Benefits Street: 'Living the dream' 100 years ago

A wedding on James Turner street, circa 1915 James Turner Street residents, here at a wedding around 1915, were skilled workers

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A TV show depicting many of the residents of Birmingham's James Turner Street as jobless benefit dependants has been accused of making the area seem rundown and crime-ridden. But has the area always had this reputation? Historians say 100 years ago the street was a highly-desirable place to live.

Being lucky enough to move to the road - dubbed "Benefits Street" by the Channel 4 show of the same name - when it was first built would have been "like living the dream", says public history expert Dr Chris Upton.

City-centre living had little appeal in the 19th Century.

With central Birmingham dominated by cramped, back-to-back homes, people lived as far outside the centre as they could afford to.

Start Quote

Dr Chris Upton

They could now live the life of a respectable suburban Brummie”

End Quote Dr Chris Upton Reader in public history, Newman University

So-called "ribbon developments" encircled the city, and among them was James Turner Street in Winson Green, about two miles north-west of the centre.

Built in the late-1880s, it was part of Birmingham's rapid expansion, fuelled by plentiful, well-paid manufacturing jobs.

In a city on the up, these new suburbs like Winson Green were the place to be.

"The respectable working class, they'd have called themselves," says Dr Upton, an academic at Birmingham's Newman University.

"They're above the poor, but they're not in the middle class yet."

Many were skilled workers, earning about 30 shillings (£1.50) a week, a good salary for the time. It was even enough, Dr Upton says, for about two-thirds of families to afford a maid.

Much like today, renting was commonplace, and residents would have shelled out about six shillings a week - a price only the employed could afford.

'Respectable suburban Brummie'

These terraced houses offered a more comfortable life and an air of respectability, with front gardens, backyards and bay windows adding to their allure.

Children in the backyard of 103 James Turner Street around 1912 Backyards, like this one at 103 James Turner Street, were popular 100 years ago

There was more space inside too, with two rooms downstairs and two separate bedrooms upstairs, meaning parents could sleep separately from their children.

Traditional back-to-backs were only one room deep, with a single living room and kitchen on the ground floor. Families were often forced to share a bedroom, in an era when having six children was not uncommon.

But life in the suburbs brought an even greater benefit - moving outside the city centre could double a person's life expectancy. It was a lifestyle that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.

"When they moved out of the centre their health improved," says Dr Upton.

"They could now live the life of a respectable suburban Brummie."

Martin Hanchett's grandmother raised nine children in a two-bedroom house on James Turner Street, having moved there just before World War One.

It would become home to three generations of his family, and many relatives lived nearby.

"People all had pride in their homes and streets, the women would sweep the pavement outside their homes, and would scrub the front doorstep," says Mr Hanchett.

"My grandmother would take in washing to earn a few extra shillings to help with the household bills."

Deidre Kelly Deidre Kelly says James Turner Street residents are proud of where they live

And pride in the area has not diminished, according to one current resident. Deidre Kelly, also known as White Dee on the Channel 4 show, lives in an original Victorian house on the street.

Looking at the picture of a wedding party on the street dated to about 1915, she said a similar sense of occasion would be found today.

"Everybody would be out - if there's anything happening everybody's out," she says.

"There's a definite sense of community, everyone's proud to live there, and I don't think anyone by choice would ever move."

'One of best areas'

Even those who lived in the street well past its heyday remember it fondly.

John Cahill grew up at 148 James Turner Street with his parents, brother and sister between 1966 and 1974.

James Turner Street in 1911

James Turner Street sign
  • The April 1911 Census was the first to record people's occupations
  • Many residents were employed in metal industries, from iron and brass foundries to jewellery workshops
  • Extended families often lived together; number 15 housed 12 people in total
  • Some families also had a lodger. John Sutton, a 63-year-old widowed plumber, boarded at 136 James Turner Street
  • Number 59 housed two widows: Mary Pickering, 76, and her daughter, as well as six children
  • Children were employed from a young age. Lily Vincent, 14, lived at number 91 and worked as a lacquerer at a button-making factory


"It was one of the best areas to live - a generally nice area, not posh, generally working class, but not as bad as it is today," he says.

"My parents worked - always did."

He remembers many of the men on the street having skilled metalwork jobs, including his own father, who made parts for navigational equipment.

Many of the houses on the road doubled as work premises a century ago.

Residents could enjoy browsing in a couple of beer shops, or get a new set of wheels from the resident bicycle maker.

A tailor, a painter and a greengrocer occupied other homes, according to a 1907 trade directory.

Other residents were employed in the city centre, including some who worked in the small workshops of Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, crafting pieces in precious metals.

Among them was Albert Pardoe, whose family lived at 58 James Turner Street.

As a 15-year-old he plied his trade as a silver and gold brooch maker, the 1911 Census shows. His father Alfred was a brass worker at a local foundry.

With unemployment benefit non-existent in those times, those in need had to apply for "relief" at the nearby workhouse, a site now occupied by City Hospital. Handouts amounted to four or five shillings a week, not enough to live on James Turner Street.

It was also out of reach financially for most new immigrants.

"You only had to look around the corner to see the other world - the prison, the asylum, the workhouse - to see why it was you were remaining employed and working hard," says Dr Upton.

James Turner Street today James Turner Street was dubbed "Benefits Street" in the Channel 4 show of the same name

So why did James Turner Street spiral from the picture of Victorian respectability into the picture now portrayed on Benefits Street, where at least some of the residents are out of work?

Birmingham had seen full employment in the mid-1950s, but the nationwide decline in manufacturing hit the city hard.

About 200,000 jobs were lost during the 1970s, many in the industries that had sustained the residents of James Turner Street.

And as jobs disappeared, housing became lower-end. It was a "microcosm" of what was happening in the country at large, according to Dr Upton.

"Those jobs never came back," he adds.

'Rough' versus 'respectable'

Start Quote

Professor Tim Strangleman

The big difference is that now the working class is ridiculed”

End Quote Prof Tim Strangleman University of Kent

Despite being part of the working class themselves, the Victorian James Turner Street residents would likely to have looked down on those who were socially beneath them, says Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

"Since Victorian times there has always been a division between rough and respectable," he says.

People also distinguished between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor - the old, sick and young were worthy of charity, but everyone else was considered ripe for work.

By the 1960s and 1970s the working class was "feared because it was organised… it had power," says Prof Strangleman.

"The big difference is that now the working class is ridiculed."

And today's working class has new issues to contend with beyond changing attitudes.

"Low pay, in work poverty, zero-hours and temporary contracts - are all working class issues," he says.

"All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working class communities in the past."

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