Living on the skyline

A brilliantly dramatic photo of the final days of Waine House, taken by a resident of Humphries House, and supplied anonymously.

Hey you lot – I owe you all, and the wonderful people at Distinctly Black Country an apology – for far too long I have neglected to share the excellent work been done by locals and professional historians alike into recording the remarkable histories of high-rise and system built housing across the Black Country.

I originally placed an appeal here for help with this remarkable an unique project way back in 2013, over a year ago. Since then, folk have been beavering away recording lost histories, good an bad, from as far apart as Brownhills, Brierley Hill and Smethwick.

This is why I adore Distinctly Black Country and hold them is such high esteem – few stuffy historians would think the 60s housing boom and the urbanism it gave rise to worthy of serious study – but these people do. And because they do, their approach is gentle, fun and informal – which always gives rise to the best history.

Bhills Flats construction

Waine and Bailey Houses under construction in Brownhills in the 1960s, captured through the flames of a grassfire on Clayhanger Tip. A stunning image supplied by Marion Jones.

Local wildlife champion Chaz Mason – wild man of the marsh – has been working hard on this project. The man is a star. Please blog again, Chaz, you are sorely missed. But thanks for your hard work on High Rise Histories and Block Capital. It’s exemplary.

The reason I’m pushing this now is that some recordings have now gone live with other materials relating to the project, and I really think readers should check them out.


A truly remarkable local legend – Chaz Mason, ex-Clayhanger Marsh blogger and local historian. A true gentleman and champion of our area. Image from the Distinctly Black Country Facebook page.

In the meantime, If you have any memories of high rise or maisonette living in Brownhills, please do comment here. It’s a sadly ignored bit of our collective culture, and I’m so glad it’s being addressed at last.

One of the things I’m really loving is that Distinctly Black Country are encouraging others to do some brilliant and thought provoking work. The superlative Up the Oss Road blog has a stunning post on the end-times of the Smethwick West estate, a truly grim place which I knew well. Do check it out.


Smetwick West. Grim, but it had a heart. Image from Up The Oss Road.

Please do comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.

Online stories plot the rise and fall of tower blocks

Released: Friday 12 September, 2014

A history project focussing on the Black Country’s high-rise council flats has started to tell the stories of the people who lived in them or worked on them.

With their first-hand accounts now available to listen to for free, local people have shared their experiences in their own words through a selection of oral history recordings.

The recordings are part of an archive relating to the Black Country’s tower blocks and they can be heard here.

They have been produced by Block Capital, a Heritage Lottery-funded project which is investigating the history of 1960s high-rise in the region. Block Capital is hosted by the distinctly black country network, a heritage group based at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Councillor Elias Mattu, Wolverhampton City Council’s Cabinet Member for Leisure and Communities, said: ‘This is a fascinating piece of social history which charts the rise and fall of tower blocks across the Black Country and will be of interest to anyone who wants to find out how their community has developed over the years.’

These grim flats were built somewhat inexplicably in the middle of nowhere, just of Deakin Avenue up on the A5. When they were built, little was here, and the only practical walking route to town was the desolate ‘Black Path’ – not a pleasant walk at night. I took this picture in the summer of 2007, shortly before they were demolished.

All the oral history recordings have all been produced by volunteers and they will be added to during 2014, creating a record of dozens of face-to-face interviews with tenants, former tenants, council employees and others.

The interviews collected so far cover experience of living in tower blocks from the 1960s to the present day, and they have preserved for posterity what it was like to move into the towers when they were first built.

Kevin Aston, one of the interviewees, moved into the new Bolton Court flats in Tipton as a child. He said: ‘I was so chuffed about it that I went to school the one day, and I think I brought three of my school teachers home to show them the flats – much to my mum’s surprise.’

They also record the deterioration and eventual demolition of some of the 276 blocks, which some say started in the 1970s or 1980s. They include Lion Farm in Oldbury, which were captured by the renowned photographer Rob Clayton prior to demolition and recorded at the project site.

While there are plenty who are happy to have seen them go, others say the notorious reputation of some tower blocks was not deserved. All these different points of view can be heard via the distinctly black country website.


The maisonettes at Anchor Bridge were the last to go.

