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.

Between Birmingham and West Bromwich lay the country district of Handsworth Heath. This area known as Soho gets its name, so it is said, from this being the cry of the hunters as they rode over the open fields and waste-land then characteristic of Handsworth.

Between Walsall and Wednesbury, a belt of waste-land known as the Pleck, a word meaning 'waste’, divided the manufacturing towns from the coal and iron mining area. To the north, heathland lay beyond Bilston, separating it from Wolverhampton; the modern names Stow Heath and Monmoor Green today indicate where this belt of land was situated.

We have the picture, then, of three busy manufacturing towns on the edge of the plateau divided from the mineral producing region by belts of open country. It is this mineral producing region that should rightly be known as the Black Country, and no other area. It is possible to speak of this as a specific region because the nature of the coalfield in South Staffordshire did produce close and compact development.

To the south and west, the field is limited by faults running approximately from north to south. Only in the later nineteenth century were investigations for coal beyond these faults attempted. To the north, a line of faults known as the Bentley Faults running roughly from east to west divide the coalfield from the deeper. thinner seams found in the Cannock Chase area. Only in the south is the field not clearly defined; here the seams peter out around Halesowen. The faults in the east, north and west concentrate development of the coalfield within a very closely defined area, and this is rightly the Black Country. In this region until comparatively recently, the exploration of the rich coal seams with their associate deposits of iron, clay and limestone, provided employment for the majority of the inhabitants.

On the coalfield itself, we must distinguish between two types of development. The earliest mining was naturally located in those areas where the seams lay at a very shallow level. This 'outcrop' coal, as it is called, was found particularly in Wednesbury, Darlaston, Willcnhall, Bilston, Coseley, Tipton. Dudley. Brierley Hill and the and adjacent villages. In these centres the early development of the Black Country was most noticeable. The coal also lay at a greater depth, 'concealed', in three other areas, West Bromwich, Smethwick and Oldbury. Here development came somewhat later and lasted a little longer than elsewhere.

These towns, originally small villages and hamlets, on the exposed and concealed coalfield, form the Black Country as it should be defined.

The isolation of the region in medieval times had already laid the basis for the development of a strongly conservative, inward looking culture on the plateau. The industrial revolution did not seriously change this.

Mining communities are always close-knit, introspective groups, and those of the Black Country were no exception. The development of the region was also slow enough to prevent a sudden influx of immigrants who could radically alter the traditions of the area; the only outside element to come into the Black Country in any quantity was the Irish. Their arrival caused considerable disturbance, but does not seem to have seriously affected the culture of the Black Country.

As a prosperous region, compared to many others, the Black Country was also able to retain much of its population which then contributed to stabilise the customs and traditions of the area. All these factors tended to produce a tightly knit community, inward looking and with peculiar customs associated often with the distant past.

The ending of the dominance of mineral production in the Black Country, the ease of obtaining transport and the spread of housing beyond the boundaries set by the old coalfield has inevitably blurred many of the distinctions noted above between the area and its adjacent regions. However, it would be easy to ignore the effect of this long history on the people of the Black Country. As a prosperous, rich area, the Black Country still retains its population and its stability. The traditions of the past cannot easily be dropped in the space of a few years. Although the character of the region has changed and is still changing rapidly, the sense of belonging to a distinct local community is very strong today.

We can still speak of the Black Country as that area lying on the southern part of the South Staffordshire coalfield, although its boundaries today are not so clearly defined and its activities no longer base themselves on the exploitation of its mineral wealth.

J.M.F.

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