Archive for the ‘Stourbridge’ Tag

The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties: The Changing Faces of the West Midlands.   Leave a comment

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The National Division – the ‘Two Englands’:

In 1964, the well-known Guardian correspondent, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured above), ‘ventured’ out of his metropolitan England, caught up in the cobweb of roads and rails around London, into the interior of England to see how the other three-quarters live. The Penguin Special he produced was the first of its kind since J.B. Priestley published his English Journey thirty years beforehand. Looking behind the Cotswold stone and the dereliction of the Black Country … the vaunted development schemes of Birmingham, he attempted to uncover England as it was in the 1960s – beauty, traffic, tradition, negroes, noise, and all.

One side of the debate about the migration debate, was the problem of the continued drift of the population to the industrial Midlands and South-east of England, foreseen in the Barlow Report of 1937. But there had never been such a fixation with the division of England into North and South on almost every count as there was in the sixties. Moorhouse argued that while two Englands did visibly exist in 1964, the demarcation was vague and misleading and that the ‘two Englands’ could be more precisely defined. The nine county boroughs with the highest mortality ratios in England were in the industrial North, and the ten with the lowest rates were south of a line drawn from the Severn estuary to the Thames estuary. Traditionally, the boundary between the Midlands and the North was drawn along the upper reaches of the Severn and then following the Trent from its source to the River Ouse on the Humber estuary. One observer commented that without financial intervention, it will not take a generation to complete the establishment of two nations, or, in contemporary language, two cultures, divided by a line from the Humber to the Wirral. 

What became clear in the early sixties was that all the generalised observations that were bandied about on the comparative wealth and health of England North and England South were based on the haziest possible conceptions of where they were. Commentators had got into the habit of talking about a generally poor North and a generally rich South, based on inadequate definitions of these areas. Two damaging consequences followed: the North was painted blacker than it was and the South whiter. Certainly, no-one who lived in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East during the late fifties and early sixties could fail to be aware that these areas were gradually falling behind the national averages in many ways – in housing conditions, in mortality, in investment, and, above all, in employment. But many generalised assumptions were made about ‘the North’ based on the perpetuated, negative impression that it was almost wholly covered in the worst residue of the Industrial Revolution. This stereotype of an area of utter depression with no real future meant that financial investment was slow and grudging.

Scarcely less unfortunate in its side effects was the tacit assumption that all was well, in economic terms, with the South. The theory that this was a land flowing with milk and honey from end to end was not one that would find ready acceptance among the thousands of homeless people in London, or the unemployed of Norwich, where the rate of joblessness was above the national average. In fact, the highest rate was to be found not in the North-east, or on Merseyside, but in Cornwall. In March 1964, the national rate was 1.9 per cent, on Merseyside, it was 4.5 per cent, in the worst parts of the North-east at 8.8 per cent, and in Falmouth 10.8 per cent. Like London’s homeless, Falmouth’s unemployed tended to be overlooked. Unemployment in the North was a more striking problem than in the South because of the absolute numbers involved.

Between 1952 and 1960, the London region, with twenty-seven per cent of Great Britain’s population, acquired forty per cent of the new jobs created. Those who lived within the ‘golden circle’ of the Home Counties, within an hour’s journey of their workplace, were members of a giant migrant society which moved great distances both for work and for pleasure. Their allegiances were divided between their ‘dormitory’ town and the great city itself, and their feeling for ‘community’ in both places tended to be weaker than it was in places where the population did not have this split personality. It was one of the more remarkable things about London and its suburbs to anyone who had lived in other parts of the country, how many people there made scarcely any contact with their neighbours. Instead, their contacts were with people they met through work or pleasure who lived miles away, and so gatherings of ‘soulmates’ took place in a kind of no man’s land. Of course, this was very much a professional and middle-class way of life.

