The Black Country as it should be defined?

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The Black Country flag is now ubiquitous. But who’s entitled to wrap themselves up in it?

There are some topics I treat very carefully here on the blog; some that cause so much anguish, heated debate and recrimination that I feel scared to approach them even tangentially, and so it is with reckless abandon that today, I run an article about the definition of the geographic area we refer to as ‘The Black Country’.

Whether a particular town is in the hallowed area is always hot debate; usually, the question is relating to Wolverhampton, but Walsall and satellites are often questioned by the hardened philosopher.

Speaking as someone who’s had some quite fearsome emails when I’ve included Brownhills carelessly in the Black Country, I actually don’t feel the name is geographical, I think it’s a kinship and spiritual thing.

Hitler did not take the loss of Bilston well. Don’t play if easily offended.

When the signs went up here for the Black Country Car Cruising Enforcement Zone, some of the annoyance in messages I received was almost incandescent.

I’ve worked in and around the Black Country all my life, pretty much. I speak it’s tongue, I adore it’s humour, I feel part of it. Walsall and Brownhills coal, clay and limestone floated down our canals to fuel the industrial revolution there; our reservoir – Norton Pool or Chasewater – collected water from our mines and streams and fed the whole canal network.

To me, spiritually then, we are of, if not geographically, the Black Country.

With this in mind, I’m opening the debate here today with an essay spotted in the Blackcountryman Magazine first issue, from 1967, by Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler. It’s a very interesting piece, and I think somewhat controversial.

The author is listed only as J.M.F. which doesn’t ring a bell. Anyone?

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The Black Country to my mind isn’t situated on a plateau, but a range of hills.

I have a number of issues with this treatise, and I know Peter does too; my main one is constant reference to the ‘West Midlands Plateau’ which jarrs badly, and I find the tone a bit off. But give it a read. Pick the bones out of it. Comment here. Let’s have a debate.

Thanks to Peter for a wonderful spot – the text has been machine converted from a scan, so excuse any typos.

Comment here if you’ve something to add, or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.

What is the Black Country?

PERHAPS no area has suffered more misrepresentation than the Black Country. Local people are constantly being annoyed by the fatuous and puerile knowledge of the area shown by national figures and by the national press. The depth was reached by one famous Sunday newspaper which recently spoke of activities in Wedncsbury, then headed a photograph which illustrated this particular article with a caption speaking of the town as being in the Potteries!

To many southerners, the Black Country seems to be a term that is used to describe all of this country north of Stratford-upon-Avon. To others, probably avid readers of Arnold Bennett’s novels, the Black Country will be forever associated with the area around Stoke-on-Trent. There is really no excuse for this attitude. The borders of the Black Country can be clearly defined, although a true ‘Black Country mon’ might say that he carries the characteristics of the area with him everywhere.

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It ay all drop ommers, cuts and grey pays, aer kid.

Historically, the West Midland plateau has not played a significant part in the development of this country until recent times. At the time of the Norman Conquest, Domesday Book shows the plateau as being sparsely populated and economically insignificant. The position remained essentially un­altered during the whole of the medieval period. No major river ran through the area, and at the time when traffic and trade was concentrated on the natural water­ways, this meant that the plateau was isolated from developments in the rest of the country.

No major Roman road passed through the region. Activity, there­fore, tended to bypass the Midland plateau and concentrate on the river valleys to the north, south and west, or in the booming manu­facturing town of Coventry. This situation was changed only when the building of canals opened the plateau to influence from the out­side.

The development of the region during the early industrial revolu­tion laid down in outline the boundaries of the region we know as the Black Country. Con­temporary writers were careful to differentiate between two types of activity they observed to he appear­ing on the plateau. In the first plaee, they saw the towns of Wal­sall, Wolverhampton and especially Birmingham appearing as large manufacturing centres with also a commercial element in their popu­lation. The central part of the plateau supplied the raw materials, coal and iron, that were used in these large towns. Of course, some manufacturing was also carried out in this central area, but the distinc­tion is on the whole a valid one.

