If you saw this image out of context you might think it was an x-ray of a smoke-tarred lung… or perhaps, on a grander scale, the clouds of a violent electrical storm caught in an instant.
In fact it represents more than 2,000 square kilometres of river systems (that’s about 35 miles by 25 miles) in the West Midlands centred on Oldbury.
The white areas are the high ground (including the diagonal limestone ridge from Sedgley to Northfield). In the bottom left are the lower, darker zones of the Stour and Severn valleys while, leaving the image in the middle-right, more dark spidery traces represent the tributaries of the Tame flowing east through Birmingham.
In the Black Country itself (the centre of the image) the rivers are small and difficult to navigate, leading to the popularity of the canals from the 18th century, and their legacy in the landscape today.
> Read more about why the altitude of the Black Country is important – Where the old bull is really on the level
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
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
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’
It’s pretty clear that historic buildings and structures we see around us everyday can tell us something about the way we used to live. But should we just think of them as a bit of nostalgia? Or can they also help us think about the way the future should look?
In the case of one Black Country town, a project set out to capture the thoughts and ideas of local people and feed them into the process of planning the future. The project website includes all the results… photos, a mural (part of it shown here), oral history recordings and some great dramatic scripts… including one about a fictional local history group whose committee chooses to ignore any history after 1956. Why stop at 1956? Visit the Brierley Hillness website and find out.
> Read What is Brierley Hillness? By Suzanne Carter
> Visit the Brierley Hillness website
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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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.