In line with celebrating the release of Blue Remembered Heels I thought I would share another superb piece from our friends at the Black Country Bugle. I write contemporary romance but this article shares the writings of a Black Country Vicar writing in Victorian times.
Charles Dickens brought vividly to life the plight of the urban poor of London and the south-east in the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Gaskell did the same for the workers of the northern towns, and Thomas Hardy took the reader right into the world of the agricultural labourer of the south-west.
As far as the working folk of our part of the world are concerned, Arnold Bennett's stories recreated the north Staffordshire Potteries, and Francis Brett Young used the Black Country as a backdrop to his novels, but despite being born in late Victorian times, the latter two were twentieth century writers. But just because few authors, or works, spring readily to mind, we shouldn’t assume that the Black Country was ignored by the writers of the eighteen-hundreds. Walsall historian Ian Bott has put our way a small but vital collection of rare works published during Victoria’s reign, some of which capture those times and some which hark back even further.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll delve beneath the dusty covers of each one; and we’ll begin with a work by an anonymous author: Down in Dingyshire, published in 1873. Subtitled ‘Sketches of life in the Black Country’, this copy of the book bears a plate on its inside front cover, which explains that it was originally presented to a Robert Henderson for attendance at Dunipace Free Church Sabbath School during 1886. Dunipace, it seems, is a Scottish town, so it is possible that the mystery author was a Scot - all that he gives away is that the book was written by a vicar from outside our area, and is based on observations of his Black Country flock, no doubt during the 1860s and early 1870s.
The author pulls no punches in his opening chapter. He freely admits that his first sight of his new parish filled him with dismay, describing the scene which greeted him as ‘the face of Nature, battered like the countenance of a drunkard’s wife’. There are no real clues as the precise location of his parish, and most of the descriptions fit most of the Black Country’s towns. He tells us how canals pierce his parish and honeycomb it with reservoirs; how fog, shot through with vast sheets of flame, blankets the entire area, and how the throb of pumping engines is punctuated by the crash of steam hammers. The parish’s inhabitants mostly live in long lines of brick-built cottages, all identical in size and dinginess. The author explains how he came here, quite literally, as a man on a mission:
“The clergyman on the look-out for a small population, good society, the neighbourhood of a market town, a spacious house on gravelly soil with a south aspect, and access to a little choice fishing, would not regard it with a favourable eye ... in fact, no one should dream of voluntarily coming here, except from a desire to find a harvest of souls, and to take an earnest part of an earnest work for Christ amongst a thoroughly practical and earnest people.”
After a less than promising start, it’s becoming clear that the vicar has genuine respect for his new flock; but he won’t be drawn on where they actually live:
“Now, I am not going to tell its name; but I will tell you that we are ‘all the sons of one man’ in other words, we are all the employees of one great Company, whose mission is to convert the iron and the coal of our district into money.”
There were dozens of large-scale landowner/employers in the Black Country in Victorian times, but the above description would probably sit most comfortably on the shoulders of the Earl of Dudley. Frustratingly for us, that doesn’t narrow it down a great deal, as Lord Ward’s ‘Company’ took in a vast area including several towns and villages.
Within ‘My Parish’, the author continues, half the forge men work by day and half by night. Furnaces and forges are alive with flame the whole night through, having not been extinguished for years, and the noise of the blast engines is constant. Even on a Sunday these hellfires raged, ‘though happily nothing else woks on Sunday, and neither public-house nor shop is open on God’s day from one end of the place to the other.’
There then follows a detailed description of the average family’s home, which, assuming it hasn’t been given too much of a positive spin, sounds pretty comfortable. Every cottage has its own garden plot, and many have a pig. It acts, the vicar asserts, as a great social agent, filling up the summer evenings, and teaching each family the virtues of prudence and patience.
The layout of the houses and gardens also had a particular effect on the social lives of the residents. As each garden lay in front of each of the terraced houses, the only way to the front door would be via a path through whatever grew there, but, making the most of every inch of what little space they had, most gardeners were reluctant to waste any. So every front door remained locked and access was invariably via the back door. As a consequence, everyday life went on in the rear of the house, with the front room becoming a little-used ‘best room’.