The three towns were themselves also separated from the mineral producing areas by very definite belts of open country or waste-land.

Between Birmingham and West Bromwich lay the country district of Handsworlh Heath. This area known as Soho gets its name, so it is said, from this being the cry of the hunters as they rode over the open fields and waste-land then characteristic of Handsworlh.

Between Walsall and Wedncsbury, a belt of waste-land known as the Pleck, a word meaning ‘waste,’ divided the manufacturing towns from the coal and iron mining area. To the north, heathland lay beyond Bilston, scparating it from Wolverhampton; the modern names Stow Heath and Monmoor Green today indicate where this belt of land was situated.

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I love these streets, these towns. I haunt them. They are of me, and I of them. What does that make me, apart from eccentric?

We have the picture, then, of three busy manufacturing towns on the edge of the plateau divided from the mineral producing region by belts of open country. It is this mineral producing region that should rightly be known as the Black Country, and no other area. It is possible to speak of this as a specific region because the nature of the coalfield in South Stafford­shire did produce close and com­pact development.

To the south and west, the field is limited by faults running approxi­mately from north to south. Only in the later nineteenth eentury were investigations lor coal beyond these faults attempted. To the north, a line of faults known as the Bentley Faults running roughly from east to west divide the coalfield from the deeper, thinner seams found in the Cannock Chase area. Only in the south is the field not clearly defined; here the seams peter out around Halesowen. The faults in the east, north and west concen­trate development of the coalfield within a very closely defined area, and this is rightly the Black Country. In this region until com­paratively recently, the exploration of the rich coal seams with their associate deposits of iron, clay and limestone, provided employment for the majority of the inhabitants.

On the coalfield itself, we must distinguish between two types of development. The earliest mining was naturally located in those areas where the seams lay at a very shallow level. This ‘outcrop’ coal, as it is called, was found particu­larly in Wednesbury, Darlaston. Willenhall, Bilston. Coseley, Tipton, Dudley, Brierley Hill and the adjacent villages. In these centres the early development of the Black Country was most noticeable. The coal also lay at a greater depth, ‘concealed,’ in three other areas, West Bromwich. Smethwick and Oldbury. Here development came somewhat later and lasted a little longer than elsewhere.

These towns, originally small villages and hamlets, on the ex­posed and concealed coalfield, form the Black Country as it should be defined.

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We may not be geographically Black Country, but Morris is the most Black Country thing I’ve ever bloody seen. A thertay feert tin mon, for pity’s sakes!

The isolation of the region in medieval times had already laid the basis for the development of a strongly conservative, inward look­ing culture on the plateau. The industrial revolution did not seri­ously change this.

Mining communities are always close-knit, introspective groups, and those of the Black Country were no exccplion. The development of the region was also slow enough to prevent a sudden influx of immi­grants who could radically alter the traditions of the area; the only out­side element to come into the Black Country in any quantity was the Irish. Their arrival caused consi­derable disturbance, but does not seem to have seriously affected the culture of the Black Country.

As a prosperous region, com­pared to many others, the Black Country was also able to retain much of its population which then contributed to stabilise the customs and traditions of the area. All these factors tended to produce a tightly knit community, inward looking and with peculiar customs asso­ciated often with the distant past.

The ending of the dominance of mineral production in the Black Country, the ease of obtaining transport and the spread of hous­ing beyond the boundaries set by the old coalfield has inevitably blurred many of the distinctions noted above between the area and its adjacent regions. However, it would be easy to ignore the effect of this long history on the people of the Black Country. As a pros­perous, rich area, the Black Coun­try still retains its population and its stability. The traditions of the past cannot easily be dropped in the space of a few years. Although the character of the region has changed and is still changing rapidly, the sense of belonging to a distinct local community is very strong today.

We can still speak of the Black Country as that area lying on the southern part of the South Stafford­shire coalfield, although its boun­daries today are not so clearly defined and its activities no longer base themselves on the exploita­tion of its mineral wealth.

