Understanding pre-industrial structures in rural and mining landscapes


United Kingdom
COST A27 cultural parks and cultural landscapes: Black Country

Black Country, UK (approximately the Metropolitan Boroughs of Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell & Dudley)
Coal and iron mining landscape, limekilns, forges, canals

Wren's Nest limestone mines

Typical Black Country coal mine

Black Country coal mine shaft

Limestone reef knoll, Wren's Nest

Earl Dudley's Limekilns by canal spur

Dudley Canal Tunnel which links to limestone mines in Dudley and the Wren's Nest

The Black Country is a loosely-defined area of the English West Midlands conurbation, to the north and west of Birmingham, and to the south and east of Wolverhampton, around the South Staffordshire coalfield.
By the late nineteenth century, this area had become one of the most intensely industrialised in the UK. The South Staffordshire coal mines, the coal coking operations, and the iron foundries and steel mills that used the local coal to fire its 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. 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.
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 about 9m thick, the thickest seam in the UK, which outcropped in the region. Many people had an agricultural smallholding and supplemented their income by working as nailers or smiths.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, coal and limestone were worked only on a modest scale for local consumption, but during the Industrial Revolution canals, such as the Birmingham Canal Navigations, the Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canal opened up the mineral wealth of the area to exploitation. Advances in the use of coke for the smelting of 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.
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 his devised Elvish Sindarin language Mor-Dor means Dark (or Black) Land, and is sometimes even referred to within the novel as "The Black Country".

Black Country Museum

The museum consists of several sites which represent local life and industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. Boat trips take visitors by canal tunnel into the old limestone mines. There is a full scale working replica of a Newcomen Steam Engine as used from about 1712 to pump water from Lord Dudley's local mines. Visitors may explore a coal mine showing how a 7m thick seam was worked locally, entered via a drift entrance.
A second colliery exhibit includes a reconstruction of the Racecourse Colliery, complete with surface equipment and a steam operated winding engine. A third colliery at Brook Shaft is being constructed to show more operations and equipment. It is hoped that eventually visitors may be able to view the actual workings underground.

Wren's Nest Nature Reserve

The Wren's Nest National Nature Reserve is world famous for its well-preserved Silurian coral reef fossils. It was the UK's first National Nature Reserve for geology, being founded in 1956. More than 700 types of fossil have been discovered here, 86 of those being unique in the world.
An outcrop of Wenlock Group limestone, Wren's Nest Hill was extensively quarried during the Industrial Revolution for building stone, and the extraction of limestone which was burnt on-site for lime production. When quarrying finished in the early 20th century, the site was left with a network of underground caverns. The site was originally studied by the Scottish paleontologist Roderick Murchison, whose work in defining the Silurian System was mainly based on fossils and rock formations found at sites in Dudley.
In 2004 Wren's Nest and the nearby Castle Hill were declared Scheduled Ancient Monuments as they represented the best surviving remains of the limestone industry in Dudley. The most impressive part of this is the last remaining surface opening limestone cavern in the world - formerly reaching more than 100m underground - which is known as the Seven Sisters. The workings were originally connected by underground canal to the Dudley Tunnel complex.
The Wren's Nest is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) considered to be one of the most notable geological locations in the British Isles.

Select Bibliography:

Chitham, E., 1972, The Black Country, Longman
Gale, W.K.V., 1966, The Black Country Iron Industry: a technical history, The Iron and Steel Institute, London
Higgs, L., 2004, A Description of Grammatical Features and Their Variation in the Black Country Dialect, Schwabe Verlag, Basel
Parsons, H., 1986, Portrait of the Black Country, Robert Hale
Raven, M., 1988, Staffordshire and the Black Country, Michael Raven
Raybould, T.J., 1973, The Economic Emergence of the Black Country: A Study of the Dudley Estate, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, ISBN 0-7153-5995-9
Rowlands, M.B., 1975, Masters and Men in the West Midlands metalware trades before the industrial revolution, Manchester University Press, Manchester
Wilson-Jones, J., 1949, The History of the Black Country, 173 pp., Janus Books, Halesowen

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United Kingdom Black Country page to John Wilcock

Version: 1 02 October 2007 updated by John Wilcock