Black Country

Black Country

The Flag of the Black Country, with colours representing Elihu Burrit's description of the region as “black by day and red by night”,[1] adopted July 2012
The boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall highlighted within the West Midlands metropolitan county

The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands in England, north and west of Birmingham,[2] including Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell. In the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialised parts of Britain with coal mines, coking, iron foundries and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution.

The 14-mile road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham was described as "one continuous town" in 1785.[3] The first trace of The Black Country as an expression dates from the 1840s[4] and it is believed that name comes from the black soot from heavy industries that covered the area, although the 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible reason.


  • Borders 1
    • Cultural and industrial definition 1.1
    • Geological definitions 1.2
  • Toponymy 2
  • History 3
  • Symbols 4
  • Economy 5
    • Enterprise zone 5.1
  • Dialect and accent 6
  • Media 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


The Black Country has no defined borders[5] but to traditionalists is defined as "the area where the coal seam comes to the surface - so Brierley Hill, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Blackheath, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Bilston, Dudley, Tipton, Wednesbury and parts of Halesowen and Walsall but not Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Smethwick or what used to be known as Warley."[6] Today it commonly refers to the majority of the four boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton[6] although it is said that "no two Black Country men or women will agree on where it starts or ends".[5][7]

Cultural and industrial definition

The borders of the Black Country can be defined by using the special cultural and industrial characteristics of the area. Areas around the canals (the cut) which had mines extracting mineral resources and heavy industry refining these are included in this definition. Cultural parameters include unique foods and dialect.

Geological definitions

The Black Country Society defines the Black Country's borders as the area on the thirty foot coal seam, regardless the depth of the seam. This definition includes Wolverhampton and Oldbury, which had many deep pits, and Smethwick. Sandwell Park Colliery's pit was located in Smethwick and had 'thick coal' as shown in written accounts from 1878 and coal was also heavily mined in Hamstead further east.[8] Smethwick and Dudley Port were described as "a thousand swarming hives of metallurgical industries" by Samuel Griffiths in 1872.[9] The Black Country Society excludes West Bromwich (Birmingham conurbation) and Stourbridge geologically but includes them culturally, linguistically and in terms of heavy industry as both had iron and steel works, manufacturing industries and contributed enormously to the region. Warley is also included, despite lacking industry and canals, as housing for industrial workers in Smethwick and Oldbury was built there.

Another geological definition, the seam outcrop definition, only includes areas where the coal seam is shallow. Some coal mining areas to the east and west of the geologically defined Black Country are therefore excluded by this definition because the coal here is too deep down and does not outcrop. The seam outcrop definition excludes areas in North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire.

Since the geological definitions are narrower and exclude many areas which are culturally and industrially similar to the rest of the Black Country, they are irritants to those now wishing to extend the area known as the Black Country for social or commercial reasons. This is the basis for much of the controversy over definitions.


The first record of the term "the Black Country" dates from 1846 and occurs in the novel Colton Green: A Tale of the Black Country by the Reverend [11] The phrase was used again, though as a description rather than a proper noun, by the Illustrated London News in an 1849 article on the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway.[11] An 1851 guidebook to the London and North Western Railway included an entire chapter entitled "The Black Country", including an early description:[11]

This work was also the first to explicitly distinguish the area from nearby Birmingham, noting that "On certain rare holidays these people wash their faces, clothe themselves in decent garments, and, since the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway, take advantage of cheap excursion trains, go down to Birmingham to amuse themselves and make purchases".[12]

The geologist Joseph Jukes made it clear in 1858 that he felt the meaning of the term was self-explanatory to contemporary visitors, remarking that "It is commonly known in the neighbourhood as the 'Black Country', an epithet the appropriateness of which must be acknowledged by anyone who even passes through it on a railway".[11] A travelogue published in 1860 made the connection more explicit, calling the name "eminently descriptive, for blackness everywhere prevails; the ground is black, the atmosphere is black, and the underground is honeycombed by mining galleries stretching in utter blackness for many a league".[11] An alternative theory for the meaning of the name is proposed as having been caused by the darkening of the local soil due to the outcropping coal and the seam near the surface.[13]

