Managing the Poor: General Suppliers to the Workhouse

Running the workhouse in mid-nineteenth century Birmingham required numerous supplies of everyday items. Decisions on who and what were supplied were made by the Guardians of the Poor at regular meetings. The workhouse was a considerable customer for many small businesses, and it seems likely that connections across the local business community could play an important role in securing contracts. However, some supplies came from much further afield. Below is the list of suppliers for 1858, agreed at a meeting of the Board of Guardians in early March and published in Aris’s. Meetings of the Guardians were regularly reported in the press, to ensure that local tax payers could see exactly where their money was being spent. The list is interesting for what it reveals of workhouse necessities, from oatmeal for gruel, through to shoes and coffins.

Meat                          Mr Billingham, Congreve Street
Oatmeal                    Mr William Jeffcot, Weaman Street
Ale                             The Deritend Brewery
Wines & Spirits       E. Simpkinson, Jamaica Row
Leather                     Frier, Bull Street
Shoes                         M’Kinley & Walker, Paisley
Butter & Cheese      Knowles, Broad Street
Grocery                     J. Whilock, High Street
Hosiery, Draper      Atkinson & Co., London
& Clothing
Coals                         Weal, Broad Street
Coffins                      Grimley
Stationery                Mr Billing, Livery Street
Printing                    Mr Tonks
Drugs                        Mr Humphreys
Milk                          T. Saxelby

Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, level 4. It may be prudent to make an appointment to avoid disappointment. The papers are also available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive. Please continue to support our local archives and libraries.









Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room



On May 2nd, 1887, Thomas White was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for ‘neglecting his task at the workhouse’. An article in the Birmingham Mail described White as a tramp, and the task which he was deemed to have been negligent of was oakum picking.[1] Up and down the country, in workhouses and jails, men, women and children were daily set to work in this onerous, uncomfortable job. Baskets or tubs of dirty, thick rope was pulled into individual strands ready for reuse as caulking material. In workhouses it was used as a test in an attempt to deter people from claiming relief. Most institutions set a daily quota that each claimant must pick. Richard Wood was the tramp master, and at White’s trial he testified that on the morning of April 30th that he had given White 4lbs of oakum to pick, but that he had only picked 2lb 13oz. The workhouse doctor had confirmed that White was in good health. The presiding magistrate enquired if cold weather might have impacted the defendant’s ability to undertake his task, but was assured that the room was ‘sufficiently warm’ and that the job was such a simple one that ‘some of the seven-day boys sometimes picked the oakum just for pleasure’.[2]

Birmingham’s oakum room had not always been situated within the workhouse. In 1867, Guardian Mr Benton brought forward a motion that a labour test should be imposed on those claiming outdoor relief, as it was in Manchester. He stated that he brought the motion forward ‘in no revengeful spirit, but because he thought it would be beneficial to the people not to allow themselves to become paupers.’[3] By the following year there was an Oakum Room Sub-Committee, consisting 11 Guardians, under the authority of the Visiting and General Purposes Committee. The oakum room was based on Great Charles Street, and divided into sections for men and women with male and female attendants.[4] This was some way from the workhouse, and it is possible that it was a test house only for those seeking outdoor relief, rather than for workhouse inmates. By 1871 it was decided that the oakum picking room should be moved to the workhouse, once the tenure on the Great Charles Street premises was up.[5]

It would seem that, although Mr Benton’s proposal was presented as novel for the town, there had been a longer standing tradition of poor tests, including oakum picking. For some reason it had been discontinued.  The Relief Committee was responsible for managing outdoor relief. In March, 1858, they reported to the Board of Guardians that they were currently employing upwards of five hundred men in stone breaking and oakum picking. It was stated that one hundred and fifty men had lately been in the oakum ward as a result of the pearl button makers strike. This statement met with mixed responses: Mr Tonks said that in his opinion ‘the Board ought to require from them such an amount of labour as would prevent them from going there from choice’. Mr Phillips reported that a number of ‘insubordinate’ men from among the strikers claiming relief had been sent to the outdoor oakum ward, but that there was danger of men becoming ill from the cold weather, a factor confirmed by Mr Maher, who agreed that some means of heating the oakum room should be considered as ‘setting aside humanity, it would be economy to do so’. Men who became ill could be an even greater burden on the parish. Only Mr Corbett appeared to show a modicum of empathy, suggesting that it seemed unlikely that men would choose to break stones or pick oakum in return for ‘the miserable allowance of bread and money’ which they provided.[6]

