Fancy a trip to The Jitties?
It’s an odd name. A jitty sounds like a bad case of stomach ache or an anxiety attack. Or perhaps a type of boat? But you’d be wrong.
Actually, they are hidden alleyways bursting with history, lying off the beaten track in deepest Shropshire.
‘The Jitties’ are a maze of narrow lanes and passageways that link up around a higgledy-piggledy mix of old squatter cottages in Broseley near Ironbridge.
Welcome to the maze
I came across The Jitties by accident during a trip to Coalbrookdale in England’s Midlands, famous as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Whilst driving up the hill to Broseley in the camper van, we stopped to buy a loaf at the bakers. Standing in the queue, I picked up a Broseley heritage trail leaflet which mentioned ‘The Jitties’.
What or who were these Jitties of which local people speak? I was intrigued – my inner Sherlock Holmes wanted to investigate.
Like the fictional detective, I donned my deerstalker hat, grabbed a map and headed to the edge of town.
It wasn’t easy to find where The Jitties’ maze of alleyways started and finished, but persistence paid off when I spotted a hidden signpost to Maidens’ Jitty.
This is a good place to start your journey. These alleyways are very unusual and, once inside the maze, it’s easy to lose all sense of the outside world.
The tiny lanes zig-zag around the backs of old cottages like escape routes for smugglers or scoundrels. They were actually narrow lanes which linked cottages in a mining community.
At its peak, this Jitty community in Broseley was self-contained, a kind of shanty town built from bricks and stone.
My first surprise was discovering that The Jitties weren’t just an 18th Century phenomenon. Looking at my trusty guide-book, it turned out that they dated back to the 1590s when they were the focus for a squatter community of immigrant miners.
Their inhabitants lived in poverty on the edge of society, earning a pittance and working long hours down the mines.
These people were outsiders, sometimes living beyond the law and struggling to gain social acceptance from the wider town community. A bit like today’s low-paid migrant workers from eastern Europe.
Back in 1600, Broseley consisted of only 27 houses and formed part of the Shirlett Royal Forest. At that time the miners were encouraged to construct cottages on common land on the edge of Broseley.
The new workers weren’t popular with the locals. They were social outcasts and many described them as the ‘dregs of many counties’. Their arrival prompted rioting by the townspeople.
Tradition allowed a man the right to build cottages on common land if he was able to erect a chimney and hearth in a day. Amazing but true!
But it was the Industrial Revolution that changed everything. As industry expanded in all directions in the nearby Severn valley, Broseley’s population boomed which meant that the Jitties took on a new role for the industrial workers.
Broseley became a boom town, major centre for coal mining, iron manufacturing and earthenware. And low paid workers gravitated to the Jitties to live with their families.
Rich seam of history
I was puzzled why did little-known Broseley found itself at the heart of this industrial boom? And I wanted to know more about living in The Jitties during this time of unprecedented growth.
Location, location, location is the answer. When the Iron Bridge was built in 1779 down the road it linked Broseley to Coalbrookdale and led to an explosion of industry in nearby Ironbridge which became the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Then there’s its transport links. There’s some evidence that early wooden wagon ways existed in Broseley in 1605, built to transport coal and clay, before railways connected our industrial powerhouses.
Broseley was perfectly located to exploit this and benefited from a rich seam of minerals for mining. It expanded so rapidly that its buildings were thrown up quickly to accommodate workers in its industries.
The Jitties’ alleys
Today the Jitties are a picturesque series of back streets with restored middle class cottages. It’s a far cry from what this area must have looked like in the late 18th Century when it was a slum with no proper water supply or sanitation.
Water had to be collected at nearby wells and springs including Boss Well, Cob Well or The Spout in evocatively named Spout Lane. The community wasn’t linked to the sewerage and water supply until the 1920s. You can still see one of the springs at Spout Lane.
Sewerage was put into earth closest or open sewers. You can only imagine the stench!
The houses would have been rough and basic with just a room lit by candle-light. There were no mod cons.
What were the people who lived in The Jitties really like? It’s hard to find out how they felt about living in this maze-like community, but the families would have been poor.
There are a few clues as to who they were on the Jitty street signs which reflect the names of the people who lived there.
Plant’s Jitty was named after the residents who lived there whilst Cooper’s Jitty comes from Mrs Cooper who resided in a cottage there.
Back in the 19th Century, there was a tar mine here which was reached through a large hole in the ground. The tar was carried up in large buckets and was used for sailing vessels on the Severn.
Jews’ Jitty was also known as Quinns’ Bank. The Quinns lived in a house halfway down until they moved and a Jewish family, the Wolfsons, took up residence in the 1930s.
We know that this Jewish family bought a pottery at Benthall where they made china dolls and plates, so they must have been one of the wealthier families living in The Jitties.
