The Low Hill Estate, Wolverhampton: ‘a popular place to live’

The second installment of the post on Low Hill

Municipal Dreams

We left the Low Hill Estate last week in 1939 very largely complete.  It was never a model development – it was too marked by the social and economic pressures and constraints that have always shaped council housing to be that – but, having escaped the Second World War virtually unscathed, it could face the future with some confidence.  In practice, however, by the 1970s the woes that afflicted so much of our council housing of this period had left it bloodied…but ultimately unbowed.

Fifth Avenue Fifth Avenue

It’s true that back in 1946 its then residents weren’t exactly effusive.   A contemporary survey found 69 per cent of residents thought the Estate ‘nice’ or ‘all right (no enthusiasm)’ but there were grumbles about some of the homes in which cost-saving measures had left concrete floors and unplastered kitchen walls.  More significantly, there were many – one in six – who thought the Estate ‘too…

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Wolverhampton’s Interwar Council Estates: ‘tenanted by respectable residents’

Municipal Dreams

Wolverhampton was another council controlled by the Conservative Party between the wars and yet, with over 8000 council homes built in the period, it was one of the biggest providers of council housing in the country. Its largest estate, Low Hill, in particular captures well the mix of municipal pride and relative affluence that would shape this new, council-housed, working class.

Dickinson Avenue on the Low Hill Estate Dickinson Avenue on the Low Hill Estate

Before 1914, the Corporation had built just 50 homes – rather grim so-called cottage flats; in fact tenements in an austere barracks-like building (since demolished) erected in 1903 on Birmingham Road.  The War, you don’t need to be told, changed everything and when the Government-mandated survey of housing needs in 1919 revealed an immediate demand for 5659 new homes, the Council resolved to build them all. It was reckoned that over one in five existing homes in the borough were unfit or overcrowded. (1)


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The wastes shall bloom

Sleeper rises to a different world

A history of high rise: new project

The fragile anatomy of the landscape

If you saw this image out of context you might think it was an x-ray of a smoke-tarred lung… or perhaps, on a grander scale, the clouds of a violent electrical storm caught in an instant.

In fact it represents more than 2,000 square kilometres of river systems (that’s about 35 miles by 25 miles) in the West Midlands centred on Oldbury.

The white areas are the high ground (including the diagonal limestone ridge from Sedgley to Northfield). In the bottom left are the lower, darker zones of the Stour and Severn valleys while, leaving the image in the middle-right, more dark spidery traces represent the tributaries of the Tame flowing east through Birmingham.

In the Black Country itself (the centre of the image) the rivers are small and difficult to navigate, leading to the popularity of the canals from the 18th century, and their legacy in the landscape today.

> Read more about why the altitude of the Black Country is important – Where the old bull is really on the level

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

Old buildings tell us stories

It’s pretty clear that historic buildings and structures we see around us everyday can tell us something about the way we used to live.  But should we just think of them as a bit of nostalgia? Or can they also help us think about the way the future should look? 

In the case of one Black Country town, a project set out to capture the thoughts and ideas of local people and feed them into the process of planning the future.  The project website includes all the results… photos, a mural (part of it shown here), oral history recordings and some great dramatic scripts… including one about a fictional local history group whose committee chooses to ignore any history after 1956. Why stop at 1956?  Visit the Brierley Hillness website and find out.

> Read What is Brierley Hillness? By Suzanne Carter
> Visit the Brierley Hillness website

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
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Five minutes from a lost railway

We know that canals helped make the modern Black Country. Without them it would have more likely stayed a rural area (rather than becoming home to today’s large, urban population).

But we tend to forget that canals alone wouldn’t have cut it, so to speak. Not unless all those factories and mines had been right there alongside the waterways and the raw materials and goods could be shifted straight into boats. The fact is, many were away from water, and that’s where the other piece of the transport jigsaw slotted into place. What became hundreds of miles of private railways were built to take goods to and from canals. These were pioneering, often built years before the passenger rail network we know today.

