A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
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Conditions in West Bromwich in the 19th century were not so insanitary as in many other towns, because much of it was situated on sloping ground and because the soil facilitated drainage. (fn. 1) None the less public health was a problem by then. West Bromwich suffered during the cholera epidemic of 1832. A temporary board of health was set up and a hospital opened in the former Revivalist chapel in Spon Lane. (fn. 2) The report of the commissioners inquiring into the state of large towns in the early 1840s (fn. 3) showed that at West Bromwich streets were on the whole wide and well laid out but drainage was often inadequate: stagnant pools and watercourses, accumulations of refuse, and blocked drains were common. The poorer houses were generally built in courts, with two to four rooms a house; some of the houses were backto-back. Normally there was one privy to every five or six houses. There were no arrangements for cleansing the courts, but the privies were emptied by night-soil men. The prevalence of typhus and smallpox was reported in 1850 and ascribed to bad drainage and the poor water supply. (fn. 4) Widespread pig-keeping was noted in 1866 as another bad feature. (fn. 5)
The improvement commissioners established in 1854 did something to deal with problems of public health, and they quickly appointed a full-time surveyor and inspector of nuisances; (fn. 6) in 1868 they appointed a medical officer of health. (fn. 7) Yet the clerk to the commissioners in 1882 considered that it was only in the previous ten years that the board had wholeheartedly tackled its duties; as late as 1874 West Bromwich was a town 'having no proper public buildings, ill-lighted, totally unpaved, atrocious roads, undrained, and with a high death rate'. (fn. 8) About 1880 land was bought at Friar Park for a sewage farm, and by 1882 plans were well advanced for the first part of the works. (fn. 9) In 1886 the medical officer of health for the borough reported low mortality and good sanitary progress; the main needs were 'the completion of the sewerage and the satisfactory solution of the night soil difficulty'. (fn. 10) In 1890 the large-scale replacement of privies with water-closets was begun. (fn. 11) A new sewage works was built at Friar Park in 1903 and a small works in Newton Road in 1910. (fn. 12) The present sewage works at Ray Hall (in the part of the borough added from Great Barr in 1931) dates from the mid 1930s; control passed to the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority in 1966. (fn. 13) In 1958 the council's first smoke control order came into force. (fn. 14)
Progress in housing and slum clearance was at first less satisfactory. In 1889 the medical officer of health recommended wholesale clearance in certain parts of the borough, observing that the continuance of back-to-back houses, unpaved yards, and open middens was a serious danger to health. (fn. 15) In 1890 he criticized the unwholesome effects of pig-keeping, and in 1891 he singled out Union and Glover Streets for their dilapidated wooden pigsties. (fn. 16) By 1896 he was able to report both clearance and the erection of improved housing. (fn. 17) Indeed there are still many working-class dwellings of the period c. 1880-1910, built to house the expanding population and to replace the insanitary dwellings of the earlier 19th century. Many of them are in a uniform style, red-brick, two-storeyed, and with moulded brick decoration above the windows and doorways and at the cornice. They are frequently in long terraces, each apparently the work of a single developer; each house has a short front garden and a larger plot behind.
