The dirty old town I love

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Darlaston has some remarkable, little-noticed architecture, and one of the most lovely war memorials I know.

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.

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Absorbed into the ill-fated Glynwed, but not forgotten. The Charles Richards Imperial Nut & Bolt works remains, just.

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:

Hello, Bob

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?

Tony Martin

Cheers, lads. This what this blog is all about… hosting material like this makes me proud.

Darlo6

Thankfully, it wasn’t to be. Image kindly scanned b Tony Martin.

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.

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This stuff looks great in Wolverhampton now, doesn’t it? Not. Image kindly scanned b Tony Martin.

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.

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It really hasn’t changed much, to be honest. Image kindly scanned b Tony Martin.

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!’

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stevenage New Town? How did that go, exactly? Image kindly scanned b Tony Martin.

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.

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42 Responses to The dirty old town I love

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    What really clobbered Darlaston was the recession in the early 80s, when that woman told us 3 million unemployed was a price worth paying. I remember some of the numbers: at one point in the West Midlands Region 220,000 jobs had been lost in a year; in that same year in Darlaston, within a half mile radius of Darlaston Green, 22,000 went. One tenth of the whole region in that small crucible of metal bashing – put a 50 pence piece on a 1:50,000 OS map and you get an idea. As though overnight the place went from a busy cacophany – those big presses at Garringtons lifted you off your feet, and you couldn’t hold a conversation in the street – to a silent memorial, Rubery Owen, Chas Richards, Garringtons, Nuts & Bolts, GKN like so many headstones.

    There is a large abandoned limestone mine under there, too. I see work is to commence on highway improvements that have been talked about and the subject of funding bids for 30 years.

    At Willenhall the cemetery in Wood Street is well worth a mooch. All those famous names of the lock making world.

  2. stymaster says:

    What a great piece. Darlaston has some fantastic old buildings- thankfully the great regeneration plan never happened.

  3. Mark Wood says:

    What an amazing piece. As a Darlaston lad I was educated, met my wife and entered the first forays into work there. The place was already decimated when I arrived as small lad in 1976. The at Richards’ game off so as not to pay tax. The place is steeped in history, walk around and you will see lots of Victorian architecture. Spent my formative years there and will always have fond memories of the place, even if I did escape and change accents.

  4. Rob says:

    @Mark Wood:
    ” The place was already decimated when I arrived as small lad in 1976.”
    I make that at least three years before “that woman told us 3 million unemployed was a price worth paying” even walked into Downing Street. There had been a decade of industrial conflict and agitation prior to this.
    Interesting.

    • Settle down, Rob. Nobody’s peeing on your love affair with the Thatch.

      Richards was not killed by the government, nor the workers, but piss-poor venture capitalists, who as a larger concern, bought a company in a market they didn’t understand, then imagined they could take on the order book by factoring. It failed. Sadly, it turns out that to supply fasteners, the combined experience of the company they pillaged was quite useful, after all.

      The decimation of Richards is a matter of record elsewhere, a very sad end to a company in the mid 70s that had excelled for a century. The same monkeys also took down other good firms like Yarwood and Ingram in Brum, before their own collapse.

      Two decades later, similar venture capitalists wiped out another 7 remaining fastener manufacturers in an effort to stay afloat. It seems we learn nothing.

      GKN decided in 1981 to outsource their manufacturing to the far east. That was such a success it very nearly destroyed the whole company, and the absence of the little blue and white boxes now attests to a disastrous policy.

      Lots of things combined in a perfect storm; the oil criss and recession, chronic underinvestment, companies resting on laurels, bad labour-management relations, and a government that believed we could survive on service industries.

      Bob

      • Andy Dennis says:

        Sadly, all too true!

      • Rob says:

        Didn’t know I had a love affair with anyone that you knew about.
        The government that believed we could survive on service industries was only half right.
        We needed financial industries as well.
        That’s why Gordon deregulated them so he could increase his tax take.
        Worked out well, didn’t it?

        • George Carlin. The table is tilted. (Strong language, don’t play if easily offended)

          • Rob says:

            I haven’t bothered watching that, I can choose my own entertainment.
            I was merely trying to highlight that although a “local” observed that the place was already in decline by 1976 the fashion continues in certain quarters to blame Thatcher for everything.
            Simple objectivity and observation which I’d hoped you’d appreciate instead of making fatuous comments of a personal nature.
            Facts eh?

            • My response was not personal, merely joshing. And facts? Think that’s subjective.

              I’ve told you before, Rob, if you don’t like the grass here, plenty of other pastures.

              Bob

              • Rob says:

                Subjective?
                Almost sounds like you don’t believe Mark Wood’s contribution, although he only lived there.
                Pastures – they’re for sheep, aren’t they?

