Smethwick: Public services

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.

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A P Baggs. G C Baugh. C R J Currie. Johnson D A, 'Smethwick: Public services', A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), (London, 1976), pp. 120-123. British History Online [accessed 15 June 2024].

A P Baggs. G C Baugh. C R J Currie. Johnson D A. "Smethwick: Public services", in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), (London, 1976) 120-123. British History Online, accessed June 15, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Baugh, G C. Currie, C R J. Johnson D A. "Smethwick: Public services", A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part), (London, 1976). 120-123. British History Online. Web. 15 June 2024,


By the mid 19th century Smethwick had the usual sanitary problems of a growing town. (fn. 1) There was no system of drains, and refuse collected in stagnant cesspools or on the roads. There was a surface drain in Rolfe Street, but in 1854 the district medical officer of the poorlaw union reported that it was blocked up and that as a result his cellar was full of water. Refuse was collected by farmers, but only when convenient to themselves. Such conditions meant that the town was never free from fever, and epidemics were not uncommon. Chances' workers who lived in Scotch Row near the glass-works were constantly ill until R. L. Chance had drains and paving laid down in the earlier 1840s; at once there was a remarkable improvement in health. One of the duties of the doctor engaged by Chances from 1843 was to inspect the state of workers' houses. The Spon Lane area, Rolfe Street, Cross Street, and Windmill Street (presumably Windmill Lane) were described in 1854 as particularly insanitary. Cottages in the town were small, overcrowded, and badly ventilated. In 1862 twelve houses in Slough Lane (now Wellington Street) had only two privies between them; in 1871 the 40 houses in the same road had one privy to every three houses, and both houses and privies were dirty. The 28 houses in the court off Bridge Street known as Kingston Square (demolished in 1933), (fn. 2) had only eight privies between them, two in each corner of the square; in 1871 all the privies were found to be filthy and badly constructed. The numerous pigsties were another nuisance; it was stated in 1850 that 'the effluvia, nastiness, and dirt incident thereto are most injurious to the health of families, which your dried flitch and cured ham strung up in your kitchens by no means compensate'. In 1871 a pigsty built against a house in Vittoria Street was causing a stench which was 'very detrimental' to the occupants. Smoke nuisance too was prevalent by the 1850s. In 1854 a surgeon stated that when the wind blew from the southwest the smoke from a chemical works took the bark off the trees and killed the leaves; he did not, however, know whether the smoke was prejudicial to human life. All the same it was claimed in 1854 that Smethwick's sanitary condition compared favourably with that of Oldbury, West Bromwich, and Bilston and that as far as buildings went the town was not yet overcrowded.

The local board of health established in 1856 soon appointed a surveyor and an inspector of nuisances. (fn. 3) In 1871, after receiving a report on the insanitary state of Kingston Square, Slough Lane, and Vittoria Street, the board appointed a medical officer of health. (fn. 4) The board turned its attention to smoke nuisance but apparently without effect; indeed in 1858 a motion to enforce the provision of the Local Government Act of that year requiring factories to consume their own smoke was defeated by five votes to three. (fn. 5) In 1859 the board made a by-law forbidding the erection of back-toback houses. (fn. 6) In 1877 the Tame and Rea Drainage Board was formed to deal with the drainage and sewage of a large area including Smethwick. (fn. 7) Sewers were being laid from 1888, and the system was completed in 1895. The conversion of privies into water-closets and the abolition of middens was then undertaken by the urban district council, and by 1907 nearly 4,500 water-closets had been provided and nearly 3,000 middens removed. (fn. 8) A refuse destructor was built in Rolfe Street in 1908. (fn. 9) In 1949 the corporation began a series of measures to combat smoke nuisance. (fn. 10)

In 1920 the corporation was arranging the erection of 600 houses, although lack of space forced it to site well over half of them within the urban district of Oldbury (Worcs.). Indeed, when the Warley Woods area of Oldbury was added to Smethwick in 1928, housing was quickly built there. (fn. 11) In 1933 the corporation began a two-year drive to deal with unfit property, including the demolition or conversion of the 314 back-to-back houses in the borough. (fn. 12) By 1939 it had built 4,759 houses; 1,178 of them were then within the borough of Oldbury. (fn. 13) The outbreak of war halted slum clearance, and in 1945 6,000 of Smethwick's 21,400 houses were substandard. It was not until 1958 that the corporation began a full attack on substandard housing, starting with the Windmill Lane area. (fn. 14) Extensive clearance was still in progress in 1971. Scarcity of land for new houses remained a problem after the war, and by 1959 the corporation had built 252 houses in West Bromwich as well as more in Oldbury. (fn. 15) The last major development of land owned by the corporation outside the borough was the Kingsway estate in the Quinton part of Oldbury, which was being built in 1962. (fn. 16) By 1966 the corporation had built some 8,400 dwellings, many of them in multistorey blocks to make the most of the land available. (fn. 17)