It was however the American diplomat and travel writer Elihu Burritt who brought the term "the Black Country" into widespread common usage[14] with the third, longest and most important of the travel books he wrote about Britain for American readers, his 1868 work Walks in The Black Country and its Green Borderland.[15] Burritt had been appointed United States consul in Birmingham by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, a role that required him to report regularly on "facts bearing upon the productive capacities, industrial character and natural resources of communities embraced in their Consulate Districts" and as a result travelled widely from his home in Harborne, largely on foot, to explore the local area.[16] Burritt's association with Birmingham dated back 20 years and he was highly sympathetic to the industrial and political culture of the town as well as being a friend many of its leading citizens, so his portrait of the surrounding area was largely positive.[15] He was the author of the famous early description of the Black Country as "black by day and red by night", adding appreciatively that it "cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe".[17] Burritt used the term to refer to a wider area than its common modern usage, however, devoting the first third of the book to Birmingham, which he described as "the capital, manufacturing centre, and growth of the Black Country", and writing "plant, in imagination, one foot of your compass at the Town Hall in Birmingham, and with the other sweep a circle of twenty miles radius, and you will have, 'The Black Country".[18]


Metalworking was important in the Black Country area as early as the 16th century, due to the presence of iron ore and coal in a seam 30 feet (9 m) thick, the thickest seam in Great Britain, 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 and by the 1620s "Within ten miles of Dudley Castle there were 20,000 smiths of all sorts".[19]

In 1642 at the start of the Robert Porter, who manufactured swords in Digbeth, 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-cutler and men like him in Birmingham, 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.[20][21]

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 Lye 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 Navigations, Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canal (the Dudley Canal Line No 1 and the Dudley Tunnel) 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 led to the expansion of local railways and coal mine lines. The line running from Stourbridge to Walsall via Dudley Port and Wednesbury closed in the 1960s, but the Birmingham to Wolverhampton line via Tipton is still a major transport route.

The anchors and chains for the ill-fated liner RMS Titanic were manufactured in the Black Country in the area of Netherton. 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.

In 1913, the Black Country was the location of arguably one of the most important strikes in British trade union history when the workers employed in the area's steel tube trade came out for two months in a successful demand for a 23 shilling minimum weekly wage for unskilled workers, giving them pay parity with their counterparts in nearby Birmingham. This action commenced on 9 May in 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 in 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. Early 20th century representations of the region can be found in the Mercian novels of Francis Brett Young, most notably My Brother Jonathan (1928).

Carol Thompson the curator "The Making of Mordor" at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in the last quarter of 2014 stated that J. R. R. Tolkien's description of the grim region of Mordor "resonates strongly with contemporary accounts of the Black Country", in his famed novel The Lord of the Rings.[23] Indeed, in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Black) Land.[23] It is also claimed by one Black Country scholar (Peter Higginson) that the character of Bilbo Baggins may have been based on Tolkien's observation of Mayor Ben Bilboe of Bilston in The Black Country, who was a Communist and Labour Party member from The Lunt in Bilston. But the scholarly evidence for this is still questionable.

The 20th century saw a decline in coal mining in the Black Country, with the last colliery in the region – Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley – closing on 2 March 1968, marking the end of an era after some 300 years of mass coal mining in the region, though a small number of open cast mines remained in use for a few years afterwards.[24]


In recent years the Black Country has seen the adoption of symbols and emblems with which to represent itself. The first of these to be registered was the Black Country tartan in 2009, designed by Philip Tibbetts from Halesowen.[25][26][27]

In 2008 the idea of a flag for the region was first raised.[28][29] After four years of campaigning a competition was successfully organised with the Black Country Living Museum.[30][31] This resulted in the adoption of the Flag of the Black Country as designed by Gracie Sheppard of Redhill School in Stourbridge and was registered with the Flag Institute in July 2012.[32]

The flag was unveilved at the Museum on 14 July 2012 as part of celebration in honour of the 300th anniversary of the erection of the first Newcomen atmospheric engine.[33] Following this it was agreed by the museum and Black Country society for 14 July to be recognised as Black Country Day to celebrate the areas role in the Industrial Revolution.[34] The day was marked by Department for Communities and Local Government in 2013[35] and following calls to do more[36] in 2014 more events were planned around the region.[37]

Black Country Day takes place on July 14th each year, originally organised by Steven Edwards. Originally in March, the day was later moved to July 14th - the anniversary of the invention of the Newcomen steam engine.


The heavy industry which once dominated the Black Country has now largely gone. The twentieth century saw a decline in coal mining and the industry finally came to an end in 1968 with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery 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. Chainmaking is still a viable industry in the Cradley Heath area where the majority of the chain for the Ministry of Defence and the Admiralty fleet is made in modern factories.

Much but not all of the area now suffers from high unemployment and parts of it are amongst the most economically deprived communities in the UK. This is particularly true in parts of the boroughs of Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. According to the Government's 2007 Index of Deprivation (ID 2007), Sandwell is the third most deprived authority in the West Midlands region, after Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, and the 14th most deprived of the UK's 354 districts. Wolverhampton is the fourth most deprived district in the West Midlands, and the 28th most deprived nationally. Walsall is the fifth most deprived district in the West Midlands region, and the 45th most deprived in the country. Dudley fares better, but still has pockets of deprivation. Overall Dudley is the 100th most deprived district of the UK, but the second most affluent of the seven metropolitan districts of the West Midlands, with Solihull coming top.

