One of the primary objectives of The Wolverhampton Society is to promote the work of local authors and historians. As part of this, we co-sponsor the annual History Symposium held at the City Archives and we also showcase their work in other ways. In this first installment on our new website, author Nick Moss discusses that most contentious of subjects, “defining the Black Country” and how it inspired him to write a book on the subject.
Wolverhampton’s Place in “The Black Country”
When it comes to Wolverhampton and the question of its place within the Black Country, I’ve always felt that you can divide the opinions of Wolverhampton people into two distinct groups – firstly a group predominantly originating from its relatively prosperous but expansive western suburbs, who are justifiably proud to highlight the town’s wonderful Victorian features, but who often tend to distance themselves from a Black Country past. Secondly, you have a down-to-earth working-class from the rest of the city who are largely unaware of their ancestors contribution to the Black Country, and hence unsure of their sense of belonging to it.
Ok, I know that almost sounds condescending, and of course every person is very different, but there is some truth to this simplistic analogy. Its just a perception. And of course, by and large people believe what they were taught at school and by their own parents, and hence have concrete mind-sets.
How I Began My Research
In undertaking my research, I set out with no agenda; like many I had no idea that Wolverhampton had a substantial mining legacy all of its own, even when excluding Bilston. I also believed that the Black Country was geographically defined by the existence of the thick coal seam, a stance actively drummed-home by the Black Country Society for many years (and a stance proudly declared on their website). In fairness, before my book was published, they allowed me a four-page article within their quarterly publication ‘The Black Countryman‘ explaining why 19th-Century Wolverhampton was a very different beast to the one any of us grew up in. This was one with a distinct Black Country heritage, even if back then it was a tale of two cities (as I proposed in my introductory paragraph), like it is today.
These days, the notion and the economy of the Black Country has evolved. Does it really still exist? The Black Country Living Museum is a wonderful recreation, albeit again with a Dudley emphasis. But people’s interpretations have been shaped significantly. I could write all day, but in relation to Wolverhampton’s place within the Black Country, it might be easier if I simply highlight a few key points that my research unearthed, that might be of some interest.
My research opened my eyes very widely to the fact that when the Black Country was first referred to as such around 1830-40, it was perceived as a slightly different geographical entity to that proposed throughout the past 50-plus years, chiefly by the Dudley-based Black Country Society and its hard-working bunch of promoters, who nevertheless were often keen to eradicate Wolverhampton from its legacy (along with some of the town’s own politicians and population).
The ‘original Black Country’ name was used to describe the South Staffordshire section only, around 1830-40, i.e. Wolverhampton, Bilston, Willenhall, Darlaston, Tipton, Wednesbury, and West Bromwich. How ironic that Dudley (then lying in a Worcestershire enclave) was not even considered part of the original Black Country. Though it has to be also said, that by 1850, the term Black Country incorporated the Worcestershire section as well.
Interlinked to the above, perhaps because Dudley lay in this Worcestershire enclave, Wolverhampton was widely considered the Capital or Metropolis of the Black Country from the inception of the term, until around the 1930s. County status was important to people back then, and I suspect that for that sole reason Dudley could not vie for Capital status of a region that primarily lay in an adjoining one. It was not until around 1938, that certain Wolverhampton politicians first suggested that Wolverhampton was “Of the Black Country but not in it”, which seems a sensible assessment to me, due to its position on the edge, with its polar-opposite environments. These days, the whole region lies within the West Midlands boundary, and Dudley is widely considered its Capital.
The Human Cost
For those that consider only Bilston to have a substantial mining legacy in Wolverhampton, let me tell you that in 1840 the town had more miners than any other Black Country town except Bilston, and its highly-prized iron-ore was critical to the growing iron industry. Much of the thick seam in large parts of the Black Country was only suitable for domestic household use, and therefore arguably had less relevance to the Industrial Revolution than is sometimes inferred.
The richest seams of iron-ore were found next to the thin seam between Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Willenhall, and it is little-known that the thin seam miners endured tougher working conditions and worse pay than their Dudley thick seam compatriots. It is also little known that between 400-600 miners died in Wolverhampton coal mine incidents throughout the 1800s, and probably the same again in Bilston. Ironically, it was the shallow thin-seam coalfield between Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Willenhall which was described as ‘miles and miles of black rubbish’, rather than the district containing the thick coal seam. Yes, believe it or not, Wolverhampton did have a substantial mining legacy, with around 70 collieries involving 5000 miners.
