Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Walking the River Tame: The Black County Virtual Walk

Our walk of the River Tame begins in Oldbury, this is looking towards the valley, with the chimneys of
the industries that skirted the brook seen in the distance. Late 1800s.

On the first day that the Tame Past Present Future project began I visited Wednesbury and was immediately told that the Tame here was called the 'Black Brook', because of the colour that it once had been. And I found this poem that had been written in the late 1800s:

“The Tame was foul as foul could be,
With sewage black as dye;
It ran with garbage in the wet,
And stank when it was dry;
No fishes lay beneath its bank –
There were no fish to lie.”

And for many people, this is what the River Tame is here, a slightly mucky little river, that has no particular charm or interest, that flows quietly by: not many knowing where from, nor knowing where to. But doing this project I’ve come to find that the river has both a fascinating history, and also a really interesting present. The one thing that has been most interesting is trying to find and follow the river Tame, which hasn’t been easy, as many of the volunteers on the project have also found. The river is hidden behind railings and walls; industrial estates become impassable mountains; old industries still claim it with their boundaries; and nature itself retains parts of it beyond any hope of gaining access.

And this caused problems, as we wanted to produce a walk along the river, to talk about the heritage and explore some of its length, but it seems almost impossible to take a group along because of all these issues just mentioned. So instead of a physical walk, we’ve produced a virtual one. This virtual walk was given as a talk to the members of Wednesbury Local History Society on March 3rd 2015, and will be given again at the Black Country History in October 2015 (date to be confirmed); this post being an overview of the talk with images included.

So let's walk the river!!


The source of the River Tame is in Oldbury, though much of the brook flows underground today. In the 1830s the source was sometimes called the ‘cross well’ or the ‘fountain head’, and The Crosswell Inn is a reminder of this, and Oldbury had a number of wells and rivulets that joined the beginnings of the Tame here.

The Crosswells Inn, Oldbury (Albert Blakeway)
Oldbury has become so urban and built up that it is hard to trace the
exact source of the Tame, but this photo by Albert seems as good as
any to give a sense of the river rising in the town.
The River Tame continuing through Oldbury.
Remnants of Oldbury's chemical industries can be found along the river;
these canisters reminding us of companies such as Albright & Wilson
and Chance & Hunt. 

To get to Oldbury we’re going to catch the train, but we’re catching the 18:62 to Oldbury, as this was the year that a journalist visited the chemical works of Chance & Hunt and described in poetic detail how the town looked. And, I think, this is a good place to begin our walk.

The approach to the town is “marked by a heavy pall of smoke which, hanging over the whole tract of the country, shrouds Nature in a dun eclipse. Amidst the undefinable labyrinth of pit banks and hillocks, mounds of cinder, craggy masses of clinker, often lighted by a lurid glare into strange and fitful shape, rise the irregular forms of innumerable shafts, kilns, tall, pyramidal blast-furnaces and strange uncouth machinery. Crowded together amidst this volcanic waste, as though separated forever from the life of villages and country homesteads, lie the pitbanks, the collieries, the forges, the works for iron and steel and gas, tin and tar, copper, oil and lead, the soaperies, the distilleries, the potteries, and, as it seems, a hundred others, [...]. Here, amidst din and clangour, rises the hot breath of a thousand forges, the heavy vapour of brick and lime kilns. The black and choking smoke of mighty fires, all mingling in one great, black, boding cloud which broods immovable above the earth”.

And, as the gentleman who wrote this alighted the train at Oldbury and Bromford Lane station he noticed "the course of a brook whose waters were, perhaps, years ago fresh and limpid”.

This is, of course, the River Tame. And we can see, even in the mid 1800s, that its reputation as the ‘black brook’ was beginning to be made, and that the chemical industries in Oldbury were beginning to take their toll.

The reason why there were lots of chemical works in the same area was because one manufactory attracted another. Albright and Wilson, for example, moved into Oldbury in 1850 so that they could purchase sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid from Chance and Hunt. Albright and Wilson produced potassium chlorate and white phosphorus, mainly for the match industry, but branched out into all kinds of other chemicals, and other companies popped up to either supply chemicals or utilise by-products, such as the British Cyanide Company.

A by-product of some of these processes was a grainy blue-white substance known as “blue billy”, produced in such a high amount that it formed a landscape of hills around the chemical works.

Oldbury in the 1920s showing the line of the Tame in blue, and the
huge piles of blue-billy that were being piled on its banks. Blue-billy
contained cyanide, among other things, and this would easily find its
way into the River Tame. 
In 1915, the historian Frederick Hackwood wrote of Oldbury:

"Corroding gases emitted from the chemical works in the heart of the town so completed the blight that even grass and the hardiest of plants failed not to succumb."

And of course chemicals have a number of uses. One of our areas of interest in this project has been the First World War, especially with the centenary upon us. And, of course, that war is particularly know for its use of gas, and, Albright and Wilson produced and supplied some of that mustard gas as well as a lesser known gas, phosgene. They also produced phosphorous filled shells, hand and rifle grenades (which contained a concoction of phosphorous and petrol), as well as what were known as ‘plum puddings’ which were a kind of mortar shell used in the trenches for smashing the barbed wire.

Blue Billy in Oldbury


This virtual walk continues all the way up to Bescot Junction, and we will be adding more soon.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, could you tell me when your journey will continue please... I am quite interested in where the Tame goes through Walsall.