Rides on Railways …. Observing the Wednesbury Savages.

Here is a lovely description of Wednesbury people, by Mr Samuel Sidney as he take’s us on a train journey past Wednesbury & the Black Country…..  around the 1800’s.

What he writes will not surprise most of us by now, we have heard it all before. … Aye we? But those a little newer to THOW and my never ending quest to find ‘anything’ Wednesbury related might take offence at the description of our own. But don’t …. It’s all true! 

Enjoy …. you savages!

Taken from the book ‘RIDES ON RAILWAYS by Samuel Sidney.


The following pages are an attempt to supply something amusing, instructive, and suggestive to travelers who, not caring particularly where they go, or how long they stay at any particular place, may wish to know something of the towns and districts through which they pass, on their way to Wales, the Lakes of Cumberland, or the Highlands of Scotland; or to those who, having a brief vacation, may wish to employ it among pleasant rural scenes, and in investigating the manufactures, the mines, and other sources of the commerce and influence of this small island and great country.

In performing this task, I have relied partly on personal observation, partly on notes and the memory of former journeys; and where needful have used the historical information to be found in cyclopaedia’s, and local guide-books.

This must account for, if it does not excuse, the unequal space devoted to districts with equal claims to attention. But it would take years, if not a lifetime, to render the manuscript of so discursive a work complete and correct.

I feel that I have been guilty of many faults of commission and omission; but if the friends of those localities to which I have not done justice will take the trouble to forward to me any facts or figures of public general interest, they shall be carefully embodied in any future edition, should the book, as I hope it will, arrive at such an honour and profit.


The first diverging railway after leaving Handsworth, on the road to the north, is what, for want of a better name, called the South Staffordshire, which connects Birmingham with Dudley, Walsall, Lichfield, and Tamworth, thus uniting the most purely agricultural with the most thoroughly manufacturing districts, and especially with that part of the great coal-field which is locally known as the “Black Country.”

In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Dudley, and Darlaston, Bilston, Wolverhampton, and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow.

The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by huge hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam-engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin-horses walk their doleful round.

From time to time you pass a cluster of deserted roofless cottages of dingiest brick, half-swallowed up in sinking pits or inclining to every point of the compass, while the timbers point up like the ribs of a half-decayed corpse.

The majority of the natives of this Tartarian region are in full keeping with the scenery—savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on week-days and Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and disgusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognized as the same as that of civilized England.

On working days few men are to be seen, they are in the pits or the ironworks, but women are met on the high-road clad in men’s once white linsey-woolsey coats and felt hats, driving and cursing strings of donkeys laden with coals or iron rods for the use of the nailers.

On certain rare holidays these people wash their faces, clothe themselves in decent garments, and, since the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway, take advantage of cheap excursion trains, go down to Birmingham to amuse themselves and make purchases.

“It would be a useful lesson for anyone who is particularly well satisfied with the moral, educational, and religious state of his countrymen, to make a little journey through this Black Country.

He will find that the amiable enthusiasts who meet every May at Exeter Hall to consider on the best means of converting certain aboriginal tribes in Africa, India, and the Islands of the Pacific, need not go so far to find human beings more barbarous and yet much more easily reclaimed.”

The people of this district are engaged in coal-mining, in ironworks, in making nails, and many other articles, or parts of articles, for the Birmingham trade.  Their wages are, for the most part, good; fuel is cheap; well supplied markets, and means of obtaining the best clothing are close at hand.

But, within sixty years a vast dense population has been collected together in districts which were but thinly inhabited as long as the value lay on the surface, instead of in the bowels of the earth.

The people gathered together and found neither churches, nor schools, nor laws, nor customs, nor means for cleanliness at first, nor even an effective police to keep order.

And thus they became one of the most ignorant, brutal, depraved, drunken, unhealthy populations in the kingdom, unless it be a set of people in the same occupations in the neighbourhood of Manchester.

“We shall never forget, some five-and-twenty years ago, passing near Bilston on a summer’s holiday, and seeing a great red, pied bull foaming, and roaring, and marching round a ring in which he was chained, while a crowd of men, each with a demoniacal-looking bulldog in his arms, and a number of ragged women, with their hair about their ears, some of them also carrying bull-dog pups, yelled about the baited bull. It gave us an awful fright, and haunted our childish dreams for years after.”

The first change forced upon the governing classes, by feelings of self- protection was an organized police, and the “Black” people are now more disgusting than dangerous.

The cholera of 1832, which decimated Bilston and Wednesbury, did something toward calling attention to the grievous social and sanitary wants of this district. In that pestilence several clergymen and medical men died, like heroes, in the discharge of their duties.  Some churches were built, some schools established; but an immense work remains to be done. Bull-baiting has been put down, but no rational amusements have been substituted for that brutal and exciting sport.