[1] Birmingham Mail, May 2nd, 1887

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, May 4th, 1867

[4] Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, GP B/2/3/10 Oakum Room Sub-committee 1869-1872

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 9th, 1871

[6] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 8th, 1858

William Scholefield: Birmingham’s First Mayor

On May 4th, 2017, the people of the West Midlands will have the opportunity to elect a Mayor. This is different to the usual appointment of Lord Mayor, which does not fall to a public vote. Birmingham’s last elected mayor was James Smith, who took office in 1895. The first mayor was William Scholefield, who was granted his position on December 28th, 1838. Scholefield was the son of the Birmingham MP Joshua Scholefield (who also held a Birmingham ‘first’, being one of the town’s first MPs along with Thomas Attwood) and would later become an MP himself.

Screenshot 2017-03-29 at 20.46.50 - Edited (1)

William Scholefield (c) New York Public Library

Scholefield’s term of office should have represented a triumph for Birmingham as the town celebrated the institution of its first municipal corporation. But instead he found himself at the centre of controversy at a time of immense social tensions. Some of the difficulties were of Scholefield’s own doing. At the time of the first town council elections he put himself forward as returning officer. That is, he oversaw the counting of votes, a role which was supposed to fall to the High Bailiff of the town. Scholefield had been High Bailiff until October 1838, at which time local button manufacturer James Turner who held that position. When the local Tory party, the Loyal and Constitutional Association, began a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the wholly Radical town council, Scholefield’s dodgy appointment gave real momentum to the anti-corporation campaign.

By the summer of 1839, Birmingham’s first town council had become more generally unpopular within the local community. Chartism was becoming increasingly popular, but the town councillors had allied themselves with another political agitation, the Anti-Corn Law League. This created a really strong line of tension that would erupt into violence in July, 1839. Once again it was Scholefield who found himself at the centre of the controversy.  Groups of Chartists had been gathering in the Bull Ring twice daily and creating something of a disturbance. Shopkeepers complained about the nuisance and Scholefield sought support from the magistrates. A dispersal notice was posted in the Bull Ring on May 10th, but protesters took no notice. Nightly, torchlit parades were held in the streets. The council had been given responsibility for policing and keeping the peace, but they had no money to manage this. Scholefield and a magistrate went to London and requested support from the Home Office. On July 4th 1839 a body of Metropolitan Police arrived in the Bull Ring with instructions to disperse the crowds and arrest any Chartist speakers. What ensued was what can only be described as a mass brawl. The protesters broke the staves of their flags and banners, using them as weapons against the police; railings around the nearby parish church, St. Martin’s, were pulled up for the same purpose. Among the many injuries two of the London Met officers were stabbed and left fighting for their lives. The Riot Act was read and Dragoons from nearby barracks raced in to break up the melee. Over subsequent weeks numerous skirmishes broke out between the London police and locals. On July 15th, following claims of police violence against working men, shops in the Bull Ring were looted and torched in a riot that shocked the whole country. As a result three men and a youth were transported to Australia. They were lucky to have their original death sentence overturned.

Although the first Mayor of Birmingham had a difficult year in office, nevertheless he oversaw the introduction of the town’s own magistracy and law court – previously there had been a total dependency on the county bench in Warwick. Birmingham also got its first coroner, Dr. Birt Davies. Again the previous coroner, though a local man, had been appointed by the magistrates in Warwick. Even with all the difficulties of political differences and the very real possibility that the council might be found to have no legitimate role, Scholefield and the other municipal men made an important step towards independence from the county and showed admirable tenacity in the face of intense opposition.

