The Black Country flag and the uses of history (again)


Harold Piffard’s illustration of Cradley Heath chainmakers from 1896, accompanying Robert Sherard’s articles.

In 1897, Robert Sherard published a collection of his Pearson’s Magazine articles documenting the exploitation and suffering of the working men and women of Britain in some of the ‘sweated’ trades – he visited chemical works in Widnes, white-lead works in Newcastle, nailmakers in Bromsgrove, chainmakers in Cradley Heath, and more. The title, The White Slaves of England, has become a classic of the Victorian social commentary genre. The Cradley Heath chapter closed the book: whilst Sherard was musing on a Goethe quote, of all things

“before my spiritual eyes there passed the pale procession of the White Slaves of England, I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant, instinctive yet laborious – an anvil and hammer ever descending – all vague, and in a mist as yet untinged with red, a spectacle so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering, for my part, what in these things is right.

The title grabbed attention of course: a legal slave trade (at least in the Caribbean) was still in the living memory of some when this was published – it was only in 1833 that the trade was banned anywhere under British rule. “White slaves” – Britain’s industrial might and democratic freedoms were supposed to be the envy of the world, yet here were the free working people – free to choose to whom they would sell their labour – forced into brutal, degrading work for a pitiful remuneration. They hadn’t been forced from their homes, or manacled together for a trans-continental journey which many would survive, or sold off, or shackled and put to work… but their suffering and their economic trap was still awful.


1770 Sketchley’s Trade Directory of Wolverhampton [Wolverhampton Archives]

This weekend saw the now-annual controversy over the Black Country flag erupt. I’ll get this out of the way: I like the flag, it’s a great design, and it’s been massively successful. But. As all historians know, It’s More Complicated Than That. Eleanor Smith, the West Midlands’ first black MP and in Enoch Powell’s old seat, no less, raised similar concerns to those of Patrick Vernon two years ago: that a celebratory image foregrounding chains is difficult for those whose forefathers were taken from Africa in chains. More than that, as maybe the world’s foremost metalworking region during the high peak of the transatlantic slave trade, chains from the Black Country certainly bound those poor individuals.


Black Country MPs on Friday [Birmingham Mail]

In fact, as Vernon points out, there is direct evidence: in 1767, Henry Waldram of Brickkiln Lane, Wolverhampton, was a “lock maker, horse screw, men’s leg & Negro collar, thumb’s screw, and hand cuff manufacturer”; in 1805, the metal goods merchant John Shaw (from Penn, in Smith’s constituency) used his convenient position at the heart of England’s new canal network to ship “African chains” and “negro collars” to the slaving ports of Bristol and Liverpool.[1] UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project shows how deep the roots run: the Molineuxs of Wolverhampton, the Adams’ of Walsall, the Ansons of Bentley Hall, even the Lords Ward of Dudley all owned slaves in the Caribbean and had connections within the vast financial apparatus that grew up around the trade. The UCL project is important as it shows just how insidious this trade was: owners were compensated on abolition, and this money – blood money – went into their investments: railways, mining, metalworking…

As always, it’s essential to critique the reporting of this. The Express & Star is known colloquially as the Express & Stir – it has a reputation for seeking out controversy that extends at least back to its close links with Powell in the 1960s. It has a pecuniary interest in getting attention, of course. The original article make sure to point out that Ms Smith is from Birmingham; that others (MPs, mostly) have commented on her misunderstanding; that it was designed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Stourbridge; that it represents historically-important industries; that UKIP thinks this is PC Gone Mad; and that it’s a flag – it can’t possibly be racist. These are all themes taken up in the lengthy comments section, on Twitter and Facebook – just as they were when Vernon published his critique.


Eleanor Smith is from Birmingham – an out-of-towner. The implication most seem to have drawn is that she either doesn’t know the industries the flag is representing, or is ignoring them (see swathes of comments calling her stupid, ignorant, idiot, moron, pea-sized brain and so on). To many people, the flag is a straightforward representation of “black by day, red by night” featuring two specific industries, glass and chain. But of course we don’t get to dictate what something represents to someone else. Symbols and histories are re-appropriated all the time – the Nazi’s use of the ancient Eastern swastika is only the most obvious example. Now, to me, the swastika represents something completely different to what it represented to an ancient Mesopotamian or a 19th century Buddhist. If you weren’t from the Black Country and didn’t know that chains were made here, what might you think if you saw a flag with chains on?


Smith and Vernon are offended by the chains on the flag, because chains like those forged in the Black Country were used to shackle their ancestors. I have no right whatsoever to deny them that offence, and neither do any of the legions of commenters. The assumption for many has been that in calling for the flag to be done differently, Ms Smith is denying the region’s proud working history, and I think that boils down to the same basic offence: that the sufferings and hard work of our ancestors are being denigrated. To quote Smith though: “I have absolutely nothing against the chainmakers. They were working people making money like working people do.” And this is the crux of it: whether your ancestors were black Africans enslaved against their will, or white Staffordians, bound by economic shackles, they were victims of a system that inherently exploited lives across the globe. This is not to equate one with the other. Chainmakers were not beaten, raped, shackled together, killed for minor infractions, or otherwise denied their humanity as part of their existence.


Capt. Wilkes Unett, part of a slave-owning family from Willenhall [source]

As we saw above, the global slave trade thrust its tendrils into the entirety of British economic and cultural life. Those that benefited from it were the rich, the investors who gambled their money with the Royal Africa Company or South Sea Company. And note the names: before the British Empire as we think of it, Britain’s imperial work was done by state-sanctioned private enterprise, for profit – they were content to make money from the exploitation of black bodies, trading them as though they were cattle or goods. To quote Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” The same forces were demanding trade goods, guns, shackles, chains, nails and so on from the Black Country and elsewhere, to be traded in Africa and to manage the trade of human lives. This required workers in the Black Country to make the items, and how does anyone make a profit? By selling as high as they can, and keeping costs – including labour – as low as they can. By the mid-18th century, villages like Cradley Heath had developed industrial specialisms and practices of working which bound communities to that specialism in horrendous conditions. People were paid a pittance – just enough to keep alive, and certainly not enough to have the privilege we have today of choosing our job. To coin a phrase, there is more in common between these sets of slavery than divides them.


The problem with the flag is that it is just a symbol. Nobody is blaming the young girl who designed it, and to be honest, it’s a bit devious to suggest that’s what’s going on. For a start, chainmaking is everywhere around here, from the Titanic’s chains and anchors in Netherton to the demonstrations at BCLM to the mosaics on the bridges on Dudley bypass. It also went through several stages of design and selection, including flag masterclasses, selection to a shortlist by various notables, and a public vote. But the fact remains that it’s a flag with chains on – the only people that benefited out of any sort of chains in the Black Country were the wealthy capitalists who exploited the working class here and who financed the slave trade. If we truly wanted to celebrate the Black Country’s working-class heritage, perhaps something that didn’t celebrate oppression of any kind would suit better.


Public history is a complex beast, and I’m only starting to come to terms with the complexities of it. All those engaged with this have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders to ensure it’s done right. Part of this means telling the stories that are uncomfortable, or that challenge our accepted understanding, because often these are just wrong. History as I was taught it in school was mostly about kings, politicians, and white men fighting wars against white men. Because it focused on those stories which sat comfortably in the worldview of previous generations, it ignored half the world’s population completely (the women (with the exception of Victoria)); it ignored the vast histories of those people who didn’t come into contact with Britain; it ignored the realities of those who suffered as a result of brutality, greed and power-grabbing by Britain. I would have guessed that Britain had been 100% white at every point up until 1948; of course that was not true, and even less true than you probably think. So this generation have a responsibility to put particular effort into retelling those stories that have been downtrodden and ignored, for parity if nothing else – to quote Stuart Hall, we need to “revise own self-conceptions and rewrite the margins into the centre, the outside into the inside.” If we can do that, we can begin to understand that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but fits within


Wolverhampton and slavery:

More on Wolverhampton and slavery:

Legacies of British Slave-ownership:

Hall, Stuart. “Whose Heritage? Unsettling ‘The Heritage’, Re-Imagining the Post-National.” In The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of “Race,” edited by Jo Littler and Roshi Naidoo, 23–35. Psychology Press, 2005.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Perigee Books, 1980)

