Farm to Vaccination Centre: geographies of industry, politics and religion in Tividale

File:Tividale Tirupathy Balaji Temple.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple, Tividale (Wikimedia Commons)

I submitted my thesis on Wolverhampton and its diasporic Irish space at the beginning of December, and my brain is slowly starting to unclog so that I can think about things outside the four walls of my home office again. With a bit of luck I might have some more time to explore too and get back to blogging. So without further ado…

The defining spatial constraint on all of our lives in the last two years has been, obviously, Covid-19. At various times we’ve been coerced by policed restrictions, our good natures pleaded with to stay local, our anxieties tweaked into limiting our own movements – even our social distance has changed. There’s lots of scope for historical comparison here: did we socially-distance when Spanish flu was rife? Some people certainly avoided certain areas (including both public places and stigmatised neighbourhoods) during cholera, which was as mysterious to the world of 1832 as Covid was (is?) to us in spring 2020. But Covid has also placed us into some unexpected spaces.

To get a PCR test around here, you toddle off to a test centre built on a car park in Swan Pool Park, which now boasts a set of cages straight out of Children Of Men. For my first two boosters, I visited a church I would otherwise have little cause to go into – Stourbridge Spiritualists, which just looked like any other non-denominational churches I might have seen as a youth. For my booster though, the opportunity to choose your walk-in site arose, and obviously my mind straight to the most interesting sounding: the Sri Venkateswaran (Balaji) temple in Tividale. And, of course, it was a beautiful and fascinating place with its own history, space and place in the modern Black Country. It shows how geographies of industry, economy, immigration, religion and now health overlap to create social spaces – as Doreen Massey discusses in For Space, space is “the product of interrelations, as constituted through interactions” and is always being built and rebuilt.

Geographies of industrialisation

1834 Ordnance Survey (1st Edition) via Vision of Britain

The land now occupied by the temple has long been surrounded by some of the most notable Black Country industries, but actually remained farmland right up until the temple was built. This is surprisingly common in a region that now feels uncompromisingly urban, but until the 1970s (and to some extent the present day) the Black Country was home to all kinds of agriculture. Brades Hall Farm can be seen on the first OS map to cover the Black Country, in 1834, nestled between canals, collieries and factories. It was located just off the Dudley, Birmingham & Wolverhampton Turnpike Road, established in 1760 to improve communications, imports and exports in the wider West Midlands. The newly-improved road was soon joined by James Brindley’s first Birmingham Canal. The first part of this (Wednesbury to Birmingham) opened in 1769, and was so successful in its goal that the price of coal in Birmingham fell by half overnight. The extension, via a loop around Oldbury, hugged the Rowley Hills as it made its way through Tipton, Coseley and Wolverhampton, and joined another Brindley project in 1772, the Staffs & Worcs Canal, at Aldersley – this connected the Black Country to the outside world far more efficiently than ever before. The 1834 map shows Thomas Telford’s new, straighter Birmingham Canal under construction, blasted through difficult land Brindley couldn’t have engineered. Joining the two was the Gower Branch, completed just after this map.

The map is a snapshot of a part of the Black Country undergoing rapid environmental change. The turnpike and canal opened up Oldbury for industry, and the numerous collieries are evidence of one of the dominant industries. Brades Hall Colliery was there, and notably also mined ironstone. Brades Hall Farm sat between two important ironworks, representing raw material processing and manufacturing. To the north-east were the Union Furnaces. In 1827, Philip Williams & Co purchased Union Farm and erected two blast furnaces, characteristic first-stage ironworks which would have been a common site in the area. They demonstrate an economic recovery after the post-Napoleonic Wars slump in the 1810s and 1820s. To the south-west was the huge Brades works, most famous for producing William Hunt & Sons edge-tools. Elihu Burritt visited the site in 1868 and wrote it up extensively in his Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland.

Industry and agriculture

The geology that gave rise to this variety of industry also dictated the type of farming that went on before and during the Black Country’s industrial peak. As Dr Janet Sullivan has outlined in her fantastic PhD thesis, this part of Oldbury could broadly be described as upland pastoral farming country with wooded pastures for raising livestock. Arable was less common: the muddy clay that was to prove so useful for brickmaking was not well-suited for growing crops. Anyone with an allotment on Black Country clay can attest to the hard work it takes to dig the soil, and the tendency towards standing water. Brades Hall Farm would likely have been occupied by someone of the yeoman class – in fact, in 1820 it was one A. Malin.

We know this from a survey of the Marquess of Stafford’s huge estates from 1820, authored by his estate manager James Loch. The Marquess, George Leveson-Gower, was also the Earl of Sutherland, perhaps the wealthiest man in Britain and the archetypal wicked landlord responsible for the Highland Clearances – which were effected under Loch’s supervision. The naming of the Gower Branch canal in 1836 was certainly on the basis of this landowner. Loch mentions Malin only in passing, noting that while many farms were well-managed, “nothing can be more neglected than” Brades Hall Farm.

