City Council commissions a poem on housing

2018 was the centenary of the speech given by David LLoyd George about creating a county fit for heroes. The speech was given at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. Here’s a link to an online article in the Express and Star.

Wolverhampton Homes got in touch to see if I’d be interested in writing a poem connecting to this. I ended up doing two of them.

Here they are…

From Bloomsbury Street, Graiseley
to First Avenue, Low Hill.

At the archives
I read of Little streets, with little courts
In their confines dark and narrow
The outside streets in squalid parts
In which you scarce can turn a barrow

and in this black stained slumland
living cheek by jowl with factory
by way of maps and censuses
I find, The Whites, my grandma’s family,
thriving there, in Bloomsbury Street
against the odds, epidemics of the flu
against typhoid, then the measles,
crushing poverty, and a war or two.
Annie, George, Joe, Selina
Doris, Agnes, James
wife, tin plate worker, locksmith,
scholars – all listed trade and name.

Back home
I dig out photographs, wonder
who was what and who was who.
They must have thought their luck was in.
A garden suburb! Spick. Span. New.
Planned on drawing board with compass
and a ruler. With wide streets! Air!
And room to breath it! Sepia shifts,
the white frocks and bobbed hair
morph to shades of grey and kids
toting toy guns and cowboy hats
on the back path edged with painted stones
amongst unnamed dogs and cats.
And then I come to colour snaps,
realize that one or another of my tribe
was, for the best part of a century,
a council tenant at 165.

Emma Purshouse (written December 2019)


With thanks to Guy at Wolverhampton Archives for sharing his
expert knowledge and tracking down my family! I assume he
isn’t named after Guy Avenue or Guy Motors….but his name seemed
apt somehow for researching connections to Low Hill.

The bits of the poem in italics are ‘found text’ from books about
the history of housing in Wolverhampton. The poem that starts my
poem was un-assigned to an author…I hope whoever wrote it all
those years ago wouldn’t mind it being resurrected in this way.

What Etta does and doesn’t know

Etta doesn’t know, as she’s stood buying tickets,
about the speech made here a century ago.
Knows nothing of Lloyd George, of his land
fit for heroes, or of slum clearances coming
after war. But she does know that she’s scrimped
(after rent) and saved to treat her family to these seats
for the panto at the Grand. Knows they’re worth it too,
her kids. Her kids who’ve let her sofa surf,
sleep in box rooms. Her kids who’ve doubled up
with squirming, fractious toddlers, without a question
or a frown when things irrevocably broke down.
It’s not just the young whose marriages don’t last.

Etta doesn’t know, as she’s heading for the bus,
anti-theft bells jangling on her bag,
over twenty thousand council properties,
are rented in this city, doesn’t give that fact
a thought as she’s returning home. Home
to the new, to her at least, first floor maisonette.
And as Etta puts her key into her lock,
unpacks her shopping, turns her heating dial
up high, she knows little of social housing history,
of Low Hill in the 1920s, or of the 1960s
Heath Town and Merry Hill high rise, or even
of modernizations when toilets came inside!

But she does know as she snuggles down
and the wind picks up outside, she’s grateful.
Pulling up her bed socks, Etta says a prayer
for happy endings, and the homeless people
that shiver on the streets, for the weathermen
being wrong about the snow. Counts herself lucky
and to sleep, to dream of grandkids’ faces
when curtains open up to show Dick Whittington
spotted knapsack, cat in tow. And as the
back gate bangs and swings on a broken hinge,
Etta sets to yawning, knows that she
can always phone the council in the morning.

Emma Purshouse (Written November 2019)

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