A Black Country Night Out

When David Vodden came along to our meeting in September he provided us with an amazing panorama of life in the Black Country from the setting up of James Gibbons Ltd - the oldest lock making firm in Great Britain in 1680, to a recent book published in conjunction with the Black Country Museum and its 26 acres of living history on the site at Dudley and a 1991 map of the area. During the course of his slide presentation we visited scenes in Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Darlaston, Bilston, Stourbridge, Netherton, Willenhall, Sedgley, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Smethwick and Bloxwich - quite a journey!

The most striking description of these very busy centres was written down in 1868 - "Black by day and red by night". This covered the contribution of blast furnaces, coal mining, lime kilns, coking processes, ironworks, rolling mills, forgers, chainmakers, munitions sheds, lock shops, glassmaking and anchor manufacture. The social side of life of this part of England was extremely varied from that of the Earl of Dudley in his large country house, Whitney Court, (where 1500 tons of coal was needed each week to keep the family warm and well fed and where Christmas guests were given jewels as tree presents) to Lucy Woodall, who was the daughter of a lady nail maker and was herself the last chainmaker in the industry. Having left school at the age of 13 to become an apprentice (and work a 5 1/2 day a week for a wage of four shillings) she toiled for 60 years before retiring in 1973.

The Albert Works in Darlaston were started by a blacksmith, John Covington, whose work during the war years led to making castings for the car industry after the war ended. Contribution to the war effort earned a peerage to Ray Brooks, Lord Brooks of West Bromwich - who had started a club for employees who worked for him for forty years and subsequently an Evergreen Club for former employees who were able to keep their working friendships going and travel abroad on holidays. We heard about the Mushroom Green Squatters - the chainmakers with little backyard workshops, working in a subsequently gentrified hamlet in the area.

The family associated with the Wellman Smith Owen Company did actually buy a home so that they could look out over the works! The products of the factories were very well represented in the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 - indeed Chance's of Oldbury made all the glass for the building, put together under the chairmanship of Prince Albert, and his firm also made prism lenses for the lighthouse which was made famous by Grace Darling following her efforts to rescue survivors from the stricken ship Forfarshire in 1838. Crabtree and Company who produced fuses for shells during World War II built a factory, the Lincoln Works in Walsall, and still have a works in Brownhills - Mr Crabtree was a kind and generous employer. In 1916 we were told, an eight year old boy made a chain visor for use in the bomb disposal squads - almost unbelievable.

Wightwick Manor, built by the Mander paint family (who are still in business), is now owned by the National Trust.

Transport was illustrated in many ways - the good old horse and cart, the steam tram, an electric tram, a blue Walsall trolleybus, an old Buick, some old petrol pumps, the monorail into the Merryhill Centre, built on the site of the old Round Oak Iron works, a form of transport now abandoned on health and safety grounds and a bobby on a bike!

An unusual scene of the ice-breaker, North Star IV, rocking side to side in order to break up the ice on a canal in the winter of 1950 led to the comment, that there were more miles of river and canal waterways in Birmingham than in Venice - borne out by the map showing the waterways concerned.

Modern times in the Black Country introduced the Dudley Ring Road and our heritage trail concluded with pictures of Smethwick Swimming Baths, a group of tennis players of yester-year, the Bloxwich Men's Hockey XI, the Darlaston Football Club and finally our tour reached the Enoch and Eli Wesleyan Chapel and the gas-lit museum. All in all an incredible journey.

Brenda Towlson
September 2002