The Victorian Slum

VS (1) Historical Hockley – a shadow on the fabric of time.

Hockley is an inner city area in Birmingham, England, lying north west of the famous Jewellery Quarter. I was brought up there after my birth in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, until the slums were demolished in the early 1970s.  The Hockley I and my parents and grandparents knew was a classic Victorian slum. It is known nowadays, if at all, though the books of Kathleen Dyas whose autobiographical reminiscences were read on Radio 4, and rightly so. There is a separate section on this website dealing with Kathleen and her history and the parrallel life of my mother under Kathleen and Julia.

Kathleen recalls the lost world of the slums, but also shows that dismissing the stories of  the largely unknown people who lived in the slums as “the short and simple annals of the poor” is laughably misleading. Short only in the amount of space in the historical records maybe, history has largely chosen to ignore the poor, though the historical school of E P Thompson recognised a different reality. Simple their stories certainly were not. Viewed from the outside, white working class people look identical, especially in the pictures of football crowds in the era before footballers had agents, but Kathleen shows how different experiences could be. But the well known volume  The Girl From Hockley (2006) and the books it was drawn from only  show one aspect of slum life, life in the back to back houses.. Kathleen Dyas started life in the Jewellery quarter end of Camden Street. Elsewhere in Hockley the housing and the people were different. My street did not have back to backs, we had back doors. However these opened onto a communal yard and the communal toilets marked out the area as a slum area. They were horrible. More than forty years after I left, I still have nightmares about the communal toilet in mid winter.

The differences in housing marked differences in life style and attitudes which social historians are still discussing, particularly between ‘respectable ‘ and ‘rough’ working class. Kathleen came from the  ‘rough’working class, unskilled labouring people for whom holidays could only be paid work harvesting the crops in late summer. Kathleen however rose into the artisan, skilled working class, as a badge enameller in the Jewellery Quarter. Though she never met my mother, both had the same skills and status, till marriage took them in different directions.

My parents were Respectable working class, and though they went down in the world moving from Brookfields to Hockley proper, they never lived in  the insanitary back to backs, which did not even have back doors to the houses. Its easy to discuss ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ working class, but there were other distinctiions, the lowest strata being the destitute, the people Jack London discusses in his book The People of the Abyss. To be destitute meant going into the workhouse.. My mother spent time in the workhouse before the First World War. She never forgot the experience. Hockley had a workhouse and her brief time there as a child left a mental scar. The divisions inside the working class were never rigid. It was possible to rise, and to fall, fate being unpredictable.

 Where was Hockley? The geographical area has not changed, though you can discuss where the boundaries where as I do below.  But as a place where people lived and worked it is a shadow on the fabric of time, the era now gone when people came to work in the steam driven small trades of  Hockley and the Jewellery quarter. It was an area of tightly packed housing, as people lived close to their jobs, not having transport. My Dad had a push bike. In the 1950s, that marked you out as slightly more affluent. It was in fact one of the distinctions between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ working class, though before the First World War the lower middle classes embraced push bikes in the era before the mass produced motor car. My parents and Kathleen lived in a world where horse drawn transport was common, but vanished in their lifetimes. I can only just recall horse drawn carts, in the streets where horse manure remained a constant menace at least till the era of the Beatles. In the 1950s car ownership was unknown in my street when I was growing up. And that street – Goode Street – no longer exists. The whole world of Victorian Hockley has been largely swept away. But the geographical area of course still exists, so it can be visited.

It looks very different from today when it was a classic slum because the light industry and canals and railways which created its economy are obsolete and mostly removed long ago, and the old jerry built housing was knocked down and replaced in the 1970s.  Parts of old Hockley are still stand though they are vanishing – the school that I and my mother attended was knocked down in August 2015, forty odd years after its closure. It stood next to the Hockley Port canal basin, which was one of the reasons Hockley became a dense provider of jobs and thus housing. The canals of Hockley certainly still exist, and barges still stand moored in the Hockley basin to this day. But they no longer carry goods. Some of the old housing still stands, notably in the small Brookfield area where Grandmother Lane and my mother lived in the  interwar years, though it was built in the 1880s. The housese have survived as they were not the jerry built rubbish of the rest of Hockley. These houses even have small gardens, totally unknown in the rest of Hockley and Jewellery Quarter.

Hockley as a geographical area is ill defined, though the Hockley Brook coming from Smethwick forms one border to the North West, flowing through a valley between Hockley and Soho before vanishing under what is now the Hockley Flyover, which crosses the valley of the brook on the way to the River Rea under Spaghetti Junction. Soho Hill and Hockley Hill are crossed by the Flyover and the A41 road over the flyover leads into the city centre past the The Jewellery quarter which forms a solid area of workshops, now mostly retail jewellery stores, between Hockley and the city centre.  Icknield Street, running past the Mint, a famous coin factory, seemed to me to divide  Hockley from the Quarter, but Kathleen Dyas lived on the Jewellery Quarter side and thought it Hockley, so Hockley it is.. The postal district was B18 and I still think that this is the best way to define Hockley, but the Post Office itself is not perfect. St Paul’s is in Birmingham 3 while the city centre, Birmingham 1, also encroaches. What people think of as an area defines it whatever the Post Office says, and Kathleen Dyas knew St Paul’s whose churchyard features in her childhood memories.

The canals and the railway made Hockley a place to live by the jobs created as Birmingham expanded beyond the old eighteen century Jewellery Quarter around St Paul’s. My maternal grandfather – Grandfather Lane –  came to Hockley from rural Shropshire, where he had been a farm labourer, sometime in the late nineteenth century to work as a plate layer on the Great Western Railway (GWR) running through from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton. He lived in the Hockley area, met my grandmother and took her back to Shropshire when he married her, giving her the surname Lane which was my mother’s maiden name. My paternal grandfather, Grandfather Fisher, was also an immigrant being a jewish tailor in Winson Green who had presumably escapted the pogroms in  Europe and converted to the Church of England, marrying my paternal grandmother and having several children. I know nothing more about him than that he was the first of the family to support Aston Villa. Of grandmother Fisher I know nothing. Both my grandmothers were Brummies from  Hockley as far as I know.

The Fisher family was not Hockley, starting their family life in  Winson Green, dominated by the Victorian Prison which is still Birmingham’s major jail. That was the area my father came from, but the link which started my parent’s  lives together was the local church, All Saints, which formed the heart of a thriving community in the first part of the twentieth century. That too was a function of the industrial landscape. Between the canal basin at Hockley Port and the great gash of the cutting in which the GWR ran its trains through to Wolverhampton, was a flat piece of land. The Church of England built one of its Commissioners Churches there, a nasty cheap brick box. And after the 1870 Education Act, a church of England elementary school was built next to the church. Mother attended it as an elementary school, leaving age 14. I attended as a  primary school pupil, leaving age 11. . The church built a parish hall as part of the school, and that was where my parents met. The Hall, the Church, the school, have all gone, but the name All Saints still defines part of the geographical area, the centre of Hockley proper,

I will discuss the thriving working class community of Hockley before the First World War on another occasion, and the mysteries of what the Lane and Fisher families were doing in the opening years of the twentieth century. But of  the world they knew, the reality is that that Victorian  Hockley has essentially vanished. Even Hockley station on the main line to Wolverhapton has gone, demolished for the new Metro. It is part of the world we have lost. Hockley as known by Kathleen  Dyas and  my parents is now a place that has to be reconstructed in the mind.

31st October 2015

This is the Assay Office in summer 2015 - the heart of the Jewellrey Quarter in historic Newhall Street and the last place my father worked, an inner city worker to the last.