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The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands in England, north and west of Birmingham. It includes the Metropolitan Boroughs of Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. 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 road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham was being described as "one continuous town" as early as 1785, but the first trace of The Black Country as an expression dates from the 1840s and it is believed that it got its name because of black soot from heavy industries that covered the area, although credence has to be given to the theory that the 30ft thick coal seam which was very close to the surface was another possible reason for it being named as such.
The Black Country has no agreed borders but to traditionalists is defined as "the area where the coal seam comes to the surface - so West Bromwich, Oldbury, Blackheath, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Bilston, Dudley, Tipton, Wednesbury and parts of Halesowen and Walsall but not Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Smethwick or what used to be known as Warley." Today it is described by the government as most of the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton although it is said that "no two Black Country men or women will agree on where it starts or ends", but it does not include Birmingham.
Cultural and industrial definition
The borders of the Black Country can 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 Wolverhampton and Oldbury, which had many deep pits, and Smethwick. 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 West Bromwich (Birmingham conurbation) 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.
Since the geological definitions are narrower and exclude many areas which are culturally and industrially similar to the rest of the Black Country, they are irritants to those now wishing to extend the area known as the Black Country for social or commercial reasons. This is the basis for much of the controversy over definitions.
The first record of the term "the Black Country" 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 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.
— Samuel Sidney, Rides on Railway
This work was also the first to explicitly distinguish the area from nearby Birmingham, noting that "On certain rare holidays these people wash their faces, clothe themselves in decent garments, and, since the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway, take advantage of cheap excursion trains, go down to Birmingham to amuse themselves and make purchases".
The geologist Joseph Jukes made it clear in 1858 that he felt the meaning of the term was self-explanatory to contemporary visitors, remarking that "It 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 made the connection more explicit, 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". An alternative theory for the meaning of the name is proposed as having been caused by the darkening of the local soil due to the outcropping coal and the seam near the surface.
It was however the American diplomat and travel writer Elihu Burritt who brought the term "the Black Country" into widespread common usage with the third, longest and most important of the travel books he wrote about Britain for American readers, his 1868 work 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", and writing "plant, in imagination, one foot of your compass at the Town Hall in Birmingham, and with the other sweep a circle of twenty miles radius, and you will have, '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 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, but earlier occupations were less concentrated. Some of these concentrations are less ancient than sometimes supposed. For example, chain making in Cradley Heath seems only to have begun in about the 1820s, and the Lye holloware industry is even more recent.
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.
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 in the last quarter of 2014 stated that J. R. R. Tolkien description of the grim region of Mordor "resonates strongly with contemporary 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. But the scholarly evidence for this is still questionable.
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.
In recent years the Black Country has seen the adoption of symbols and emblems with which to represent itself. The first of these to be registered was the Black Country tartan in 2009, designed by Philip Tibbetts from Halesowen.
In 2008 the idea of a flag for the region was first raised. After four years of campaigning a competition was successfully organised with the Black Country Living Museum. This resulted in the adoption of the Flag of the Black Country as designed by Gracie Sheppard of Redhill School in Stourbridge and was registered with the Flag Institute in July 2012.
The flag was unveilved at the Museum on 14 July 2012 as part of celebration in honour of the 300th anniversary of the erection of the first Newcomen atmospheric engine. Following this it was agreed by the museum and Black Country society for 14 July to be recognised as Black Country Day to celebrate the areas role in the Industrial Revolution. The day was marked by Department for Communities and Local Government in 2013 and following calls to do more in 2014 more events were planned around the region.
The heavy industry which once dominated the Black Country has now largely gone. The twentieth century saw a decline in coal mining and the industry finally came to an end in 1968 with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley. Clean air legislation has meant that the Black Country is no longer black. The area still maintains some manufacturing, but on a much smaller scale than historically. Chainmaking is still a viable industry in the Cradley Heath area where the majority of the chain for the Ministry of Defence and the Admiralty fleet is made in modern factories.
Much but not all of the area now suffers from high unemployment and parts of it are amongst the most economically deprived communities in the UK. This is particularly true in parts of the boroughs of Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. According to the Government's 2007 Index of Deprivation (ID 2007), Sandwell is the third most deprived authority in the West Midlands region, after Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, and the 14th most deprived of the UK's 354 districts. Wolverhampton is the fourth most deprived district in the West Midlands, and the 28th most deprived nationally. Walsall is the fifth most deprived district in the West Midlands region, and the 45th most deprived in the country. Dudley fares better, but still has pockets of deprivation. Overall Dudley is the 100th most deprived district of the UK, but the second most affluent of the seven metropolitan districts of the West Midlands, with Solihull coming top.
As with many urban areas in the UK, there is also a significant ethnic minority population in parts: in Sandwell, 22.6 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities, and in Wolverhampton the figure is 23.5 per cent. However, in Walsall 84.6 per cent of the population is described as white, while in Dudley 92 per cent of the population is white. Resistance to mass immigration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to the slogan "Keep the Black Country white!".
The Black Country suffered its biggest economic blows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when unemployment soared largely because of the closure of historic large factories including the Round Oak Steel Works at Brierley Hill and the Patent Shaft steel plant at Wednesbury. Unemployment rose drastically across the country during this period as a result of the Thatcher government's neo-liberal economic policies; later, in an implicit acknowledgement of the social problems this had caused, these areas were designated as Enterprise Zones, and some redevelopment occurred. Round Oak and the surrounding farmland was developed as the Merry Hill Shopping Centre and Waterfront commercial and leisure complex, while the Patent Shaft site was developed as an industrial estate.
