The Black Country village of Portobello, near Willenhall, developed rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the boom in coal-mining and the production of bricks and tiles. The village's quaint name, which comes from the Latin for "beautiful gateway", probably dates from the eighteenth century, as in 1739 Admiral Vernon gained a famous victory when he captured the fortified town of Portobello in Panama. This feat is commemorated in the name of Vernon Road in the district.
However, by the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution had ensured that there was little that was beautiful about the area. By the Victorian era, the locality was regarded as the most unsanitary part of Willenhall, and in the 1849 Report to the General Board of Health, written by Robert Rawlinson, he describes the village thus:
"The population of this place is about 2,200, consisting chiefly of miners and their families; there are no effective drains and sewers, and many of the cottages have been run up in a very slight manner, without proper conveniences. There are about 400 houses in the district, but the population is rapidly increasing. There were stagnant ditches, pools of filthy water, and dung heaps throughout the village . . . In consequence of the mining operations water is very scarce here, and surface-water, much vitiated, is drawn from ditches and a small brook, and used. It was stated by the inhabitants that this brook frequently was choked with refuse, and even dead dogs, and yet they could not get better water without fetching it from a safe distance, so they filled a bucket or mug, and let it stand to settle before using it".
By the early twentieth century conditions had changed little, and even into the 1950s many Portobello residents still queued for water and relied on coal fires for all of their heating and cooking requirements. Amidst the teeming yards of houses, their lines of washing dirtied by the dust from the local brickworks and the smuts from the passing trains of the G.W.R., Harry Cotterill was born in 1923.
Harry was related by marriage to our regular contributor Maureen Hunt, who is something of an expert on the Willenhall and Portobello areas, and she has supplied us with Harry's memoirs, typed up from his original hand-written notes and providing a fascinating record of growing up in this unique Black Country district
Harry was the youngest of fourteen children, born at 13 Brickkiln Street in Portobello. The street, whose name reflected the local importance of the brick-making industry, was typical of this overcrowded area, with a multitude of Victorian houses jostling for space and with little sanitation or modern utilities. The conditions at number 13 were decidedly cramped, for as Harry recalls:
"The house was a two up, two down, plus an attic. Thirteen children were born in the house, but only eight of them survived. There was Mum and Dad, Jack, Ciss, Horace, Liza, George, Charles, Doris and myself. Mum and Dad slept in the front room, while the male kids used to sleep in the attic, and the females in the back room. To come downstairs every morning, we had to pass through the back room so we had to ask if it was clear to come through . . . ordered by my Dad!
"My mother used to do the weekly washing for ten people in the brewhouse at the rear of the property. This was also the place where we used to wash ourselves daily, in the sink. There used to be a large cast iron bowl above the fireplace. Here we used to heat the water when we had our weekly bath in the maiding tub. Both the maiding tub and rubbing tub were made out of beer barrels. When washing day came around, we children used to take our turn in turning the mangle handle."
Despite the less than ideal living conditions, the residents of Brickkiln Street had most of their needs catered for in the immediate area. Fallon's general stores were situated at the corner of Brickkiln Street and the High Street, while next door to the Cotterills, at number 12, was Mr and Mrs Tom Powis' sweet shop. Opposite was the Red Lion pub, and Harry remembered Tom Wall being the licensee, before it was taken over by Sidney Alexander. Just down the road, on the corner of North Street, was another pub, the Seven Stars, which was managed by Tom Everitt.
However, spiritual needs were also attended to, as the Portobello Methodist chapel stood nearby. The entrance to the Sunday School was on the corner of Brickkiln Street and Knowles Street, and Harry attended the chapel from the age of five until he was fourteen. He went on to join the 15th company of the Wolverhampton battalion of the Boys' Brigade