The Black Country flag and the uses of history (again)

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Harold Piffard’s illustration of Cradley Heath chainmakers from 1896, accompanying Robert Sherard’s articles.

In 1897, Robert Sherard published a collection of his Pearson’s Magazine articles documenting the exploitation and suffering of the working men and women of Britain in some of the ‘sweated’ trades – he visited chemical works in Widnes, white-lead works in Newcastle, nailmakers in Bromsgrove, chainmakers in Cradley Heath, and more. The title, The White Slaves of England, has become a classic of the Victorian social commentary genre. The Cradley Heath chapter closed the book: whilst Sherard was musing on a Goethe quote, of all things

“before my spiritual eyes there passed the pale procession of the White Slaves of England, I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant, instinctive yet laborious – an anvil and hammer ever descending – all vague, and in a mist as yet untinged with red, a spectacle so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering, for my part, what in these things is right.

The title grabbed attention of course: a legal slave trade (at least in the Caribbean) was still in the living memory of some when this was published – it was only in 1833 that the trade was banned anywhere under British rule. “White slaves” – Britain’s industrial might and democratic freedoms were supposed to be the envy of the world, yet here were the free working people – free to choose to whom they would sell their labour – forced into brutal, degrading work for a pitiful remuneration. They hadn’t been forced from their homes, or manacled together for a trans-continental journey which many would survive, or sold off, or shackled and put to work… but their suffering and their economic trap was still awful.

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1770 Sketchley’s Trade Directory of Wolverhampton [Wolverhampton Archives]

This weekend saw the now-annual controversy over the Black Country flag erupt. I’ll get this out of the way: I like the flag, it’s a great design, and it’s been massively successful. But. As all historians know, It’s More Complicated Than That. Eleanor Smith, the West Midlands’ first black MP and in Enoch Powell’s old seat, no less, raised similar concerns to those of Patrick Vernon two years ago: that a celebratory image foregrounding chains is difficult for those whose forefathers were taken from Africa in chains. More than that, as maybe the world’s foremost metalworking region during the high peak of the transatlantic slave trade, chains from the Black Country certainly bound those poor individuals.

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Black Country MPs on Friday [Birmingham Mail]

In fact, as Vernon points out, there is direct evidence: in 1767, Henry Waldram of Brickkiln Lane, Wolverhampton, was a “lock maker, horse screw, men’s leg & Negro collar, thumb’s screw, and hand cuff manufacturer”; in 1805, the metal goods merchant John Shaw (from Penn, in Smith’s constituency) used his convenient position at the heart of England’s new canal network to ship “African chains” and “negro collars” to the slaving ports of Bristol and Liverpool.[1] UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project shows how deep the roots run: the Molineuxs of Wolverhampton, the Adams’ of Walsall, the Ansons of Bentley Hall, even the Lords Ward of Dudley all owned slaves in the Caribbean and had connections within the vast financial apparatus that grew up around the trade. The UCL project is important as it shows just how insidious this trade was: owners were compensated on abolition, and this money – blood money – went into their investments: railways, mining, metalworking…

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“Black Country flag is ‘racist’ and should be scrapped says Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith

As always, it’s essential to critique the reporting of this. The Express & Star is known colloquially as the Express & Stir – it has a reputation for seeking out controversy that extends at least back to its close links with Powell in the 1960s. It has a pecuniary interest in getting attention, of course. The original article make sure to point out that Ms Smith is from Birmingham; that others (MPs, mostly) have commented on her misunderstanding; that it was designed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Stourbridge; that it represents historically-important industries; that UKIP thinks this is PC Gone Mad; and that it’s a flag – it can’t possibly be racist. These are all themes taken up in the lengthy comments section, on Twitter and Facebook – just as they were when Vernon published his critique.

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Eleanor Smith is from Birmingham – an out-of-towner. The implication most seem to have drawn is that she either doesn’t know the industries the flag is representing, or is ignoring them (see swathes of comments calling her stupid, ignorant, idiot, moron, pea-sized brain and so on). To many people, the flag is a straightforward representation of “black by day, red by night” featuring two specific industries, glass and chain. But of course we don’t get to dictate what something represents to someone else. Symbols and histories are re-appropriated all the time – the Nazi’s use of the ancient Eastern swastika is only the most obvious example. Now, to me, the swastika represents something completely different to what it represented to an ancient Mesopotamian or a 19th century Buddhist. If you weren’t from the Black Country and didn’t know that chains were made here, what might you think if you saw a flag with chains on?

