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?

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, Migration, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 [stourbridge.com]

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.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, Quantitative data | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

That particular articulation of social relations which we are at the moment naming as… Doulton Brook

bsrA break from the Irish this week. I’ve been mostly reading Doreen Massey this week – if you’re not familiar with her she’s an urban geographer of major importance, who died earlier in the year (2016 striking again). She was a radical, a feminist, an unorthodox Marxist, and one of the best at problematising what we think of when we think of “space.”

For historians, perhaps the best starting points are her 1994 essay “A Global Sense of Place” and a 1995 contribution to History Workshop Journal, “Places and their pasts.” Her way of reading the competing histories of a place (or perhaps better, “that particular articulation of social relations which we are at the moment naming as that place” – “a conjunction of many histories and many spaces”) is particularly compelling for me, and as we did ages with Lefebvre, I want to try thinking through her thought process with a local example. For Massey, what we think of as a place is infinitely open-ended through space and time, and is always a reflection of forces local and global, weak and strong. On a practical note, this leads her to a radical reconception of place, away from the “idealized notion of an era when places were (supposedly inhabited by coherent and homogenous communities” and towards a place where its “history [is] imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages, both local and to the wider world.”

Doulton Brooke


Doulton Brook, off Wollaston Road, is “an exciting development of 2 bedroom apartments and 3 & 4 bedroom homes” being developed by Taylor-Wimpey and straddling the River Stour in Wollaston, near Stourbridge. As a brand new “community” the developers needed to come up with a name – in our first example of choosing what history to write into a place, they went with Doulton Brook. There is no Doulton Brook – the Coalbourn Brook joins the Stour from the opposite bank under the bridge, and there’s some suggestion that there was once a Dividale Brook somewhere in the Wollaston vicinity, but not now. The name comes from Royal Doulton, owners of the Webb Corbett glassworks that’s now the Ruskin centre. As important a role as Doulton had in the industry, it only owned the glassworks, on the opposite side of the canal, from 1969 before closing it c.1995. Perhaps Taylor-Wimpey were hoping it would give the site a suggested elegance from association with the well-known porcelain, but it seems a bit tenuous when you think Doulton had no connection with the actual site of the new housing at all.


In fact, it was rather unglamourous factory buildings before it was cleared. The river was culverted under a large steel-framed building used by Sunrise Medical and Caparo. In 2012, both firms were told their leases were non-renewable by the property owners, and closed their respective mobility-aid factory and aluminium foundry making motor components. Sunrise moved to Lye, but Caparo – part of the multinational of the same name – closed down completely. Caparo was a frequent source of complaints about pollution, an interesting sign of the times in the Black Country. That this small firm was considered unacceptable in a region once dominated by belching furnaces is quite something. Massey’s point about global-local connections is key here: Caparo was founded in Oldbury 1968 by the Indian-born Baron Paul and made a success out of mergers and acquisitions across the UK, India and North America. The company was a victim of the downturn in steel last year, blaming cheap Chinese imports – a globalised world has its effects locally.


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1967)


Prior to this however, the site was one huge factory, that of Birmingham Sound Reproducers. Despite the name, this was a Black Country business originally founded at Powke Lane, Old Hill. They established their factory in Wollaston in 1959, culverting the river and building a vast new site, after their turntable record-changers were adopted by the new “Dansette” record player, which just happened to coincide with much wider, global social changes – among other things, more disposable income meant more records to buy, new types of music like rock’n’roll, the birth of the teenager, and so on. BSR boomed, by 1977 producing over 250,000 units per week for something like 87% of the world market. If you had a record player in London, New York, Paris – chances are it was partly made in Wollaston.

Isaac Nash


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1956)

They had bought the site from a failing metal-working firm. But of course, failing is not bounded by time or space, and the Wollaston Mill that was acquired by Isaac Nash in the 1880s was not a business that was always failing. Nash moved his tool-making firm here from Belbroughton (in rural Worcestershire, and for many years capital of the scythe-making industry) in the 1880s, building Isaac Nash & Co. Edge Tools into one of Stourbridge’s largest employers. Nash is commemorated in one of the new Doulton Brook road names (as is Hydes Mill, which is in Kinver, several miles down the road…). Nash represent a classic Black Country metal story. The site expanded from the 18th century mill onto the marshy ground adjacent to the canal, and forced out several other edge tool manufacturers with its aggressive undercutting. The Southern Black Country was at one point full of them, clustering with historical continuity in steep-ish valleys with fast-flowing streams, reflecting their beginnings in water-powered forges.


