The Black Country and its Industries

The Black Country.

Over the last 50 years the Black Country has changed beyond recognition, much of it becoming rural in character. Few traces remain of the once great industries and the mining that dominated the area.

It is now hard to imagine how things were, and how people used to live in those not too far off days.

In 1872 Samuel Griffiths wrote his excellent Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain, which was published the following year. It includes much about the Black Country including the following description of the main industries of the time.

The original does contain a few errors which I have amended.

It has been known from ancient times that Staffordshire was rich in ironstone and coal. Plott often refers to this circumstance in his history of Staffordshire. Even in more remote ages, during the Roman occupation, iron was manufactured in the neighbourhood of Dudley by primitive means then in vogue, charcoal was made from the wood of the dense forests which at that time overspread the undulating territory, now in the possession of the Earl of Dudley, the priceless value of which could not be accurately estimated at the present day, owing to the inexhaustible seam of coal varying from ten to fifteen yards in thickness, the best quality in the world for iron making and ironstone, which the crust of the earth contains in this vast princely domain.

The Black Country commences at Wolverhampton, extends eastward a distance of sixteen miles to Stourbridge, eight miles to West Bromwich, penetrating the northern district through Willenhall to Bentley, Walsall, Birchills, and Warley; embracing under its darkened canopy of smoky atmosphere the townships of Wolverhampton and Willenhall, with their locks and japannery, their curry combs and boiling cauldrons of galvanizing spelter; Walsall and Darlaston, with their stirrups and bridle bits, nuts, bolts, and other railway appliances; Wednesbury, with its gas-tubes, foundries, gun-locks, and coach springs; Smethwick and Dudley Port, with a thousand swarming hives of metallurgical industries on the banks of the rail and canal companies, too numerous to mention.

In this immediate vicinity we have Chance's monster glass works at Spon Lane; and the great alkali works of the same firm at Oldbury. Here we have likewise Muntz's patent metal works. The great works of the Patent Nut and Bolt Company, the Patent Rivet Company, the Plate Glass Company, and Joshua Horton's boiler yard, of worldwide fame, are all situated at Smethwick.

W. Barrows and Sons' Bloomfield Iron Works at Tipton.

West Bromwich and Hilltop are contiguous; here enamelled and tinned pots, kettles, and saucepans are manufactured, in all shapes and sizes, on the most extensive scale. Oldbury lives close by, where with bated pulsation, under a constant cloud of black smoke, the vivifying rays of the sun being obscured here by the volumes of almost material carbon floating in the atmosphere. On the one hand there is the destructive effect of the smoke on vegetation, on the other, of the hydrochloric, sulphurous, and chlorine gas evolved from numerous chemical works almost in the heart of this devoted township. Bright grates and fire-irons become rusty in a single night, and all household furniture, which is held together by appliances of iron, suffers much, and all other metals are damaged by these gases in the same proportion.

Iron mines and collieries surround the town, the workmen, on their return from work at the pits in the evening, show honourable traces of the useful labour they have performed, in the soiled garments and dirty faces they present. Vegetation succumbs altogether; scarcely a shrub, a tree, or a green field is to be seen, amid the general devastation of the surface, which presents itself for miles round. The monotony of the landscape being broken only by irregular mounds of earth and mountains of furnace cinders, the former being the disembowelled crust of the earth, removed and brought to grass by the toiling miners, in search of the valuable ironstone and black diamonds; so plentiful in the geological formations of the entire district surrounding Oldbury.

The heaps of furnace cinders are the glassy refuse of molten silica, and lime, which the blast furnace discharges in her process of separating the metal from its matrix, before the iron is consolidated and run out into the pig beds, a considerable quantity of lime being requisite with the ore and coal in the furnace to facilitate the smelting process. Nothing to be seen by day but smoke, heaps of furnace cinders, and abnormal mounds of earth and coals, and by night, the lurid glare of a thousand burning furnaces of various colours, from the blood red of the puddling furnaces, to the yellow and blue flame of the copper works, and the chequered red and white flames, emitted in the largest volumes, from the tunnel heads of the blast furnaces, which may be seen in the distance all round the town.

The Earl of Dudley's thick coal pits.

We next come to Dudley, an important town, completely surrounded on three sides by smoke and flame. This is a great emporium for chains, cables, anchors, grates, fenders and fire-irons, and, above all, for wrought nails, which are brought by the nailers from Sedgley, Gornall, Brierley Hill, the Lye Waste and other districts. The nail factors supply the iron to the men, who produce the nails at a scale of prices mutually agreed upon per pound. Anvils, vices, stove grates, and fenders are likewise made here on a large scale, and a very high class of grates, fenders and fire-irons are made at Marsh's works at Burnt Tree.

Most of the land in the neighbourhood belongs to the Earl of Dudley, whose agent (Mr. Fisher Smith) resides at the Priory, situated in a lovely spot, the grounds of which are charming in the extreme. Frequently while walking and talking with the late Mr. Richard Smith, the former agent, in these grounds, as early as six o'clock on a summer morning, we have remarked to him that this is truly a lovely oasis in the Black Country. Dudley Castle, a fine old monument of the feudal ages, proudly crowns the Castle Hill, in front of the Priory, and is a place of great resort for tourists and pleasure-seekers, who, by permission of the noble Earl of Dudley, have every facility for exploring this fine old ruin, which stands upon gigantic caverns, often illuminated with gas, on state occasions, to gratify the Black Country people, and, as may be supposed, his lordship and the noble countess are very popular with the people.

Brockmoor, Brettle Lane, Wordsley, and Stourbridge, must be included in the Black Country group of towns. Although the atmosphere becomes purer as we get to the higher ground of Brierley Hill (Lord Dudley's famous Round Oak Works are here), nevertheless here also, as far as the eye can reach, on all sides, tall chimneys vomit forth clouds of smoke, and the sulphurous flames of the fiery furnace are observed in all directions. Our feeble efforts to describe these districts will, we hope, satisfactorily explain why it is so emphatically called the' Black Country.'

In this, the Stourbridge and Brierley Hill district, a very extensive business is carried on in the manufacture of fire-bricks of all kinds, used in the construction and relining of blast furnaces, puddling furnaces, cupolas, and air furnaces. The fire-clay deposits here are reputed the best in England, being fashioned into melting pots and gas-making retorts, which fetch high prices; these bricks are exported largely, and are highly prized in all parts of the world, particularly the foreign settlements of the British Empire, the general opinion being that they resist the highest temperatures in smelting furnaces of any others which have yet been produced. Perhaps Ruffords, Mrs. Emily Gibbons, and Pearson and Harrisons, make the best quality. Mrs. Gibbons, relict of the late Benjamin Gibbons, Esq., the well-known ironmaster of the Millfields furnaces, we are informed by Mr. Jones, of the Commercial Gas Works, here stands unrivalled for the manufacture of these Gas Retorts.

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