WHO would have guessed in 2014 that, in 1838, Darlaston was like the Biblical Cities of Sin, Sodom and Gomorrah?
That is what I thought after reading by an eyewitness account of Darlaston from a visit to this town in 1838 on the Wildfire locomotive as it made its way through the Black Country on the Grand Junction Railway.
The book, Wildfire Through Staffordshire, describes the approach to Darlaston as: "The town is situated on a hill and from a distance looks very well; but as we approach it there is more appearance of actual wretchedness than in any other part of the mining district.
"The buildings are almost all small houses for the workmen and their workshops; and the place is as ill-constructed and rough in appearance as if there were no town within a hundred miles. Many of the streets are as unattended to as the lanes and byways of a farmhouse, the mud and dirt actually obstructing the passage."
The population of this town in 1838 was 7,000 and the book continues: "There is a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, an Independent Chapel and a magnificent Primitive Methodist Chapel," which presumably saved Darlaston from suffering a similar fate to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah are bywords for Cities of Sin and are hailed as warnings in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
What was it, then, that saved Darlaston from being overwhelmed by a Divine Blast Furnace and washed into the Birmingham Navigation Canal system? "There are Sunday Schools connected with each place of worship and two National Schools, each capable of receiving 200 scholars; they were built and are supported by subscriptions," notes the eyewitness in 1838. So, why did that eyewitness have so much ire towards these Black Country folk? He claimed that they only worked two days a week, engaged in hedonistic carnivals, sinking into vice and immorality, where "bull baiting, dog and cock fighting and all sorts of low and debased practices were the amusements they indulged in, while swearing, cursing and vulgar language seem to grow with their prosperity."
What was Darlaston's downfall? It was no volcano nor tsunami but the end of the Napoleonic Wars with France.
The eyewitness in Wildfire Through Staffordshire says this of Darlaston: "The manufacture of the place is gun locks; a branch of business which, during the war, was so profitable that a good workman could get a pound note per day.....the profitable employment in making gun locks was such that by only working 2 days a week the men could obtain as much as would supply their wants and find the means of enjoying the only luxury they seemed to know – that of drinking the other 4 – in which they used to indulge out of loyalty to their country and hatred of France."
It is a familiar story – war brings jobs and wealth and peace brings unemployment. During times of conflict there is a need for troops, uniforms and munitions – but these opportunities disappear in peacetime.
"During the war the Darlaston gun lock makers used to live in the most extravagant manner: such was their demand for poultry, fish and meat that Darlaston became the most profitable market for these things in the neighbourhood," said the eye witness. "Most of the men might have made fortunes in the days of prosperity but they not only spent what they obtained extravagantly but refused to work more than one or two days a week. During this belligerent carnival, the people sunk even lower than before in vice and immorality and not one particle of what can be denominated personal or household comfort was obtained."
The Napoleonic Wars came to an end and so did the jobs. The Darlaston gun lock makers could no longer earn the money they had been used to making and hardships ensued. Does this sound like a familiar story?
"The greatest misery prevailed; those who had previously breakfasted even on turkey, chicken or rabbit were now glad to get a bit of bread and bacon and cheese. Many who used to drink a bottle of wine at dinner now could not get half a pint of beer and in their ignorance and distress would curse the peace and abuse their employers while working hardly and incessantly in sullenness and misery."
The workmen, instead of being able to get a pound a day, could only obtain 3 or 4 shillings or less – and very frequently had no work at all. "Millions of gun locks have been made here for the purpose of destroying our fellow creatures.
"During the French War, gun locks were worth from 8 shillings to 15 shillings each and a good workman would get up to two in a day." However, markets and times had changed and the folk of Darlaston had to learn to adapt."
The 1838 eyewitness was in no doubt about the ingenuity of the workers of Darlaston, commenting that they could manufacture anything if placed on one of their anvils (however unintelligible he found their Black Country dialect) but they had simply grown apathetic and hedonistic.
It is the same spiral of boom and bust that is repeated today. The orgy of consumerism we witnessed at Christmas, with Biblical tides of humanity descending on the nation's shopping centres, looked like evidence of economic recovery after years of grinding adversity.
However, analysts have revealed that it is a "recovery" driven by credit and consumer spending rather than one fuelled by manufacturing and exporting.
The campaigning journalist Jeremy Seabrook believes that, today, like the folk of Darlaston, we have become slaves to materialism and worship at the altars of self-indulgence.
He predicted that the desolation of our cities would mean the emergence of what he described as "ruined communities, stripped of their dignity and left helplessly dependent on the idle fantasies of mass consumerism."
He was condemned for being "negative" but the wreckage of Britain's once great industrial cities, the appalling statistics about family breakdown, drug abuse and welfare dependency prove that he was correct. In his new book, Pauperland, he argued that our own infatuation with commercialism is not a sign of economic success but of "profound moral failure".
Are we so very different from the gun lock makers of Darlaston in 1838?
The book, Wildfire Through Staffordshire, is being published by Black Country company Mapseekers (www.mapseeker.co.uk).
What do you think? Is Ian right? Send your views to firstname.lastname@example.org, or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.