What was it really like to live in the Black Country a century ago?
A bound copy of the parish magazine issued by St. Mark’s parish church, Pensnett , during the year 1878 provides a fascinating insight into the life of an industrialised village of that era.
The rurality that once was Pensnett before the Pensnett Chase Enclosure Act of 1784 had already been obliterated by the feverish exploitation of the mineral wealth. Colliers, nailers, ironworkers and brickyard workers crowded together in back-to-back houses which were little more than dingy hovels. There had been a kind of prosperity in the years before and the Pensnett Railway, opened in a small way by Lord Dudley in 1829, and eventually covering almost forty miles of track, had helped the villagers to eke out a frugal existence. A national newspaper, the “Daily News” wrote in its issue dated December 1, 1849, that, “There is no district in England better worth examination both as regards the state of an important trade and the condition of an enormous population than the area around Brierley Hill.
But the prosperity did not last. 1877 was a particularly bad year and as the people of Pensnett prepared to usher in the new year their new vicar, The Rev Charles H. Cole #Webb searched in vain to find a ray of comfort for his flock. In his magazine dated January 1878, he wrote – “We cannot help but deeply deplore the depressed state of the trade. It is heavier upon us than we can bear.”
But an even greater scourge was uppermost in the mind of the vicar as he penned his parish letter, Bad ventilation; overcrowding and the insanitary conditions of the closely-packed cottages wrought a terrible retribution. The rate of infantile mortality rose alarmingly. Babies barely free from the womb were sickening and dying from malnutrition. Consumption and from stifling environment of the smoke grimed hovels which served as homes. In the cold print of that January issue the terrible scourge makes horrifying reading today.
January 6 1878: buried –
Sarah Garbett (2 yrs), Mary Ann Gardner (1 yr and 7 mths), Thomas Colley (4 mths), Mose Guy (4 mths), and Sarah Jane Simmonds (5 mths).
A poem in the parish magazine captures the mood of fatalism which the wretched families of 1878 came to accept. Entitled “A Childs Heaven”, its sentimentality is typical of the Victorian era, as the final verse aptly shows:
She nestled to that mother’s breast,
In oh! Such sweet, such perfect rest.
Will heaven mama be all like this?
“Yes darling” she replied
Her soul could know no deeper bliss,
“Nice! Nice!” she said – and died.
The vicar set about making life tolerable for the near destitute of 1878. He was encouraged by the enthusiastic help readily given by the people connected with the parish church. Family names which are as prevalent in the area today as they were one hundred years ago. As a result of a public meeting held in the Bell School the vicar was able to organise a Relief Committee dedicated “to helping the destitute poor during this distressing time.” Some of the names of his helpers are worth repetition, Miss Griffiths (church organist), Messrs. H.P. Chappell, D.Bryce, Cope, Partridge, Corfield, Blewitt and Mantel.
140 widows and old people were given a substantial meal of roast beef, plum pudding, vegetables and beer and funds derived from “Relief Sunday” provided meal tickets for upwards of 80 children. Aid for the destitute families was not solely confined to the relief committee. “Many private families,” wrote the vicar, “Are distributing soup with an open-hearted spirit.”
Mr and Mrs Page, together with Miss Iron, undertook to provide the starving children with at least one meal each week.
The rampant poverty did not deter the parishioners from seeking a little enjoyment. Following an excellent tea party held in the National Schools on March, 1878, the audience settled down to enjoy an entertainment which included duets, madrigals, glees and pianoforte solos. The brighter spring weather seemed to herald brighter days. 115 members of the Church Mothers’ Death Club received a dividend of 10s/1d each and in April the village of Pensnett was able to launch its own cricket club with the vicar as its president.