It is one of those ‘getting to know you’ questions that sometimes gets asked at parties: “If you could go back in time, what period would you most like to visit?”
I always say early 1800s England, purely because I’d like to live in the Big House, wear expensive flouncy dresses and be called Lady Tara. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Knowing my luck, I’d more likely be a servant girl, sent upstairs at 4am every day to clean and set the fires.
Anyway, never did I think I would actually get chance to step back in time but that’s exactly what it felt like visiting the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley.
The first thing I saw was a beautiful old bus trundling its way along the road followed by two ladies in long skirts, hats and knitted shawls walking down a street dotted with old houses to explore.
I was enchanted from the word go (as was my camera).
I always expected to like it. My lovely mother-in-law works at the museum – although she enjoys it so much I’m not sure it can be classed as work. Whenever she talks about it she always has a big smile on her face. She’s like a walking, talking advert. During our visit west this summer, she offered to show us around and we got to see exactly why she loves it so much.
How did the Black Country get its name?
It’s not the most romantic tale. It dates back to the 1830s when the region became the “first industrial landscape in the world”.
While Britain had other industrial centres, none were so extensive as the Black Country, an area rich in coal, ironstone, limestone and fireclay. It “played a vital role in the nation’s industrial history”.
Once upon a time the air would have been black with smoke belching from thousands of forges, furnaces and foundries – hence the name.
In the mid 19thcentury, 22% of Britain’s total output of iron was produced in the area. As a hint at its importance, according to the museum guidebook (well worth the money), Black Country manufacturers supplied “the cast-iron pillars and glass of the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, made the anchors of some of Britain’s most famous ships” including the Titantic. “…and in 1829 supplied the United States with its first ever steam locomotive”.
So, where is the Black Country exactly?
Before I met Mark, I had no idea there was such a thing as the Black Country but one day I described him as ‘Brummie’ and my education began. As I understand it, a Brummie is someone from Birmingham. The Black Country is very different (it even includes its own dialect and vocabulary). What’s slightly confusing is there doesn’t seem to be a definitive boundary. According to the museum guidebook (again) it includes about 20 towns, including West Bromwich, where Mark was born. And they are rightly proud of their heritage.
And the museum?
In the 1960s manufacturing dwindled, the once bustling canals were deserted and railways closed. A more modern landscape started to take its place with new houses, shopping malls and hotels. During this period of change, the idea for a museum to protect and promote the region’s heritage was mooted.
In the 1970s a site was secured for an open air “living museum preserving skills with the buildings and the artefacts demonstrated by costumed demonstrators”. It opened in 1978 and now comprises 26 acres and features some 80,000 items in the collections including cars, buildings, books and photographs from the 1800s to the 1940s.
So, SO much. Too much to put into one blog post but here’s a sample.
Together with costumed characters to chat to, there are original shops and houses to explore. If you’re brave enough (and not claustrophobic like me) you can even go underground and visit the drift mine. There’s also a fairground with traditional attractions and St James’s School, where you can ‘enjoy’ an old fashioned lesson.
I love learning new things and visiting the reconstructed Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute was fascinating.
In the 19th Century, the Black Country, and particularly the Cradley Health area, became well-known for its chain making, with smaller chains made by women and children. They worked extremely long hours, often in horrendous conditions for very little money, meaning they were forced to live in poverty.
The Trade Boards Act of 1909 passed a minimum wage in four low paid trades, including chain making, but employers tried to find ways to avoid paying the money, which for some women was double what they earned.
In response the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), led by Mary Macarthur, a Scottish suffragist and trades unionist, called for a strike in 1910. The women downed tools to fight for their right to a living wage.
With the help of mass meetings and the media, the strike became big news. Donations for the cause poured in from all sections of society. Within a month 60% of employers had signed up to the scheme and within 10 weeks they all had. The women fought and won.
As there was a surplus of funds, the excess money was used to build the workers’ institute, which became a centre for educational meetings, social gatherings and trade union activities in Cradley Heath.
In 2004 the building was threatened with demolition and the museum was approached to save it. It was taken down and reconstructed with its original interior layout, which now contains offices, a news room and a cafe.
Is that it?
No way. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a pub, cake shop, sweet shop and very popular 1930s fish and chip shop (the chips are normally cooked in beef dripping so make sure you talk to staff if you’re vegetarian to see about alternative options).
If you get tired of walking you can even catch one of the old buses. Freya liked it so much that we had to go around twice.
What did you like?
Everything. I’m not even kidding (as you can probably tell by the number of photos). There’s so much to see and do. But the museum is much more than a nostalgic look back at the past. While everything is neat and clean now, the life back then isn’t glamorised. Living and working in this period was hard and often dangerous and that aspect is covered.
How can I find out more?
I’m sharing this post now because I know some schools are on half-term this week. If you’re looking for something to do in the West Midlands, I highly recommend this museum. Please visit their website to find out more.
Top tip: Cut through the tunnel next to Preedy’s and you can visit a late 1930s kitchen plus head upstairs to see more period rooms.
Come on then, if you could go back in time, what period would you like to visit?