A very high proportion of those living within the ‘Golden Circle’ had never been anywhere in England north of Whipsnade or the Norfolk Broads. They took their holidays on the South Coast or in the West Country and then turned their attention to the Continent. After all, Paris was nearer than Cumberland, more urbane and metropolitan. This widespread inexperience of the North was strikingly illustrated by one of the Observer’s professional travel writers. In April 1964, after describing the playgrounds of Europe and beyond, she visited the English Lake District for the first time in her life. The message that came loud and clear out of London was that if anyone wished to be smart and up to date then these were the attitudes they must adopt, the values they must hold, the fashions they must follow. The old provincial community feeling – the instinctive regard, warmth, and understanding for someone from the other side of town or even region which gently pressed people to place themselves at the disposal of each other – was broken. Moorhouse commented on the parallel process at work in the South-east and the ‘Home Counties’:

Meanwhile we become implicated in the structure of the Golden Circle, with its ephemeral relationships, with its unparalleled amenities of one kind or another, with its own introspective regard for things. And such are the pressures of this new society that after a time, I think, we too look towards the other England and wonder how on earth it could be so provincial, so backward, so completely out of step with the times. And then we turn our backs on it like so many before us. That is the really alarming thing about this national division.

There was much talk of modernizing Britain in 1964, and the country had clearly reached a point at which its whole shape and appearance was going to be drastically altered within a decade or two. Quite apart from the fact that the facilities Britain had were inadequate for its needs at that time, there was also the future to think of. The population was going to run away with itself and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, short of war or natural disaster. The advent and availability of the contraceptive pill did have a moderating effect, but the population still advanced beyond fifty-five million towards the estimated seventy-two million by the year two thousand. In just over thirty years, the population was expected to grow by almost a third.

Various prophecies had been made about the appearance of England at the turn of the century, and none of them bore much resemblance to what it looked like in the mid-sixties. One suggestion was that, by the year two thousand, there might be thirty conurbations of one to three million living in areas of forty square miles. From Dover to Bristol, and from the Home Counties to Lancashire and Yorkshire, there would be more people living in metropolitan conditions than there were in the whole of Britain in 1964. Two-thirds of them would be confined to virtually unbroken conurbations. Peter Hall, in his book London 2,000, sketched a prototype for the ideal Fin-de-siecle new town. It had a population of 95,000 and was constructed so artfully that seventy thousand of its citizens could walk to the central shopping area within a quarter of an hour. What, asked Moorhouse was to become of the lovely country towns in such an age? The answer, as it has turned out, was that few people suggested that it would be beneficial to raze everything and start all over again, as was the case in Sheffield and, due to its war-time destruction, to Coventry. No one but a blind iconoclast would have suggested that places like Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Worcester, and all the smaller towns of the West Midlands deserved the same treatment.

The ‘rural’ West Midlands:

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In the 1960s, the West Midlands was defined as the region between Bristol and Crewe going north and between Birmingham and the Welsh border from east to west. It therefore included the largely rural areas of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, whereas today it is thought of as comprising the main metropolitan areas of Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. The latter two of these areas roughly correspond with what was, and still is, known as ‘the Black Country’, the industrial area stretching across southern Staffordshire. When Moorhouse wrote that there is no part of England lovelier than this he was not thinking of the Black Country, which he wrote about in a subsequent chapter together with Birmingham. Thus, what Nikolaus Pevsner wrote about Herefordshire, Moorhouse suggested, could be said to be true of the rest of the West Midlands as defined in the sixties:

There are not many counties of England of which it can be said that, wherever one goes, there will not be a mile which is visually unrewarding or painful.

Moorhouse added that there was certainly no other comparable stretch of country which had been more enhanced rather than spoiled by man. This was a man-made landscape which over the centuries has been broken in, tamed and softened in a way that some of the most attractive of Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the Highlands, Snowdonia, Connemara – have not. In the rural West Midlands are the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Malverns, the Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge and the upper Severn Valley of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. In these areas there was a little industry, formed early in the Industrial Revolution but never developed; where Birmingham and the Black Country spilt over the Worcestershire boundary they did so because of pressure from their foundries and factories. Industry in these West Midlands was…

… more a matter of cider-making, hop-gathering, pear-picking and cattle-herding than anything they understand the word to mean in Birmingham and surrounding districts. Here the towns were built mostly to market farm products … We remember them best for their picturesque qualities: Worcester, with the prettiest county cricket ground in England; Shrewsbury, with probably the finest collection of half-timbered Tudor buildings; Hereford, because it is less industrialized than any place of its size; Cheltenham, for the elegance of its Promenade and parks; Ludlow, for its charming disorder beneath the castle; Gloucester, for its cathedral and especially for that staggering east window.