“In the northern coal fields, near Newcastle-on-Tyne especially, we have noticed that when the miner ascends from the pit in the evening, his first care is to wash himself from head to foot, and then to put on a clean suit of white flannel. As you pass along the one street of a pitman’s village, you will see the father reading a Chambers’ Journal or a cheap religious magazine at the door of his cottage while smoking a pipe, and nursing a child or two on his knee; and through the open door, a neat four-post bed and an oak or mahogany chest of drawers bear witness to his frugality.”

But in Wednesbury, Bilston, and all that district, when work is over you find the men drinking in their dirty clothes and with grimy faces at the beer-shop of the “Buttey,” that is to say, the contractor or middleman under whom they work, according to the system of the country, and the women hanging about the doors of their dingy dwellings, gossiping or quarreling,—the old furies and the young slatterns.

In the face of such savagery, so evidently the result of defective education, two opposite and extreme parties in the State, the anti-church Mialls and the pro-church Anthony Denisons, combine to oppose the multiplication of education that teaches decency if it teaches nothing else.

One great step has been made by the Health of Town’s Act, which is about to be applied to some of these coal towns; and railways have rendered the whole district so accessible that no foul spot can long remain unknown or unnoticed.

WEDNESBURY, pronounced Wedgebury, and spelt Wednesberie in Domesday Book, stands in the very heart of the coal and iron district, and is as like Tipton, Darlaston, Bilston, and other towns where the inhabitants are similarly employed, as one sweep is like another.

Birmingham factors depend largely on Wedgebury for various kinds of ironwork and “heavy steel toys.” The coal pits in the neighbourhood are of great value, and there is no better place in the kingdom to buy a thoroughbred bull dog that will “kill or die on it,” but never turn tail.

The name is supposed to incorporate that of the Saxon god Woden, whose worship consisted in getting drunk and fighting, and, to this day, that is the only kind of relaxation in which many of the inhabitants ever indulge.     :-O

The church stands upon a hill, where Ethelfleda, Lady of Mercia, built a castle to resist the Danes, A.D. 914, about the time that she erected similar bulwarks at Tamworth and other towns in the Midland counties, but there are no antiquities worth the trouble of visiting.

Parties who take an interest in the progress of education in this kingdom among those classes where it is most needed, that is to say, masses of miners and mechanics residing in districts from which all the higher and most of the middle classes have removed; where the clergy are few, hard worked, and ill paid; where the virtues of a thinly peopled agricultural district have been exchanged for the vices, without the refinements, of a crowded town population, should traverse this part of Staffordshire on foot.     (Dare ya!)  🙂

They will own that, in spite of the praiseworthy labours of both Church and Dissent,—in spite of the progress of Temperance Societies and Savings’ Banks,—a crowd of children are daily growing up in a state of ignorance, dirt, and degradation fearful to contemplate.

To active philanthropists, not to seekers of the picturesque, archaeologists, and antiquarians, do we address ourselves. Still we ought to add that, in the iron works and rolling mills, there are studies of half naked men in active motion at night, with effect of red firelight and dark shade, in which the power of painting flesh and muscular development might be more effectively displayed than in the perpetual repetition of model Eves and sprawling nymphs.

He then moves on to our neighbours and it does get worse…. but I will add those at a later date.

But there is some very interesting stuff about the gun trade that I have decided to add also, because after all, we are well known for our gun lock making.  But saying that … It is only really interesting if you are keen on guns, as I always have been & I know a few more people on THOW page are too.

(This is from the same book, which as a whole, is a very interesting read altogether. This book can be found as a free eBook for anyone interested)

The visitor of the Black Country who has the necessary introductions, should by no means omit to visit a gun-barrel factory, as there are a good many picturesque effects in the various processes, beside the mechanical instruction it affords. The following is the order of the fabrication of a common gun:

The sheets for barrels are made from scraps of steel and iron, such as old coach-springs, knives, steel chains, horse shoes and horseshoe nails, and sheets of waste steel from steel pen manufactories.

These, having been sorted, are bound together, and submitted first to such a furnace, and then to such a steam hammer as we described in our visit to Wolverton, until it is shaped into a bar of tough iron, which is afterwards rolled into sheets of the requisite thickness.

From one of these sheets a length sufficient to make a gun barrel is cut off by a pair of steam-moved shears, of which the lower jaw is stationary and the upper weighs a ton, of which plenty of examples may be seen in every steam engine factory.

The slip of iron is made red hot, placed between a pair of rollers, one of which is convex and the other concave, and comes out in a semicircular trough shape; again heated, and again pressed by smaller rollers, by which the cylinder is nearly completed. A long bar of iron is passed through the cylinder, it is thrust into the fire again, and, when red hot, it is submitted to the welder, who hammers it and heats it and hammers it again, until it assumes the form of a perfect tube.

Damascus barrels are made by incorporating alternate layers of red hot steel and iron, which are then twisted into the shape of a screw while at white heat. The bar thus made is twisted in a cold state by steam power round a bar into a barrel shape, then heated and welded together. These are the barrels which present the beautiful variegated appearance which gives them the name of Damascus.

