Category Archives: change in the landscape

Beehives, so nineteen sixties

It’s a tall dome of a hairdo, it’s the name of a pub in Great Bridge, and it also happens to be a type of kiln used to make bricks.   This particular kind of oven (like the one pictured) was described in the 1970s as ‘characteristic’ of the Stour valley in the south of the Black Country (although they could certainly be found elsewhere).

Beehive kilns were used there to make ‘firebricks’, prepared from a local clay which made them very resistant to heat.  These were useful in a wide range of industries but especially the Stourbridge glass trade.  Our earlier post raised a comment about how firebrick-making fitted into the Black Country brick industry: this post is an attempt to start to give an answer.

Historic maps show at least 200 brick making sites have existed across a wide area of the Black Country (left).  On the other hand, the fireclay brick industry (right) appears to have been grouped in the south… the map shows a clustering of both fireclay mines and brickworks around the Stour.  So, on this evidence firebrick-making appears to have been a local specialism of a wider Black Country brick trade.

Our recent feature Changes on the Cut showed the disappearance of one beehive kiln in Brierley Hill (to the right of the photo here), flattened at some point in the last fifty years.  Many others have gone the same way since this photo was taken in the 1960s.  And, whereas the hair style will no doubt see occasional revivals (we love you Amy), the domes of brick kilns seem destined to remain marks of a lost landscape.

> The location of our disappeared kiln in Google Maps
> Both maps are from The Legacy of Factory Buildings in the Black Country.
> The painting of the beehive brick kiln is by Edwin Butler Bayliss and is held by Wolverhampton Art Gallery, details from Black Country History

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

Stowlawn, a community rebuilt

The greening of the Black Country is something that’s talked about, but we don’t always have a mental picture of how it happened. For those of use who weren’t around, or who can’t remember (to be fair, that’s most of us), it’s useful to have something to look at.

That’s when aerial photos come in handy. Here’s one (below) from 1948 of colliery remains near Bilston. The photo covers about 30 hectares and, in the late 1940s included… well, not much. In fact, the most notable thing about the image is how few buildings or streets there are… just a brook and a wide expanse of derelict land created when the coal pits went out of use. But within 50 years this had all been replaced by suburban streets, homes for hundreds of people, public green space (Stowlawn Wood), and two schools (Stowlawn Primary and Green Park)… now visible on the Google map (below) for the same area.

The reconstruction of Stowlawn is interesting in itself. But it’s a story which has been repeated dozens of times around the Black Country. At least 30 square kilometres of housing (in other words 100 times the size of our 1948 photo) has been built on former collieries.  Maybe your street has been too?

> The change from mining to residential streets across the whole Black Country can be see in ‘two hundred years in twenty seconds
> An example of how a pit mound was flattened can be seen in ‘how mountains were moved

Futuregazing … from 1969

It’s easy to see that the landscape of the Black Country has changed, but less easy to see exactly how.  One person who could display some clarity on this subject was John Fletcher.  Here he is in the late 1960s talking about the sequence of changes the area has experienced (see clip below).  Don’t be distracted by appearances—underneath the thick glasses, beard and duffle coat is someone making a heartfelt call for progress, which John identifies as being vital to the Black Country.
John neatly describes the different phases of the region’s history, but what of the future? The existence of industry is mentioned as being essential to the Black Country—but from the 1960s who could have foreseen the toll which the following decades would take on the industrial standing of the region?  And the clip raises an interesting question about the area’s ‘inward-looking’ nature which is described as ‘its essential characteristic’.  Do we still think of the area in this way in 2011?  We’d be interested in your own views.

Dr John Fletcher led the group of people who founded the Black Country Society in 1967, two years before this film.  The clip is reproduced here with permission of ITV who hold the copyright. It is part of a fascinating ATV documentary called ‘The Black Country 1969’ available on DVD from a number of places, including Media Archive of Central England, The Public in West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

We are all walking on nails

Anyone working with nails in the Black Country today would more likely be a beautician than a metalworker (there are at least 40 nail salons in the area, employing perhaps dozens of people).  But the character of the area still owes something to the time when nail creation referred to an activity which underpinned the whole local economy.  Perhaps 150 years ago there were not a few dozen but tens of thousands of Black Country families earning a living making iron nails by hand. 
A hand-forged iron nail is the second item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the first was the subject of our last post). 
But if they were such a big part of our past, why aren’t there more clues left in the landscape?  Well, it’s hard enough to find factories which are still around from that time, but the survival of the remnants of nail-making has suffered even more because it took place in the back yards of workers’ housing.  Almost all of this was cleared as part of the planned renewal (otherwise known as slum clearance) in the 20th century, and the nail makers’ workshops went with it.