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Smith and Vernon are offended by the chains on the flag, because chains like those forged in the Black Country were used to shackle their ancestors. I have no right whatsoever to deny them that offence, and neither do any of the legions of commenters. The assumption for many has been that in calling for the flag to be done differently, Ms Smith is denying the region’s proud working history, and I think that boils down to the same basic offence: that the sufferings and hard work of our ancestors are being denigrated. To quote Smith though: “I have absolutely nothing against the chainmakers. They were working people making money like working people do.” And this is the crux of it: whether your ancestors were black Africans enslaved against their will, or white Staffordians, bound by economic shackles, they were victims of a system that inherently exploited lives across the globe. This is not to equate one with the other. Chainmakers were not beaten, raped, shackled together, killed for minor infractions, or otherwise denied their humanity as part of their existence.

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Capt. Wilkes Unett, part of a slave-owning family from Willenhall [source]

As we saw above, the global slave trade thrust its tendrils into the entirety of British economic and cultural life. Those that benefited from it were the rich, the investors who gambled their money with the Royal Africa Company or South Sea Company. And note the names: before the British Empire as we think of it, Britain’s imperial work was done by state-sanctioned private enterprise, for profit – they were content to make money from the exploitation of black bodies, trading them as though they were cattle or goods. To quote Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” The same forces were demanding trade goods, guns, shackles, chains, nails and so on from the Black Country and elsewhere, to be traded in Africa and to manage the trade of human lives. This required workers in the Black Country to make the items, and how does anyone make a profit? By selling as high as they can, and keeping costs – including labour – as low as they can. By the mid-18th century, villages like Cradley Heath had developed industrial specialisms and practices of working which bound communities to that specialism in horrendous conditions. People were paid a pittance – just enough to keep alive, and certainly not enough to have the privilege we have today of choosing our job. To coin a phrase, there is more in common between these sets of slavery than divides them.

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The problem with the flag is that it is just a symbol. Nobody is blaming the young girl who designed it, and to be honest, it’s a bit devious to suggest that’s what’s going on. For a start, chainmaking is everywhere around here, from the Titanic’s chains and anchors in Netherton to the demonstrations at BCLM to the mosaics on the bridges on Dudley bypass. It also went through several stages of design and selection, including flag masterclasses, selection to a shortlist by various notables, and a public vote. But the fact remains that it’s a flag with chains on – the only people that benefited out of any sort of chains in the Black Country were the wealthy capitalists who exploited the working class here and who financed the slave trade. If we truly wanted to celebrate the Black Country’s working-class heritage, perhaps something that didn’t celebrate oppression of any kind would suit better.

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Public history is a complex beast, and I’m only starting to come to terms with the complexities of it. All those engaged with this have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders to ensure it’s done right. Part of this means telling the stories that are uncomfortable, or that challenge our accepted understanding, because often these are just wrong. History as I was taught it in school was mostly about kings, politicians, and white men fighting wars against white men. Because it focused on those stories which sat comfortably in the worldview of previous generations, it ignored half the world’s population completely (the women (with the exception of Victoria)); it ignored the vast histories of those people who didn’t come into contact with Britain; it ignored the realities of those who suffered as a result of brutality, greed and power-grabbing by Britain. I would have guessed that Britain had been 100% white at every point up until 1948; of course that was not true, and even less true than you probably think. So this generation have a responsibility to put particular effort into retelling those stories that have been downtrodden and ignored, for parity if nothing else – to quote Stuart Hall, we need to “revise own self-conceptions and rewrite the margins into the centre, the outside into the inside.” If we can do that, we can begin to understand that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but fits within

Reading

Wolverhampton and slavery: http://www.wolverhamptonhistory.org.uk/people/migration/slavery2

More on Wolverhampton and slavery: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blackcountry/content/articles/2007/03/03/wolverhampton_slave_trade_feature.shtml

Legacies of British Slave-ownership: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

Hall, Stuart. “Whose Heritage? Unsettling ‘The Heritage’, Re-Imagining the Post-National.” In The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of “Race,” edited by Jo Littler and Roshi Naidoo, 23–35. Psychology Press, 2005.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Perigee Books, 1980)

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10 Replies to “The Black Country flag and the uses of history (again)”

  1. “Smith and Vernon are offended by the chains on the flag, because chains like those forged in the Black Country were used to shackle their ancestors.”

    I could be offended by a reference to a quote by Stuart Hall, after all Stuart Hall was convicted of past sexual offences.

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  2. Exactly.

