Review: Tracing Your Black Country Ancestors by Michael Pearson

“The Black Country, black by day and red by night, cannot be matched for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe.” Elihu Burritt, American Consul in Birmingham 1868

As roughly half my family is from the Black Country, I was very pleased to receive a copy of Tracing Your Black Country Ancestors by Michael Pearson. The latest in Pen and Sword’s Tracing Your . . . series, this book fills a gap in family history bibliography. The Black Country is a relatively small area, but its unique heritage, culture and dialect warrant further attention from historians. The region is geographical rather than administrative, which can prove nightmarish for the family historian with BC ancestors. We have to move around between four archives, three counties and four metropolitan boroughs, encompassing Wednesbury, Darlaston, Wednesfield, Bilston, Coseley, Tipton, Dudley, Brierley Hill, Halesowen. West Bromwich, Olbury and Smethwick. It must be noted, though, that the Black Country never includes Birmingham. Furthermore, the BC is within, but does not fully cover, the counties of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. Confused? Thankfully, this new book benefits from a clear layout, with its chapter on archives and resources, and a detailed appendix on local government providing a comprehensive overview for researchers.

 

Although Black Country people know where they’re from, as Pearson notes, there are no “officially defined borders” of the region, with its four archives lying in the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The origins of its name lie in the rich black coal seam of its lands. The book dedicates a full chapter to mining, including a useful list of mines in the region, clearly tabulated. In fact, the use of tables and charts throughout is one of the reasons for the book’s clarity. Other helpful details in this chapter are the definitions of jobs such as hewer, butty and bellman, and the dates of local mining accidents.

 

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 My great grandfather, Edward Billingham (1874-1950), worked as a miner and lived in Coseley.

 

The Black Country is renowned for its contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Pearson observes that “the wealth generated by industry meant people did not leave the region to work elsewhere”. My family lived in the area for centuries. Like many of them, most Black Country inhabitants worked in industrial jobs. My ancestors worked as miners, steel workers, iron puddlers, nail makers, hand loom weavers and brick makers. All of these areas are covered in detail, with the chapters on iron and steel, and industrial diversity. The latter is particularly useful, with details like the 21 out of 43 brickworks in the region being in Sedgley/Kingswinford. As my brick-making ancestors were women, I’m pleased that Pearson recognizes women’s contribution to the industrial revolution and to the growth and culture of the Black Country. He reveals, for example, that in 1883, 16,000 of the 20,000 area’s nail makers were women.

 

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 My great great grandfathe, Noah Hingley (1848-1926), lived in Coseley and worked as an iron puddler.

 

Other chapters examine transport, BC off-duty (an assessment of leisure, shops and so on), religion (non-conformism was very popular in the region) and Black Country life. This last chapter covers the remarkable local dialect. I have a particular interest in this as my great uncle Harry Harrison wrote fluently in the dialect, and kept the words and humour alive in regular talks and performances. He was one of the founders of the Black Country Nite Out Show. I can remember as a child finding one of his poetry books on my grandparents’ shelves. I couldn’t understand a word! Thankfully, Pearson provides a guide to some of the most commonly heard words and expressions. Some of them, like “yo’m” (“you’re”), recall the way my grandfather used to speak. To try and get an ear for the dialect, say aloud this line from my great uncle, still proudly displayed on the website of a Droitwich butcher, “Dunn’s mate is really great!”

 

As a retired West Midlands Police Inspector, Michael Pearson is unsurprisingly strong in the Crime & Punishment chapter. Despite his non-genealogy background, Pearson’s extensive knowledge of the area is evident. He demonstrates personal insight and local knowledge throughout, from local foods like faggots and “greay pays” (maple peas simmered with bacon and served with bread) to the BC sense of identity (“those born and bred here . . .still see themselves as coming from their village”).

 

The book is also well-illustrated, not least by the many images of the Black Country Living Museum, near Dudley, a must-visit for those with ancestors from the region. This open air museum, which opened thirty-four years ago, is spread over a twenty-six acre site with over sixty separate exhibits, such as a chainmaker’s forge and a school. All the historic buildings in the ‘living’ village have been moved brick by brick to be rebuilt exactly as they once stood.

 

Racecourse Colliery at the Black Country Living Museum

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Summary: this is a book that cannot fail to aid those researching ancestors from the Black Country.

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