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WHERE IS THE BLACK COUNTRY?

Victoria

The country is very desolate. everywhere there are coals about, and the grass is quite blasted and black.
Princess Victoria - on a visit to the West Midlands in 1832

Where is the Black Country?

Georgraphy & Geology Representation Relationship with Birmingham

Origins of the Black Country
The Dialect Historical Development Why the 'Black Country'


Beer

 

Humour

The Flag The Modern Black Country

Some Maps


Where the Black Country
?
Good Question. The Black Country is many things to many people. To some is a physical location (which can vary) to others a state of mind (which can also vary). Indeed, we may rather ask what is the Black Country?

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Geography and Geology
However, in as much as it can be given a geographical location, it is that area of the English Midlands to the west of Birmingham which became industrialised and urbanised from the early 17th century onwards due to easily accessible minerals.
One stricter interpretation of the Black Country is that it sits directly over the South Staffordshire Coalfield. This is reasonable, so the Editor feels, provided the definition is widened to include those areas influenced by the South Staffordshire Coalfield. Of course this at once makes the definition far from strict; but that in itself is part of the point; the influence of the Black Country is much wider and subtle than any geological or geographical definition and may include not swiss replica watchesonly adjacent towns and villages, but even those goods, services and people that, although originating in the Black Country, have moved away from it. “You can take the mon [man] out of the Black Country”, as the saying goes “but not the Black Country out of the mon."

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Representation
Politically the Black Country is now a poor excuse for anything, being composed of the modern ‘entities’ of Dudley and Sandwell, adjacent those of Wolverhampton (now a city) and Walsall, into which it may or may not encroach depending on  point of view. All these were created by government diktat in the 1970s, replacing the wonderful mixed-bag of Boroughs and Districts, Urban and Rural, which had grown up over generations to reflect local replica watches loyalties. The re-organisation was all ‘administratively tidy’ (well, supposed to be) but it did the people of the Black Country no good whatsoever. Indeed, even as we speak, a further round of ‘city region’ planning is being undertaken by an uholy alliance of Westminster and local politicians. In a behind-close doors agreement all the West Midlands local Councils have signed up to a 'West Midlands Combined Authority'. A 'Great Birmingham' which will subsume the Black Country into Birmingham. The excuse given for this by the local Councils is that such an authority will be able to better devolop the West Midlands region economically. This is entierly spurious as political union is not neccesary for economic development. Meanwhile Westminster is more than pleased to support the idea as, as always, the Government is keen to reduce local politics as much as it can, in order to fake watches reduce grass roots opposition to its own big-goverment plans. Local councillors in the Black Country, entranced by the idea of playing with the 'big boys', have fallen for it hook, line and sinker!

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Relationship with Birmingham
One thing the Black Country is not, agreed upon by both the Black Country mon and the Brummy with equal conviction, is that it is NOT Birmingham.  Instead the two areas co-exist like awkwardly conjoined twins.  Needless to say both sides ‘look down’ on the other; with vague stories of dragons should the highways be strayed from. However, intercourse is possible and even mixed marriages are now not frowned upon.

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Origins of the Black Country
The Black Country as it is generally perceived came into being during the so-called ‘first’ industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century. However, the proto-industrial origins of the region can be traced back much further. Shallow (even outcropping) coal, along with clay, limestone and some iron ore providing raw materials for early iron and particularly glass making. Thus, when the full fury of the first industrialisation burst upon the English midlands via the Severn Valley and the Shropshire coalfields, the Black Country was ideally poised to take maximum advantage of the grab for mineral and manufacturing wealth.
As a result the ancient villages and small towns of the region, the majority bearing names of Anglo-Saxon origin, were turned into wildly unplanned industrial neighbourhoods with mines and manufactories scattered across them. Unlike Birmingham which developed as a city from a fixed core outwards, the Black Country became a patchwork of mineral workings, basic industries, small factories and mean dwellings, interspersed with ancient fields, farms and manor houses that clung to the landscape between the old village and town centres.  As the 19th Century wore on so some of the towns grew to become important, though always relatively small scale, civic entities; and local worthies competed to become representatives of the Boroughs and Districts that emerged.  The original, ancient differences between them were thus perpetuated, so that a ‘Blackcountryman’ (or woman) although possessing a regional identity would also maintain a fierce local one. This persisted, and still does; although in marked contrast to many English folk-regions the Black Country does not hold heredity as prerequisite to belonging;  a legacy, no doubt, of the draw it had upon those from outside who were seeking work. Indeed there is a very strong historic Welsh element within the Black Country, as evidenced by the number of Welsh surnames in the region. This in itself is a reflection of the influence of the Severn Valley, which can be said to run from the high ground of Dudley in the east (literally the central watershed of England) to the Welsh mountains in the west. How far the Black Country proper extends east of Dudley (and hence lies in the Trent catchment region) is one of those matters of debate, but the area to the east (the western Severn Valley) most certainly does; and is of immense importance in characterising one of the most vital aspects of the region – its dialect.