Life in the early industrial Black Country was rarely a straightforward choice between agricultural or industrial work. Many farm workers would have done some industrial work on the side to top up their earnings – colliery work, nailmaking, etc. and it looks like the residents of Brades Hall were no exception. In 1850, a local coalmaster named Joseph Hackett organised three auctions, advertised in the Birmingham Journal, selling off a large pile of his items at Brades Hall Farm. They included household items like drapery, beds and “massive” oil paintings; several carts and carriages; pub fixtures including beer engine and liquor fountain; and coal-mining equipment including steam engines, pit wagons and winding gear. Hackett was not simply a tenant farmer with a side-hustle in metal-basing – yet this hybrid mode of life extended up the social scale too. It was by no means uncommon in the Black Country to find butties (mining middlemen) as landlords, publicans and bosses, as well as mucking in at the pit.

Brades Hall Farm as it was before the Temple took it over (undated image via

Into the twentieth century, and by 1912 the farm was owned by Frederick Monk – I’ve found multiple sources remembering a farm owned by the Monks for decades. By the 1970s however, it was derelict, like the surrounding former-colliery land on either side of the Gower Branch. Dozens of farms survived well into the 1960s in the Black Country, and its culture retained strong associations with country ways – you only have to read the stories of ferreting and exploring in Phil Drabble’s Black Country, or the stories of poaching, pig-keeping and self-provisioning in Sam Badger’s thesis, to see the importance of these rural traditions. It’s still not an oddity to spot a pony tied up on the roadside. But by the 1970s the land was noxious, and became a tip specifically for foundry sand – a sign that foundry work was still an important part of the local economy, and an interesting use for a by-product. The intention seems to have been to re-landscape the area, and that’s exactly what happened. The surrounding areas became used for new housing.

© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2021). All rights reserved. (1904).
© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2021). All rights reserved. (1965).

Geographies of religion

Enter a new kind of Black Country landscape. Religion has always played a pivotal role in the shape of the British landscape. Pre-industrial society organised itself with the parish at the forefront. Parish borders were so important that they were ritually inspected, or “beaten,” annually. They also formed the point of organisation for poor relief through to the 19th century, and wandering vagrants could be sent back to their home parish from anywhere in the country (in fact, savvy ones knew how to get a free ride out of this system). Dudley Castle formed its own tiny parish well after it was abandoned as a place to live, hooking this religious geography into the English class hierarchy – for another example of this, have a look through the older histories (e.g. the Victoria County History) and see how pews were rented on the basis of class and wealth, how parochial roles like churchwarden were distributed, and how parish arrangements dictated how towns’ histories have been written. And as the prominence of churches like St Peter’s in Wolverhampton, St Matthew’s in Walsall, or top and bottom churches in Dudley show, the geographical arrangement of parish churches themselves was certainly not coincidental. With the coming of non-conformism and the emancipation of Catholics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the religious landscape changed again: suddenly parish churches faced serious competition at the “Low” end from a swathe of austere Methodist and Baptist (and other) chapels, and at the “High” end from new Catholic churches built to serve not just the old-fashioned, wealthy old English Catholics, but the desperately poor new Irish Catholic communities. The physical environment of religious practice changed dramatically in the 19th century.

Global geographies

Something similar happened in the post-WW2 era too. A fresh wave of immigration brought desperately needed labour for the Black Country’s booming economy, from around the world, resulting in a new religious geography. Polish Jews reinvigorated Wolverhampton’s tiny synagogue; Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian Catholics introduced their own regional distinctions; Sikhs from the Punjab worshipped in schools and front rooms before founding the first (and still largest) dedicated gurdwara in Europe in 1961; Muslim and Hindu groups followed suit in the next couple of decades; Caribbean Christians often found little welcome in traditional English churches, and Wolverhampton was the site of Britain’s first New Testament Church of God. Following Black Country tradition, these were often in buildings recycled from other uses, and this remains true. Guru Nanak gurdwara in Smethwick was the closed-down Congregational Church, and other vaccination centres show this same tendency: my options included the Mata Da Mandir on King Street Dudley, a former church school repurposed as a furniture factory, and the Ghausia Muslim Welfare Centre on Lye High Street, consecrated as Mount Sion Methodist church in 1827 (built by two chainmaking brothers, George & Thomas Wood), later becoming the town’s Congregational Chapel. Changes in use like this represent the changing religious and demographic make-up of the Black Country, and haven’t always been without controversy. Anti-immigration campaigners in Smethwick (known in the 1960s as the “most racist town in Britain”) argued that the Congregational Chapel – despite sitting empty – was a “heritage building” and therefore Sikhs shouldn’t be allowed to use it. Happily, they lost, but they demonstrate the potential use of tradition, history and heritage in reactionary politics. Even much later, the plans for the Tividale temple faced opposition and violent threats before a foundation was laid.