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Pragmatism not idealism


keeping in contact with old friends

It was twenty years ago today, went one of the contenders for greatest album ever. It was twenty years ago today since I and my friend Nathan made the eager after-school trip to MVC in the Brooks Centre in Winchester to buy Radiohead’s brand new album, OK Computer. It was a sunny day, and we took our purchases to the Abbey Grounds to look through the booklet, read the lyrics, admire the artwork, while we both waited for our buses to take us off to our separate, far-flung villages. We were 15 (perhaps Nathan was 14) and just at that age when music becomes the most important thing you can imagine. We’d played our tapes of Different Class and The Great Escape to death, we’d moved from What’s The Story (Morning Glory) through Cast, Sleeper, and everything else Steve Lamacq recommended on the Evening Session, and finally graduated to The Bends. That’s still a nearly perfect album. It soars and swirls, and fills your headphones with jarring dissonance and melancholy, all at once, like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was astounded by the voice of what I thought was the female singer, before learning about Thom Yorke and trotting off to get my hair cut accordingly like his (it wasn’t even close). When Lamacq trailed ‘Paranoid Android’ it was a proper did-you-hear-that at school the next day.

fond but not in love

I didn’t even have a CD player at the time. I had to listen to OK Computer on our new computer (just bought – a whole gigabyte of hard drive!), but did so rapt. It was instantly – and through thick and thin, probably still is – the greatest album I’d ever heard. I’m old enough to pick holes in it now, but they’re all technicalities and don’t matter; it plays in my heart as much as my ears. It is still the benchmark that I measure myself against – if I forget how old I am (not as far-fetched as I’d like to think), I remember that I was 15 in 1997, therefore…

an empowered and informed member of society

I was old enough to follow what was going on in 1997. This was just six weeks after a monumental general election: Tony Blair swept out the old and brought in the new, which, as I understood it, included Brian Cox, Noel Gallagher, and Peter Mandelson. I’m old enough now to understand that what was swept out and what was kept wasn’t quite as dramatic as it seemed at the time. The “third way” seemed bright and new, certainly more exciting than the old grey men the Tories wheeled out. Blair retained an economic formula which privileged money-making at the top end, but his twist was to use the benefit to introduce a swathe of very Labour social programmes. This is fine, so far as it went, but I think, I think, that it’s the heart of some of our modern malaise. I don’t mean any sweeping accusations of Blairites and blue Labour and all that here; I think it’s something Radiohead inadvertently captured on OK Computer.

comfortable not drinking too much

You could call this album new psychedelia, or bedsit prog, or in Paul Morley’s somewhat splenetic review, you could even call it “electric wind.” It doesn’t really matter. You can dig for themes and come up with transport obsessions, suicidal nihilism, it doesn’t really matter. Like all of Radiohead’s albums (at least since their first) it is what it is to you, the listener; non-prescriptive and oblique, as easy to interpret as its collage artwork. For me, now, it probably says something different to what it said 20 years ago. It speaks to my resigned pessimism, my apathy with the modern world; perhaps, to tie it into my research, my critique of everyday life.

concerned but powerless

Tesco Stourbridge (

When I was 15, “Fitter Happier” was a kind of novelty to break up the two halves of the record. The older I get (older now than Thom Yorke when he made the album) the more I see that its centrality is not accidental. It’s a near-musique concrète of modern life, with all its mundanities and absurdities, its “regular exercise at the gym three days a week,” its “baby smiling in back seat sleeping well no bad dreams no paranoia,” its “Sunday ring road supermarket.” “Fitter happier” is what happens, or what is supposed to happen when we get old. We’re supposed to grow out of zombie films and appreciate the simple charms of a rom-com. We’re supposed to have babies and talk about them over lattes. We’re supposed to go to the gym, because modern life is too busy (at least full up) with work, travel, preparing dinner in our fitted kitchen, bed, work again, to exercise in any other way (and besides we’re still supposed to look right). We’re supposed to vote with “pragmatism not idealism” because idealism just leads to disappointment; much better to take a middle way, a third way between the old alternatives, if you like.

tyres that grip in the wet

If OK Computer is about anything to me, it’s that: it’s about the aliens looking down at “all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits.” This is the expectation of modern life that Lefebvre critiqued throughout his work, and which was taken to the next level by his students, particularly Guy Debord and those who ruled the streets for a few moments in May 1968. I think the band captured a process about to become institutionalised. Aspiration in life was a wonderful thing, a centrepiece of New Labour thinking, but aspiration to what? Perhaps the representative objects of the last twenty years are those things which have conglomerated into the bland third way: where once a coffee shop might have been bad or it might have been great, now there are Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero, and you can pretend there’s a difference between them but in reality you know what you’re going to get – mediocre but safe, risk-free. Choice is between whether you like your carpets blue or green, not choice. The same applies everywhere – we all trundle off on a Sunday to our ring road supermarket now, perhaps trailing through that archetypal architecture of the early 21st century, the steel-framed barns of an edge-of-town shopping village. Choice? Sure! Choice between Halfords, Toys’r’us, Carpetright, PC World, Homebase…

will not cry in public

I don’t know if last week’s election is going to change this. It was certainly a choice – there were genuine alternatives on the table between voting for the status quo or risking a new world. I don’t imagine it will change the risk-averse consumer that has become the basic economic unit of this country, not immediately anyway. Perhaps we need the moments of festival that Lefebvre and then the Situationists proposed; clanging differences that pull us out of an endless cycle into mundanity. Perhaps we need to look higher, and more angrily. Perhaps (HT here) we need to think big: in the week of a human tragedy created by a government which favours the bland dominance of the rich, we need to echo the words of “No Surprises,” to bring down the government, they don’t speak for us. 

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Josephine Butler and spaces of reform in Winchester


Canon Street, Winchester, in the 1880s (City of Winchester Trust)

There ought to be a word for the mixture of thrill and dread that comes with hearing someone talk about your home town on the radio or TV. Coming from Winchester, it’s usually dread that someone in red cords is suggesting feeding the poor to their rare-breed pheasants or something. In fact (of course) the town is, just like any other, divided and misrepresented. One of the advantages of growing up in a outward-facing church environment is that you see much more of a place than the Kirstie Allsops and Best-Place-To-Live Guides will show you – the homelessness, the peripheral estates, the lonely people.

Reading about your home town in a history book is a far less nervous moment, but still a little thrilling. This weekend I’ve been reading Judith Walkowitz’s wonderful City of Dreadful Delight, which recounts the shifting representation of women and sexual danger in late Victorian London. One of the recurring figures is Josephine Butler – pioneering feminist, campaigner and reformer. Walkowitz first finds her in 1850’s Oxford, disgusted at the uncritical misogyny she was surrounded with, bringing “fallen women” in the town into her home – particularly those who had been misused by a callous male population. After a few years in Cheltenham, she and her clergyman husband George moved to Liverpool where she continued to seek out the unfortunate. Here we see her collaborative nature: she worked with a Quaker named Mrs Cropper who ran a ‘family home’ and she soon opened an ‘industrial home’ in an envelope factory.

Josephine Butler moves to Winchester


Josephine Butler (Women’s Library@LSE/ Josephine Butler Society)

Butler is probably most associated with her work campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which instructed police to stop women suspected of prostitution (almost always the poor, because of course the police would never presume that prostitutes looked like the middle or upper classes) and not only interrogate them but gynaecologically inspect them. These were brutal, degrading experiences, and it was Butler’s relentless campaigning which led the way to their repeal in the mid-1880s.

By this time, the Butlers were resident in Winchester – George had become a Canon of the Cathedral in 1882, and they moved to 9, The Close. Before I moved out, my pocket money came from washing up at the Cathedral’s cafe/restaurant. The clergy were lovely; the Canon in particular would waft by in his sumptuous robes and greet everyone. The Close is now a largely administrative area, but that didn’t prevent many, many noisy trips across the cobbles with a metal trolley, usually back and forth to the Deanery carting coffee and cakes for some function (in fact, I can distinctly recall on one of these trips finding out about 9/11 for the first time, but that’s another matter). Number 9 was an office of some sort – it never occurred to me to think about the people that had lived there and worked there. But live there they did, and Josephine brought her characteristic drive to her time there.

Hamilton House


Hamilton House, situated on the corner of Canon Street and Culver Road – the picture is from an estate agent’s advertisement, in which the ground floor apartment is to let for an eye-watering £1495pcm (Belgarum)

In 1883, Butler opened a “house of rest” in Canon Street. This was close by the Cathedral, but also – in a barracks town – an area associated with prostitution and therefore under the full gaze of the state through the Contagious Diseases Acts. Hamilton House (64, Canon Street) had been built by the Duke of Hamilton to qualify his son for a place at Winchester College (catchment areas are not a new concern, clearly). When Butler, and her secretary Amelie Humbert, moved to the area they set it up as a ‘Faith Hospital’ for women who were “friendless, betrayed and ruined, judged for one reason or another not quite suitable for other homes or refuges.” George preached there informally every Sunday, and in its first year (existing entirely on subscriptions and donations – testament, perhaps, to Butler’s tenacity and passion for her subject) helped over 40 women.

