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The early days of public health in West Bromwich

By john workman  |  Posted: May 03, 2013

Matron and her sisters at Hallam Hospital nurses home, West Bromwich, in 1927

Matron and her sisters at Hallam Hospital nurses home, West Bromwich, in 1927

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Although we might complain about the eyesore of fly tipping, these days most of our rubbish and waste is disposed of in a properly coordinated manner, and the majority of areas enjoy a clean bill of health.

However, in days of yore it was a completely different story and the burgeoning industrial towns of the Black Country were as far away from a green and pleasant land as you could possibly get.

We could have picked out any town within the region to describe the insanitary and lifethreatening circumstances under which our ancestors lived in the 1800s. But since photographs supplied by Tony Roper, some of which appeared on the back page of Bugle 1077, have already given us a glimpse of life at hospitals in West Bromwich back in the 1920s and ’30s, we have used some more from his collection to illustrate the early days of the town’s public health.

At the onset of the 19th century life could be grim, but as the century progressed there were improvements to public services and the introduction of hospitals.

Because of the lie of the land West Bromwich fared better than most other Black Country towns in terms of sanitation during the industrial age.

Although it was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, it remained fairly small until the growth of industry encouraged a massive increase in population.

Much of the old town was located on sloping ground and, together with good soil, this facilitated adequate drainage.

But with a population boom and the expansion of industry, it wasn’t long before West Bromwich, like a lot of other towns, had a public health problem.

In 1868 the town appointed its first medical officer of health, but commissioners in 1882 considered the job hadn’t been taken seriously enough in those initial years, and the town had a lot of catching up to do.

As late as 1874 West Bromwich had no proper public buildings, no decent street lighting, was totally unpaved, with atrocious road surfaces without any drainage, and the death rate was high.

The people of West Bromwich suffered during the cholera epidemic of 1832 and as a result a temporary board of health was set up, and a hospital was opened in the former Revivalist Chapel in Spon Lane. The board found that although the streets of West Bromwich were wide and well laid out, they lacked drainage of any kind, stagnant pools were in abundance, and there were often accumulations of refuse. The majority of the houses where the poor of the community lived were generally built in courts, back-toback, with two to four rooms per house and perhaps one privy to every five or six houses.

There was no official arrangement for cleaning the courts, but the privies were at least emptied by the night-soil men. Due to bad drainage, a poor water supply, and widespread pig-husbandry, the prevalence of germs, especially typhus and smallpox, was widespread.

In 1890 the large scale replacement of privies with water-closets had begun, and in 1903 a new sewage treatment works was built at Friar Park, with a smaller one located on the Newton Road.

In 1875 only 16 in 100 West Bromwich houses had a piped water supply, the remainder relied on wells, but ten years later most had water on tap.

Hospitals began to be established, and the District Hospital, a plain red brick building in Edward Street, was built 1869- 71 to a design by Martin and Chamberlain of Birmingham.

It had originated in the Provident Medical Dispensary in the High Street, which opened in 1867.

As described in Bugle 1077, the Hallam Hospital in Hallam Street, originally part of the West Bromwich workhouse, became an infirmary in the 1920s and in recent years became Sandwell General, one the biggest hospitals in the Black Country.

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