Black Country Blues

Until the 1960s, West Bromwich buses returning from a foray into Birmingham stopped at “the boundary” outside the Albion football ground and charged a new set of fares. Having climbed all up the long slope through Handsworth to the city limits, they paused for a few minutes at the cast iron pedestal clock on the edge of the pavement. The driver turned  his key in the clock, and they entered a different territory.

On the map, West Bromwich is almost in the middle of the industrial urban sprawl of the West Midlands hemmed in by Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall to the north and the great bloated carcass of Birmingham all round the south. But in working-class thinking West Bromwich is still the beginning of the Black Country. The local government areas have been reorganised and West Midland Passenger Transport Board has subsumed all the old local services but when you cross the boundary, not only accents but also attitudes are slightly different.

One of the factors which helped to maintain the sharp division of the Black Country from Birmingham was coal. The coal seams start at West Bromwich and at one time the town had sixty working mines. Now it has none. A large boating lake occupies the site of the last coal mine to survive, the Jubilee pit and the huge pile of grey slag was used as foundations for the M5 and M6 motorways which now link up here. The workings run for miles around, under what was once the Earl of Dartmouth’s estate. All that remains of that is its arched gateway stranded in the middle of the motorway island. But two working farms still struggle to survive in the gap that the estate caused between West Bromwich and Birmingham. The new county borough council has tried to make a virtue out of what was an accident in the anarchic spread of industry and housing. They have christened the gap Sandwell Valley and begun to treat the area as a leisure park, but brick ends and twisted iron poke up through the sparse grass in places, and the boats from the lake are housed in some of the old pit-head buildings.

The other industries which gave West Bromwich its character and a degree of independence as it grew from a collection of small villages round a broom-covered moor have also declined or disappeared completely. There used to be marl pits and small brickworks which produced the blue bricks known as engineering bricks. They have all gone. There was a large glass factory which supplied many parts of the world with precision lighthouse lenses. Gone. There were dozens of iron foundries, large and small, casting an enormous variety of unremarkable components and products. The sites of the large firms are now flat, derelict wastes and only a few of the small specialist companies survive. There is still some steel spring production but steel rolling and steel tube production is finished. The Black Country is becoming cleaner every week.

West Bromwich — like Smethwick, Oldbury, Tipton, Darlaston, Wednesbury and Bilston which lie around it — gained its grimy individuality and cohesion from working with the dirty, basic materials of the industrial revolution. Now that these industries are dying, the reason for the existence of these towns has gone. Even bundled together in the new metropolitan boroughs, their economies are in a precarious state. In a rather pathetic attempt to resist economic pressures, the local council is at present trying to prevent disused industrial sites being taken over for house building in the hope that employing, rate-paying industry will one day return.

As in many other industrial areas of Europe, the decline in the economy has been accompanied by a rise in the level of racial prejudice. West Bromwich has attracted workers  from most parts of the Indian subcontinent as well as from the West Indies and a very high proportion of them are now unemployed. This fact gives scope for a whole range of permutations of false reasoning about the relationship between immigrants and housing, jobs and the willingness to work. What happened in fact was that, towards the peak of the economic boom, immigrants came into the area — and in some cases were recruited in large numbers — to take those dirty, monotonous jobs that local workers were finding themselves able to move out of — jobs in just those industries which have now disappeared, leaving only scars on the landscape. Towards the end of its functional life, the factory of vast corrugated iron sheds that cast car engine cylinder blocks were manned almost entirely by ex-Bengalis and Sikhs. Now only they—and the concrete floor slabs—remain. In the Seventies, the only faces behind the steering wheels of WMPTB buses were black—West Indian. Now it is a comparative rarity to see a black driver on a bus.

West Bromwich is not as derelict and deserted as some of the towns in Britain which were formed round single industries like shipbuilding, steel-making or coal mining; but the same basic pattern has been traced out. Capital moved in and exploited the area’s geography, natural resources and labour for as long as acceptable profits could be made. Now that this is no longer so, capital has moved out. Redundant workers in the town accept what has happened stoically, as though it were as inevitable as the weather. By and large, they do not question the tyranny of capital, nor ask who is behind it. Least of all, at present, do they feel that they have the power and the skills to run things differently.

Ron Cook

Leave a Reply