Rebecca Jarrett and the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’
Josephine Butler’s campaigning took many forms, but always centred on giving women’s voices centre stage. The role of Hamilton House can perhaps best be demonstrated through another of Walkowitz’s recurring cast, Rebecca Jarrett. The 1880s proved a busy decade for Butler: her campaigns led to the suspension of the CD Acts in 1883 and their repeal in 1886, helped in large part by the newspaper scandal of the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. The Pall Mall Gazette, led by editor W.T. Stead, made a series of scandalous allegations against the rich and powerful men of London, describing a trade in which young girls were professionally ‘procured’ for as little as £5, their virginity inspected and certified, and their deflowering sold off to wealthy men. Stead went the whole hog, arranging such a transaction himself, ostensibly purchasing the virginity of the 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong from the slums of Marylebone. Supported by his friend Butler, the outrage and shock caused by the affair led to a spell in prison for Stead, a dramatic court case in which the details of the Armstrong family were obsessively interrogated and reported. One of the star witnesses was the ‘reformed procuress’ Jarrett.

Rebecca Jarrett was a former prostitute and brothel-keeper who had been found and ‘converted’ from her ways by the Salvation Army. She had been sent to Hamilton House by Bramwell Booth. She missed the two ladies receiving her at the station and had to ask strangers for directions to the “faith healing cottage” in Canon Street. She was thrilled with her reception though – she was given supper and prayed for, and she soon became a close friend of Josephine Butler. So much so, in fact, that Butler entrusted Jarrett with the running of a new venture: Hope Cottage at Bar End, High Cliff, Winchester.

Hope Cottage


George Frederick Prosser, Looking towards Morested Downs from Bar End, Winchester; Cheesehil St, Winton, 1876-1881

Hope Cottage was a short-lived affair. Dedicated on 30th January 1885, it had to wrap up when Butler and Jarrett became embroiled in the scandals surrounding the “Maiden Tribute”. I haven’t been able to locate the exact site of Hope Cottage – the brevity of its use means that it’s not recorded on a map or census. Bar End now is the very edge of Winchester, our route in from Owslebury, passing “High Cliff” (we knew it as the Highcliffe council estate) the Bird In Hand (now knocked down and replaced by a solicitors) and assorted rows of small terraces. In 1885, I think it was probably a leafy, semi-rural district – very different from Whitechapel and Marylebone – and Hope Cottage “a nice large house” in Jarrett’s words. It wasn’t the last either – Butler opened a further “cottage home” in 1887, although I’m not sure exactly where this one was. These homes impressed – “Charlotte Murray prayed that God would grant ‘many similar Houses would be opened in the garrison towns of England'” after her visit (quote from Robinson).

The Close and Mary Sumner


Winchester in 1897. The Close is a walled area opposite the college, accessed via the Cathedral grounds or via Kingsgate, on top of which sits St Swithun’s Church. The Butler’s lived at number 9, the Sumners at number 1. Abutting this rarefied atmosphere was the much bawdier Canon Street – number 64 was taken over by Butler for her hostel. Bar End is somewhat further away (although still a pleasant walk), sat right at the edge of the city(© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. 1897

The Cathedral Close is an enclosed little grotto in the heart of one of the oldest parts of town, and no doubt relationships would have been close not just amongst the clergy, but their family too. Close friendships were formed, and Josephine Butler would doubtless have been glad to find a friend in Mary Sumner whose faith and ideals aligned with hers. Sumner’s husband Charles was Archdeacon and they lived at 1, The Close. Sumner’s career was perhaps less radical than Butler’s, but her foundation – the Mother’s Union – went on to have a huge global impact. Hers was a busy 1885 as well – this was the year when the Union jumped from its local origins in Charles’ former parish of Old Alresford (another childhood haunt – good paddling in the river) to a broader appeal following an address by Sumner to the Portsmouth Church Congress. Both Sumner and Butler were charismatic public speakers and internationalists – Sumner expanded the MU into the Empire during the early 20th century, and Butler spent the rest of the 1880s campaigning on behalf of Indian prostitutes.

Spaces of reform
All of this was news to me, which says something about either the stifling of an important part of women’s history, or my own lack of motivation at that age. Either way, Josephine Butler’s eight years in Winchester (she moved to Wimbledon in 1890 following her husband’s death) came at a crucial time in a long and illustrious life. Her operations were by no means limited to London. She was heavily involved with Stead’s work in London, and travelled the country with her campaigns. But she was certainly one to make the most of her situation: she wasted no time setting up Hamilton House and the other homes, and integrated them straight into her existing networks of support and help. They weren’t reformatories or hospitals as we usually think of Victorian institutions: Butler’s sympathy for her inmates was genuine and progressive and not – in fact, this is exactly what she set herself to campaign against – founded on the principle of fault. For most of her contemporaries, prostitutes were ‘unfortunate’ or ‘fallen’ or simply wicked or idle; for Butler they were women, situated in a patriarchal social and economic system that was based on institutional misogyny.

Social worlds often abut in dramatic fashion, and this is no exception. The high walls of the Close and the gated entry gave – and still give – the Close a rarefied, peaceful atmosphere, helped in no small measure by just how difficult it is to get a car down those small streets. Canon Street though, was – for want of a better description – the red light district, and the particular gaze of the authorities on this area was probably well justified by the proximity of the barracks, just to the West of the map above. These proximities are key to understanding the modern city, but were perhaps even more stark in Victorian England. Here were the highest of the upper classes, and the lowest of low, in adjacent streets. Butler took on this socio-spatial divide directly, building her work within the walls of the Close, reaching outside, and even spreading to the edge of the countryside. For the residents of her homes too, Winchester was a different world to Whitechapel or Marylebone – smaller, more rural and perhaps even more divided on a local scale. Butler took on that scale too, bridging two worlds and in doing so, bringing women from the edges of civilisation to the heart of it. I’d like to think Winchester, and the little world she built around the Close, Canon Street, and Bar End, played a part in a feminist process that’s still ongoing.

Jordan, J. and I. Sharp, Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns: Diseases of the Body Politic, 2003
Robinson, J. Divine Healing: The Formative Years: 1830-1890
Walkowitz, J.R. City of Dreadful Delight, 1992
Walkowitz, J.R. ‘Butler , Josephine Elizabeth (1828–1906)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 5 June 2017]
Winchester Cathedral, Josephine Butler: 19th Century Campaigner Against Human Trafficking [, accessed 5 June 2017]

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Distance and Strangeness: the murder of Anne Spencer

I sometimes feel like I’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out my place within history. I still feel like there’s probably a huge mountain of scholarship that I’ve completely missed, but in general I’m starting to work out what historiography is (I’m not a historian by background – everyone else just calls it ‘the literature’ or something, it’s only history that has managed to historicise it. Imagine finding your place within the geographography) and what the big debates I need to place myself amongst (and against) are.

In my case, one of the major recent works is James Vernon’s Distant Strangers (2014, University of California Press). Vernon was a speaker at the last MBS conference and was a somewhat confrontational, but definitely thought-provoking, presence. This is not a book review (other than to say 150 pages is a great length) but there’s some really interesting points made. Vernon’s thesis is fairly straightforward: modernity has become a vastly complex concept within history but for him, its apotheosis is that when we became ‘modern’ we became a society of strangers. Vastly higher numbers of people and much greater mobility drove economic, political and cultural changes from the late 18th century more potently than technological change, the imposition of capitalism, or anything like that. By the 20th century we were a society characterised by an abstracted form of government, economy and culture that cannot possibly hope to treat people as individuals with a set of relationships anymore: we are strangers.

It’s pretty persuasive. The whole idea reminds me of names from my geography days: Georg Simmel on alienation and anomie; Ferdinand Tonnies on gemeinschaft and gesellschaft; even back to Adam Smith and Marx on the impact of capitalism on our social worlds. In historiographical mood, I like where this sits in relation to historians like Patrick Joyce, Tom Crook, Chris Otter, Mary Poovey, etc., although I think they would tend to argue that governmentality was enacted more purposefully than accidentally. Myself, I’d argue for a greater focus on the spatial, cultural and psychological effects of urbanisation (I guess my BAVS blog sits in here somewhere).

