The article 'A study of the debates regarding the boundaries of the region' appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of the Blackcountryman magazine. It was incorrectly attributed to Matthew Stallard. The article was in fact written by Matt Mills. In the Summer 2022 edition of the magazine a response to the article from Nick Moss was incorrectly directed to Matthew Stallard. A corrected version of the article and the subsequent response letter are therefore reproduced here. Apologies to Matthew Stallard, Matt Mills and Nick Moss for any embarrassment the error might have created.
The Black Country - a study of the debates regarding the boundaries of the region by Matt Mills
This paper examines the definitions of the industrial region of the Black Country, once a major centre of manufacturing in Central England. Much argument has taken place for many decades regarding where the boundaries of the Black Country are located. The definitions of the region are studied in detail throughout this essay and debates about which towns and villages are in the “true” Black Country” will be studied in detail.
The Black Country, situated in the English West Midlands, is often regarded as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a major manufacturing centre of Britain. The region consists of a large group of industrial towns and villages, a number of which specialised in particular trades. It is important to note that while the Black Country is located to the west and north of the major city of Birmingham, the area's industries, history, heritage and culture, as well as its distinctive accent and dialect, are completely separate from Birmingham's own history and heritage.
In recent years, a great pride has been taken regarding Black Country identity, history, heritage and culture. The British Ordnance Survey also officially added the Black Country name to maps in 2009. A Black Country flag was also created that has become popular, illustrating the importance of chain making in the region. But how is the Black Country specifically defined, both historically and in the present day? This paper discusses the definitions of the region and the arguments about establishing the area's boundaries, which are debates that have persisted for well over a century.
The Black Country grew as an area on the South Staffordshire Coalfield, where a ten-yard seam came very close to the surface. It was this coal seam that was crucial to the Black Country's industrial development. However, coal had in fact previously been mined for centuries, but only for use in peoples' homes. A turning point in the Black Country’s industrial history was in the seventeenth century when Dud Dudley, an illegitimate son of the Earl of Dudley, developed a new method of iron smelting using coal rather than charcoal. In addition to coal, fireclay and limestone were also mined in certain areas of the Black Country.
The revolutionary use of coal for industry was vital to the region's growth and by the eighteenth century, John Wilkinson, who had moved to the region from Shropshire had established an ironworks at Bradley in Bilston. Wilkinson’s ironworks and furnace were the beginnings of the great industries of the Black Country. By the mid-nineteenth century iron forges, foundries and other metal industries such as chainmaking and nail manufacturing became established in very high numbers. The growth of the canal network across the country also had a profound effect on the Black Country’s development. Many villages grew into densely populated towns and older, well-established towns that were previously market towns also became industrialised.
With the arguments regarding the Black Country's boundaries, it has been noted by many authors that there are no official borders for the area. Gale (1979, p.1) stated “The Black Country has neither physical or political boundaries,” while Drabble (1952, p.2) commented “Nobody knows just where the boundaries lie.” Chitham (1972, p.12) referred to the fact that “defining the Black Country had always been difficult.” In more recent decades, it is still impossible to give an official designation of the region's boundaries, and arguments about which towns and villages are in the Black Country has continued (Pearson, 2013).
One very thorough and precise way of defining the Black Country's boundaries was to consider that all towns and villages on the ten yard seam of the South Staffordshire Coalfield as being in the region as well as towns that lay on deeper sections of the coalfield close to its edges. Raybould (1973, p.9) gave a clear and specific designation by stating :
The Black Country consisted of those areas where iron production became concentrated in relation to the thick, thirty-foot coal seam...such areas would include parts of the modern towns of Dudley, Tipton, Wednesbury, Darlaston, Bilston, Sedgley, Netherton, Cradley Heath and Brierley Hill. Deeper seams were also worked around the periphery of this nucleus, in such districts as Stourbridge, Kingswinford, Himley, Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
Barnsby (1998) also refers to the definition of the Black Country as the area situated on the thirty foot coal seam, commenting “by this definition, Wolverhampton, the largest town of the region, qualifies for inclusion, the coalfield extending to the eastern outskirts of the town. Similarly, in the Walsall area the coalfield dips to reappear further north as the Cannock Coalfield” (Barnsby, 1998, p.3). This fact is also noted by Chapman (2005, p.9) referring to the “major fault running east and west near Bentley” as separating the two sections of the South Staffordshire Coalfield.
One fact that cannot be debated, however, is that Dudley is at the centre of the Black Country and has always traditionally been regarded as the region’s capital, Clare (2005, p.7) commenting that “Dudley claims the title ‘capital of the Black Country.’” Harvey and Richardson (2007) and Parsons (1986) also make the point of Dudley being at the centre of the region. The village of Netherton, located to the south of Dudley which was famous for manufacturing the anchor of the Titanic, and which has always formed part of the Borough of Dudley despite its separate identity, together with the towns of Tipton, Brierley Hill, Cradley Heath and the village of Rowley Regis are also said to form the “heart” of the Black Country.
