A break from the Irish this week. I’ve been mostly reading Doreen Massey this week – if you’re not familiar with her she’s an urban geographer of major importance, who died earlier in the year (2016 striking again). She was a radical, a feminist, an unorthodox Marxist, and one of the best at problematising what we think of when we think of “space.”
For historians, perhaps the best starting points are her 1994 essay “A Global Sense of Place” and a 1995 contribution to History Workshop Journal, “Places and their pasts.” Her way of reading the competing histories of a place (or perhaps better, “that particular articulation of social relations which we are at the moment naming as that place” – “a conjunction of many histories and many spaces”) is particularly compelling for me, and as we did ages with Lefebvre, I want to try thinking through her thought process with a local example. For Massey, what we think of as a place is infinitely open-ended through space and time, and is always a reflection of forces local and global, weak and strong. On a practical note, this leads her to a radical reconception of place, away from the “idealized notion of an era when places were (supposedly inhabited by coherent and homogenous communities” and towards a place where its “history [is] imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages, both local and to the wider world.”
Doulton Brook, off Wollaston Road, is “an exciting development of 2 bedroom apartments and 3 & 4 bedroom homes” being developed by Taylor-Wimpey and straddling the River Stour in Wollaston, near Stourbridge. As a brand new “community” the developers needed to come up with a name – in our first example of choosing what history to write into a place, they went with Doulton Brook. There is no Doulton Brook – the Coalbourn Brook joins the Stour from the opposite bank under the bridge, and there’s some suggestion that there was once a Dividale Brook somewhere in the Wollaston vicinity, but not now. The name comes from Royal Doulton, owners of the Webb Corbett glassworks that’s now the Ruskin centre. As important a role as Doulton had in the industry, it only owned the glassworks, on the opposite side of the canal, from 1969 before closing it c.1995. Perhaps Taylor-Wimpey were hoping it would give the site a suggested elegance from association with the well-known porcelain, but it seems a bit tenuous when you think Doulton had no connection with the actual site of the new housing at all.
In fact, it was rather unglamourous factory buildings before it was cleared. The river was culverted under a large steel-framed building used by Sunrise Medical and Caparo. In 2012, both firms were told their leases were non-renewable by the property owners, and closed their respective mobility-aid factory and aluminium foundry making motor components. Sunrise moved to Lye, but Caparo – part of the multinational of the same name – closed down completely. Caparo was a frequent source of complaints about pollution, an interesting sign of the times in the Black Country. That this small firm was considered unacceptable in a region once dominated by belching furnaces is quite something. Massey’s point about global-local connections is key here: Caparo was founded in Oldbury 1968 by the Indian-born Baron Paul and made a success out of mergers and acquisitions across the UK, India and North America. The company was a victim of the downturn in steel last year, blaming cheap Chinese imports – a globalised world has its effects locally.
Prior to this however, the site was one huge factory, that of Birmingham Sound Reproducers. Despite the name, this was a Black Country business originally founded at Powke Lane, Old Hill. They established their factory in Wollaston in 1959, culverting the river and building a vast new site, after their turntable record-changers were adopted by the new “Dansette” record player, which just happened to coincide with much wider, global social changes – among other things, more disposable income meant more records to buy, new types of music like rock’n’roll, the birth of the teenager, and so on. BSR boomed, by 1977 producing over 250,000 units per week for something like 87% of the world market. If you had a record player in London, New York, Paris – chances are it was partly made in Wollaston.
They had bought the site from a failing metal-working firm. But of course, failing is not bounded by time or space, and the Wollaston Mill that was acquired by Isaac Nash in the 1880s was not a business that was always failing. Nash moved his tool-making firm here from Belbroughton (in rural Worcestershire, and for many years capital of the scythe-making industry) in the 1880s, building Isaac Nash & Co. Edge Tools into one of Stourbridge’s largest employers. Nash is commemorated in one of the new Doulton Brook road names (as is Hydes Mill, which is in Kinver, several miles down the road…). Nash represent a classic Black Country metal story. The site expanded from the 18th century mill onto the marshy ground adjacent to the canal, and forced out several other edge tool manufacturers with its aggressive undercutting. The Southern Black Country was at one point full of them, clustering with historical continuity in steep-ish valleys with fast-flowing streams, reflecting their beginnings in water-powered forges.
Nash became a prominent local citizen, chairman of the UDC. His firm’s prosperity didn’t last much beyond World War 2 however. They stretched to national proportions in 1950 after a merger with Joseph Tyzack & Co. of Sheffield (another area of steep-sided valleys and fast-flowing streams). Tyzack is an old Stourbridge name, Huguenot of origin, but I’m yet to find the link between the towns. The next year saw a merger with William Hunt & Sons of the Brades Works, Oldbury to form the inventively named Brades & Nash Tyzack, before merging themselves out of existence. If you go into the garden centre today and buy a Spear & Jackson trowel, it’s descended from here.
Nash took the Mill over as an existing ironworks, incorporating and then expanded upon its buildings, just as later Caparo and Sunrise took over existing buildings after BSR’s radical re-imagining. Its existence as an ironworks built on a former Mill on the Stour that had been there since at least 1760. Before that, presumably, it was common – perhaps the Dividale Common that appears on the map of the course of the Stourbridge Canal, which was completed around 1779.
Names and networks
Clearly, names have come and gone throughout the site’s history. Sometimes they persist – Massey uses Walter Benjamin’s words that “the forces of perversion work deep within these names, which is why we maintain a world in the names of old streets.” Sometimes, things are wiped clear: “if the past transforms the present, helps thereby to make it, so too does the present make the past.” Massey tends to think of places as processes, a site of articulated social relations. Doulton Brook is of course just that. It represents a company’s vision of somewhere to live that is safe, clean and modern. It undeniably includes some great things: the opened up Stour Valley is infinitely more aesthetically-pleasing than the tatty factory reminding us of decay and times of failure. The daylighting of the river in particular comes with wonderful ecological and environmental benefits.
Yet in naming this place “Doulton Brook” they are imagining away a world of social relations that many can remember – although (for example in the case of pollution) some might prefer not to. Have a walk around Stourbridge and see how many people’s parents worked at BSR, or grandparents at Nash’s. Consider too the difference in who is there now. With its cul-de-sacs and barriers between the public space of the footpath and the semi-private estate, this has become a class-defined, bounded space. That’s particularly true since Taylor Wimpey managed to argue against including any so-called affordable housing in the scheme on economic grounds – a reminder that they are a business first, not lifestyle gurus (for all their marketing) and that affordable housing – an essential thing for millions – is not a natural state of affairs for the private housebuilding sector. So, Doulton Brook is for those who can afford to buy, at more than the going rate for the town. It is cleaner and tidier and more consistent than my street, or many of the others in Stourbridge. It is named for a convenient nearby connection, with past associations reduced to street names. The developers have sought to manage both the time and the space of the site to the exclusion of those who are desperately short of housing. They have created attempted to reduce the global reach of this ‘place’ into a generic development which wouldn’t look out of place in any town in the country. In a region where locally-made bricks built the majority of homes, there is none of the red earthy local marl on display here.
Perhaps here is the opportunity for historians and history to be, as Massey wished it, radical. Spaces get co-opted, places get invented; yet history remains, in all its varied readings. It’s up to us to ensure that the narratives of the past are not ignored or wiped clean, but front and centre in all their gritty glory, so that exclusions might become a thing of the past themselves.