During the late 18th and early 19th centuries Black Country industries flourished and many people moved into the area to find employment. The population in many of the local towns tripled during the first half of the 19th century. Much of the housing was primitive and in short supply, which led to overcrowding. In many areas living conditions were at best unhealthy, and disease was rife. In 1841 the life expectancy for the whole of the country, averaged for males and females was just 41.2 years. Today it is 77.3 years. In the Black Country this was much worse due to the unsanitary conditions. In Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton it was just over 19 years. In Stourbridge it was just over 18 years, but in Dudley it was only 16 years and 4 months. In contrast Penkridge, a clean rural area, about 12 miles or so from Wolverhampton had an average life expectancy of 37 years and 9 months.

Clearly something had to be done to improve this situation and people began to support the idea of not only clearing the slum areas, but also providing a clean and plentiful water supply, and deep sewers supplying sewage treatment plants. The Sanitary Movement was born, but in the end little was done until legislation on the matter had passed through Parliament.

Industrial Squalor and Frequent Disease

Lambeth Brass & Iron Co. advert. 1901.

Many Black Country industries flourished in the first half of the 19th century. There were coal mines, all kinds of iron and metalworking, foundries, chain making, galvanising, chemical works, paint works, japanning works, enamelling works and many more. Factories were sometimes built next-to, and around existing houses, and often businesses were run as small cottage industries, in workshops adjoining houses or even inside them. Living next to a factory must have been very unpleasant, especially as there were no clean air acts and dangerous or poisonous waste could be left lying around to enter the water table, or be washed around during heavy rain. Many areas had open sewers and drains, the contents of which ran into a nearby canal, brook, stagnant pool or open field. Toilets mainly consisted of an open receptacle, the soil being covered over with ashes from the fire. They were often built over old ditches or water courses and so the waste would eventually wash into one area to form a stagnant pool.

In parts of Willenhall water was scarce because of the large number of coal mines in the area and so it was drawn from ditches and a small brook. The brook was frequently choked with refuse and even dead dogs. People used to fill a bucket with water and let it stand or settle before use. Darlaston had many stagnant pools and piles of sewage and Wednesbury, Great Bridge and Dudley Port relied on the River Tame. Most of Wednesbury’s surface water, including some from privies ended up in the river. The river ran past Chance’s alkali works and at that point it turned red from the work’s effluence. The river also ran past Bagnall’s works at Gold’s Hill and the Patent Shaft works at Wednesbury. Both works employed a large number of people and discharged untreated sewage into the river.

Water often came from old springs and pumps and could be badly polluted and unfit to drink. In Wolverhampton 10 new wells were sunk in the late 18th century and a large water tank was positioned in the market place. One of the water pumps was at the top of Cock Street and just above it on the south side of High Green was High Hall. In 1841 it was occupied by William Warner, a chemist. Water from the building’s open drains would sometimes flow towards the Cock Street pump and the nearby Town Hall. This was of great concern and Mr. Warner’s only solution to the problem was to demolish the building.

The unsanitary conditions led to frequent outbreaks of disease. The cholera epidemic of 1832 started in Tipton and spread to Dudley, before moving on to West Bromwich, Bilston and the eastern side of Wolverhampton. 745 people died in Bilston, which amounted to 1 in 20 of the population. In the unsanitary conditions on the eastern side of Wolverhampton, 193 people died, whereas the cleaner western side was almost untouched. There were further outbreaks in 1849 and 1857 and a smallpox epidemic in 1871-1872.

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