Every week during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Black Country Studies Centre will be bringing you videos and blogposts about life in the Black Country, past, present and future. Expert speakers will give you insights to their subject and research, as well as sharing their recommendations and links for finding out more. Catch up with previous episodes here.

For episode 4, we are joined by University of Wolverhampton History PhD student Paul Barnsley. Paul’s research looks at perceptions of work in two Black Country towns – Bilston and Brierley Hill. He is writing an oral history of the people who worked in the steelworks and those who, forty years later, work on the same site in the call centres, shopping malls and distribution centres.

Much has been written about the long process of industrial development in the Black Country. The discovery of a thick coal seam, and the subsequent extensive forms of iron and metal working that took place over the next 250 years (from the beginning of the 17th Century up until c1890), gave our region its name. We also have detailed resources that examine the emergence of the factory system that spread throughout the Black Country at the end of the 19th Century. The region would play a central role in the industrial British economy for the next hundred years. It is a remarkable history, and we are rightly keen to remember it to ourselves and to others.

However, relatively little has been written about the process of deindustrialisation that took place at the end of the 1970’s – or about its lingering aftermath. In this short video I discuss what deindustrialisation is and the impact that it had on the Black Country. Deindustrialisation is concerned with the loss of basic productive capacity, the closure of factories and the impact on communities that have experienced these types of industrial decline. The feelings evoked by the experience in the West Midlands were memorably captured by The Specials.

Industrial loss forced hundreds of thousands of families in the Black Country to come to terms with profound change. This provokes many questions. What does it mean when an employer that has been in a place for over one hundred years, and was an integral part of that community, suddenly closes? How do people cope when they are made surplus to requirements and told that their skills are no longer needed? What happens to the industrial traditions, culture and way of life developed over the past 400 years when the work that helped to create them goes away? This short film about the experience of steelworkers at Bilston captures both the importance of their work to them and also their sadness at its loss.

Industrial decline and factory closure at the end of the 1970’s wasn’t an experience unique to the Black Country. Much of northern England, Scotland and Wales and parts of North America were also affected. For those interested in the wider questions posed by deindustrialisation you can read more here and for more information on the experience of the Black Country please visit: https://blackcountryhistory.org

I believe that the sudden and far-reaching effects of deindustrialisation, on those who lived through it and those living in the Black Country ever since, require more investigation and discussion. Perhaps, the pain of the experience has been one of the reasons that explains why the region has yet to fully confront what happened to it and what this it might tell us about work, our identity and about how we feel about our place in the world now?

In my research, I interview ex-steelworkers from Bilston and Round Oak to record their lived experience of deindustrialisation. I also interview those working on the sites of the former steelworks today – in the call centre and distribution work that emerged in the post-industrial Black Country – to explore these questions in more detail. I would be happy to hear from all who want to share their experience. Please email me: p.barnsley@wlv.ac.uk

Don’t forget to check out the Black Country Living Museum History at Home series of history learning materials for primary school children! 

You can support BCLM during this difficult time by buying a ticket for when the museum reopens or by donating here.

Interested in taking your interest in history to the next level? Find out more about studying History at the University of Wolverhampton!