Report from Samuel Jones, Inspector of Smoke Nuisance


Birmingham had a very different landscape to that other great product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  There were few of those great ‘satanic mills’ that came to characterise  early nineteenth-century Northern England in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, this was a town of remarkable innovation and mass production and Birmingham certainly did have a problem with smoke pollution. When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1835, he described a town where everything is black, dirty and dark, although every moment breeds gold and silver (‘Journeys to England and Ireland’).

The dirt and the smoke that blighted Birmingham came from the numerous steam engines that drove the town’s metal rolling mills, glass houses and numerous furnaces. In 1818 the Street Commissioners received a letter from Walter Hopper Esq., complaining that the smoke from steam engines at the New Union Mill was exposing his estate, near Five Ways, to ‘volumes of smoke’ which rendered the land ‘quite disagreeable’. When looking through the Street Commissioners minutes this appears as a perennial complaint across several decades and across the town.

By the 1840s there was an increasing interest in issues of health and personal comfort and the Street Commissioners appointed a full time inspector of steam engine smoke in 1844. Jones was responsible to the Steam Engine Committee and would present official reports annually. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal system for measuring smoke at this time, other than timing the emissions and inspecting the engines. This report is taken from the original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners, which can be viewed by appointment at Birmingham Heritage, Archives and Photography at the Library of Birmingham, reference MS 2818/1/8 (please be aware that, as a result of severe staff cut backs, opening times for the archives is now restricted, I would recommend phoning first)

Report of Samuel Jones to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act
February 5th 1849

‘When I commenced my duties in 1844 there were 173 steam engine chimneys, large and small, with 225 furnaces. Several parties had at that time applied means for consuming smoke but they were very seldom used, there being 111 chimneys that emitted dense black smoke from 16 to 35 minutes within every working hour, others varying from 6 to 16 minutes per hour. At the present time there are 224 steam engine chimneys, with 297 furnaces and 2 more now in course of erection. Which makes an increase in the last five years of 57 chimneys and 72 furnaces, the nominal power of the various engines amounting to about 3500 Horse Power. The quantity of fuel used for working of this power alone amounts to about 300 tons per day and most of it of the very commonest description. There are 17 of these chimneys, including some with flues from muffles in them that emit dense black smoke from 12 to 18 minutes within the hour, and 50 others though greatly improved since first under inspection, are still indifferent, they smoke from causes that may be avoided from 6 to 10 minutes within the hour, the others vary from 2 to 6 minutes per hour. There are 50 chimneys used exclusively for muffles, annealing pots and stoves – 22 for puddling and tube furnaces, 6 for glass houses, 2 for gas works – making a total of 304 chimneys (exclusive of smiths forges) from which such a quantity of dense smoke would arise as would envelop the whole town were it not for the many and excellent means adopted for its consumption. This shews that the nuisance is greatly abated but it is not to the extent it could be, as I am convinced that all steam engine proprietors ought to be in such a position, for their own advantage, as would enable them to work their engines without making so much smoke as would either injure the health of or be a nuisance to the Public’

Cleaning up the act: Kent St. public baths, plans and accounts


Kent St. Bath & Washhouses c. 1855 ©BirminghamCityCouncil

Birmingham Corporation opened its first public baths at Kent Street on May 12th, 1851. It was among the first major civic building projects undertaken by the town’s earliest elected council, along with the prison and asylum at Winson Green. There were other public baths in the town from very early in the nineteenth century, but Kent Street was the first paid for from the local public purse. At a meeting of the town council in October 1848, the ‘Gaol and Building Committee’ presented the first plans for the building:

The plans now submitted will if carried out afford the following accommodation viz. one swimming bath 84 feet by 36 feet – two plunging baths 15 feet by 17 feet and 13 feet by 18 feet – one for males and one for females – 51 private baths 5 feet 9 inches square, being 36 for males and 15 for females with vapour and shower baths – 25 stalls each 3 feet 6 inches wide for washing – room for centrifugal drying machine, drying closet, laundry with mangles – 6 private drying closets with water closets for each division. Residences for superintendents and matron, committee and waiting rooms. The Police House will be placed under the drying closet and the shaft from the boiler flue will also serve as an extraction shaft to assist in ventilating the whole of the buildings, but will economise fuel. The arrangement of the plans is such as to admit of future extension should it be required.’

