The misery of the desperately poor in Birmingham’s ‘disgusting slums’

“HOW OUR HONEST POOR LIVES – Shocking Revelations of Suffering” reads a headline in the Birmingham Daily Mail on December 10, 1886. Brum’s wealthy were about to get a winter window into another world.

Welcome back to Victorian Birmingham. The modern conveniences are here – gas lights, water pipes, even electricity are starting to penetrate the city.

The Industrial Revolution of the last century has firmly established Birmingham as a powerhouse, and it was a leading light in trade, education and engineering. But for those who are left trapped in hastily built slum dwellings from the time of the revolution, they might as well have lived in a completely different world.

READ MORE:Fantastic snapshots of lost lifestyle and inner city living in Birmingham

With religious figures and philanthropists at the helm, people began to notice the worst nooks and crannies of big cities. Sometimes this resulted in changes from the top, such as slumbering – other times it led to “poverty tourism”, where the rich came to stare in disbelief at the poor lifestyle.

Which brings us back to the headline “Honestly poor”. Following an appeal from a pastor in Bordesley, a Mail writer took a walk around the forgotten northwestern outskirts of the city center – and that’s how they set the scene.



High Street around 1900 - the city center was a life of activity, but the people who lived on the edge of it were in bad shape.
High Street around 1900 – the city center was a life of activity, but the people who lived on the edge of it were in bad shape.

“Winter, with all its attendant misery for those who do not have enough food and clothing, has come upon us.” Another pastor in Newtown is quoted as saying – “I have encountered a number of cases in the last few weeks where parents have gone without food for days and kept the few crusts they had for children whose cries for bread were harder to bear than the pain. from hunger. “

The journalist took the Bordesley priest with him and went on his poverty tour. The pastor took “dinner tickets” for children with him – to be exchanged for discounted bread in certain shops.

The first stop was a house on Hatchett Street where three generations of a family lived under one roof. “When we came in … we found an old man and woman with the wives of two married sons and several children.”

“The grandfather, a weak, degraded old man, worn down by age and the wear and tear of the years, and even more by sparse food and meager clothes, sat together beside the fireplace like a dog. He had nothing to sit on., And therefore had to he gathers and hangs on a stick for support while getting as close to a burning coal as he could. “

Around him was the quiet work of the women of the household – mapping hooks and eyes in the dim light. They worked for about a quarter of an hour an hour together, so they should have worked 960 hours between them to earn a pound – not even 140 pounds today.

“Thinking the fine lady, when she dresses in a beautiful dress and complains that the hooks and eyes are not set correctly, ever realizes that the same hooks and eyes have passed through the hands of her poor sisters at this mockery for a consideration ? “, the author ponders. This was the reality for some – parallel universes of rich and poor, where the only point of contact was the things one did for each other.

Getting a job was the easiest thing for some – being able to work was a dice roll. Out on the street, the pastor, who acted as a guide, asked a woman how her husband felt about a lumberjack.

“He could not do the work, so they sent him out with a handcart to bring wood to people. They had to put him in the handcart and bring him home – he has so gone down due to lack of food that he has not been given the strength to to work now. “



Steam-powered trams arrive in Birmingham in 1882 - taking people right past the worst places to live.
Steam-powered trams arrive in Birmingham in 1882 – taking people right past the worst places to live.

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Next stop was Hospital Street – “a disgusting slum of rickety huts that seem to be falling apart, their smoky exterior walls are only a faint shadow of dirt and misery inside.”

One belongs to an old jeweler and his wife, without a job, but goes to the factories to scrape up some work. “Morning after morning” he goes out and waits all day to see if anyone needs his services – and often returns home empty-handed at the end of the day.

They used to live in a nice, comfortable house in Winson Green until work became scarce and forced them out. It was the fate of a number of “the city’s respectable artisan class who buried themselves and their poverty away in the slums, where everyone is poor and not a few are criminals.”

Up on Pritchett Street, just south of today’s Dartmouth Circus, is where the reporter and pastor find the worst sights. When they push a lockless door up a street terrorized by gangs, their eyes are “for a minute unable to pierce the darkness.”

“We discover a miserable woman and two children shaking in front of us. The fireplace is empty.”

The shelves are also empty – the plaster crumbles from the walls, the windows are smashed, there is a hole in the front door and the only piece of furniture is a table. Almost everything that can be sold has been sold, to scrape money together for food.

“My husband is a brass caster,” the woman says, “for the past three months he has not earned a penny on his profession. He expects a job again before Christmas, and if he moves on, we’re fine again.”

Thus, almost three tiny columns appeared in a large broadsheet newspaper in 1886. A grim existence in Birmingham’s back-to-back slums – it would take almost another century before the vast majority of houses like these would be toppled.

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