Black Country day takes place annually on July 14. The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands in England, West of Birmingham, including Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell. During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialised parts of Britain with coal mines, coking, iron foundries and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution. The 14-mile (23 km) road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham was described as “one continuous town” in 1785.The first trace of “The Black Country” as an expression dates from the 1840s. The name is believed to come from the soot from the heavy industries that covered the area, although the 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible origin.
The Black Country has no defined borders but to traditionalists is defined as “the area where the coal seam comes to the surface – so Brierley Hill, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Blackheath, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Bilston, Dudley, Netherton, Tipton, and parts of Wednesbury, Halesowen ,Walsall ,Wolverhampton and Stourbridge but not Smethwick and most definitely not Birmingham. Today it commonly refers to the majority of the four boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The borders of the Black Country can also be defined by using the special cultural and industrial characteristics of the area. Areas around the canals (the cut) which had mines extracting mineral resources and heavy industry refining these are included in this definition. Cultural parameters include unique foods and dialect.
The Black Country Society defines the Black Country’s borders as the area on the thirty foot coal seam, regardless the depth of the seam. This definition includes West Bromwich and Oldbury, which had many deep pits, and Smethwick, which underlies the thick coal but wasn’t mined under 1870s and has retained more Victorian character than most West Midland areas. Sandwell Park Colliery’s pit was located in Smethwick and had ‘thick coal’ as shown in written accounts from 1878 and coal was also heavily mined in Hamstead further east. Smethwick and Dudley Port were described as “a thousand swarming hives of metallurgical industries” by Samuel Griffiths in 1872. The Black Country Society excludes Wolverhampton and Stourbridge geologically but includes them culturally, linguistically and in terms of heavy industry as both had iron and steel works, manufacturing industries and contributed enormously to the region. Warley is also included, despite lacking industry and canals, as housing for industrial workers in Smethwick and Oldbury was built there. Another geological definition, the seam outcrop definition, only includes areas where the coal seam is shallow. Some coal mining areas to the east and west of the geologically defined Black Country are therefore excluded by this definition because the coal here is too deep down and does not outcrop. The seam outcrop definition excludes areas in North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire.
The first recorded use of the term “the Black Country” may be from a toast given by a Mr Simpson, town clerk to Lichfield, addressing a Reformer’s meeting He describes going into the “black country” of Staffordshire – Wolverhampton, Bilston and Tipton. In published literature, the first reference dates from 1846 and occurs in the novel Colton Green: A Tale of the Black Country by the Reverend William Gresley, who was then a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral. He introduces the area as “that dismal region of mines and forges, commonly called ‘the Black Country'”, implying that the term was already in use. The phrase was used again, though as a description rather than a proper noun, by the Illustrated London News in an 1849 article on the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway. An 1851 guidebook to the London and North Western Railway included an entire chapter entitled “The Black Country”, including an early description.
In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Dudley, Darlaston, Bilston, Wolverhampton and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin horses walk their doleful round. From time to time you pass a cluster of deserted roofless cottages of dingiest brick, half swallowed up in sinking pits or inclining to every point of the compass, while the timbers point up like the ribs of a half decayed corpse. The majority of the natives of this Tartarian region are in full keeping with the scenery – savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and discusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognised as the same as that of civilized England. The geologist Joseph Jukes stated the area is commonly known in the neighbourhood as the ‘Black Country’, an epithet the appropriateness of which must be acknowledged by anyone who even passes through it on a railway. A travelogue published in 1860 calling the name “eminently descriptive, for blackness everywhere prevails; the ground is black, the atmosphere is black, and the underground is honeycombed by mining galleries stretching in utter blackness for many a league
The American diplomat and travel writer Elihu Burritt brought the term “the Black Country” into widespread common usage with the third travel book Walks in The Black Country and its Green Borderland. Burritt had been appointed United States consul in Birmingham by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, a role that required him to report regularly on “facts bearing upon the productive capacities, industrial character and natural resources of communities embraced in their Consulate Districts” and as a result travelled widely from his home in Harborne, largely on foot, to explore the local area. Burritt’s association with Birmingham dated back 20 years and he was highly sympathetic to the industrial and political culture of the town as well as being a friend many of its leading citizens, so his portrait of the surrounding area was largely positive. He was the author of the famous early description of the Black Country as “black by day and red by night”, adding appreciatively that it “cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe”. Burritt used the term to refer to a wider area than its common modern usage, however, devoting the first third of the book to Birmingham, which he described as “the capital, manufacturing centre, and growth of the Black Country”.
Metalworking was important in the Black Country area as early as the 16th century, due to the presence of iron ore and coal in a seam 30 feet (9 m) thick, the thickest seam in Great Britain, which outcropped in various places. Many people had an agricultural smallholding and supplemented their income by working as nailers or smiths, an example of a phenomenon known to economic historians as proto-industrialisation and by the 1620s “Within ten miles [16 km] of Dudley Castle there were 20,000 smiths of all sorts”.
