8 Things to Know About the Black Country

The Black Country, in the West Midlands, is roughly made up of towns within the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton – although you won’t find any official borders on the map, or any two Yam Yams that agree on it!

The name has been in use since the mid-19th century and is thought to refer to the colour of the coal seam or the air pollution from the many thousands of foundries and factories around at the time; in 1862, Elihu Burritt famously described the area as being ‘black by day and red by night’.

Here we look at eight things you should know about the Black Country.

1. Built the first successful steam engine

Replica Newcomen engine, Black Country Living Museum C Chris Allen
Replica Newcomen engine, Black Country Living Museum © Chris Allen

Black Country day is on 14 July – this day was chosen as its considered to be the date of the inception of the Newcomen engine, the first commercially successful engine.

Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, it was first installed at Coneygree Coal Works in Tipton. It was used to pump water out of mines. Handsworth-born James Watt made improvements in 1778, which made steam power even more efficient.

You can see the world’s only full scale replica at the Black Country Living Museum.

2. Played a pivotal role in the Gunpowder Plot

Holbeche House
Holbeche House © Historic England Archive gun01_01_041

Holbeche House (now a care home) in Wall Heath near Dudley, saw many of the plotters make their last stand after the arrest of Guy Fawkes in London.

The fugitives had gone on the run and taken shelter in the mansion, owned by Stephen Lyttelton. Robert Catesby, the leader, and co-conspirator Thomas Percy, were killed in the shoot-out with the Sheriff of Worcester and his men on 7 November 1605.

The Gunpowder plot, the conspirator's last stand at Holbeache House
The Gunpowder plot, the conspirator’s last stand at Holbeache House, courtesy of Wiki Commons

3. Produced the anchor for the Titanic

RMS Titanic, photograph courtesy of Wiki Commons

N. Hingley & Sons Ltd was a large scale chain and anchor manufacturing works originally based in Cradley, but moved to Netherton around 1852.

In 1911, they made the anchor for the Titanic. It was towed to Dudley train station by 20 shire horses.

4. A site of geological importance

Seven Sisters Cavern at the Wren’s Nest
Seven Sisters Cavern at the Wren’s Nest, 1984. Photograph by Peter Parkes

The Black Country officially became a ‘world-famous’ UNESCO Global Geopark in July 2020 for its internationally important geology. Much of the region lies upon an exposed coalfield where mining has taken place since the Middle Ages, while Dudley and Wren’s Nest also have Limestone mines.

The Wren’s Nest was designated Britain’s first National Nature Reserve for geology in 1956. Fossil remains, some dating from 420 million years ago, have been found in the area.

The trilobite ‘Calymene blumenbachii’ was found so often by the quarry men in the 19th-century that it became known as the ‘Dudley Bug’ or ‘Dudley Locust’.

trilobite fossil
Trilobite fossil, Calymene blumenbachii, 000426, photograph by Black Country Museums

5. Home to a set of rare Modernist buildings

Dudley Zoo sees hundred of thousands of visitors every year. Next time you go to see the giraffes, take another look at the set of Modernist buildings so rare they’ve achieved World Monuments Fund status.

Constructed between 1935 and 1937, the 12 structures comprising the complex were designed by the Tecton practice, a London-based association founded in 1932 by Berthold Lubetkin that was instrumental in bringing modernist architecture to Britain. They’re listed at Grade II* and Grade II.

This complex survives as the only collection of interrelated Tecton designs in Britain and one of few remaining throughout Europe.

6. Fueled the introduction of the first minimum wage

The 1910 Cradley Heath women’s strike attracted mass publicity and nationwide support. © & source TUCLIB.

In 1910 the women chainmakers were amongst the most poorly paid workers in Britain.

The National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) was formed in 1906 by Mary Macarthur  to organise women against the sweated industries and fight for a minimum wage. When the chainmakers were denied the minimum weekly wage of 11s (55p) set by the Trades Board Act, Macarthur brought the 800 women (most of whom were NFWW members) out on strike in 1910.

The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute © Black Country Living Museum

The Workers’ Institute was built to commemorate the women’s struggle. It served as a trade union headquarters, community education and social centre.

Read more about Mary Macarther and the Sweated Industries

7. Helped build London’s Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace © Historic England cc97_00767

The glass and the majority of ironwork for the building that hosted the world famous Grand Exhibition in 1851 were made in the Black Country.

Chance Brothers was a glassworks based in Smethwick (though debatable whether it’s in the Black Country!). They were one of the first companies to produce very long pieces of window glass. At the time the glass sheets used in the construction of the Crystal Palace were the largest sheets ever made.

8. Harboured Charles II during the English Civil War

Moseley Old Hall, photograph by Selwyn Ray

Moseley Old Hall, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, was one of the hiding places of King Charles II when he went on the run from Cromwell’s army, following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

The priest hole where the exhausted King hid from the search parties in 1651 is still there. He also stopped in Shropshire’s Boscobel House and Bentley Hall near Walsall. You can trace Charles’ escape route from Worcester via Bristol and Yeovil to West Sussex to Europe, known as the ‘Monarch’s Way’.

For more information on the history of the Black Country please visit Black Country History, the Black Country Living Museum and take a look at Historic England: The Black Country

Further Reading

4 responses to 8 Things to Know About the Black Country

  1. Ray Bird says:

    An interesting alternative perspective on the Black Country. Just two other reasons for visiting might include Belsize House, birthplace of Jerome K Jerome, and the ‘New’ Art Gallery by Peter St John & Adam Caruso, home to the Garman-Ryan Collection. Both sites in Walsall town centre.

  2. Phil says:

    I like the description, ‘roughly made up of towns within the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.’

    Traditionalists would argue that contrary to popular belief, the Black Country does not comprise of those metropolitan boroughs but is a region WITHIN them that overlaps parts of the metropolitan areas.

  3. Peter Glews says:

    Don’t forget the first 5 cars to hold the World Land Speed Record were built locally.

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