J.M.F.

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20 Responses to The Black Country as it should be defined?

  1. Graham says:

    JMF is the late Dr. John Malcolm Fletcher M.A., D,Phil (Oxon), born in Wednesbury and lived his adult life in the Pleck.

    John was a great Black Countryman and one of the main movers in the foundation of the Black Country Society. He was also active in many of the early heritage and preservation movements which began in the 1960’s, including saving the Dudley Canal Tunnel, which itself helped the creation of the Black Country Living Museum. In the days before CAMRA he was a great supporter of small local breweries, especially the then two remaining home-brew pubs, the Swan & the Druids Head.

    It is often claimed that the name “Black Country” was first coined in 1898 by Elihu Burrit, US consul in Birmingham, in his book, “Walks in the Black Country”. This book certainly ranges well beyond the area defined by John Fletcher in his article.

    I think that in 1967 John was trying to set the boundaries for the infant Black Country Society. He wanted it to get well established and thrive, so he didn’t want it diluted by trying to cover too wide a geographic area. Most of all he didn’t want it confused with Stoke on Trent.

    There is no doubt that in the early days the area which overlay the thick coal had a unique culture. It’s also true that, as the thick coal was worked out and new seams were discovered, the Black Country miners tended to move into these new areas, taking their culture and dialects with them. Even in recent years I’ve heard as rich a Black Country dialect spoken by older inhabitants of Walsall Wood as I remember from my own childhood in Pleck.

    The fact that we are still discussing exactly where the Black Country is, even though all the original factors which created it have long gone, must surely be seen as a very positive indicator that as a concept it is still very much alive and vibrant.

    JMF loved debate, I’m sure he would be delighted that his article is still, after almost half a century, stimulating a vigorous discussion – long may it continue!

    • Pedro says:

      I can understand the good Doctor wishing to define the geographical area of the Black Country and wanting the Society to thrive. I think it is clear that he didn’t want it diluted as in the very first Blackcountryman Magazine it was stated that the Society had, in its first year, attracted over 150 members mostly Black Country born and bred, but including a number of “outsiders.”

      Maybe he was influenced not to include Wolverhampton as the population had increased according to the census from 162,672 in 1951 to 269,168 in 1971.

      There are many commentators around the time of the start of the Society that would include Wolverhampton in the Black Counrty. M Le Guillou in his Thesis submitted for his Doctorate in 1972, “Development of the Iron and Steel industry of South Staffs 1850 to 1913,” mentions Wolverhampton as being in the Black Country on a number of occasions.

      “….but in the very next year (1870) the Black Couuntry was caught up in the excitement of a boom….production of pig iron stood at 728,000 tons and amounted to nearly 11% of total British output. 114 furnaces were in blast, but the following analysis of the district hints at a disturbing point….over the entire district, something like 40% of the furnaces were lying idle, even in this period of feverish activity.” (Le Guillou’s table shows Wolverhampton with 50 furnaces out of blast, and Bilston with 20.)

  2. Pedro says:

    Burrit’s book Walks in the Black Country and its Green Border-land was published in 1868 and “supposedly” coined the term “black by day and red by night.”

    Many claim that the first mention of the “Black Country” was by the Rev William Gresley in his book Colton Green: A Tale from the Black Country, published in 1846.

    There are many mentions before this date to suggest that the term was used from at least 1841.

  3. stymaster says:

    You’re on dnagerous ground here ;-). Fierce debate will probably ensue. I too think the boundaries are bit fluid. I’ve always *thought* the historical Black Country to be Dudley, Coseley, Sedgley, Gornal, Tipton, Cradley, Brierly Hill- that kind of area. I think one factior is that the boundaries of these places themselves have blurred and changed with increased urbanisation, as JMF said back then- drive between 2 towns in the Balck Country or the greater conurbation, and it is often hard to say where the demarcation is.
    I do think you’ve probably nailed it (!) with the idea that it’s not really geographic. I really think these days we should be including Walsall & Wolverhampton in, and you could argue about some parts of (modern, not historical) Staffordshire, too.

