The Workhouse

Under the terms of the Poor Law Act of 1601, each parish was responsible for its own poor, and the distribution of poor relief, which was funded by the poor rate. This was levied on property owners and tenants. Often poor people would move into a more generous parish in order to obtain a larger amount of poor relief. This ended in 1662 with the passing of the Settlement Act, after which only established residents (through birth, marriage, or apprenticeship) were entitled to poor relief. Under the terms of the Act, strangers entering a parish could be removed after 40 days, if they were unemployed. In 1697 the Settlement Act was amended so that anyone could be barred from entering a parish unless they produced a settlement certificate.

Life was certainly hard for the unemployed. Many of the larger parishes opened workhouses for the poor, where they could receive food and shelter in return for work of some kind. On 8th April, 1741 land was acquired behind the houses on the east side of Stafford Street for the building of the town’s workhouse. The trustees were Dr. Richard Wilkes; John Wilkes, a surgeon; Joseph Molineux, a maltster; Thomas Marston, a maltster; Joseph Hincks, a yeoman; Isaac Turner, a maltster; Joshua Dodds, a chapman; and Samuel Hawkesford, a chapman.

Little is known about the workhouse, only the name of the last workhouse master is known. He was job Thatcher. The entrance was in Little Wood Street. Many such workhouses were built throughout the country, although a large number disappeared after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This created a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system, which included the joining of some of the small parishes to form Poor Law Unions, each of which had its own workhouse. As a result of the Act, Willenhall was then administered by the Board of Guardians for the Wolverhampton Union of parishes. The poor of the town were sent to the Union Workhouse in Wolverhampton. Willenhall’s workhouse closed in 1839, and the building was put-up for sale. For many years Upper Lichfield Street continued to be known as Workhouse Lane.


In the early part of the 19th century, towns and cities rapidly grew, as people flocked there to find work in the many factories and industries that appeared at the time. The population of Willenhall, like the other towns in the area was rapidly increasing:

Year Population
1801 3,143
1811 3,523
1821 3,965
1831 5,834
1841 8,695

This resulted in numerous problems including cramped and unsanitary living conditions. Serious health problems often arose from contaminated food, and an unclean and inadequate water supply that came from wells or pumps, which would often be polluted with sewage. This led to a variety of illnesses and diseases, the most virulent of which was Asiatic Cholera. The disease spread from India via trade routes, and reached Europe in 1826, spreading from Turkey to Russia, Poland, Germany and the Baltic ports, from where it came to Sunderland in 1831. In January 1832 it arrived in Newcastle and Gateshead and soon reached York, Leeds, Manchester, the Black Country, and London. By the autumn it had spread to Devon and Cornwall.

Large numbers of people died as a result of several cholera epidemics, which occurred in 1831 to 32; 1848 to 49; 1853 to 54; and 1865 to 66. The disease first appeared locally at Bilston on 4th August, 1832 and resulted in 745 deaths, almost one in twenty of the population.

Public Health and Housing in Willenhall in 1841.  J. Biddle, Surgeon.

Besides the numerous dirt heaps, small pools, and doorway slushes fronting or adjoining the dwellings and workshops, there are in the town of Willenhall two vast masses of stagnant filth and putrescence, sufficient to breed a plague throughout the whole of England.

Mr. Biddle, surgeon, who has resided 20 or 30 years in the town, conducted me to one of these enormous accumulations, which runs, or rather creeps along a field, partly under a hedge, at the bottom of the churchyard. At my particular request, Mr. Biddle made a special examination of this and the other mass of filth, and communicated the result to me in writing, to which I beg to call your attention.

Willenhall, near Wolverhampton, April 12th. 1841.

I have looked over the filthy accumulations of mud which you and I talked about: the one place you saw with me, you know is very bad; it extends at least from 200 to 300 yards, and contains many scores of tons of putrid filth. This runs all along the southern side of the town, and indeed we may say in the very heart of the town. On the western and north western side there is as much, or more, filthy stagnant accumulations of the same kind, amounting, I have no doubt, to some hundred tons. We may well have typhus, etc. which we have now, and have had for a long time, more or less.

I remain, etc. 

R. H. Horne's Report in the Children's Employment Commission (1843)

What must be the condition of these masses in the hot weather, and what effect they may then have upon the senses, I cannot pretend to say; but on my visit, during a cool day in April (the 4th), to the one at the bottom of the churchyard, the stench was most revolting. The appearance it presented to the eye, in some places, was that of a livid, tawney putrescence. As I looked at it I could not help thinking I saw it crawl. But its general appearance was that of a dead settlement of a dark spotty hue, not a scum, but evidently a deep substance. It seemed a reservoir of leprosy and plague.

Mr. Biddle subsequently told me that "in summer it was quite intolerable to pass the place. There were enough marsh exhalations from it to fill a whole country with fever."

There are but few good houses in the town. By the term good, I do not mean large and commodious, but use the word in the English sense of comfortable. The majority of the houses are very indifferent, and nearly all those inhabited by the working classes are of a squalid description, often presenting the last state of want and wretchedness. There are many narrow passages, as in Wolverhampton, averaging from 21 feet to 31 feet wide. They lead into little courts and yards, where dwellings and workshops are always found.