It is also often claimed that the Gornals – Upper and Lower Gornal and Gornal Wood, to the north-west of Dudley are within the “heart” of the Black Country. These villages, while having their own distinct identities along with all villages and towns of the Black Country, formed part of the historic parish of Sedgley, which also included the industrial village of Coseley. Other towns and villages close to the industrial heartlands of the Black Country were Blackheath and Old Hill, both of which like Cradley Heath, were part of the parish of Rowley Regis and Quarry Bank, which was later within the district of Brierley Hill, while to the north of the district between Wolverhampton and Walsall were the small towns of Willenhall and Wednesfield.
While each town and district of the Black Country included a range of industries, many towns often specialised in one type of manufacturing as well as featuring a number of other trades such as engineering, foundries and forges together with many other diverse industries. Bilston, Wednesbury and Brierley Hill were famous for steel production on a very high level, Cradley Heath and Old Hill were noted for chainmaking, Darlaston was a centre for the production of nuts and bolts, while Willenhall and to some extent Wednesfield were well-known centres of lock manufacturing, Wednesfield also being involved in the production of hunting traps. When considering the diverse industries within each town and district, it is worth noting that heat-resistant glass tableware was produced in Bilston and buttons were manufactured in Halesowen, to give two examples.
When discussing which towns are situated on the borders of the region, it is often noted that Wolverhampton and Walsall are located on the Black Country’s northern boundaries. Situated to the north of Walsall is the small town of Bloxwich, which although having a distinct town centre has always been within the boundaries of Walsall. Phil Drabble (1952) remarked in his study of the Black Country that “The Black Country, in fact, is the whole area bounded by a line from Bloxwich to Wolverhampton to Stourbridge to Smethwick to West Bromwich and back to Bloxwich again” (Drabble,1952, p.2). A similar explanation of boundaries is given by Trainor (1993), who notes “some purists exclude places such as Halesowen, Smethwick, Stourbridge, Walsall and Wolverhampton. However, these towns shared many trades with the district's more central localities atop the “Ten Yard Coal” seam and formed integral parts of the social, and political life of the area” (Trainor, 1993, p.1).
While the towns on the edges of the Black Country did indeed share industries with those at and closer to its centre, the arguments for defining Wolverhampton, Walsall, Smethwick, Halesowen and Stourbridge will now be examined in detail. Wolverhampton was the largest of all the towns and also the oldest and for centuries before industrialisation it was an important market town and a centre for wool manufacturing. Hughes in his The Story of Staffordshire (1924) included Wolverhampton in his definition of the Black Country and commented that the Wolverhampton “is the most important and one of the most ancient south Staffordshire towns” (Hughes, 1924, p.307).
Wolverhampton County Borough Council's own handbook from 1956 also makes note of this fact as well as stating that the town was “often popularly described as ‘The Capital of the Black Country’” (Wolverhampton County Borough, 1956, p.13). Despite this reference, it can be argued that Wolverhampton, despite being the largest town, was not always referred to as the Black Country's capital. As previously noted, Dudley was traditionally considered the capital of the region. Clare (2005, p.7) notes “although Wolverhampton town centre is grander and more impressive, Dudley is more typical of the Black Country District.”
Although coal mining took place in the Monmore Green, East Park, Eastfield and Heath Town areas to the east and south-east of the centre of Wolverhampton, as well as to the south at Parkfields – parts of which were located in Sedgley Parish and later Coseley Urban District – and at Cockshutts Colliery on the edge of Blakenhall to the south, it is difficult to decide how much of Wolverhampton was and is located within the Black Country. A sizeable number of ironworks, foundries and engineering works were also situated in the industrialised parts of Wolverhampton, including some to the north of Heath Town around the junction of the Cannock Road, while the large works of Guy Motors, established in the early twentieth century, were located off the Cannock Road at Fallings Park.
To the west of the town, bicycles and motorcycles were manufactured in the area around Great Brickkiln Street. However, beyond this area there were no more industrial districts. While it clearly cannot be said where the Black Country part of Wolverhampton ends, Harold Parsons (1986) was of the opinion that the town's West Park, located a fairly short distance from the western side of the town centre was “outside my designated Black Country” (Parsons, 1986, p.79). It is notable that western suburbs of Wolverhampton such as Bradmore and Penn Fields only grew in the mid-twentieth century. The rural parish of Penn to the south-west was brought into Wolverhampton’s boundaries into the 1920s and was also developed as a suburban area, along with Bushbury, Low Hill, Fordhouses, Oxley, Aldersley and Pendeford to the north. In fact, Bushbury was a rural parish that was also absorbed into the County Borough and developed as suburban areas. While industries did develop in the northern suburbs of Wolverhampton in the mid-twentieth century, notably Goodyear and Boulton Paul, they were established in areas that had previously been countryside.