Some clearance was carried out under the West Bromwich Corporation Act of 1913. (fn. 18) After the passing of the 1919 Housing Act the corporation scheduled nearly 2,900 houses as unfit, but by 1933 only 346 had been demolished, chiefly in Barton Street (in the former Old End area) and Swan Village. The pace quickened thereafter; yet, when a new clearance programme began in 1955, as many as 4,000 houses were considered unfit, and over the next ten years some 15 per cent of the town's population was rehoused. (fn. 19) The corporation has built several estates since 1919. After the Act of that year it prepared a comprehensive housing scheme, and work began at Tantany in 1920. (fn. 20) In the part of Hamstead added to the borough in 1928 over 100 dwellings had been built by 1930. (fn. 21) By 1939 the corporation had built over 5,000 houses and flats, and by the early 1960s it owned well over 12,000 dwellings, including multi-storey flats and old people's flatlets. (fn. 22)
Of the springs which supplied West Bromwich with water before the arrival of a piped supply in the later 19th century, the most used was apparently Lyne Purl in Stoney Lane. In 1606 the manor court forbade the washing of anything dirty like 'filthie clothes' or 'beastes bellies' in or near the spring. (fn. 23) Despite the condemnation of its water in the later 19th century after an analysis, an official attempt to stop access to the spring was fiercely resisted. (fn. 24) It was presented to the town in 1956 by J. J. Grant to commemorate his wife's term as mayor, and an ornamental surround was built. The spring still flows, but the pool was covered over in 1969. (fn. 25) Many of the springs were iron-impregnated, notably one at Wigmore, and in the mid 19th century one writer indulged the fancy that the town could become a Leamington or a Cheltenham. (fn. 26) Pumps were set up along the main road through the town in 1829, (fn. 27) and another source of domestic supply in the 1850s was the water pumped out of the coal pit in Pitt Street, which was widely used for making tea. (fn. 28) In 1866 the Hill Top area was found to be particularly badly off since most of the springs had been destroyed by mining; the little spring water available was largely polluted by drainage. Water from the pits was used, as was canal water until that too became polluted by factory refuse. (fn. 29) West Bromwich lies within the area supplied by the South Staffordshire Water Works Co., which opened its first works in 1858 at Lichfield. (fn. 30) In 1875, however, only 16 per cent of the houses in the town had a piped supply; the rest still depended on public and private wells, and in 1876 an analysis of the public wells at Spon Lane, Lyndon, and Mayer's Green (Messenger Street) showed the first two fairly pure but the third polluted. (fn. 31) By 1882 about half the houses were supplied by the waterworks company, (fn. 32) and by 1886 most had a piped supply. (fn. 33)
Public baths were built in Pitt Street by Lord Dartmouth in 1847. (fn. 34) New baths designed by Edward Pincher of West Bromwich were opened in Lombard Street West in 1874 and improved in 1897-8. The Gala Bath was completed in 1938, the last of several improvements begun in 1936. (fn. 35) The baths were damaged by enemy action in 1940, but rebuilding and extensions were carried out in 1959-62. (fn. 36) About 1880 there were privately owned baths at the corner of Union and Green Streets. (fn. 37)
The District Hospital, a plain red-brick building in Edward Street, was built in 1869-71 to the design of Martin & Chamberlain of Birmingham. It originated in the Provident Medical Dispensary in High Street opened in 1867. (fn. 38) Hallam Hospital in Hallam Street, another general hospital, originated in the infirmary added to the union workhouse in 1884. Improvements were begun in 1925, and the infirmary then became a separate institution named Hallam Hospital. The hospital includes surviving buildings of the former workhouse as well as more recent buildings. (fn. 39) Lyttleton Hall was used as an isolation hospital during the smallpox epidemic of the earlier 1880s. (fn. 40) It was replaced by a new infectious diseases hospital opened in Heath Lane in 1885; this has been used only for chest cases since c. 1952. (fn. 41) A smallpox hospital at Friar Park was opened in 1906 but closed in 1948. (fn. 42) A male sterilization clinic, the first in the country with its own operating unit, was opened in 1970 at Control House in Shaftesbury Street, the West Bromwich headquarters of the West Midlands Family Planning Association. (fn. 43)
The cemetery in Heath Lane was opened in 1859. (fn. 44) The chapels, of red brick with stone dressings, were designed by Edward Holmes of Birmingham in an early-Gothic style. (fn. 45) The crematorium in Forge Lane was opened in 1961. (fn. 46)