    • Pedro says:

      It seems that the Black Country Society have mellowed somewhat over the years, and from their website their view of the Black Country…

      “The area of South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire, excluding Birmingham, which was on the famous 30 foot seam of coal. By 1860, within 5 miles of Dudley there were 441 pits, 181 blast furnaces, 118 ironworks, 79 rolling mills and 1500 puddling furnaces, all pouring out smoke. This led to the region being described as “black by day and red by night.” From the early 1700s scores of industrial townships and villages grew in the area and from the19th century many local councils were created. All these townships within the Black Country were consolidated into four Metropolitan boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton by the local government reorganisations of 1966 and 1974, with a total population now in excess of 1 million….”

  4. aerreg says:

    I dont think you can define the black country as a place its a world wide spirit of hard work when you see a an anckor a chain a lock key leather or ommer pick and shovell the spirit of the black country is there and of cause nail making re dialect pure black country dialect is poetry i refer you to the caterbury tails for some ofits phrases it those folk who cannot truly speak it that create ridicule it the world has so mutch to thank the black country for one final word itwas not all smoke and rough work dont forget the beauty of the glass works in the spirit god bless

  5. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    It would be a mighty step forward in the nation’s undoubtedly rich cultural and heritage if national television newscasters used it.
    kind regards
    David, on the Northern Steppes

  6. Geoffrey Boulton says:

    Phil Drabble’s book “Black Country” (1952) tries to define its extent in the opening chapter. He emphasises the significance of the extent of the deposit of Thick Coal and associated clay between the limestone hills at Walsall and Dudley which led to the development of traditional industries by hitherto rural communities.. He was brought up in Bloxwich where his father was the local doctor with a good reputation who was often called in by Chase doctors for a “second opinion”. He was writing in the mid 20th century before the “overspill” to communities on the edge. It is well worth reading again.
    Many of Francis Bret Young’s books were set in the Black Country e.g. “My Brother Jonathon” and “Dr. Bradley Remembers” both of which contrasts it and its inhabitants with Birmingham.
    Down to earth Black Country people were seen as quite different from the more diverse and sophisticated “Brummies”. I remember reading in the 1950’s, ( I think in the Express and Star) “Yo con recognise a Brummie – he’s a black mon wi a shamrock in is terbun”.

  7. It is a spiritual thing as opposed to a place with clearly defined boundaries and I think it always has been. I was born in Wednesbury, brought up in Aldridge and have clear lines of ancestry from the Black Country and also much further afar that very definitely are not in the Black Country. I consider myself a Black Country wench and always have done. My Dad has one of the broadest Black Country accents that I have ever heard, speaks straight BC dialect and yet he was born and bred in Aldridge.
    Reg’s comment about the Canterbury Tales made me smile. When studying Chaucer I was told to read it aloud in the strongest BC accent I could muster and then it all made sense! I have passed this tip on to A level English Lit students ever since.
    It’s complicated and all very arguable but one thing I know for sure; I aye a Brummie!

  8. Pedro says:

    There is a picture on the blog, kindly donated by Reg, under the article “Wolves at the door” of the preps for the Wolverhampton Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1902. The Manchester Courier says…

    “to some the name of Wolverhampton suggest, not to pleasantly, the metropolis of the Black Country. But the town is at the geographical edge of that begrimed neighborhood, and those grounds are on the side of it whence stretches away over the Staffordshire boundary into Shropshire, as lovely a bit of pastoral country to be met with anywhere.

    (The exhibitition was at West Park)

    https://brownhillsbob.com/2016/07/10/wolves-at-the-door/image009-100/

  9. I’m with Linda on this one, you can’t accurately identify the Black Country as a region by a physical border, it’s a place that is about the people and it’s heritage. I was born in West Bromwich to a mother from Wednesbury and a father from Walsall. My ancestors have lived in and around Bloxwich, Darlaston, Walsall and Wednesbury for almost three hundred years. Some might argue that even Bloxwich is a little too far out, but I still consider it the Black Country albeit the very far north of course!

