Where in History – Stourbridge

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In this series, we ask teachers and educationalists to travel back in time and choose the historical place, time or event that they would have liked to have witnessed. Here, editor Aaron Wilkes shares his thoughts.

I live in Wordsley, on the edges of the Black Country town of Stourbridge.

It isn’t the best-known market town in the UK, but is has some notable claims to fame – the lexicographer Samuel Johnson went to school in the town, and Frank Foley (the relatively little-known “British Schindler”) retired to Stourbridge after the war.

However, Stourbridge is probably best known for its rich glassmaking heritage (the local football team are called The Glassboys) – and one of only four remaining glass cones in the UK is about half a mile from my home.

So, where is it?

For those who might be a little unsure of the exact location of the Black Country itself – join the club.

I’m not Black Country born and bred – I simply adopted the area (or it adopted me) when I moved here for a teaching role over 20 years ago.

Stourbridge has one of only four glass cones left in Britain

But I’m still not sure where the region begins and ends.

Locals still argue over which towns and villages should and shouldn’t be included in any definition.

Some say that the Black Country is anywhere within a five-mile radius of Dudley Castle, or within “an hour’s weary trudge” of Dudley town centre.

Others believe Cradley Heath is the centre of the Black Country … or Tipton… or West Bromwich.

However, the general consensus is that the Black Country covers the four boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Why ‘Black Country’?

As you might guess there are also arguments over the origins of the term Black Country.

Some say the name is related to a 30ft seam of coal (also called the South Staffordshire Seam), which is said to be the thickest layer of coal in Britain.

It comes to the surface in the Black Country, making the soil particularly dark.

However, by that definition, Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Smethwick are not in the Black Country – because the coal doesn’t surface there. Confused? I certainly am!

Most, however, think the region earned its name from the muck and filth from the thousands of foundries, factories and forges that dominated the landscape during the 19th Century.

Alongside glass, the workers churned out all sorts of metalware – chains, nails, rivets, anchors, boilers, pans, cauldrons, pots, hooks, and tubes.

Indeed, the Black Country is considered to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – Abraham Darby I (the first of the Darby dynasty) was born in Dudley in 1677, the world’s first recorded Newcomen steam engine was built near Dudley Castle in 1712 and James Watt opened his revolutionary Soho Foundry in Smethwick in 1796.

Later in the industrial age, the anchor and chains for Titanic were made in Netherton.

An American influencer

But how did the name stick?

It’s thought that an American diplomat and travel writer, Elihu Burritt, brought the term into common usage in the 1860s when he wrote that the region was “black by day and red by night”.

He also wrote that the region “cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe” … which was a compliment of sorts!

Queen Victoria, however, didn’t really help the area’s reputation when – so the story goes – she pulled down the blinds in her train carriage as she passed through the region because she was so offended by the sight of the dirty, smoky, fiery industrial landscape.

Why then?

So where am I going with all this? I often ask myself this question when I sit down to write.

In short, I want to go back to the beginnings of all this. To the time when Britain was on the edge of monumental change.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been fascinated with the ‘just before’.

I’m not sure where it comes from at all – but the idea of Britain on the eve of things really fascinates me – the years before the outbreak of the Great War as Europe sleepwalked towards conflict, or the excitement as Titanic took shape in Harland and Wolff’s shipyard in Belfast.

Perhaps it’s the idea of ‘if only they knew’ or ‘if they could just see a few years down the line’.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

Why there?

So, bringing it back to the area I love – I would love to see those first reactions to a fully functioning steam engine, or what people said when the earliest factories in the Black Country started to pump out smoke.

What was said over dinner when the first glass cone took shape on the Wordsley horizon?

Or what was the reaction of farming folk of Stourbridge when they heard that Foster, Rastrick and Company was going to open a foundry to start manufacturing steam locomotives to export to the US (“What are steam locomotives, mother?”)?!?

There must have been conversations about the noise, about the dirt and muck getting on the washing when it was hung out to dry, or the way the fields were disappearing or, more sinisterly, the first conversation about the more frequent coughing fits people were having.

We see it today, don’t we? We see fields and woodlands disappearing all too often.

We see technology transform our lives. And we see our actual jobs – the tasks we do on a day-to-day basis – change all the time.

But imagine what it must have been like in those early years of the Industrial Revolution – it was a fundamental, sea-change to British life. And it must have been mind-blowing! I’d love to see it.

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