In these little museums, the vicar writes, you might come across the relics of a dead pet or two, stuffed and mounted in a home-made case. The furniture would usually include the likes of a two-pound-ten mahogany table, there would often be a cheap piano, and an easy-chair only used on Sundays:
“On the walls of this sacred chamber, among the stuffed dogs, hang various framed documents; the certificate of merit presented to the eldest boy by the Dingyshire Association for the Promotion of Scriptural Education; the last sampler done by the eldest daughter, now in service; the funeral cards of the grandfather and grandmother, and perhaps of a child or two; the card of membership in the Honourable Society of Queer Fellows. Here also may be occasionally encountered pictures in an early and highly florid style of art, and mostly of a Scriptural tendency. Finally, an elaborate fly-trap hangs from the ceiling, and a collection of impossible crockery crowds the mantelpiece. Such is the front room, not for human nature’s daily food, but exhibited only as a luxury to visitors from afar, and to those who are admitted to the intimacy of close friendship, amongst whom, I am glad to say, my parishioners count their parson.”
The exclusive use of the back door also had a bearing on relationships between neighbours. Two back doors would always open into one shared yard, yolking neighbouring families into partnerships. But just as with married couples, to use the author’s analogy, one party will usually emerge the dominant one after a period of settling in and testing of boundaries. The process begins with ‘armed neutrality’, advances to a ‘flying skirmish’ and and finally to ‘open war’, the sticking points being anything from one woman’s use of the rain water to the other’s mistreatment of her neighbour’s children. But things will usually settle down after coming to a head, with the paired-off families often becoming as close as one, and marriage between neighbouring children often the outcome.
With an air of calm now settled on our sample dwelling, the vicar takes us indoors to meet the typical family. It’s a priceless description of how our ancesters would have lived:
“We observe, as we enter one of the yards, that sanitary measures are carefully attended to. Each house has its copper for washing, and some have a tidy scullery in a little out-house. We knock at the door, and a very dirty girl admits us. ‘Is mother in?’ ‘Yes, walk forward;’ which means, ‘Come in’.
“So we walk forward, and find ourselves at once in face of the family at tea. A tremendous fire keeps the room at fever heat, a strong smell of onions enriches the atmosphere, a couple of dogs bark on a ragged hearth-rug, and on a wooden settle lies the outstretched form of a sleeping man, with hands and face all black. This is ‘the master’, whom we have come to seek.”
The master of the house is called Thomas Langley, a miner who, health permitting, gets eighteen shillings a week all year round. In summer, when his working hours are lessened along with the demand for coal, he may supplement his income by gardening for some of the better-offs. He has ducks as well as his pig, which add a little to his income and provide him with a few eggs. He has five childen; the eldest lad works with him down the pit, the eldest girl lives in with another family as a ‘universal drudge’ for eighteen pence a week, and the remainder are at school, which takes 8d a week out of Thomas’s wages. His rent, for which he gets the front and back rooms and two bedrooms (he calls them chambers) costs him just over two shillings a week. He grew up being beaten with his father’s strap, and has been working since the age of nine - his mother would often have to carry him home from work, and he would be so tired that he would go straight to sleep rather than eat.
But this would have been during the late 1840s. Since then he has learned to read a little thanks to his wife, and, to the vicar’s delight, brought himself and his family into the fold of the church. It’s when he manages to convert the likes of Thomas Langley that the vicar remembers why he came here in the first place:
“I often think,” he writes, “as I come from a chat with my collier friend, that he has a direct lesson for some of us. ‘Work in the Dark’, that is his lesson. It is easy to work in the light of a big parish, a flourishing congregation, of a select circle of Christian friends, of a happy and refined home, of a large and well-organised society. But here is a man who earns his living and his children’s in loneliness and darkness, and who spends his little leisure on one of the lower classes in a Black-country school; and who is probably appreciated by no other human being but myself. But here, all unknown to him, I commemorate him in a few unworthy words, which he will never see.”