Nash became a prominent local citizen, chairman of the UDC. His firm’s prosperity didn’t last much beyond World War 2 however. They stretched to national proportions in 1950 after a merger with Joseph Tyzack & Co. of Sheffield (another area of steep-sided valleys and fast-flowing streams). Tyzack is an old Stourbridge name, Huguenot of origin, but I’m yet to find the link between the towns. The next year saw a merger with William Hunt & Sons of the Brades Works, Oldbury to form the inventively named Brades & Nash Tyzack, before merging themselves out of existence. If you go into the garden centre today and buy a Spear & Jackson trowel, it’s descended from here.

Wollaston Mills


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1885)

 Nash took the Mill over as an existing ironworks, incorporating and then expanded upon its buildings, just as later Caparo and Sunrise took over existing buildings after BSR’s radical re-imagining. Its existence as an ironworks built on a former Mill on the Stour that had been there since at least 1760. Before that, presumably, it was common – perhaps the Dividale Common that appears on the map of the course of the Stourbridge Canal, which was completed around 1779.

Names and networks

Clearly, names have come and gone throughout the site’s history. Sometimes they persist – Massey uses Walter Benjamin’s words that “the forces of perversion work deep within these names, which is why we maintain a world in the names of old streets.”  Sometimes, things are wiped clear: “if the past transforms the present, helps thereby to make it, so too does the present make the past.” Massey tends to think of places as processes, a site of articulated social relations. Doulton Brook is of course just that. It represents a company’s vision of somewhere to live that is safe, clean and modern. It undeniably includes some great things: the opened up Stour Valley is infinitely more aesthetically-pleasing than the tatty factory reminding us of decay and times of failure. The daylighting of the river in particular comes with wonderful ecological and environmental benefits.

Yet in naming this place “Doulton Brook” they are imagining away a world of social relations that many can remember – although (for example in the case of pollution) some might prefer not to. Have a walk around Stourbridge and see how many people’s parents worked at BSR, or grandparents at Nash’s. Consider too the difference in who is there now. With its cul-de-sacs and barriers between the public space of the footpath and the semi-private estate, this has become a class-defined, bounded space. That’s particularly true since Taylor Wimpey managed to argue against including any so-called affordable housing in the scheme on economic grounds – a reminder that they are a business first, not lifestyle gurus (for all their marketing) and that affordable housing – an essential thing for millions – is not a natural state of affairs for the private housebuilding sector. So, Doulton Brook is for those who can afford to buy, at more than the going rate for the town. It is cleaner and tidier and more consistent than my street, or many of the others in Stourbridge. It is named for a convenient nearby connection, with past associations reduced to street names. The developers have sought to manage both the time and the space of the site to the exclusion of those who are desperately short of housing. They have created attempted to reduce the global reach of this ‘place’ into a generic development which wouldn’t look out of place in any town in the country. In a region where locally-made bricks built the majority of homes, there is none of the red earthy local marl on display here.

Radical place

Perhaps here is the opportunity for historians and history to be, as Massey wished it, radical. Spaces get co-opted, places get invented; yet history remains, in all its varied readings. It’s up to us to ensure that the narratives of the past are not ignored or wiped clean, but front and centre in all their gritty glory, so that exclusions might become a thing of the past themselves.

Posted in Black Country, History, Housing, Space, Stourbridge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Black Country Irish: Willenhall


Townland in Co. Monaghan – the closest picture I can find on Geograph to Glencorick.

The rule of thumb with any sort of migration, especially when looking at the industrial era, is the larger the town, the greater the gravitation pull. Thus, London drew from all over the country, Birmingham pulls mostly from the Midlands counties, and Wolverhampton mostly from Staffordshire and Shropshire. It works with longer-distance migrants such as the Irish too: bearing in the mind the geographic effects of port of arrival, they tended to settle most numerously in larger towns like London, Liverpool and Manchester.

