By the late 19th century, this area had become one of the most intensely industrialised in the nation. The South Staffordshire coal mines, the coal coking operations, and the iron foundries and steel mills that used the local coal to fire their furnaces, produced a level of air pollution that had few equals anywhere in the world.
It is popularly believed that The Black Country got its name because of pollution from these heavy industries that covered the area in black soot. There is an anecdote (of dubious authenticity) about Queen Victoria ordering the blinds lowered on her carriage as the royal train passed through. However, historians suggest that it is more likely that the name existed even before the Industrial Revolution; outcroppings of black coal scarred the surface of the local heath, and the presence of coal so near the surface rendered the local soil very black.
The Black Country is also known for its distinctive dialect, which differs slightly in various parts of the region.
Despite its close proximity to Birmingham, the vast majority of the Black Country's population refuse to claim membership of the city, and are fiercely proud of their area's identity as a separate region.
An older, more precise, de facto definition uses geology and follows the outcroppings of the South Staffordshire "thick" coal seam known locally as the "thirty foot seam", as bounded by the eastern and western boundary faults and on the north by the Bentley fault (which divides the South Staffordshire coalfield from the adjoining Cannock Chase coalfield. Near Halesowen and Stourbridge, the coal seams outcropped, providing a southern boundary. On this basis parts of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Stourbridge are not part of the Black Country but West Bromwich is, although here the thirty foot seam is at relative depth. These delineations are still of importance locally.
A useful guide for outsiders is to regard the M5 and M6 motorways as the eastern boundary but this, even using the 21st century definition is only approximately correct, as Smethwick is to the east of it and most of Walsall lies north east of the M6 motorway. The definition is simply wrong using the older geological definition.
The Black Country has coalesced into a single conurbation, but is unusual in that it has no single centre, having grown up from a number of historic market towns and industrial villages that have coalesced during the 20th century. It remains essentially polyfocal with many of the towns and villages remaining recognisable communities and in some cases resenting having been subsumed into a metropolitan borough whose centre is elsewhere.
The Black Country lies wholly within the West Midlands County, but was formerly divided between the ancient counties of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Curiously, the ancient parish (and pre-1965 municipal borough) of Dudley was once a detached part of Worcestershire within Staffordshire and some still consider Dudley to be Dudley, Worcs. Even more strangely, until 1845, much of the parish of Halesowen, including Oldbury and Warley Salop (but not Cradley or Warley Wigorn) was a detached part of Shropshire.
The Black Country comprises parts of the city of Wolverhampton, and the towns of:
By the 19th century or early 20th century, many villages had their characteristic manufacture, but earlier occupations were less concentrated. Some of these concentrations are less ancient than sometimes supposed. For example, chain making in Cradley Heath seems only to have begun in about the 1820s, and the Lye holloware industry is even more recent.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, coal and limestone were worked only on a modest scale for local consumption, but during the Industrial Revolution by the opening of canals, such as the Birmingham Canal Navigations, Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canal (the Dudley Canal Line No 1 and the Dudley Tunnel) opened up the mineral wealth of the area to exploitation. Advances in the use of coke for the production in iron enabled iron production (hitherto limited by the supply of charcoal) to expand rapidly.
By Victorian times, the Black Country was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in Britain, and it became known for its pollution, particularly from iron and coal industries and their many associated smaller businesses. This lead to the expansion of local railways and coal mine lines. The Line running from Stourbridge to Walsall via Dudley Port and Wednesbury closed in the 1960s, but the Birmingham to Wolverhampton via Tipton is still a major transport route.
The anchors and chains for the ill-fated liner RMS Titanic were manufactured in the Black Country in the area of Netherton. Three anchors and accompanying chains were manufactured; and the set weighed in at 100 tons. The centre anchor alone weighed 12 tons and was pulled through Netherton on its journey to the ship by 20 shire horses.
The area soon gained notoriety. Charles Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop, written in 1841, described how the area's local factory chimneys "Poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air". In 1862, Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham, described the region as "black by day and red by night", because of the smoke and grime generated by the intense manufacturing activity and the glow from furnaces at night.
It is said that J. R. R. Tolkien based the grim region of Mordor on the heavily industrialised Black Country area in his famed novel The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Black) Land, and is sometimes even referred to within the novel as "The Black Country".
Much but not all of the area now suffers from high unemployment and is amongst the most economically deprived communities in the UK; this is particularly true in parts of Sandwell and Dudley, and to a lesser extent Wolverhampton. As with many urban areas in England, there is also a significant ethnic minority population in parts; resistance to mass immigration in the 1960s and 1970s led to the slogan "Keep the Black Country white!". Older areas of places such as Smethwick (pictured below) attracted particularly high levels of immigration from Asia and the Caribbean.
The traditional Black Country dialect preserves many archaic traits of Early Modern English and even Middle English, and can be very confusing for outsiders. Thee, Thy and Thou are still in use, as is the case in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. "'Ow B'ist", meaning "How beist thou?" is a common greeting, with the typical answering being "'Bay too bah", meaning "I bayn't be too bad". "I haven't seen her" becomes "I ay sid 'er". Black Country dialect often substitutes the word "ar" for "yes". Several word pronunciations have been changed as well: "you" is pronounced "yow" (pronounced yo with a silent w, and not yaw like the Harry Enfield stereotype), whereas "go", which is often pronounced "goo" or "gooin'" for "going", is more in line with pronunciations in the Midlands. It is also quite common for broad Black Country speakers to say agooin instead of going (Please note that not all of the phrases used here to illustrate Black Country dialect can be heard throughout the entire Black Country area; most refer to the Dudley area alone.)
Inhabitants are proud to be known as Black Country "folk" and resist hints at any relationship to people living in Birmingham, calling Birmingham "Brum-a-jum" (Birmingham's colloquial name is Brummagem, a corruption of its older name of Bromwicham and hence West Bromwich) or Birminam (missing the g and h out and saying it the way it's spelt). Residents of Birmingham (Brummies) meanwhile often refer to their Black Country neighbours as "Yam Yams", a reference to the use of "Yow am" (or yow'm) instead of "You are", and not because they say i yam instead of I am, in fact the phrase om is often used instead of I am in the area. Dudley residents often refer to the people of Birmingham as 'Dummy Brummies'. Also, the town of Walsall can be pronounced either War-sall or Wor-sull, with a strong Walsall accent considered to be typical "yam-yam."
The strong Black Country dialect is less commonly heard today than in the past. However, a stronger variation of the dialect (than the one frequently used) appears to be heard quite often in conversations between older Black Country folk.
As the image shows, a road sign containing local dialect was placed at the A461/A459/A4037 junction in 1997 before the construction of a traffic island on the site. This island was completed in 1998 and was the first phase of the Dudley Southern By-Pass which was opened on 15 October 1999.
The word endings with 'en' are still noticeable in conversation as in 'gooen' (going), callen (calling) and the vowel 'A' is pronounced as 'O' as in sond (sand), hond (hand) and mon (man). Other pronunciations are 'winder' for window, 'fer' for far, and 'loff' for laugh exactly as Chaucer's English was spoken. Local dialect was (and probably still is to a lesser degree) quite distinctive between the different towns and villages of the Black Country. Although most outsiders to the Black Country can't tell this differance, Black Country folk can quiet fiercly defend the difference between the accent.
The Express and Star is the region's newspaper and publishes eleven local editions from its Wolverhampton headquarters (for example the Dudley edition will have a different front page from the Wolverhampton or Stafford editions). Incidentally the Express and Star, traditionally a Black Country paper has expanded to the point where they sell copies from vendors in Birmingham city centre.