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