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The Black Country Dialect
The Black Country dialect, although to the uneducated ear sounds like ‘Brummy’, most certainly is not.  Unfortunately, right up to the present day, regional dialects in general and West Midlands (Black Country and Birmingham) in particular are deemed ‘unacceptable’ by those who dictate (in more ways than one) received pronunciation as some form of ‘acceptable’ standard. This particularly applies to the BBC whose stereotyping of the West Midlands dialect as an indication of stupidity began with radio broadcasting in the 1940’s and persists to this day as a prejudice that seems to have wholly escaped politically correct notice (probably as a result of the politically correct brigade themselves being prejudiced against the dialect). As a result, from WW2 onwards, ‘speaking broad’ was seen as a massive social and business disadvantage, and ambitious Black Country people would go to great lengths to rid themselves and their children of its ‘curse’. To a certain extent this still goes on, and almost anyone who has to make contacts outside the region will be ‘bi-lingual’. However, in recent years pride in the dialect has markedly increased, as has academic interest in its origin. The latter, it seems certain, arose from Severn Valley Saxon which caused the Black Country to by-pass the great medieval vowel shift, so that we still eat “paes” as opposed to “pees”; whilst certain words have even survived intact so that “bostin” for ‘a good thing’ is more-or-less direct from the Anglo-Saxon “boasten” meaning the same thing.  The Black Country dialect, as with most things from the region, not without controversy (“it bist, it bay”). However, a visit to the very wonderful Black Country t-shirt shop web site (see our links page) will demonstrate that it is being increasingly celebrated, and rightly so, “ay-it”.

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Historical Development
The actual productions of the nascent Black Country were initially based on mineral extraction. Easily accessible thick coal, some of good quality, together with entire hills of limestone, enabled the cheap manufacture of cast iron. This combined with a pre-existing knowledge of furnace technology from glass manufacture and local small-scale smelting since time immemorial, resulted in the rapid growth of primary industry, producing basic level raw materials for other manufacturers to turn into finished goods, as well as providing them with the fuel to do so. The advent of turnpikes roads and canals, and later railways, boosted this basic economy. The early Black Country was never really a ‘factory centre’; this kind of development was left to Birmingham which was in effect a great assembly shop that used the Black Country as it supplier of raw materials. However, we should not sell the Black Country short in terms of manufacturing. Once the initial early phase of industrialisation was over, coinciding more or less with the lapse of the Bolton & Watt patent on high pressure steam, the Black Country itself began to contribute to the second industrial revolution as a direct supplier of engineered goods. The end of the Napoleonic Wars gave carte blanche for the British, as the world’s greatest naval and economic power, to exploit to globe; and although the period is wrought with ‘booms and busts’ it is generally one of giddy, if not always positive, industrial development.
Diversity was the key. As early as the 1850’s it was obvious that the Black Country’s coal reserves, once apparently inexhaustible, would eventually run out or at least be replaced by better placed suppliers; and although mining continued for over a century, there was a turn towards engineering which ran alongside the more traditional metal bashing. Thus for most of the 19th century and half of the 20th the Black Country reached its industrial peak as a supplier of everything from chain,  anchors and bricks to springs, test tubes and thermocouples. Unlike Birmingham it did not develop a locomotive industry (though locomotives were built here) or later a car industry (though cars were built), but remained an eclectic conglomeration of enterprises which re-enforced the ‘strength though diversity’ of its separate towns and villages. The Black Country was like a comfortable old baggy jumper which, like all old baggy items of clothing, may have looked appalling – especially when viewed from London - but had reasons for its existence and it was an error to discard.