There was clearly a good deal of thought put into ensuring that the building could offer the best value to the rate payer as well as allowing for future extension if the baths proved popular. By January 1852 the council had appointed a dedicated ‘Baths and Washhouses Committee’, who reported that there had been a decrease in the number of people using the swimming baths, suggesting that this was a seasonal drop and that some of the attendants had been ‘dispensed with’. The baths had been closed for several days during December for maintenance, including repairs to the boilers and flues. The committee also presented the following accounts. The list shows the name of tradesman, goods/services procured and the cost in pounds, shillings and pence:

John Wilson & Co. –  check books – £10,,19,, 4

Harriman – thermometers –  £  1,,14,, 4

H. Bishop –  chairs – £  3,, 6,, 0

Mr Hutchins – baskets – £  0  ,, 7,,

Rawlings, – brushes – £ 5,,17,, 5

Edward Simons – soap – £24,,19,, 8

Allen & Son –  printing –  £  2,,15,, 6

Stokes – coals –  £93,, 5,, 3

Holliday – cocoa nut matting –  £15,,18,, 9

C. Aston –  ironmongery –  £  1,, 7,, 4

Brassington – tubs etc. –  £10,,17,, 3

Holliday – flannel – £   0 ,,11,, 5

John Hanks – coals –  £  0  ,,18,, 8

Superintendents  – incidental expenses  – £  1,,15,, 5

the information here is taken from the minutes of Birmingham Town Council, BCC 1/AA/1/1/2 , Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, at the Library of Birmingham Please support our local archives


The Public Office: extension and refurbishments

Following on from yesterday’s post on the development of plans to improve the town’s Public Office, after a complaint from the county magistrates, an outline of the extensions and refurbishments is given below. These are taken from the original minutes of the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act, reference MS 2818/1/5  Library of Birmingham, Archives, Heritage and Photography.



At a meeting of the Street Commissioners held on October 30th, 1830, almost three years after the original complaint of the magistrates, the Public Office committee reported the following refurbishments underway:

On the ground floor – two committee rooms; an office for Mr. Dester (Dester was responsible for the local scavengers), which will occasionally be available for other purposes and furnished with writing desk, chairs and table from the Commissioners present room; a closet for hats and umbrellas; one committee room which may occasionally serve as a waiting room for persons attending meetings instead of, as at present, waiting in the gateway of the Public Office at the risk of their health and sufficient to furnish with table and part of the seats in the Commissioners current room; a further committee room furnished with table and ten chairs to match the furniture in the Commissioners room that may supply an additional and appropriate supply of seats upon any extraordinary attendance of the Commissioners.

On the upper floor – The room for the Commissioners general meetings. To furnish this room appropriately and worthy of the architecture the Committee has sought a person who combines good taste with the best workmanship and reasonable charges – the committee announced that ‘such a person has been found’ and the minutes report that they presented detailed drawings and specifications to the assembly before continuing with their ‘mature deliberations’

Any other mode of fitting other than that of placing the seats on the floor around the room would be utterly destructive of its beauty…your committee finds itself confirmed in this opinion by the judgement of men of acknowledged taste and experience in matters of this kind and therefore recommend this room be furnished settees and chairs placed alternately around the room, the settees to correspond in length with the recesses between the pilasters, that is to say eight settees, each about 7 feet 6 inches long, two settees about 4 feet 8 inches each. There was also to be a chair and a plinth for the president, a table and fourteen chairs all made agreeably to the drawings. The seating would, it was projected, accommodate 60 persons, a number much greater than generally attends at one time

The great flourish with which the refurbished meeting room was presented was followed with the undergoing work to the ground floor:

Ground floor – A front room for the use of the adjoining parishes on Mondays and Thursdays and for the use of Commissioners at all other times. The parishes would be charged for use of the rooms and it was recommended that they be furnished with a table and ten chairs for their use; a public staircase adjoining a room for parish business connected to the Overseers and a private staircase for the magistrates.

