Category Archives: Black Country in 10 objects

Slag you can see from space

It’s one measure of how the Black Country landscape has changed that it’s now difficult to find a single heap of slag in the area. The waste produced by a long history of metal furnaces was once common in the region and (we can now be thankful that) it has now almost all been removed or greened over.

There are however occasionally small reminders. One is in Boshboil pool, near Netherton, where a slag heap has been incorporated into a Local Nature Reserve. It’s even captured by satellite cameras (below) –the red rust of iron residue showing up between overhanging trees.  Unexpected perhaps, and it does also raise the small nagging question of how far you’d have to go to see another slag heap visible from earth orbit.


Furnace waste was a familiar feature of the landscape for large numbers of local people, and a side effect of the dominant position the Black Country once held in the iron industry. Its open dumping in the local environment also tells us something about the way the area was exploited without much regard for its future. For these reasons a piece of iron slag is the seventh object in our series The Black Country in Ten Objects  (the sixth was the subject of this post).

> Boshboil Pool can be seen on Bumble Hole audio trail
> see also Clinker Walls
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Five minutes from a lost railway

We know that canals helped make the modern Black Country. Without them it would have more likely stayed a rural area (rather than becoming home to today’s large, urban population).

But we tend to forget that canals alone wouldn’t have cut it, so to speak. Not unless all those factories and mines had been right there alongside the waterways and the raw materials and goods could be shifted straight into boats. The fact is, many were away from water, and that’s where the other piece of the transport jigsaw slotted into place. What became hundreds of miles of private railways were built to take goods to and from canals. These were pioneering, often built years before the passenger rail network we know today.

The results of one study of canal ‘tramroads’ (as they are called) have been simplified to create this map. It happens to be most complete study so far of private railways linked to the Black Country canals, and it starts to reveal their full scale. We now know that half a million people in the Black Country live within five minutes walk of the route of a canal tramroad. There may not be much left of them, but whatever is lies under your gardens, streets and parks.

Lost railways, closed stations (there are dozens) and train manufacturers are represented by the sixth object in our series The Black Country in Ten Objects, i.e. a locomotive name plate (the fifth was the subject of this post).

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> Paper copies of the map Canals of Birmingham and the Black Country are available from www.cartographics.co.uk.

Pyramids lost in Sandwell

Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around how much stone has been taken out of the Black Country.
The basalt rock quarried in Rowley for example (known as ‘Rowley Rag’) –used for Victorian kerbstones and more recently in road surfaces– left massive craters in local hills. 

Most of these have since been filled in –one example was Darby’s Hill quarry, now transformed into greenspace and suburban streets (see location below).  But a clue to exactly how much stone was taken from this particular quarry is that when it was re-filled they had to find 1.3 million cubic metres of material.  That’s a lot by anyone’s standards. 
But how can we imagine what that amount might look like? Well, the photo above shows figures dwarfed by one of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.  The volume of this particular monument (Menkaure) is about 250,000 cubic metres.  We reckon our quarry in Sandwell could have made about five of these.

Historically, quarries peppered the Black Country and typified its landscape.  To reflect this, a piece of Victorian paving (image left) from Rowley was the fifth item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the fourth was the subject of this post).

> The local legacy of quarrying is the subject of an interactive map by the Black Country Consortium;
> The location of former Darby’s Hill Quarry in Google maps;
> Darby’s Hill Quarry is the subject of a drawing held by the Tate, itself strangely reminiscent of pyramid construction;
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How mountains were moved

The change in the landscape south of Delph locks - (1960s image by Peter Donnelly, provided courtesy of http://www.blackcountrynostalgia.com).

When we try to imagine how our neighbourhood might have looked say 50 years ago we might think that at least the general lie of the land—the local hills and slopes—would have been the same as they are today. 
In the Black Country at least that’s a dangerous assumption.  Here’s an example from Amblecote where a heap of colliery spoil is big enough to dominate the horizon of an image (taken from Delph locks) in the 1960s (left) but by 2008 (right) has been completely flattened and built over with housing.

Mining the South Staffordshire Coalfield is of course a defining Black Country industry.  It had ended by the 1960s but in places left a sea of shale, and spoil heaps became playgrounds to many local kids in the 20th century. 
A handful of coal waste is the fourth item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the third was the subject of our last post).  And those of who think coal waste is somehow not worthy of a museum or art gallery might be interested in this little news video from earlier in the year. 