Complicating the narrative

I’m currently going through my thousands of newspaper clippings to immerse myself in the perceived world of the Stafford Street area of Wolverhampton. These are key sources for me, if highly partial and potentially only reflective of the values of the newspapers themselves. I’m reading them for the information behind the stories – who lived in this area, what were they doing there. Crime stories are useful for this; there’s often an abundance detail to pick through about my neighbourhood and its residents. I came across the murder of Anne Spencer in December 1824, and I think it shows what I mean[1]. Thomas Powell (c.1793-1825), “a young man of florid complexion and mean appearance” was charged with murdering the elderly lady “by striking her upon the right temple with a hammer, and under the left ear, with a pitchfork” and stealing clothes. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by Mr Justice Littledale the following year.

The murder of Anne Spencer

Gorse house

Gorse-house aka Gorse-cottage, at the crossroads of Moseley Road, Bognop Road and Cannock Road – the home of the Spencers in 1824 © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2017. All rights reserved. 1888

The Gorse-house, where the Spencers lived, was described by Anne’s husband Edward as a “very bad neighbourhood,” and they had been robbed before. (For reference, this was roughly at the island near Tarmac, just off the M54). This was a very rural area, and it’s hardly a surprise that many of the witnesses called from the area knew all of the others. Wolverhampton was evidently the market town – John Stubbs had been there and was heading back home along Stafford Street when he met two strangers carrying a bundle of clothes. But Mary Nichols knew them. She lived in Canal Street and was drinking at the Leathern Bottle on 22nd December. By this time, she says, Powell was alone and carrying the clothes when she looked out of the window at half past three. She recognised him as a fellow-patron of the Leathern Bottle, where he would often come to play cards.


The Eastern end of Canal Street, probably in the 1870s. This is all underneath the Chubb building and ring road now. The Leathern Bottle can be seen in this row, about halfway down with a lantern outside. In 1824, the roadway would have been the same level as the passage outside the houses – when the road was levelled up to improve traffic flow, this passage became known as The Hole or The Hollow [Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies]

Mary Harding also knew Powell. She lived in Carribee Island at the time, and Powell came to her home between 6 and 7pm with some clothes for her to mend (the court had established he had pawned the stolen items). His left hand was covered in blood (“he was subject to bleeding at the nose” and this was the reason given on that night) and his request for water shows something of the character of the house: Harding had none. He washed it in potato water instead, dried himself off and stated his intentions: off to the Leathern Bottle for a card game.

Harding was not alone in the house, and other statements corroborated hers: Anne Richards was there, and Sarah Purshouse. Harding no longer lived in Carribee Island by the time of the trial: she was “now kept by a young man” but had to stipulate that she “never was intimate with the prisoner.” The implication of the line of questioning is clear: someone living in such a place must have been prone to immorality (poverty being closely related in the public eye at this time), and the presence of two other young women: well!

Assistant Constable John Sparrow enters court now. He was helping PC Diggory who was leading the investigation, and had searched a “house of ill fame” near Darlington Street that same evening. He had seen a “wild” looking Powell in bed with one Ann Griffiths there, but as the murder investigation was not yet underway, had not made any link. He had been living at the Wheat Sheaf, they discovered and anyway couldn’t have been murdering anyone – he was at the Three Crowns on Dudley Street from 12 to 1 on that day. Sparrow walked to the Spencer’s house to test out the theory – it took 55 minutes. Mrs Spencer had been seen alive at 2pm on the day, so it was certainly feasible to get there in time…

Three Crowsn

The Three Crowns, Dudley Street, here in 1886. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2017. All rights reserved 1886

Mary Spilsbury, landlady at the Three Crowns, knew Powell too. He had been employed there as a brewer, and was seen by her the morning of the murder, then later, at around 4pm. At that point he turned up asking whether she’d heard of the murder, where it was, how long it would take a man to get there, and so on. Mrs Spilsbury had heard wrong, but gave an interesting answer anyway: that the site was 6-7 miles away, but a man could do it in just over an hour. That’s about twice as fast as I usually walk, although this possibly says more about me… Jane Lansdale – Mary Spilsbury’s niece – had seen him then too. Another pub gets a look in too, as an alibi – William Edwards (aka “Codsall Will”) was accused by the prisoner of handing him the clothes, but he had been with Charles Leeke. They had gone first to the coal pits (perhaps to look for work) then to the Minerva, just outside town, then to the Spread Eagle on Cock Street (that’s about where Beatties is now).

Spread Eagle

The Spread Eagle, here in 1886. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2017. All rights reserved 1886

For his part, Powell denied everything, alleging a personal vendetta by PC Diggory who had, he claimed, been caught in an act of impropriety by Powell for which this was revenge. It cut little mustard with the judge or jury.

Thomas Powell and the distance of strangers

A prosecutor looks for witnesses that can corroborate her or his case, and it’s no surprise that several people here knew the accused. Nevertheless, we can trace networks of employment, of leisure (both on the right and wrong sides of law and contemporary morality), of credit, and of sociability just by looking at Thomas Powell’s day around Wolverhampton. He had acquaintances like Mary Nichols who knew him from the pub, and Ann Griffiths from the brothel. Mary Harding he knew perhaps as a seamstress, perhaps as something more (a Terry Pratchett fan would be able to make the obvious link here). He had worked as a brewer, but I wonder if at other times he’d wandered the coal pits with William Edwards looking for employment.

James Vernon’s thesis of a society of strangers is a compelling one, and there’s much in this story to suggest that as the world was growing and cities becoming, things were getting ‘stranger’. Powell wasn’t recognised out at Gorse Cottage, or by the pawnbroker in Darlington Street, and the connections between other witnesses were tenuous at best. But this shows another side to the modernity of strangers: that networks and relationships of various qualities and depths were still at the heart of everyday life in the 19th century; as they remain.

I think Vernon would take his own thesis as a starting point rather than a grand meta-narrative. As this (and, I suspect, a lot more of my research) shows, ‘distance’ and ‘strangeness’ were fluid. People knew each other on different levels: some not at all, some by sight, some as employers, some as friends, some as clients, some as lovers. Teasing those relationships apart and thus representing the everyday world of the ‘ordinary people’ is a vital exercise. It challenges the abstraction that undoubtedly was a characteristic of modern governance; and it puts back into history the life worlds of those that are otherwise seen as alienated victims of modernity.

[1] The Times, 17th March 1825; Staffordshire Advertiser, 19th March 1825

Posted in Black Country, Everyday Life, History, Maps, PhD, Sources, Space, Staffordshire, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Telling family stories


The residents of 15 Coles Croft according to the 1851 census

As part of my research I will inevitably have to tell you some family histories. I say have to – it’s a vital, fascinating and relevant part of my research. But have you ever had someone try to tell you their family history? I’m guilty of this, because my own family history is really interesting – to me. To others, it’s a bit, well, listy. This is one of the challenges of writing family history: it’s often a bit boring to read. I’d like to note the honourable exception here: John Herson’s new book Divergent Paths (and blog) is a really excellent study of family life among the Irish of Stafford – his stories are contextualised, clear, interesting and entirely relevant, so it certainly can be done.

I’m going to try it from a slightly different angle. I’m surrounded by a mass of individual data, looking for needles amongst the demographic haystack, and there’s often not a lot to tell. Inspired by the ethoses behind Storying The Past, the Modern British Studies group at UoB, and an interest in the value and importance of ordinary lives that are central to history from below, I’m sure there are ways of doing making even the sparsest tale worthwhile so forgive me if I treat you as guinea pigs for a while – I’d like to try out some different ways of telling family stories and these are very amateurish attempts, with no pretence to literary value. Perhaps other networks and connections will make themselves known over time. I really hope so…

Oral history: Michael Grany, 24th December 1878
Me: This is an interview with Michael Grany of Wolverhampton, on Christmas Eve 1878. Michael lives in Wolverhampton now but was born in Ireland in 1818. Michael, tell me what you can remember about your upbringing.


Kilbeggan, show in the OSI Mapviewer 25″ historical view (1897-1913) (c) Ordnance Survey Ireland

MG: Well, I was born in the township of Kilbeggan, in County Westmeath. My parents were called Martin and Elizabeth, and they baptised me there at St James’s. It’s just a small place, or it was at least, but it had a market and a church and everything. Times were hard, you know, we had not much to eat really and when the potatoes didn’t grow, we really went hungry. I worked mostly on my father’s plot, growing what we were going to eat. When we couldn’t grow enough to eat, which happened more often than we’d have liked, we had to go tramping for work. My brothers went spalpeening, we called it, they travelled around for work during the harvest. I myself was luckier, the Public Works man found me a job digging the canal in Kilbeggan, so I didn’t have to go far away. But that didn’t last, it was almost finished when I started. I looked for more work, I tried at the distillery even, but they wouldn’t take me on.

