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Struggling and surviving on a tough Black Country street

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

One tough working class street in the Black Country, 400 or so residents – and one Shropshire author to tell their stories.

Keith Robinson has researched the lives of the men, women, and children of Eldon Street to give an insight into the lives of the ordinary people who made Darlaston tick during the Victorian era.

Keith, who is 68, lives now in Bayston Hill, but lived in Wednesbury as a boy, and has a personal connection with the long-disappeared street, as his own ancestors lived there.

"My aim is to try and tell the story of a town through one street using the stories of working people," he says.

"I was not interested in grand buildings – not that there were any in Eldon Street – or the local great and good. The street was not a main one, although it had some 66 houses and it was working class housing.

"Why did I pick Eldon Street? My great-great-grandfather and his family lived on Eldon Street from the late 1870s to the early 1890s. He was one of those who had to give up gunlock filing and go to work in a nuts and bolts factory.

"I have followed the fortunes of some 400 people who lived on Eldon Street in Darlaston and their names are included in an appendix at the back. I have covered the type of occupations that many of the people followed, particularly gunlock making, mining, iron industry work and nuts and bolts.

"Darlaston was famous for gunlock forging and filing at the beginning of the Victorian era but that went into decline and was superseded by nuts and bolts manufacturing.

"I have also included chapters on women and children, pubs, crime, entertainment, housing, sanitation and welfare and religion and politics.

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"Eldon Street was demolished in the late 1960s. The only photo of Eldon Street from the Victorian period is the one on the front cover."

Keith used census records from 1841 to 1901 to identify who lived on the street, and also dipped into trade directories and sources such as newspapers – which were particularly good on reporting crimes concerning Eldon Street residents – and Walsall Archives. Out of around 1,000 residents who can be named from censuses during Victorian times, he has thrown the spotlight on over 400.

"I am a historian so really nothing should have been that surprising, but there were some things that jumped out, such as the really dire level of sanitation – half the privvies on Eldon Street were defective in the 1890s.

"Fifty of the 66 houses on the street in the 1890s were owned by just eight individuals, only one of whom lived on the street. The rate of infant mortality on the street in the 1880s and 1890s was 30 per cent.

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"There were also numerous cases of both men and women who, having lost their partners through an early death and being left with many children to look after, got together and remarried – basically as an economic necessity, I would think. Also the number of violent crimes concerning Eldon Street residents stood out for me.

"Darlaston was often portrayed as a wild, dangerous town in the 19th century and while some contemporaries attempted to downplay this, a look at the crime rate involving the residents of Eldon Street both as victims and perpetrators, indeed supports the premise that life was often cheap, tempers short and theft widespread."

Keith added: "I worked as a teacher for the first 15 years of my career, spent time working in villages in India doing rural development and for the last 25 years before retiring I worked in several capacities for the National Trust."

The book costs £9.99 and is available from Keith at netcord9@hotmail.com or by phoning 07932694279.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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