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What made these cities and towns so iconic was not just their possession of a high proportion of buildings which are aesthetically pleasing or of considerable historical value, but that more often than not by their very disordered arrangement, their textures and their colouring, they actually enhance the landscapes in which they are set. Somehow the planners were pressured into preserving them either as the core or as the adjunct to the bright new towns of the future. Yet some of the most abysmal hovels in England continued to lie behind some of the prettiest facades (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above). There were already thousands of examples of reclamation of country cottages and market townhouses without damage to the exterior or the context. But the example of Gloucester was not one to be followed. Everything that was obsolescent for practical purposes was knocked down to make way for the latest urban device when more thought would have shown that by careful adaptation and selective demolition the same practical result could be achieved. In 1964, there was a clear danger that many other Midland towns might fall into the same trap as Gloucester. Fortunately, it was not the last chance we had to look around and see things as they always seemed to have been. Coaching inns, Tudor gables, and Regency mansions have remained into the current century. The Georgian face of Worcester has survived the widening of the High Street and the erection of a shopping centre opposite the cathedral. Yet at the time Worcester seemed generally quite oblivious of what was happening to it. An overspill population of forty thousand rolled in from Birmingham, yet it had no overall plan for development. Unlike Coventry’s Donald Gibson, Worcester had no city architect to start thinking about one, and to ensure that what was being done in the centre of the city was properly co-ordinated.

Birmingham & The Black Country:

Above: The local government structure within North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire – Prior to the West Midlands Order 1965 reorganisation

Strictly speaking, the Black Country is a quadrilateral of towns whose four corners are Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stourbridge and Smethwick. Most of it lies in the South-western angle of Staffordshire but it has spread over into Worcestershire as well. Not far from the geographical centre of England, it fizzles out on two sides into some of England’s most unspoilt countryside. It is itself the heart of industrial England and has become England’s unloveliest and most completely spoiled parcel of land. It is crammed with boroughs which have traditional specialities of manufacture: locks at Willenhall, chains at Cradley, nails at Blackheath, springs at West Bromwich, enamels at Bilston, glass at Stourbridge, leathers at Walsall, and so on. As Moorhouse remarked,

These places are so close to each other that it is only by keeping an eye on the signs outside the post offices as you pass through the Black Country that you can be sure which town you are in. Together with the Potteries it is the only part of England I know that I would not at any price exchange for life in South Lancashire… Here there is nothing but endless vistas of ugliness in stone, brick, mortar, rusting iron, and waste earth. Look at the streets and the factories here, peer into the canals, sniff the air, and you can be sure that they weren’t kidding when they called this the Black Country.

Strictly speaking, Birmingham has never part of the Black Country, which lies just over the south-eastern boundary of the region at West Bromwich, Smethwick and Bearwood, where the old counties of Warwickshire and Worcestershire met. The boundary was literally at the end of the long back garden of our ‘manse’ in Edgbaston, the Baptist Church being in Bearwood. Yet in an economic rather than a geographical sense, Birmingham is at the centre of the Black Country. Like the towns spilling out from its northern suburbs it was built from the start upon industry, but whereas specialization was the general rule in the Black Country’s boroughs, Birmingham spread itself over an enormous variety of trades. The typical working-class Brummie was, as the folk-song had it, a Roving Jack of many a trade, of every trade, of all trades. More than any other city in Britain, including Manchester, by the mid-twentieth century Birmingham could claim to be the unrivalled workshop of the world. By the 1960s its reputation rested on its heavy engineering and its part in the growth of the car industry, but it was still the home of about 1,500 separate trades, making everything from pins to hundred-ton presses.

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Birmingham was never as wholly bleak as the area to the north, though. Its southern suburbs became a dormitory for the middle and upper classes, almost devoid of factories, except for the Austin motor works at Longbridge and the Cadbury factory at Bournville which, like his predecessor J B Priestley, Geoffrey Moorhouse writes about at some length in his chapter on the Black Country.  I don’t intend to focus on it in this article. These suburbs were spacious and tree-lined, running eventually out into the Shakespeare country of the former Forest of Arden, along the Stratford Road. Birmingham was one of the very few places in England which lived up to its motto – in this case, ‘Forward’. It was certainly going forward in the mid-sixties. Nowhere else was there more excitement in the air, and no other major British city had identified its problems, tackled them and made more progress towards solving them than ‘the second city’. Not even in London was there so much adventure in what was being done.