Upper floor – A room at the front of the building for magistrates to hear complaints, grant warrants and summonses &c. …adjoining to which is a reception room and passage leading to the Commissioners room; two other rooms, one for witnesses waiting to give evidence, the other for persons wanting summons, so that no one will be permitted to wait on the stairs and landing to obstruct the free ingress and egress of the inhabitants and to prevent the inconvenient crowding of these offices as heretofore, to the annoyance of all concerned. 

Basement storey – this included eight ‘vaults’ one to be a prisoners day room, one for a stable for the magistrates’ horses, one for a kitchen for Mrs. Redfern’s house, one for Mrs. Dester, two to be occupied by warm air apparatus and two of the largest as yet unappropriated. 

The whole of the building was to be finished by the end of December. The Commissioners demanded only one alteration to the plans presented, that was that the settees and chairs in their meeting room should be covered with roan leather, in preference to the proposed mohair. There was also some uncertainty as to the furnishing of the magistrates rooms and it was decided to hold another meeting with them before confirming their agreement.  By February 7th, 1831, the Commissioners were finally settling in to their new and grand meeting room. Though at that meeting, they requested the Public Office committee have drapery put up at the windows of the meeting room.

Charges and regulations for use of the Town Hall, January 1851

As 1851 drew to a close, Birmingham’s administrative bodies were amalgamated into the single body of the town council, as enacted by the 1851 Birmingham Improvement Act. As part of the act, public assets which had previously come under the authority of the Birmingham Street Commissioners were passed to the new administration. These included the town’s large, capital investments – the markets and the Town Hall. The hand over had been organised over several months and for the most part, the status quo was continued, though managed by newly formed committees. Regulations and bye-laws were formally presented at meetings held early in 1852 with new regulations gradually introduced (see for example, my earlier post on regulations for slaughter houses Regulations and charges for the Town Hall, previously  under the authority of the Town Hall Committee of the Street Commissioners, had been transferred to the new Estates and Buildings Committee of the Borough Council. The democratic aspirations of this new body can be seen in the insurance form that those hiring the hall were required to sign. Any expenses for damages are not now due to the Street Commissioners, but to the ‘Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses’ of the borough – a confirmation of corporation ownership. These regulations can be found in the minute books of the Birmingham Town Council held at The Library of Birmingham, Archives, Heritage and Photograph BCC1/AA/1/1/2

Regulations and charges for the use of the Town Hall, presented by the Estate and Building Committee at a quarterly meeting of the Town Council held on January 2nd, 1852

For the Hall

No. 1.,   That all borough meetings called by or held under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

No. 2.,   All other meetings, except as  hereafter mentioned   –   £5

No. 3.,   All meetings, concerts or balls called or held in support of religious charitable or benevolent institutions or in support of any of the Scientific Institutions of the Borough – £2,,10s

No. 4.,   All concerts, balls and other entertainments of that nature and all lectures and other assemblies of inhabitants if for personal benefit or advantage –  £10
If for personal personal or individual profit when not inhabitants –  £20

Besides the above charges, the lighting of the Hall with gas and cleaning of the Hall to be paid for.  The expense of the removal of the benches is included in the charge for the Hall. When the use of the Hall is granted gratuitously, it is to be subject to the charge for removing the benches and cleaning the Hall as well as lighting with gas.

For the Lower Room

No. 1.,   That all Borough meetings called by or under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

No. 2.,   All other public meetings (except as hereinafter mentioned)  – £1

No. 3.,   All meetings, concerts or balls called  held in support of religious, charitable or benevolent institutions or in support of any of the Scientific Institutions of the Borough – £1

No. 4.,   All concerts, balls and other entertainments of that nature and all lectures and other assemblies of Inhabitants if for personal benefit or advantage – £2,,10s

If for personal or individual profit when not inhabitants – £5

Subject to the same charges as above

For the Committee Room

No. 1.,   That all Borough meetings called by or under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

   and in every other case, 10s, subject to the same charges as above

For the Kitchen

To be charged per day, including coal for a dinner party, the sum of – £2

To be charged per day, including coal for a tea party, the sum of  – £1

Subject to the same extra charges as above, all charges to be paid in advance

The following guarantee to be given in all cases, against damage to the Hall or furniture:

Borough of Birmingham

In consideration of permission having been granted at request to use the Town Hall of the said borough on the _____ day of  _____, 18__, hereby undertake and agree on demand of the Town Clerk to pay the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses the amount of any damage or injury which may be occasioned, done or committed to the building, furniture or fittings in consequence of such permission being granted.

