Don’t read below the line

Dudley boy Lenny Henry wielding the Black Country Flag. (c) Birmingham Mail 2014
Dudley boy Lenny Henry wielding the Black Country Flag. (c) Birmingham Mail 2014

Controversy de la semaine around these parts comes in the wake of the increasingly-popular Black Country Festival. This sort of thing is a great idea – fostering a bit of community spirit can only be good for morale amongst a particularly under-employed, under-paid part of the country, and encouraging people to make use of their local areas will surely bring its own economic rewards. It’s also a great opportunity to publicise the area’s unique history – but it’s that which has caused some aggro recently.

Wolverhampton-born former London councillor, Patrick Vernon OBE made the suggestion (somewhat bluntly, it has to be said) that the Black Country flag should be withdrawn. This design was the result of a competition won by a 12 year old girl from Stourbridge and has been swiftly and cheerfully taken up across the region. It incorporates Elihu Burrit’s famous depiction of the Black Country as “black by day, red by night”, and two of the myriad industries that the region’s economic might was built on, glassworking and chainmaking. It’s the later which has upset Mr Vernon: to him, the chains represent the horrors of the slave trade, which was significantly supplied in metalwork by the Black Country; we shouldn’t celebrate something which caused such misery.

My initial mistake when reading this story on the Express & Star website was to read the comments section. Sigh. Newspaper comments sections are where the dregs of the nation’s spelling capability goes to die, for a start. But they’re also a wonderful analytical source for the art of the kneejerk reaction, and each newspaper’s reading public can be characterised in detail through these mini-polemics. As you might imagine, the response to Mr Vernon’s piece were not favourable.

It’s easy to see why. The flag is an attractive and popular emblem of a region that only appeared on an Ordnance Survey map 6 years ago, a place whose community feeling has suffered since the decline of its heavy industry; it gives us yam yams a bit of an identity. Nobody is claiming that there was any racist intent in the flag’s design, so to superimpose this view of history over the top of a successful community endeavour seems a bit off.

But, as historians are so beloved of saying, it is of course more complicated than that. The fact remains that the Black Country was the major source for ironware for the African and American slave trade. Manufacturers were not only complicit in this, but advertised themselves as such: Henry Waldron of Wolverhampton was listed as a “Negro Collar and Handcuff Maker” in 1770; John Shaw of Penn also traded in hard and soft “negro collars”, listed alongside dog collars and handcuffs (source). When you dig a little into the lives and trades of some of those who made Black Country industry ‘great’, it can get a little uncomfortable. Perhaps 200 years of abolition softens the blow a little, but I’m not sure we’d be so ready to celebrate such industry if we knew the whole, unpalatable truth. Even our celebrated lady chainmakers are best known for having to strike for a living wage. If it weren’t for the friendly chainmaking demos at the Black Country Museum, or the legacy of chainmaking in the area, wouldn’t a flag showing something whose purpose is to bind and hold down, be a little strange?

That gets us into the thorny issue of which history, or whose history, do we appropriate? If we celebrate the industrial heritage of the Black Country, is it safe to celebrate the great industrialists, the masters, the tradesmen, the outputs of the many thousands of forges? By the same token, is it safe to raise a whole region’s ire based on something without the intent to offend? There’s a whole mess of postcolonial issues right here, well beyond my experience to analyse, but… it’s complicated.

As usual, after having a think about it, I’m going to blame capitalism. Today’s sleek, neoliberal capitalism is a world away from the raw proto-capitalism of 1770, yet as an economic system its power to exploit remains undiminished. In the Black Country, the chains were made to bind thousands of innocent lives to a pitiful destiny in a foreign land. Those taken had no choice, no escape but death, no rights, no humanity allowed them. Those producing the chains were not the Shaws or Waldrons of the world though. In Adam Smith’s brave new economic world all had the right to choose, to change their lives; but who of the chainmakers had the ability to do that? They were slaves of a different kind, with no bonds but tied inescapably to their forges.

Today, the forges and collars are museum pieces only, but the country is still heaving with the vulnerable, poor and exploited. Perhaps until we recognise that central to the debate must be a condemnation of that capitalist imperative to exploit the weak, we won’t get anywhere. Of course, that would be very uncomfortable, even… complicated? The E&S’s response clearly didn’t want to go down that route, being a masterclass in handbag-held-high sarcasm, but they do manage to drag in some Rousseau, so I’ll leave you with that:

Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.
JJ Rousseau, The Social Contract

7 thoughts on “Don’t read below the line

  1. The CHILDREN’S EMPLOYMENT COMMISSION of 1842 reported on the employment of children and young persons in the coal and iron mines of South Staffordshire, and in the iron smelting works…

    “….Many boys and young men are working in the mines as apprentices. Such is the demand for children amongst the butties, that there are almost no boys in the union workhouses at Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley, and Stourbridge; and there is no schoolmaster at any of these establishments. According to the evidence of all the witnesses examined, the boys are sent on trial between the ages of eight and nine, and at nine they are bound as apprentices for 12 years, being to the age of 2l years complete. There is nothing whatever to learn, though no doubt practice may produce an increased dexterity. Even in the mines of Cornwall, where a great degree of skill and judgement is required, there are no apprentices ; but in the coal-mines of Staffordshire the term is twelve years complete…..

    ….No doubt so they think, but other parties besides the butties who work the mines share in the profit. If the butties get cheap labour they can afford to dig the coals or ironstone at a cheaper rate, and thereby the tenants of the main benefit; but by how much the cheaper they can raise coal and ironstone, the larger royally they can afford to pay, and thereby the proprietors gain. Hence all parties are interested, and the pauper children suffer. It is easy in reply to such observations say that the apprentices are well treated. In many cases it may be so, and the instances of exceedingly gross ill us age may be rare but all this, and more than this, was said by the planters respecting the slaves in the West Indies but still the country would not be satisfied and put an end to slavery in the colonies. Now here is a slavery in the middle of England as reprehensible as ever was the slavery in the West Indies, which justice and humanity alike demand should not longer be endured.”

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  2. Thanks – I learnt a lot from this Simon, and it prompted me to look up the origins of our Devon flag, which I new was a recent creation. Turns out it is actually the flag of St Petroc, a local saint. The green represents rolling Devon hills, the black the moors, the white is sea spray and the mining industry. Lovely! But no flag is without it’s critics, and apparently some Cornish nationalists think it is an attempt to hijack their culture.

    Beyond that, my instinctive reaction is to feel very uncomfortable about the chain on the Black Country flag, whilst at the same time pleased that it has bought this ‘inglorious’ episode of our past into the public consciousness. Perhaps it is good to recognise that the successes of the/our past are inseparable from some of the worst failures?


  3. Yes, it seems no flag is without its critics, but is this peculiar to “us” English? If I open up my flag of St George to celebrate my Englishness, I am immediately labelled a racist. I have many friends in Portugal who open their flag every other day to celebrate “Portugeseness” without any controversy whatsoever.

    To the 12 year old girl the chain represents a large part of the working-class history of the Black Country. To Mr Vernon it represents slavery.

    The working class “slaves” that made those chains probably never new where Africa was; their standard of education was below most other industrial parts of the country.

    I would suggest to Mr Vernon that he should study the “employers” of the hard-working and exploited Black Country men. If he did, maybe he would come to the conclusion that it is not the flag that should be withdrawn but the statues and street names that celebrate the masters.

    Liked by 1 person

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