In 1765, after several robberies had been committed at West Bromwich, the inhabitants offered a 10-guinea reward for help in the conviction of anyone committing a robbery in the parish. (fn. 47) A West Bromwich Association for the Prosecution of Felons had been formed by 1773. (fn. 48) In the 1770s it was customary for the parish officers to inspect alehouses on Sunday afternoons during divine service, and in 1776 they proposed measures to suppress disorders in ale-houses and to limit their number. (fn. 49) Early in 1790, as a result of the number of highway robberies and cases of housebreaking, the vestry set up a committee to choose constables and others to inspect lodging and public houses and arrest rogues and vagabonds. (fn. 50) The vestry petitioned the justices in 1807 and 1814 against the granting of licences to new ale-houses in the parish. (fn. 51) In 1819 it appointed seven paid 'Sunday' constables to disperse disorderly crowds, close public houses during divine service and after 9 p.m. and shops after 9 a.m., prevent tippling in public houses, and expel loiterers from the churchyard during divine service. (fn. 52) Sabbath-breaking, however, continued, and in 1825 'Sunday' constables were reappointed especially to prevent tippling. (fn. 53) The vestry launched a new attack on Sunday trading, setting up a special committee and using 'Sunday' constables. (fn. 54) In 1831, in view of the increase of crime 'and the existence of a class . . . without any visible means of subsistence', it set up another committee to consider the better policing of the parish. (fn. 55) A county police force was established at West Bromwich in 1840. (fn. 56) The police station was apparently in rented premises in Seagar Street by at least the later 1840s, (fn. 57) but in 1851 a new station was built on the corner of High Street and Overend Street. (fn. 58) It was replaced in 1972 by the central police station built in New Street as part of the new town centre (fn. 59) and was demolished in 1973.
The manor court was taking precautions against fire by the early 17th century. In 1606 it ordered that no one was to carry fire from one house to another except in a lantern, a cup, or some safely covered container, and in 1609 a Richard Reeve was fined for carrying fire uncovered in the street. (fn. 60) By c. 1837 the Birmingham Fire Office Co. had a manual fire-engine at West Bromwich; it was manned by volunteers and kept at the premises of the company's agent in New Street. When William Burch became agent in 1854, the engine was moved to Hudson's Passage, behind his High Street chemist's shop; the Lancashire Insurance Co. of Birmingham, the successor of the Fire Office Co., still kept its engine there in 1884. (fn. 61) In the early 1840s the town had two small fire-engines but no practised firemen. (fn. 62) The fire at Holy Trinity Church in 1861 was fought by engines from Chance's works and the Birmingham Fire Office. (fn. 63) In 1878 the procession for the opening of Dartmouth Park was led by the engine of the Lancashire Insurance Co. and the engine from Chances. (fn. 64) In 1879 a second volunteer brigade was formed with an engine which was kept in Walsall Street. (fn. 65)
The improvement commissioners established a volunteer brigade in 1881 consisting of 12 officers and men; its steam fire-engine was kept in Paradise Street at the premises of an undertaker, who supplied the horses. (fn. 66) The brigade passed into the control of the new corporation in 1882. (fn. 67) By 1884 there were branch stations at Hill Top, Great Bridge, and Spon Lane; (fn. 68) the present station in Paradise Street dates from 1930. (fn. 69) In 1948 West Bromwich became a joint fire authority with Smethwick, (fn. 70) an arrangement which lasted until the local government reorganization of 1966. In 1969 the West Bromwich fire brigade had three stations, in Paradise Street and in Tipton and Wednesbury, with its headquarters in Pennyhill Lane, Wigmore. (fn. 71)
The Birmingham & Staffordshire Gas Light Co. was established by an Act of 1825 to supply gas to Birmingham and other places near by including West Bromwich; the lighting of the main road through the town was also mentioned in the Act. (fn. 72) In the same year the company opened its works at Swan Village, then the largest gas-works in the kingdom. (fn. 73) In 1875 Birmingham corporation bought up the undertakings supplying Birmingham with gas, and the West Bromwich commissioners decided to establish their own undertaking. An Act of 1876 empowered them to buy from Birmingham the right to do this. Birmingham retained the Swan Village works to supply Wednesbury and other outlying districts, and West Bromwich built a new works in Oldbury Road at Albion, close to the canal and the railway. The supply became available in 1880. (fn. 74) With nationalization in 1949 the undertaking came under the control of the West Midlands Gas Board. (fn. 75)
In 1883 the South Staffordshire Electric Lighting Co. Ltd. was authorized to supply electricity in West Bromwich, despite the opposition of the improvement commissioners the previous year. (fn. 76) In 1889 the corporation was planning its own undertaking, but the scheme was shelved largely because of the effect it would have on the gas undertaking. (fn. 77) The corporation finally established an electricity undertaking in 1898; a generating station was built at Black Lake, and the supply began in 1901. (fn. 78) In 1928 the Black Lake station was transferred to the West Midlands Joint Electricity Authority and the corporation became the distributing authority. (fn. 79) Nationalization came in 1948, and the supply is now under the control of the Midlands Electricity Board.