The argument for Walsall, including the town's numerous districts, being part of the true Black Country seems rather stronger than claiming certain areas of Wolverhampton to be “real” parts of the district. Walsall, along with Wolverhampton, was a historic market town before the Industrial Revolution, being well-established by the end of the medieval period (Lewis and Wood, 1987). Following industrialisation, Walsall, like Wolverhampton, had a considerable number of ironworks and foundries in addition to the leather trade that made the town famous. Unlike Wolverhampton, however, most of Walsall's districts, many of which lay to the west and south-west of the town, were industrial in character and Walsall did not bring parts of rural parishes into its borough boundary in the way that Wolverhampton did.
While the areas of Pleck, Caldmore (pronounced Carmore) and Palfrey were typical of the Black Country with their terraced streets, the area to the immediate east of the town centre was somewhat mixed in character, with The Chuckery being similar to the other districts but the area to its south in the vicinity of Birmingham Road being leafy and middle class in character. Notably, the only green area of the County Borough of Walsall to be developed was Daisy Bank located off Sutton Road, where a substantial amount of housing was built in the mid-twentieth century, urbanising the outskirts of Walsall as far as the original borough boundary.
The town of Bloxwich to the north of Walsall, a distinct town that is a similar size to many of the other smaller towns of the Black Country, but always forming part of Walsall, is situated on the northern edge of the region. Although, as previously noted by Chapman (2005), the 30-foot coal seam disappears in Bentley to the west of central Walsall, it in fact comes to the surface in Bloxwich as the Cannock Chase Coalfield. Bloxwich had much in common with the rest of Walsall and comprised an important part of the district that was culturally indistinct from the other, smaller, areas of Walsall. Only the far north of Bloxwich – and the Walsall County Borough – includes a small area of countryside in the district of Fishley, located within the boundaries of both the original County Borough and the modern Metropolitan Borough.
Smethwick, situated in the south-east of the region, developed much later as a town than others in the Black Country. Due to its close proximity to Birmingham, its credentials as part of the Black Country have sometimes been questioned. However, Hughes (1924) did include the town in his definition of the Black Country, stating “it is one of the most modern of the Black Country towns” (Hughes, 1924, p.309). Smethwick as a County Borough included many distinct areas, West Smethwick and Londonderry, which are located close to districts of Oldbury, Warley, also located closer to the border with Oldbury but stretching to the Birmingham boundary at Hagley Road, Bearwood and Cape Hill.
These last two districts are the closest to inner Birmingham and are arguably slightly more like Birmingham districts in character. Chinn (2004), in his argument regarding the Black Country’s borders, comments “many of us regard Smethwick...as the fulcrum between the Black Country and Birmingham” (Chinn, 2004, p.20). In fact, the well-known brewery of Mitchells and Butlers, often considered a Birmingham company, was located for over a century on the edge of the Cape Hill area and just within the Smethwick boundary with Birmingham – the historic boundary of Staffordshire and Warwickshire.
Halesowen and Stourbridge were, like Dudley, well-established and historic market towns in North Worcestershire before industrialisation. Dudley, however, was an “island” of Worcestershire surrounded by Staffordshire and Stourbridge and Halesowen, along with Oldbury (itself originally part of the ancient Halesowen parish) were the only Black Country towns located in Worcestershire south of the Staffordshire boundary. Although the northern parts of Halesowen were very industrialised, with coal mines and a large steelworks as well as ironworks and forges, areas to the south of the town were not greatly developed until the inter-war years. Like the former Borough of Smethwick, Halesowen as a borough included many distinct communities. These were Cradley to the east, an area that could definitely be defined as Black Country, Shell Corner to the north, close to Blackheath, Hasbury and Hayley Green to the south, and Quinton to the east. The historic village of Quinton is somewhat of a “grey area” in the twenty-first century; while it had formed part of the parish of Halesowen for centuries, the majority of Quinton was given to Birmingham in 1909 and eventually developed as a suburb. Quinton is now located next to the M5 Motorway and confusingly, the area on the Halesowen side is also referred to as Quinton. Both Quinton Methodist Church and Quinton Cemetery are located in Halesowen.