The website hosts a wide range of archive material for web users to browse, but project leaders are still on the lookout for other people who would be willing to be interviewed about their experience.

Paul Quigley, Project Researcher, said: ‘Many of the tower blocks have been pulled down, but it’s important that we don’t lose first hand experiences of what it’s been like to live in them – through good times and bad.’

Anyone interested in contributing to the project should visit the website here or discuss the project with Chaz Mason on 01902 552040.

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12 Responses to Living on the skyline

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    Bob, I have to take issue with you about the maisonettes at Watling Street / Deakin Avenue. I agree they seemed pretty grim, but it was not such an odd place to build. There was a lot of new residential development in the area in the 1950s and early 1960s; for example Anglesey Road and tributaries, Howdles Lane and so on. The flats themselves effectively replaced Fox’s Row, the terraced houses next to the Anglesey Arms.

    The new houses were for sale on the open market, but local folks were used to renting. At the time there were plans for dualling the Watling Street, awaiting completion of the M6 between Gailey (Junction 12) and the M1, which had been in the government’s transport plans since at least 1948. There were also emerging plans to demolish large numbers of unfit houses, such as Fox’s Row, the north side of Watling Street between Howdles Lane and Castle Street, and other old properties in Howdles Lane and further along Watling Street beyond the chapel.

    At the time the north side of the Watling Street had what we would call a convenience store (once run by Deakin), a belting chip shop, butcher, pub (Queens Head), club (Doody’s) and (my favourite at the time) Mrs Dean’s sweet shop. Some of these at least would be replaced. It was also on the main bus route between Burntwood and Brownhills / Walsall. Nearby was Watling Street JMI. So it was actually a very sensible place to build new housing for rent.

    The style of housing was, of course, all the rage in 1950s Europe as countries recovered from desperate housing shortages following the depression and the war. The father of high rise living was Le Corbusier, but his designs were altogether more grand, ambitious and technologically far superior to what was actually built. Too ambitious for a country like Britain where the planning system relies so heavily on the private sector and the whims of market. As usual it went off half-cock. Today we wouldn’t dream of providing such an environment for people to live in, but back then it seemed the most cost-effective way of solving a dreadful problem of overall housing shortage and terrible, over-crowded, unsanitary housing that had improved very little in a hundred years.

    • Hi Andy

      An interesting, and enlightening perspective, thanks.

      Points taken, but I do think this is an awfully rose-tinted view.

      Mobility wasn’t as great then. And I still don’t think it was a great place to build so isolated from the main town, with better sites closer in.

      But it would be dull indeed if we all thought the same.


  2. 66usual says:

    Reblogged this on Community Chap.

  3. stymaster says:

    Only yesterday I was walking through the Croft House/Brookes House area in Chuckery, and it seemed fairly pleasant: I don’t understand why so many of the high-rise blocks went bad so often.

    • Because of appalling design. Apart from the technical flaws – damp, condensation, hard to heat, unreliable lifts etc. they were actually often isolating and foreboding paces.

      Much of what happened, as Andy points out, had seeds in good, modenist design – but like the centre of Brum, it was done on the cheap. I think the link to the Lion Farm site shows it quite well.

      We’re at a stage now like we are with a lot of historical architecture; only the best of it has survived. Time is a filter.


      • stymaster says:

        True. Only the other day I was talking with my better half about back-to-back housing. A mutual friend had commented that the NT ones in Hurst St were “far too posh”- the absloute worst had long gone, and there’s a danger of romanticising the past. The friend lived around Price St as a child.

        All sorts of shady deals were done on the construction of the Brum tower blocks, of course.

        There’s all sorts of interesting social factors too: Nottingham’s Victoria Centre flats had a reputation as a no-go zone at one time (they have immensely long corridors, lots of dark corners, and allowed free access), but better security made them much, much better, and I’ve anecdotally heard that some of the tower blocks that have been turned over entirely to elderly housing have, with better security and maintenance, become very popular: a micro-community if you will, which shows that the design of them isn’t the only factor: good managment can compensate for technical flaws.

