Under the terms of the Poor Law Act of 1601,
each parish was responsible for its own poor, and the distribution
of poor relief, which was funded by the poor rate. This was levied
on property owners and tenants. Often poor people would move into a
more generous parish in order to obtain a larger amount of poor
relief. This ended in 1662 with the passing of the Settlement Act,
after which only established residents (through birth, marriage, or
apprenticeship) were entitled to poor relief. Under the terms of the
Act, strangers entering a parish could be removed after 40 days, if
they were unemployed. In 1697 the Settlement Act was amended so that
anyone could be barred from entering a parish unless they produced a settlement certificate.
Life was certainly hard for the unemployed.
Many of the larger parishes opened workhouses for the poor, where
they could receive food and shelter in return for work of some kind.
On 8th April, 1741 land was acquired behind the houses on
the east side of Stafford Street for the building of the town’s
workhouse. The trustees were Dr. Richard Wilkes; John Wilkes, a
surgeon; Joseph Molineux, a maltster; Thomas Marston, a maltster;
Joseph Hincks, a yeoman; Isaac Turner, a maltster; Joshua Dodds, a
chapman; and Samuel Hawkesford, a chapman.
Little is known about the workhouse, only the
name of the last workhouse master is known. He was job Thatcher. The
entrance was in Little Wood Street. Many such workhouses were built
throughout the country, although a large number disappeared after the
passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This created a Poor
Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system,
which included the joining of some of the small parishes to form
Poor Law Unions, each of which had its own workhouse. As a result of
the Act, Willenhall was then administered by the Board of Guardians
for the Wolverhampton Union of parishes. The poor of the town were
sent to the Union Workhouse in Wolverhampton. Willenhall’s
workhouse closed in 1839, and the building was put-up for sale. For
many years Upper Lichfield Street continued to be known as Workhouse
In the early part of the 19th century, towns
and cities rapidly grew, as people flocked there to find work in the
many factories and industries that appeared at the time. The
population of Willenhall, like the other towns in the area was
This resulted in numerous problems including
cramped and unsanitary living conditions. Serious health problems
often arose from contaminated food, and an unclean and inadequate
water supply that came from wells or pumps, which would often be
polluted with sewage. This led to a variety of illnesses and
diseases, the most virulent of which was Asiatic Cholera. The
disease spread from India via trade routes, and reached Europe in
1826, spreading from Turkey to Russia, Poland, Germany and the
Baltic ports, from where it came to Sunderland in 1831. In January
1832 it arrived in Newcastle and Gateshead and soon reached York,
Leeds, Manchester, the Black Country, and London. By the autumn it
had spread to Devon and Cornwall.
Large numbers of people died as a
result of several cholera epidemics, which occurred in
1831 to 32; 1848 to 49; 1853 to 54; and 1865 to 66. The
disease first appeared locally at Bilston on 4th August,
1832 and resulted in 745 deaths, almost one in twenty of
Public Health and Housing
in Willenhall in 1841. J. Biddle,
numerous dirt heaps, small pools, and
doorway slushes fronting or adjoining
the dwellings and workshops, there are
in the town of Willenhall two vast
masses of stagnant filth and
putrescence, sufficient to breed a
plague throughout the whole of England.
surgeon, who has resided 20 or 30 years
in the town, conducted me to one of
these enormous accumulations, which
runs, or rather creeps along a field,
partly under a hedge, at the bottom of
the churchyard. At my particular
request, Mr. Biddle made a special
examination of this and the other mass
of filth, and communicated the result to
me in writing, to which I beg to call
Willenhall, near Wolverhampton, April
I have looked over
the filthy accumulations of mud which
you and I talked about: the one place
you saw with me, you know is very bad;
it extends at least from 200 to 300
yards, and contains many scores of tons
of putrid filth. This runs all along the
southern side of the town, and indeed we
may say in the very heart of the town.
On the western and north western side
there is as much, or more, filthy
stagnant accumulations of the same kind,
amounting, I have no doubt, to some
hundred tons. We may well have typhus,
etc. which we have now, and have had for
a long time, more or less.
I remain, etc.
R. H. Horne's Report in
the Children's Employment Commission
What must be the
condition of these masses in the hot
weather, and what effect they may then
have upon the senses, I cannot pretend
to say; but on my visit, during a cool
day in April (the 4th), to the one at
the bottom of the churchyard, the stench
was most revolting. The appearance it
presented to the eye, in some places,
was that of a livid, tawney putrescence.
As I looked at it I could not help
thinking I saw it crawl. But its general
appearance was that of a dead settlement
of a dark spotty hue, not a scum, but
evidently a deep substance. It seemed a
reservoir of leprosy and plague.
subsequently told me that "in summer it
was quite intolerable to pass the place.
There were enough marsh exhalations from
it to fill a whole country with fever."
There are but few
good houses in the town. By the term
good, I do not mean large and
commodious, but use the word in the
English sense of comfortable. The
majority of the houses are very
indifferent, and nearly all those
inhabited by the working classes are of
a squalid description, often presenting
the last state of want and wretchedness.
There are many narrow passages, as in
Wolverhampton, averaging from 21 feet to
31 feet wide. They lead into little
courts and yards, where dwellings and
workshops are always found.
