The South Staffordshire coalfield defines the Black Country for many purposes, but as a culturally-defined region, its borders are highly porous. Wolverhampton is in or out, depending on who you ask; Walsall preferred to be out, at least in 1866. The coalfield knows no political boundaries either, stretching well into Worcestershire in the South (see this map Bob posted). With the exception of the exclaves of Dudley and Oldbury, our reporter has stuck to Staffordshire towns, ignoring the towns south of the Stour. With that in mind, let’s have a look at The Lye, just up the road from another peripheral town, Stourbridge.
To me, Lye is the land of the Windsor Castle and Balti Bazaar, cheap houses and Bache Brothers. As the DataShine visualisation below shows, it has a high proportion of households of Pakistani origin – other data shows this to be a well-established and dense population.
Jump back 200 years and Lye was notable for quite the opposite. Eric Hopkins noted in Midland History that in 1851 Stourbridge was 45% immigrant (that is, not born in Stourbridge itself), Wollaston 52% and Amblecote 50% whereas Lye was 18% and nearby Wollescote just 12%.
Lye was a nailing town, like many of the smaller settlements in the Stour valley. Handmade nails were produced in home workshops by whole families, often dependent on unscrupulous ‘foggers’ or middle-men to provide raw materials and pay for their labour. As such their pay was meagre and their labour exploited, and as the nail trade stagnated and declined, so did the population of Lye. In contrast with the jerry-built housing of the ballooning cities, Lye’s poor housing was due to a lack of demand. Before the 1870s, when a new hollow-ware industry lifted Lye’s prospects, there was almost no expansion – the terraced rows that rise up the hill now are a result of that era of growth. In 1870, the Birmingham Daily Gazette noted the general oddness of the layout of the place:
You cannot help remark how oddly the cottages and their contiguous smithies are perched about the weird landscape.
Birmingham Daily Gazette, Monday 10 October 1870
So what was there before that? Hopkins notes the existence of “Mud City,” (also known as “Clay City”) variously described as “neglected habitations” in 1845, overcrowded and worse than pigsties in 1842 (Dr Betts reported a couple with 12 children in a 12ft square room, only tall enough to stand up in, in the middle). Mud City was called such because the houses had been constructed out of the abundant local clay by their original occupants, often low and with less than a 400 square feet footprint.
Mud City was located on the “Lye Waste”, one of three settlements
that constituted Lye in 16th century (the others being Lye Cross and Lye Forge, where the Dudley road crosses the Stour). The Victoria County History published in 1913 suggests that settlement there began in at least 1556, with migrants from Hungary and Lorraine led by Henzoil Henzey taking up residence to manufacture glass. I think the VCH writers got their wires crossed though – they reference the first Henzey glassworks at Hungary Hill, well to the west of Lye Cross, whereas the area more correctly known as the Waste is well to the East. The issue seems to stem from an earlier work, “In Gipsy Tents“, written in 1880 by Francis Hindes Groome. Groome notes that the theory is “not corroborated by any trustworthy evidence…”
According to John Hemingway’s history of the area (in this wonderful collection of maps), our earliest record of inhabitants of the Waste is 1650, probably early nailers. Josiah Bach’s 1699 map of Old Swinford Parish is a glorious thing and shows a large area to the East of the Cross marked as “Waft Bank” – Waste Bank, devoid of registered landowners. There’s a later annotation of “Glasshouse Close”, but I’m still not convinced. The clay must have been abundant, though, hence the nickname.
Hemingway has digitised the 1782 parish map to give an idea of land use – the original shows the extent of building on the Waste itself, and the newly (well, 1762) built Halesowen & Stourbridge Turnpike through the area. 1782 was the year in which Lye was enclosed, the wastes coming into private hands, and also saw the opening of the charitable Waste Bank School with bricks provided by Thomas Hill of Dennis Hall, Amblecote. Church and chapel followed before the turn of the century. At Gold’s Hill we saw that philanthropy by the local great and good was often focused on spiritual and educational, rather than material or economic welfare, and this stretches that attitude well back in time. Perhaps the blur between pre-modern and modern that we discussed here really is a very indistinct thing.
By 1782 then there were identifiable roads that we can track forward to today’s map. The turnpike is now Lye High Street – opposite City Spices (formerly the Clifton Cinema) was a track that became Love Lane, which led to Crabbe Street and Careless Green. Crossing that was Cross Walks/Talbot Street although, of course, I couldn’t say when these names became formalised. The Waste extended as far down as Cemetery Lane and the later addition of King Street. The ramshackle nature of the Waste was evident well into the twentieth century (you need to sign into Britain From Above to zoom into photos, but it’s well worth it – I’ve annotated where the Waste is on there and you can see the mud homes in 1931), but today there’s nothing remaining to signify the Bank’s ugly past.
I think the uniformity of employment, social background and birthplace in Lye Waste would give the area a very distinct character, compared to, say, Carribee Island or Town End Bank which were often defined by the transient and definably ‘other’ population (in those cases Irish immigrants). The vernacular architecture and informal byways remind me of favelas or third world slums today, and these are certainly a type of space of their own. Whether everyday movement into the Waste was difficult I can’t say, but the locals rioted and blocked up the chimney when a Unitarian chapel was opened in 1790. A reputation for cock, dog, bull and prize fighting continued well into the 19th century; such pursuits were classically the popular culture of the early modern era and the community appears very much resistant to any pull of modernity.
The residents of the Waste Bank were regularly referred to as Lye Wasters, or Lye Savages, occupants of a territory that was very different to the bustling market town of Stourbridge, or the progressive industrial towns of Worcestershire like Kidderminster. High on its hill, this space was defined by separation – physically, socially, genetically even – and might act as a decent case study as to the benefits of cultural integration. I hesitate to discuss one of the obvious drawbacks of a small isolated community, that tends not to marry from outside its own gene pool. Incest was one of the unspoken taboos driving Victorian-era housing policy – the fact that family members of both sexes shared rooms gave rise to (often implied rather than expressed) horror.
Interestingly too, the Lye Wasters appear to have developed their own, hyper-local dialect: in 1856, on an occasion when several “parties had met together for the purpose of exposing the spotted character of each other, and the females more particularly”, Wasters George and Obedience Patrick, Reuben and Elizabeth Perry, Sarah Collins and John Bashford are reported as using “the Lye Waste language (as spoken by the natives), which included many words not to be found in Walker or Johnson.”
As settlement expanded in Lye into the 20th century, the area referred to as Waste Bank on OS maps shifted progressively Eastwards as the houses spread. Wastebank Colliery, between Pearson Street and Careless Green, closed early, though Beech Tree to the East remained operational until 1958. Around about then the old traces of Lye started to come down – the remaining mud houses were replaced by the council blocks that are there today. Lye has clearly since embraced the outsider and is no longer the isolated “waste” it once was.
The idea of a territorial space like this is a fascinating one that I’d like to research further in the future. There are clearly close links between the population, their labour and their landscape: that the Waste endured into the mid twentieth century reminds me of those petrified forests that got stuck in certain climactic conditions and could never change. It’s space defined by capitalism well before capitalism was a dominant force, and once capitalism was the dominant paradigm in society, the Waste continued to reflect capitalism’s early brutality and pre-modern origins well into the modern era.