Me: Tell me about your family.

MG: I married Margaret in about 1837, I think it was. We were only young, I must have been 18 then and she just 16, but that was pretty normal around there. We had Bridget first, then Sally, well her name was Sarah really but we called her Sally, then Mary. Mary was born not long before we came over you know, when the potatoes failed again. That was a real bad time. I know lots of places had it worse than us, I know of people just over in Roscommon that had it much worse, but still, we just couldn’t make ends meet, you know? It’s a long time ago now.

Me: what happened?

MG: Well, we couldn’t eat. So we had no choice. We weren’t kicked off or anything, but we decided to sell what we could, which wasn’t much, and take our chances. We walked all the way to Sligo, can you believe that? That was one of the ports that we heard would take people over to America or England, and we just got on the first boat we could. I still don’t know if we made the right choice; we passed many people who were in a much worse state than us but couldn’t afford to get out.

Margaret and the girls came with me, of course, this must have been 1848 or something – truth be told, I can’t recall it exactly. Thank God we came through alive and well, no fever or anything, and came to Liverpool. Well, that was just too much. It’s too big for me, so many people in these huge buildings. We’re just country people, you know. So we headed off, not sure where to go, and ended up here, just following the crowd!

Me: what do you remember of Wolverhampton then?

MG: it wasn’t as big as Liverpool, that’s for sure! But it was still so different to what we were used to. We didn’t have much of a house or anything, that’s for sure, but at least it was in the fresh air, with the bogs and the fields around. Here it was all straight streets of houses all joined together, with factories behind: we had never seen so many chimney stacks, and the smoke! The air was black. Well, it’s not much better now is it. I remember walking down Stafford Street, past the tollgate, and the smell hit you – the wind picked up and we could smell the soot and coal from the chimneys, the stink from the manure works, and that rotten sort of smell you get when you cross the canal. We were amazed though – in the middle of all of that, we carried on down Stafford Street and began to hear Irish voices. There was even a pub called the Hibernia, that’s still there. I couldn’t read the sign, but I know it now.

Me: tell me about your home.

MG: we stayed in lodgings for a little while, then found a house to rent in Coles Croft. We stayed there for a long time, even though it wasn’t up to much – it must have been only 10 foot square, right at the end of the street. You could cut around the back to Stafford Street or Canal Street, or climb over into Carribee Island. They’re going to knock the whole street down, did you hear that? About time I think. Those privies must have been here as long as the town, and not emptied since then neither.

Coles Croft 1871

Coles Croft (incorrectly described here as Carribee Island) in 1871 (C) Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies. The star marks Michael Grany’s house.

We didn’t have much of course, and that was true for a long time. I did work where I could get it: on building sites and in factories, but it was only ever just enough to make the rent. The best job I had was in the mines, that lasted for a little while. But it was a long way each day, not like back home; it was two or three miles each way, you couldn’t just walk out onto your plot. That Mr Brassington used to come around to collect the rent, he was nice enough, but you got short shrift if you had no money, you know. If you didn’t pay up, you were out on your ear. To be honest, I think he took pity on us. We had Patrick not long after we arrived, and I think he felt sorry for us with a baby. A babby, they call it round here. We weren’t the only family in there either, even though it was just two rooms. I remember Daniel Reenan and his lot, Darby Whealon and his boy, the Connors. They all came and went. I remember when the census man came around the first time, he couldn’t believe it. If I remember right, there were 17 of us in there, can you believe that? He asked us what we did for our occupations, but we didn’t really know what to say. I was only pretty new really, I said I’m an agricultural man myself, and everyone else agreed. I think he put that for everyone in the house. Probably the street as well – everyone in Coles Croft was in the same state. They’d have to be – they wouldn’t choose to live there if they didn’t have to, I shouldn’t think.

Coles Croft pic

Coles Croft in the 1880s, during demolition (c) Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies

It was so dirty, you know. Compared to our little house in Ireland it was awful. And don’t think they ever bothered about how we were doing down there, you know, the council or the landlord or whoever, except when they came and telt us we were dirty and we had to clean up. I remember one year the water pump broke down and we had to walk and walk to get something to drink, because everywhere nearby was dry. It was so hot, and there were Margaret and the girls all tramping over to Horse Fair to carry pails of water back with them. It’s no wonder everyone kept getting ill, is it? I remember old Ben Riley on our street. All six his children came down with the scarlet fever at once, poor things, I forget how many lived but it wasn’t many.

Me: did you have any more children?

MG: ar, I did, Thomas. He’s the one getting married on Boxing Day, up at St Patrick’s. They only built that about ten years ago. Before that, we went to mass up in the main church behind the Corn Exchange, but everyone found it a bit strange – the Irish and the English aren’t very much alike when it comes to the church. No, Thomas is getting married to a lovely English girl from just over the road, Betsy. I’m so proud of him really. Betsy’s father makes locks and keys, he lives over in Canal Street. A good job that! He won’t tell me how they met, I don’t think she’s from the Church or anything so maybe he just met her around. They’re only round the corner. Thomas, he works at a foundry – he’s really got himself established here. He doesn’t remember Ireland of course, nor Patrick, and even the girls hardly now. I think perhaps if one of the girls had married an Englishman I’d have been quite sad, because then they’d never have got to go home, back to Kilbeggan I mean. But Thomas, well, it doesn’t mean the same to him. I’d have loved to go back, but now that Margaret has been taken from me, I don’t think I shall ever go. We’ve better lives here than we had there though, there’s no point going back to that.

[This is, of course, mostly fictitious. The details are real, they come from censuses and the like, the filler from what is known about the Irish migrant experience. This isn’t thesis-worthy, either, it’s just a thought experiment. But imagining an oral history is an interesting way of going about it. In real life, I suspect Michael could have told me so much more detail that I couldn’t possibly guess. The records are scant, particularly as his surname seems to spelt differently in every single census, certificate and reference, so that it’s proved tricky tracing the rest of the Graneys. There’s some interesting work to do on them though: Thomas Graney married Betsy Collins, an English girl from round the corner, and theirs would have been the story of the experience of slum clearance: they lived at various times on Canal Street and Short Street, and had children of their own who moved out to newer accommodation on the edge of town. Perhaps my next interview should be Sara, Thomas’s daughter…]

Posted in Black Country, History, Irish, Maps, Migration, PhD, Sources, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

St Patrick’s Day, 1873


Revellers at Birmingham’s St Patrick Day parade last weekend [Birmingham Mail]

Today is, of course, St Patrick’s Day, and no doubt pubs across the country will be celebrating this typically alcohol-soaked celebration with a wide range of inflatable shamrocks, green top hats, and “kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirts. I tend to think of this bonanza of tat being a fairly modern affair, but a quick search through the many newspaper clippings I’ve accumulated over the course of my research soon puts me wrong.

Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair’s book also points to the antiquities of some of the traditions associated with St Patrick’s Day. Thomas Dineley noted an array in 1681: Celtic crosses, green ribbons in hats, shamrocks pinned to clothes and so much drink that “few of the zealous are found sober at night.” So these traditions were certainly pre-Famine, but pre-dated too the growth in Irish emigration of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I had imagined that such material celebrations were the product of diaspora, an assertion of Irishness in foreign lands. But Cronin and Adair argue that “the majority of Irish people, based as they were in rural areas, experienced St Patrick’s Day as a local and family event dominated by their faith and rural occupations.

Wolverhampton, 1873

There were certain differences that came with a different milieu though, and an example from Wolverhampton is a quick study. In 1873, The Irishman included reports from all over Britain about the various St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and noted that “St Patrick’s Day was celebrated with more than the usual enthusiasm on this anniversary of Ireland’s national festival by the Irishmen of Wolverhampton.”[1]


Michael Hogan [source]

Celebrations drew on many traditions: a case of Limerick shamrocks had been provided by “the Bard of Thomond”, Michael Hogan (though quite what Hogan’s connection with the town was, I don’t know). The local Home Rule Association distributed these liberally, and by the morning of St Patrick’s Day, these were to be seen adorning coats and hats. Many of the gentlemen (no women are mentioned except to be toasted) wore a green, streamered rosette.

