Winson Green is an old name, noted first in 1327 when a William de Wynesdon was recorded as one of the people in Birmingham who were taxed ‘to the amount of one twentieth of their movables as a subsidy for the defence of the kingdom against the Scotch’. Hard and fast on the western border with Smethwick, it once was part of Birmingham Heath. This great swathe of open land was little cultivated and was well away from the built-up areas of the town. Today it is recalled in Heath Street and Heath Street South.
A green, cultivated area, in this heath Winson Green remained sparsely populated until the early nineteenth century. Apart from Shakespeare’s Glass House and two large houses called Ninevah and Bellefield there were no prominent buildings.
The only hamlet as such was Winson Green, at the junction of the Winson Green Road and the future Wellington Street. There were also a few houses along the top end of Lodge Road.
The largely rural outlook was little changed until the 1850s when a railway linking Birmingham and Wolverhampton was made. Soon after a contemporary wrote that Winson Green ‘became a wilderness of sand and brickwork, deep cuttings at one end and high embankments at the other completely altered the appearance of the spot’.
Housing began to cover empty land and by the urbanisation of Winson Green had been completed. This built-up area was largely upon land which had been cultivated. By comparison. By contrast the old heathland was mostly dominated by major buildings: the Borough Gaol was opened in 1849; the Borough Asylum, later All Saints, followed two years later; and the workhouse opened in 1852. These took up nearly 100 acres. Finally, from 1883-4 the Borough Hospital for Smallpox and Scarlet Fever was in use. This and All Saints have now closed, and whilst the prison remains, thankfully the hated workhouse has gone and in its place is the City Hospital.
Originally developed as a better-off working-class district, back-to-backs were also numerous in parts of Winson Green. However, because many of its houses were better built they have survived and as a result the neighbourhood witnessed less clearance and more urban renewal in the later twentieth century than the nearby Brookfields, Ladywood and Hockley.
Here back-to-backs had predominated. They had been demolished by 1970 but that did not mean that the problem of obsolescent housing had been solved. In 1971, a survey indicated that 26,000 households in Birmingham had no hot water tap, whilst a further 28,000 had no fixed bath.
Eight years later it was revealed that over l00,000 of the city’s houses had been built before 1914. Most were tunnel-backs situated in the middle ring, although there were also many in Winson Green. Originally they had been good quality dwellings built for the more prosperous of the working class in accordance with bye-laws introduced from 1876. But by the late 1970s many of them were decaying and their facilities were outdated and inadequate.
Forty thousand such structures were listed as needing either substantial improvement or a demolition and a further 26,000 were likely to become sub-standard over the next five years if they were not improved. The council had rid itself of one housing difficulty, now it was faced with another.
Homes and districts began to look shabby and run-down. To reverse this situation both physically and emotionally, it was decided to declare seventy General Improvement Areas, the framework for which had been established by new laws in 1969. These areas covered neighbourhoods where the houses were basically sound but lacked bathrooms, inside lavatories and modern amenities. One of the first was Winson Green.
These General Improvement Areas developed into Urban Renewal Areas. Many of them were what journalists termed as ‘twilight districts’. Like the back-to-back neighbourhoods of the nineteenth century, they were wrongly and unfairly regarded as unsafe, dirty and immoral. In reality, they were homes to thousands of families most of whom were trying to cope as best they could with the depredations of poverty, ill health and bad housing. And in so doing many held fast to strong notions of neighbourliness and sharing.
Then as now, the majority of people who live in unfit and inadequate homes do so because they are poor. In the absence of a concerted assault on poverty itself, governments and councils have to address the most obvious symptom of deprivation – bad housing.
Of course, some dwellings became unsound because they are not looked after by their residents. Such inconsiderate occupiers are a minority and should not be made the excuse for not pursuing a vigorous strategy against poverty. Sadly, then as now it is easier to stigmatise people who live in certain areas and those on benefits than it is to battle the most pressing need still facing society – the eradication of poverty.