Unemployment in Brierley Hill peaked at more than 25% – around the double the national average at the time – during the first half of the 1980s following the closure of Round Oak Steel Works, giving it one of the worst unemployment rates of any town in Britain. The Merry Hill development between 1985 and 1990 managed to reduce the local area's unemployment dramatically, however.
The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley recreates life in the Black Country in the early 20th century, and is a popular tourist attraction. On 17 February 2012 the Museum's collection in its entirety was awarded Designation by Arts Council England (ACE). Designation is a mark of distinction that celebrates unique collections of national and international importance.
In 2011, the government announced the creation of the Black Country Enterprise Zone. The zone includes 5 sites in Wolverhampton and 14 in Darlaston. The i54 business park in Wolverhampton is the largest of the 19 sites; its tenants include Jaguar Land Rover. The largest site in Darlaston is that of the former IMI James Bridge Copper Works.
Dialect and accent
See Black Country Accent page for more
The traditional Black Country dialect preserves many archaic traits of Early Modern English and even Middle English and can be very confusing for outsiders. Thee, Thy and Thou are still in use, as is the case in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. "'Ow B'ist," meaning "How are you?" is a greeting contracted from "How be-est thou?" with the typical answering being "'Bay too bah," ("I be not too bad"), meaning "I am not too bad." "I haven't seen her" becomes "I ay sid 'er." Black Country dialect often uses "ar" where other parts of England use "yes" (this is common as far away as Yorkshire). Similarly, the local version of "you" is pronounced // YOW, rhyming with "now." The local pronunciation "goo" (elsewhere "go") or "gewin'" is similar to that elsewhere in the Midlands. It is quite common for broad Black Country speakers to say "'agooin'" where others say "going." This is found in the greeting "Ow b'ist gooin" (How are you), to which a typical response would be "Bostin ah kid" (very well).
Pronouncing Black Country words
- "Yaw" = "You"
- "Yam" = "You are"
- "Am" = "Are"
- "Arm" = "I'm"
- "Bin" = "Been"
- "Gewin" or "Gooin" = "Going"
- "Thay" = "They"
- "Oss" = "Horse"
- "Tekkin" = "Taking"
- "Cut" = "Canal"
- "Ay" = "Aint"
- "Ova" = "Over"
- "Cud" = "Could"
- "Warra" = "What a"
- "Wossant" = "Wasn't"
- "Blartin" = "Crying"
- "Babbie" or "Babby" = "Baby"
- "Me" = "My"
- "Kaylied" = "Drunk"
- "Arl" = "I'll"
- "Dow" = "Don't"
- "Tat" = "Junk"
- "Tatting" = "Collecting scrap metal"
- "Werk" = "Work"
- "Loff" = "Laugh"
- "Yed" = "Head"
- "Jed" = "Dead"
Despite the close proximity, many inhabitants of the Black Country resist hints at any relationship to people living in Birmingham, which may be called "Brum-a-jum" (Birmingham's colloquial name is Brummagem, a corruption of its older name of Bromwicham – and hence West Bromwich) or Birminam (missing the "g" and "h" out and saying it the way it is spelt). Residents of Birmingham (Brummies) meanwhile often refer to their Black Country neighbours as "Yam Yams," a reference to the use of "Yow am" (or yow'm) instead of "You are."
A road sign containing local dialect was placed at the A461/A459/A4037 junction in 1997 before the construction of a traffic island on the site. The sign read, in translation, "If you're soft (stupid) enough to come down here on your way home, your tea will be spoilt". This island was completed in 1998 and was the first phase of the Dudley Southern By-Pass which was opened on 15 October 1999.
The dialect's perception was boosted in 2008 when an internet video, The Black Country Alphabet, described the whole alphabet in Black Country speak.
The Black Country is home to six radio stations – BBC WM, Free Radio, Gold, 102.5 The Bridge, Signal 107 and Black Country Community Radio. Both Free Radio and Gold (formerly Radio WABC) have broadcast since 1976 from transmitter sites from Turner's Hill in neighbouring Rowley Regis, with the studios which were previously located in Wolverhampton being moved to Oldbury and Birmingham respectively. Free Radio was known as Beacon until late March 2012 when it changed its name along with 3 of its Sister Stations. Signal 107 broadcasts from Mander House to areas of Shropshire & The Black Country. Black Country Community Radio broadcasts online from its Dudley Studios in the heart of the Black Country covering The Central and Northern Black Country. The Bridge broadcasts from Stourbridge across the Southern half of the Black Country and out towards Birmingham to the East and Telford to the West.
The Express and Star is one of the region's two daily newspapers, publishing eleven local editions from its Wolverhampton headquarters and its five district offices (for example the Dudley edition is considerably different in content from the Wolverhampton or Stafford editions). It is the biggest selling regional paper in the UK. Incidentally, the Express and Star, traditionally a Black Country paper, has expanded to the point where they sell copies from vendors in Birmingham city centre.
The Black Country Mail – a local edition of the Birmingham Mail – England's other daily newspaper. Its regional base is in Walsall town centre. Established in 1973, from a site in High Street, Cradley Heath, the Black Country Bugle has also contributed to the region's history. It started as a fortnightly publication, but due to its widespread appeal, now appears on a weekly basis.
One independent local publisher, Dudley's Kates Hill Press, has been producing books on the Black Country and its people since 1992. Recently the 'Black Country Alphabet and Black Country Christmas Song' by the Black Country Tee-Shirts company has helped to demonstrate the accent and dialect further across the country.
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The notion of the Black Country, that is to say, a rectangle of territory bounded by Wolverhampton and Walsall to the north and Smethwick, Halesowen and Stourbridge to the south, is also an anachronism, since the expression cannot be traced back beyond the 1840s
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