While Halesowen thrived as an industrial town close to the growing city of Birmingham, Stourbridge, situated to the west of Halesowen and on the south-western edge of the Black Country conurbation, was to some extent also influenced by the farming and rural communities of North Worcestershire. The town is also located close to North Worcestershire country villages and while the town was famous for its glass industries (many of which were actually located in Amblecote and Wordsley, both outside Stourbridge and in Staffordshire) as well as having ironworks, chain manufacturers and fireclay and coal mining, Clarke and Reuter commented (1998, p.8) on how “the coal, iron, clay and glass industries met the agricultural history of north Worcestershire.” Stourbridge's southern districts of Oldswinford, Norton and Pedmore, also grew in the inter-war period and were previously largely rural.
Parsons (1986) in his designation of the Black Country comments “the outer suburbs of Stourbridge and Halesowen must be excluded” (Parsons 1986, p.16). However, it can be argued that the outer districts of both towns are on the edge of the Black Country due to urban growth from the 1920s until the 1960s. Similarly, the Urban District of Wednesfield in the north of the Black Country included rural areas on its outskirts that weren’t developed for housing until the 1930s and in some cases the 1950s. The expansion of new housing developments led to the region becoming a continuous urban sprawl.
However, there is one area on the far southern edge of the former Borough of Halesowen and now on the edge of the present Metropolitan Borough of Dudley that remained unspoilt during the height of the Black Country's industries. Despite Halesowen's development as an industrial town, the rural hamlet of Illey, now located to the west of the M5 Motorway, is still an area that has the character of the surrounding North Worcestershire countryside. Illey is unique as there is no other community within any former borough or urban district of the Black Country that has retained a completely rural character: although there is a wide stretch open countryside in the Halesowen district of Lutley, this area is positioned between Wollescote and Hayley Green.
The hamlet of Illey, however, is also so close to south-western suburbs of Birmingham that a local football team from one of these city districts, Bartley Green FC, have their training ground at Illey. While the Halesowen suburbs of Hasbury and Hayley Green are now located on the edges of the urban area and could be considered the limits of the Black Country, Illey, on the southernmost point of Dudley Metropolitan Borough has the Worcestershire villages of Hunnington to its west and Romsley and Frankley to its south. Although part of Halesowen, it would clearly be difficult to include Illey as an authentic part of the Black Country.
When considering coal mining in the Black Country, in addition to the pits that grew on and around the Ten Yard Seam, coal was found at much greater depths in the late nineteenth century as the region’s pits became exhausted. Engineers located coal over a thousand feet below at Sandwell Park on the eastern edge of West Bromwich and also at Hamstead to the north-east of Sandwell Park, and mines opened in both locations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, coal was also found at an even greater depth at Baggeridge in Gospel End, on the far-western edge of Sedgley Urban District, resulting in the formation of Baggeridge Colliery. Despite the new coal locations being a continuation of the South Staffordshire coalfield, some writers have argued whether these mines were within the Black Country. Drabble (1952, p.3) commented how they were “often considered outside its boundary.” Despite this particular debate, it was generally regarded that Sandwell Park, Hamstead and Baggeridge Collieries produced Black Country coal. Parsons (1986) believed the three coal mines to be within the Black Country, while Sedgley historian Trevor Genge (2002) believed Gospel End to be a definite part of the Black Country, along with the eight other villages of the Manor of Sedgley.
While the village of Hamstead was located in the Borough of West Bromwich, on its extreme eastern edge, and now within the Borough of Sandwell, the area did not become part of the Borough until 1928, having previously been located within the ancient parish of Handsworth, parts of which were absorbed by Birmingham. However, it is important to note that the area where Hamstead Colliery was sunk was never taken into Birmingham’s boundaries, but the mine's close proximity to Birmingham had led some people to wrongly believe it was located within the city when no coal mine was ever located in Birmingham.
It is important to note, though, that the workings of all three coal mines stretched a considerable distance outside areas that could be considered the Black Country by any definition. The extent of the workings of these deep mines can be learned from the National Coal Board’s 1960s abandonment plans. While some of Baggeridge Colliery's tunnels ran under the western parts of Sedgley, other tunnels extended to the west of the Sedgley Urban District boundary and under the Stourbridge Road at Wombourne, as well as under Lloyd House at Lower Penn. The workings also ran under the full length of Penn Common and under parts of Penn itself, the northernmost limits of the colliery’s tunnels being under the northern areas of Penn, with coal being proved but never mined some distance to the north under the southern parts of the Penn Fields area of Wolverhampton.
