‘Indecent usages’: the nuisance of peeing in public



Birmingham’s administrative bodies had to deal with regular complaints. These complaints most often related to incidents of ‘nuisance’, a term which can be understood generally as referring to material issues.  The Street Commissioners handled smoke nuisance, building nuisance and nuisance arising from problems with sewerage. Most usually these nuisances were approached by first sending an investigative party and then holding many discussions on the best means of tackling the nuisance. Sometimes the same nuisance was raised in committee meetings over several years. The Street Commissioners employed an inspector of nuisance, John Dester who was succeeded by his son, also John. Dester was the eyes and ears of the Commissioners, but complaints were also presented by the public.

The following nuisance was reported to the Street Commissioners in 1847, in the form of a memorial and, fortunately, was deemed important enough to be entered into the minute book. It is interesting as it raises not only a material nuisance, but also a moral one: that of men (I am presuming men) urinating in the street. The complaint may have been a regular one, as a report from John Pigott Smith, the Town Surveyor, also highlighted the problem. Smith suggested that he was investigating the installation of public urinals to alleviate this nuisance.

This memorial is a good example of the negotiations that took place between the public and the administrative authorities that sought to maintain order. It also offers an interesting snapshot, albeit a somewhat smelly one,  of life in a rapidly growing 19th century town.

This source can be found in MS 2818/7 [Archives, Heritage and Photography – Library of Birmingham]

Memorial from inhabitants of Bull Street, January 4th, 1847

In a place known by the name of ‘The Coach Yard’ in the centre of Bull Street one of the most public thoroughfares in the Boro’ there exists a Nuisance most prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants in the immediate vicinity and in its practice an outrage to the public decency, and would appropriately be designated street urinary but without the customary screen to pallae its offensiveness.

The incredible amount of putrid water floating on the pavement and collected in the hollows finds its way into the adjacent cellarage, more particularly that of Nos. 21 and 22, indeed so noxious is the effluvia arising therefrom especially on Sundays that the lower rooms of the houses alluded to become unfit for habitation and occasionally of necessity are voided for the day. –

To such an extent is the practice adopted that the occupants of houses are compelled to make repeated attempts to leave their respective dwellings ere the indecent usages will allow of their doing so.

Moreover the residents in premises on the opposite side of the street can never remain at their drawing room windows without being subject to indecencies in themselves disgraceful and which ought not to be tolerated in the least frequented, much less in the most public thoroughfare of the Boro’.

The correspondence was passed to the Paving Committee for further consideration. At the next general meeting of February 1st the committee reported that ‘a flagged footway on each side of the passage has been laid and the carriage way put in order and that a lamp has been ordered to light the passage’.

There are no further entries on this issue in the Street Commissioners minute books.




I have just started researching for a PhD in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, under the supervision of Professor Carl Chinn and with financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

There is still only a working title for my thesis, but the proposal is a case study of Birmingham and its administration between 1838-1852. This time frame falls within a period of immense change in British politics and society as the impact of industrialisation and urban growth became starkly visible. This was an age of sweeping political reform and immense social upheaval. Life appears to have been running at an ever increasing pace. Birmingham was one of a small number of towns at the forefront of this dynamic change, bursting at the seams with a population that was technologically innovative, culturally motivated and politically radical.

The period under consideration for this research was chosen as one which really represents the frontier between old and new styles of approach to local administration. This is an area which I hope to explore in more detail in my thesis. I am particularly interested in the interface between the ‘public’ and local authorities. I want to understand the extent to which public demand influenced reform at a local level and how local demands might have impacted on changes to national policy as well as consideration of how these new approaches to social management impacted on real lives. Another ambition for the thesis is to move away from the traditional ‘grand narrative’ approach of class conflict, so often applied to nineteenth-century Birmingham,  considering instead the rather more ordinary interactions of daily life. I have discovered that the minute books of both the Town Council and the Street Commissioners reveal an incredibly vivid insight into how Birmingham developed materially during the first half of the nineteenth century. Not through any poetic description or fanciful musings, but through planning applications, petitions of complaint and bye-laws. Such a vibrant and real image of the town emerged from these ‘mundane’ interactions that I thought it would be useful to share them. Hence this blog on an occasional history of the mundane.

Birmingham’s early Victorian history has too often been overshadowed by the towering presence of the later administration of Joseph Chamberlain. It has been written off as a time of civic stagnation. I want to contest this perspective by bringing to the fore the dynamic and often bold actions taken by Birmingham’s early civic leadership.

The majority of evidence sourced for this blog can be found archived at the Library of Birmingham, which offers a HUGE quantity of archival material for anyone interested in the history of Birmingham – and it’s not at all mundane!

Birmingham and the Municipal Corporations Act (1835)


The Municipal Corporations Act entered the statute books in September of 1835. Like the Poor Law Amendment Act of the previous year, the MCA was representative of rational policy making. In 1834 a Royal Commission had been established to investigate the state of England’s local authorities. The Commission, under the leadership of Birmingham radical lawyer Joseph Parkes and Blackburn radical MP John Blackburne, had presented a damning report of maladministration, poor infrastructure and shady dealings. Despite strong opposition from the Lords the act was passed, albeit with a number of significant concessions. The act included clauses which permitted emerging industrial urban centres to apply for a charter of incorporation: Birmingham, Bolton and Manchester were all granted this charter in October, 1838.

The motivations for this particular reform are debateable. It seems highly probable that emerging party politics was a primary factor. However, for many it represented an extension of the the Great Reform Act of 1832, sweeping away the last vestiges of borough rot. The new act also introduced a franchise into local government. Though limited to rate payers of three years standing it was seen by many as an important contribution to the principle of political representation. Certainly this ‘principle’ features as a recurring phrase in Birmingham’s early Town Council minute books and as such should be given some consideration.

A key idea underscoring my research is that the Municipal Corporations Act was viewed by certain influential local men as an ideology, or rather as a vehicle for promoting ideologies. Many of Birmingham’s early municipal men, along with all those who had campaigned for a Charter of Incorporation, had cut their teeth in earlier political movements. In particular, many had been members of the Birmingham Political Union. Some had held strong associations with the early Chartist Movement.  Part of my research will consider how effective the MCA really was in bringing about material change in the provinces and so it is important to become acquainted with the early Municipal Men and the values that motivated them. As well as being at the forefront of local politics, these men also represented the economic backbone of the town. Amongst them were leading manufacturers, merchants and professionals from the Birmingham community, many of whose names were synonymous with innovation.

The early years of Birmingham’s Town Council were marked with tensions. From the time of  the first election until the end of 1851, administration of the town was shared between a number of local bodies. The new Borough Council found itself facing strong opposition and legal challenges which prevented them from taking any real authority for three years. That the municipal men were able to absorb all of those other bodies in little more than a decade is a strong testimony to their tenacity and shrewd political acumen.