        • ohsimone says:

          The design was a major factor, especially in the later blocks. I find it bizarre/fascinating that elections were fought and won on who could build the most council housing back in the day; I reckon that explains the increase in height over the years, but also the increasing cost-cutting – Ronan Point, for instance, was 22 storeys high, but built with a system recommended for 6 to 8 storeys. If only council housing had been pursued along Bevan’s original per-acreage, he said wistfully…

          Have you read Alice Coleman’s Utopia On Trial? It’s very detailed but focuses the failings entirely on the design. IMO it’s a much broader picture than that – allocation policies, council budgets tied to national economic situation etc., all contributed.

          Interesting points re the back-to-backs too – have done some preliminary research prior to starting a PhD on such housing in C19 Wolverhampton and can cheerfully say the NT back to backs look very little like back to backs of 200 years ago.

          Also: superlative?! Bless you.

  4. Andy Dennis says:

    Rose-tinted? Come off it!

    I think, though, you may have come round to what I was saying. The fact was that at that time we did not have professionals who combined the architectural engineering of those days with the urban design skills that are used today to respond to the same issues to do with residential environments.

    When the big tower blocks were built back in the 1950s and 1960s the population they could accommodate was, in many cases, less than the old terraces they replaced. What they replaced was truly dreadful and a long way below today’s lowest standards.

    As I said, the maisonettes were grim, but they were a solution to a problem. And the shops and the club were indeed replaced (mostly).

    Today there is a shortage of affordable housing. It is nation-wide. The solution the government attempts to provide is London-centric and actually makes the problem worse in the rest of the country. Back then the problem was even worse and the solution beset by short cuts and corruption on a scale that could not be contemplated now. Let’s be clear, I don’t accuse the builders of those maisonettes of any ill-doing, but it is a matter of record that a few people got very rich by taking part in the annual race to see which government could break the record for annual house building.

    • Hi Andy

      Fair made me smile, that did. Since I didn’t really expound my thoughts in this area specifically, it’s a bit difficult to see how I’m coming round to yours…

      I know why they were en-mode – I know also, as you intimate – that these were a cheap solution that the state paid top price for, and not just financially. I understand, as I always have, that urban design and social architecture were unknown waters back then. I comprehend how we got where we are.

      Still can’t see the logic of Deakin Avenue. Yes, there were some amenities close by. But pretty much all single unit living back then was close to the town. Oddly, these weren’t. I still find that curious. I have heard the logic expounded by old hands that these were considered the Botany Bay of social housing by Brownhills UDC for a while.

      While that’s fanciful, I often wonder if there wasn’t an element of truth to it.

      There’s huge interest to me in the social theory, as well as the technical viewpoints that gave us system building. I understand the genesis, and am fascinated by Brutalism – and the good stuff like, Trellick Tower, and why the bad stuff failed so heavily. But I feel, as I always have, that part of the problem was a darker social engineering, that if not spoken, or documented, was present in the view of the working class who these places were intended to house.

      I love to hear your views on this stuff. I always learn something.


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  6. Peter says:

    Interesting comments throughout this article….. as usual.
    Social Engineering isn’t my specialist subject by a long stretch, but I did always wonder what the thought process was when the decision was made to build where they did. Not sure it was an obvious place to locate young families (mothers with pushchairs) the elderly or the infirm? so who where they built for? Young professionals of the time? Upwardly mobile people may have not chosen to live there if they could afford somewhere else, it always seemed a bleak looking place on a wet rainy day. I do wonder what the thought process was………………….
    All the best

  7. Martin says:

    When they built these flats ,maisonettes in the 1960s people had come out of bad houses, one cold water tap, no bathrooms just a zinc bath, out side loos, a black leaded grate, when people move in to these new homes it must have been like a palace with central heating hot and cold water, bathrooms, you mention the black path across Holland park, and as you say Bob today you would not like to walk across the black path at night but in the sixties you never gave it a thought that something bad was going to happen, i have walk too and from school on a Winters day the only thing you worried about one of your school mates trying to push you in the brook that use to run aside the black path.

    But as been said as the years past they did look terrible but i known some people like living in the Maisonettes on Deakin Avenue and some did not want to move out.

    Planning in the 60s was bad everything was planned to go skywards, they thought that was the way put as many people into a building with out taken too much land.

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