    Personally I love our accent and indeed all of the other regional UK ones too, they are part of our heritage and diversity. I suspect that like most will have done, I have had times where my accent has been the subject of the odd jibe, however, these days when asked where I am from I say that I am “Black Country born and bred, and proud of it.”

    I’ve spent my life exploring this wonderful region of ours, with my camera and otherwise. I still haven’t seen enough of it and never will. In fact I discover more about the Black Country every day, it fascinates me and I love it. The history of the Black Country is truly amazing and the people past and present even more so, we should celebrate the Black Country even if we aren’t exactly sure where it is!

  10. Pedro says:

    The Good Doctor says there are “three busy manufacturing towns, Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton on the edge of his West Midlands plateau, divided from the mineral producing region by belts of open country. It is “this mineral producing region that should rightly be known as the Black Country, and no other area.”

    Clearly Birmingham is quite separate from the Black Country and has its own identity, even the great Wikipedia says “most definitely not Birmingham.” But the same cannot be said for Wolverhampton and Walsall.

    If you try to find when the term “black country” was first used you will probably come up with around 1841, and then quite widely used from 1850. So take the case of Wolverhampton, and the OS Map of around 1880 as a starting point in time and try to find the “waste land of Monmore Green and Stow Heath” that supposedly lies between Bilston and Wolverhampton.

    Traveling westward from Bilston you will arrive at Catchem’s Corner and the boundaries of Bilston, Sedgeley and Wolverhampton, then continuing along the road towards Penn you have the Parish of Sedgley to the south and Wolverhampton to the north. You have been in sight of Bilston Ironworks, Spring Vale Foundaries, Millfields Ironworks, and Works at Ettingshall. Pushing on you will pass Parkfield Funaces just south on the Sedgley side of the road, and on the other side of the road in Wolverhampton you have Rough Hills and Cockshut Collieries.
    If you strike north from Rough Hills you will soon come to Monmore Green and the number of Ironworks are too numerous to list, and just a spit from the centre of Wolverhampton. Most of the Ironworks mentioned can be seen in White’s Directory of Staffs in 1834, being before the first reference to the black country.

    So what of Stow Heath? If it lacks ironworks it does not lack numerous old pit shafts, as does the area around Parkhills further south. It was clearly part of the mineral producing area!

  11. Matt says:

    I would say that the eastern parts of Wolverhampton are part of the Black Country and I totally agree with Pedro’s comments. To some extent I would say that the southern part of Wolverhampton around Blakenhall was also the Black Country but very close to the edges, there was also industry to the west of the town around Great Brickkiln Street where there were a number of cycle and motorcycle factories.

    Most of Parkfields was in Sedgley and so was what is now known as Goldthorn Park, In fact Goldthorn Park used to be called Sedgley Park and there was a Sedgley Park Colliery.

  12. Nick Moss says:

    The Black Country term was first used in 1830 in a local newspaper, to describe “Wolverhampton, Bilston, Tipton”.
    Gresley, who’s famous book in 1846 was the first official record of the term “Black Country” stated that the BC was 20-miles in length. Bilston born Samuel Griffiths who wrote about the BC iron trade in 1870’s stated exactly where its boundaries lay and he also stated “Wolverhampton was considered to be Capital of the BC” as well as “Capital of the Iron Trade in the BC”. Infact anybody can undertake a search on http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk for specific phrases – I did a search between 1750-1950 of all newspaper archives of the phrase “Capital of the Black Country”. Dudley returned just 2 results, Wolverhampton around 80. Alarmingly Brum returned 30 results, possibly fuelled by Burritts claim that it was the centre of the BC.

    What really counts is where people felt the BC at the time it evolved and existed during the Industrial Revolution – so the above information is very relevant.