That meant that the straggling, inter-connected villages of the Black Country were often not characterised by early Irish migration. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any, of course, and Willenhall is the case in point today. Narrowing down clusters of Irish-born population (as we did in Walsall), we find that in 1851 over a third of the recorded 107 were living in Portobello, a small hamlet to the West of town. A bit closer and there are five Irish families (24 people, including lodgers and children born in England) living nearly next-door to each other on Bird Street. I’ve not been able to locate this on an OS map – I suspect it’s one of the clusters of courts and makeshift alleys on the South side of the high street, with picturesque names like Brevitt’s Buildings, Ten House Row and “Monkey Island”.

portobello 1887.JPG

Portobello in 1887. Bird Street was likely among the clusters of courts on the South side of the main road between Willenhall and Wolverhampton. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1887)

This isn’t surprising in many ways – Portobello was the poorest, most unhealthy and most overcrowded part of a town which was already all those things. If you were a poor Irish migrant, this is probably where you had to live, rather than chose to. By 1861, there are 311 Irish-born residents in the town, and as you’d expect, there’s a much wider spread. However, we still find the biggest clusters in districts 12 (Portobello south side), 13 (Portobello South-West) and 14 (Portobello North, the largest cluster).

So much for the statistics. I really want to think about the opposite side of the town, Clarkes Lane. The first sighting of this name (according to the Willenhall History Society) is the 1851 census – before this the area is referred to as Little Island. In 1851 it really was a little island of habitation in a sea of space: still in the first OS map in 1881 it’s surrounded by marshy ground, small fields, farmland likely belonging to the nearby County Bridge Farm. To the South, the young River Tame oozes, carrying all of Willenhall’s dirty water and disease on towards Walsall. To the North, the recently-opened Bentley Canal crosses the recently-opened Midland Railway at Short Heath. Along the lane, 36 cottages are strung in two main rows, including the Noah’s Ark pub.


This 1947 Aerofilms shot shows the Southern end of Clarkes Lane with the huge interwar John Harper works. Clarkes Lane goes from left to right across the picture, with the Armstrong stamping works on the right hand side and the Bentley Canal in the top-left.

There is speculation that Little Island is a corruption of Little Ireland – a common term for any district noted for its Irish population. The most famous is in Manchester, and was the subject of lengthy description by JP Kay in the 1830s and Engels in the 1840s. Kay’s and Engels’ writing emphasised the separation or segregation of the Irish, and the fact that the “hosts” and “migrants” did not mix. Little Irelands – which Karl Marx noted in every industrial city – were imagined to be isolated, distinct in social and physical form, almost ghettoes. While some writers on Irish immigration have taken this as a starting point, this is where local studies (such as mine in Carribee Island, Carl Chinn’s in Birmingham, Graham Davis’s in Bath, Lynn Hollen Lees’ in London, and so on) prove their worth – this formal segregation or isolation was almost never really true. An area may have felt like a Little Ireland, especially if a Catholic church was built close by, or pubs catered to the Irish population; but the Irish were very rarely (if at all) a numerical majority in, say, Digbeth, Bath’s Avon Street, or London’s St Giles. It’s well worth a read of Davis’s chapter on this.


Little Island, Willenhall, in 1886.
© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1886)

If Little Island really was supposed to be a very Irish area, then this critique is true here too. In the post-famine census, in 1851, just one Irish family lives in the row. In the (very limited) 1841 census, I can’t find any evidence of Irishness, which sort of gives the lie to this idea. There’s little other evidence either: the one newspaper report that gives a William Gough as a resident of “Little Ireland” is, I think, a typo or an assumption on the part of the Birmingham-based reporter (Birmingham Mail, repeated in the Post).

The Pettys live towards the top end of the street, close to the canal. Jeremiah, an iron(?) labourer; Mary his wife; and their children Ann, George and Elizabeth. The last was born in Willenhall earlier that year; George in Darlaston in 1849. Given that their eldest, Ann, at six years old, was born in Ireland it appears that the family moved here during the great famine of 1845-51. There’s an extended family living here also though: a 21-year-old George Petty, 16-year-old Elizabeth Petty and 14-year-old Job are listed as servants. Job is a leather worker, George a labourer, and Elizabeth a coal pit labourer – one of the famous pit bank wenches of the Black Country. They are joined by three of Jeremiah’s brothers-in-law: John, Michael and Malachi Greaham, all working in mining.

Unusually for this census, the enumerator took the time to record the Pettys’ town of birth. Mostly, census takers just scrawled “Ireland” and were done with it, although they were supposed to write the county at least. It’s not easy to read: it could be Glen Covrick, Glen Corrick, Glen Corsett. And when you search for these Pettys in other censuses, they are frustratingly fleeting – lots of could-be-thems, lots of not-sures. Victorian handwriting continues to confuse even the toughest Optical Character Recognition, and the search databases of the likes of Ancestry.com can never be entirely reliable.