‘Comfort, amusement and healthy occupation’: report on Birmingham asylum, 1850

The following report presents the findings of a visit from two ‘lunatic commissioners’ and was presented to the town council at the quarterly meeting on August 6th, 1850. The report can be found in the archives held by the Library of Birmingham, BCC1/AA/1/1/2

Birmingham Borough Asylum, July 8th 1850

We have this day officially visited this asylum, have gone through its different wards, galleries and sleeping rooms and have seen all the patients and have particularly examined and conversed with many of them. There are at present 137 in all, viz. 72 males and 65 females all of them except one being paupers belonging to the Borough of Birmingham, with the exception of one also who came from the Northampton Asylum, all the patients have been recently brought from the asylums at Birmingham, Haydock, Duddeston and from the Borough Workhouse.

At the time of our visit the patients with scarcely an exception were tranquil and comfortable. No one was under mechanical restraint or in seclusion such restraint has not hitherto been used in a single instance, and seclusion is only used occasionally and for short periods.

Considering that the house was opened for the reception of patients so recently as the 3rd of June last, we think that its present condition reflects great credit on the care, activity and good sense of those to whom the conduct of the establishment is more immediately entrusted and justifies a well grounded expectation that this asylum will soon take a high rank among similar institutions. The arrangements appear to us to have been made on a very liberal scale; and much has been done and more is proposed, and is in progress with a view to contribute to the comfort, amusement and healthy occupation of the inmates.

We have made the various enquiries which the statute directs with respect to the management of the institution and its inmates and the information which we have received on these points has been very satisfactory.

We found different apartments and galleries perfectly clean and thoroughly ventilated. The dress and persons of the patients were clean and neat, their bedding also was very clean and comfortable and in all respects of excellent quality.

A very large proportion of the patients were employed in different ways; and a still larger proportion of the patients will be usefully and profitably employed as soon as the necessary tools and utensils can be procured for them.

The dietary appears to be very liberal and on all sides we found the patients strongly express their sense of satisfaction at the change they had experienced in their removal from private asylums and from the workhouse to their present residence.

W. Mylne       J. R. Hume

‘An asylum for pauper lunatics’

The town council began to consider corporate building programmes almost as soon as the charter was confirmed in 1842. These included two major projects on Birmingham Heath, the house of correction and the lunatic asylum. Both of these institutions became important features of the town, but while the prison was subjected to scandal soon after opening, the asylum would go on to become a model institution for the care of paupers with mental health issues. Indeed, it became so popular that after only a short while private patients were also admitted. The asylum, which later became known as All Saints, was a large and impressive structure, set in beautiful grounds, which I visited in the late 1980s. I can remember it had the appearance of a grand, stately home.  Although it was the care given to patients which attracted interest, the buildings also gave testimony to the aspirations of Birmingham’s early municipal men.

Notes presented below are taken from BCC1/AA/1/1/2  (Library of Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)


On February 4th, 1846, the town council appointed a committee to superintend the construction and provisions  ‘of an asylum for pauper lunatics’. This first committee comprised of aldermen Samuel Beale, James James and Thomas Phillips, along with councillors Samuel Briggs, William Lucy, Robert Martineau, Robert Potter and  Thomas Wright.  The committee appointed architect D. R. Hill and advertised for contractors to undertake the construction work. The foundation stone was laid by the mayor, Robert Martineau, on September 29th, 1847. There was something of a ceremonial religious service, ‘suitable for the occasion’, conducted by the Reverend J. C. Miller, rector of St. Martin’s in the Bull Ring.