Some of the houses in the main street have an interval of about 2 feet between them, the whole length of which is used as a sewer for all manner of filth, but without any grating or means for it to be carried off. There are many straggling lanes, leading up hill and down hill, with hovels and workshops at irregular intervals. Here and there you pass through a tortuous lane, which should rather be called a gut, being only 2 or 3 feet wide, enclosed between broken walls, rising over mounds of half-hardened dirt and refuse, sinking towards declivities of mud and slush, and leading to other dwellings and workshops, some on the declivities and some on the small level, these latter having puddles and pools of stagnant water and filth accumulated in front of their doors and windows. There are no other means for the admission of air into these abodes but from the doors and windows in front, as they have none at the back. There is no under-ground drainage to any of these places; and very seldom, indeed, have they any privies.

St. Giles' Church and graveyard.

Neighbouring Willenhall had an extremely lucky escape, with 42 cases, and 8 deaths. Although there were no deaths in Wednesfield, Willenhall’s other neighbours didn’t do so well. There were 68 deaths in Darlaston, 85 in Walsall, and 193 in Wolverhampton. Thankfully by the end of 1832 the epidemic had ended.

The disease returned to the country in 1848 and again lasted for around two years. This time there twice as many deaths, including 292 in Willenhall.

Willenhall had escaped lightly in 1832, but little was done to try and improve the unsanitary living conditions until 1842 when a Public Health Committee was formed in the town. Although the committee consisted of prominent townspeople, they had no statutory powers to enforce any decisions that were made.

This was not really possible until the passing of the Government’s Artisans Dwelling Act of 1875 which gave local authorities the power to demolish slum properties. In reality little was achieved other than the purchase of 2 tons of lime, and two dozen whitewash brushes, which were deposited in various parts of the town so that the poor could at least keep their premises clean.

During the second epidemic in 1848 to 1849 the disease appeared at Moseley Hole and spread rapidly throughout the town, aided by warm, dry weather. The committee immediately attempted to deal with the matter, but it was too little, too late. Mr. Thomas Phillips was appointed for two weeks as the sanitary inspector, at a salary of one pound a week. Two workmen were employed to whitewash any dirty houses, and a further three tons of lime, six threepenny bottles of Collins deodorising powder from Whites of Bilston, and four one and threepenny bottles of Dr. Macann's Mixture were purchased and made available for use in the town.

The disease spread so quickly that the town’s two doctors, Mr. J. Hartill, and Mr. J. Froysell, and the Rev. G. H. Fisher of St. Giles’ Church laboured night and day to care for the town’s sick and dying. They were soon joined by Dr. Pardey who was sent by the government to assist them. The local coffin makers were working flat out to try and keep-up with the demand for coffins, which was so great that many of the dead were buried without one. A hearse and horse were hired to assist with the burials, and John Shepherd was appointed as driver, at a salary of £2 a week. Many of the wealthier people sent their families away to places of safety.

St. Giles’ graveyard where the burials were taking place was full and so another graveyard was urgently needed. On 6th September the matter was discussed at a Vestry meeting, but as the estimated cost of the land, drainage, and fencing amounted to £600, which would be paid for by levying a rate of 9 pence in the pound, it was turned down.

The situation was critical, and so the churchwardens made use of a piece of derelict land belonging to the Chapel of Ease Estate. The land, situated at the bottom of Doctor’s Piece became known as the Cholera Burial Ground.

On some days there were as many as 15 deaths and so the bodies would hastily be buried in deep pits or trenches, many without coffins.

The disease raged until late September, and rapidly disappeared, only one new case being reported on the 2nd  October.

The last death from the disease took place on 4th October. During the 49 days of the epidemic, 292 lives were lost.

The memorial in the Cholera Burial Ground.

Part of the Cholera Burial Ground.

Wolverhampton businessman and local benefactor, Henry Rogers, was one of the founders of the Royal Hospital, and the Royal Orphanage in Wolverhampton, and Holy Trinity Church and the almshouses at Heath Town.

He greatly contributed to the welfare of the cholera sufferers by raising between £400 and £500 for the Cholera Relief Fund.

Although the epidemic was over, much still had to be done to improve the unsanitary living conditions in the town. The Public Health Act of 1848 gave powers for the setting-up of public health boards, which led to the formation of the Willenhall Local Board of Health in 1854. The Willenhall Water Company was formed in 1852 to provide a clean water supply for the town. Sadly this took a long time to achieve. The company found itself in difficulties and was taken over in 1868 by the Wolverhampton New Water Company, which was later taken over by Wolverhampton Corporation.

The disease did return to Willenhall during the 1853 to 1854 epidemic, but this time people were prepared, and stringent measures were taken to prevent the spread of the disease. Details of cases and deaths are not known. It is thought that there were up to 300 cases, which must have resulted in a number of fatalities. Willenhall seems to have escaped the final epidemic in 1865 to 1866 when there were no recorded cases in the town.

The Cholera Burial Ground was eventually enclosed, and consecrated on 18th July, 1867. It now serves as a memorial garden, a reminder of one of the most difficult periods in the town’s history.

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