In 1857 the South Staffordshire Water Works Co. promoted a Bill to extend its area of supply to Smethwick. The local board opposed the Bill with the claim that Smethwick had streams of goodquality water flowing through the parish sufficient for double the population. The board also hoped that a supply would come from the Birmingham Waterworks Co. whose rates were lower. The board withdrew its opposition when a clause was inserted in the Bill making the South Staffordshire company's power to supply Smethwick dependent on a request from the board. The company began laying mains in the district in 1862. (fn. 18) Even so in 1871 the 28 houses in Kingston Square were still dependent on a pump in the centre of the square; in Vittoria Street 20 houses were without water, although the near-by Slough Lane on the eastern boundary was supplied by the Birmingham company. (fn. 19)

The public baths in Rolfe Street were built in 1888 to the designs of Harris, Martin & Harris of Birmingham. Those at the Bearwood end of Thimblemill Road, the main baths for the area, were opened in 1933 and extended in 1966. The slipper baths in Malkin Street, West Smethwick, date from 1929 and those at Cape Hill from 1954. (fn. 20)

A smallpox epidemic in 1883-4 led to the building of an infectious diseases hospital in Holly Lane. (fn. 21) It was closed after Smethwick became a member of the South Staffordshire Joint Smallpox Hospital Board in 1904 and a hospital had been built at Moxley in Wednesbury. In 1906-7 Oldbury urban district council and Smethwick built an infectious diseases hospital to serve both places on the site of the Holly Lane hospital. (fn. 22) Since 1954 it has been the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology. (fn. 23) In 1934-5 Smethwick corporation bought and extended St. Chad's Hospital in Hagley Road, Birmingham, built some 20 years before by the Edgbaston Private Nursing Home Ltd. (fn. 24)

The first cemetery in Smethwick was that at West Smethwick which was opened in 1857; it belonged, however, to the Oldbury burial board. (fn. 25) The architect of the chapels was W. Wigginton. (fn. 26) Holy Trinity churchyard was then the main burial ground for Smethwick. Its closure had become necessary for sanitary reasons by 1885 but was postponed until the local board should open a cemetery. (fn. 27) The board had been constituted a burial board in 1884, but the provision of a cemetery was delayed by the decision of the nonconformist majority on the board not to allow any part of a new cemetery to be consecrated. Their aim was to prevent the Anglican clergy from enjoying an advantage over the nonconformist ministers in the matter of fees. The four vicars of the town waived all such financial privileges, but the cemetery opened in Holly Lane in 1886 was never consecrated. (fn. 28) In 1890, however, Uplands cemetery was opened with a consecrated section. (fn. 29)

A county police force was established in Harborne parish in 1840. (fn. 30) A police station was built in High Street, Smethwick, a little to the south of Queen Street in 1860; (fn. 31) it was replaced by the station in Piddock Road in 1907. (fn. 32)

In the 19th century several firms formed their own fire brigades—Chances in 1843, Mitchells in 1882, Tangyes by 1885, and the Credenda Seamless Tube Co. c. 1890; the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co. also had a brigade. A volunteer brigade was formed for the area in 1878 with an engine housed at the depot of the local board's highway department behind the public buildings. The fire station in Rolfe Street was opened in 1910; the adjoining block of twelve flats for married firemen dates from 1933. (fn. 33) In 1948 Smethwick became a joint fire authority with West Bromwich, and the arrangement lasted until the local government reorganization of 1966. (fn. 34) The new county borough of Warley then formed its own brigade with headquarters in Rolfe Street. (fn. 35)

From the beginning of 1857 the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Co. provided gas for 112 street lamps. The main road through the town, however, was not included since it was the responsibility of the turnpike trustees. Agreement was reached between the local board and the trustees for the lighting of the section of the road northwards from Watery Lane at the end of 1858, but it was not until 1863 that arrangements were agreed for the remainder. (fn. 36) In 1876 an Act empowered the board to establish its own gas undertaking, (fn. 37) and the works in Rabone Lane was opened in 1881. With nationalization in 1949 the undertaking passed from Smethwick corporation to the West Midlands Gas Board. (fn. 38)