Some early difficulties with the building contractor led to delays and the asylum was not ready for patients  for a further three years after the laying of the foundation stone. At a meeting held on January 1st, 1850, the Asylum Committee reported that the buildings were now ready for the fixtures and fittings and that adverts had been placed in the local and London newspapers for key positions in the asylum:

Medical Superintendent: 38 applications were received and the post was given to Mr Thomas Green, surgeon of Newhall Street in Birmingham

Matron: 27 applications received, Charlotte W. Houghton, sub-matron of Hanwell lunatic asylum was duly appointed

Clerk-steward: 43 applications received, William Frederick Knight, resident house steward of Northampton asylum appointed

All were to commence their posts on March 1st, with the asylum expected to receive its first patients on March 25th. The committee recommended further appointments to be made:

9 male attendants at a salaries of between £20 – £30 p.a.
9 female attendants at salaries of between £15 – £20 p.a.
1 cook at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 baker at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 laundress, at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 house porter at a salary of £26 p.a.
non-specified number of domestic servants, salary of £8 – £15 p.a.

These staff to be resident and, in addition, non-resident staff, comprising

Engineer (30 shillings per week without board)
Lodge-keeper and head gardener ‘being a married man’ also 30 shillings per week

In fact, the first patients were not received until June 3rd, 1850. The committee reported to the town council’s quarterly meeting in August that 142 patients had, at that point, been received, 74 men and 68 women. They asylum had been completely fitted out and was able to accommodate 250 patients. At the advice of the medical officer, newspapers, books and gardening tools were being provided ‘as a means of occupation and amusement’ for both staff and patients and there were further plans for building a farm. The architect had, at this point, already been instructed to draw up plans for ‘the requisite outbuildings for pigs, cattle &c.’

Regulations for the keeping of common lodging houses in Birmingham, 1852

In the brilliant The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels delivered a damning appraisal of Birmingham’s lodging houses as he saw them in the early 1840s:

The lodging-houses for proletarians are rather numerous (over four hundred), chiefly in courts in the heart of the town. They are nearly all disgustingly filthy and ill-smelling, the refuge of beggars, thieves and tramps and prostitutes, who eat, drink, smoke and sleep here without the slightest regard to comfort or decency in an atmosphere endurable to these degraded beings only.

Engel’s observation appears to be a moral one, directed at the inhabitants rather than the material structure of the town. He goes on to highlight the low mortality rates during epidemics in contrast with other local towns, such as Wolverhampton and Dudley and that also that there were no cellar dwellings in the town.  However, in 1849 the issue of Birmingham’s lodging houses was raised again, when Sir Robert Rawlinson presented his report on the town to the Government’s General Board of Health. Birmingham’s lodging houses appear to have been ordinary houses where rooms were let out to families as well as itinerant workers. The lodging houses were built around courts, which were often badly drained. Brasshouse passage was one such part of the town and Rawlinson’s investigation revealed that the population here in 1849 was as follows:

68 adult males
78 adult females
32 children aged under 15
108 children aged under 12
20 lodgers both male and female

Making a total of 306 residents in 64 houses. William Moseley Richards, surgeon at Birmingham’s dispensary, reported to Rawlinson that he had ‘not seen any other road in any other part of Birmingham in so filthy and dangerous a state’.

Birmingham Improvement Scheme Court 9 Thomas Street 1875 Print 100

The Birmingham Street Commissioners denied many of the allegations of the report, but it was damning enough to ring the death knell for the Commissioners and in 1851 the Town Council took full control of administration in the Borough. The new municipal men introduced their own set of rules and regulations, in accordance with national policy at that time just coming in, to manage these huge sanitary issues. Bye-laws were added which introduced corporation regulation of a number of private interests, including lodging houses and these are outlined below.  Interestingly at this time, the council also investigated the possibility of building corporation ‘model’ lodging houses. The Rawlinson Report on Birmingham can be viewed at the Local History  section at The Library of Birmingham, the bye-laws below were taken from the second volume of Birmingham Council minutes BCC 1/AA/1/1/2 [Archives, Heritage and Photography at the Library of Birmingham]

Regulations for common lodging houses under ‘The Common Lodging Houses Act 1851’

No. 1   No keeper of a common lodging house shall receive in such house, or in any room thereof, a greater number of lodgers or other persons than shall be fixed by the local authority on the report of their Inspector of Common Lodging Houses, and expressed in a ticket to be signed by such officer, which ticket shall be according to the form contained in the schedule to those regulations annexed and marked B. and the keeper of such lodging house shall hang up in a conspicuous part of each room into which lodgers are received a like ticket stating the number of lodgers allowed to be received and shall keep the same at all times visible and legible.

