For the last three and a half years I have been studying accidents in Wolverhampton in the nineteenth century. The subject provides much information for local and family historians. The intention is to publish the research in the Autimn of 2015.
Whenever I say I am studying accidents I get a variety of reactions so let me explain that I don’t have a morbid fascination for how people died. I see an accident as a keyhole through which we can look and get a glimpse into another time. What I wanted to study was how people lived, to find out what everyday life was like. Take the death of
Isaiah Groom, aged 5, who was burnt to death while baking a small cake on the hob. His clothes caught fire
It had been an ordinary day.
There I was peering through all these keyholes and fascinated by what I saw.
The nineteenth century was a time of great change in manufacturing, transport, housing. With the changes came challenges which often translated into people making mistakes and having accidents. Sometimes the cause was that people didn’t understand the technology, sometimes they took risks.
Steam boilers were a regularly used source of power and often the cause of horrific accidents.
In 1861 at Rough Hills Pit the head engineer is notified by the day man that there is a leak. The boiler is inspected and sure enough a crack is found. It is big enough for the engineer to put a knife through. Does the head engineer take the boiler out of service? Of course not. He fills the crack with wooden wedges and hemp and the boiler is put back into service. The consequences are inevitable and the explosion kills two men immediately. (Yet one of the most interesting aspects of this report is that when the coroner visited the day engineer, who is too ill to come to court, the man could not afford the basic necessities of life. The coroner is shocked and feels sure that the owners of the pit are unaware of this fact.)
Because it is my home town. I was born here and have lived most of my life not far away. I feel sorry for this poor old town which has lost and continues to lose so much of its heritage. I want to open up a past which many people including myself wouldn’t have known about without looking at accidents.
AIMS OF THE RESEARCH
*To record all accidents
An understanding of the social fabric of the time can’t come by cherry picking a few accidents so in my view all accidents which are recorded must be described. Also small accidents may contain more interesting information than large ones.
There is no way of knowing how many accidents are unreported. I, as researcher, will have missed some and newspapers will select their stories. A dramatic incident such as Mr Taylor who kept a brothel and died from burns in very odd circumstances (he said his male bedfellow, Joe the Cat, had put him on the fire), couldn’t fail to be reported, similarly The Earl of Wrottesley falling off his horse and losing his hat would definitely make the papers whereas a child falling down a pit and losing his/her life was not necessarily news.
*To view events through nineteenth century eyes
Somehow we must switch off our default setting. Looking at these accidents through our own eyes doesn’t work. Empathy is an over used word but that is what we must have. We must walk in these people’s shoes. Remember that view through the keyhole. The more we analyse and judge the more we will distort the picture.
It is 1831 and a 13 year old girl is standing in Bilston Street with a pail of water on her head. She has been to collect water from the well, slips on the ice and is killed. A woman walking along the Essington Canal to the bakehouse, with a bag of dough on her head, loses her balance, falls in and is drowned. and a man climbs over a rail with a bag of mortar on his head. The rail breaks and he is killed. (1821)
It is another world.
100 YEARS OF ACCIDENTS
What do accidents tell us of the town?
Pictures of the time often present a tranquil image but horse-drawn vehicles were a terrible danger. Coaches, gigs or carts gave little protection. If the horses bolted people were sometimes so terrified they would jump from the top of a coach often with fatal results. You wouldn’t have much more protection if you were inside. Wheels would drop off, shafts break and gigs and traps would literally fall apart. Carts presented a hazard not just to the drivers and passengers but to pedestrians and other vehicles. Knowing the dangers drivers sometimes took astonishing risks.
In 1856 a horse and cart was being driven down Lower Stafford Street. The horses were driven in tandem and the driver was standing which would have reduced his control over the horses. Furthermore he had no control over the shaft horse because he had no reins attached to it. So when the shaft horse was frightened by the sails of the windmill it was unstoppable and ran into a lad of eleven pulling a hand cart. The boy was killed.
If like me you watched westerns and marvelled at the horses who stood stockstill when the rider or driver dismounted and left them untied. I have to say it wasn’t always like that. Often the horses would set off without driver.
Drinking and driving was discouraged and those suspected of it would come before the Bench. Fast or furious driving as it was called was frowned upon but still went on. The streets were irresistible racetracks. Who needed a racecourse when the roads did the job perfectly.
Poor Mrs Burrows, aged 70, was minding her own business on Snow Hill in 1841 when two butchers from Birmingham, were racing up the hill on their way home. One of them knocked Mrs Burrows over and killed her. The riders weren’t held to blame but the horse was and a fine duly placed on him/her.
Fires were a constant threat. With every house having fireplaces, chimney fires were common, pubs in the winter would have roaring fires and lovely old timber framed buildings with thatched roofs ...
Houses such as back to backs, hovels and terraced houses were a danger because many were so badly built. Dark, steep stairs, small rooms so that you couldn’t get away from the fire. In one house which fell down a bedstead held up the roof. Others had no home at all, they came for work and slept near a fire in winter. Bonfire night was not always a blessing.
New buildings sprang up as the town grew in size and status, four storeys often, manufactoreys alongside shops, workshops and cottages. There was a danger in all this. The jumble of functions didn’t always sit easily together. There were constant complaints about the smell coming from the artificial manure factory on Snow Hill for example, and people were rightly concerned about the dangers from boiler explosions, chimneys falling down and, of course, fires.
It was 1863 and a tallow chandlery business had been going for about eight weeks. There had been complaints from neighbours about the fire risk in such a narrow street and densely populated area. The business was at the end of Princess Alley, lodging houses alongside and cabinet makers at the rear. Both business premises were destroyed but thankfully the lodging houses escaped.
You struggle now to find the narrow streets and beautiful old parts of the town. More than ever we need the historical evidence of what was on the ground and what was going on.
What do accidents do for our history of the town? They bring it to life. Photographs show us the backdrop, accidents the action. The mystery is why people have overlooked this rich seam of history for so long.