I have a tendency to dither a bit when I set out on some research. I blame my social science background. This time of year has the tendency to distract one from concentrating on a proper project as well, so I thought I’d play around with some maps – it’s my normal response to anything. I’m going to have a look at an estate that isn’t one of the featured projects in Block Capital, but which will give me a little play-time in investigating how useful maps are as a historical source.
The Chapel Street Estate in Brierley Hill dominates the skyline of the Stour valley, standing as proud as Shane MacGowan’s teeth. The blocks overlook the Delph Locks and Amblecote, facing towards the Clent Hills. The estate was built in four distinct phases between 1963 and 1969, and consists of 15 high-rise blocks, six at 6 storeys, four 13 storey blocks and five at 16 storeys – a total of 580 dwellings. It’s on a hill-side, and the site has seen some changing views over the last couple of centuries.
The current Ordnance Survey shows the estate in the crook of the A461 and A4100, which meet on the Brierley Hill bypass. The other sides are made up by the Dudley Canal and the Delph Road (locating the estate conveniently for the string of pubs up the Delph). Our first step back in time takes us to the 1970s, not long after the building of the estate. This was pre-Venture Way, the bypass which takes you to Merry Hill (if you really want to) but other than that, the road layout looks pretty familiar. The big difference is the massive white space on the map where the Lakeside estate now is (make no mistake though, we’re talking very different things when we use the word estate here) – it’s still marked as open-cast mining, a late remnant of the days when Amblecote was half coal pit, half glass works. So: no view of modern suburbia for those on the 16th floor, and no view of modern retail Hell looking East: the view would have been the monstrous Round Oak steelworks.
Back to the 1950s and the view is different again. Looking South or South-West, all the open space in the 70s is full of that lunar mining landscape noted elsewhere in the Black Country, collieries, clay pits and mineral railways. The estate site itself was a somewhat ramshackle series of houses and streets centred on Hill Street.
1930’s next, when the old line of the Dudley Canal was still evident enough to feature on the map – it was re-routed in 1838 (I think). The South-west prospect is as scarred as it was in the 1950s, but looking South to Amblecote Road looks like enclosed fields. Looking East, the Round Oak site is a maze of railway lines and buildings surrounded by open space and overlooking Saltwells Wood. A resident in a hypothetical 16th floor flat here would also see up Brierley Hill towards Marsh & Baxter’s Bacon Factory on Bell Street. I daresay if I had a bacon factory on my doorstep, I’d be more cheerful to live in Brierley Hill than I would at present.
1900, and we’ve got the Brierley Hill UDC Gasworks in the foreground as well as the Delph Brick Works. Looking a bit East, you’ll see that at the far end of Delph Lane there’s a brewery – local ale fans will revert to hushed tones talking about the Bathams these days, it’s great to see it still being made there.
The 1880s series reveals the same sporadic, infilled nature of housing. This is the earliest comprehensive OS map of Brierley Hill – note the tramways on the main roads (they were there until the 1920s). There are numerous collieries on the Amblecote side of course: Ashtree, Delph, Lowsepark and Eagle. Round Oak works still sits proud over the vast Wallows Colliery, a vast landscape of pits, embankments, tramways, canals and every other embodiment of Black Country industry. The 1880s map can also be seen at close scale, revealing the cramped accommodation and prevalence of court housing, as seen elsewhere across the black country. As in Wolverhampton, the Catholic church is found in the heart of the densest thickets of housing. Could this be evidence of a strong Irish population, as at St Patrick’s in Wolverhampton? I can’t find any basis for this other than a “considerable sprinkling of an Irish population” in Brierley Hill (according to the invaluable reports of Hugh Heinrick).
This is as far back as thorough street maps go in Brierley Hill. They reveal plenty about the development of housing on the site but (without further plumbing of archives) fall tantalisingly short of the complete story. What is interesting here is the idea of what GIS nerds know as “viewshed” – what you can see from a certain spot. The height of a tower block changes not just the view looking at the estate, but gives a completely unprecedented overlook of the area. What massive changes you’d have seen if you could have lived on the 16th floor in the Chapel Street estate between 1880 and now!