In the far east of the region, Sandwell Park’s tunnels extended under the Handsworth district of Birmingham as well as beneath the immediate area around the mine, which was later reclaimed as a nature reserve and named Sandwell Valley. To the north-east of Sandwell Park, Hamstead Colliery's tunnels stretched some distance to the west as well as the east, with coal mined a great distance below Perry Barr and as far as Kingstanding in the east. In fact, when Hamstead Colliery was abandoned in the 1960s, the far eastern limits of its workings were under the eastern edge of Kingstanding, close to the border with Sutton Coldfield. Despite the extent of the tunnels of all three coal pits, Parsons’ (1986) opinion of them being part of the Black Country can arguably be justified.
In 1966, many of the Municipal Boroughs and Urban Districts of the Black Country were abolished and it was believed within central government that all the units should be taken over by the large county boroughs. Only Stourbridge and Halesowen escaped losing their councils in these nationwide changes. In a number of cases, Municipal Boroughs were split between the new enlarged County Boroughs, with the majority of Tipton Municipal Borough being taken over by West Bromwich but a small part being handed over to Dudley. A small part of Wednesbury Municipal Borough was given to Walsall, while the majority was also taken over by West Bromwich. Amblecote – the smallest Urban District in the country – was split between Dudley and Stourbridge, while the Urban District of Wednesfield was mainly absorbed by Wolverhampton County Borough, with a small area brought into Walsall County Borough’s boundaries. An undeveloped rural area in the district’s north next to the fairly new Ashmore Park estate was given to Seisdon Rural District, later to become South Staffordshire District. The Gospel End area on the western edge of Sedgley Urban District was also handed over to Seisdon, while the majority of Sedgley was brought into Dudley's boundaries and a smaller area was transferred to Wolverhampton County Borough. The Urban District of Coseley – originally part of the vast ancient parish of Sedgley – was the most divided in the changes, with large portions being taken over by Dudley and Wolverhampton County Boroughs and a smaller area being transferred to West Bromwich.
It appeared that the rural edges of both Sedgley and Wednesfield were transferred to Seisdon because the West Midlands Order instigated by central government had planned to create a continuous urban area containing five boroughs. In addition to the expanded County Boroughs of Dudley, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton, a new borough with the name of Warley was established when the County Borough of Smethwick and the Municipal Borough of Oldbury merged with the Municipal Borough of Rowley Regis. The name of Warley itself belonged to an area on the south-western edges of Smethwick County Borough, close to the border with Oldbury. Despite Halesowen remaining an independent Municipal Borough, the 1966 changes led to slight boundary alterations which coincided with the M5 Motorway being cut through the south-eastern edges of the Borough.
The area around Quinton Methodist Church, part of Halesowen until 1909, was given back to the Borough while the lower part of Carters Lane – now divided by the Motorway – was transferred to Birmingham. This included a group of semi-detached houses and a cul-de-sac and this small part of Halesowen also has a B62 postcode, the same as a large part of the rest of the former Borough. The far north of Halesowen Borough bordered on Blackheath town centre, this being a historic boundary of Worcestershire and Staffordshire, and this area was given to Warley, possibly because of the way in which the Halesowen border was situated almost in the centre of Blackheath, the most southern shops in the town actually being located in Worcestershire.
Another rural area located on the fringes of the Black Country, which was always located within Seisdon Rural District, was Himley. As mentioned previously, part of the village was the site of a coal mine which worked at a greater depth than the collieries located directly on the Ten Yard Seam, but as with the mines on the eastern side of Stourbridge that were worked for both coal and fireclay, the coal at Himley was still worked at a much less greater depth than that of the final three Black Country collieries. Himley has always had strong association with Dudley, with the historic Himley Hall being the home of the Earls of Dudley for centuries. The Hall has been owned by Dudley Council for many years although it is still located outside the Borough boundary.
Following a further local government review, it was decided that a West Midlands Metropolitan Area was to be created in 1974. All the Staffordshire and Worcestershire towns and villages of the Black Country were now to be located within this new county, together with Birmingham and Coventry. The Boroughs of West Bromwich and Warley were merged to form the Borough of Sandwell while Stourbridge and Halesowen lost their independence and were brought into the new Metropolitan Borough of Dudley. Although the more rural edges of Sedgley and Wednesfield were transferred to Seisdon in 1966, the new plans were not so strict in separating rural areas, as the hamlet of Illey, discussed in an earlier section, was brought into Dudley's boundaries with the rest of Halesowen Municipal Borough. Wolverhampton had no more changes to its boundary, but Walsall took over the Urban District of Aldridge-Brownhills, which had been formed when the Urban Districts of Aldridge and Brownhills merged in 1966.
In addition to the historic Black Country towns and districts taken over by Wolverhampton, the Borough also became responsible for the Urban District of Tettenhall in 1966. Tettenhall is a historic semi-rural South Staffordshire village and was largely rural until the mid-twentieth century. When it was announced that Wolverhampton would be taking over the Urban District, it was noted by Mills and Williams (1998, p.7) that “Tettenhall's argument for staying out of Wolverhampton was that ‘naturally and historically’ it formed no part of the Black Country... [it] had grown up as a village community with a history as long as that of Wolverhampton.”
