In order to eliminate from the pig-iron the carbon and impurities with which, as it runs from the blast-furnace, it is charged, it is subjected to the process known as ‘puddling’. The pigs of metal are melted in an air-furnace, and the fused mass, of about the consistency of ‘white-wash’, is violently stirred by means of long iron tools thrust through a small opening in the furnace-door. After a long time the iron begins to thicken and separate itself, when it is said to be ‘coming to nature,’ and it becomes the business of the puddler to work it into large balls for the after processes of consolidation and rolling. When the ball is ready for extraction the puddler’s assistant raises the door of the furnace, while the puddler, seizing the ball with long pincers, works it through the opening on to a small iron carriage, termed in South Staffordshire the ‘bogie,’ and it is at once wheeled away.
Twice in the course of every twenty-four hours the base of the furnace is opened, and the accumulation of molten iron allowed to run out in the process known as ‘tapping’. During the first stage of this operation the powerful blast is withdrawn from the furnace, but when the iron has partially run out, it is again turned on for the purpose of blowing out the remainder of the iron and cleansing the flues. A dense column of smoke, dust, and sparks rises up mingled with masses of bright flame, the latter being driven fiercely through the opening formed for the iron, and the scene becomes very striking. The iron, following the course of a small gutter previously formed in the sand, finds its way into a series of channels, where it is allowed to cool, and is afterwards broken up into what are familiarly known as pigs’.
The blast furnace, as the reader is probably aware, is allowed under ordinary circumstances to continue burning for several years, being constantly supplied above with the ore, fuel, and flux necessary for the process of smelting, which the melted iron is periodically withdrawn from below.
The upper portion of the furnace, termed the “tunnel-head”, is surrounded by a gallery where the operation of feeding is carried on through the openings shown in the plate. An iron curtain, known as the ‘charging plate’, hangs in front of each opening to protect the feeder from the intense heat.
It would have been beyond the scope of the present series of etchings to attempt to illustrate fully the varied industry of the Staffordshire Black Country. The task which the author set before himself has been to select a few characteristic examples from the abundance of picturesque material to be met with in the district, and in doing so he has, with a view of imparting some little order and consistency to his work, availed himself of the succession of processes occurring in the manufacture of iron. This mode of treatment was found to be less practicable in other branches of industry, and the remainder of the plates, though for the most part also relating to the production of coal and iron, will be found more desultory in their arrangement.
The appearance of the Black Country is too well known to need verbal description. Picturesque it always is, even in the grey desolation of its ordinary midday aspect; as night comes on, and the fires of the blast and other furnaces become more conspicuous by contrast with the gathering darkness, it presents scenes of peculiar and most impressive grandeur. During the hour of twilight, when this contrast is less violent than it afterwards becomes, and the lingering daylight still partially discloses depths of mystery into which the eye is tempted to penetrate, it is seen to perhaps great advantage. The subtlety of colour which then results from the conflict between the firelight and the dying beams of day, is not to be expressed in an etching. Something, however, of the mystery and fullness of the effect may be, and an attempt to render these has been made, in the plate of the blast-furnace, which represents the ‘Corngreaves’ works of the New British Iron Company at Cradley, near Stourbridge.
Though these 16 images date from the 1870s, they represent a long-established view of the Black Country, or more particularly the area round Dudley, which provides the focal point of the publication which contains the prints. Richard S Chattock, Sixteen Etchings Illustrative of Scenes in the Coal and Iron District of South Staffordshire by Richard S Chattock, London and Birmingham (1878)
The prints in this publication are powerfully illustrate the prevailing view of the Black Country by the 19th century – huge iron works radiating intense heat and belching flames and fumes alongside redundant engine houses, forsaken pit heads, buildings sinking into abandoned mines and acres of slag heaps and industrial refuse. The prints are presented with their original captions. The images reveal a perception of the Black Country as a region of intense productive energy (Plates I, II, III, IV, V, VI,), combined with industrial dereliction and a natural landscape ruined or ransacked by economic activity (Plates VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV). Even the image of Dudley Castle Grounds (Plate XVI) resembles a tunnel in a coal mine. Where workers are revealed they are shown not as individuals with their own humanity, but as components of the economic forces shaping the region (Plates III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XIV). There was though, another history of the region – of inventors and industrial innovators, of skilled men and women producing intricate locks or delicately illustrated enamels and real people creating lives for themselves in a harsh industrial environment. These aspects of the Black Country experience are recorded elsewhere on the website.