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Why the ‘Black Country?
This leads us to the appellation itself. Why ‘Black Country’? There are a number of theories and even more modern misapprehensions; with many of those from outside the region unable to grasp why its inhabitants are not only comfortable with but apparent so proud of the term.  The published origin comes from a book of 1869 by Elihu Burritt, American Consul in Birmingham, entitled  Walks in the Black Country and Its Green Border-Land. Although there is also a popular story that Queen Victoria, travelling on a train between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, asked for the blinds to be drawn as she “could not stand the sight of this black country”. This latter story, almost inevetably apocrophal, probably arises from an entry in Victoria's diary (before she was queen) of 1832 when, aged 13, she describes a visit to the English midlands, stating "The men woemen [sic], and children, countryside and houses are all black. But I cannot by any description give an idea of its strange and extraordinary appearance. The country is very desolate every where; there are coals about, and the grass is quite blasted and black. I just now see an extraordinary building flaming with fire." This journey was by coach not train as Victoria adds "We have just changed horses at Wolverhampton a large and dirty town but we were recieved with great friendliness and pleasure". In fact, the term probably pre-dates bothof these and would have arisen quite simply from the fact that everything in the region, from people to public buildings was (as Princess Victoria noted) more or less covered in industrial grime. Of course, industrial cities too were covered in grime, some famously so, but the mines and  quarries (many abandoned), muddy mires, old pathways and sometimes quiet extensive scrubby fields that interspersed the Black County’s  main centres of population provided the region with a landscape quite unlike that of a city. Elihu Burrit also coined the phrase “Black by day, red by night”, to describe the fact that the furnaces of the region glowed red during darkness, complementing a fairly convincing vision of hell on earth (Tolkien’s ‘Mordor’ is allegedly based on the area as well).  That the inhabitants came to revel in the term is undoubtedly due to that particularly English working class trait, inverted snobbery, whereby a negative appellation is converted into an ironic positive and eventually a term of self affection.  One of the best examples comes from the Great War, where the original members of the British Expeditionary Force joyously named themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’ once the Kaiser had told his Generals to sweep the “contemptible” British Army aside. It is certainly a way to turn an enemy’s ammunition against themselves; and explains why no one from the Black Country can be upset by telling them they are.

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Beer
One of the most important and popular productions of the Black Country has done much to put the area on the national map - beer. Although never a great brewing centre such as Burton-on-Trent, nevertheless the Black Country continued to support a number of small independent breweries when most of the rest of the United Kingdom was under the evil thrall of the big brewers and their vile products. Even the bigger brewers in the area, Bank’s in Wolverhampton, and Birmingham’s Davenports, were small in comparison the corporate giants such as Watneys (“Grotneys”) who sought to corrupt the nation with foam filled kegs and that beverage for small boys – British larger. The result was that ‘Black Country Beer’ achieved something of a cachet in the 70’s when the English beer desert was at its greatest extent; and has played a key role in the real-ale revival of modern times.

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Humour
This little essay would not be complete without a word about Black Country humour, particularly as this is fairly abundant in the web site’s newspaper extracts for those who can spot it.  As with most English humour it is deeply ironic and often completely misunderstood - particularly by cousins across the Atlantic. This trait is even further complicated in the Black Country by the region’s ability to mock itself and the alleged dimness of its inhabitants, alongside a delight in word-play derived from a long standing knowledge that ‘Black Country’ can be impenetrable, even within the Black Country itself. Gornal, the ‘Black Country within the Black Country’ is often the butt of jokes which range from a routine conviction  that electricity has yet to be installed there (and no doubt gas before that) to complex synonymic references that make play on the areas internal phonetic variations. The mythical characters ‘Aynok’ (Enoch) and ‘Ayli’ (Eli) often feature in Black Country comedic dialogue, an example being:
Ayli: “What sort of winders am they?”
Aynock: “Them bay winders”
Aynok.” “Well, if them bay winders what am they?”
Translated (and now unfunny):
Ayli: “What sort of windows are those?”
Aynock: “Those are bay windows”
Aynok.” “Well, if they aren’t windows what are they?”