                • I have no problem with any contribution, Rob, that one seems accurate enough to me. As I said, go search the history of Richards – it’s out there.

                  ‘Do you want pasteurised, ‘cos pasteurised is best? Ernie I’ll be happy if it comes up to me chest.’

                  Your barrel is making a funny scraping sound.

                  Bob

            • f8media says:

              Cant see how you can blame her three years before she came into power. The decline started long before her reign.

              • I’d point out what I wrote above. There was lots wrong with manufacturing. Some terrible venture capitalism; huge underinvestment and a worldwide recession caused in no small part by the oil crisis.
                In microcosm, look at the British motorbike and cycle industries. We innovated once, and then rested on it. The Far East took our stuff and ran with it while we were passing around the cigars.
                Look what Shimano did to (French) Sachs with indexed gears, or Honda did to Triumph. They outclassed us.
                Bob

                • f8media says:

                  Look at Talbot Stead, dismantled bit by bit and sent to Idia. Wages a bowl of rice per day, I saw this great company go before my very eyes in 2000. Cant blame the Tories for that, Vauxhall Astra plant dismantled and sent to the Far East only for us to be sold Astra lookalikes under the guise of Nexia. Im afraid its called business. The Midlands failed to see what was on the horizon and adapt. Look at Longbridge now 8 years on. Darlaston would have loved that in the 70s, 80s, 90s or even now. Darlaston never got the sympathy vote that the lazy backward idiots got at Longbridge.

          • Pedro says:

            Leaving aside the years around Thatcher, this blog has articles concerning the owners of the local industries from, say 1850 onwards, into a new century and two world wars. Judge the sentiments of the video through the ages!

  5. f8media says:

    As an interesting juxtaposition. I studied with Walsall ITEC (computers all new back then) in 1983 in the Rubery Owen Hospital. It wasnt lost on me that I was messing around the future in a building from the past, walls tiled halfway. Always seemed odd using Bulletin Boards in Ex Operating Theatre. I remember leaving work and Garringtons opposite had a Concierge in full regalia on the doors.

    The Church on The Green was being demolished as I arrived in 1976 all that now remains is the bit of modern art that bestowed the front of house.

  6. Pedro says:

    Mother & Child Statue Location: Darlaston St Lawrence’s Churchyard

    Type: Haunting Manifestation Date / Time: Unknown

    Further Comments: The child from this statue has been seen leaving the mother figure and walking off. The piece of art has also reportedly glowed in the dark, while a white phantom monk has also been observed in the churchyard.

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33346542?tag=Darlaston

  7. Pedro says:

    Dirty old town, not Darlaston, but could be….

    • I was so hoping someone would link to the great Ewan and Peggy.

      Must do something on the Radio Ballads. Without whom, this blog would be bugger all, frankly.

      ‘I looked round, to see him disappearing…’

      ‘Where’s the man with the strength of character as can tek a punch on the nose, and keep his temper and keep control of himself?’

      ‘It’s been worth missing a nights sleep for, this has. If only the people of England could see it.’

      Fans of MacColl will understand.

      Brilliant, thanks!
      Bob

      • Pedro says:

        MacColl seems a very interesting person! Perhaps without chaps like him you would not have any say on how many trees were cut down on Brownhills Common!

        Wage slave on Monday, but a free man on Sunday….No man has right to own mountains, any more than the deep ocean bed.

  8. tony Martin says:

    So much I could write about Rubery Owen! Though I never worked there both my parents did, indeed met there during the War. My father worked in the tool room until, quite literally, the day he died, my mother in the offices.
    The houses in Wrexham Avenue and along Bentley road North were built by the company for its workers as was the playing field behind them and the bowling green and pavilion. Emanuel Church, Bentley was largely funded by the Owen family also.
    At Christmas there was a party for the children, and every September a works outing to Blackpool for ‘The Lights’ one year and to London the next. At least two trains and a dozen coaches.
    Amongst its products were chassis for both Guy buses and trucks and Morgan sports cars.
    My father died in 1970, so missed the sad end of a once great company.

  9. f8media says:

    Thank the Lord he didnt see the decline Tony. My family used to tell me stories about Tanks built there test driven up and down Midland Road. Torpedoes tested in the straight part of the cut under the road. Sports Cars, forget Morgan, this was the birthplace of BRM!

