What is the Black Country? (Volume 1.1, 1967) by Dr. John Fletcher

The very first edition of the Blackcountryman magazine proved so popular it had to be reprinted in February 1968. The subject of the President’s lead article still generates earnest debate even today over 50 years later!

Perhaps no area has suffered more misrepresentation than the Black Country. Local people are constantly being annoyed by the fatuous and puerile knowledge of the area shown by national figures and by the national press. The depth was reached by one famous Sunday newspaper which recently spoke of activities in Wednesbury, then headed a photograph which illustrated this particular article with a caption speaking of the town as being in the Potteries!

To many southerners, the Black Country seems to be a term that is used to describe all of this country north of Stratford-upon-Avon. To others, probably avid readers of Arnold Bennett's novels, the Black Country will be for ever associated with the area around Stoke-on-Trent. There is really no excuse for this attitude. The borders of the Black Country can be clearly defined, although a true 'Black Country mon' might say that he carries the characteristics of the area with him everywhere.

Historically, the West Midland plateau has not played a significant part in the development of this country until recent times. At the lime of the Norman Conquest, Domesday Book shows the plateau as being sparsely populated and economically insignificant. The position remained essentially unaltered during the whole of the medieval period. No major river ran through the area, and at the time when traffic and trade was concentrated on the natural waterways, this meant that the plateau was isolated from developments in the rest of the country.

No major Roman road passed through the region. Activity, therefore, tended to bypass the Midland plateau and concentrate on the river valleys to the north, south and west, or in the booming manufacturing town of Coventry. This situation was changed only when the building of canals opened the plateau to influence from the outside.

The development of the region during the early industrial revolution laid down in outline the boundaries of the region we know as the Black Country. Contemporary writers were careful to differentiate between two types of activity they observed to be appearing on the plateau. In the first place, they saw the towns of Walsall, Wolverhampton and especially Birmingham appearing as large manufacturing centres with also a commercial element in their population. The central part of the plateau supplied the raw materials, coal and iron, that were used in these large towns. Of course, some manufacturing was also carried out in this central area, but the distinction is on the whole a valid one.

The three towns were themselves also separated from the mineral producing areas by very definite belts of open country or waste-land.