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The Black Country is a loosely defined area of the English West Midlands conurbationmarker, to the north and west of Birminghammarker.By the late 19th century, this area had become one of the most intensely industrialised in the nation. The South Staffordshire coal mines, the coal coking operations, and the iron foundries and steel mills that used the local coal to fire their furnaces, produced a level of air pollution that had few equals anywhere in the world.

It is popularly believed that The Black Country got its name because of pollution from these heavy industries that covered the area in black soot. There is an anecdote (of dubious authenticity) about Queen Victoria ordering the blinds lowered on her carriage as the royal train passed through. However, historians suggest that it is more likely that the name existed even before the Industrial Revolution; outcroppings of black coal scarred the surface of the local heath, and the presence of coal so near the surface rendered the local soil very black.

The Black Country is also known for its distinctive dialect, which differs slightly in various parts of the region.

Despite its close proximity to Birmingham, the vast majority of the Black Country's population refuse to claim membership of the city, and are fiercely proud of their area's identity as a separate region.

Geography

The bounds of the Black Country, however, are controversial, and the whole of Wolverhampton is included by some and not at all by others. The usual 21st century definition of the Black Country encompasses the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsallmarker and the City of Wolverhamptonmarker. The town of Dudleymarker is sometimes referred to as being the Black Country's (unofficial) capital.

An older, more precise, de facto definition uses geology and follows the outcroppings of the South Staffordshire "thick" coal seam known locally as the "thirty foot seam", as bounded by the eastern and western boundary faults and on the north by the Bentley fault which divides the South Staffordshiremarker coalfield from the adjoining Cannock Chasemarker coalfield. Near Halesowenmarker and Stourbridgemarker, the coal seams outcropped, providing a southern boundary. On this basis parts of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Stourbridge are not part of the Black Country but West Bromwichmarker is, although here the thirty foot seam is at relative depth. These delineations are still of importance locally.

A useful guide for outsiders is to regard the M5 and M6 motorways as the eastern boundary but this, even using the 21st century definition is only approximately correct, as Smethwickmarker is to the east of it and most of Walsall lies north east of the M6 motorway. The definition is simply wrong using the older geological definition.

The Black Country has coalesced into a single conurbation, but is unusual in that it has no single centre, having grown up from a number of historic market towns and industrial villages that have coalesced during the 20th century. It remains essentially polyfocal with many of the towns and villages remaining recognisable communities and in some cases resenting having been subsumed into a metropolitan borough whose centre is elsewhere.

The Black Country lies wholly within the West Midlands County, but was formerly divided between the ancient counties of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Curiously, the ancient parish (and pre-1966 municipal borough) of Dudley was once a detached part of Worcestershire within Staffordshire and some still consider Dudley to be Dudley, Worcs. Even more strangely, until 1845, much of the parish of Halesowenmarker, including Oldburymarker and Warley Salop (but not Cradley or Warley Wigorn) was a detached part of Shropshiremarker.

Since 1974, the Black Country has consisted of four local authorities - Dudley, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Walsall, but had previously consisted of several smaller boroughs and urban districts. In 1966, Dudley took in most of Sedgley and Brierley Hill, while Coseley was split between Dudley and Wolverhampton, which in turn took in Tettenhall, Wednesfield and Bilston. West Bromwich annexed most of Tipton and Wednesbury, while parts of Tipton and Dudley were annexed into the new borough of Warley which mainly consisted of Oldbury, Smethwick and Rowley Regis. Dudley expanded further in 1974 to incorporate Halesowen and Stourbridge, while West Bromwich and Warley merged at this time to form Sandwell.

Walsall, on the other hand, took in the neighbouring towns of Darlaston and Willenhall in 1966, and expanded further in 1974 when Aldridge-Brownhills (a district generally not regarded as part of the Black Country) was incorporated into it.

The Black Country comprises parts of the towns of Bilstonmarker, Blackheathmarker,, Brierley Hillmarker, Brownhillsmarker, Coseleymarker, Cradley, Cradley Heathmarker, Darlastonmarker, Dudleymarker, Gornalmarker, Great Bridgemarker, Halesowenmarker, Kingswinfordmarker, Lyemarker, Nethertonmarker, Oldburymarker, Old Hillmarker, Quarry Bankmarker, Rowley Regismarker, Sedgleymarker, Smethwickmarker, Stourbridgemarker, Tiptonmarker, Walsallmarker, Warleymarker, Wednesburymarker, Wednesfieldmarker, West Bromwichmarker, Willenhallmarker and Wordsleymarker.

History

Industrialisation in the Black Country goes far back. It was already an area where metal working was important as far back as the 16th century, due to the presence of iron ore and of coal in a seam thick, the thickest seam in Great Britainmarker, which outcropped in various places. Many people had an agricultural smallholding and supplemented their income by working as nailers or smiths, an example of a phenomenon known to economic historians as proto-industrialisation.