Some of the houses
in the main street have an interval of
about 2 feet between them, the whole
length of which is used as a sewer for
all manner of filth, but without any
grating or means for it to be carried
off. There are many straggling lanes,
leading up hill and down hill, with
hovels and workshops at irregular
intervals. Here and there you pass
through a tortuous lane, which should
rather be called a gut, being only 2 or
3 feet wide, enclosed between broken
walls, rising over mounds of
half-hardened dirt and refuse, sinking
towards declivities of mud and slush,
and leading to other dwellings and
workshops, some on the declivities and
some on the small level, these latter
having puddles and pools of stagnant
water and filth accumulated in front of
their doors and windows. There are no
other means for the admission of air
into these abodes but from the doors and
windows in front, as they have none at
the back. There is no under-ground
drainage to any of these places; and
very seldom, indeed, have they any
St. Giles' Church and graveyard.
Neighbouring Willenhall had an extremely
lucky escape, with 42 cases, and 8 deaths. Although there were no
deaths in Wednesfield, Willenhall’s other neighbours didn’t do so
well. There were 68 deaths in Darlaston, 85 in Walsall, and 193 in
Wolverhampton. Thankfully by the end of 1832 the epidemic had ended.
The disease returned to the country in 1848 and again lasted
for around two years. This time there twice as many deaths,
including 292 in Willenhall.
Willenhall had escaped lightly in
1832, but little was done to try and improve the
unsanitary living conditions until 1842 when a Public
Health Committee was formed in the town. Although the
committee consisted of prominent townspeople,
they had no statutory powers to enforce any decisions that were
This was not really possible until the passing of the
Government’s Artisans Dwelling Act of 1875 which gave local
authorities the power to demolish slum properties. In reality little
was achieved other than the purchase of 2 tons of lime, and two
dozen whitewash brushes, which were deposited in various parts of the
town so that the poor could at least keep their premises clean.
During the second epidemic in 1848 to 1849 the
disease appeared at Moseley Hole and spread rapidly throughout the
town, aided by warm, dry weather. The committee immediately
attempted to deal with the matter, but it was too little, too late.
Mr. Thomas Phillips was appointed for two weeks as the sanitary
inspector, at a salary of one pound a week. Two workmen were
employed to whitewash any dirty houses, and a further three tons of
lime, six threepenny bottles of Collins deodorising powder from
Whites of Bilston, and four one and threepenny bottles of Dr.
Macann's Mixture were purchased and made available for use in the
The disease spread so quickly that the town’s
two doctors, Mr. J. Hartill, and Mr. J. Froysell, and the Rev. G. H.
Fisher of St. Giles’ Church laboured night and day to care for the
town’s sick and dying. They were soon joined by Dr. Pardey who was
sent by the government to assist them. The local coffin makers were
working flat out to try and keep-up with the demand for
coffins, which was so great that many of the dead were buried
without one. A hearse and horse were hired to assist with the
burials, and John Shepherd was appointed as driver, at a salary of £2
a week. Many of the wealthier people sent their families away to
places of safety.
St. Giles’ graveyard where the burials were
taking place was full and so another graveyard was urgently needed.
On 6th September the matter was discussed at a Vestry meeting, but
as the estimated cost of the land, drainage, and fencing amounted to
£600, which would be paid for by levying a rate of 9 pence in the
pound, it was turned down.
The situation was critical, and so the
churchwardens made use of a piece of derelict land belonging to the
Chapel of Ease Estate. The land, situated at the bottom of Doctor’s
Piece became known as the Cholera Burial Ground.
On some days there were as many as 15 deaths
and so the bodies would hastily be buried in deep pits or trenches,
many without coffins.
The disease raged until late September, and
rapidly disappeared, only one new case being reported on the 2nd
The last death from the disease took place on 4th October.
During the 49 days of the epidemic, 292 lives
The memorial in the Cholera Burial
Part of the Cholera Burial Ground.
|Wolverhampton businessman and local benefactor,
Henry Rogers, was one of the founders of the Royal Hospital, and the
Royal Orphanage in Wolverhampton, and Holy Trinity Church and the almshouses at Heath Town.
He greatly contributed to the welfare of the cholera sufferers by
raising between £400 and £500 for the Cholera Relief Fund.
Although the epidemic was over, much still had
to be done to improve the unsanitary living conditions in the town.
The Public Health Act of 1848 gave powers for the setting-up of
public health boards, which led to the formation of the Willenhall
Local Board of Health in 1854. The Willenhall Water Company was
formed in 1852 to provide a clean water supply for the town. Sadly
this took a long time to achieve. The company found itself in
difficulties and was taken over in 1868 by the Wolverhampton New
Water Company, which was later taken over by Wolverhampton
The disease did return to Willenhall during the
1853 to 1854 epidemic, but this time people were prepared, and
stringent measures were taken to prevent the spread of
the disease. Details of cases and deaths are not known.
It is thought that there were up to 300 cases, which
must have resulted in a number of
fatalities. Willenhall seems to have escaped the final epidemic in
1865 to 1866 when there were no recorded cases in the town.
The Cholera Burial Ground was eventually
enclosed, and consecrated on 18th July, 1867. It now serves as
a memorial garden, a reminder of one of the most difficult periods in
the town’s history.
Canals, Roads, and Railways