I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I love the Black Country with all my heart. This dirty, post-industrial powerhouse of a place has been prominent throughout my life, although, technically, I live outside it. What’s often missed by outsiders is that although treated as one lumpen mass, the Black Country is a whole place made up of distinct towns and villages, often with their own accents, cultures, specialisms and architectural styles.
In Willenhall, you couldn’t possibly think you were in Netherton, for example; the personality of the lock-making town is so distant from the chain makers that you could be worlds apart. I love the little towns and districts, and none more, I think, than Darlaston.
Darlaston has a great industrial past, a powerhouse built on metal manipulation – machinery, fasteners and precision were the products of the is proud, Victorian place. It has a strong civic and civil history that shows in it’s public buildings: the noble post office, police station, remarkable town hall and even the scout hut is a thing of beauty. When the bricklayer picked out ‘Charles Richards’ in the factory gables in white ceramic bricks, he knew that he was building to last. The towering inscription over the Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds entrance was almost ecclesiastical in approach. These were emporia, not factories.
Sadly, the industrial revolution came, stayed a century or more, then left, and now Darlaston is a place of smaller, but very important industry, much of it still specialist in nature. But the big temples to manufacturing have gone, in many cases exchanged for retail, housing or quieter, modern factory units.
Last week, I featured a leaflet sent in by reader Tony Martin, detailing a projected redevelopment of Darlaston in 1962. Thankfully, it never came to pass, but my article inspired blog stalwart David Oakley to write eloquently and emotionally about Darlaston, while Tony scanned more of the leaflet. The two, I’ve combined. Thanks to both gentlemen for a wonderful thing.
Tony Martin wrote:
Some pictures of the old and new Darlaston. I can’t help thinking the ‘now’ ones were chosen to look even gloomier than the reality! And what would the new Darlaston look like by now? A vandalised, graffiti covered wreck, perhaps?
Cheers, lads. This what this blog is all about… hosting material like this makes me proud.
I was pleased to see Darlaston mentioned in the blog, recently. I appreciate that its ‘off the usual territory’ , but to ‘old ‘uns’ such as myself, Darlaston industry in the early ‘50’s played a large part in the prosperity of many Brownhills and Walsall Wood families and many others, still farther afield. Darlaston today is a pale shadow of its former eminence in the field of metal industry , all the industrial giants have long departed, F.H. Lloyds, Rubery Owen, Garringtons, The Steel Nut and Joseph Hampton’s, Richards’s, Wilkins and Mitchell (Of Servis fame), together with a host of smaller factories making nuts and bolts and other accessories for the booming car industry at Longbridge and other centres. Nuts and bolts seemed to be the popular choice for the smaller firms and in this era of high employment, girls skilled at drilling and tapping would drift from employer to employer, seeking the best pay rates and conversing among themselves on the merits and demerits at each workplace. Most of these places relied on shafting and belts to each machine, so the noise levels were very high, so, as in the Lancashire mills, girls relied on lip-reading and gestures to make themselves understood. One small nut and bolt firm, in the region of Foster Street was labelled, ‘The Boneyard’. Never found out why.
There were not many cars about in those days, only ‘gaffers’ had cars, so how did the thousands who worked at these Darlaston factories make their way to work and back home again? I’ll tell you. It was on one of the one-time familiar blue buses of Walsall Corporation. Where a bus was needed it was promptly supplied. ‘Cook Street dodgers ‘ to F.H. Lloyds and a frequent service to Darlaston Green for Rubery Owen and Garrington’s workers, together with a four-minute service frequency on the Walsall – Darlaston – Wednesbury – Walsall circular service, soon got the workers to their machines in good time for an 8 a.m. start. Fifty-six seats on the bus, with eight standing, but don’t go upstairs if you can help it. Thirty workers all puffing at Woodbines or Park Drive was a bit daunting, as you coughed your way to a seat in the cloudy blue acrid atmosphere, before lighting your own. Local workers walked or had bikes. Each factory had spacious bike sheds, but limited car parking. To see one of these factories at ‘knocking-off ‘ time was a revelation, the roadway and pathways were virtually black, as workers, like little ants, came out in their hundreds, walking or on bikes to make their way home. Buses would be waiting, often two or three to operate a shuttle service until the queues cleared. The morning rush to work was handled in similar fashion, workers off the number 23 service from Brownhills and Walsall Wood would stream across Walsall Bridge in the direction of Bradford Place to board a bus to Darlaston, where the same shuttle services frequency would apply.
