Wolverhampton had many slum properties, occupied by the poorer members of society, who often had a 'hand to mouth' existence. One small area of such poor housing was in Brookes Street, on the northern side of Salop Street. At the end of Brookes Street was a courtyard containing 16 small houses in two blocks, known as 'Besom Yard'. Brookes Street and Besom Yard are not marked on the 1840 Tithe map, but are included on the 1885 Ordnance Survey map, so the houses were built in the middle of the 19th century.

The location of Besom Yard.

Each house consisted of a living room and two upstairs bedrooms. The parents used one of the bedrooms and possibly shared it for a while with a young child. The remaining children shared the other bedroom. Because of the high rates of infant mortality, families often had up to ten children, so it was a tight squeeze. Sometimes a house might be shared with another family, so living conditions were very different to what we have today.

There was no running water in the houses. Water was obtained from a hand operated pump in the yard. There would be a kitchen range in the living room, that was used for cooking and for heating. There was no gas or electricity, so oil lamps were used at night. There would be one on the landing to light the bedrooms through an open door. A black ring would appear on the ceiling above the oil lamp, which came from the fumes.

There were shared toilets, consisting of a wooden board with a hole in the middle, positioned above a cylindrical vessel in a hole in the ground, that was emptied periodically by the night soil men.

There were shared brew houses, each with a small stove inside to heat water. They were used for washing clothes, preparing food and for bathing in a tin bath on each bath night.

Each house would have a coal cellar that could also be used to store fruit and vegetables.

Besom Yard.

An impression of one of the rows of houses.

There was tight-knit community in each courtyard, people helped one another to overcome problems and shortages in life. There would be communal parties in the summer and at Christmas, or on bonfire night. Everyone would contribute food and a good time would be had by all.

Family life was quite strict. The father of each family ensured that his children would be back at home for a certain time in the evening and would lock them out if they were late. If children misbehaved, their father would beat them with his belt or use a stick. Life could be very harsh.

When someone died, a large wake would be held and a wreath was hung on the front door. A barrel of beer was made available for mourners, family and friends, to drink to the sad loss.

A besom.

People earned money, to make ends meet in a variety of ways. Some worked for low wages in local factories or shops, others travelled around mending buckets, pots, pans and metal utensils, and collected scrap metal, which they sold. Some residents stitched hessian bags for local nail-makers, or dealt in horses.

Some of the women walked for miles to collect water cress from ponds or rivers, which was carried home in large baskets or cloths, often on their head, weighing a hundredweight or so. It was then washed before being carried door to door for sale, in small bundles, costing one or two pence each.

The yard is chiefly remembered for the besoms, or brooms, that were made for for sweeping. They consisted of a bundle of twigs tied to a stout pole. The twigs could be from broom shrubs, heather, hazel trees, or birch trees.

Women walked for many miles, throughout the surrounding countryside to gather the twigs and wood for the handles, carrying them back in heavy loads.

The material was then left to season for several months, so that the wood was hard, but still pliable. If used too soon, it would be too brittle.

When the wood for the handles had seasoned, the bark would be removed with a drawknife and the wood was smoothed with either a drawknife or drawshave.

Seasoned twigs were then sorted and trimmed with a short-bladed billhook. In the centre were some longer and rougher twigs, surrounded by smoother and shorter twigs on the outside.

The bundle was then tied with either thin pieces of willow, or wire and then trimmed with a short handled axe. The handle was then inserted into the bundle and secured with a nail or a wooden peg. Any material left over was tied into bundles and sold as firewood.

The finished besoms were then sold, sometimes door to door or at local markets and events such as funfairs or horse racing.

The old way of life came to an end in the 1930s when many slum properties were demolished. Brookes Street and Besom Yard were demolished. The inhabitants would have moved into some of the many new council houses being built at the time, in very different neighbourhoods.

A mortuary and a mortuary chapel were soon built where the street once stood. All traces of its existence had then disappeared. Most people visiting Salop Street would not have realised that it was ever there.

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