From: “Far and Near: Notes of the Month,” Sunday At Home 1902-1903, pages 137-138
[p.137] ST. LAURENCE PARISH, Birmingham, is not an attractive spot; a death-rate of forty per thousand, and a reputation for ruffianism and rowdyism, have given it a character unenviable. It is here that policemen go two and two on their beats, that the vans from the fever hospitals and the workhouse infirmary are constantly flitting to and fro. Deaths from starvation, back to back houses without thorough ventilation. Courts congested and over-crowded are features of the area, and yet it was to this place that the Rev. T. J. Bass felt he had a call, from the delightful suburban vicarage of Penn Fields, near Wolverhampton.
He lives in the midst of his parish in a disused coffee house, the surroundings of which are of the most unsavoury kind. The light of heaven is blackened by the smoke which curls aloft in thick clouds; the air is vitiated with the odours of a gas works and a mephetic canal, whilst breathing is difficult at times because of the throttling vapours of an acid works.
The people earn their living by precarious methods. Some of the people have been described as “hawkers, labourers, rag and bone collectors, wood choppers, pigeon flyers, dog racers, prize fighters and gamblers, convicts and loafers.” There are, however, not a few respectable people who have come down in the world and are in extreme poverty. Waste paper sorters, meat tin collectors, button stitchers, card-box makers, hawkers of fish and salt, orange sellers, paper fire ornament makers, sand-stone sellers, and persons of other occupations.
Women who live by button sewing find their own cotton, and sew twenty gross, 2,880 buttons, on a card, do eight hours’ work, and get from 8d. [8 pence] to 1s. [12 pence]
The rate of payment for those who stitch hooks and eyes on cards is 9d. a pack: one pack consists of twenty-four gross; a reel of cotton is provided, but l 1/4d. deducted for the same; the cards have to go three times through the workers’ hands-first, stitch on hooks, second, link hooks to eyes, third, stitch on eyes. Clever workers can earn 2s. 6d. per week.
Salt Sellers.- Rate of payment, 2d. a lump off a canal barge. Each lump cuts into four pieces, and is sold at 1d. per piece. Very many are engaged in this occupation, and if three lumps are sold in a day, a man thinks he has done well.
Box Making.- The people have to find their own glue, make 144 boxes, and glue 144 labels on the box; rate of remuneration, 4d. to 1s. 6d., according to size.
Waste Paper Sorters.- Rate of payment, 2s. per cwt. for good white paper clean, 4d. per cwt. for brown or dirty paper. Many miles have to be tramped to get one cwt. of mixed paper; then it has to be taken home and sorted, and after paying for the hire of a barrow, 1s. a day can be earned.
Refuse Meat Tin Collectors.- Some are collected from dust heaps or from private houses, or bought from grocers at 5s. for a large load. The tins are melted down, cleaned, and sold to small tin toymakers. Three men can turn the load referred to into about 15s. a week; it may be noted that 1d. saucepans are often made out of this tin.
Wood Chopping.- Old orange and bacon boxes are bought, which cost 4d. and will make 6d. worth of wood. Our readers can imagine the time it takes to chop a box and sell the wood.
The Children.- The neighbourhood teems with children, a large proportion of whom are only halfclad. It is a common thing in the day schools to be obliged to clothe the naked. The faces of the children are frequently pinched and worn; they have gone to bed supperless the night before and have come to school without breakfast. It is a marvel that any results are obtained by day school teachers. There is a very large percentage of lads and young girls, many of whom are allowed to drift, and they go to make up the criminal class. A melancholy interest attaches itself to the fact that one third of ALL THE CRIME of Birmingham comes from the police division of which this parish is a part; a great number of the offenders are under twenty-one years of age.
The vicar has set about reforming the parish. Six public houses have been closed, one horse-slaughtering place purified; there has been increased lighting, the sewers have been overhauled, fifteen acres of the parish have been condemned and are being dealt with by the sanitary authorities. The police force has been increased. By the action of the Local Government Board, Corporation Street is to be extended and a number of the slums swept away. The death-rate is gradually declining. Mr. Bass has encountered enormous opposition, and the slum property owners are trying to starve him out. He is ably assisted by two nurses, and in the last epidemic of typhoid fever their services were invaluable. The church has been restored. On the parish funds there is a debt of about 400 l. [£], and it is earnestly hoped that those who believe in alleviating the condition of the poorest will sustain Mr. Bass in his heroic effort to lead what some would have thought to have been a forlorn hope.