Looking at the current map, Darlaston hasn’t changed too much since the early fifties, and I might still be able to find my way about , although in my time, Darlaston had no traffic islands, and the only traffic lights were at Moxley and Bentley. Taking a start from James Bridge, the old Walsall/Darlaston boundary, where, rather quaintly, the only entrance to the station was from the top of the bridge, with wooden steps leading downwards to the platform. heading for Darlaston, and passing Station Street, the first street in Darlaston, coming from Pleck, with the first factory making, quite appropriately, nuts and bolts. F.H. Lloyds stood on the corner of Park Lane, no big traffic island here, then, where the road bends right, towards Darlaston. An interesting point here is that under the old Authority, the boundary between Darlaston and Wednesbury ran up the centre of the road, so if you stood outside All Saints church, Darlaston, and crossed the road, hey presto ! you’d be in Wednesbury. All Saints Road, opposite the church was in Wednesbury and was the home of The Steel Nut and Joseph Hampton, Woden works. Though quite large, this was a friendly company and looked after the social aspects of its employees in good fashion. The firm had a reputation for quality products and produced nuts and bolts for Rolls-Royce, keeping patrol inspectors on their toes, respecting acceptable tolerances, etc. It was a noisy factory, and the loudspeakers playing ‘Music while you work’ could barely be heard above the din, although when a popular song was played, a bevy of female voices could be heard, rising above the noise as a whole section of female operatives joined in.
The bridge, nearing the Bullstake still carried the railway lines which have now disappeared, while Crescent Road, on the right had a Public Convenience near the corner, undamaged and unvandalised, perfectly normal in those days. Crescent Road shared two other distinctions, The Picturedrome cinema was on the right-hand side, and the terminus for the Bentley bus was in front of the toilets, before being sited in Victoria Road at a later date.
Moving on to the Bullstake I noticed that the Spot Café had disappeared from the corner of Darlaston Road, looking towards Kings Hill and Wednesbury. This was an important venue of some years ago. ‘Meet you by the Spot’ was as popular as ‘Outside Henry’s,’ in Walsall. Farther along in King’s Hill was Wilkins and Mitchell, the Servis washer people. This was at the time of the export drive in order to help an impoverished Britain after the war. You couldn’t buy a washing machine or a car, everything was geared to the export drive. A short walk away and you came to the Metropolitan and Cammell works, Real big stuff was manufactured here, the factory covered both sides of the road with an engine, on rails, running from one side to the other. A man would appear, armed with a red flag and, bus or car, you knew you were in for quite a long wait as the engine completed its operation.
Back at the Bullstake, there were only two more roads to take. No St Lawrence Way, then, but King Street was a thoroughfare and could lead you to Darlaston Green and Bentley. The Bentley bus would enter the Bullstake then make its way up King Street,
Church Street, then down to the Green, passing St Joseph’s church on the way. In the small churchyard stood a statue of a godly man, with his arm upraised, with the index finger pointing upwards, towards heaven. Some wag had the temerity to shin up the statue and place a bandage around this finger. I do believe this old church is no longer there. The bus would then move into Blockall, past the Olympia Cinema, where an underground fire would keep the cinema cosy in the winter and unbearably hot in summer, past Garringtons where the presses and stampers would shake the very earth, and Booth Street, where the sprawling Rubery Owen works was located, then on to Bentley, not forgetting the canal bridge and the railway bridge, in close proximity. There was a little building, near to Wrexham Avenue, owned by Rubery Owen and known as ‘The Sons of Rest’ where older employees, some past retirement age could work on light inspection duties. It’s reported that one employee, after his first day, tottered home muttering ‘Sons of Rest? ! I’ve never worked so hard in all me life!’
The final road from the Bullstake is Pinfold Street, leading to Moxley and Bilston. This street was distinguished by having trolley bus wiring. This was a Wolverhampton Corporation service which ran to Whitmore Reans, with the turning-circle wiring comfortably accommodated on standards on the Bullstake. Further down you came to the Regal Cinema, the posh one, which later specialised in Indian/Pakistani films, before becoming a Bingo hall. So with three cinemas, numerous pubs and bags of employment in the 50s, this was indeed a grand little town.