Put yourself in the picture

Birchley Rolling Mills c. 1945 and Portway branch canal, with Pratt's brickyard in the distance, seen from the bridge on Birchfield Lane, Whiteheath. Photograph from the collection of Dennis Wood
Birchley Rolling Mills c. 1945 and Portway branch canal, with Pratt’s brickyard in the distance, seen from the bridge on Birchfield Lane, Whiteheath. Photograph from the collection of Dennis Wood

As you’ll have probably gathered, I’m a map fan. However, I’m also aware of their limitations, and the main one is that in real life, no-one looks at or uses the world from x distance above looking directly down. We operate at ground level. To get an idea of the lie of the land, or its use, can be tricky without some indication of elevation – we covered this a while back in Wolverhampton. But when you get down to it, that’s still only an indication.

A historical analysis of space, therefore, has to include a variety of sources to get at the experience of the landscape, and I can hardly find a better picture to demonstrate it with than this glorious landscape shot, from the collection of Dennis Wood, posted on the Black Country Museum Facebook page recently. Photos are, of course, extremely limited: they are an artwork to start with, and therefore just as prone to the sensibilities, agenda, or precedences placed upon it by the photographer. We also use the term snapshot to give a sense of a historical source capturing one moment in time from one angle – it comes from photography of course. A spatial history unavoidably tends towards a series of snapshots rather than a continuous stream (although that’s not so weird – where would demographers be without decennial censuses?). Not many people these days really hold with the old expression that “the camera doesn’t lie”, anymore: we’re too used to airbrushing, Photoshop etc; in many ways that’s just as true for historical pictures, just without the software.

Lion Farm Playing Fields, from Birchfield Lane. Picture from Google Street View.
Lion Farm Playing Fields, from Birchfield Lane. Picture from Google Street View.

This picture is of a scene that no longer exists. The Black Country is justly famous for its canals, but this view is of one of the many miles of the Birmingham Canal Navigations that was filled in in the 1960s: the Portway Branch of the Titford Canal in Whiteheath. Birchfield Bridge, from where it was taken, is no longer even really a bridge, but if you were to look in the opposite direction from here, on the other side of the trees, you would see the pools at the current terminus of the canal, underneath the M5. The Titford Canal is one of the highest points on the BCN network, and feeds water to much of the system.

Darley House, Lion Farm Estate. By van_heckler.
Darley House, Lion Farm Estate. By van_heckler.

Looking in the same direction as the photo you would see… well, just a playing field really, at the opposite end of which is Darley House, a high rise part of the Lion Farm Estate. There’s certainly not much inkling of what was there before. The sky on the Google street view is appropriately black, but I think that’s probably just coincidence…

The reedy canal, the Portway Branch, led from the Titford Pools to the massive colliery complexes on the south-western side of Oldbury: on the 1880s OS map you see that Churchbridge and Newburylane collieries were directly beside the canal, and there were tramways leading to Radnall, Samson, Ramrod, Rowleyhall and Bellend collieries. There were also brickworks, lime and cement works, clay pits and quarries, although you can already see the processes of deindustrialisation at work: there are a number of closed pits, disused tramway embankments etc.

Oldbury in 1885. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1885
Oldbury in 1885. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1885

The photograph shows just what a significant barrier the Rowley Hills represent – they’re a wall, the Black Country’s spine running almost the whole way South-East to North-West. The hills shown are the reason that the original Birmingham Canal takes the line it does rather than reaching the rich collieries at Netherton; that the Earl of Dudley had to fight his corner and build his own connection to the canal network; that the Dudley tunnel took 17 years to open; the reason that you lose signal if you’re on the phone between Rowley and Old Hill. Although they’re not tall in the grand scheme of things, a photo like this – or better still, standing in the same spot – gives you a better idea than a map can.

Oldbury in 1937. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1937
Oldbury in 1937. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1937

I think the 1930’s OS maps are some of the most beautiful, and clearest, that they’ve made. The scenario in 1937, closer to the date of the photograph, shows the tremendous changes. Where collieries sat in 1885 are just empty wastelands, scarred landscapes left to spoil. On the other hand, where empty fields sat before, along Birchfield Lane, there are now houses, allotments, recreation fields, and just to the East a whole new highway, the Wolverhampton Road – opened amidst crowds by the Prince of Wales on 2nd November 1927. The canal still serves the brickworks, but processes of modernisation, for good or ill, are clear.

Oldbury in 1992. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1992
Oldbury in 1992. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1992

A more recent view reveals the disappearance of the canal, abandoned in 1954. The Lion Farm Estate sits on former colliery ground, and the only hint of the canal on this side of Birchfield Lane is a footpath through the rec. The final stub running under the bridge was filled in the 1980s, leaving Titford Pools as a self-contained reservoir, rather than as the start of two busy branches.

This was really just an excuse to post one of my favourite pictures of the Black Country, but it’s an interesting exercise to compare the conceptualised, ostensibly objective maps with the more realistic feeling of the photo. If nothing else it demonstrates the phenomenal change in landscape that we find over a century of history in the Black Country, from the barren wasteland of the mining era; to that cusp in the mid 20th century when the old is dying and the new is yet to be born; to the completely altered landscape of the present day, which is subject to its own constant changes.

You can read more on the history of Whiteheath and Lion Farm here.

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