|Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939|
Page 1 of 2
Download Complete book here PDF
From Chartism to Secularism 1850-1870
The first task is to define the Black Country. Birmingham is, apart from the original tiny village, a political unit, which has grown taking surrounding areas under its jurisdiction. But the Black Country is a physical unit of about 150 square miles and is defined here as that area standing on the unique and magnificent 10-yard seam of coal. Within the many layers compromising this thirty feet wall of coal was ironstone. This led to the development of the great ironworks whose by products of smoke and flame from the open furnaces turned day into night and night into day, according to the awed testimony of those visitors who entered this satanic region. By this definition, Wolverhampton, the largest town of the region, qualifies for inclusion, the coalfield extending to the eastern outskirts of the town. Similarly, in the Walsall area the coalfield dips to reappear further north as the Cannock coalfield. However, both these towns are also central to the industry of the Black Country which must be roughly defined as the area compromising the modern metropolitan boroughs of Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. Birmingham is definitely not in the Black Country.
The economic situation provides the terrain on which the politics of any period are fought out. The period from 1815 to 1850 had been dominated by three Long Depressions of 1815-23, 1826-33 and 1839-43. Each of these Depressions had stimulated particular forms of working class political and trade union organisation which, because Britain was the first nation to have an Industrial Revolution also produced the first working class. The institutions which British working people fashioned were therefore unique and later largely copied by the rest of the world.
The first Long Depression, after the Napoleonic Wars gave rise to working class Political Unions and the ‘blasphemous and seditious’ newspapers epitomised by William Cobbett’s Political Register. The second Long Depression brought united action between the middle and working classes with Political Unions in Birmingham and the Black Country leading the struggle for the first Reform Act of 1832. This gave the vote to the middle class, but denied it to working people who had mainly been responsible for agitating for it. So when the third Long Depression occurred there was already in place the first Socialist movement in Britain associated with the name of Robert Owen. This aimed at by-passing capitalism by the creation of co-operative colonies and was also a rationalist, atheist movement attacking religion and the role it played in upholding ruling class hegemony and control. But the third Depression also gave rise to the most significant working class movement of the century. This was Chartism which aimed, by bombarding Parliament with petitions containing millions of signatures, to peacefully persuade Parliament to grant the vote to all working men. None of these movements was successful in their main aim of universal male suffrage, but all played significant parts in mitigating the elemental upheavals of the capitalist trade cycle which, in its downswings lasting for many years, threatened to starve vast swathes of working people who were not only without political rights, but also without any social services, except the Workhouse.
When we turn to the period after 1850 myths abound. From 1850 to the Great Depression of the 1870s was the period of Britain’s industrial supremacy and of vastly expanded industrial output. This, however, does not warrant the assumption that this brought working class prosperity. The 1850s were a ‘good’ decade with only a small slump in 1855. The 1860s were much worse, however, with full employment only in 1864-65 and trade either moderate or bad in other years. Only from 1870 to 1874 was there a sustained boom and full employment. This was followed by the Great Depression which lasted until almost the end of the century.