Read most economic histories of Britain and you’ll get a strong sense that the Black Country made its name, wealth and population based on the extractive industries, and that as easily accessible resources were found elsewhere in the country in the first half of the nineteenth century, the region went into decline. It’s certainly true that iron and coal were the bedrock (boom boom) of the region’s success, but is there really any evidence of decline?
The reality is of course far more nuanced than this, and demonstrates that the Black Country is a misunderstood and under-recognised region, whether that’s in terms of economic, manufacturing, or social history. Dig a little deeper than overview books and you’ll see that the area has been of vast importance to the country right up to the present, leading the way in technical innovations such as steel work and motor manufactures to name but two.
Why am I thinking this? Bearing in mind that I’m a busy student now, without a car, I get less chance to explore the Black Country than I’d like so that when I do find myself in a new part, I tend to get all geeky and do my research when I get home. At the weekend we found the rope coming off the inside of our stove door so, with a bit of research, I headed out to James Smellie Ltd in Blackheath for some special glue. I say Blackheath, I might mean Shell Corner. Or Hill & Cakemore, or possibly Cockshot. Urban areas don’t just spring into being after all; they sprawl in odd directions, amalgamating existing settlements or moving along roads and rails. 200 years ago, my destination would be somewhere near Cake Moor.
In 1727, the Turnpike Act to improve the Birmingham-Stourbridge road was passed, today’s Hagley Road through Quinton, Halesowen and Cradley. Off that road came Long Lane, leading from the top of Mucklow Hill to Dudley via Blackheath, Rowley Regis and Oakham. About 2/3 mile along, the road bore left towards Blackheath village centre, but forked right as well towards Cake Moor, a tiny hamlet based around Cakemore Farm. This was itself on a crossroads with another road which, leaving Long Lane slightly to the North of the fork, passed through Cakemoor and on to Hurst Green and Thatcher’s Barn. Don’t get any big ideas when I say crossroads though – these would barely have been farm tracks, suitable for a pony but not a carriage.
The parcel of land in the triangle formed by these cartways was empty, and just to the West of Long Lane was Blackheath Colliery – according to this map at least, some way from the site we see it at in the 1880s. Perhaps here is a case, in the intervening years, for the decline and relocation of a colliery, although it’s hardly to another part of the country.
Even in 1884 though, this area is still hilly, agricultural country, with rough roads and tracks leading to farms and the occasional hamlet. Despite the traditional picture, even at this late stage of Victorian industrialism you would still feel quite rural here, if you could ignore the trains entering the Rowley tunnel, which went underground at Long Lane in 1867.
The ribbon development along Long Lane is complemented by 1904 with new housing along newly metalled roads. Cakemore Farm and Thatcher’s Barn are names only now: the track to Long Lane has been formalised as Green Lane, with the brand new Clement Lane off it, and a Nut & Bolt Works on the corner where Smellie is now. Everywhere you look is new housing, but why?
The new station would have made some contribution to this. It was common that when lines were first opened they only operated fares for the better off, meaning that the working classes didn’t often move to more out of the way areas; this changed later, which may explain the delay. It could also be that these were more like middle class dwellings, as the terraces aren’t as crammed in as many in the region. There was new employment at the various works that have appeared, and the collieries seem to have expanded also. We’d have to take a peek at the census returns to get an idea.
During the war, when Cakemore’s men were off on the continent, the new German air force made a Zeppelin tour of the Black Country (possibly by mistake) dropping bombs as they went. One of these shells ended up on the island giving the area its new name: Shell Corner. After the war, and Lloyd George’s great push for Home Fit For Heroes, every available space was built on – hence the typically inter-war cul de sacs towards Hurst Green. Shell Corner is now a thriving community by itself.
Even here though, there’s diversification rather than decline. Blackheath and Rowley Regis collieries may be no more, but there are new forging works on Belgrave Road, stamping works next to the railway, and the huge electrical engineering works on Cakemore Road. These are supplemented by many more, and more varied factories and works by the mid twentieth century, all still there by the early 1970s.
This is what the Black Country urban landscape is all about, and each part of it is different. It’s possible to trace development by housing types, through these old maps and just by having a look, and that is local history at its very heart. Everywhere is a little community just waiting for its story to be told, and preferably by those at its heart rather than someone just summarising through statistics. Academic historian I may be, but I recognise that I can only tell a fraction of a story of a place, piecing together fragments. I can never feel it or live that history – but there are plenty that have and the world needs their stories.
As I said, I don’t know this part of the Black Country well, but I’m familiar with the industrial history of this country after the 1970s. The huge majority of the workshops and small factories that were scattered across the map in 1971 are no longer there – and so far as I can see, we have a deliberate programme of deindustrialisation from the 1980s onwards to thank. In the Black Country, that has tipped many areas into the sort of depression that led to Dudley being named the worst shopping town in the country. Nevertheless, James Smellie is still producing handcrafted fireplaces accessories as it has been since 1893 (read the wonderful letter), and they follow the local tradition of not just high quality work, but innovation too. They ay just metal-bashers in the Black Country you know.