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‘Black Country’ in print over twenty years before Elihu Burritt

By dan shaw  |  Posted: April 04, 2013

The Earl of Dudley!s pits in the nineteenth century

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JUST saying the words 'Black Country' can trigger off all sorts of debate and argument; about what's in and what's out, how the name came about in the first place, and how old the name is.

Two editions ago we ran a feature about Elihu Burritt and his early use of the term Black Country, and credited that American visitor with coining the phrase. But, as Keith Hodgkins of Tipton demonstrates here, Burritt was nowhere near the first person to commit Black Country to print, and its use verbally is probably much older still ...

"I have to tell you that the premise of the article is incorrect. Although Burritt` s book `Walks in the Black Country and it Green Borderland’ published in 1868 is probably the best known early book about the Black Country, Burritt did not coin the term. The name Black Country can be traced back in print to at least 1846. The main references of which I am aware are as follows.

"Prior to Burritt the year 1860 saw the publication of ‘All Round the Wrekin’ by Walter White, a travelogue exploration of the counties of Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

The second chapter begins with the author’s arrival in the Black Country where he describes the name as being '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. The scene is marvellous, and to one who beholds it for the first time by night, terrific. Then the roaring furnaces are seen for miles around pouring forth their fierce throbbing flames like volcanoes; then the hundred chimneys of ironworks display their blazing crests, or sheafs of fiery tongues; then the dull gleam of heaps of roasting ironstone makes you fancy that the old globe itself is here smoldering away; overhead dense clouds of smoke reflect a lurid light, rolling fitfully before the wind; while the hissing and rushing of steam, the clang and clatter of machinery, the roaring blastes, and the shock of ponerous hammer strokes, all intensified by the presence of night, complete an effect which amazes alike the eye and the ear.' "He visits many of the area's towns and industries and offers detailed and dramatic descriptions of local people and their working conditions.

"In 1858 the geologist J Beete Jukes published 'Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain; Part 2, the Iron Ores of Staffordshire', in which he claimed that: 'There is hardly perhaps anywhere in the world to be found another space of 50 square miles of so peculiar a character. 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'.

"Stepping back to 1851 a book entitled ‘Rides on Railway' by Samuel Sidney was published. This, as the name implies, was a railway traveller's guide and covers the routes traversed by the London and North Western Railway north from London. It has a complete chapter headed 'The Black Country' which contains perhaps the most alarming of the early descriptions of the area and its people ...

'In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Dudley, Darlaston, Bilston, Wolverhampton and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin horses walk their doleful round. From time to time you pass a cluster of deserted roofless cottages of dingiest brick, half swallowed up in sinking pits or inclining to every point of the compass , while the timbers point up like the ribs of a half decayed corpse. The majority of the natives of this Tartarian region are in full keeping with the scenery — savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and discusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognised as the same as that of civilized England.’ “It is surprising that this book is not more well known, especially as it was reprinted in 1973 with an introduction by the industrial historian Barrie Trinder.

"Back two more years to 1849 we find that the Illustrated London News carried a report on the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway which quoted the Mayor of Walsall expressing the hope 'that the line would enable the poorest artisan from the manufacturing districts of the county — the 'black country' as it was frequently called —to escape into the green fields and pure air.` Note that capital letters were not used.

"But an even earlier reference exists according to the historian Chris Upton whose article in the Birmingham Post of 24th June 2011 revealed that a short novel entitled 'Cotton Green: A Tale of the Black Country' by the Reverend William Gresley had been published in 1846. Gresley was born in 1801 in Kenilworth and from 1830 to 1851 was a prebendry of Lichfield Cathedral, near enough to the Black Country, one assumes, to have experienced it at first hand. Gresley's story begins: "'On the borders of the agricultural part of Staffordshire, and just before you enter that dismal region of mines and forges, commonly called 'the Black Country', stands the pretty village of Oakthorpe, encompassed by gardens and green fields, with its old venerable church overtopping the neat group of neat cottages and houses ...` "Although a work of fiction, it is set within the contemporary South Staffordshire landscape.

Note Gresley's phrase 'commonly called the Black Country'; implying that the name was in everyday use.

"So there we have it, the Black Country name in print over twenty years before Elihu Burritt. The reason Burritt is so often quoted is that his book was reprinted in 1976 with a forward by the well known Birmingham writer Vivian Bird, amidst much local publicity. Burritt left us with a wonderful historical record of the mid-Victorian West Midlands but he did the Black Country a grave injustice by his distorted definition of the dark region. He stated that 'Birmingham is the capital, manufacturing centre and growth of the Black Country ... plant, in imagination, one foot of your compass at the Town Hall in Birminham, and with the other sweep a circle of twenty miles radius, and you will have The Black Country' "But then, half way through the book, Burritt seems to correct himself by stating that 'Having thus given half this volume to a notice of Birmingham, too small a space remains for a description of the Black Country proper.' "He then went on to describe the actual Black Country and at one point talked about leaving Birmingham to visit the Black Country. All this gave a very confusing and misleading impression to outsiders in search of the identity of the Black Country, a problem which we continue to battle with today. One can only speculate as to whether Burritt had been aware of those earlier books by Sidney, Beete Jukes and White.

Had he read them his own work might have achieved a greater acuracy and clarity."

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