However. Checking through the list of names I get to the last, Malachi Greaham, and finally a hit. A full sixty years later, Malachi Graham, born in Glencorick, Ireland, is at home at 12 Cornwall Street, Birmingham. A widowed and retired policeman, he is kept company by his unmarried daughter Mary (a Brum-born cashier in a dining room), and granddaughter Florence (also born in Birmingham, a paper-box maker in the nearby jewellery trade. I can finally find somewhere in Ireland that matches the name, a small townland in County Monaghan.


Glencorick townland viewed using the OS of Ireland’s Geohive historical maps layer.

It’s curious that the family should have been so keen to have their tiny historic home recorded. There’s almost nothing there, just a farmhouse. Once this small space would have supported several tenant farmer families, of which the Pettys were one. Yet they all made sure the census enumerator recorded this small space in 1851, and Malachi made sure to mention it in 1911. He’d made his way as a policeman in the St Paul’s area of Birmingham, with a fine family, and had never thought to mention it. At 77, he was looking back over a life of movement, of new experiences and of change. The Birmingham of 1911 was a world away from the Birmingham he policed in 1871, let alone the semi-industrial scrub farmland of the Black Country in 1851. And even further back than that, did he remember the green farmlands and lakes of Monaghan? With fondness? Regret? Despair?

So many of our historical subjects are just traces in a record makers form somewhere. They flit in and out of perception by historians, despite the vast resources now available to those trying to trace a family history. The Pettys and Grahams touched down in Little Island, but it could have been for 20 years, it could have been for 20 days. We can trace the Pettys to Double Row, Netherton, ten years later, then they scatter. I wonder if they kept those same recollections when Jeremiah worked in the mines in the 1860s. I wonder if he worked alongside George his son and told him of Glencorick that George had never seen?

Posted in History, Irish | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Black Country Irish: Oldbury


Benjamin Williams, landlord of the Malt Shovel, Low Town, Oldbury, standing proudly outside his pub with his wife, child, and – in the top window – his wheelchair-bound brother Harry [source]

The 1881 census records just under 200 people living in the parish of Oldbury, then in Worcestershire, but having been born in Ireland. The census is of course a snapshot, and that’s particularly true of the newly-transient working class of the nineteenth century, for whom moving for work was very important. Here’s an example.

Greet’s Green

Born in Carrow Beg , close to the famine-hit Westport in Co. Mayo, John Judge emigrated to Greets Green, West Bromwich around 1870, joining his brother Rodger, who had moved out ten years previously. He brought with him his two sons, John and James (though both Johns were nicknamed “Jack”). They all lived together at No.2 Whitehouse Buildings, Greets Green Road – unskilled labourers all. John Jr in fact worked at John Dawes’s Bromford Iron Works, a major business in the area, situated not far from today’s Sandwell & Dudley station, until he was laid off in 1877, another victim of the long depression.

greets green 1890.JPG

Greet’s Green in 1890 – a typical Black Country sprawling hamlet, surrounded by collieries, canals and wasteland. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1890)

Later that year, John Jr was to move to Oldbury, when he married the Oldbury-born Mary McGuire. But as her name suggests, Mary was the daughter of Thomas and Jane McGuire, who had emigrated themselves from Ireland to Oldbury in the 1850s. They lived at Low Town, Oldbury. Mary married John Jr at St Francis Xavier on Pinfold Street, Oldbury in 1871; four years later, young James married her sister Ann.

Growing up in Low Town

John and Mary’s first child – another John, that I’ll call Jack – was born on 3rd December 1872. He had two younger sisters, and they grew up in Low Town, playing by the canal at the back of their house, and no doubt getting into mischief. Oldbury used to lie within a loop of the Birmingham Canal’s original mainline – the loop was later bypassed then filled, but in 1872 it served foundries, brickworks and saw mills. It was in this canal that Jack almost drowned, aged four.