Not all The Jitties are named according to their residents. Mission Jitty was christened after the nearby Mission Church whilst Maypole Jitty was the site of a maypole which dated back centuries.
Ding-Dong Steps are said to be named from the sound made by studs in workers’ hobnail boots. You can imagine the sound of the miners returning home after a heavy day of labouring in the cramped and dangerous mines.
Some think that the name originates from this being a place of fights or ding-dongs where disputes could be settled between its inhabitants. It must have been a tough place to live.
With the decline of mining, the Jitties were abandoned by the miners and eventually, the cottages were modernised or replaced by modern homes. Today, it’s a highly desirable neighbourhood with great views of the Seven Valley. It’s come a long way since its squatter origins.
But was my detective work successful on my tour of The Jitties?
Overall, I’d say ‘yes’, but I’d love to learn more about this unique community during its heyday. It’s hard to find detailed information about these working class people at the grimy coal face of English industrial history.
A few clues still exist. On Simmonds Jitty there’s a wall built from ceramic ‘Sagger’ containers used for making clay pipes before they were placed in the furnace. But the lanes themselves convey the most authentic image of the Jitties as they once were.
Broseley Town Tour
Once you’ve found your way out of the labyrinthine Jitties, take a walk around Broseley’s main town which has a mix of fascinating old buildings.
Look out for the Iron-Topped House with its Gothic windows, Broseley Hall which dates from the 1730s, and Raddle Hall, built in 1663.
There are also remnants of Broseley’s other two big industries, The town was a huge centre of pipe making in the 18th and 19th centuries, drawing on the rich clay in the area.
There were hundreds of pipe makers in Broseley in the early Industrial Revolution. Hardly anybody smokes pipes these days but back in the 18th and 19th Centuries it was as popular as smoking and vaping today.
By the 19th Century pipe making had become concentrated in three bigger factories at Bridge Bank, Benthall; Legge’s Hill; and King Street. The former works of William Southorn & Co still survives today.
Broseley’s pipe makers were so well-known that the phrase “Will you take a Broseley?” became a familiar phrase for smokers. A bit like today’s phrase, “Fancy a tab?”.
Delve deeper into this hidden history of Broseley with a trip to one of the clay pipe works which has now been converted into a museum.
Pottery was another major industry in the town but this was concentrated by the river in Jackfield, although there were also several factories in Broseley. One of their specialities was a yellow and brown pottery with a pie crust edge which can be spotted in several local gardens today.
Broseley was also famous for tile manufacture, an industry rooted in the deep clay found in the Jackfield area. It became famous for its distinctive brown-red brick tiles.
By 1840 there were around eight large works which sent tiles all over the country via the River Severn. You can still see traces of Broseley’s trademark tiles on local buildings around the town.
One of the best examples is Powell’s Shop on King Street – the facade is a curious mix of the various tiles made at local factories. St. Mary’s Church in Jackfield is another great example of Broseley’s brick and roof tiles, whilst the interior boasts ornate decorative tiling.
Broseley’s industrial prosperity was short-lived, and by the 19th Century, the iron and coal seams were almost exhausted.
By the 1840s Onions’ foundry was the only ironworks left on the south of the Severn. The industry moved to Staffordshire and Worcestershire whilst some of the industrial entrepreneurs headed for the richer seams of South Wales.
Broseley’s pipe-making also industry declined, but remained going as late as the 1950s.
Today, Broseley is a thriving town with a bags of character, surrounded by lush woodlands.
A bit of detective work is definitely required to discover its history, but it’s well worth a trip if you’re looking for the unique Jitty experience.
Tammy’s Tour Guide – Broseley and The Jitties
Broseley is located a couple of miles south of Ironbridge World Heritage Site in Shropshire in England’s West Midlands.
To make the most of your visit to The Jitties, it’s essential to pick up a free walking guide because it’s easy to get lost in this maze of alleyways. There’s also an audio tour of The Jitties which helps to bring its history to life.
You can download the Broseley Town Guide and The Jitties map from the Visit Broseley website
Look out for remnants of the Industrial Revolution as you walk around Broseley from its 18th and 19th Century buildings to the Ironmaster sign and old tiles on houses.
The Broseley Pipe Museum is worth a quick look. but I’d advise checking opening times because they are hit and miss. It closes during the winter season.
Broseley is best combined with a day out at nearby Ironbridge and Blists Hill Victorian Town where there are 10 different museums. It’s good value to buy a ‘passport’ covering all these attractions.
Blists Hill Victorian Town Museum near Ironbridge is well worth a full day trip. You’ll need plenty of time to explore this Open Air Museum which is one of the most impressive heritage sites in the UK.
There’s a complete Victorian village with shops, fairground, foundry, blast furnace, mine, and railway. The site covers a huge area of 52 acres and is largely outdoors.
Nearby there’s the Coalport Museum and Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron which celebrate the area’s former industries.