G C Allen, The Industrial Development of Birmingham and the Black Country (1929)
Walter Allen, The Black Country, London (1946)
S H Beaver, “The Black Country” in J Myers, The Land of Britain, Part 61: Staffordshire, London (1945)
Elihu Burritt, Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland, London (1869)
Richard S Chattock, Sixteen Etchings Illustrative of Scenes in the Coal and Iron District of South Staffordshire, London and Birmingham (1878)
W H B Court, The Rise of the Midland Industries, 1600-1838, London (1938)
D M Palliser, The Staffordshire Landscape, London (1976)
T J Raybould, The Econmic Emergence of the Black Country: a Study of the Dudley Estate (1973)
Marie Rowlands, The West Midlands from AD 1000, London (1987)
Samuel Sidney, Rides on Railways, London, William S Orr and Co. (1851)
Samuel Smiles (ed.), James Nasmyth Engineer, an Autobiography, London (1885)
Barrie Trinder, The Making of the Industrial Landscape, London (1997)
This image from the Illustrated London News (December 1866), illustrates the written impressions provided by a stream of 19th writers. The background presents a landscape packed with industrial activity and pollution from steam-powered chimneys. In the foreground relics of desolation and older activity remain, including a horse gin which had been used to draw coal out of a mine.
Few people went to the Black Country for its physical attractions in the late 18th or 19th centuries, unless they visited Dudley Castle or Shenstone’s Leasowes Estate near Halesowen. Visitors to the area, nevertheless, could not fail to notice the impact of industry. They included Charles Dickens (1840), Thomas Tancred (1843), Samuel Sidney (1851) and Elihu Burrit (1868). As early as 1785, Anna Seward (1742-1809) in her poem Colebrook Dale (1785) presented the industrial hinterland near Birmingham in verse. She may have had in mind the huge alkali works at Tipton, built by James Keir(1765-1820) in 1780:
So with intent transmutant, Chemists bruise
The shrinking leaves and flowers, whose streams saline,
Congealing swift on the recipient’s sides
Shoot into crystals.
In 1830 James Nasmyth walked to the Black Country from Coalbrookdale.
I proceeded at once to Dudley. The Black Country is anything but picturesque. The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder heaps and mounds of scoriae. The coal which has been drawn from below ground is blazing on the surface. The district is crowded with iron furnaces, puddling furnaces, and coal-pit engine furnaces. By day and by night the country is glowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hovers over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forge-hammers.
Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted. The ground underneath them had sunk by the working out of the coal, and they were falling to pieces. They had in former times been surrounded by clumps of trees; but only the skeletons of them remained, dead, black, and leafless. The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphurous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray – the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect….In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains, which were placed in small tunnels beneath the hedgeless road.
After the coming of the railways, Queen Victoria closed the curtains of her railway carriage when she traversed the region’s landscape of furnaces, foundries and fire.
John Wilkinson (1728-1809) by an unknown painter.
Wilkinson was a major contributor to the rapid industrialisation of the Black Country in the late 18th century. Before he created his iron works at Bradley, near Wolverhampton in 1767, local industry was relatively small scale. He introduced coke smelting and steam power into the production of iron in the region and pioneered new uses for the product.
