Black Country History Day

Ash banks, urns and obelisks; gas-light, ‘Goodwill’ and a garden; tunnels and tar, poets and parks, Batman and bombs on Bradley. They said it couldn’t be done; but how wrong they were! In the space of a few hours, the 130 or so local history enthusiasts attending the ninth Black Country History Day were treated to a full and fascinating programme of presentations that covered ash banks and airships, super heroes and…well, all of the above.

Paul Fantom, currently completing a PhD at the University, supervised by Carl Chinn, started the day by considering the Zeppelin raids on the Black Country during World War One. Paul focused on Zeppelin production, their commanders and crew before describing the devastation caused to local homes and families when L21 and L19, on bombing raids to Liverpool, became lost in low cloud and fog, and, mistaking the canals for docks, dropped their bombs on the Black Country townships of Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall.

George Demidowicz, previously Head of the Conservation and Archaeology team at Coventry City Council, has had a long standing interest in the Soho Manufactory and Mint in Handsworth, as well as the Soho Foundry in Smethwick, the first purpose-built steam manufactory in the world. Established by the second generation Boulton and Watt, James Watt Jnr and Matthew Robinson Boulton, with

William Murdoch as its genius engineer, the site was later taken over by Avery Weigh-Tronix. George’s lecture explored the chronological development of the foundry and intriguing parts of the building which deserve further archaeological investigation.

By the 1960s, Rubery Owen was the largest family-owned engineering group in Britain, employing 17,000 people worldwide, with 5,000 skilled workers at its site in Booth Street, Darlaston. The afternoon session began with Joanne Krawec, many of whose family members worked at the Darlaston factory, explaining her research using the company’s newsletter as a social history resource. A. E. Owen was a pioneer of industrial welfare with Rubery Owen providing a staff dining room, tennis courts and an Institute, a tradition continued and further developed by his successor, Sir Alfred Owen. Joanne’s lively presentation was well received by the audience, which included Sir Alfred’s son,

David Owen. The final speaker, John Hemingway, known to many from his career as Dudley Metropolitan Borough’s Archaeological Officer, detailed his investigations into the landscape of the Leasowes in Halesowen, during its restoration. Designed by the poet, William Shenstone in the eighteenth century and created from farmland, it became one of the most influential of the period, much visited by those seeking to emulate his work. John detailed the famous circuit walk and its surviving features he uncovered, treating the audience also to extracts from Shenstone’s poems.

The day was chaired by Dr Malcolm Dick and in drawing the proceedings to a close, Malcolm thanked not only the speakers but also the logistics team (drawn from both The Black Country Society and the Friends of the Centre for West Midlands History) for their splendid efforts throughout the day. Those attending then departed, looking anxiously towards the sky for signs of rain…and Zeppelins.

by Judith Watkin and Guy Sjögren