Political geographies of regeneration

In Oldbury, it was a noxious, polluted wasteland that was recycled into something completely different. The Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) temple has its roots in the Shree Geeta Bhawan: the first Hindu temple in the Midlands, founded in a former Presbyterian church in Handsworth in 1969. By the 1980s, a much larger venue was needed, and a committee formed to raise funds for a completely new temple. They acquired the land, comprising the former Brades Hall farm and Monks’ tip in 1995 from the Black Country Development Corporation. The BCDC holds an interesting position in Black Country history as the first quasi-governmental organisation to represent the Black Country as a region. Urban Development Corporations were set up to regenerate regions in which industry had collapsed – at the same time as the BCDC, UDCs were created for Cardiff Bay, Teesside, Trafford Park and Tyne & Wear, following the successful example of the most famous UDC, London Docklands. This is a very passive-voice way of framing it of course, given that the main reason that industry in these regions had collapsed was the economic choices of Thatcher’s Conservative government, the same creating these post-industrial corporatist solutions.

Global sacred spaces

What is the significance of Lord Venkateswara Swamy Temple in Tirumala? -  Quora
Sri Venkateswara Swami Vaari Temple near Tirupathi

The success of the BCDC (like other UDCs) was limited and reflected the pervasive economic orthodoxy of the time. It is mostly just remembered for the Black Country New Road (not this one), but it evidently had an interest in redeveloping an unloved and poorly-used part of the region. The sale went through in 1995, and match-funding arrived from the Millennium Commission in 1996, allowing the new temple to be designed and built. There are some great images of the before, during and after on the temple’s website, and a really useful summary of the architecture and design via Historic England’s Building Hinduism project. It was designed Adam Hardy with input on the Vedic rules known as Sthapati from K. Dakshinamoorthy. Between them they came up with a design based on the Sri Venkateswara Swami Vaari Temple near Tirupathi in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. This is one of India’s largest temples, dating from at least 300AD and like its Oldbury counterpart is dedicated to Lord Venkateswara, an incarnation of Vishnu. Its architecture warrants a whole wikipedia page, and is steeped in Hindu designs for sacred space (which is a subject for someone waaaay more knowledgeable than me). I found its location particularly interesting though. It nestles in the seven peaks of the Sapthagiri, or Tirumala Hill, part of the Seshachalam Hills in the Eastern Ghats, each with a separate dedication and said to represent the seven hoods of Shesha, upon which all the planets of the universe were said to rest. They are considered sacred space in themselves: when the state government attempted to secularise them in 2006, it resulted in large-scale protests; and more recently, Hindu nationalist BJP supporters went on hunger strike to prevent similar land transfers.

In Oldbury, however, things are somewhat more peaceable. Echoing the natural re-use of former slag and spoil heaps elsewhere in the region, the temple features seven small hills of its own, created from the existing landscape. Each is dedicated to one of India’s seven faiths, with hills dedicated to Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. The latter features a plaque with a Bible verse, opened by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself”. The Zoroastrian hill really reveals the depths of interlinking between India and the Black Country. Its statue was commissioned by Dr Narayan Rao of the temple and constructed (using Tata steel – an Indian-owned business with works in the Black Country) by one of the region’s foremost sculptors, Luke Perry, whose works can be seen all over the Black Country (including the amazing Lions of the Great War memorial in Smethwick). The statue is partly dedicated to Freddie Mercury (the closest we have to a Queen link in the Black Country, apart from the fact that Mercury reputedly sold Noddy Holder his mirrored top hat), himself a Zoroastrian, and was opened by Mercury’s sister and Lord Bilimoria.

40mercuryMH Temple founder Dr Rao Narashina, Lord  Karan Bilimoria, Freddie Mercury’s sister Kashmira Cooke and MC Raaj Shamji with Luke Perry’s sculpture.    THE family of legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury officially unveiled Cradley Heath art
Dr Rao, Lord Bilimoria, Kashmira Cooke and Raaj Shamji at the unveiling of the statue (Halesowen News)

I’m always fascinated by how just one site can reveal so much not just about local history, but how overlapping local histories intersect with other local histories and geographies, and with national and global geographies. I’ve come out the far end of my PhD and book-writing process more convinced than ever that local history has a vital part to play in modern understandings of our region, but that this must be local history looking out at the world, not looking in at itself. Understanding the Black Country is only possible when we take the elements we’re so familiar with – the geography, geology, industry, social customs etc. – and place them in much wider contexts.

For more on the changing demographic and religious geographies of the post-war Black Country, have a look at my book, Forging Ahead, published in 2021 by History West Midlands. Oh, and get your booster!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s