The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Midlands

Category: Land + People

The Midlands is situated in the centre of Great Britain between the South Industrial and Agricultural region in the south and Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north. For the past two hundred years the Midlands has been one of Britain’s leading industrial regions.

It was the presence of coalfields, especially the South Staffordshire coalfields, which set the area on the path of industrial expansion and eventually the development of the great West Midlands conurbation, which is the industrial focus of the region and includes Birmingham* Coventry and several other larger towns. Today it is one of the chief industrial areas in the United Kingdom. Quite often it is called the Birmingham / Black Country conurbation.

Birmingham itself stands outside the district known as the Black Country: a district lying west and north-west of the city. During the nineteenth century the area emerged as a centre of heavy industry and the coalfield towns became most important. Exploitation of the coalfield devastated large areas of land, leaving it derelict. Much of the early prosperity depended upon one industry — the iron industry. The waste tips, grime and smoke spread like a blight from mines, furnaces and the district was well named the Black Country. By the end of the nineteenth century iron ore deposits were exhausted and local coal supplies were diminishing. The decline continued in the present century. Today the region produces less than five per cent of the country’s steel output and this small industry depends upon scrap metal and steel brought in from the major producing areas.

Although the basic iron and steel industry has virtually disappeared, the industries which depend upon it, particularly engineering and the finishing of metals, remain important to the area. In addition non-ferrous metallurgy developed for finishing and conversion into alloys. The people of the region have turned to making the finished products of the industry — metal goods of every description from nuts and bolts, nails and screws to motor-cars. Thus most of the workers are now in the various branches of engineering.

With the changes in industry have come changes in surface features, and the Black Country is beginning to lose its image. However, many of the problems created in the past still prevail today. Birmingham is the industrial capital of the Midlands. In population (998,200) it is the second largest city in Britain. It has been said that Birmingham makes everything from a pin to a steam roller, but it is best known for its hardware. The motor industry employs thousands of workers, those at the large Longbridge plant representing only part of its labour force. On the south-east outskirts, not within the city, is Solihull (112,000), another important centre of the motor industry. Fort Dunlop, in the northeast, manufactures tyres.

Birmingham also makes bicycles, but its motor-cycle industry has declined, largely owing to Japanese competition. On the other hand, the city has preserved its long tradition of making guns and has an international trade in sporting guns, air rifles,etc. An industry which developed out of the working of base metals, such as zinc and copper (for brass), was the manufacture of articles in gold and silver. Jewellery manufacture became a major industry, and Birmingham remains the country’s leading centre. The city is a major producer of consumer goods, and service industries involved in the distribution of goods are also developed. Among the manufacture of food products, cocoa and chocolate occupy a prominent place.

The other major city of the West Midlands conurbation is Coventry (310,000). It was already well known in the Middle Ages. Trading in wool, and later making woollen cloth, was the chief occupation. During the nineteenth century on the basis of local coal the metal-working and engineering industries developed. However, these industries were on a small scale, and it was not until- the twentieth century that rapid growth took place. The silk industry of the past was strengthened by the introduction of artificial fibres and the engineering industry concentrated first on bicycles and later on motor vehicles. During the early years of the century, the first car assembly lines were built, machine tool factories grew up to supply them and a host of component industries appeared.

During the Second World War Coventry suffered great damage from Nazi air raids. On the night of November 14, 1940 came the greatest raid so far directed against an English provincial city. Nearly 75 per cent of the city’s industry had been seriously damaged and so had over 46,000 houses. On November 1, 1941 the Coventry AngloSoviet Unity Committee was formed. During the war people began to link the names of Stalingrad and Coventry as two cities which had suffered greatly in the hands of the common enemy. The Committee was therefore made responsible for organizing an exhibition in Coventry of the sword forged in London and presented to Stalingrad on behalf of the British people. Coventry received a book of greetings containing 30,000 signatures from the women of Stalingrad, as a salute from one city to another. These two acts helped to lay the foundations of an international friendship which endures to this day. Today Volgograd and Coventry are twin cities with extensive cultural links.

After the war the city was rebuilt. Today Coventry is the centre of the British motor industry. In the 1970s the crisis of the world capitalist economy produced a slump in the motor industry and, within the space of two years, the city boom came to an end. The whole area including Coventry has suffered greatly from the recession which has seen the virtual collapse of large sections of Britain’s manufacturing industry. Another major industrial centre is Wolverhampton (252,000) where heavy engineering, metal founding, tyre production are developed.

There are three major industrial centres situated to the east and north-east of Coventry. They are Leicester (280,000), Nottingham (271,000) and Derby (216,000).

Today Leicester is a leading centre of the knitwear industry (including hosiery), and associated with this is the manufacture of knitting machines.

Nottingham resembles Leicester in being the seat of a university and in having developed a major interest in knitwear production and the manufacture of knitting machinery. Nottingham lace also became famous. Other industries in Nottingham are the manufacture of bicycles, pharmaceutical products and cigarettes. It is twinned to Minsk in Byelorussia and varied contacts are regularly maintained between the two cities.

Derby is an important railway engineering centre because of its central position. More important than the railway work-shops today, however, are the Rolls Royce factories, which now produce aircraft engines. Textile manufacture developed with the building of the country’s first silk mill. Man-made fibres, initially rayon, later took the place of silk.

At the south-west tip of the Pennines lies a district of the Midlands known as the Potteries with its major industrial centre Stoke-upon-Trent (260,000) famous for its pottery and ceramics industry.

In climate the Midlands has a midway place between the rather wet area to the west (Wales) and the drier, more ‘continental’ area to the east (East Anglia). A great deal of the region is under grass, either permanent or in rotation. Largely because of climatic differences, dairy cattle are more numerous in the moister west. But there is a higher proportion of beef cattle towards the east. Many sheep are also grazed. Nowadays the principal crops are barley and wheat, along with potatoes and sugar beet. The demands of the large industrial centres have given rise to market gardening nearby, and a great variety of vegetables is produced.

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