In medieval times, what became the Black Country was a series of small market towns, tiny settlements, farms where people scratched a living on poor quality land cleared from woodland and heath. Industrial activity provided an additional source of income and an encouragement to migration. There is documentary evidence of coal mining in 1273 and by the 17th century, the region was home to numerous small forges and glass houses. Dud Dudley allegedly discovered a way of using coal in iron smelting before Abraham Darby I at Coalbrookdale in 1708. Rapid growth began in the 18th century. The first Thomas Newcomen atmospheric engine for pumping water out of mines was installed at Conegyre near Dudley Castle in 1712. The Earls of Dudley, the region’s biggest landowners exploited the coal deposits on their estates and promoted canals to transport the products. The iron industry developed rapidly. In 1788 there were only six blast furnaces in the whole of Staffordshire, but by 1820 there were 28. John Wilkinson (1728-1808) pioneered new uses for iron at Bradley near Wolverhampton. Nail making, chain making, lock and key manufacturing, leather working and enamelling became significant industrial activities.
Gradually, the landscape of settlements congealed into towns – Bilston, Dudley, Oldbury, Stourbridge, Tipton, Walsall, Wednesbury, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton – and spreading industrial villages. Elihu Burritt (1868) described what had happened by the mid 19th century:
The whole of the Black Country between Birmingham and Wolverhampton is a nebula of coal and iron towns, making one great cloud of industrial communities, interspersed with many centres of deeper density….
Dudley Castle Hill is a dominant geological feature of the Black Country, which enabled 19th observers to describe the industrial landscape of the region. This print, dating from 1777, shows Dudley as a small town in a largely rural hinterland. It does reveal however the presence of industrial activity, strikingly illustrated by the plume of smoke issuing from the kiln.
The history of the Black Country during the Industrial Revolution was determined by its geology. Its geographical limits have been differently located by Elihu Burritt (1868), S H Beaver (1945) and Walter Allen (1946), but it is probably safe to identify the region with the modern metropolitan boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, most of which were formerly part of North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire. Dominated by a range of hills and surrounded by green space, it was the geology of the area which determined its industrial development. The Black Country contained Europe’s thickest coal seam, the Thirty Foot Seam which was easily mined close to the surface. Other resources included iron ore for furnaces, limestone which was used as a flux to remove impurities in the process of smelting iron, sand for cast-iron mouldings, Etruria Marl, a clay for brick-making, sandstone for building and Rowley Rag for road construction.
A rocky ridge stretched from Turner’s Hill, Rowley Regis along Dudley Castle Hill and Wren’s Nest to Sedgley Beacon. It provided a viewing platform for observers of the area’s industrial activity. In 1830 the young James Nasmyth (1808-1890), the inventor of the steam hammer, recorded his impressions from Dudley Castle:
Melancholy grandeur is rendered all the more impressive by the coal and iron works with which it is surrounded…The venerable trees struggle for existence under the destroying influence of sulphuric acid; while the grass is withered and the vegetation everywhere blighted. I sat down on an elevated part of the ruins, and looked down upon the extensive district, with its roaring and blazing furnaces, the smoke of which blackened the country as far as the eye could reach; and as I watched the decaying trees I thought of the price we had to pay for our vaunted supremacy in the manufacture of iron.
Summary: The Black Country in the British Midlands was a distinct industrial district. It was incredibly rich in mineral resources, including coal, iron and limestone, which were extensively mined. It developed as a manufacturing area before 1700, producing glass and iron goods, but it was not until the 18th century, partly through the influence of John Wilkinson, that large concerns began to forge the landscape. The Black Country provided the coal and iron that transformed Britain into the world’s industrial furnace, but its image was not a positive one for the outside world. By the early 19th century, writers and artists portrayed it in prints and prose as a poisoned and desecrated area with few redeeming features. There were other sides to the history of the Black Country, but this introduction focuses on the nature and effects of mining and iron making in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sixteen illustrations from a remarkable collection of prints, published in 1878, record and represent these aspects of the region’s history.