The area of Birmingham and the Black Country has always been known for its industrial past. Indeed, the name of the Black Country itself refers to this past, being described as ‘Black by day and red by night’ by Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862. Coal mining and metal working have been carried out in the Black Country since Medieval times and Birmingham is often known by the nicknames of ‘the City of a Thousand Trades’ and the ‘Workshop of the World.’ Many of the heavy industries have now largely left the area, and the manufacturing that is left is conducted on a much smaller scale, including chain making for the Ministry of Defence and car manufacturing.
However, this industrious nature became of great importance during the First World War. The West Midlands was immediately called upon to increase productivity for a war that was unlike any other. Companies that already produced munitions were required to increase their output. Possibly, the most well-known of these was Birmingham Small Arms (BSA). A large employer in the Small Heath area of the city, BSA had started to diversify its manufacturing to include bicycles, motorcycles and other items but came back to a majority of arms manufacture very soon after the outbreak of war. Rifles, Lewis guns, tools for machines and parts for aircraft were made at the site. In 1914, BSA was producing 135 rifles and 50 Lewis guns every week. By the conclusion of the war, production had increased to 10000 rifles and 2000 Lewis guns a week. Over 145000 Lewis guns were produced by BSA during the course of the war. The ammunition firm Kynoch, based in the Witton area of Birmingham was also a key source of manufacturing. Average figures suggest that among other items, Kynoch turned over 25 million rifle cartridges, 700000 revolver cartridges, 5 million cartridge clips, 110000 18 pounder brass cases and 300 tons of cordite – every week.
The Black Country was no different. As stated by Michael Pearson in his book The Black Country in the Great War, the Black Country ‘looked like one huge munitions works.’ The construction of the National Projectile Factory at Waddams Pool in Dudley commenced in August 1915 and was completed in May 1916 as a response to the munition crisis and in preparation of the Somme Offensive. By November of that year, 21000 shell cases were being produced in a week and was employing around 4000 workers – mostly women and children. Explosives including TNT were made at Albright and Wilson in Oldbury and the tank – one of the great technical developments of the First World War – was constructed at three locations in Oldbury, Wednesbury and the Birmingham area of Saltley in addition to the well-known locations in Lincolnshire.
Another well-known product of the area, that was of vital importance in peace and wartime was coal. The coal seam in the Black Country is believed to have been the thickest in the country at 30 feet/9 metres and had been mined consistently since the mid-1600’s when it had been discovered. Coal was the main source of heat in many homes, particularly for those that did not have or had limited access to gas and electricity. It also powered the iron foundries and factories in the area. Coal mining was considered by many as essential war work. However, even coal miners were not exempt from serving in the military. With the introduction of conscription in 1916, coal miners in the Black Country eventually came into the spotlight in February 1917 as a potential source of manpower – possibly because there had been a general reduction in the need for coal – domestically and for export. Men of military age who had entered into mining after August 1915 were the first to be examined by travelling medical boards.
From January 1916, men from professions that were considered essential war work were required by the introduction of the Military Service Act to attest into the forces. There were, however, many applications for exemption or delay of joining the military for personal or employment reasons. These men appeared before local tribunals that would decide how the appeal would go. It appears that in the Black Country, even with employment considerations, many men were denied their appeal. In fact, it was seen on a national level that the Black Country tribunals were stricter than in any other part of the country!
A watershed moment in the history of the Black Country was the Zeppelin raids that occurred on the night of 31st January 1916. Zeppelins had been in operation since the beginning of the war and were first used against targets in Britain in January 1915 and were considered a very real threat to cities and manufacturing. As such, measures had been taken to give local populations some protection – kite flying, and bonfires were banned, and gas streetlights were reduced to having one in every three lit so as to make built up areas less obvious from above. Even with these measures, the Black Country was not considered a major target due to its location in the central Britain. On the night of 31st January 1916, 9 Zeppelins set out from bases in the north west of Germany, with their target being another industrial city, Liverpool. However, the Zeppelins got lost due to poor weather conditions and ended up at 8pm over the Black Country. Between 8pm and 12.30am, bombs were dropped on Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall which killed 35 people, including children and the Mayoress of Walsall Mary Slater, and injured dozens more. This was a shocking incident, not just for the people of the Black Country but the wider West Midlands area too.
Another aspect of life that changed in the Birmingham and Black Country area during the First World War was the arrival of Belgian refugees. For most of the First World War, the majority of Belgium came under German occupation. Many families chose to flee their homes and country in order to get to a place of safety. Some chose to go to the Netherlands or France. However, a significant number decided to venture to Great Britain. In the Midlands, Belgian refugees arrived in Birmingham, Dudley and Walsall mostly. In Birmingham, the city’s War Refugees Committee, established with Elizabeth Cadbury of the famous family as chair, promptly organised accommodation, furnishings and clothing, among other practical items with the first group of refugees arriving on 4th September 1914, only a month after war had been declared. In one week in October 1914, 640 people arrived into Birmingham New Street station, all requiring assistance. In total, over 5000 refugees came to Birmingham and were assisted by the War Refugees Committee. Education was provided for the children and employment was found for the adults, mostly local factories including Cadburys. A club was also set up in the city centre ‘Le Cercle Belge’ for male refugees to use throughout the week; women and children were allowed entry on Sundays, and it was always busy. Most of the refugees stayed in the area until 1919, when the vast majority returned to Belgium, back to their homes and livelihoods.
Another significant element of life in the Black Country and Birmingham was the ever-important availability of food, or lack of it. Not unlike what we have seen in recent weeks with the pandemic, shoppers in 1914 showed their concerns about the war by panic buying. The practices of profiteering and ‘cornering’ swiftly followed the outbreak of war and by 15th August 1914, the government was having to consider legislation in order to prevent unreasonable activity around foodstuffs from sellers of these items. Availability of wheat was a concern right from the outset as a significant proportion of the wheat used in Britain came from overseas. Eggs were another of the food items that were affected right from the off. In 1914, most eggs came from abroad and methods needed to change to ensure that the British public could be fed. One of these methods was the introduction of the more systemised ways of keeping hens, which eventually led to the ‘battery cage’ method being developed in the early 1930s. As a significant proportion of Britain’s food was imported, women were encouraged to utilise anything that could to feed their families. Recipes were published in magazines and newspaper which advised on the best way to eek out meals. Families with the space were encouraged to grow their own vegetables if possible and park spaces were converted to allotments. But eventually, these methods lost their effectiveness, queues at grocers and butchers were continuing to grow and the concept of rationing had to be introduced. The first trial was carried out in Birmingham from autumn 1917, with every household being given a ration card for tea, sugar, butter and margarine. An additional card was provided for meat, with had an allowance for men who were engaged in heavy manual labour. This trial was the basis for the rationing scheme that came into force nationwide in July 1918.
Whilst this blog post has been about the experiences of Birmingham and the Black Country during the First World War, there are many places up and down the country that will have experienced the same trials and tribulations. But the Birmingham and Black Country area has its own unique mix, mainly due to the heavy industrial work carried out before, during and after the war. The area also suffered its fair share of casualties as well. More than 150,000 men from the city of Birmingham – over half of the adult male population – served in the armed forces of whom 13,000 were killed and 35,000 wounded. The figure from the Black Country is harder to trace, as the Black Country is not a geographically defined area but from the main towns of Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Oldbury and Dudley approximately 4100 men were killed during the First World War. All of these men have their own stories, just as the people who stayed at home do. The folk of the Birmingham and the Black Country were and are hardworking folk, and I am proud to be part of the areas continuing story.
‘Til next time!