Category Archives: the twentieth century

Beehives, so nineteen sixties

It’s a tall dome of a hairdo, it’s the name of a pub in Great Bridge, and it also happens to be a type of kiln used to make bricks.   This particular kind of oven (like the one pictured) was described in the 1970s as ‘characteristic’ of the Stour valley in the south of the Black Country (although they could certainly be found elsewhere).

Beehive kilns were used there to make ‘firebricks’, prepared from a local clay which made them very resistant to heat.  These were useful in a wide range of industries but especially the Stourbridge glass trade.  Our earlier post raised a comment about how firebrick-making fitted into the Black Country brick industry: this post is an attempt to start to give an answer.

Historic maps show at least 200 brick making sites have existed across a wide area of the Black Country (left).  On the other hand, the fireclay brick industry (right) appears to have been grouped in the south… the map shows a clustering of both fireclay mines and brickworks around the Stour.  So, on this evidence firebrick-making appears to have been a local specialism of a wider Black Country brick trade.

Our recent feature Changes on the Cut showed the disappearance of one beehive kiln in Brierley Hill (to the right of the photo here), flattened at some point in the last fifty years.  Many others have gone the same way since this photo was taken in the 1960s.  And, whereas the hair style will no doubt see occasional revivals (we love you Amy), the domes of brick kilns seem destined to remain marks of a lost landscape.

> The location of our disappeared kiln in Google Maps
> Both maps are from The Legacy of Factory Buildings in the Black Country.
> The painting of the beehive brick kiln is by Edwin Butler Bayliss and is held by Wolverhampton Art Gallery, details from Black Country History

Darwin and the extinction of the giants

This week sees the opening of the feature-length animation The Pirates! featuring a character based on the young Charles Darwin (pictured). 

And the link with the Black Country landscape? Well, one day when Darwin rocked up on a Pacific island he was confronted by a strange, unworldly scene: a volcanic landscape studded with vents pumping steam and gas into the atmosphere.  Today a 26-year-old (as he was) might reach for a mobile phone and have a photo posted online in seconds.  But it was 1835, an age before mobile cameras (never mind phones).  Instead he described in words the impression it made:

He wrote that the area looked like chimneys but that …‘the comparison would have been more exact if I had said the iron furnaces near Wolverhampton’.  By this he almost certainly meant the furnaces at Bilston, which would have thrown out enough smoke and gas to have a national reputation.

By the time Darwin knew of them, there had already been blast furnaces in Bilston and Bradley for decades, having been set up in the time of his grandparents. Darwin himself died in 1882, but the furnaces survived in Bilston for almost another 100 years.  We say almost because the last of these industrial giants actually fell in 1980 when the Elisabeth furnace was demolished (left).  It brought to an end more than 200 years during which these particular monsters dominated the local landscape.  But it also heralded a new era: one where different giants would evolve to take the place of those gone before.  Now the distribution depot of the mighty Poundland stands on the site of the last Black Country blast furnace.

> Not a feature-length release, but watch our new animation of the Elisabeth furnace falling (or click on image) (photos courtesy Wolverhampton Archives);
> The location of Poundland distribution centre (former site of the Elisabeth furnace)
> Read about the new landscape of distribution centres and how jargon separates us from our past;
> Black Country mother buried in playing field

Stowlawn, a community rebuilt

The greening of the Black Country is something that’s talked about, but we don’t always have a mental picture of how it happened. For those of use who weren’t around, or who can’t remember (to be fair, that’s most of us), it’s useful to have something to look at.

That’s when aerial photos come in handy. Here’s one (below) from 1948 of colliery remains near Bilston. The photo covers about 30 hectares and, in the late 1940s included… well, not much. In fact, the most notable thing about the image is how few buildings or streets there are… just a brook and a wide expanse of derelict land created when the coal pits went out of use. But within 50 years this had all been replaced by suburban streets, homes for hundreds of people, public green space (Stowlawn Wood), and two schools (Stowlawn Primary and Green Park)… now visible on the Google map (below) for the same area.

