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A Dishonest Regional Archetype

 The Black Country Archetype

Is Regional Identity Good? 


I was raised in the Black Country, a region in the West Midlands of England, known for its industrial heritage and its unique dialect. A dialect in which Anglo-Saxon and Middle English are still evident in both vocabulary and grammar. Place names like Dudd (Dudley), Wulferehamtun (Wolverhampton) and Craegleah (Cradley Heath) show Germanic influence. In the Black Country museum and many local history books, the people of the Black Country are celebrated for their strong work ethic, community spirit, and their sense of humour. Most television broadcasts and YouTube videos portray Black Country folk as being proud of their hard industrious heritage, as if they were descendants of Tubal Cain like D.R Guttery once shared in the historical accounts of his book, ‘The Great Civil War in Midland Parishes’. My Grandfather even appears in a photograph in one book about Lye, another Black Country town, while a distant relative of mine wrote a book about Rowley Regis. We who have lived here, see this familiar reminder of how the Black Country reputation came from hard work and resourcefulness. They are known for their willingness to put in long hours and get the job done (Chinn, 2002). As beautiful as it may be, I disagree with the lot of it! Black Country unemployment in 2020 was 4.9%, compared to 4.0% in England.

Old black country homeless man playing a fiddle

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), show the rates for the Black Country local authorities in October-December 2022:

Dudley: 5.1%

Sandwell: 4.3%

Walsall: 4.6%

Wolverhampton: 5.2%

These figures are higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.7%. 

In the 90s, I remember doing a Youth Training Scheme. I stupidly signed up to do retail because I didn't care. They expected full-time hours in a card shop in the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. The Midland Oak Skills Training group (MOST) who trained gullible people like me to secure a future. We were granted £30 a week of whatever they made from their customers in exchange for providing these 'training opportunities'. We all know the name for this sort of thing. I recall the shop manager who wanted nothing from me but his free shop keeping. I was also conned out of two video games by one of the christmas stall temps—great times. The Black Country, like the very nature of humanity, has always had its exploitative streaks, and of course, it could be predatory, especially to children back in the industrial era. Retrospectively, Good Words magazine featured a run of articles about the Black Country back in 1880, which I found fascinating. My wife discovered the year book in a charity shop, it was full of various writings and stories, but I stumbled upon the work of Elihu Burritt. One of his Black Country articles. I think it was called ‘Walks in the Black Country and its green border-land,’ and it reminded me of an early sociological type of study because this American man briefly stayed in the Black Country and engaged with the people, like anthropologists have done before. E. P Thompson (1963) described the Black Country as ‘a region of fierce local loyalties, of gangs and factions, of feuds and vendettas. It was also a region of political radicalism, of chartism, of trade unionism, and of religious dissent’. Quite a few sources have highlighted the environmental degradation caused by the area's heavy industries. Honest historical sources show the dodgy things Black Country folk did, such as heavy drinking, animal fighting and violence against one another. Here we see parallels drawn with troubled Victorian cities like London and Birmingham. In the few nineteenth century writings I've read, contemporary authors have described Black Country child labour, people having unhealthy looking skin and many weak looking men with thin frames. However, after exploring nail making families and alike, my Good Words book became much more complimentary to the reserved qualities of the people in those hard-up communities. 

Old black country photograph of a group of men


Burritt's article, like all articles, helped to raise awareness of the social conditions of the working class in England and I doubt no gentleman of his day wished to smear a community's character. The Black Country, with its plethora of factories, furnaces and mines, was an outstanding portrayal of the hazards of industrialization. No sincere writer pushed the familiar narrative of the happy Black Country workers who loved to slave in a mine or a furnace all day for a pittance. Numerous writers, from Victorian times to relatively modern years have exposed the hardship of this Black Country, describing it as a ‘vast workshop,’ where ‘every town is a factory, every house a forge.’ Thomas described the working-class neighbourhoods as ‘fever dens and 'rookeries,’ because overcrowding and disease were common. The Black Country was a wretched place of suffering for so many people. Individuals and families alike all did whatever they could to survive the harshness of that reality. When I hear that jive about Black Country comradery, my memories rise to challenge it, here are a few examples: a fellow worker sucker-punching my dad full pelt in his face while he operated a machine; snarly supervisors have bordered on abuse and violence, enjoying their occupational leverage over those of lower rank. A certain relative of mine was beaten up by her husband, and recollections of those frequent weekend brawls the drunks succumbed to along our run of pubs; all of these experiences make a mockery of the noble Black Country archetype. One night a car was set on fire and it exploded in our street, we had our own cars broken into, property was stolen from our gardens and I saw a fair share of egotism and even a murderer. Nothing informs a person like experience and few Black Country people are the salt of the earth types—exceptions do exist, however. 