The Association held a dinner at The Vine, at the corner of Canal and Stafford Streets (where today’s Hogshead is – you can still see some of the salvaged ceramics even though the building is not the same) that evening. Being in a poorer part of the town – in fact, at the edge of the famous Carribee Island which forms my main research – this was a heavily Irish area still in 1873. Nevertheless, the dinner sounds spectacular, which is interesting in itself – were the poor Irish part of the celebrations? Or were the town’s Irish middle class more key to understanding the local Irish political organisation?


The pub was decorated throughout with evergreens, with shamrocks weaving in and out of national mottoes on the walls. “Pendant festoons” hung from the ceilings and chandeliers, and at one end, the words “Home Rule” had been constructed from laurel to surround a massive shamrock. At the other end, a “God Save Ireland” banner was displayed. After dinner, speeches began. John J. Egan was in the chair – it’s not obvious from census records who this is: the main suspect is John Egan, born in Ireland but living in Littles Lane in 1881. The vice-chair was John Hand: my guess is that this was the Irish-born publican of the Old Clog Inn on Canal Street.


The tone of the evening was jubilant, but very much entrenched in nationalist, home-rule politics. Letters were read from several local priests (including Father Hall, priest of St Patrick’s, Littles Lane) and Isaac Butt MP, “whose name received rapturous applause.” Butt was MP for Limerick, previously a supporter of the Fenians and now founder of the Irish Home Government Association, a more polite separatist movement. Egan’s speech then praised the tenacity of the Irish people through “persecution and suffering,” and hoped that soon the Irish people could say that their country was “great, glorious and free, first flower of the earth and first gem of the sea” (the words are Thomas Moore‘s). The response was led by Michael Kelly junior – this is another difficult to pin down because of the commonness of the name: there were two in my study area alone. William Bickley, on the other hand, I think I can narrow down to the plasterer living at St Mary’s Terrace – adjacent to the church, this was a fairly modern, smart-ish row of houses, and William’s neighbours included policemen, commercial travellers and railwaymen. His speech “advised his countrymen to organize, organize, and work in harmony under every adversity until their country had occupied its proud position amongst the nations of the earth.”

St Pats 1873

Section from Steen & Blankey’s map of Wolverhampton, published 1873, showing some of the locations and people mentioned in this post

Bickley was echoing sentiments expressed by Hugh Heinrick just six months earlier, when he wrote his series of reports on the Irish in Britain for The Nation. In discussing Wolverhampton, he noted that despite the large number of Irish living here, their political influence had been weak. The diagnosis: a “want of a principle of unity, and an organisation based on that principle and “educated” up to the standard essential for united action at the call of patriotic duty.” This was on the increase, he was pleased to note: “the Home Rule Association of the town, which is large and growing larger, is well organised, under intelligent, active, and earnest administration.”[2]

A further response by Limerick-born James F Egan, a merchant’s clerk living in the smarter end of town, at Newhampton Road, praised Ireland’s patriots and martyrs in “appropriate and stirring” tones. John Hand followed, eloquently toasting the Irish in prison. John M’Conville, a brickie’s labourer living in a Stafford Street court toasted “success to the Home Government Association or Ireland, and the Irish Home Rule Confederation of England and Scotland.” John M’Ginty responded to the toast to “the Irish clergy of the town and district… God bless the soggarths” (this latter is the Irish word for priest). A visitor from Walsall, William Mannix, toasted the women of Ireland; John Molloy the national press of Ireland; James Newell and Mr Mullens (also from Walsall) the Wolverhampton branch of the Home Rule Confederation.


Songs interspersed the evening, including “St Patrick’s Day,” “The Exile of Erin,” “The Land that bore us,” “We shall have our own again,” “Our Ancient Faith,” and “The Voice and Pen.” Solos included “The harp that once through Tara’s halls” (sung by Mr Ganly), “The Memory of the Dead” (sung by Michael Kelly) and another sung by John Welsh. “The Exile of Erin” is of course the migrant’s song:

Oh! Erin, my country, though sad and forsaken,
In dreams I revisit thy sea-beaten shore;
But, alas! in a far foreign land I awaken,
And sigh for the friends that can meet me no more.


Thomas Davis [Wikimedia Commons]

“We shall have our own again” is also a song with a message – a ballad by Thomas Osborne Davis, founder of the Young Ireland movement: “Riches come from Nationhood – shan’t we have our own again?”

A good time was clearly had by all, but it was clear what the purpose of the gathering was. It’s not possible to infer from this what the St Patrick’s Day experience of the ordinary poor of Wolverhampton was – in the same way as the Irish rural poor celebrated through faith and family rather than at parties, the thousands of Irish living just behind The Vine  were certainly not all at this gathering. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to trace the networks of Irish political interest in the town, and to see that it was by no means an exclusively middle-class event. It’s also important to note that the Irish of Wolverhampton were clearly not a monolithic group of the poor or the working-class either – ethnicity is complicated by class, work, politics, gender and much else besides.

[1] The Irishman, 29th March 1873

[2] Heinrick, H. A Survey of the Irish in England, 1872 – edited by Alan O’Day

Posted in Irish, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Clay miles: Henry Doulton in the Black Country

2016-12-30 10.23.13

Broken water pipe near Iverley

On the North Worcestershire Path, not far from Iverley, there is a broken water pipe lying to one side of the track. It’s a bit forlorn, but clearly a very nice thing: it’s glazed, and the makers have taken the trouble to brand it: Doulton.

There are many industries that have a ready association with the Black Country, but ceramics aren’t an obvious one. We tend to think of North Staffordshire and the famous potteries of the Stoke region as the home of ceramics in the UK, and so they are, but that’s not to say we didn’t have our own contribution to the story around here. Royal Doulton were actually founded in London in 1815, but their reputation was cemented after a much later expansion to the Potteries. Well before that though, they’d established several locations in the Black Country, as H. Doulton & Co., specialising in sanitary earthenware.

Henry Doulton

Henry Doulton (1820-1897) was the mastermind behind the Doulton firm at this stage. He was born in Bridgnorth and helped in his father’s pottery concern in Lambeth, where Henry set up a pipe works in 1846. It was fortuitous perhaps: later on, Doulton’s sanitary ware became very popular among the mass builders of the late nineteenth century, the model dwellings companies. The Guiness Trust‘s Lambeth buildings were just over the way from Vauxhall Walk, where Doulton worked.

In 1847, Henry moved beyond London, expanding his business first to St. Helen’s then the following year into the Black Country. What do you look for when siting your manufacturing business? Somewhere you can get raw materials easily, for sure, but also where you can transport them safely to market. When roads were bumpy and trains still rudimentary, canals were still the best option for this – it’s no surprise that one of the big investors in the Trent & Mersey Canal through North Staffs was Josiah Wedgwood, producing delicate porcelain at Etruria. So Doulton chose a site with access to clay, a decent site to build his factory, and canal access: the banks of the Dudley No.2 Canal at Springfield, Rowley Regis.

Doulton at Rowley Regis


The Birmingham Pottery in 1884. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1884)

The Birmingham Pottery (I know – perhaps the Cockneys weren’t familiar with the niceties of Black Country cultural geography) is seen here in the 1880s. It’s a large site already. All the circular shapes are likely to be bottle kilns of the sort that you’ll still find at the Middleport Pottery in Burslem, where the BBC potters do their stuff. You’ll also notice the rectangular kilns at the brickworks opposite – kilns came in a wild variety of shapes and sizes. For fuel, there’s the choice of gas or coal processed nearby, and a canal basin for loading and unloading. Doulton was on the paternalistic end of the Victorian employer spectrum and built a huge works canteen to provide for his many Black Country workers. Edmund Gosse speculated that Black Country workers were different to the more convivial Londoners though, and had little thought for the various societies he set up, preferring to get home at the end of the day.


The Springfield Works c.1915 [Black Country Bugle]


Clay for the early works came from close by – probably the quarries at The Knowle, moved by inclined plane to the pottery works. As the plant grew, more was needed though, and this came from just a little farther at Saltwells. We’ve previously discussed this site as Dudley’s short-lived foray into the luxury spa market, but it was more successful for taking minerals out of the ground, rather than bathing in them. The earliest OS maps of the 1880s show the site as woods still, but we can figure out that by the end of the 19th century the woods were cleared, an inclined tramway installed to meet the Dudley No.2 Canal next to the Lodge Farm Reservoir, with a basin known as Doulton’s Basin, and the beginnings of the web of tram tracks that would feed the massive quarry’s clay back to Springfield.


