As you zoom up the West Coast Main Line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, you pass an impressive variety of scenery, including canals, derelict factories and industrial estates as well as housing and wasteland. The most unexpected thing is perhaps the large amount of green space you pass, especially in the vicinity of Tipton. For me, this is the iconic Black Country town – a conglomeration of settlements built up into an urban district by successive waves of industrialisation, to become one of the key areas for both manufacturing and extraction in the region. Today, in common with many post-industrial towns in the country, it’s a deprived, slightly desolate place, the subject of both jokes and government policy.
The railway passes the Sheepwash LNR on the right, then passing through Dudley Port reaches Tipton station. Beyond here is what’s formally called Tibbington Open Space, but is better known to most as The Cracker, a mix of open grass and woodland. Tibbington is in fact the old name for Tipton – which was recorded as Tibintone in the Domesday Book – but is now understood as the Tibbington Estate, built by Tipton UDC in the 1920s and 30s and built up further in the 50s. The public perception of Tipton stems from estates such as this – a highly mono-ethnic (white) area associated with racism, antisocial behaviour and unemployment. There’s been a slew of community-focused attempts at regeneration as a result, some of which – like MADE’s “Gaming the Tibby” – look really great and innovative.
The Cracker is best known for its horses. A quick Google will show them turning up in the Daily Mail, the Express & Star, the BBC and even Hansard – again, they seem to be something of a representative type of the Black Country, across which you can find dozens and dozens of such osses. When I moved up to the Black Country I was told quite clearly that Stourbridge was the posh bit, because they keep their horses in the garden, wheras in Tipton they live in the kitchen. These ponies graze this large, ramshackle piece of open space as they’ve done for many, many years, and local owners have been defending their rights to do so based on this tradition.
But is that right? Certainly the tradition of keeping horses goes back a long way, from the days of pit ponies and horsedrawn boats on the cut. But The Tibby has only been there since the 30s, and The Cracker since the 1970s – so what is it?
In the map below, from 1887, you can see that what is now the Tibbington Estate is almost entirely industrial. The orange layer shows the housing itself, bounded by the now infilled Wednesbury Oak Loop canal on the south and west and the Princes End branch line to the north, incorporating mostly disused coal and clay pits in the south of the area, and Tibbington Collieries and Summer Hill Iron Works in the north. The purple area marks what’s now the Cracker, even then mostly rough, uneven waste ground between the Bloomfield and Tipton Green works. In fact, waste is the operative word: crack was the foundry effluent that needed to dumped, and this unused spot was the “cracker”, or dump, for the slag from Tipton Green Furnaces.
Over the next twenty years or so, the south of the Cracker became a network of rails serving Tipton Green, while the rest of the land takes on a more and more derelict look. It’s from the 30s that we see the big changes. The tract of disused land within the canal loop was built on as the first phase of the Tibby, while on the Cracker the rails are lifted and quarrying commences.
By the 1960s, the rest of the estate has been built, and the Cracker is now mostly just slag heaps. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the new Sandwell MB filled in the land with refuse to even it out, and landscaped the surface creating the Tibbington Open Space that we see today. The canal was filled in the 60s, the railway was lifted in the 80s, and Tipton Green works finally closed in the 90s.
From looking at these and many other maps of late, there seems to be a series of step-changes in the physical environment of industrial Britain. Aside from the longue durée of the industrial revolutions which saw landscapes gradually moulded over the course of 150 years, the inter-war years saw the first massive boom in house-building, often (not exclusively) on greenfield sites – this was Lloyd George’s “Homes Fit For Heroes” (announced up the road in Wolverhampton) campaign in action. After the war we entered a new phase: a similar ethic extended to not just returning soldiers but the much-maligned working classes, whose decayed slums were cleared in favour of bold innovations like tower blocks. Perhaps the biggest change in the Black Country, though, stemmed from the economic upheavals of the 60s onwards: the retirement of the South Staffordshire coalfield in 1968; the de-stabilisation of the late 70s with its economic crises; the Thatcher years with their de-industrialising, structural overhauls; and the last twenty/thirty years which have seen a massive shift in national finance away from traditional manufacture towards “soft” industries, insurance, investment banking and the like.
This all comes with a geographical twist – smart though the Colmore Business District in Brum looks, the UK’s centre of this sort of industry remains in London, and we in the provinces rise or fall following what goes on there. For the likes of Tipton, isolated in a post-industrial hinterland, the socio-economic jolts of the last forty years have changed not just the physical environment but the social. Princes End elected a UKipper in this year’s local polls, into an otherwise Labour-dominated Sandwell council; I wonder how accurately it’s possible to trace mistrust of immigrants, low educational aspirations and acute unemployment back to those major changes, which stripped out the industry on which Tipton was built in the first place?