One of the joys of travelling around this country is coming across something completely incongruous, something you’d imagine to be completely out of keeping with its surroundings. A good example of this is Highley, a large village in the wilds of South Shropshire – in fact, perched high above the Severn and looking towards the Clee Hills it feels very remote. You might well imagine that like its near neighbour Cleobury Mortimer it completely skipped the industrial revolution; or that being between the river ports of Bewdley and Bridgnorth it wasn’t ever a major commercial concern.
The confusing moment comes when you enter the village from the north on the B4555 and pass Clee View, a long row of brick cottages that look straight out of a Valleys pit town. These are quite atypical for agricultural villages in which development tends to be piecemeal over long periods of time. A row of identical terraces like this were almost certain erected simultaneously (a look along any street of terraced houses in the midlands will show you how unusual it is to have completely uniform building), and if that’s the case, they represent a sudden change in requirements for housing in the village, an overnight growth in demand for somewhere to live. What could cause such a thing?
The clue is in the cartwheel-looking object holding up the ‘welcome to the village’ sign. Only it’s not a cartwheel of course, it’s a representation of a pitwheel, the universal symbol of coal mining in this country. And that of course explains the sudden appearance of many new households in Highley.
Part of what contributed to Britain’s rapid take-off (if such a thing occurred, which is debated) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was its geology – virtually everything that could be required for industry was present in large quantities, and it dictated the site of much productive activity: glass working close to the coal, iron, sand and fireclay deposits of the South-Eastern Black Country, for instance. Britain’s coalfields were famous – the ten-yard seam of the Black Country itself of course, the North Staffs, Lancashire, South Yorkshire, Co. Durham, Central Scotland and Welsh Valleys. The Coalbrookdale deposits became a very early symbol of industrial strength, but there were several lesser known coalfields including the Clee Hills and small areas in North Worcestershire and South-East Shropshire. Mamble was developed with a planned canal to Stourport, and eventually coal was found to be worth digging in Highley in the 1870s.
Although the later Victorians were a lot more prepared for this sort of thing than the early industrialists, who threw up workings and homes on ill-suited ground and left them for waste, there were still few qualms with throwing up pit workings and and housing in the scenic Severn Valley and after the opening of the Highley Colliery (actually just across the Severn in Alveley) in 1878, miners came from across the country – particularly South Staffordshire, where the mining industry was starting to decline – following the coal industry to its new homes. By 1900, 240 men and boys were employed down t’pit. It’s this era which provided the distinctive miners’ homes of Clee View, sadly now on the English Heritage At Risk list. The well-known image of the “pit row” possibly stems from its origins in Durham in the 1840s, where mining communities were “neither country village nor meaner part of manufacturing town”; those in Highley were of much better quality than those described here, 30 years marking a significant change in attitude towards workers.
This wasn’t actually the first mining venture in the area. Small amounts had been retrieved from Highley from the middle ages, but larger works were found in Billingsley, a couple of miles West. The Highley Company took over Billingsley in 1917, as part of a series of expansions into the coal seam at Kinlet, Chelmarsh and elsewhere. After taking over Billingsley, and with the close of World War I, the Company proceeded to build a load of new houses in an area now known as the Garden Village.
Many historians think of the 19th century as a “long century” stretching from the industrial innovations and political of the 1780s and 1790s to the outbreak of WW1. Certainly it’s possible to see a significant difference between houses built in these periods, and the garden village/city principle is one of the key departure points.
Published at the very end of the Victorian era, Ebenezer Howard‘s Garden Cities of To-morrow was a revolution in the way people thought about planning and development. For a start it was fully intentional, rather than an incorporation into takes-care-of-itself market economics; it advocated spacious, well-built streets and houses for working people; it focused on new towns in a way that hadn’t been thought of before. The archetypal examples (although still some way short of Howard’s Utopian ideals) are found in Hertfordshire – Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth – but the principles have been applied to many other environments such as Hampstead Garden suburb, Bournville as an example of an employer-built suburb, and Humberstone in Leicestershire, the only example of the genre to follow through on Howard’s utopian-socialist ideals by being cooperatively built. Even today the name crops up whenever new towns are mooted.
Highley’s garden village cropped up at a similar time to Letchworth etc., between wars, in keeping with the spirit of the age to build houses, and build them better. The Woodhill Garden Village Company in conjunction with the Colliery built several streets which soon generated shops, cinema and chapel. Details of the company’s holdings are found in the nationalisation documents from 1947: alongside the collieries themselves, the Company owned 126 houses in the village, including Emberton House (the manager’s residence), Rose Cottage and Clee View, and 100 houses in Garden Village. By this time the company was supplying 21,000 tons a year to Buildwas power station, 40,000 to Stourport and more to Worcester. It was a state-of-the-art mine, producing large amounts of coal efficiently and was therefore a considerable asset to the National Coal Board. By 1957 the mine employed over 1,000 men and produced 300,000 tons of coal.
Only 12 years later though, the pit was closed, along with the last in the Black Country at Baggeridge, and very many others throughout the country. The website I got these figures from puts this down to the diminishing appetite for coal in this country; I’d be somewhat skeptical of this given the massive importation to this day of coal for power generation – it just happens to be more cost-effective to ship it from the other side of the world now. Today the mine has become the Severn Valley Country Park – although Highley was a thoroughly modern mine (employing its own gardener, no less), I think the visual similarities between now and 50 years ago are not obvious.