Saltwells in 1939 – the clay pit is at the bottom of the picture, with the tramway meeting the Dudley No.2 Canal next to the reservoir. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1939)

The clay travelled just two miles, past Hartshorne’s Marine Works, Lloyd’s Proving House and the Netherton Works of N. Hingley & Sons (in fact, all these would eventually be part of the Hingley group); past the Withymoor Goods Station on the now disappeared Bumble Hole Line; across the new cut made when the Netherton Tunnel was built in 1858; past Cobbs Engine House and the abandoned pits of Warren’s Hall Colliery; to the works.


By the 1930s, the brick and tile works on the Western bank of the canal was labelled Pipe Works, and it may well have become part of the much-expanded Doulton site. Dog Lane had been renamed Doulton Road, and the site thrived. It wasn’t Doulton’s only site nearby either: in 1850, Henry Doulton opened up another stoneware/pipe works in Smethwick this time. It was situated on Northern bank of the old canal, designed by James Brindley in 1769, at the point where it runs directly parallel with Telford’s newer improvement. Almost opposite the entrance to the Engine Arm Aqueduct, it was tucked in between the District steelworks, and the Sandwell axle works. I’m presuming the Saltwells clay was sent to Smethwick too – it’s not all that far through the Netherton Tunnel.



Pipes amid the tramway tracks [Black Country Bugle]

What was made there? Tiling was a speciality, and that’s what makes me think the mapped tile works was something to with Doulton. Springfield made tiles for Harrods and the Russell Hotel in London, but its speciality was earthenware pipes by the many thousands. I would think it would be a good time to be in the latter business. In 1848, the hamlets of Rowley Regis were scattered and isolated, but never far from some of the most rapidly-expanding towns in the country. There are some inevitabilities that come with an increased population: houses will be overcrowded until more are built; social relations will change for good (not always the good); and lots and lots of filth will be created. No matter how hard the nightsoilmen worked (and in Wolverhampton, this often wasn’t as hard as they were paid for), they couldn’t clear the human waste from the privies, ash pits and middens of these new cities.

How many pipes does anyone really need?

Henry Doulton was clearly a man of foresight. As villages grew into towns, and towns into cities, they gained new political representation and new reforming energy. Providing clean water and somewhere for dirty water to go were high on the agenda. In London, it was Bazalgette’s famous sewer system that flushed out the Great Wen’s waste. In Wolverhampton, it was a bit more tentative, and sewers took time to put in place – despite repeated calls from at least the 1840s for a centralised sewerage system for the town, it wasn’t until the 1860s that anything was built.

Birmingham on the other hand was at the forefront of municipal leadership on this, as in many other areas. 1847 saw the first member of George Dawson’s congregation elected to the municipal borough council, itself only appointed 9 years earlier. Dawson was the originator of what was later called the “civic gospel” – a model of government which eventually saw Birmingham become “the best-governed city in the world.” As part of this, a sewer system was built in 1851 connecting all new houses (the older ones took a while longer) to the River Rea. And who was on hand with two convenient earthenware pipe factories? Why, Henry Doulton of course, just as his factories were convenient for the contemporaneous developments in London, Liverpool and Manchester.

Henry Doulton – genius?


Doulton’s factories were based across the country by 1946 [source]

Sir Henry Doulton: the man of business as a man of imagination

Later on, Henry would merge with his brothers’ firms and receive a royal warrant – their Art Ceramics department now at Stoke would of course become world-famous as Royal Doulton. The Smethwick site closed for good in 1919, but Rowley was still working until 1979. Doulton retained a foothold in the Black Country as we discovered recently, taking on the Webb Corbett glassworks at Amblecote, eventually leading to the modern development of Doulton Brook. Although best known for cups and saucers, to me Rowley demonstrates Henry Doulton’s genius more than his timing, putting himself in exactly the right place to catch the reforming spirit of the times.

Further reading

Posted in Birmingham, Black Country, Canal, History, industry, Public Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Righteous Among The Nations


Plaque at Mary Stevens Park, Stourbridge

I often walk the dog in Mary Stevens Park, in Stourbridge, and walk through the grand, now-restored gates. This morning though, it was a plaque on the wall to the right of the gates that caught my eye. There’s a tribute there to one Frank Foley, a Devonian by birth but one who died in Stourbridge in 1958 – he had retired to a house in Eveson Road after the war. So why the plaque?


Captain Frank Foley [Yad Vashem]

Captain Frank Foley, a World War One veteran, was stationed in Berlin from 1922 to 1939 as Passport Control Officer at the British Embassy (and less openly, head of the Berlin MI6 station). This was one of the wildest places and times in modern history, of course: the Weimar republic was in full swing but nearby in Russia, the Bolsheviks won their civil war and commenced purging; in Italy, Mussolini was appointed PM and fascist dictator; in Spain, Franco was beginning to make rumbles; in Britain and the US, the great depression was bringing old certainties to their knees; and everywhere, across the world, nerves were jangling in the aftermath of an unprecedented war and an unresolved larger situtation. As he was there he will have heard of Hitler’s Munich beerhall putsch in 1923, the demilitarisation of the Ruhr, the publication of Mein Kampf, the hopeful Kellogg-Brian pact, the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1932 (over Hitler), the appointment of Hitler as chancellor and the beginning of the Nazi state in Germany a year later. He would have seen the Reichstag Fire, the completion of Dachau, the Enabling Act, the Nuremburg Laws, the Berlin Olympics, the formation of the Gestapoand the SS, the Anschluss and the Kristallnacht and ultimately, the beginning of war.

While Foley was there though he broke every rule. He didn’t have diplomatic immunity in his position, but risked everything to issue visas – legally or sometimes not – to 10,000 Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms and state-led persecution of the Jews in Germany. Those in need of escape flocked to him (secretly of course) and he found them ways out of persecution. He went into concentration camps to get people out, and by the time of Kristallnacht, harboured Jews in his own home, including Leo Baeck, chairman of the Association of German Rabbis. When he was recalled, he left a thick wad of visas ready to be passed on.

Marc Bloch said that history never repeats itself – events always take place in a new environment. But the point of historians is that they can teach us trends and what to do, or not to do. We are not in Nazi Germany now, but we are in world where the Daily Mail’s headlines are not a million miles from their 1938 one berating the German Jews “pouring” into the country. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where religion has become mixed up with race, and a perception that a certain people are naturally wrong’uns is widespread (although not, I believe, in the majority). We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where a powerful, thin-skinned, controversial leader has swept to power in a blaze of racism, scapegoating and virulent nationalism. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where individuals are being targeted for discrimination based on the country of their birth and not on anything they’ve done. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where our leader has just flown to this leader’s country and praised him, and failed to condemn his actions, and is returning proclaiming the success of her visit. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, racist rhetoric has been stoked and stoked for political gain and newspaper sales.

Captain Frank Foley was recognised in 1999 by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, as one Righteous Among The Nations. I have no desire to be a hero – I’m a coward. When people say “if I was there in Germany,” I have to confess that I’d have been no Frank Foley. I’d have been the quiet non-dissenter, too scared to stick his head above the parapet. I don’t want that though, and I want to figure out what I can do to dissent, to stand up for what is right. I don’t know exactly how to do it. It feels a little like we’re at the beginning of something awful, and I don’t know how to proceed. I want to though. You?

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The desi dialectic

Recent blog posts have been a little sparse, and that’s mostly a function of learning to be a freelancer – sometimes, apparently, work comes in thick and fast and leaves little time for much else. However, it has it’s upsides: whether through teaching, writing, researching or anything else I’ve been getting a tremendous overview of history that applies very much to the Black Country, and that brings all sorts of unforeseen connections to my mind.


McGhee’s Bar on Wheeler’s Fold, Wolverhampton

One of the subjects that comes up time and again in my research on the Irish of Victorian Wolverhampton is pubs. The small area I’m studying contained around 35 of them, and probably a number more unlicensed premises and illegal breweries or distilleries. They were numerous on the main streets and acted as corner shops for the back streets, sources of contact, conversation, sociality. They were also interesting from the point of view of migration – pubs like the Hibernia, the Rose & Harp, the Shamrock, the Limerick, these were all targeted towards the Irish community. Right? As it turns out, it’s not so straightforward – the owners, licensees and tenants often differed significantly, so that it’s very difficult to tell who ran the pub for whom. Were these Irish-run pubs for Irish migrants? English-run pubs hoping to cash in on the lucrative market? Irish-run pubs offering Celtic cordiality to the Black Country locals? It can be hard to know.