Plan of Bromford Iron Works in 1851 [Tame Past Present Future]

Escape to Carribee Island

The insecurity of unskilled labour was a brutal thing, and capital holds no regards for family ties. The Judges had to move to find work, and they ended up in Wolverhampton. Here they found a much larger Irish community than that of Oldbury, and ended up living opposite St Patrick’s on Carribee Street. Yes, that Carribee – what started as a blog post about Oldbury has found itself smack bang in the district I’m studying for my PhD. St Patrick’s was built specifically for the mass of Irish immigrants in the Stafford Street district of Wolverhampton – the infamous “Carribee Island”. If the Judges moved there in the late 1870s then it was an odd time in the district: 1877 saw the passing of the Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme Act which enabled the council to knock down the very houses that they were living in. This was the Irish quarter though, and although work and the home may have been precarious, the church was very convenient – as were pubs such as the Limerick, the Erin-go-bragh and the Dan O’Connell.

They are there in the 1881 census, but moved to Moseley, in Birmingham, shortly after, before both John and the big-for-his-age Jack managed to take up employment at Bromford again in 1883. Their life in Oldbury is sadly typical of the poor Irish in the Black Country. John died of tuberculosis in 1888, leaving eight children and a widow to mind the fish stall that he had set up in 1885. Jack and his sister Jane Ann, who had a tough day job making bricks, hawked shellfish around Oldbury in the evenings to make ends meet. Two of the youngsters died of measles in 1891, and the older Nellie of TB in 1897. Mary remarried in 1893, but her new husband Bill Withey died in 1908.


Birmingham Street, Oldbury, c.1900. The stall in the foreground is almost exactly where John Judge’s stall was.

“He can tell a good tale, he can sing a good song…”


Jack in 1906

With heavy manual day jobs and busy evenings around town, it’s a wonder any of the children had time for leisure. Yet in the 1880s, Jack and Jane Ann were regulars at the Gaiety Music Hall in the centre of Oldbury. They began to enter talent competitions, with the big, stocky, red-headed extrovert Jack quickly becoming a popular turn. His was an old-style variety performance – singing, whistling, jokes and banter with the crowd was his stock in trade. His charisma enabled him to get booked further afield than Oldbury – but as the man of the Judge household, the business kept his ambitions very much in check. There were other draws to staying in Oldbury too – in 1895 he married Jinny Carroll, a quiet young lady from Oldbury Irish stock, at the same church where his parents had wed 23 years earlier. Jinny began to help Mary in what was now a fish shop and Jack eventually gave up his foundry work to run the place.


An advert for Judge’s fish shop in 1905 [Bones Oldbury Directory [source]]


Jack’s home was nextdoor to the Malt Shovel pub in Low Town, which in 1903 was taken over by Benjamin Williams. He moved in with his brother Harry, who was confined to a wheelchair. Jack and Harry became firm friends. Harry’s disability didn’t stand in the way of him being a first-rate pianist, and together with Harry’s knack for wit and rhyme, they put together a catalogue of songs. Jack was soon out at music halls across the country, especially after placing third in a London competition; it was enough for him to describe himself as a “comedian” in the 1911 census. Out of the dregs of his memories of these songs, Jack won a bet to write a song on the spot one night at the Stalybridge Grand, and the rest is history. If you’re from Oldbury, you’ll already have figured this one out, but if not you might be wondering why the name Jack Judge sounds familiar. The song was “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary” which went on to become one of the defining cultural touchstones of the epoch-changing First World War. Written on a whim it hit a mark in the English and the Irish, the working-class soldiers of the war and the publishers of the day.


Jack Judge in the 1920s [Sandwell Archives]

For the first forty years of his life, Jack Judge presents a fairly typical story. Born in the Black Country of Irish stock, like thousands of others he worked his guts out in the iron foundries. He saw tragedy all around him yet maintained a good humour – unlike others in Oldbury. He had to scrape for work, and hit some very low points – I imagine finding yourself in Carribee Street in 1881 was a miserable experience in many ways, although bonded by kinship, countrymen and church in a way that modern lives rarely are. It was an purely serendipitous finding Jack here – his excellent biography here mentions him in Wolverhampton, but it’s good to be able to flesh him out a bit. It’s a good news story in the end: although the lot of the Irish communities improved as the 19th century turned into the 20th, few had the success or fame of Jack Judge. Despite this, he never strayed far from Oldbury – to a council house in Rood End then a larger one in Whiteheath, staying in the fish business until 1937. An Irishman who made the most of his roots, and who celebrated them, played with them, and exploited them where he could, nevertheless Jack Judge remained a true Black Country mon all his days.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment