Place To Place: Translocality from Bilston to Barnsley

Monckton Colliery, Royston, South Yorkshire (source)

This post follows the last about 19th century Irish people moving from Joyce Country to the Black Country. Full disclosure – some of this research was for the Black Country Living Museum.

Firstly, my thanks to Dr Lucie Matthews-Jones who introduced me to the concept. You can read about her work in relation to the Victorian/Edwardian Settlement movement here, which is open-source and has some really useful suggestions for reading. There’s even a Wolverhampton connection! I really like her expression about how translocal experiences work both ways:

Translocal actors create physical and imagined local corridors as they move between places and tie them together. Local, place-based, subjectivity is therefore not limited to the place where someone resides, but rather to the places that people have a personal, social, or historical connection with.

In this sense, it can be difficult to know whether people in the truly felt translocal, because a lot of the time they simply didn’t write it down in a way we can access it today. We can’t know what went on in that “corridor” between places. Sometimes, perhaps, the only way we can assess how people thought about the place from which they moved, “home,” is in the legacy which survives to later retellings.

In 2002, the mountaineer Andy Cave undertook his PhD in socio-linguistics, which included a study of Royston in South Yorkshire. The connection between Royston and the Black Country is part of Royston folklore. Both Cave and later Kate Burland concluded that the connection was genuine and that it impacted dialect and accent, making Royston distinctive from its near neighbours. Popular understanding talks about parts of town known as “Little Staffs,” and perhaps a quarter of the town claim some sort of Black Country ancestry. Cave’s respondents talked lovingly about their ancestors walking all the way, and hearing the Black Country accent creep into in their colleagues’ voices (“Yo take it an yo’ll be able to shift all that… tha’ ha’nt got a bad back”). But Cave is sceptical about the non-linguistic evidence. So what’s the deal?

Boom and bust

The mid-1870s were pivotal years for the Black Country. The early 1870s had been boom time in South Staffordshire: coal was very near its peak production, and iron and steel, both raw and manufactured items, were pouring out of blast furnaces, foundries and forges. While the Black Country working class never got a very good deal in the nineteenth century, there was at least high levels of employment and little of the job insecurity that characterised the region. But depression hit at the end of 1873, and over the next few years trade plummeted, wages fell, miners starved, and the Black Country entered a long depression which, arguably, lasted until World War 1. (See George Barnsby on this).

Ordnance Survey 1 Inch 1885-1900 (NLS Maps). Monckton Colliery is in the centre

Black Country mining, particularly, went into terminal decline, and never recovered from its peak in the 1860s. The coal was increasingly hard to get, getting it was increasingly dangerous, and as new coalfields opened up elsewhere in Britain, its profitability slumped. One of the new collieries opening in the later 1870s was near the village of Royston, 4.5 miles North-East of Barnsley – then in the West Riding of Yorkshire, now in South Yorkshire. In fact, a cluster were opening up here: Monckton Main Nos. 1,2 and 5 in Havercroft, and New Monckton Nos. 1 and 2 in Royston itself, became operational between 1875 and 1878. These were just small villages, although as more and more coal was found the Barnsley Canal and then the Midland Railway cut through, making this an obvious place to mine. Everything swung into action – the only thing missing was miners.

The long march

And so miners were recruited from the Black Country. This would have been a good fit. The South Yorkshire coalfield included a 3m thick seam, so miners used to the very thick Black Country coal would be well experienced. And the timing was perfect – as one area died down, so another was growing. Quite how recruitment was done was another matter. I don’t find much in digitised newspapers, which is perhaps to be expected – Black Country miners in the 1870s were mostly illiterate. I would guess that the colliery owners sent recruitment agents to Staffordshire, but town criers and simple word of mouth are also candidates. Local folklore suggests they walked all the way, and again this would be backed up by experiences that we know more about.

In his thesis, Andy Cave rightly critiques the lack of quantitative study of this migration, so here we go. I can use the wonderful ICeM for this. In 1861, the previous census for which the data is available, there was, quite simply, no-one from Staffordshire amongst the 555 residents of Royston parish. But from 1881-1901 the numbers rocketed. Royston itself grew to 1,128 in 1881; to 2,642 in 1891; and to 4,397 in 1901, roughly doubling every decade – at least a third were employed at Monckton. Those from the Black Country grew to nearly 500 souls.

This fits the wider picture. Celia Wolfe notes that in 1891, Staffordshire was the by some way the highest non-contiguous county of birth (besides Ireland) in a table of Yorkshire birthplaces. Melvyn Jones has noted the Staffordshire ironworkers at Elsecar, which formed 8% of of the population, but 86% of long-distance migrants; and Andrew Walker has found similar influxes of Black Country miners in other nearby towns, including Darfield and Wombwell.

You can start to see translocal patterns here too. Dudley is the biggest sending town, by far; and there are more than ten from Bilston, Kingswinford, Tipton and West Bromwich in 1880, all of which had plenty more by 1901. The outliers are Sedgley and Rowley Regis, which only had a couple in 1881, but had 20+ later on. Clearly, the 1880s is the decade that saw the leap in numbers. Those Black Country folk in Royston in 1881 acted as pioneers, suggesting chain migration – recommending the work, bringing other family members, friends from home etc. This is very common in all kinds of migration, and makes perfect sense from the point of view of anyone thinking of moving anywhere. It was interesting to note, though, that this translocality only has limited purchase in popular local memory – in all Cave’s quotes, locals referred to Staffs, Staff or Staffordshire – rarely to the Black Country, and never to individual towns.

Yam Yams in Yorkshire

By 1901, 709 out of 4,397 (over 16%) of Royston residents had been born in Staffordshire or Worcestershire. The very large majority of these were from the Black Country. This is way above the usual number born out of county, and to me certainly confirms the folklore of Black Country miners walking North to new opportunities and forming new communities. It happened elsewhere in Yorkshire, and in Lancashire too – perhaps one for further excavation later is the Little Bilston which formed in Pendlebury, near Salford, from a group of unwitting Black Country strikebreakers. It happened in-bound as well – when the Shropshire coalfield was struggling in the 1820s, some miners simply got up and moved to the Black Country. Socio-linguistics is well out of my league, but its nice to put some meat on the bones of a reputation, adding to the conclusions of Cave and more recently Kate Burland. It also helps demonstrate that even when we can find very little documentary evidence, and whenever and wherever people move, they have their reasons, and they form part of a new kind of community wherever they land.

Monckton Colliery site via Geograph. © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Monckton Colliery closed in 1966. It was replaced by a short-lived drift mine and a coking plant, but both have now gone and the colliery site remains empty. As in the Black Country where industry has departed, local distinctiveness is even more important than it was before. It used to be possible to tie your identity to your employer, or a local church or council for instance; now people look to a proud Black Country regional heritage because those very local things have disappeared. While I wouldn’t presume to speak for residents there, I suspect a similar thing is at work in Royston. This interesting historical link is something that helps people maintain a sense of identity, difference and significance. They don’t need the specificity of naming hyper-translocal movements – Staffordshire will do for this purpose. It’s an interesting experiment to think about such ‘nostalgia’ (to use a loaded term) as a category of source material, as here, and not just spend my time as a historian puncturing people’s preconceptions and spoiling their fun.

2 thoughts on “Place To Place: Translocality from Bilston to Barnsley

  1. I’m glad someone has done some research on this. About 30 years ago now, I was an English teacher at Barnsley College. One of my students in a creative writing class was in her 70s, and we got talking before class one day. I moved up to Barnsley in 1988 from the Black Country and still had traces of my accent. After asking me where I grew up, she informed me that her grandparents had moved up to Royston from Smethwick and she couldn’t work out why. I said it was probably to work in a new coalfield , and you seem to have confirmed that for me. Wish I could tell Malinda that though!

    Liked by 1 person

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