Condemned houses, sad stories and a happy coincidence

Sometimes a photograph has the power to tell a story so much greater than just the image in front of you.  A tragic, yet poignant story unfolded this week after a remarkable coincidence led to a bittersweet reunion.

A few months ago, we were contacted by the family of Tom Marsden, the former Public Health Inspector in Worcester.  The family were keen to donate an important collection of photographs to Museums Worcestershire that Mr Marsden had taken during his time in this role. Knowing that he had been in post during a key time for the city, in the late 1950s and 1960s, we were excited to see what this material might contain.  We were not disappointed.

Cramped yard spaces behind houses in the Tybridge Street area, c1960

It’s easy to be nostalgic about the lost buildings of Worcester, but many of the demolition works that took place during this period were as a result of the 1957 Housing Act, which called for houses to be fit for human habitation and led to around 3,500 houses in Worcester being condemned as unsanitary and unsafe.  During the course of this project we have already talked to local people who described the terrible living conditions, and the impact that this had on their health.  The new estates constructed around the city during that time were, for some, a chance to escape appalling conditions and very much welcomed.

As Public Health Inspector it was Tom Marsden’s role to ensure that housing in the city conformed to the 1957 Act and his incredible photographs capture the conditions that many families experienced after a half century of neglect, economic depression and two world wars.  Rising damp, rat-infested courtyards and cramped, airless spaces were just some of the scenes captured as he surveyed the city. What followed was the mass demolition of many areas, including the tenement houses of the Blockhouse, Tybridge Street, The Moors and Dolday. 

Behind the tenement houses of Spring Gardens before demolition in 1962

Roll forward 60 years and after careful digitisation of the photographs by John France at the Worcestershire Archive, we were able to share a handful of images as part of the weekly ‘Lockdown Quiz’.  One photograph that stood out from the collection was this wonderful image of demolition contractors posing for the camera at Spring Gardens, near Britannia Square. The photograph was included as part of the quiz.

Demolition in progress – the photograph that sparked this story

The following day, I received a message which read as follows;

“Hi Sheena. Where do you get the pics from? The photo of 3 men and a digger. 4th pic on quiz is my father. He’s the 1 leaning on the shovel. He died in a demolition accident 13 days after I was 13. I’m 70 now and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I only have 1 photo of him. I would dearly like that one too. Can you help? Gill Brooks.”

Having spent some time reviewing the photographs, I was able to respond to Gill with the news that we had not one, but two photographs of her father.  It was an emotional moment.  Through a series of messages, Gill shared her story.  Her father, Tom Bagley, was a foreman working for Charles Eden, demolition contractors.  The company undertook much of the work to clear the slum properties around the city and he was shown in the photograph alongside Walter Davies and Bill Jones. Tragically, Tom was killed on November 19th, 1962 when a wall at a property in Diglis Road collapsed onto him.

Two photographs – Tom Bagley can be seen on the right of the three men

We had been unclear of the date of this particular image, but by making reference to another source in the Historic Environment Record, the Register of Demolished Properties, we discovered that these houses were demolished between January and June 1962, only a few short months before he died.

The Register of Demolished Properties, 1961-63

Gill shared some wonderful memories of her father.  He was a shy man, who hated having his photograph taken which seemed to come across in the photographs we have. One particularly remarkable story was of a demolition job at the old Barbourne Leather Works in Pope Iron Road. A tall and troublesome chimney which had gained the name ‘Temperamental Annie’ was causing a few complications in the process of site clearance. Tom scaled the chimney to the top and began the process of taking it down, brick by brick.

Tom Bagley was only 45 years old when he died leaving behind a young family. Charlie Eden paid for the funeral and plot at Astwood cemetery, which is marked only by a marble pot that says “from his fellow workmates”.

While this story is a desperately sad one, it has been such a wonderful outcome to reunite the family with their father in some way, more than 57 years later. These photographs really unlocked a powerful and poignant story which demonstrates their true value.

We would like to say a huge thankyou to Gill for taking the time to share her memories with us, and allowing us to retell her story.

[This piece was first published via Worcester Life Stories in 2020]

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