Darwin and the extinction of the giants

This week sees the opening of the feature-length animation The Pirates! featuring a character based on the young Charles Darwin (pictured). 

And the link with the Black Country landscape? Well, one day when Darwin rocked up on a Pacific island he was confronted by a strange, unworldly scene: a volcanic landscape studded with vents pumping steam and gas into the atmosphere.  Today a 26-year-old (as he was) might reach for a mobile phone and have a photo posted online in seconds.  But it was 1835, an age before mobile cameras (never mind phones).  Instead he described in words the impression it made:

He wrote that the area looked like chimneys but that …‘the comparison would have been more exact if I had said the iron furnaces near Wolverhampton’.  By this he almost certainly meant the furnaces at Bilston, which would have thrown out enough smoke and gas to have a national reputation.

By the time Darwin knew of them, there had already been blast furnaces in Bilston and Bradley for decades, having been set up in the time of his grandparents. Darwin himself died in 1882, but the furnaces survived in Bilston for almost another 100 years.  We say almost because the last of these industrial giants actually fell in 1980 when the Elisabeth furnace was demolished (left).  It brought to an end more than 200 years during which these particular monsters dominated the local landscape.  But it also heralded a new era: one where different giants would evolve to take the place of those gone before.  Now the distribution depot of the mighty Poundland stands on the site of the last Black Country blast furnace.

> Not a feature-length release, but watch our new animation of the Elisabeth furnace falling (or click on image) (photos courtesy Wolverhampton Archives);
> The location of Poundland distribution centre (former site of the Elisabeth furnace)
> Read about the new landscape of distribution centres and how jargon separates us from our past;
> Black Country mother buried in playing field

2 responses to “Darwin and the extinction of the giants

  1. I think Darwin might actually have meant the entire continuous run of iron works running south eastward from Wolverhampton centre with many large iron works around Horseley Fields and Monmore Green, through to Rough Hills, Parkfields and Ettingshall and then onto Bilston. Remember in the mid 1800’s, Spring Vale was certainly not the only Iron Works – The Wolverhampton Furnaces, or Victoria Ironworks were at Cable Street, Monmore Green, 6 blast furnaces were at Chillington Iron Works, Monmore Green, and many other blast furnaces, puddling furnaces and rolling mills at Horseley Fields large ironworks at Swan Garden Ironworks, Shrubbery Ironworks, Shakespeare Ironworks, Osier Bed Ironworks, Minerva Ironworks, New Griffon Ironworks, Crane Foundry, Bridge Foundry etc – several thousands iron workers worked at these vast works in the 1800’s.

    Wolverhampton was at that time just about the main iron producing centre in the whole Black Country.

  2. By the way, if you read the original work he actually said “The furnaces of Wolverhampton” not ‘near’ Wolverhampton, as has sometimes been misquoted in recent years.

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