Chapter 6

A Tour of Victorian Redditch; 1841-1881

We have explored the burgeoning town of Birmingham, home to three of Edward's sons, and travelled to foreign parts with Edward Daniel Webb. Now we return to Victorian Redditch, where William Webb was to establish the firm which became Webb and Sons.
We have seen that Redditch had become something of a boom town during the 1820s and 30s, with a rapidly expanding population due to the concentration of the needle and fish hook industries in the township. For an insight into life in Redditch in the 1840s we have a new source - the census now lists individuals by household, and although it doesn't give as much detail as later censuses, it is still a very useful resource for family historians.

In order to obtain details from a semi-literate population, an "enumerator" was sent from door to door to make enquiries and to fill in his forms. He needed to know who was living, or staying, at each address for the night of Sunday June 6th 1841, and he no doubt met with some opposition. He had to deal with suspicious and devious characters, to cope with accents, dialects and those who didn't know their true age or place of birth. No wonder the results often leave something to be desired (including his handwriting!)
Each enumerator declared his route at the start, and this gives us an "oral map" of the dwellings of Redditch (Ref 1)

Pigot's directory of 1841 states that 8,000 workers were engaged in the manufacture of needles in the village and its environs. Kelly's Directory for 1841 informs us the nearest railway station was at Bromsgrove, four and a half miles away, and that letters from London and Birmingham would arrive from Bromsgrove by horse post at half past six in the morning, while letters from Alcester or Stratford would arrive by mail cart at half past eight in the evening.

Despite the advent of the railway, or because Redditch had yet to have a station of its own, coaches (that is, the horse-drawn variety) were still used for public transport. The Quicksilver from Evesham would collect passengers bound for Birmingham at the Unicorn Inn every morning at eleven, or they could catch the Dart from the Fox and Goose three days a week. The return coach from Birmingham to Evesham arrived at the Unicorn at seven every evening. By 1844 we learn from Pigot's Directory that there was a (horse drawn) bus service to connect with the rail services at Barnt Green, leaving at 7 in the morning, at a cost of 2s 6d (half-a-crown; 12.5p).

A humorous, if poignant glimpse of Redditch at this time is found in the following rhyme, quoted in John Rollins' book "Needlemaking" - (Ref 2)

This then was Redditch at the start of Victoria's reign, when William Webb was reputedly establishing his business in Evesham Street. The list of those who contributed to the Poor Rate of 1849 summarises the number of houses in Redditch at the time (although William Webb is not listed): (Ref 3) This totals 940 dwellings, not counting the farms. If we allow an average of 5 persons per household, this gives a total of 4,700, which is close to the estimated population of 4,518 in the next census of 1851. (It should be noted that the details for the censuses quoted here are for Redditch parish only - the part of the town to the south of Beoley Lane, including Mount Pleasant, Headless Cross etc was in the parish of Ipsley, and therefore listed separately.) The requirements for contributions to the Rate must have changed, because by 1851 William Webb is listed, in premises in Evesham Street owned by William Walford. He paid 6d in the pound. Also listed are John Webb (his cousin) living in a tenament in Wapping owned by William Reading, and his brother Charles living in Chapel Green in a house owned by the trustees of a Mr Williams. These members of the Webb family also contributed to the Highway Rate in 1852.

It is John Noake, who travelled around Worcestershire in the 1840s and 50s, who gives us a description of Redditch in 1851. He calls it "this enterprising town with its accumulation of social comforts and advantages." He had been told that Redditch had suffered, as had the rest of the country, from economic decline during the 1840s, but could find little evidence of it. Out on the town on a Saturday night he found plenty of prosperity, with "sparkling shops and all things betokening comfort, if not luxury".
He decided that Redditch was as bustling as the county town (Worcester). It was pointed out to him that needle makers were used to high wages and would consider the weekly wage of an agricultural worker (10 - 15 shillings) as "an extremity of distress". He noted that the artisans were tidily dressed and that the chapel, which could seat 1,000, was on the Sunday filled to capacity with respectable and decently behaved citizens, who impressed him with their powers of concentration "as with scarcely an exception, none of them slept during the sermon"! Noake was much less impressed with the chapel building itself, calling it an architectural abortion. For a description of the old Chapel on the Green, St Stephen's and (Ref 4).

Noake did however approve of the Unicorn Inn, finding the landlord to be a man of considerable taste - "the borders of the bowling green are laid out in an agreeable style and adorned with a fine collection of shrubs and flowers. The interior walls of the inn are covered with many superior paintings, and an air of domestic comfort seems to pervade the whole establishment".
The Unicorn was not the only area of the town to have a garden. Noake was also favourably impressed by "the truly excellent feature in the advantages of this town - the active influence of the allotment system". Surprisingly he found that some 40 acres were devoted to this, split into 140 allotments let out at a modest rent. One of these, in front of the National School was laid out "with excellent taste, adorned with shrubs, and flowers and planted with vegetables".