Moorhouse suggested that you would have had to have gone to some of the Dutch and German cities to see something changing in shape and its approach to life as dramatically as Birmingham had been doing in the early sixties. If you entered the city by way of Snow Hill station and went along Colmore Row towards Victoria Square and the Town Hall nothing much seemed to be happening. But if you turned down New Street, at the bottom of the street you walked straight out of the nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, or maybe even into the twenty-first. You could carry on into the Bull Ring, at that time the centre of the transformation, and stand with your back to St Martin’s Church. Looking up, the sky was cut across at one end by a great horizontal slab of concrete, embellished with a fierce symbolic Taurus in metal at one end. That was the then new Bull Ring market. Behind it was a cylindrical office block, ‘the Rotunda’, all glass with a concrete frame. No-one had ever thought of making one of these in England before. At ground level was an open market, its stalls sheltered by huge individual umbrellas in lollipop colours.

This was Birmingham moving ‘forward’. Out of sight, there were streets along which traffic could pass without being stopped by crossing pedestrians because someone had the bright idea that it was possible for people on foot to get from one side to the other by going under the main thoroughfare. A portable flyover was also set across a junction so that cars, buses and lorries could go up and down it like trippers on the Big Dipper. Birmingham had been moving forward in this fashion since 1957, the year I was born, and when I went to live there in the summer of 1965 much of the new city centre around St Martin’s in the Bull Ring had been completed. At the time, it was probably the most extensive programme of rebuilding and redevelopment to take place in any European city not already demolished by the war. Plymouth, Exeter and neighbouring Coventry had no alternative but to rebuild.

Birmingham had to start its own demolition before it could proceed to re-creation. It started with a new inner ring road, costing twenty-five million, followed by the Bull Ring development which cost five million out of a total cost of forty million for the city centre as a whole. This was followed by the Midlands Arts Centre and a new civic theatre, the Repertory.  Plans for New Street station were first drawn up in 1958, an underground construction at an estimated cost of twelve million. In all, the city council reckoned in 1964 that they would spend another fifty million on various projects in the centre and at Edgbaston, including the test cricket ground. Not all these schemes were to be funded from the public purse, but the freedom of civic spending was the envy of many other cities. Birmingham’s forward movement was impressive enough to attract the best architects of the day to produce plans there, whereas other provincial cities had their futures shaped by trusty local architects, whose worthiness was generally equalled only by their lack of imagination. 

The danger, however, was that all this central enterprise would distract the city from looking too closely at its unfulfilled needs. Life in Sparkbrook or Balsall Heath didn’t look nearly as prosperous as it did from St Martin’s. Birmingham could have done itself more good by concentrating more on its tatty central fringes, what became known in the seventies and eighties as its inner-city areas. Something like seventy thousand families were in need of new homes and since the war it had been building houses at a rate of no more than two to three thousand a year. This compared poorly with Manchester, otherwise a poor relation, which had been building four thousand a year over the same period. However, more than any other municipality in the country, Birmingham had been successive ministers of Housing and Local Government to force lodging-house landlords to register with their local authorities. In 1944, it was the only place in England to take advantage of an ephemeral Act of Parliament to acquire the five housing areas it then developed twenty years later. At Ladywood, Lee Bank, Highgate, Newton and Nechells Green 103,000 people lived in 32,000 slum houses; a mess sprawling over a thousand acres, only twenty-two acres of which were open land. More than ten thousand of these houses had been cleared by 1964, and it was estimated that by 1970 the total number of people living in these areas was expected to dwindle to fifty thousand, with their homes set in 220 acres of open ground.