As with many urban areas in the UK, there is also a significant ethnic minority population in parts: in Sandwell, 22.6 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities, and in Wolverhampton the figure is 23.5 per cent. However, in Walsall 84.6 per cent of the population is described as white, while in Dudley 92 per cent of the population is white. Resistance to mass immigration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to the slogan "Keep the Black Country white!".

The Black Country suffered its biggest economic blows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when unemployment soared largely because of 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 a result of the Thatcher government's neo-liberal economic policies; later, in an implicit acknowledgement of the social problems this had caused, these areas were designated as Enterprise Zones, and some redevelopment occurred. 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.

Unemployment in Brierley Hill peaked at more than 25% – around the double the national average at the time – during the first half of the 1980s following the closure of Round Oak Steel Works, giving it one of the worst unemployment rates of any town in Britain. The Merry Hill development between 1985 and 1990 managed to reduce the local area's unemployment dramatically, however.[38]

The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley recreates life in the Black Country in the early 20th century, and is a popular tourist attraction. On 17 February 2012 the Museum's collection in its entirety was awarded Designation by Arts Council England (ACE).[39] Designation is a mark of distinction that celebrates unique collections of national and international importance.

The Black Country boroughs form part of the Birmingham metropolitan economy, the second largest in the United Kingdom.

Enterprise zone

In 2011, the government announced the creation of the Black Country Enterprise Zone.[40] The zone includes 5 sites in Wolverhampton and 14 in Darlaston. The i54 business park in Wolverhampton is the largest of the 19 sites; its tenants include Jaguar Land Rover. The largest site in Darlaston is that of the former IMI James Bridge Copper Works.[41]

Dialect and accent

The traditional Black Country dialect preserves many archaic traits of Early Modern English and even Middle English[42] and can be very confusing for outsiders. Thee, Thy and Thou are still in use, as is the case in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. "'Ow B'ist," meaning "How are you?" is a greeting contracted from "How be-est thou?" with the typical answering being "'Bay too bah," ("I be not too bad"), meaning "I am not 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 pronounced , rhyming with "now." The local pronunciation "goo" (elsewhere "go") or "gewin'" is similar to that elsewhere in the Midlands. It is quite common for broad Black Country speakers to say "'agooin'" where others say "going." This is found in the greeting "Ow b'ist gooin" (How are you), to which a typical response would be "Bostin ah kid" (very well). However sounds and phrases differ across the towns and often people can mishear a word or phrase and write it down wrong as in "shut charow up," which actually is "shut ya row up," so one has to be careful when hearing words and phrases.


The Black Country is home to one television station Big Centre TV and three region wide radio stations – BBC WM, Free Radio and Free Radio 80s.[43] Both Free Radio and Free Radio 80s (formerly Gold & Radio WABC) have broadcast since 1976 from transmitter sites from Turner's Hill in neighbouring Rowley Regis, with the studios which were previously located in Wolverhampton being moved to Oldbury and Birmingham respectively.

The area also has three other radio stations which only officially cover part of the region. Black Country Radio (born from a merger of 102.5 The Bridge and BCCR) who are based in Stourbridge, Signal 107 who broadcast from Wolverhampton and Ambur Radio who broadcast from Walsall.[44]

The Express and Star is one of the region's two daily newspapers, publishing eleven local editions from its Wolverhampton headquarters and its five district offices (for example the Dudley edition is considerably different in content from the Wolverhampton or Stafford editions). It is the biggest selling regional paper in the UK.[45] Incidentally, the Express and Star, traditionally a Black Country paper, has expanded to the point where they sell copies from vendors in Birmingham city centre.

The Black Country Mail – a local edition of the Birmingham Mail – the region's other daily newspaper. Its regional base is in Walsall town centre. Established in 1973, from a site in High Street, Cradley Heath, the Black Country Bugle has also contributed to the region's history. It started as a fortnightly publication, but due to its widespread appeal, now appears on a weekly basis.