The Aldridge and Brownhills areas also did not constitute part of the historic Black Country. Both towns grew as mining villages on the Cannock Chase Coalfield to the north and east of the Bentley Fault and the pits were sunk much later, as also happened in Cannock and its surrounding villages. In the 1920s Aldridge and Brownhills and the other communities within the districts still had no connection with the Black Country, Hughes, in The Story of Staffordshire (1924) including them a section on the Cannock Chase mining area, stating “Brownhills, Walsall Wood and Aldridge are some of the most important of the many colliery villages of Cannock Chase” (Hughes, 1924, p.317). In the same paragraph, Hughes refers to the other villages of the Cannock Chase Coalfield. It is also worth noting that while the whole of Aldridge Urban District remained within the Aldridge-Brownhills boundary after the merger, not all of Brownhills Urban District was actually included in the new government unit.
The Urban District of Brownhills also included the mining villages of Walsall Wood and Shelfield in its south as well as the villages of Clayhanger and Catshill located closer to Brownhills town centre. While the areas of Brownhills West and New Town on the A5 appear to be the far northern edge of the conurbation, the Urban District of Brownhills, itself formed from a number of parishes in the late nineteenth century, also included large portions of countryside bordering on the village of Cheslyn Hay. In addition, the mining village of Norton Canes was located in its north-west. The Urban District’s northern boundary was close to the Cannock district of Heath Hayes and Norton Canes was different in character to the other communities within the Urban District, being much like the surrounding villages of Chasetown and Burntwood and generally the other Cannock Chase mining villages north of the A5. Arguably, when Norton Canes was taken over by Cannock in 1966, this was a more logical boundary change. However, Norton Pool, also known as Cannock Chase Reservoir to the east of Norton Canes, which was renamed Chasewater by Brownhills Urban District Council, remained in the new Aldridge-Brownhills Urban District and was within Walsall's boundaries from 1974 until finally being handed to Lichfield in 1995, appearing rather incongruous on 1980s maps of Walsall Metropolitan Borough.
Although Aldridge was a mining village or small town, with coal mining also occurring in the villages of Pelsall and Rushall in the west of the Urban District, there were a number of rural areas within Aldridge's boundaries. In the present day, these green areas remain, including areas to the south of central Aldridge. The 744-foot hill of Barr Beacon is located in this green area along with the former Great Barr Park – the location of the historic Great Barr Hall – to the south-west of Barr Beacon. In the far east of the Aldridge Urban District, close to the historic boundaries of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, was the village of Streetly. No coal mining was carried out in Streetly, which was only developed as a residential area in the twentieth century and Streetly is in fact often perceived as an area of Sutton Coldfield due to its close proximity to Sutton Park and as well as districts of the town. Streetly also has a Sutton Coldfield postcode, while most of the former Urban District of Aldridge has Walsall as its post town.
The southern edges of the former Urban District include parts of Great Barr which border northern districts of Birmingham and like Streetly were developed for housing in the twentieth century. However, the residential area of Pheasey on the south-eastern edge of the former Urban District – and the present day Metropolitan Borough of Walsall – is unique in that it was developed to re-house people from Birmingham. Due to no available land within Birmingham's boundaries, it was agreed by Aldridge Urban District Council, once Pheasey Farm was sold in the mid-1930s, that a new estate would be developed on the farm's site. Hammond (1994, p.7) noted that the properties “were to be let almost entirely to people from Birmingham.” As a result, Pheasey is often thought to be Birmingham, also having a B43 postcode, along with the other areas of Great Barr within Walsall and Sandwell Metropolitan Boroughs.
The government changes and the creation of the West Midlands Metropolitan County undoubtedly led to differences in the way the Black Country was perceived. During the 1970s and 1980s, the decline of the Black Country's traditional industries was also a key factor in the way the region became defined. In 1987, the Black Country’s name officially came into use when the Black Country Development Corporation was formed. This organisation was responsible for urban development in the Metropolitan Boroughs of Walsall and Sandwell, but not Dudley or Wolverhampton. However, in the 1990s the region’s name came into further use when a tree planting scheme known as The Black Country Urban Forest was launched, which resulted in extensive planting across all four boroughs. At the end of the 1990s, The Black Country Consortium was launched, an organisation which enables business and economic growth across the whole of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. Another organisation that officially features the Black Country's name is the Black Country Chamber of Commerce while since 2007, The Black Country Urban Park has carried out a transformation of the region's landscape, including projects run by the Wildlife Trust, and has worked extensively on improving areas around the region’s canals as well as other green areas within all four local authorities.
