Althorpe Street – Leamington Priors: A Social History 1781-1841

Population growth

In 1781, Leamington Priors was a village of 300 people built around a muddy mineral spring and the modern Althorpe Industrial Estate was primarily agricultural land owned by the Church.

Leamington_priors_1780s

althorpe_clip_image001The next fifty years saw the population of Leamington Priors grow significantly as the Industrial Revolution in Britain gained momentum. The building of the Warwick-Birmingham Napton canal; the railway and the commercial exploitation of the natural springs in the area all contributed towards boosting the local economy that needed to be fuelled by an increase in the working population and a consequential increase in the number of houses needed to accommodate this growth.

Occupational shift

From being a predominantly agricultural area in the 1780’s, the 1841 Census (England and Wales) shows 250 men women and children living on Althorpe Street, with 89 in occupations that supported the local economy. In an era geared to horse drawn transport there were 10 blacksmiths and 3 coachmakers. It was also a self contained community with 5 shoemakers; 2 bakers; a butcher; 2 grocers; 5 dressmakers; 3 tailors and 1 milliner. The street also housed a constable and a midwife with its social needs catered for by 3 publicans and 3 musicians. The balance of occupations ranged from building related jobs to gardeners, printers and labourers with the youngest workers aged 15.

Housing

By the mid 1830’s, over 300 new houses had been built in Leamington Priors, amongst which were 44 properties on what became Althorpe Street – bounded on the South by the canal and the North by High Street and the railway line. It is probable that many of these were owned by non residents as investment properties since auction papers from the time show them being sold with ‘under tenants’ in residence.

Early maps show rows of terraced houses of differing sizes fronting directly on to the street with rear access from passageways into ‘back yards’ or ‘courts’ that contained a single outside toilet for the use of the ‘courts’ occupants. A census from the time shows up to 12 people from two or more families living in one property. A comment from the early 1840’s stated that “In Althorpe Street ….the disgusting state of the courts was directly attributable to the dumping of waste into them from cesspits, whilst waiting for (eventual) disposal in the river (Leam) or later on open land. Living standards in parts of Leamington were equal to the worst parts of Britain’s largest industrial cities”.

Housing needs were also served by three Public Houses on Althorpe Street which provided lodging accomodation as well as being the street’s primary source of social activity.

Social Environment

dickensThis is the period when Charles Dickens was accurately describing in his novels(such as Oliver Twist) theconditions underwhich thepoorer people inBritain’s society were living. It wasn’t until 1840 that the Althorp Act was passed to end theempoyment of small boys as chimney sweeps. It is probable that Althorp Street (which later became Althorpe Street) was named after the Home Secretary of the time.

There was limited educational opportunity resulting in a high degree of illiteracy and the concept of teenager was unknown. With no radio, television or cinemas children played out in the streets and social activity centred around public houses of which Althorpe Street could support three. The Eagle Inn (no 41); the White Lion (no 5) and the Althorpe Arms (no 18). According to one local historian “there were so many public houses and corner shops in Leamington selling beer that supporters of The Temperance Movement took action to combat the menace (of drink) by setting up alternatives to alcohol in tea and coffee rooms, with one being opened in Althorpe Street” which “opened from 5am to 10pm (giving some indication of the length of a working day) where you could buy tea, coffee or chocolate for 1d (old penny) or buns, sand wiches and ginger beer for 4d”.