  10. Dave Fellows says:

    Great post. My Mom’s family were all miners, and my Dad’s were all foundry/ metal workers from Darlo and Moxley, so this brought back many memories of my childhood spent around the area till we moved to what seemed like the green paradise of Pelsall! Remember going to see my Granddad working on the “Big ‘Ommer ” at Garringtons (OHS would never allow that now!), floor used to shake when it was going, and was offered an apprenticeship at the Nut and Bolt when I left school , (didn’t take it.long story). My Dad can remember a few raids by the Luftwaffe , and after one particular one all the local kids were collecting incendiaries in buckets of water. He says that a German bomber crashed by Moxley rope works, but they weren’t allowed to go anywhere near it for “souvenirs”
    War memorial’s very poignant, and have some relatives remembered on it. There’s a song by Bruce Springsteen off the Ghost of Tom Joad album called “Youngstown”, about the death of a steel town, and the lyrics could almost be written about Darlaston and it’s industries after the war, worth a listen.

    “Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
    When he come home from World War Two
    Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble
    He said “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.”
    These mills they built the tanks and bombs
    That won this country’s wars
    “The story’s always the same
    700 tons of metal a day
    Now sir you tell me the worlds changed
    Once I made you rich enough
    Rich enough to forget my name”

    Dave

  11. I’ve always had an affection for Darlo fuelled by memories of Saturday afternoons, shopping with my mum in Bedworths, Kingstons butchers and Middletons toyshop. Then there’s the sobering memory of seeing Lesley Crowther enticing people with little squares of bread spread thick with that vile muck Stork, challenging them to tell the difference between Stork and axle grease.

    Saturday afternoons we’d return home to Kent Walton and the wrestling on the black and white telly, followed later by Doctor Who. Tomato sausage sandwiches for tea, yum.

  12. Mike10613 says:

    Hi Bob,

    Good post. I photographed Charles Richards last week. I remember most of them. My dad worked in most of them! I used to watch the trains at the Metropolitan and Cammell works from my bedroom window. Thatcherism destroyed the Black Country, but I don’t miss the bronchitis. They weren’t the good old days for many people. The rich took their money and went on to greener pastures after Thatcherism. I photographed the Highgate Brewery yesterday and the White Hart in Walsall and then on to Darlaston to photograph a few buildings including the town hall. 🙂

  13. Dave (Eddy) Edwards says:

    When my dad came to Walsall Wood from Yorkshire at the age of 15 Rubery Owen was where he went to work. He also returned to work there in later life after the pits until made redundant when they closed down. His dad also worked there when he came back to his roots after working in Yorkshire in the mines.

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  17. In 1975 i moved from Screw and Rivet Co. in Wolverhampton to Glynwed in Darlaston. At the time
    i moved because the pay was better and it was so easy to change jobs. I went from working days to working 3 shifts 6 till 2, 2 till 10 and 10 till 6. In the morning you could not move on the road because of all the bikes. eventually glynweds closed and the workforce and order book moved to G.K.N…. G.K.N. then became Atlas Bolt and when i retired the bolt industry had gone from thousands to less than 300 workers. Atlas found it cheaper to buy from China and re sell than make fixings on site … Atlas became one big Warehouse..Thank you Margaret Thatcher.

  18. Martin says:

    Hello a lovely and tenderly written piece and fascinating read.

    Forgive me in this request is inappropriate for the rules for this blog but I am wondering if you might be able to help me to find out any details of a nut and bolt factory owned by James Niblett then his widow Zipporah. Approximate date range is 1870 – 1895, the latter being Zipporah’s year of death.

    Here is a quote from an article: James Hartless of Bilston Street, Darlaston, was a “Screw Manufacturer employing 2 lads and 4 women”, and his widow Zipporah continued as a “Nut and Bolt Manufacturer” after his death and into old age. http://www.duncanhoneybourne.com/articles/lilian_niblette

    My request relates to family history research. Thanks, Martin (Australia)

    • Pedro says:

      July 1857…A revengeful debtor

      William Yates was charged with maliciously cutting the leather of three pairs of bellows belonging to Mr James Hartless, screw manufacturer, of Darlaston…the prisoner had been sent to goal for debt by Hartless. He came out of prison and was heard to threaten the prosecutor….he was later observed leaving the workshop…and three pairs of bellows were found damaged to the extent of two pounds…fined two pounds and expenses, and in default two months with hard labour.

  19. Paul Birds says:

    its a long time since the first informative post. GKN posted the closure of its bolt, nut and stud works in Darlaston and Manchester in September 1979. The bolt works was purchased by Armstrong Group in January 1980 under the new name Atlas Bolt (Darlaston)Ltd. Despite being closed for 3/4 months the new management built the business to a success over 20 years. It acquired Charles Richards, Benjamin Priest and Glynwed saving the initial; jobs of 650 people and had continuing employment for some 400 until 1999. The products that were obtained initially from the far east was because the factory could not produce the volume of some product that the market required. After the purchase by Caparo in the late 80’s a number of bad decisions ultimately contributed to the final closure of the business. All those who were at the events of 1979 should be very proud of the employment that remained for 30 more years after GKN said it was not viable!

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