O’Neill’s in Worcester [James Vincent]. Note the careful semiotics: vintage Guinness ads, Celtic typefaces, a recipe for Irish stew painted on the wall…

The Irish pub in England has a long history and is still a modern phenomenon. O’Neills run their chain across the country, and more or less authentic Irish-themed pubs can be found across the world. There was a spate, I seem to remember, alongside the change in British public opinion of the Irish; from the resentment of the Troubled 70s and 80s to the advent of Father Ted, Graham Norton etc. which made being Irish an attractive thing, rather than the opposite. And pubs are a sight of many such integrations (and capitalisations) – there are Russian vodka bars, penthouse cocktail bars, rock bars, indie bars, you name it.


The Vine in West Bromwich [Geograph]

My current obsession is a peculiarly Black Country phenomenon, the desi pub. These are found across the region but most commonly in Smethwick, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. It’s probably highly debatable which was the first, although The Vine on Roebuck Lane has a fair claim. It was a scruffy street corner boozer sat under the M5 (in fact, it still is from the outside) in the 1970s, at a time when many pubs were finding it hard going staying open. It was taken over by a Punjabi landlord and over the years has changed entirely: it is still a pub first and foremost, with snugs and a bar and everything; but proceed past the bar and you find yourself in a huge restaurant with an indoor barbeque, a covered garden restaurant and, by all accounts – some of the best grilled meat you could hope for.


The Red Lion, West Bromwich, by Aidan Thomson

This is a pattern found time and again across the area, whether in the Red Lion in West Brom, or the Red Cow in Smethwick, the New Soho Tavern in Hockley or the Talbot or the Sportsman or the Prince of Wales… The Black Country is a metalworking region. It has been for centuries. When labour was short after World War 2 it seemed eminently reasonable to search out those willing to work, particularly the hard, unskilled jobs in steel and iron foundries, the night shifts and the dangerous jobs. The shortage was met from all over the Commonwealth but particularly from the Sikh Punjab in Northern India.


One of the truly epic mixed grills from the Red Lion (via Smoke and Umami)

The hostility and resentment faced by these workers is well-known – if nothing else, the Smethwick election of 1964 has become a by-word for racist politics in a supposedly liberal country. But the workers survived. They worked hard and endured much; not a few found comfort and sustenance in the local pubs. Eventually, the desi pub emerged – run by Punjabi landlords but catering for a mixed clientele. The Vine is still packed of a lunchtime with factory workers, just as the Red Lion is busy every evening with diners and drinkers of every colour. It’s a testament to a genuine mixing of cultures to bring something new out. They are homegrown and relaxed, with no trace of imported multiculturalism or anything like that. I find them a very hopeful sign that actually, wonderful new things do grow out of immigration and the mixing up of different social groups. Plenty of ink could be spilt on the (very real) hardships faced by Indian workers in the 1960s, or the racist elements of the working class, or schemes to get people to integrate. But this is a joyful story for me, which perhaps suggests a solution to many of society’s problems: food and beer.

It’s also been interesting for me to compare my Irish pubs of 150 years earlier. Were they by the Irish or for the Irish or what? Or does the Indian migration to the Black Country bear more similarities to the Irish migration, with creative new culture being formed out of a seeming polar dialectic. There were those decrying the habits, the speech, the look of the Irish; and there were the Irish, struggling to get along in a place only barely of their choosing. In fact, did the town’s resulting culture grow from a new synthesis of these elements?

Read more

Creative Black Country recently celebrated the desi pub with a series of commissioned artworks, photography and film – it’s worth a look here.

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Black Country Irish: lies, damned lies and statistics


Blast Furnaces, Night by Edwin Butler Bayliss

We’ve had a quick look at some of the stories and statistics behind the Irish in the Black Country, particularly focusing on the census data for 1851. Data is an essential part of the story, but it is just a part. The historian can do loads with that, but it stops being interesting before too long: there were only so many posts I could write to say x number of Irish lived in y part of Black Country town. More interesting are the stories that go alongside them: the red-headed Kilcoigns of Stourbridge, the Hiberno-Liverpudlian anchormakers of Noah Hingley & Sons, a priest’s dramatic global vision, the family heritage of a music hall star. But I do want to sum up with an overall view of the Black Country as a place of immigration for the Irish.

I have to say that my limited GIS abilities are getting me down slightly, but it might also be to do with the available data, which varies from parish to census district to whatever. I was going to make a grand map of the Irish in each parish, and it’s not working for me, so I gave up. However. Suffice to say, the 1851 census shows the Black Country Irish immediately post-famine, and that this is famine emigration. The Irish-born population actually peaks in 1861, after which a sizeable community of different generations is found across the region. In 1851, 10,881 Irish-born individuals are recorded within Black Country parishes.


This is a proportion of 3.5%, which is above the overall English average of 2.9%, but significantly under some of the key cities like Liverpoool, where at times the Irish-born constituted up to 22% of the population. I’ve been trying to figure out the appropriate statistical test to figure out the tendency for immigration towards larger urban centres, but have given up on that as well. This is one hazard of any sort of data-driven analysis of the Black Country, which seems to pride itself on the perversity of its measurement units. I can show that Wolverhampton, for instance, has both a large population (17,652) and the highest proportion of Irish-born residents (3,763, or 21.3%). But I also see that the small town of Sedgley has a much larger population of 29,447. This is one of many absurdities that come from extended historic parishes, of the fragmentary nature of development, employment and economy in the Black Country, and so on. In this instance, data has to be taken with significantly more than just a pinch of salt – it needs interpretation.

Highs and lows


Ordnance Survey First Series, 1834 [Vision of Britain]

Using my local knowledge then, of the sizes of towns in the period, I can see a general trend (echoing the national) for the Irish to migrate to the larger population centres. This is true of Wolverhampton and Walsall, although the latter is split into Borough and Foreign parishes, which skews things a bit – in the town centre there’s a high proportion of 10.5%. Other smaller towns including Wednesbury (5.9%), Stourbridge (5.3%), Oldbury (5%) and Bilston (5%) all have large groups. Exceptions though include Dudley at 2% and West Bromwich at 3.2%.

At the other end of the spectrum, it certainly is the looser, more hamlet-y parishes that have fewest Irish migrants. Wollescote, Lye, Hill and Cakemore all register under 0.3%. There’s a much greater tendency towards the Southern Black Country as well: of the 20 parishes with the lowest concentrations, only Sedgley, Wednesfield, Bushbury and Pelsall might be described as in the Northern half of the region.

Why there?

I think a few factors come into play here. Manchester and Liverpool, two of the most Irish-heavy cities in the country were massive cities, its true, but they were also overwhelmingly focused on a handful of unskilled industries, in particular cotton and dock work respectively. That’s not the case in the Black Country. This is not the land of the “dark, Satanic mill”; it’s the world of the little master, the backyard nailshop, the small collieries run by middle-men. The towns which had few Irish are particularly like this: Lye and Wollescote with their inward-looking populations making nails in the backyard hearth; Hasbury, Bushbury, Halesowen, with their semi-rural peripheral locations; Sedgley, Cakemore and Amblecote with their mining and subsequent labour organisation; Wednesfield’s locks and Cradley’s chains were specialist industries with barriers to entry not just from the workers and employers but the skill levels needed to work there.


John Bradley’s New Foundry in Stourbridge, prior to its redevelopment in recent years []

On the other hand, there was plenty of unskilled work of all sorts in the big cities, and in certain smaller ones too. Wednesbury and Bilston were iron towns, full of large works making pig iron from raw materials – not manufacturing that into specialist things. Oldbury was similar, with larger brickworks and quarries than elsewhere – well connected too for the many large ironworks in the vicinity. Stourbridge – which most people think of as a glass or local market town – was home to the largest ironworks in the world at one point.


If there are any trends here it’s toward unskilled employment, but it’s probably complicated by social and cultural factors too. The presence of a Catholic community may have been an indicator of an older Irish community, which in turn may have been an encouragement for familial and community-based emigration. Cheap housing is another key point – the bigger town, the more likely it was to have vacant housing that the English working classes avoided if they possibly could, and the Irish often ended up there via sympathetic boarding houses – again more common in larger towns.

Theories focusing on the availability of housing, work, even community support, have to balanced against the labour-supply-side theories. 1851 was not the same as 1961: Irish migrants were fleeing a discrete event (the Great Famine, although this was not the first famine and continued to have major repercussions after the blight receded); Commonwealth migrants were drawn in by work and conditions better than the everyday ones at home.

My experience of the Irish migrants in the 1850s broadly fits within several of Ravenstein’s famous laws of immigration: they headed towards “the great centres of commerce and industry” and their migration was based on economic factors. But I hope this series has shown that place, types of industry and labour, and cultural factors like family and religion can have a significant impact on who ends up where.

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