In 1642 at the start of the Civil War, Charles I failed to capture the two arsenals of Portsmouth and Hull, which although in cities loyal to Parliament were located in counties loyal to him. As he had failed to capture the arsenals, Charles did not possess any supply of swords, pikes, guns, or shot; all these the Black Country could and did provide. From Stourbridge came shot, from Dudley cannon. Numerous small forges which then existed on every brook in the north of Worcestershire turned out successive supplies of sword blades and pike heads. It was said that among the many causes of anger Charles had against Birmingham was that one of the best sword makers of the day, Robert Porter, who manufactured swords in Digbeth, Birmingham, refused at any price to supply swords for “that man of blood” (A Puritan nickname for King Charles), or any of his adherents. As an offset to this sword-cutler and men like him in Birmingham, the Royalists had among their adherents Colonel Dud Dudley, who had invented a means of smelting iron by the use of coke, and who claimed he could turn out “all sorts of bar iron fit for making of muskets, carbines, and iron for great bolts”, both more cheaply, more speedily and more excellent than could be done in any other way. His method was employed on the King’s behalf.
By the 19th century or early 20th century, many villages had their characteristic manufacture, such as chain making in Cradley Heath and the Lye holloware industry. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, coal and limestone were worked only on a modest scale for local consumption, but during the Industrial Revolution by the opening of canals, such as the Birmingham Canal Navigations, Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canal (the Dudley Canal Line No 1 and the Dudley Tunnel) opened up the mineral wealth of the area to exploitation. Advances in the use of coke for the production in iron enabled iron production (hitherto limited by the supply of charcoal) to expand rapidly. By Victorian times, the Black Country was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in Britain, and it became known for its pollution, particularly from iron and coal industries and their many associated smaller businesses. This led to the expansion of local railways and coal mine lines. The line running from Stourbridge to Walsall via Dudley Port and Wednesbury closed in the 1960s, but the Birmingham to Wolverhampton line via Tipton is still a major transport route. The anchors and chains for the ill-fated liner RMS Titanic were manufactured in the Black Country in the area of Netherton. Three anchors and accompanying chains were manufactured; and the set weighed in at 100 tons. The centre anchor alone weighed 12 tons and was pulled through Netherton on its journey to the ship by 20 Shire horses.(similar gauge chains can be seen at the Black Country Museum)
In 1913, the Black Country was the location of arguably one of the most important strikes in British trade union history when the workers employed in the area’s steel tube trade came out for two months in a successful demand for a 23 shilling minimum weekly wage for unskilled workers, giving them pay parity with their counterparts in nearby Birmingham. This action commenced on 9 May in Wednesbury, at the Old Patent tube works of John Russell & Co. Ltd., and within weeks upwards of 40,000 workers across the Black Country had joined the dispute. Notable figures in the labour movement, including a key proponent of Syndicalism, Tom Mann, visited the area to support the workers and Jack Beard and Julia Varley of the Workers’ Union were active in organising the strike. During this confrontation with employers represented by the Midlands Employers Federation, a body founded by Dudley Docker, the Asquith Government’s armaments programme was jeopardised, especially its procurement of naval equipment and other industrial essentials such as steel tubing, nuts and bolts, destroyer parts, etc. This was of national significance at a time when Britain and Germany were engaged in the Anglo-German naval arms race that preceded the outbreak of the First World War. Following a ballot of the union membership, a settlement of the dispute was reached on 11 July after arbitration by government officials from the Board of Trade led by the Chief Industrial Commissioner Sir George Askwith, 1st Baron Askwith. One of the important consequences of the strike was the growth of organised labour across the Black Country, which was notable because until this point the area’s workforce had effectively eschewed trade unionism.
The area had earlier gained widespread notoriety for its hellish appearance. Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop, written in 1841, described how the area’s local factory chimneys “Poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air”. In 1862, Elihu Burritt, the American Consul in Birmingham, described the region as “black by day and red by night”, because of the smoke and grime generated by the intense manufacturing activity and the glow from furnaces at night. Early 20th century representations of the region can be found in the Mercian novels of Francis Brett Young, most notably My Brother Jonathan (1928).
Carol Thompson the curator “The Making of Mordor” at Wolverhampton Art Gallery stated that J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of the grim region of Mordor “resonates with accounts of the Black Country”, in his famed novel The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Black) Land. It is also claimed by one Black Country scholar (Peter Higginson) that the character of Bilbo Baggins may have been based on Tolkien’s observation of Mayor Ben Bilboe of Bilston in The Black Country, who was a Communist and Labour Party member from The Lunt in Bilston. The 20th century saw a decline in coal mining in the Black Country, with the last colliery in the region – Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley – closing on 2 March 1968, marking the end of an era after some 300 years of mass coal mining in the region, though a small number of open cast mines remained in use for a few years afterwards.