In 1898 the urban district council was empowered by Act to supply electricity in its area, (fn. 39) and a generating station was built in Downing Street. (fn. 40) In 1907 the corporation transferred its undertaking to the Birmingham and Midland Tramways Ltd. (renamed the Birmingham District Power and Traction Co. Ltd. in 1912), which under an Act of 1913 transferred its rights to the Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire Electric Power Co. (fn. 41) With nationalization in 1948 the undertaking passed to the Midlands Electricity Board. (fn. 42)

A steam tramway from Birmingham to Dudley via Smethwick was opened by Birmingham and Midland Tramways Ltd. in 1885, with a branch from West Smethwick along Spon Lane to West Bromwich. (fn. 43) The depot was at West Smethwick. In 1902 Smethwick corporation bought the tramways in the borough but leased them to Birmingham and Midland Tramways, which had passed under the control of the British Electric Traction Co. Ltd. in 1900. Electric trams began operating on the Birmingham-Dudley line in 1904. New electrified branches were opened to Bearwood and along Waterloo Road in 1904 and to Soho station along Heath and Cranford Streets in 1905. In 1906 Birmingham corporation took over some of the shorter routes. All the Smethwick trams were replaced by buses in 1939, with Birmingham corporation working the Soho and Bearwood routes and the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Co. ('Midland Red') working the route to Dudley. There is a large bus garage in Bearwood Road, Bearwood, dating from 1914. (fn. 44)

Until 1837 the inhabitants of Smethwick had to go to Birmingham to send and collect mail. (fn. 45) In that year a post office was opened in a small house in what is now High Street. The first postmaster was Joseph Vernon, a coal dealer and owner of a general store, who had led the agitation for a local post office. The office was managed by his daughter, and his sons acted as the postmen. Vernon remained postmaster until his death in 1866 when his daughter succeeded him. On her marriage her husband became postmaster, but she retained the management of the High Street office until her retirement in 1884. In 1890 a new head post office was opened in Rolfe Street. It was replaced by the office in Trinity Street in 1968.

Parks and libraries are treated elsewhere. (fn. 46)