An omnibus service was begun between Birmingham and West Bromwich in 1835. (fn. 80) In 1872 a horse-drawn tramway service was started by the Birmingham and District Tramways Co. Ltd. from the Birmingham-Handsworth boundary at Hockley Brook through West Bromwich to Dudley Port in Tipton, and in 1873 it was extended to the centre of Birmingham. (fn. 81) In 1876 the firm was taken over by the Birmingham Tramways and Omnibus Co. Ltd. which restricted the trams to a service between Birmingham and Handsworth, thus discontinuing the service through West Bromwich. The South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Steam Tramways Co. Ltd. was formed in 1882; in 1883 it started a service through West Bromwich and Wednesbury to Darlaston, with a line to Great Bridge in 1884 and on to Dudley in 1885. Lines from West Smethwick along Spon Lane to Dartmouth Square and from Oldbury along Bromford Lane to St. Michael Street were opened by Birmingham and Midland Tramways Ltd. in 1885. The steam trams on those two routes ceased to operate in 1893, and the lines were then leased to B. Crowther, who ran a funeral service and a horsevehicle hire business. He introduced horse trams, and a line was built along Paradise Street to connect the two routes with the stables and garage. The undertakings passed into the control of the British Electric Traction Co. Ltd. in 1897 and 1900. In 1901 West Bromwich corporation bought all the tramways in the borough; it introduced electric trams from the Handsworth boundary to Carter's Green at the end of 1902 and electrified the remaining routes in 1903-4. The tramways were then leased to operating companies. The portion of the Bromford Lane route in Oldbury was bought by Oldbury urban district council and the portion of the Spon Lane route in Smethwick by Smethwick corporation. Both were leased to Birmingham and Midland Tramways and in 1929 passed into the control of West Bromwich corporation.
In 1914 the corporation began to operate a motoromnibus service with a garage in Hardware Street, but the service was suspended later the same year when the War Office commandeered the chassis. In 1915 electric buses were introduced; they proved unreliable and were replaced in 1919. A bus service operated jointly by West Bromwich and Walsall corporations was begun in 1926, the first of several jointly run services in the borough. The trams along Spon Lane and Bromford Lane were replaced by buses in 1929, and in 1939 buses operated jointly by West Bromwich and Birmingham corporations replaced the trams running from Birmingham to Dudley and Wednesbury. A new garage and offices were built in Oak Lane in 1929 and extended in 1937-9. The transport undertaking passed to the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive in 1969.
There was a postal service in West Bromwich by the 1720s: in 1809 Hannah Sutton was stated to have been 'the receiver and distributor of letters' in West Bromwich and Tipton for the previous 28 years like her parents and grandfather for 56 years before that. (fn. 82) The post office was then at Hill Top between the present New Street and Lakeside Road, but in 1828, with the growth of the new centre of population further south, it was moved to High Street. (fn. 83) The Suttons continued to run the post office until at least 1851. (fn. 84) There were also suboffices at Hill Top, Spon Lane, and Great Bridge by the middle of the century. (fn. 85) In 1844 it was announced that the London day mail was to be extended to West Bromwich, Wednesbury, and Bilston 'in such a manner as will enable the inhabitants of those places to reply by the return night post to the letters conveyed by day mail'. (fn. 86) The post office moved into larger premises in different parts of High Street in 1868, 1872, and 1879. The present building in High Street was erected in 1918 (fn. 87) and is of red brick and stone in a Georgian style.
Parks, libraries, and museums are treated elsewhere. (fn. 88)