An adequate supply of the said tickets may be had upon application at the office of the Inspector of Nuisances in Moor Street.

No. 2   The keeper of such lodging house shall reduce the number of lodgers upon receiving notice to that effect from the local authority, such notice stating therein the special cause of the same being given and the period not exceeding one month during which it shall continue in force.

No. 3   Two children under eight years of age to be counted as one adult lodger

No. 4   Rooms used as kitchen or scullery for the use of the lodgers shall not be occupied as sleeping apartments

No. 5   Rooms in the basement or below the level of the ground shall not be used as sleeping apartments

No. 6   Persons of opposite sexes shall not occupy the same sleeping apartment, except married persons, or parents and their children under 14 or children under 10 years of age

No. 7   The keeper of such lodging house shall cause the windows of every sleeping room in such lodging house to be kept open to the full width thereof from nine to eleven o’clock in the morning and from two till four in the afternoon of every day, unless prevented by tempestuous weather or by the illness of any inmate in such room and during the time the windows are open as aforesaid, he shall cause the bed clothes of every bed in such room to be turned down and exposed to the air: but in those rooms occupied by persons who are obliged to work during the night and sleep in the day, the windows shall be kept open from two till four o’clock in the afternoon

No. 8   The keeper of such lodging house shall cause the floors of  all the rooms, passages and stairs in such lodging house to be thoroughly swept once at least in each day and thoroughly washed once in each week. And shall cause the walls and ceilings of every room to be thoroughly cleansed and well and sufficiently lime washed, twice (at least) in every year during the months of April and October; and the blankets, rugs, or covers used in such lodging house shall be thorough cleansed at least four times in every year, that is to say at least once some time during the first week of each of the several months of March, June, September and December

No. 9   The keeper of such lodging house shall cause every room in such lodging house to be ventilated to the satisfaction of the Inspector of Common Lodging Houses.

         In case of fever or any other infectious or contagious disorder occurring in any such lodging house, the keeper of such lodging house shall forthwith give notice thereof to the Inspector of Common Lodging Houses, that he may inspect the same, and direct any disinfecting process which he may deem necessary and effectual; and the keeper of such lodging house shall cause the blankets and bed clothes used by any person affected by such disorder to be thoroughly cleansed, and the bedding to be fumigated and if the same consists of shavings or straw to be burned immediately after the removal of the person affected by such disorder, in such manner as may from time to time be ordered by the Inspector; and when the District in which any such lodging house is situate is visited or threatened by any epidemic, endemic or contagious disease, the lodging house keeper shall make such reduction of the number of lodgers in each room as the Council shall direct

No. 10   Every such lodging house shall be furnished with a dust bin of sufficient size to contain the dust, ashes etc. that accumulate in the intervals of its being cleared away which shall not exceed two weeks

No. 11   A water closet or privy shall be provided for every such lodging house, having a yard or other facilities for erection thereof and where such facilities do not exist or where the closet or privy is used in common by the lodgers of two or more houses, the privy or closet must be provided in some place conveniently contiguous to the satisfaction of the Inspector, and for every twenty lodgers to be accommodated a separate closet or privy shall be provided

No. 12   The drains, the closets and sinks shall be trapped so as to prevent the effluvia coming up from the sewers or cesspools. The sink in the yard shall be so placed as to take all wash water through the drain from the closets

No. 13   The water closet, seat, floor and walls shall be kept free from filth and clean in all other respects

No. 14   The yards and areas of every such lodging house shall be properly paved, so as to run dry and effectually take off all waste water

No. 15   Every such lodging house shall have a proper drain communicating with a common sewer where such sewer is within 100 yards of the premises

No. 16   The keeper of such lodging house shall provide such accommodation for cooking and washing and such a supply of water for the use of the lodgers as shall be satisfactory to the Inspector

No. 17   Each room occupied as a sleeping apartment shall be furnished with bedsteads and sufficient bedding for the number of lodgers authorised to be received in such room