The Black Country, in the West Midlands, is roughly made up of towns within the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton,
However, you won’t find any official borders on the map or 2 Yam Yams agreeing 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, American diplomat Elihu Burritt famously described the area as ‘black by day and red by night’.
1. It built the first successful steam engine
Black Country Day is celebrated on 14 July, considered 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. Scottish inventor James Watt made improvements in 1778, which made steam power even more efficient.
You can see the world’s only full-scale replica of the Newcomen engine at the Black Country Living Museum.
2. It played a pivotal role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605
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.
3. It produced the anchor for the Titanic
N. Hingley & Sons Ltd was a large-scale chain and anchor manufacturing work based in Cradley but moved to Netherton around 1852.
In 1911, they made the anchor for the Titanic. It was towed to the train station by 20 shire horses.
4. It’s a site of geological importance
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 occurred 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, with some dating from 420 million years ago, have been found in the area.
The trilobite ‘Calymene blumenbachii’ was often found by the quarrymen in the 19th century it became known as the ‘Dudley Bug’ or ‘Dudley Locust’.
5. It’s home to a set of rare Modernist buildings
Dudley Zoo sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Next time you visit 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.
This complex survives as the only collection of interrelated Tecton designs in Britain and one of few remaining throughout Europe.
6. It fueled the introduction of the first minimum wage
In 1910 the women chain makers were amongst Britain’s most poorly paid workers.
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 chain makers 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 Workers’ Institute was built to commemorate the women’s struggle. It served as a trade union headquarters, community education and social centre.
7. It helped build London’s Crystal Palace
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 glasswork based in Smethwick. 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. King Charles II travelled through it during the English Civil War
King Charles II made stops across the West Midlands, Shropshire and Staffordshire during his time on the run after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
He possibly journeyed through the Black Country, with stories of him passing through Himley and drinking beer on streets near Stourbridge.
Arguably not quite in the Black Country but just on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, Moseley Old Hall hid the exhausted King in a priest hole, which 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’.
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.
Mist interesting thanks
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.
Of course some of these traditionalist are putting a boundary on a term that was used over a hundred years before they were born.
Don’t forget the first 5 cars to hold the World Land Speed Record were built locally.
My Grandfather Mr James A Wright owned a coal pit and many barges which used to carry the coal on the canals throughout the midlands in 1880/1950. I am not sure of the exact dates but he was very well known, he lived in the small village of Wombourn, he also owned several sand and gravel beds
at the same time. I found your artical very interesting and am interested to hear from you if you have any further information.
I came from smethwick born in 1958 and moved to new Zealand in 1968.i can remember some of the foundries near where I was born one in particular was the district iron and steel on Brasshouse lane opposite my grandparents and I’d course
the vast complex known as the Birmid works which I think was part of the mmc or the midland cylinder company .back in 2007 I returned to smethwick form pilgrimage of sorts only to find the birmid and the district iron and steel leveled. One thing I remember was the barges tying up
at the jetty on the canal on Brasshouse
Lane unloading pig iron .there was a pub
across from the iron works which had been turned into a museum.i also remember the old pump house which straddles the two canals at the time the place was abandoned and a total wreck.nice to see it restored.
I was interested to read Geoff’s comment above. It took me back some 50 years (or more) to when I used to visit my dad’s precision engineering works.
‘Junction Works’ was located at the rear of a neat Victorian terrace with gardens at the rear. For me, as a 12 year old, its attraction was that it was sited on the edge of the Galton Valley, adjacent to Galton Bridge. It overlooked the Birmid Works (mentioned above) on the opposite side.
I recall being captivated by the intensity of activity that went on within the network of canals and railways within the valley – coal still reined supreme – from the power of fast express trains to the tranquility of barges.
I was in the area some years’ ago and was saddened by the scale and impact of redevelopment. Thankfully, we have remnants of its history still remaining, including the Grade I Galton Bridge.
The following website may be of interest.
Nice bit of history apart from the fact that Dudley doesn’t have a train station, there is Dudley Port but this is in Tipton and on that note Tipton had 4 train stations and the most extensive canal network in the country. Showing how important it was. Later it also had the biggest gasworks in Europe and the biggest slaughterhouse in Europe!!!
Dudley did have a train station year and years ago
There are some very special historic pubs with breweries in the area, notably The Beacon, Sedgley, The Old Swan (Ma Pardoes), Netherton and The Vine (Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill. All are highly recommended for a visit.