The reconstruction of Stowlawn is interesting in itself. But it’s a story which has been repeated dozens of times around the Black Country. At least 30 square kilometres of housing (in other words 100 times the size of our 1948 photo) has been built on former collieries.  Maybe your street has been too?

> The change from mining to residential streets across the whole Black Country can be see in ‘two hundred years in twenty seconds
> An example of how a pit mound was flattened can be seen in ‘how mountains were moved

How jargon separates us from our past

Sometimes changing fashions in language stop us seeing links between the past and the present.  Take for example the straightforward business of moving things around.

Recently this has been known as the logistics industry.  Previous generations might have called it transport, haulage, or perhaps before that carriage or shipping.  Anyway, in its modern form it has created huge monuments in the new urban landscape, like this building (above).  The motorways which spawn them are of course already old (if the M5 were a person, it would be retiring by now, having started work in the 1960s) but the web of feeder roads, retail parks and distribution sheds continues to grow in the 21st century.

The modern Black Country, and particularly Sandwell, has been a centre for logistics.  Nationally one in every ten worked in the industry in 2005, but in Sandwell the proportion was one in seven—and 50,000 jobs in the Black Country overall.

The building in the photo is next to the M5. At 340 metres or so it had, until recently, a claim to being the longest in the English Midlands.  That is, until another longer one was built down the road (see below).  But despite the changes in the jargon along the way there is an interesting continuity in this spot.  When two centuries ago they were looking to invest in logistics in the same place, they cut a canal through the summit of the ridge to reach Birmingham.  A bit later, some canal improvement created a bigger cut—an artificial valley through the summit, claimed to be the largest excavation in the world at the time. Generations later, the building above was laid out on the canals’ spoil heaps, a reminder perhaps that logistics is older than we might think.

> the location of the building
> the location of an even longer building
> the location of this sign on the canal summit (left)

Two hundred years in twenty seconds

People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes in an instant. But what if a place could see it’s own long history unfold in just a few moments? Even in the last two hundred years or so, the Black Country has gone through some momentus changes – something we don’t always realise when we look around the area today. From a collection of scattered rural settlements, through the massive nineteenth century exploitation of coal and iron resources, to its reincarnation as the home to a million people, this short video clip tries to visualise what a birds-eye view of change in the Black Country might have looked like:

Read more about changes to the Black Country landscape here
Black Country Historic Landscape Characterisation

Four thousand holes in Bilston Staffordshire

Visitors sometimes say that the Black Country has its fair share of derelict land. But what we see today is, in historical terms, just a trifle.
To understand why the local landscape is the way it is in the 21st century, we have to appreciate that the struggle to regenerate the area has been an epic task, one which has challenged both local people and authorities in the region for more than a hundred years. It is also fair to say that it has been a struggle of national significance.  This map from 1964 for example shows both Lancashire and Staffordshire confronting dereliction on a very unusual scale, the case of Staffordshire not assisted by a hefty chunk of disused land in the Black Country.
You might ask if this is anything to be proud of.  Maybe not, but it helps to put recent regeneration projects, vitally important as they are, in some kind of perspective.  It also means that the regeneration which has taken place in the Black Country has been set against a challenge the scale of which has not been faced in most other places.
Read more about derelict land in the Black Country

A changing landscape

Have you ever wondered where the photo on the home page of black country history was taken? It’s a great image, and we know it shows the Pleck Road, Walsall in 1934. But we can pinpoint where it was taken from? Luckily we have a couple of surviving landmarks in the distinctive tower of the offices of the workhouse, and the spire of St Matthew’s Church on the hill in the distance. A couple of other clues: the camera appears to be looking down from an embankment on to a fence in the foreground. Putting these together might put the photographer on the edge of the reservoir which used to be near the workhouse (see map). One of the interesting things about this image is that the cheek-by-jowl existence of farming and industry in the Black Country of the 1930s was already a relic – elsewhere the residential suburbs we know today had already started to cover the open land.  So, at the time this was taken what it showed was really already more representative of an earlier landscape phase. (Note that the original photo is held by Walsall Local History Centre).