The results of one study of canal ‘tramroads’ (as they are called) have been simplified to create this map. It happens to be most complete study so far of private railways linked to the Black Country canals, and it starts to reveal their full scale. We now know that half a million people in the Black Country live within five minutes walk of the route of a canal tramroad. There may not be much left of them, but whatever is lies under your gardens, streets and parks.

Lost railways, closed stations (there are dozens) and train manufacturers are represented by the sixth object in our series The Black Country in Ten Objects, i.e. a locomotive name plate (the fifth was the subject of this post).

> Subscribe (where it says ‘Receive Updates’ on the right of this page) and be notified of posts on the other objects.
> Paper copies of the map Canals of Birmingham and the Black Country are available from

How jargon separates us from our past

Sometimes changing fashions in language stop us seeing links between the past and the present.  Take for example the straightforward business of moving things around.

Recently this has been known as the logistics industry.  Previous generations might have called it transport, haulage, or perhaps before that carriage or shipping.  Anyway, in its modern form it has created huge monuments in the new urban landscape, like this building (above).  The motorways which spawn them are of course already old (if the M5 were a person, it would be retiring by now, having started work in the 1960s) but the web of feeder roads, retail parks and distribution sheds continues to grow in the 21st century.

The modern Black Country, and particularly Sandwell, has been a centre for logistics.  Nationally one in every ten worked in the industry in 2005, but in Sandwell the proportion was one in seven—and 50,000 jobs in the Black Country overall.

The building in the photo is next to the M5. At 340 metres or so it had, until recently, a claim to being the longest in the English Midlands.  That is, until another longer one was built down the road (see below).  But despite the changes in the jargon along the way there is an interesting continuity in this spot.  When two centuries ago they were looking to invest in logistics in the same place, they cut a canal through the summit of the ridge to reach Birmingham.  A bit later, some canal improvement created a bigger cut—an artificial valley through the summit, claimed to be the largest excavation in the world at the time. Generations later, the building above was laid out on the canals’ spoil heaps, a reminder perhaps that logistics is older than we might think.

> the location of the building
> the location of an even longer building
> the location of this sign on the canal summit (left)

Talking landscapes

What if old canals and factories could tell you their own story? In one part of the Black Country that somehow seems just a bit closer following the publication of what might be the area’s first online audio trail.
Produced by local landscape archaeologist Norman Neal, the route takes visitors on a walk around Bumble Hole and Warrens Hall Local Nature Reserves, on the boundary between Dudley and Sandwell.

By making an audio commentary available online and also to Android phone users, the Bumble Hole trail shows how heritage trails in the Black Country can be presented in a new way, opening wider potential to promote interest in the landscape. The flexibility of the online presentation has also already made it possible to improve early versions of the guide based on views of the first couple of dozen people to try it out. We understand wheelchair and buggy-friendly versions will also soon be available.

> Go to the Bumble Hole Audio Trail
> Our Explore! page has links to 23 other trails in the Black Country.

Pyramids lost in Sandwell

Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around how much stone has been taken out of the Black Country.
The basalt rock quarried in Rowley for example (known as ‘Rowley Rag’) –used for Victorian kerbstones and more recently in road surfaces– left massive craters in local hills. 

Most of these have since been filled in –one example was Darby’s Hill quarry, now transformed into greenspace and suburban streets (see location below).  But a clue to exactly how much stone was taken from this particular quarry is that when it was re-filled they had to find 1.3 million cubic metres of material.  That’s a lot by anyone’s standards. 
But how can we imagine what that amount might look like? Well, the photo above shows figures dwarfed by one of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.  The volume of this particular monument (Menkaure) is about 250,000 cubic metres.  We reckon our quarry in Sandwell could have made about five of these.

Historically, quarries peppered the Black Country and typified its landscape.  To reflect this, a piece of Victorian paving (image left) from Rowley was the fifth item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the fourth was the subject of this post).

> The local legacy of quarrying is the subject of an interactive map by the Black Country Consortium;
> The location of former Darby’s Hill Quarry in Google maps;
> Darby’s Hill Quarry is the subject of a drawing held by the Tate, itself strangely reminiscent of pyramid construction;
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