In 1642 at the start of the Civil War, Charles I failed to capture the two arsenals of Portsmouth and Hull, which although in cities loyal to Parliament were located in counties loyal to him. As he had failed to capture the arsenals, Charles did not possess any supply of swords, pikes, guns, or shot; all these the Black Country could and did provide. From Stourbridgemarker came shot, from Dudleymarker cannon. The numberless small forges which then existed on every brook in the north of Worcestershire turned out successive supplies of sword blades and pike heads. It was said that among the many causes of anger Charles had against Birmingham was that one of the best sword makers of the day, a man named Robert Porter, who lived and made his blades in Worcestershire, but sold them in Birmingham, refused at any price to supply swords for "that man of blood" (A Puritan nickname for King Charles), or any of his adherents. As an offset to this sword maker, the Royalists had among their adherents Colonel Dud Dudley, who had invented a means of smelting iron by the use of coke, and who claimed he could turn out "all sorts of bar iron fit for making of muskets, carbines, and iron for great bolts", both more cheaply, more speedily and more excellent than could be done in any other way. His method was employed on the King's behalf.

By the 19th century or early 20th century, many villages had their characteristic manufacture, but earlier occupations were less concentrated. Some of these concentrations are less ancient than sometimes supposed. For example, chain making in Cradley Heath seems only to have begun in about the 1820s, and the Lyemarker holloware industry is even more recent.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, coal and limestone were worked only on a modest scale for local consumption, but during the Industrial Revolution by the opening of canals, such as the Birmingham Canal Navigationsmarker, Stourbridge Canalmarker and the Dudley Canal (the Dudley Canal Line No 1 and the Dudley Tunnelmarker) opened up the mineral wealth of the area to exploitation. Advances in the use of coke for the production in iron enabled iron production (hitherto limited by the supply of charcoal) to expand rapidly.

By Victorian times, the Black Country was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in Britain, and it became known for its pollution, particularly from iron and coal industries and their many associated smaller businesses. This lead to the expansion of local railways and coal mine lines. The Line running from Stourbridge to Walsall via Dudley Portmarker and Wednesburymarker closed in the 1960s, but the Birmingham to Wolverhampton via Tiptonmarker is still a major transport route.

The anchors and chains for the ill-fated liner RMS Titanicmarker were manufactured in the Black Country in the area of Nethertonmarker. Three anchors and accompanying chains were manufactured; and the set weighed in at 100 tons. The centre anchor alone weighed 12 tons and was pulled through Netherton on its journey to the ship by 20 shire horses.

The area soon gained notoriety. Charles Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop, written in 1841, described how the area's local factory chimneys "Poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air". In 1862, Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham, described the region as "black by day and red by night", because of the smoke and grime generated by the intense manufacturing activity and the glow from furnaces at night.

It is said that J. R. R. Tolkien based the grim region of Mordor on the heavily industrialised Black Country area in his famed novel The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Black) Land, and is sometimes even referred to within the novel as "The Black Country".

The Black Country today

The Black Country Tartan
The heavy industry which once dominated the Black Country has now largely gone. The 20th century saw a decline in coalmining and the industry finally came to an end in 1968 with the closure of Baggeridge coalpit near Sedgley. Clean air legislation has meant that the Black Country is no longer black. The area still maintains some manufacturing, but on a much smaller scale than historically.

Much but not all of the area now suffers from high unemployment and is amongst the most economically deprived communities in the UK; this is particularly true in parts of Sandwell and Dudley, and to a lesser extent Wolverhampton and Walsall. As with many urban areas in England, there is also a significant ethnic minority population in parts; resistance to mass immigration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to the slogan "Keep the Black Country white!". Older areas of places such as Smethwick attracted particularly high levels of immigration from Asia and the Caribbeanmarker. Leafier towns such as Sedgley, Coseley and Kingswinford still have predominantly white British communities.

The Black Country suffered its biggest economic blows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when unemployment soared largely due to the closure of historic large factories including the Round Oak Steel Works at Brierley Hill and the Patent Shaft steel plant at Wednesbury. Unemployment rose drastically across the country during this period as part of prime minister Margaret Thatcher's battle against inflation as well as the modernisation process of Britain's industrial climate, but these areas were designated as Enterprise Zones and within a few years had been redeveloped. Round Oak and the surrounding farmland was developed as the Merry Hill Shopping Centre and Waterfront commercial and leisure complex, while the Patent Shaft site was developed as an industrial estate.

The Black Country Living Museummarker in Dudley recreates life in the Black Country in the early 20th century, and is a popular tourist attraction.

The Black Country now has its own tartan, designed by Philip Tibbetts from Halesowen. The Black Country Tartan black, red, white and yellow, denoting coal, red sunsets, the iron industry and Mercia's flag. Mr Tibbetts said the red was representative of an old saying which went, "the Black Country is black by day and red by night". In 2008 he designed a Black Country coat of arms and flag.