    Smith and Vernon see in the “chains” what they want to see. I would guess that designer of the flag and others associated, and in fact the majority of Black Country people, did not associate the chains with slavery. Most would readily think of the Titanic.

    Now the vast majority of readers will be well aware that you are not quoting from the “Stuart Hall” to which I refer, but just like the “chains” at first sight you could be. So I could protest that any references to any “Stuart Hall” should be removed from the Bog.

    I am well aware that you do not refer to the said Stuart Hall, and most people are well aware that the chain on the flag has nothing to do with slavery.

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    1. Ah, I see – but I disagree. I think saying “Smith and Vernon see in the “chains” what they want to see” is quite a loaded way of putting it. You are not either of them, and you cannot see things through their eyes – to say they “want” to see something that will offend them is perhaps presumptious?

      I don’t think that the flag in itself is a racist thing. But I *do* think that perhaps not enough different opinions were thought through when the shortlist was drawn up. This is the thrust of the Hall quote, I think – to make anything, particularly anything regarding heritage, truly inclusive, something that can be cheerfully held aloft by people of any colour, creed or persuasion, the viewpoints of those on the edge must be brought into the centre. I feel like it would certainly have been possible to produce a flag which everybody could get behind, but which didn’t have to offend.

      For my part, I think that saying “most people are well aware” or citing the “vast majority of readers” aren’t safe assumptions. Most (not all) Black Country-based readers wouldn’t think twice about chain imagery; and most (not all) academic readers wouldn’t think twice about a Stuart Hall reference. But I’ve had an interest in history for years; when I moved to the Midlands I had no idea of the specialisms or the products made around here. I knew it was an industrial region, but I thought it was hilarious that any town would boast of being something so banal as the “home of chainmaking”, as the signs tell you when you enter Cradley. Most people don’t even know where the Black Country is…

      My question then is: to paraphrase Atticus Finch and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, if you *didn’t* know about the region’s different industries and you saw a red, white and black flag with a chain emblazoned across it, what would you think it might represent?

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  3. “I think saying “Smith and Vernon see in the “chains” what they want to see” is quite a loaded way of putting it. You are not either of them, and you cannot see things through their eyes – to say they “want” to see something that will offend them is perhaps presumptious?”

    To take this first point, it would be impertinently bold of me to suggest that Smith and Vernon deliberately wanted to see something in the flag that would offend them, as I am neither of them and cannot see through their eyes. However I don’t think it is bold to suggest the mere presence of a chain on the flag would immediately suggest slavery to them.

    To take Vernon, you have said “to him, the chains represent the horrors of the slave trade, which was significantly supplied in metalwork by the Black Country; we shouldn’t celebrate something which caused such misery.”

    I have to form an opinion on information from others, but on your advice I would discard the Express and Star! I believe Vernon is quoted as saying “Maybe if there had been sugar or cotton plantations in Surrey, Yorkshire or in Devon the reality of enslavement would be received differently today.”

    In the 1842 Report concerning Children in Coal Mines I believe the author suggested that some children were treated worse than slaves in the plantations. For Staffordshire it mentions the practice of taking orphans from outside of the parish on long “apprenticeships” maybe until age of 20.

    Of course Vernon is not wrong to have an opinion, or to state a case, but as one of your pictures shows, where Lenny Henry parades the flag, it is not a matter of Black and White

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  4. I agree with you on this last point, certainly. Lenny Henry is a political voice of his own and doesn’t see a problem with it, so of course nothing is straightforward. Neither the Black Country nor the slave trade existed in a political, cultural or economic vacuum. There are complicating factors that we’d rather not think about at every step – it’s true for instance that some African leaders profited out of the sale of slaves. Where money is concerned, so many paths lead to exploitation, racism and wickedness – that’s the real object of my criticism.

    To me, the flag works better as a starting point for a debate about uncomfortable histories. Smith and Vernon have poked their heads above the parapet to critique this, and I think that’s important, whether or not you agree with them. It’s good to have different sides to an argument, although I’m sorry that the Express & Star felt it had to caricature Smith’s argument – she had to write a press release explaining that her main concern was about the fact that this represents an old Black Country, not the modern one. That’s the problem when things like this are played out in the press – such partial versions of the truth are available. I’d apply the same criticism to the 1842 reports as well – definitely not impartial; there’s not an absolute standard of good/bad treatment that the report writers can possibly have measured against. It reminds me of the many, many towns I’ve read about for whom the claim was made that it was the filthiest town in the country. It’s more about rhetoric than scientific measurement.