See also


  1. ^ "Black Country Flag Design – Officially Registered". Black Country Museum. 14 July 2012. Retrieved 12 May 2015. 
  2. ^ "What or where is the Black Country?". Retrieved 13 January 2012. 
  3. ^ Jones, Peter M. (2009). Industrial Enlightenment: Science, technology and culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760–1820. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 27.  
  4. ^ Jones, Peter M. (2009). "Birmingham and the West Midlands". Industrial Enlightenment: Science, technology and culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760–1820. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 22.  
  5. ^ a b "Official Black Country history website, featuring content supplied by the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall, and the City of Wolverhampton". Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  6. ^ a b "What and where is the Black Country?". BBC. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  7. ^ "Birmingham and the Black Country are neighbouring areas located in the English West Midlands. ... The Black Country has no agreed physical or political boundaries being defined instead of what is it is not, and primarily, by its residents, in opposition to the neighbouring large city of Birmingham" (Clark 2013, p. 140).
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Upton, Chris (18 November 2011). "And so it came to pass...". Birmingham Post (Trinity Mirror Midlands). Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Jones, Gavin (4 April 2013). Black Country' in print over twenty years before Elihu Burritt"'". Black Country Bugle (Staffordshire Newspapers Limited). Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  12. ^ Sidney, Samuel. "Rides on Railways". AJH Computer Services. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Mugridge, Stuart (2007). "Mapping The Black Country" (PDF). Retrieved 22 November 2013. 
  15. ^ a b Marsh, Peter T. (Sep 2013). "Burritt, Elihu (1810–1879), peace campaigner and American consul". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 November 2011. 
  16. ^ Chapman, Gordon (23 February 2006). Ackle' – a word causing some hassle!"'". Black Country Bugle (Staffordshire Newspapers). Retrieved 22 November 2013. 
  17. ^ "Press Pack" (pdf). Black Country Living Museum. p. 3. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  18. ^ Ian, Walden (29 July 2007). "Keeping history alive; Ian Walden, Director of The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, explains why he thinks Birmingham and the West Midlands needs more of a vision.". Birmingham Post (Trinity Mirror Midlands). Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  19. ^ Dudley 1854, p. 7.
  20. ^ John William Willis-Bund. The Civil War in Worcestershire, 1642–1646: And the Scotch Invasion of 1615, Birmingham: The Midland Educational Company, ltd., 1905, pp. 4,5,88
  21. ^ Joan Zuckerman, Geoffrey Eley. The Birmingham heritage, Taylor & Francis, 1979. ISBN 0-85664-875-2, ISBN 978-0-85664-875-5. p. 34
  22. ^ G. Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920)
  23. ^ a b BBC staff (20 September 2014). "Was the Lord of the Rings inspired by Black Country industry?". BBC. Retrieved March 2015. 
  24. ^ "Closing of Baggeridge". Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  25. ^ Black Country gets its own tartan BBC NEWS, 12 January 2009
  26. ^ Reference: WR3278 Scottish Tartan World Register
  27. ^ [2] Scottish Register of Tartans
  28. ^ "Flying the Flag for the Black Country".  
  29. ^ "A Flag for the Black Country".  
  30. ^ "Budding artists invited to design official Black Country flag". Dudley News. Retrieved 22 January 2014. 
  31. ^ "Black Country Flag". British County Flags. Retrieved 22 January 2014. 
  32. ^ "Black Country – UK Flag Registry".  
  33. ^ "Black Country Flag Design – Officially Registered".  
  34. ^ "Black Country Day". British County Flags. Retrieved 22 January 2014. 
  35. ^ "Black Country flag flies high in Whitehall".  
  36. ^ "Let's fly the flag for the Black Country Day".  
  37. ^ "Black Country Day 2014".  
  38. ^
  39. ^ Arts Council England. "Designation Scheme". Arts Council England. Archived from the original on 22 January 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  40. ^ "New 'enterprise zones' announced around England".  
  41. ^ "More than 350 jobs to be created at site".  
  42. ^ Staff and Agencies Wolverhampton researches Black Country dialect Guardian Unlimited, 27 January 2003
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^ John Plunkett (25 August 2010). "Regional newspaper ABCs: Two evening papers buck downward trend | Media |". London: Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2011. 


  • Dudley, Dudd (1854) [1665], Bagnall, John N., ed., Dud Dudley's Metallum Martis: or, Iron made with pit-coale, sea-coale, &c: and with the same fuell to melt and fine imperfect mettals, and refine perfect mettals (reprint ed.), London 
  • Clark, Urszula (2013), Language and Identity in Englishes, Routledge, pp. 92–94, 140,  

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.
  • Webster, L. (2012) Lone Wolf: memoirs in the form of short stories. Dudley: Kates Hill Press. ISBN 978-1-904552-42-0.

External links

  • Black Country Dialect
  • The Black Country 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
  • BBC Black Country BBC website for Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton
  • Black Country History Catalogue of Museums and Archives in the Black Country
  • distinctly black country a network for understanding yesterday's landscape today
  • Black Country Living Museum Website
  • Black Country Society