Sunday read with Mervyn Edwards – the ‘hell hole’


Since this article was first posted, the buildings referred to in the first paragraph have been beautifully refurbished.

The view from the bottom of Holecroft Street, looking at the backs of ageing properties, is somewhat grim. Ageing brickwork and boarded
windows create a picture of decay that would have been ripe for the paintbrush of Arthur Berry. However, even this dereliction and apparent neglect cannot compare with what we would have found in this pocket of Burslem 150 years ago. This was the “ Hell Hole” described by Charles Shaw in “ When I Was A Child” . Shaw grew up in the 1830s and 1840s and wrote in vivid terms about this poverty-stricken area near the junction of Nile Street and Waterloo Road.

What was this area like in Shaw’ s time? Well, the 1851 Ordnance Survey map shows several licensed premises near to the George Hotel, near the
back of which was an open space called Mayer’ s Bank. These are the Blue Ball (its neighbour in Nile Street), the Union beerhouse and the
Church Tavern beerhouse, and on the other side of Nile Street, near the junction withWaterloo Road, the Miners Arms, the British Flag and the
White Lion beerhouses. This area of Nile Street, then, had an abundance of drinking outlets serving a working class area. Beerhouses were often
to be found in abundance where poverty was rife, and the “ Hell Hole” area was no exception. Shaw would have been familiar with many of
these twopenny ha’ penny drinking shops.

The “ Hell Hole” area was demolished in the 1890s, at the time when Shaw’ s recollections first appeared in print. Shaw had worked nearby
and saw at first hand the dilapidated cottages, half-dressed and half-starved women and children. He also heard the swearing and obscenity
which was the accepted verbal currency in these nether regions of the town.

The “ Hell Hole” was a reminder that in Burslem as in many large towns, industrial prosperity marched pari passu with social squalor. Shaw tells
us that bullies lived here and that in his opinion, Burslem’ s “ Hell Hole” “ could not have been surpassed in all of England” . This is clearly
exaggeration as we know that the bigger industrial towns such as Manchester knew both wealth AND poverty on a larger scale. Even in
the Potteries, there were other impoverished areas, where poverty, starvation and drunkenness formed an axis of existence for the
impecunious souls who lived in them. Elsewhere in Burslem, there was Massey’ s Square, between Chapel Lane and Moorland Road, which in
1886 was noted for having sanitary arrangements “ of the most objectionable order.” Here, a collection of old courts containing 90
houses was cleared away in the early 1920s. This was the first slum-clearance project in Stoke-on-Trent, and families were re-housed in
Macclesfield Street where the Corporation built new houses. There was Bostock’ s Square in Hanley, where there were regular fights between
drunken women and prostitutes; and the notorious John Street in Longton.

However, there is no question that parts of Burslem reeked of filth. In Burslem in 1894, there were still 60 houses through whose front doors all waste matter had to be carried; and in 1897, there were 13 Rochdale pails still in use in the town, these being pans that were emptied each week. To the vexation of many Burslem residents, the night-soil carts operated during daytime.

The proximity of Holy Trinity church, built in the 1850s, may be significant. It served an indigent neighbourhood and would have offered
comfort and salvation for some. In describing the insalubrious living conditions of the “ Hell Hole” , Shaw mentions the improvements in 19th
century sanitation brought about by the likes of Edwin Chadwick. It was Chadwick who persuaded Henry Doulton to enter the field of sanitary
production in the 1840s, convincing him of the profit that would be made from producing stoneware sanitary pipes. Ironically, Doulton, one of the great champions of the sanitary revolution in England, came to trade in Burslem – directly adjacent Charles Shaw’ s “ Hell Hole.”

  1. #1 by Sue Walley on May 18, 2012 - 3:26 pm

    I am currently researching my family history which has a strong presence in this area. My grandfather was born at Holecroft. Reading this has prompted me to read my copy of Charles Shaw’s ‘When I Was a Child’. I hope that this will enrich my knowledge of my ancestors and also add as a reminder that this sort of existence may not be too far removed from our own lives. It is all rather humbling. Thank you.

    • #2 by clarewhite on May 19, 2012 - 11:23 am

      thank you for the comment Sue – I love ‘When I was a Child’! It’s such a vivid portrayal of places that still seem very familiar.

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