In 2009, the name of the Black Country was finally added to Ordnance Survey maps. As well as the region being referred to on map covers, the Black Country name is displayed across a section of the map from Lower Gornal to Great Bridge on the Tipton-West Bromwich border. Notably, the name is shown as stretching across districts that could be described as the true Black Country, close to the “heart” of the region at Dudley. Since the Black Country name came into official use, however, not only has the region been perceived as all four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, but it is also marketed in this way. This definition, as pointed out in the last paragraphs, is clearly historically inaccurate, but Skidmore (2003) comments on the way the historic boundaries of the Black Country, though of course the subject of much arguments themselves “have little relevance at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as the coal and iron industries have disappeared from the Black Country’s economic and social landscape” (Skidmore 2003, p.7). It is also important to note that while the four metropolitan authorities all have towns and villages of the Black Country within their borders, not all of the historic Black Country is within the modern definition. As pointed out earlier, Himley remains in South Staffordshire, along with the Gospel End and Baggeridge areas of Sedgley and the northern edges of Wednesfield. It is also clear that with the Black Country being defined as all four Metropolitan Boroughs, it is a way of regionally and nationally marketing the area and arguably defining the four authorities as “not Birmingham.”
The Black Country Flag was designed in 2012 following a competition where schoolchildren were required to come up with a design. The winning design, as referred to at the beginning of this paper, illustrates the importance of chain making in the region and the red and black sections symbolise the “black by day red by night” reference to the region's furnaces. The white area in the middle is designed in the shape of a glass cone, representing the glass industries in the south of the area. Since 2013, Black Country Day has been celebrated throughout the region, and July 14th was made the official date of Black Country day the following year. The rest of July is designated as Black Country Month, with events in most towns and villages of the region throughout the month. Notably, since Black Country Month started, the events are still centred on the “true” Black Country, with Tettenhall, Aldridge and Brownhills having no Black Country Day celebrations during July.
The Black Country continues to be promoted extensively in the twenty-first century and pride in the region’s history, heritage and culture undoubtedly will continue, as will arguments to exactly where its boundaries are located. This study has focused on the debates regarding the region’s borders and it can be concluded by examining varying definitions that the boundaries of the Black Country cannot be clearly defined, even though it is important to note that the present-day definition of the name does include certain areas that were never historically considered part of the area, by whatever historic definition. However, each one of the four Black Country authorities obviously contains towns and villages considered to be the “real” Black Country. Despite arguments about where the region begins and ends, the Black Country is now an area that is extensively promoted and one that undoubtedly contributed greatly to the expansion of British industry, a region of which residents are undoubtedly proud.
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Response from Nick Moss, author of ‘Ironopolis – standing up for Wolverhampton’
Once again, I see the proposal that Dudley was considered the ‘traditional’ Capital of the Black Country, as suggested in the otherwise excellent appraisal of 'the boundaries of the region' by Matt Mills This increasingly seems to thrown in to the mix by most historians, who have not really studied whether it was actually true. There seems to be an awkward reluctance to look at 1800s history, and to acknowledge that the 'original Black Country' wasn't considered to even include Dudley. This was the critical period when the Black Country evolved, when it really existed, and hence naturally too when the name emerged.
As the author of ''Ironopolis - Standing Up For Wolverhampton”, let me stress, that I actually agree that Dudley perhaps should have been given this status, if awarded meritoriously, and of course it is centrally-located within the region. And I think I would be lynched if I went to a pub in Dudley and suggested that any other place was the traditional Capital or Metropolis. I also fully acknowledge that the great majority of the public today consider Dudley as the modern Capital. But, I would ask whether we are happy to continue to ignore the unpopular but evidential truth about the widely-considered, original Capital? This is not a subjective, merit-based discussion, it is historic fact.
Having researched 1800s documents for over three years, I too was somewhat surprised to find that Wolverhampton was indeed widely and unequivocally considered its ‘traditional’ Capital, with around 90% of hundreds of references referring to Wolverhampton as the Capital or Metropolis, involving both local and national sources, with a just a small number alternatively considering Dudley, Walsall, or West Bromwich as the Capital. Wolverhampton was referred to as such in 1800s books, in Staffordshire gazetteers, by local people of importance, and too frequently to mention in press articles.