    The BC was never defined solely by the thick coal seam, it was defined by the iron ore and fireclay in the ground, and the name ‘Black Country’ only evolved around 1830 and that co-incides with the growth of the vast iron works spewing out flame and smoke. The thick coal had been mined for some 500 years before this, and there was no sight of the term Black Country. Solid evidence using timeframe that the Black Country was defined by both the minerals in the ground and the iron works. So the 1967 claim to define the boundary of the BC is in my mind entirely wrong.

    Incidentally, Wolverhampton coalfield had the best iron ore in the region, and the thick seam was mined as close as one mile from the town centre. In 1840, when the term Black Country evolved, Wolverhampton, according to census records, had more miners than any BC town except Bilston.

    The huge iron works were spread across the BC in the 1800’s, and east Wolverhampton around Monmore Green and Horseley Fields was arguably that area with the most smog. Author William White, like many others of that time, went to the elevated position of Dudley Castle and the densest smog was observed to lie over east Wolverhampton and its 240 tall chimneys that were described as “a forest of chimneys”.

    Irrespective of what people think today, I have absolutely no doubt that the original true Black Country commenced at Wolverhampton centre and spread eastward and southward. and the core area was considered to be Wolverhampton, Bilston, Tipton, Willenhall, Wednesbury, Darlaston, and just touching the northern part of West Bromwich. There was of course the Worcestershire section of the Black Country too that included Brierley Hill and Cradley.

    Modern popular opinion has been strongly shaped by the 1967 description, and of course elements of the Dudley BC Society have happily perpetuated the myth every since that Wolverhampton was not part of the BC. Whilst the newer western and northern suburbs of Wolverhampton were of course not in the BC, as they did not even exist at that time. Tettenhall was an entirely separate village.

    Please undertake your own detailed research if you disbelieve what I have written, in fact I implore people to undertake their own research as history of the Black Country is being misrepresented in parts.

  13. DavidGrain says:

    I don’t understand why BrownhillsBob finds the term West Midlands Plateau jarring. We learned the term, or rather Midlands Plateau, as a geographical term at school as it refers to the physical lie of the land. Wherever you are in Birmingham, the Black Country or the surrounding areas you end up going down into the valleys of the major rivers, the Severn, The Trent. The Avon. The Tame in order to leave the area.
    When the Black Country used to be more of a derogatory term I used to joke that the Black Country started half a mile the other side of your home. When I moved into my new house last year I had to have a mining search done so I think that means that I live in the Black Country although I am only 1/2 mile outside Birmingham city boundary.

    • Pedro says:

      As you say the Midland Plateau is much used in geological circles, but I have seen it divided and the term “West Midland” used. In fact the term “West Midlands” may be a relatively new term that came into use when the powers that be wanted to take us out of our proper counties being Staffordshire and Warwickshire.

  14. Pedro says:

    It is 150 years since Queen Victoria’s to Wolverhampton and the Express and Star clearly thinks that Wolverhampton is part of the Black Country…

    “Queen Victoria’s trip to the Black Country stunned the world, not only because it was her first public appearance since Prince Albert’s death five years earlier but also because it was not to a more fashionable or prestigious town or city.”

    http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2016/11/30/wolverhamptons-man-on-the-oss-statue-honoured-on-150th-anniversary-of-queen-victorias-visit/horse-19-ts-30/

    At the time of the visit Punch says…

    Tis well his statue should stand high, in this Black Country’s core,
    Looking across these cindery wastes, seamed, scathed, and ashy-hoar….

  15. Nick Moss says:

    I would add that I have found proof in newspaper archives that coal-mines abutted immediately to the southeast end of Wolverhampton, still on the so-called plateau but beyond what Dr Fletcher suggests was a sort of open country dividing line.

    Indeed miners resided in large numbers in houses in Bilston St, Walsall St, Horsley fields etc, immediately next to the Horsley Fields Colliery, and also near to the Blakenall Colliery, Monmore Green Colliery, and Dudley Road Colliery. I have found several references to this.These mines expired around 1850, and the miners migrated eastward along Willenhall Road towards Chillington and Moseley Hole Collieries in east Wolverhampton.

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