"Black Country Woman" is the fourteenth song on English rock band Led Zeppelin's 1975 album Physical Graffiti.

Black Country dialect

The traditional Black Country dialect preserves many archaic traits of Early Modern English and even Middle English, and can be very confusing for outsiders. Thee, Thy and Thou are still in use, as is the case in parts of Yorkshiremarker and Lancashiremarker. "'Ow B'ist", meaning "How beist thou?" is a common greeting, with the typical answering being "'Bay too bah", meaning "I bayn't be too bad". "I haven't seen her" becomes "I ay sid 'er". Black Country dialect often uses "ar" where other parts of England use "yes" (this is common as far away as Yorkshire. Similarly, the local version of "you" is "yow" ( ). The local pronunciation "goo" (elswehere "go") or "gooin'" is similar to that elsewhere in the Midlands. It is uite common for broad Black Country speakers to say agooin where others say going. (Please note that not all of the phrases used here to illustrate Black Country dialect can be heard throughout the entire Black Country area; most refer to the Dudley area alone.)

Inhabitants are proud to be known as Black Country "folk" and resist hints at any relationship to people living in Birmingham, calling Birmingham "Brum-a-jum" (Birmingham's colloquial name is Brummagem, a corruption of its older name of Bromwicham and hence West Bromwich) or Birminam (missing the g and h out and saying it the way it's spelt). Residents of Birmingham (Brummies) meanwhile often refer to their Black Country neighbours as "Yam Yams", a reference to the use of "Yow am" ( or yow'm) instead of "You are", and not because they say i yam instead of I am, in fact the phrase om is often used instead of I am in the area. Dudley residents often refer to the people of Birmingham as 'Dummy Brummies'. Also, the town of Walsallmarker can be pronounced either War-sall or Wor-sull, with a strong Walsall accent considered to be typical "yam-yam."

The strong Black Country dialect is less commonly heard today than in the past. However, a stronger variation of the dialect (than the one frequently used) appears to be heard quite often in conversations between older Black Country folk.

A 1997 roadsign written in Black Country dialect.
A road sign containing local dialect was placed at the A461/A459/A4037 junction in 1997 before the construction of a traffic island on the site. The sign read, in translation, "If you're daft enough to come down here on your way home, your tea will be spoilt." This island was completed in 1998 and was the first phase of the Dudley Southern By-Pass which was opened on 15 October 1999.

The word endings with 'en' are still noticeable in conversation as in 'gooen' (going), callen (calling) and the vowel 'A' is pronounced as 'O' as in sond (sand), hond (hand), opple (apple), sponner (spanner) and mon (man). Other pronunciations are 'winder' for window, 'fer' for far, and 'loff' for laugh . Local dialect was (and probably still is to a lesser degree) quite distinctive between the different towns and villages of the Black Country. Although most outsiders to the Black Country cannot tell this difference, Black Country folk can quite fiercely defend the difference between the accents.

A few examples of Black Country words are "babby" for baby, "alf baerked" for stupid, "argy-bargy" for fight and "bostin" to mean "very good".

Media

The Black Country is home to two radio stations Beacon Radio and Gold while the city of Wolverhamptonmarker has its own local station called 107.7 The Wolf. Both Beacon and Radio WABC (now called Gold) have broadcast since 1976 from transmitter sites from Turner's Hillmarker in neighbouring Rowley Regismarker, with the studios being located in Wolverhampton.

The Express and Star is one of the region's two daily newspapers, publishing eleven local editions from its Wolverhampton headquarters (for example the Dudley edition will have a different front page from the Wolverhampton or Stafford editions). Incidentally the Express and Star, traditionally a Black Country paper has expanded to the point where they sell copies from vendors in Birminghammarker city centre.The Black Country Mail - a local edition of the Birmingham Mail - is the region's other daily newspaper. Its regional base is in Walsallmarker town centre.

Recently the 'Black Country Alphabet' and the Black Country Tee-Shirts company have helped to demonstrate the accent and dialect further across the country.

In September 2009 a group of Black Country film-makers showcased a variety of video poems about the area and its cultural identity. The films were exhibited at Wolverhampton's Light House Media Centre. Local film and digital media agency Screen West Midlands referred to the event as “Personal, Instinctual & Organic Video Poetry of everyday life.”.The event was a way of embracing the Black Country's distinctive cultural characteristics in the medium of film.

References

Further reading

  • Raybould, T.J. (1973). The Economic Emergence of the Black Country: A Study of the Dudley Estate. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5995-9.
  • Rowlands, M. B. (1975). Masters and Men in the West Midlands metalware trades before the industrial revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Gale, W. K. V. (1966). The Black Country Iron Industry: a technical history London: The Iron and Steel Institute.
  • Higgs, L. (2004) A Description of Grammatical Features and Their Variation in the Black Country Dialect Schwabe Verlag Basel.
  • Led Zeppelin (1975). "Black Country Woman," Physical Graffiti.


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