The Industrial Revolution
Wolverhampton was also considered to be the ‘Capital of the Iron Trade in the Black Country’ during the Industrial Revolution, according to Bilston-born Iron Industry expert Samuel Griffiths, and there were over 250 iron works containing blast furnaces, puddling furnaces, and rolling mills. Its central and eastern side contained a forest of chimneys, and hence several observers noticed that when viewing the industrial smog all across the Black Country from the elevated position of Dudley Castle, the worst smog consistently lay over Wolverhampton and Bilston. It was this dramatic evolving environmental process involving the establishment of the iron industry that coincided with the initial usage of the term “Black Country” around 1830-40, not some fanciful and contrived theory that it was named after the mining of the thick coal seam that had in fact first happened centuries earlier.
Of course the whole view was grim back in the mid-1800s, but it was this smoky doomsday smog created by the iron industry that created a dramatically-leafless environment, as well as the honey-combed landscape created by worn-out and productive shallow mines. Once you accept that it was the iron industry smog rather than the existence of the thick coal seam that led to the region being called the Black Country, you can see that geographically its boundaries change slightly.
Slums and Squalor
Wolverhampton’s artisans including children experienced dreadful living and working conditions, amongst the worst in the Country. There is a routinely-peddled misconception that workers in the central villages of the Black Country did all the hard work, but this was not the case. Children in the town generally worked from the age of 8, in the mines and in the foundries, or as apprentices to screw-makers and locksmiths. They lived in appalling slums such as Carribee Island, where an average of ten people lived in ramshackle dwellings containing a single room just six-foot square, and without sanitation. The town’s appalling slum housing was repeatedly highlighted by concerned reporters, and Government investigators even found seven people in one bed and others sleeping underneath!
The landmark 1843 ‘Hansard Report’ on the “Living and Working conditions of the Poor” following investigations the length and breadth of the Country over two years, highlighted Wolverhampton as the neighbourhood that required most attention within the entire Country.
Children in the town were described as ‘wretchedly-thin and resembling the shape of a grasshopper with blade-bones jutting out’. The report solemnly concluded “Many of these poor children are so oppressed by the circumstances in which they are placed, that they are even sunk below the consciousness of the misery of their condition”. The average age of death of Wolverhampton people in 1850 was just nineteen years and one month. There was a lot of suffering and terrible hardship in our town during the Industrial Revolution, as there was elsewhere of course. But it was the contribution of these poor suffering people that ultimately made this town great. Where there is muck there is brass of course.
My Finished Research
These are some of the details discussed and revealed in my book. People may be sceptical, I understand people believe what they may have been taught about the Black Country, but I would counter that by highlighting that newspaper archives and books from the critical Industrial Revolution of the mid 1800s were difficult or impossible to easily access until recent times. They reveal an accurate and very revealing picture of the prevalent view of the era. ‘Black Country Wolverhampton’ during the Industrial Revolution was an entirely different entity to the pre-industrial period, and also a different beast to the town experienced during the lifetime of any people alive today. When the Black Country first evolved back in the 1830s, it was an incredibly dirty and smoky industrial town with a reliance on coal and iron.
My years of researching newspaper archives and books from the Industrial Revolution period between 1800 – 1880 culminated in my book ‘Ironopolis – Standing Up For Wolverhampton – Correctly Defining the Original Black Country – an analytical, evidence-based approach‘.
“Ironopolis” was the nickname given to the town by the Manchester-press reporting Queen Victoria’s infamous 1866 visit.
A Final Thought
Finally, without wishing to say “I told you so”, I find it interesting that the Black Country Society has produced a totally new and revamped website in recent months. There is now no reference to the Black Country being defined by the thick coal seam, instead as I concluded it my work, it was quite evidently so-named because of the industrial smog created by the iron industry. Wolverhampton was clearly a part of the ‘original Black Country’ and its original Capital.
‘Ironopolis’ contains the views of numerous sources, and it also looks in considerable detail at the iron and coal industry in the town, as well as the associated hardship and social conditions. I’m glad that the Black Country Society have changed their definition, as its aligns with the conclusions of the book, and perhaps gives it additional credibility.
Nick’s book is available at Waterstone’s in Wolverhampton, or via the Amazon link below (opens in a new tab).