As already noted, the development of Redditch was typical of the industrialisation of England which was such a feature of Victorian times. More and more people were leaving the villages to take up factory jobs in towns and cities so that by the 1850s there were, for the first time in the nation's history, more people living in towns than in the country. The Harvest Festival Service, so much a part of English church life, dates back to this era, when it was thought necessary to remind churchgoers in urban areas of their agricultural origins. Obviously there are older (Old Testament) traditions of giving thanks for the harvest, on which survival during the winter months depended, but the new Anglican service reflected a change in social life. Even today, with the advantages of television, the internet and greater scope for travel, some city children need to be taught that milk comes from cows, meat from animals, and that cereals do not come from packets, nor beans from tins.

To get some idea of the growth of Redditch we can compare the enumerator's route for the census of 1841 (Ref 1) with that for the census of 1851 (Ref 5) The town contained dwellings of every type, from gracious mansions to mean slum tenaments and cottages. In his book Household Words (1852) the writer Charles Dickens was fully aware that the needle pointers died at an early age of consumption, but was nevertheless pleasantly surprised by the well-planned and ventilated factories. He did not comment on the housing situation, but we get a good description of this from the local paper The Redditch Indicator. The centenary edition of The Redditch Indicator (1959) looks back to Redditch in 1859 and summarises what the early editions of the paper tell us of the town (Ref 6).

Modern readers should remember that this summary is influenced by the reporter knowing the state of the old properties after 100 years of use. All properties and residential areas decline in time (some of the Victorian buildings in Redditch today are not part of the affluent and no doubt house-proud areas they were at the time of their construction). The slums of the 20th century in any town were not undesirable residences in the 19th. as can be seen from the following advertisement for a tenement house in 1860:
Fair sized tenement in Ipsley street. Kitchen, parlour, good cellar. 3 very good bedrooms; usual outbuildings. £29-15s-0d per house. Plenty of water.
The latter comment would refer to wells, as piped water was not available until the 1880s. The "usual outbuildings" would mean the shared privies and brew-house (wash-house) in the communal courtyard. For details of life in Back-to-back houses see "Living Back-to-Back" by Chris Upton ISBN 1 86077 321 4. The houses he mentions in Court 15, Inge Street, Birmingham have been restored by the Birminghm Conservation Trust and are open to the public. He also comments on social housing in general, and gives a very clear picture of how many of our ancestors lived in Victorian towns and cities, whether in back-to-backs, tenaments or terraced houses.

The Redditch Indicator also reported that the town was in a state of great excitement in September 1859 when the link to the main railway network was finally completed. Everyone was hoping to go on the special excursion to Cheltenham to mark the opening, and the day finished with a dinner at the Unicorn Hotel. Before this link to Barnt Green, passengers had to take the road coach (horse drawn), either to Barnt Green to catch the train there, or travel the full distance by coach to Birmingham.

With the coming of the railway Redditch industry could send its products to all parts of the country, and to the ports for export. In later years Thomas Edward Webb would travel to London in his capacity as representative for the needle firm of Abel Morrall, and he would also use the railways to transport the small coffins of two of his children back to Reditch for burial.

(Ref 7) details the reminiscences of station master Thomas Diggles.

The town continued to grow and prosper during the next decade, but eventually the basic infra structure could not support the increase in population, and living conditions deteriorated for the populace of certain areas of the town. By 1877 Dr Alexander Japp (Industrial Curiosities) declared Redditch to be "a clean and beautiful little town". but this was a somewhat superficial assessment, as only two years previously the Medical Officer of Health had produced a damning report (Ref 8) Obviously public health was an important issue, and gradually changes were introduced, staunchly supported by Richard Bartleet, a needlemaker whose home and factory were situated on Fish Hill (later called Prospect Hill). For better sanitation the provision of piped water was essential. (Ref 9) Some of the details of this are recorded in Charles Stallard's book Early Beginnings of Redditch, published by Age Concern.

The subject of public health also had a bearing on the care of the sick. Although Redditch had been fortunate to have had the services of dedicated doctors such as Dr Taylor, by the mid 19th century the population had grown considerably, and many families could not afford to pay for health care. Thanks to a local benefactor, Redditch was at last to have its own hospital. (Ref 10). In addition to the building of the hospital, the town turned its attention in the 1880s to the upkeep of the Church on the Green - (St Stephen's)

So the town of Redditch blossomed throughout the Victorian era; the generosity and public-spirited nature of successful businessmen led to an improvement in the well-being of the workers who had, over several generations, helped to create the wealth of the town.
The Webb family does not seem to have played an active part in Redditch life - no Webbs are mentioned on committees or boards, but by establishing one of the town's most enduring businesses they did make a worthwhile contribution.