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The Flag
Black Country Flag
The Black Country, as it never had a defined single identify, never had a flag. You may as well have had a flag for ‘The West Country’ or ‘The Welsh Valleys’. However, in recent years as local identities have become perceptibly more important, the move to create a flag gained momentum.  In 2012 the Black Country Museum launched a competition to design a flag to coincide with the London Olympics (although why this was relevant to the Black Country we are unsure..). The dangers were immense and the whole idea considered a dubious one by many locals. As one commentator put it, there was a danger that any flag incorporating the colour black (which it inevitably would) may end up making any event it was flown at “look like a pirate party”. However, fears were allayed by the very excellent winning design by 14 years old Gracie Sheppard which took inspiration from Burret’s phrase ‘Black by day and red by night’, and the Black County icons of chain and a glass-cone. The battle now is to keep the flag out of the hands of the politicians, with a worrying indication they have already starting ‘wrapping’ themselves in it to appeal to local loyalties of which, of course, they possess none except where it suits themselves.  In addition to the flag a 'Black Country Day' has now been announced as July 14th, a peculiar choice based on the apparent invention of the Newcomen engine; but as good as any other .

Oh Pleeeese!

Black Country Day 2015 was celebrated by a piece of politically correct nonsense that really does make us wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is, in fact, that of the oncoming train!
One Patrick Vernon OBE; self-styled “Social Commentator and Political Activist” complained the chains on the Black Country flag were “disturbing” because they pointed out links (!) with the Slave Trade, over which the region was “still in denial”. Apparently born in Wolverhampton, but now a through-and-through Londoner, Mr Vernon clearly lacks knowledge of the both Black Country and the Slave Trade; to say nothing of the having had the regulatory ‘P.C.’ sense-of-humour bypass. No wonder “Can I say that?” is rapidly becoming a national catch-phrase. By the way Mr Vernon is an OBE; dosn't that stand for Order of the British Empire...an historical institution Mr Vernon presumably should find 'disturbing'?  Help...

 

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The Modern Black Country
Since the end of the Second World War the Black Country has undergone massive change. Central planning (especially that unthinkingly driven from a London-centric government) along with depleted natural resources and changes to manufacturing practices both social and technological, have resulted in huge alterations to the region’s physical appearance and its communities. Much of the ‘old’ industrial Black Country (or at least its late 19th/ early 20th century manifestation) has been or is being demolished, whilst perhaps even more spectacularly its old open spaces; fields, pit mounds, clay pits, old quarries, ‘waste ground’ in general, which did so much to distinguish as a ‘country’ rather than a city, have been reclaimed (in the case of the fields often disingenuously so) and built over. Yet enough of the old centres remain, and enough of the population personally identify with these (and almost all NOT with Birmingham), for the Black Country to remain a cultural reality. Factors such as the advent of industrial archaeology, the rediscovery of the canals, the almost religious revival of real ale, and a slow realisation that the region is of vital historical importance have, along with a dedicated open-air museum and a plethora of local history societies and publications, given the people of the Black Country a solid historical basis on which to define a modern identity.

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Some Maps


British Empire 1889
Left: The British Empire from a school geography of 1889 at a time when the Black Country was at a peak of industrial activity. Located at the centre of the British Isles (which in this typical contemporary map projection is shown at the centre of the world), the Black Country was a major supplier of basic materials and manufactured goods throughout the United Kingdom, the British Empire and the rest of the world.

Right: A map of industrial England and Wales from a school geography of 1904. The West Midlands manufacturing district is marked by a concentration of activity.

Below: A detail from the same publication shows Birmingham and 'District'. The district is, in fact, the Black Country (subject to debate of course), and amply illustrates how the area area had no defined name. Indeed, it is interesting to note how Birmingham then only occupied a relatively small periferal corner of the much wider industrial region

Black Country 1904
England 1904

Right: A T-shirt design showing the borders of the Black Country (subject to debate of course), demonstrates a modern vibrant identity. And, although the people of the region would probably be quite happy to keep Her Majesty at head of an independent state, there should be no doubt in the minds of weasel politicians and buereaucrats in Westminster, or their Quisling lackeys closer to home, that attempts to subsume the Black Country into a 'Great Birmingham' will be met with fierce, if necessary republican, resistance.

Peoples Republic

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