Old photograph of a team of a female work team


The community spirit of Black Country people is described as always willing to help their neighbours. This community spirit is evident in the many local clubs, societies, and charities that exist in the region (Rowland, 2013). My grandfather used to tell me of the regular fist fights outside of our local pubs in the forties and fifties—nothing changed. My great grandfather was a scrapper and a warehouse burglar, all of the family were somewhat questionable: my uncle sold my mothers car without her consent. I even have a ‘Wild Bill’ in my family tree and the locals avoided him; that rosy tint of the Black Country nostalgist really is cheap plastic. You might ask, aren’t Black Country people supposed to be self-deprecating? Everyone had banter in my Black Country jobs, taking the mick out of themselves or others, but there was also a lot of ridicule; such wind-up merchants rarely tolerated it being done back to them. Bullying was not uncommon in my jobs; grown men might scuffle from time to time and do that hard man speel. I even faced threats myself, humiliation, provocation, and mockery from adult men twice my muscular size, and I was sixteen years old. While they targetted me, every other one of those fine Black Country men watched the bullying take place and allowed it. Many of them could have had a kid my age. 

Nelson the bully from the Simpsons

One of the strange behaviours I noticed was the deep voice phenomenon; men who deliberately try to emulate the dialect in an unnatural way. I listened, as this one particular worker spoke, changing his notage, deeper, accentuating the accent. Possibly, this was all done to sound more like a manly, blokey bloke, that ideal ‘Black Country Geezer ’ I really have no idea, I can only guess. It was an invocation of sorts, I guess. What really confused me was how his voice raised a few octaves higher in the car park at the end of the day. I've witnessed this a few times. Black Country people are proud of their heritage and traditions, says Rowland, (2013). Those who liked to garnish their vocalisations might have wanted to honour an imagined abstract of their heritage, others were simply rough, just like many poor individuals from the 1880’s. This pride in heritage is re-kindled in Black Country Day, The Black Country Flag, The Black Country T-Shirt Shop and The Black Country Bugle, but this is reconstructionism of times darker than most of us know or care to admit. Proud Black Country enthusiasts who romance the legacy of honest ‘toil and honour’ ignore occupational exploitation, playing down the impact of desperation and squalor, it breeds cognitive dissonance. We should never forget the animal abuse, drinking problems, crime, immorality, destitution and ruin. The Black Country ethos is a modern complementary caricature not a genuine reflection. 

Region                      2021 | 2022 

Black Country           84.1 | 82.7 

England and Wales  75.5 | 74.9 

An ugly photograph of Brierley Hill High Street
You can see the reality right here; crime in the Black Country is higher than the average for both England and Wales, which has a low enough happiness rating in its own right! In 2022, there were 82.7 crimes per 1,000 people in the Black Country, in comparison to the 74.9 crimes per 1,000 people in both England and Wales. This does not show a sense of community spirit, but rather a problem. I would like to see the Black Country change into something better. The Black Country will never achieve this by  cherry picking history to dress up it's sense of identity. Decent sources of information are available, newspaper archives say a lot about standards in that region's golden age. For instance, in 1860 The Dudley Herald reported on the Black Country problem of human-baiting, a secret horror which did not get too much attention. Baiters paid vulnerable or hard-up people money to fight aggressive dogs and then, they bet on it—this dwarfs owning a XXL Bully! Thomas Smith, fought a dog called Crib for the payment of one pound. He was chained to a post while the dog attacked him. The match was stopped by the police, Smith as well as Crib's owner were arrested. Likewise, in 1850 The Birmingham Journal reported an incident in West Bromwich. A man called George Taylor fought a dog called Spring. Taylor accepted a small sum to be chained to a post and attacked. It happened it Wolverhampton in 1842: The Wolverhampton Chronicle, identified a man called Samuel Webb who fought a dog called Tiger; a 15 minute struggle resulted with Webb taking nasty injuries. 
In 1872, Bilston, The Staffordshire Advertiser printed another snippet about these horrific fights. William Davis was matched against a dog called Billy. The match was also ended by the police, who arrested Davis (The BNA, 2023). I assume, many would consider the real criminals as being  those who facilitated the fight more so than the unfortunates coaxed into accepting these deals. However, everyone broke the law as a result. Desperation drives people with needs to do whatever they must. Before the 19th century, such blood sports in the Black Country involved importing animals such as bears, lions and chimps; can you imagine how horrific those antics became? This regional archetype is not accurate. 






References

Chinn, C. (2002). The Black Country: A history. Sutton Publishing.

Rowland, D. E. (2013). The Black Country: A sense of place. University of Birmingham Press.

Thompson, E.P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage.

Websites:

The BNA (2023): https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Office for National Statistics: [https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/crime-statistics](https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/crime-statistics)

West Midlands Police: [https://foi.west-midlands.police.uk/category/incident-and-crime-statistics/](https://foi.west-midlands.police.uk/category/incident-and-crime-statistics/)





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