> The location of the photo in Google Maps;
> Read how the other objects in the exhibition have a link to the Black Country landscape here;
> Subscribe (where it says ‘Receive Updates’ on the right of this page) and be notified of posts on the other objects;

Written history still only half baked

If you keep your eyes open when you are out and about you can see lots of references to the historic brick industry in the Black Country.  The names of local streets, parks and buildings (like this pub in Brierley Hill) pay homage to an industry which has been a big part of the area’s development but has now shrunk to a small remnant of its former size.  In fact, while iron and coal are remembered as the headline industries of the Black Country, brick making does not seem to have been given the place in history it deserves.  You could argue that in this case more than most the history books are yet to catch up with the stories surviving in the landscape.

‘Blue Bricks’ are in fact typical of the area and turn up in lots of important local structures (canals and railways used them in their millions).  But you can also find them in every-day places.  The Blue Brick used in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects for example was dug from a flower bed in the back garden of an ordinary Victorian terrace in Smethwick.  It bears the name of ‘Hamblet’, an important local brick maker until the First World War.  The clay (or ‘marl’) used to make it probably came from the pit connected to Hamblet’s works in West Bromwich (see map) which is now suitably part of Marl Hole Park.

> The location of Marl Hole Park in Google Maps.
> Read how the other objects in the exhibition have a link to the Black Country landscape here.
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We are all walking on nails

Anyone working with nails in the Black Country today would more likely be a beautician than a metalworker (there are at least 40 nail salons in the area, employing perhaps dozens of people).  But the character of the area still owes something to the time when nail creation referred to an activity which underpinned the whole local economy.  Perhaps 150 years ago there were not a few dozen but tens of thousands of Black Country families earning a living making iron nails by hand. 
A hand-forged iron nail is the second item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the first was the subject of our last post). 
But if they were such a big part of our past, why aren’t there more clues left in the landscape?  Well, it’s hard enough to find factories which are still around from that time, but the survival of the remnants of nail-making has suffered even more because it took place in the back yards of workers’ housing.  Almost all of this was cleared as part of the planned renewal (otherwise known as slum clearance) in the 20th century, and the nail makers’ workshops went with it.

Home-working or outworking still takes place today of course, but the location of nailmaking in ordinary homes has to be found in census records and historic maps.  One such place is Islington, Halesowen.  Today the street is lined with post-war flats (see photo), but on the same spot in 1900 stood terraced houses with outbuildings behind them, many of which would have been nailshops (see map).  Census records can verify this too, with many families and children (several under ten) on Islington recording their occupation as ‘nailor’.

See the handmade nail and the other 9 objects in Wolverhampton during October and November at The Black Country in Ten Objects;
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The location of Islington in Google maps;
Historic Maps of Dudley

Black Country ‘mother’ buried in playing field

If you’d worked in the Black Country 220 years ago you might not have been paid in cash.  Instead you might have been given a token with your boss’s head stamped on it.  Great, you might say.  Anyway one such coin, used to pay employees of ironmaster John Wilkinson, is included in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects.  During the exhibition we’ll be using this blog to show how each object has a link to the modern urban landscape.

This playing field in Bilston happens to be the former site of one of Wilkinson’s blast furnaces, used to make useable metal from local minerals. It was possibly one of the first of its kind in the Black Country.  But there was an even older one another a few hundred metres away, possibly also under some playing fields.  This one was called ‘the mother furnace’, what today we might call the-mother-of-all-Black-Country-furnaces. 

So why are these old furnaces even important? Today we struggle to find clues they even existed, but they laid the foundation for a massive growth in iron working, propelling the area into the forefront of an international industry.  Perhaps more importantly for those of us who live and work here, we might say they are the industrial ancestors of the area’s modern metal working factories.  In fact, they are a reason the Black Country even exists in the form we know it.

A footnote to this story is that these early furnace sites have had a chequered history since their industrial heyday. The one in the photo for example was used to dump domestic waste as recently as the 1960s.  Only recently has their historic importance to the rest of the area started to be appreciated.

See the trade token and the other 9 objects in Wolverhampton during October and November at The Black Country in Ten Objects;
Subscribe (at the bottom right of this page) and be notified of posts on the other objects;
The Location of the photo in Google Maps;
Watch the BBC’s animation of a blast furnace at work.

Looking for clues left behind

If we had to come up with a group of ten objects representing the story of the Black Country landscape what would be in it? Perhaps each of us has a different idea of what should be included – in fact some interesting collections have already been put forward (see below). Later this month we will be discussing a new group – this time with a particular twist: all the objects will be assembled in one place and you will be able to handle them on the day.
In advance, here’s an image of one of them and a reassurance. The reassurance? There won’t be any condoms.
The Black Country in Ten Objects
A History of the World in the Black Country
Coal to condoms – items which made the Black Country great
Council housing in the Black Country