months in the summer of 1829 no fewer than six individuals appeared before the magistrates accused of keeping "disorderly houses", whilst another woman who stood in the dock was described as "a nymph, resident in Needless Alley".

One of the accused - Anne Wood - appeared twice. No sooner was she out of the house of correction than she was back inside again, a sure sign that prison did not necessarily reform.

Failure to see the error of one's ways was understandable, for there was much profit to be made in Needless Alley. One group of houses in the street was owned by a builder, who lived around the corner in Little Cannon Street. He let the houses at 4s 6d (22'p) a week each to a mysterious and elusive individual called Bishop. Mr Bishop in turn sub-let individual rooms in the houses to prostitutes, who found themselves paying upwards of 16 shillings (80p) a week. This is where my knowledge of the financial arrangements stops. I have no idea how many clients a "nymph" would have to entertain to recoup such costs.

If a brothel-keeper had been designing his ideal business premises, he could hardly have improved upon Needless Alley. Its proximity to the main railway station increased the foot-fall, and its dark recesses helped to preserve the anonymity of the customers.

Victorian Birmingham did try to assist its small businesses.

Dr Chris Upton is Senior Lecturer in History at Newman University College in Birmingham
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 10, 2009
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