  • 1. For this para. see Redhead, Local Govt. 25-7, 33-4; C. Hicks, A Walk through Smethwick (Birmingham, 1850), 18-19, 29 (copy in W.P.L.); R. Rawlinson, Rep. to General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into . . . Smethwick (1855; copy in W.S.L.); J. F. Chance, Hist. of Firm of Chance Brothers & Co. (priv. print. 1919), 248; W.P.L., Min. Bk. 4, pp. 68-70.
  • 2. 'Smethwick and Round About', 30 Nov. 1956. For 15 houses in Kingston Square in 1851 see H.O. 107/2050(2) ff. 288v.-290v.
  • 3. W.P.L., Min. Bk. 1, pp. 28, 31.
  • 4. Min. Bk. 4, pp. 68-71, 83-4.
  • 5. Redhead, Local Govt. 33-4; 'Smethwick and Round About', 18 Apr. 1952.
  • 6. H. Paul, 'Back-to-back Houses' (copy in W.P.L. of article in unident. jnl. of 1935), 64.
  • 7. Hackwood, Smethwick, 104; Local Govt. Board's Provisional Orders Confirmation (Joint Boards) Act, 1877, 40 & 41 Vic. c. 229 (Local).
  • 8. Hackwood, Smethwick, 104; County Boro. of Smethwick: Ann. Rep. for 1907 of M.O.H. 40 (copy in S.R.O., C/H/1/2/2/39).
  • 9. County Boro. of Smethwick, Official Opening of New Refuse Disposal Plant, Rolfe St., Smethwick . . . 29th Aug. 1956 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 10. Smethwick Civic News, May 1954, Nov. 1961 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 11. County Boro. of Smethwick, Representation to Minister of Health for Alteration of Boundary of Boro. (1920), 6 (copy in W.P.L.); above p. 96.
  • 12. Paul, 'Back-to-back Houses', 64-5, 68; Smethwick Telephone, 4 Nov. 1933.
  • 13. Smethwick Official Handbook (7th edn.), 35.
  • 14. West Midland Group, Conurbation, 91-2, 94.
  • 15. Smethwick Official Handbook [1959], 64; above p. 9.
  • 16. Smethwick Civic News, Oct. 1962.
  • 17. K. W. Inskip, Smethwick: from Hamlet to County Borough (Smethwick, 1966), 11 (copy in W.P.L.); Mann, 'Smethwick', 50; Smethwick Official Industrial Handbook (1959), 64.
  • 18. Redhead, Local Govt. 30-1; Smethwick Civic News, Oct. 1954.
  • 19. W.P.L., Min. Bk. 4, pp. 68-9.
  • 20. 'Smethwick and Round About', 5 Aug. 1955; Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1890); County Boro. of Smethwick, Opening of Smethwick Baths, Thimblemill Rd., Smethwick, Mar. 30th, 1933 (copy in W.P.L.); County Boro. of Smethwick, Formal Opening of Slipper Baths, Cape Hill . . . 1st Oct. 1954 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 21. Hackwood, Smethwick, 104.
  • 22. Representation to Minister of Health (1920), 8, 14-16; Smethwick and Oldbury Joint Isolation Hospital: Souvenir and Programme of Opening Ceremony 12th Sept. 1907 (copy in W.P.L.); Ann. Rep. for 1907 of M.O.H. 29.
  • 23. Express & Star, 12 Oct. 1971.
  • 24. St. Chad's Hospital: Opening Ceremony June 27th 1935 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 25. 'Old Smethwick', 9 Oct. 1948; Kelly's Dir. Worcs. (1888), sub Oldbury.
  • 26. The Builder, 30 May 1857, p. 312.
  • 27. W.P.L., D.R.O. 15/Misc. A/22; Lich. Dioc. Mag. 1885, 136.
  • 28. Lich. Dioc. Mag. 1885, 136; Hackwood, Smethwick, 105; 'Old Smethwick', 16 July 1949.
  • 29. Hackwood, Smethwick, 105; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/2(i)/T, pp. 297-300, 346-9.
  • 30. Docs. at St. Peter's, Harborne, 14, Vestry Mins. 1829-57, 27 Mar. 1840; S.R.O., Q/APr 2, rep. of supt. of police Apr. 1840.
  • 31. S.R.O., C/C/D/16/1; C/PC/VIII/6/1/1; O.S. Map 6", Staffs. LXXII. NE. (1890 edn.).
  • 32. Smethwick Almanack (1911), 33. The building carries the date 1906.
  • 33. 'Smethwick and Round About', 24 Sept.-12 Nov. 1954; Smethwick Telephone, 17 June 1933; Mitchells & Butlers Ltd. Fifty Years of Brewing, 1879-1929, 102-3, 108 (copy in W.P.L.); 'Old Smethwick', 12 Nov. 1949.
  • 34. See p. 49.
  • 35. Warley Official Guide [1968], 45.
  • 36. Smethwick Civic News, Sept. 1954; Redhead, Local Govt. 30; Hackwood, Smethwick, 103.
  • 37. Smethwick Local Board (Gas) Act, 1876, 39 & 40 Vic. c. 171 (Local). And see above p. 49 for the general background.
  • 38. Staffs. Advertiser, 8 Oct. 1881, p. 7; W. Midlands Gas Board, Smethwick Gas Works 1955 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 39. Electric Lighting Orders Confirmation (No. 10) Act, 1898, 61 & 62 Vic. c. 93 (Local).
  • 40. Smethwick Almanack (1911), 13.
  • 41. Electric Lighting Orders Confirmation (No. 1) Act, 1910, 10 Edw. VII & 1 Geo. V, c. 75 (Local); Electric Lighting Orders Confirmation (No. 5) Act, 1913, 3 & 4 Geo. V, c. 153 (Local); Smethwick Official Handbook [c. 1922], 40.
  • 42. Smethwick Official Guide (7th edn.), 25; (8th edn.), 83.
  • 43. For this para. see, except where otherwise stated, J. S. Webb, Black Country Tramways, i (Bloxwich, priv. print. 1974), 64, 179-80, 191-4, 199; J. S. Webb, Tramways of the Black Country (Bloxwich, 1954), 33 (copy in W.P.L.). For the Spon Lane route see above pp. 49-50.
  • 44. The façade carries the dates 1914 and 1925.
  • 45. For this para. see 'Old Smethwick', 17 and 24 Feb., 23 July, 6 Aug. 1949; 'Smethwick and Round About', 3 June 1955; Smethwick Telephone, 3 Oct. 1968.
  • 46. See pp. 89, 92-4, 96, 135.