I’m a sucker for an old map, which explains why I couldn’t walk past a 1966 road atlas in a Stourbridge charity shop at the weekend. It’s a beautiful thing, far prettier than the great big, flimsy things that you get nowadays (or a squat, grey satnav box for that matter), all bound in tan leather and embossed with its producer’s name (Leonard Garner (B’ham) Ltd.) on the front. The mapping is by Bartholomew, and much as I love and value the Ordnance Survey, they’ve never yet produced anything as beautiful as the various Bartholomew series’.
Part of the joy of looking at maps like these is placing them into their context. There are some immediately observable local facts: the M5 stops at Quinton, the M6 at Walsall, and there’s no Black Country Spine Road either; the South Staffordshire line still runs from Stourbridge through Dudley, Wednesbury, Walsall and Brownhills to Lichfield; the built-up area that you find on modern maps is not nearly so continuous, with gaps between Wolverhampton and Willenhall, for instance, or between Halesowen and the rest of the Black Country. Bartholomew maps also excel at bringing topography to life – not just contour lines here, but shading to show the West Midlands plateau, Clent Hills, or the Stour Valley. The scans aren’t great, sorry, but you can get an idea below.
You can use this sort of map to explain all sorts of historical things. Canals need locks, for instance, everyone knows that. But looking at the plateau here, it makes sense that there are flights of locks at Wolverhampton, Stourbridge, Aston, Hatton and Tardebigge: they’re bringing the rest of the canal network, very often built along river valleys, up to the height of the plateau. You can build a 3D map in your mind with this sort of info.
So what’s changed since 1966? The roads for instance: major civil engineering works like the motorways were part of a massive post-war plan approved by Atlee’s Labour government in 1949: although building started under the subsequent Conservative government, 1966 places us squarely in the middle of MacMillan’s space-age vision of the future for Britain – the M6 and M5 will soon meet and push across northern Birmingham, with Spaghetti Junction opening in 1972.
The move towards the dominance of the road is only just starting to be seen in the rail networks. By now, the network was run by British Rail. One Black Country branch line, that via Kingswinford and Wombourne, can be seen to be only half open – the Tettenhall to Kingswinford section closed in 1965. 1964-6 were the peak year for rail closures in the UK, with 2408 miles going out of action after Dr Beeching’s cuts. This was all consistent with the high modernism of the age, of course – it’s only now that it’s being regretted. The Midland Metro has already taken over the old Snow Hill to Wolverhampton line, and plans to re-open the South Staffs line between Stourbridge and Wednesbury as a light rail network as well.
The built area is perhaps the most obvious thing. The 1960s were the final throes of industry in this country, declining throughout the 70s before being systematically dismantled in the 80s. So what takes its place? In the Black Country we still have some industry – typically lighter and more specialist – but all of the mining and heavy-metal-bashing industries have long gone. The last 50 years then have seen a massive expansion of housing and other sorts of infill. There were plenty of brownfield sites for high-rises, and plenty for low-rise expansion, both municipal and private. Council house building is just starting to tentatively raise its head again, now the country is faced with another housing shortage; schemes like the massive redevelopment in Wollaston are huge, but still not sufficient.
Much of the rest of the infill that now makes the Black Country a continuous urban sprawl seems to be shops – I’m looking at you, Merry Hill, once the proud home of the enormous Round Oak steelworks, now a temple to consumption.
Delving a bit closer we find a town plan of Wolverhampton in 1966. I’ve written about ring roads before (one day I mean to write the definitive social history of the ring road), and here we see one partially built (note also – none at all in Stourbridge or Birmingham, but part of one around Walsall). If only Wolverhampton was as simple to navigate as this now, by foot or in the car – the various shopping centres and one way systems can confuse even the hardiest navigator. I like looking at plans of Wolverhampton though – even in this modern view, the city’s age is revealed. Towns don’t just spring up in random places for no reason: Wolverhampton has no river crossing, port or hill fort, but it does find itself on the intersection of some ancient routes: the A449 between Stafford and Worcester; the A454 to Walsall; Wednesfield Rd is the ancient route to Staffordshire’s ecclesiastical hub of Lichfield. The A41 is a much upgraded version of its original self: while the original drovers’ route from Bridgnorth led into town this way, it was Telford’s Holyhead Road that gave it the importance it later achieved – this can be seen in the wide thoroughfares of Cleveland Road, Salop Street and Chapel Ash.
There’s a lot to be learned from old maps, I love em.