The barrels, whether common or twisted, are then bored by a steel rod, kept wet with water or oil, and turned by steam. The process occupies from two to three hours for each barrel.

The next operation is that of grinding the outside of the barrel with sandstone wheels, from five to six feet in diameter when new, driven by steam. These stones chiefly come from the neighbouring district of Bilston; in four months’ work, a stone of this size will be reduced to two feet.

The employment is hard, dangerous from the stones often breaking while in motion, in which case pieces of stone weighing a ton have been known to fly through the roof of the shop; unwholesome, because the sand and steel dust fill eyes, mouth, and lungs, unless a certain simple precaution is taken which grinders never take.

After grinding, a nut is screwed into the breech, and the barrel is taken to the proof house to be proved. The proof house is a detached building, the interior of which is lined with plates of cast iron.

The barrels are set in two iron stocks, the upper surface of one of which has a small gutter, to contain a train of powder; in this train the barrels rest with their touchholes downwards, and in the rear of the breeches of the barrels is a mass of sand. When the guns, loaded with five times the quantity of powder used in actual service, have been arranged, the iron-lined doors and windows are closed, and a train extending to the outside through a hole is fired.

Some barrels burst and twist into all manner of shapes; those which pass the ordeal are again examined after the lapse of twenty-four hours, and, if approved, marked with two separate marks, one for viewing and one for proving. The mark for proving consists of two sceptres crossed with a crown in the upper angle; the letters B and C in the left and right, and the letter P in the lower angle. For viewing only, V stands instead of P underneath the crown, the other letters omitted. After proving, the jiggerer fastens the pin, which closes up the breech.

In the mean time the construction of the lock, which is an entirely different business, and carried on in the neighbouring towns of Wednesbury, Darleston, and Wolverhampton, as well as in Birmingham, has been going on.

The gun lock makers are ranged into two great divisions of forgers and filers, beside many subdivisions.

The forgers manufacture the pieces in the rough, the filers polish them and put them together. In the percussion lock, there are fifteen pieces; in the common flint lock, eight.

By a process patented about eleven years ago, parts of a gun lock formerly forged by hand are now stamped with a die. The use of this invention was opposed by the men, but without success.

The barrel and lock next pass into the hands of the stocker.

The stocks, of beechwood for common guns, of walnut for superior, of which much is imported from France and Italy, arrive in Birmingham in a rough state. The stocker cuts away enough of the stock to receive the barrel, the lock, the ramrod, and shapes it a little.

The next workman employed is the screw-together. He screws on the heel plate, the guard that protects the trigger, puts in the trigger plate, lets in the pipes to hold the ramrod, puts on the nozzle cap, and all other mountings.

After all this, a finisher takes the gun to pieces, and polishes, fits all the mountings, or sends them to be polished by women; the lock is sent to the engraver to have an elephant and the word “warranted,” if for the African market, put on it; a crown and the words “tower proof,” if for our own military service; while the stock is in the hands of the maker off and cleanser, it is carved, polished, and, if needful, stained.

Common gun barrels are polished or browned to prevent them from rusting, real Damascus barrels are subjected to a chemical process, which brings out the fine wavy lines and prevents them from rusting.

All these operations having been performed, the barrel, the lock, and the stock, are brought back by the respective workmen who have given them the final touch, and put together by the finisher or gun maker, and this putting together is as much as many eminent gunmakers ever do. But, by care and good judgment, they acquire a reputation for which they can charge a handsome percentage.

For these reasons, with local knowledge, it is possible to obtain from a Birmingham finisher who keeps no shop, a first-rate double gun at a very low figure compared with retail prices.

Belgium and Germany compete with Birmingham for cheap African guns, and even forge the proof marks. Neither in quality nor in price for first-rate articles can any country compete with us.

And as they say in them darn cartoons:

“That’s all for now Folks”


2 thoughts on “Rides on Railways …. Observing the Wednesbury Savages.

  1. Hi Tia,

    I read that; lock, stock and barrel. There used to be lock and stock makers in many of the pubs, they had workshops out back The Bottle did, that was why Dick Turpin called there and so did the Turks Head. They often brewed beer too and the profits from that went into the developing workshops which in turn became many of the now famous companies of Wednesbury.

    I’ve gorra hoss shoe off a pit pony. It ay brought me no luck yet tho… 🙂

    • Did you find it, buy it or steal it Mike?
      Depending on which one it was, determines your fate.
      Buy it and it is yours to keep forever, but no luck passes over with the exchange of money.
      Steal it and the shoe will bring more bad luck than good, your only hope would be to give it away … (ME, Me!!) and the luck will rub onto to you for a short term.
      Find the shoe abandoned with no possible owner in sight and the shoe will bring only good luck and fortune.

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