    I think if we really had seen the full force of the slave trade in Surrey – the uprooting of people and the sale of human lives in Guildford marketplace – we might well think differently. The Caribbean and the USA are defined by their history of slavery, even though it was wound up many, many years ago. I think our separation from it has helped maintain the idea that it’s a problem for black people only, or for another part of the world, despite the fact that it was slave money that made Great Britain “great.”

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  5. “My question then is: to paraphrase Atticus Finch and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, if you *didn’t* know about the region’s different industries and you saw a red, white and black flag with a chain emblazoned across it, what would you think it might represent?”

    I will try to answer your difficult question, with a few assumptions. Firstly I am British and living in Britain, but with little knowledge of the particular area. But as you have said, we don’t live in a vacuum, so I would realise that it is in the “industrial” Midlands, but I have no knowledge that the disputed area in question has a reference to Black.

    In general the colour red on a flag may signify blood or sacrifice, courage or maybe energy. So the first thing I would think would be that red may represent the fallen victims of two World Wars.

    White generally represents peace, Christianity, honour, but I would plumb for hope. Hope in the future.

    Black is often used on African flags to symbolise the people, maybe the area is cosmopolitan. Could the black juxtaposed to the white symbolise a working together?

    I would not really be able to work out why the white area has such a shape.

    The prominent part of the flag is the interlinked chain, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that it may represent a joining together of parts, a “union.” I think it would be unreasonable to say that I would have no knowledge at all that the said area is within that associated with The Industrial Revolution.

    If I did not have the knowledge that the flag represented an area I would have come to the conclusion that it represented a Trades Union. So I am left with the chain….and this is where I would have to stop and ask someone.

    Perhaps the answers I would get would leave me more confused!

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  6. It’s complicated isn’t it?! My maths isn’t strong, but even the permutations of those suggestions you made would be in the dozens I think. Something intended to be symbolic, as a flag is, is inevitably going to being seen in as many different ways as people who see it. I don’t think it’s OK to tell anyone that the way they see it is wrong.

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  7. Another aspect of this, and I accept it is extremely sensitive and complex, is that the Black Country only really became known as such from roughly 1830-40 onward, and it is that period that is celebrated. Your research into the 1770 Wolverhampton trade directory is excellent, but bare in mind the first written reference of the ‘Black Country’ is from 1841, during the key stage of The Industrial Revolution. I am not sure how effective or successful the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was, but in theory it denounced slavery throughout the British Empire.

    I am not sure if the great Chain-makers of Cradley, and indeed specifially in Wolverhampton such as as at Monmore Green Chain-works and Priestfield Chain-works, were still making chains bound for slavery purposes when they became established around 1840 onwards? A genuien question. As far as I can ascertain, the chains made in these 2 towns were predominantly for mining and shipping.

    Timeframe may seem petty, but infact it is critical. Britain in 1770 may well still have been engaging in the Slave Trade, but when the Black Country first established itself and became known as such, the Slave Trade had been abolished in this Country.

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  8. Interesting that the Chairman of the BCS, in the latest issue of the Blackcountryman Mag, and who until now has been reluctant to express his personal views, thinks now the time has come to jump off the fence. He had sat on the committee that had judged the entries.

    “Never did any of us consider that the image of the Black Country chain industry might cause offence. I am sure the chain makers of the nineteenth century had little comprehension of the African continent or the sugar and cotton plantations and the poor souls whose lot it was to labour in them. Indeed the vast majority were illiterate and their knowledge was, in the main, limited to personal experience, tales spread by word of mouth and the odd pearl of wisdom cast from the pulpit. Perhaps we should remember our forefathers made chain, mined coal and formed iron and steel to fill their bellies, put a roof over their head and clothes on their back. Work or die.

    The chain making industry in the Black Country did not reach any appreciable size until the third decade of the Nineteenth Century by which time slavery and the slave trade had been abolished by our parliament. Nearly all the chains were purchased for agricultural, industrial and maritime use. I am saddened that our flag has caused such offence and controversy. It is flown with affection to reflect the pride we have in this region and as a testament to its entrepreneurs and indeed the men and women who laboured tirelessly, often to the detriment of their own health and well being. The popularity of the flag has, I think, took us all by surprise….”

    I think that we can see from the above statement that the flag has become extremely popular with the working class of the Black Country. The committee who accepted the design never dreamt that it would cause offense to any minority. By use of the flag the minority have had a vehicle on which to air their views, is it not time for them to stop calling for its removal?

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