Category Archives: left from the iron industry

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

Slag you can see from space

It’s one measure of how the Black Country landscape has changed that it’s now difficult to find a single heap of slag in the area. The waste produced by a long history of metal furnaces was once common in the region and (we can now be thankful that) it has now almost all been removed or greened over.

There are however occasionally small reminders. One is in Boshboil pool, near Netherton, where a slag heap has been incorporated into a Local Nature Reserve. It’s even captured by satellite cameras (below) –the red rust of iron residue showing up between overhanging trees.  Unexpected perhaps, and it does also raise the small nagging question of how far you’d have to go to see another slag heap visible from earth orbit.

Furnace waste was a familiar feature of the landscape for large numbers of local people, and a side effect of the dominant position the Black Country once held in the iron industry. Its open dumping in the local environment also tells us something about the way the area was exploited without much regard for its future. For these reasons a piece of iron slag is the seventh object in our series The Black Country in Ten Objects  (the sixth was the subject of this post).

> Boshboil Pool can be seen on Bumble Hole audio trail
> see also Clinker Walls
> Subscribe (where it says FOLLOW OUR BLOG on the right) and be notified of posts on the other objects.

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.

History in your gutter

We can debate whether the economy is down the pan, but history is definitely in the gutter.  Seriously though, you can see it.  You’ve probably walked past it hundreds of times on your journey to work, school, or the shops. 
Even the cast iron displayed today on the kerbs of a handful of Smethwick streets is by itself like a short section from a roll call of Black Country foundries.  Within a few minutes walk of each other there are drain covers from Dudley & Dowell (Cradley Heath),  Smith & Sons (Smethwick), Ridgacre (West Bromwich) and Hunt Bros (Oldbury).  These factories have been part of a metal casting tradition which has employed thousands of local people over hundreds of years. The great thing about this little collection of objects is the short distance they’ve travelled—having all come less than six miles (retrace their journeys below).
Oh yes, and for those of you who now want to read more about gutter history there is always the wonderfully titled web resources of ‘drainspotting’ and ‘manhole miscellany’.  Or just get down to the offices of Sandwell Community History and Archives Service in Smethwick, built of course next to the site of a Victorian foundry.  Send us the history of your gutter!

6m from Dudley & Dowell in Cradley Heath to Church Hill Street, Smethwick
4m from Ridgeacre foundry in West Bromwich to Firs Lane, Smethwick
3m from Hunt Bros’ Griffin Foundry, Oldbury to Thimblemill Road, Smethwick
1/2m from Smith & Sons’ in Smethwick to Coopers Lane, Smethwick

Homes of Black Country elites unearthed

It might be hard to imagine when we look around the area today, but 400 years ago the people who owned and controlled Black Country industry also chose to build their own very grand houses close by.  A talk on 16 September by Mike Shaw (details below) will explain some archaeological evidence for this (photo).  Two lost mansions from that time, Wolverhampton Old Hall (near the end of the Metro line) and Bentley Hall (near junction 10 of the M6), were home to the Leveson and Lane families.  The Levesons owned ironworks and coal mines (the latter in Wednesbury) and the Lanes benefitted from ‘profits from mines of sea coals’ (called ‘sea coals’ at the time to distinguish them from charcoal).  In fact the Lanes exploited coal and iron as early as the 1500s showing that, as Mike reminds us, the history of Black Country coal and iron did not begin with the Industrial Revolution in the 1900s but built on an earlier tradition’.
Details of the talk
Location of Bentley Hall
Location of Wolverhampton Old Hall