Birmingham Improvements

The Victorians often produced uncontrolled, unplanned towns in their rush towards industrialisation, which it took some time to remedy. In Georgian towns, they often just cleared a way through the slums and built fine new houses, or an indoor market. Where did the poor go? No idea, nor did they care. This is some more from Asa Brigg’s Victorian Cities:

“The Improvement Scheme was made possible by a piece of national legislation, again a Conservative measure, the Artisans’ Dwelling Act of 1875, which Richard Cross, Disraeli’s reforming Home Secretary, deliberately referred to Chamberlain for his approval during its passage through parliament. The act provided for the compulsory acquisition by specified local authorities of insanitary areas within their boundaries After acquisition, existing properties could be demolished, new houses could be built, and general improvements could be carried out. Chamberlain admired the philosophy behind the act which he claimed ‘recognize something higher than property’. He took steps at once to have set up and ‘Improvement committee’ of the Council, and encouraged his friend, William White, who represented the poorest and most insanitary ward in the borough, to become its first chairman.

The Medical Officer of Health was asked to prepare a map of a ‘scheduled area’. He did so within a few weeks, picking out a crowded area of ‘narrow streets, houses without back doors or windows, situated both i and out of courts; confined yards; courts open at one opened only, and this one opening small and narrow; the impossibility in many instances, of providing sufficient privy accommodation; houses and shopping so dilapidated as to be in imminent danger of falling, and incapable of proper repair.’ The evils ensuing were ‘want of ventilation, want of light, want of proper and decent accommodation, resulting in dirty habits, low health and debased morals on the part of the tenants.’

White, who was a moving speaker, added his own verdict. ‘The rubbish and dilapidation in whole quarters… ave reminded me of Strasbourg, which I saw soon after the bombardment [of 1870]. In passing through such streets as Thomas Street, the back of Lichfield Street, and other parts indicated in the plan before the council, little else is to be seen but bowing roofs, tottering chimneys, tumbledown and often disused shopping, heaps of bricks, broken windows and coarse, rough pavements, damp and sloppy. It is not easy to describe or imagine the dreary desolation which acre after acre of the very heart of the town presents to anyone who will take the trouble to visit it. I houses, too, not of the worst class, but in front streets, and inhabited by respectable and thriving tradesmen, intolerable structural evils abound… which I have sen with my own eyes and have heard from witnesses. I am stating facts.

White’s speech recalls some of Charles Booth’s comments 15 years late o London or Seebohm Rowntree’s comments 25 years later on York. Chamberlain, listening to White, spoke of he ‘deep impression’ which had been made by the disclosure of ‘these terrible facts’ on his own mind ‘and that of the town’. It is scarcely surprising that the Council approved the scheme of clearing the scheduled district, a area of 93 acres, as the Improvement committee had proposed. There was vociferous Conservative opposition not so much i the Council as at the Local Government Board Enquiry, but a provisional order form the Local Government Board, later confirmed by Act of Parliament inAugust 1876, authorised its acquisition. ”


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