Home-working or outworking still takes place today of course, but the location of nailmaking in ordinary homes has to be found in census records and historic maps.  One such place is Islington, Halesowen.  Today the street is lined with post-war flats (see photo), but on the same spot in 1900 stood terraced houses with outbuildings behind them, many of which would have been nailshops (see map).  Census records can verify this too, with many families and children (several under ten) on Islington recording their occupation as ‘nailor’.

See the handmade nail and the other 9 objects in Wolverhampton during October and November at The Black Country in Ten Objects;
Subscribe (at the bottom right of this page) and be notified of posts on the other objects;
The location of Islington in Google maps;
Historic Maps of Dudley

Black Country ‘mother’ buried in playing field

If you’d worked in the Black Country 220 years ago you might not have been paid in cash.  Instead you might have been given a token with your boss’s head stamped on it.  Great, you might say.  Anyway one such coin, used to pay employees of ironmaster John Wilkinson, is included in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects.  During the exhibition we’ll be using this blog to show how each object has a link to the modern urban landscape.

This playing field in Bilston happens to be the former site of one of Wilkinson’s blast furnaces, used to make useable metal from local minerals. It was possibly one of the first of its kind in the Black Country.  But there was an even older one another a few hundred metres away, possibly also under some playing fields.  This one was called ‘the mother furnace’, what today we might call the-mother-of-all-Black-Country-furnaces. 

So why are these old furnaces even important? Today we struggle to find clues they even existed, but they laid the foundation for a massive growth in iron working, propelling the area into the forefront of an international industry.  Perhaps more importantly for those of us who live and work here, we might say they are the industrial ancestors of the area’s modern metal working factories.  In fact, they are a reason the Black Country even exists in the form we know it.

A footnote to this story is that these early furnace sites have had a chequered history since their industrial heyday. The one in the photo for example was used to dump domestic waste as recently as the 1960s.  Only recently has their historic importance to the rest of the area started to be appreciated.

See the trade token and the other 9 objects in Wolverhampton during October and November at The Black Country in Ten Objects;
Subscribe (at the bottom right of this page) and be notified of posts on the other objects;
The Location of the photo in Google Maps;
Watch the BBC’s animation of a blast furnace at work.

Two hundred years in twenty seconds

People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes in an instant. But what if a place could see it’s own long history unfold in just a few moments? Even in the last two hundred years or so, the Black Country has gone through some momentus changes – something we don’t always realise when we look around the area today. From a collection of scattered rural settlements, through the massive nineteenth century exploitation of coal and iron resources, to its reincarnation as the home to a million people, this short video clip tries to visualise what a birds-eye view of change in the Black Country might have looked like:

Read more about changes to the Black Country landscape here
Black Country Historic Landscape Characterisation

Four thousand holes in Bilston Staffordshire

Visitors sometimes say that the Black Country has its fair share of derelict land. But what we see today is, in historical terms, just a trifle.
To understand why the local landscape is the way it is in the 21st century, we have to appreciate that the struggle to regenerate the area has been an epic task, one which has challenged both local people and authorities in the region for more than a hundred years. It is also fair to say that it has been a struggle of national significance.  This map from 1964 for example shows both Lancashire and Staffordshire confronting dereliction on a very unusual scale, the case of Staffordshire not assisted by a hefty chunk of disused land in the Black Country.
You might ask if this is anything to be proud of.  Maybe not, but it helps to put recent regeneration projects, vitally important as they are, in some kind of perspective.  It also means that the regeneration which has taken place in the Black Country has been set against a challenge the scale of which has not been faced in most other places.
Read more about derelict land in the Black Country

The term ‘Black Country’ in the historical record

Was an ‘orthodox, conservative and belligerent’ cleric the first person to commit the term ‘Black Country’ into print? Read Chris Upton’s account of it’s historical origins.

A changing landscape

Have you ever wondered where the photo on the home page of black country history was taken? It’s a great image, and we know it shows the Pleck Road, Walsall in 1934. But we can pinpoint where it was taken from? Luckily we have a couple of surviving landmarks in the distinctive tower of the offices of the workhouse, and the spire of St Matthew’s Church on the hill in the distance. A couple of other clues: the camera appears to be looking down from an embankment on to a fence in the foreground. Putting these together might put the photographer on the edge of the reservoir which used to be near the workhouse (see map). One of the interesting things about this image is that the cheek-by-jowl existence of farming and industry in the Black Country of the 1930s was already a relic – elsewhere the residential suburbs we know today had already started to cover the open land.  So, at the time this was taken what it showed was really already more representative of an earlier landscape phase. (Note that the original photo is held by Walsall Local History Centre).