I have my own theory as to why Wolverhampton was widely considered the Capital of the 'original Black Country', and not Dudley. Remember, the region people today consider to be the Black Country was split over two counties, but the name ‘Black Country’ was originally given only to ‘the iron and coal district of South Staffordshire’, and the description was originally closely tied to exactly that geographical county and its towns running from Wolverhampton through to West Bromwich, not the Worcestershire section that included Dudley. County status was very important to people back then. Essentially, Worcestershire-lying Dudley couldn’t claim Capital status of an industrial iron and coal producing region that primarily lay in an adjoining one, Staffordshire. Wolverhampton was clearly the primary industrial town of South Staffordshire at that time, and hence was considered its Capital or Metropolis by virtually everyone from the evolution of the term 'Black Country' in the 1830-40s through to the late-1930s at least. Since the 1970s, we are all living within the unifying West Midlands, making such a merit-based re-appraisal easier, but factually incorrect. So it is ok for people to consider Dudley its 'modern Capital', but it is factually incorrect to say it was its 'original Capital'.
This 'County-issue' for Dudley was even highlighted by the editor of the 'Dudley Chronicle' on 7 June 1913, and he confirmed this widely-established train of thought when he wrote:- "Some correspondence has taken place this week as to which town is the 'Capital of the Black Country'. The honour is claimed for Wolverhampton, but a writer has now also claimed it for Dudley. I don't think there will be too much quarrelling in Dudley. As a matter of fact, Dudley is by no means 'Black Country', although surrounded by it. Dudley too, is in Worcestershire while the generic term 'Black Country' has, I always understood, been taken to mean the iron and coal-producing fields of South Staffordshire. Dudley can afford to let that honour pass."
This original 'South Staffordshire-only Black Country' view was also confirmed by then local-writer and headmaster at a North Worcestershire elementary school Charles Allen, who wrote the following on 4 March 1905: - "Used in a general sense, the term Black Country includes the whole of South Staffordshire, with adjacent parts of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, although the name was 'originally' given to South Staffordshire alone."
One also has to remember that back then, Wolverhampton was an incredibly smoky and industrial town. Tettenhall and Penn were separate, rural villages and there were no sprawling housing estates to the north. Back in 1840, when the region was first called the 'Black Country', and contrary to popular opinion, it was actually the thin seam mining district and not the thick seam district that most damaged the environment, as the 'Morning Chronicle' reporter highlighted in 1850: -"The appearance of the land around Wolverhampton, Willenhall, Bilston, where the thin seams principally lie, is strange in the extreme. For miles and miles, the eye ranges over wide-spreading masses of black rubbish, and hills on hills of shale, and masking, as it were, the whole face of nature". Then in 1860, author Walter White viewed the area from Dudley Castle, remarking: - "Smoke prevails, rolling and drifting, blackest over the clusters of furnaces. Only on the west and south-west was there cleanliness. There lies Netherton, a place of heavy work. Wolverhampton is visible to the north-east and thereabouts the smoke is densest. If you look at Wolverhampton, you see a great deal of dusky roofs, of sluggish smoke, and tall chimneys, so numerous that to call them a forest is hardly a figure of speech." Charles Darwin even compared the black lava beach of a Pacific island to the 'iron furnaces of Wolverhampton' (not 'iron furnaces near Wolverhampton' as has been corrupted subsequently).
So back then, it was the area running between Wolverhampton and West Bromwich that was considered as the 'original Black Country', as the area around Brierley Hill and Netherton lay on the rolling Rowley Hills, which though still heavily-industrial, was noted to be not so adversely affected by the lingering industrial smog as in the shallow, low-lying bowl in the South Staffordshire section running between Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
In summary, I can accept that public opinion today places Dudley as the ‘Modern Capital’, but it is totally wrong to consider it as the ‘traditional Capital’. I am sorry, but that is a total misrepresentation of Black Country history yet it is still readily accepted, and it is as fabricated a notion as the 1960s theory that the Black Country was traditionally solely
defined by the thick coal seam. That was clearly not the case back in the defining-1800s.
I must challenge such views when I see them because they are evidently and factually incorrect, I would go as far as saying that they are views created non-contemporaneously, sometimes to suit an agenda. The truth is everything, however unpopular it is. Only in recent years have we been able to readily access 1800s newspapers and books for example, creating a new window of discovery for researchers, into popular views of past-times, which tell a different version or school of thought regards the origins of Black Country, than is widely-believed and eagerly accepted today.
Dudley was clearly 'not' widely-considered the traditional ‘Capital of the Black Country', and the environmentally-damaged thin seam district with its adjacent rich iron-ore seams and numerous iron works around Wolverhampton, Willenhall, Bilston was considered as the classic original Black Country environment because of its uniquely damaged landscape and excessively-smoky atmosphere. I appreciate everything is centred around Dudley today, but it concerns me greatly that Black Country history is in effect being re-written and misrepresented simply because it reflects popular, relatively-modern 1960s-onwards opinion.