The other tens of thousands of people who lived there were expected to have moved out to Worcester, Redditch and other places. The prospect of Birmingham’s excess population being deposited in large numbers on the surrounding countryside was not an attractive one for those who were on the receiving end of this migration. At the public enquiry into the proposals to establish a new town at Redditch, the National Farmers’ Union declared, with the imagery that pressure groups often resort when their interests are threatened, that the farmers were being sacrificed on the altar of Birmingham’s ‘overspill’, which was the latest password among the planners. Birmingham needed to clear its slums before it could start talking about itself with justification as the most go-ahead city in Europe. Yet it already, in the mid-sixties, felt much more affluent than the patchwork affair among more Northerly towns and cities. It had more in common with the Golden Circle of London and the Home Counties than any other part of England. In 1964, forty-seven per cent of its industrial firms reported increased production compared with the national average of twenty-five per cent. Above all, Birmingham felt as if everything it set itself to was geared to an overall plan and purpose, with no piecemeal efforts going to waste at a tangent. The people living in Birmingham in the mid-sixties had a feeling, rare in English life at that time, of being part of an exciting enterprise destined to succeed. As for the city itself, it was not prepared to yield pride of place to anyone on any matter, as a quick glance at the civic guide revealed:

Many of the world’s finest organists have joined with the City Organist in giving recitals on the Town Hall’s massive organ, admittedly one of the finest in the country.

Such off-hand immodesty neatly caught the tone of Birmingham in the sixties, and when all the projects were completed, it was a city to crow about and for schoolboys like me to sing in, whether in the choir stalls at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring at Christmas or in front of that massive organ in the Town Hall, together with thousands of other choristers from all over the city.

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There was some ‘overspill’ of Birmingham’s bouncing vitality to be seen in the Black Country proper. The worthies of Wolverhampton had their own six million pound development plan on their plates, and in the town centre they had cleared a wide open space and started to build afresh. The city was especially proud of its football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, which under its manager, Stan Cullis, had won the League Championship three times (also finishing as runners-up three times) and the FA Cup twice between 1949 and 1960. They had also played a number of European club teams in a series of floodlit mid-week games at their Molineux Stadium, beating the crack Hungarian Champions Honved, led by the legendary Ferenc Puskás, earning them the unofficial title of ‘Champions of the World’.  They drew with Honved 1-1 at Molineux in 1962 and lost 2-1 to them in Budapest in ’63, but in 1964 Stan Cullis suffered a long illness and after a disastrous start to the season Chairman John Ireland sacked him on 15 September 1964. The Wolves were then relegated at the end of the season, not returning to the top flight until 1967, when I began to go to ‘the Moli’ with my dad, who was originally from Bilston. Of course, their great rivals were their Black Country neighbours, West Bromwich Albion, known as ‘the baggies’. In the first home game of the season, attracting a crowd of 51,438, Wolves were winning until ‘Bomber’ Brown punched the ball into the Wolves net with only a couple of minutes to go. The referee didn’t spot the infringement, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw.

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The Wolverhampton Coat of Arms and Motto (also worn by the football team).

In West Bromwich, they had come up with a seven million pound scheme for a pedestrian centre covering thirty-seven acres. Moorhouse felt that this was long overdue since no-one seemed to have spent a penny in the last century on the appearance of the place. He commented that whilst this was officially the most affluent place in the other England, with unemployment standing at just one per cent compared with the national average of 2.2, it was a curious unbalanced people who can satisfy itself indoors with its television set, washing machine, its hair dryer and modish lamp standard, and put up with West Bromwich as it looks from the outside. For West Bromwich, he wrote, you could substitute the name of any town in the Black Country and draw the same conclusion. Taking a bus from West Bromwich to Wolverhampton via Wednesbury and Bilston, he concluded that there is nothing to be seen which would induce anyone to go and live there unless he had to. I have to admit that, visiting my father’s brothers and sisters a few years later, I often wondered, and still do, as to what drew his parents there. My father worked as a draughtsman in the GKN works before the war, so perhaps his father did too. Wednesbury, where he had his first ministry as a young man, had a steep main street of market stalls, which gave it an almost rural air, reminding you that once there was open country running out of the bottom of the hill. Otherwise, Moorhouse’s description matches accurately my own childhood recollections:

Where the decrepit buildings of the Industrial Revolution peter out, bleak and gritty housing estates have been allowed to sprawl with here and there patches of waste ground full of broken glass, fractured brick, garbage and willowherb. The bus lurches through a maze of side streets whose corners are so sharp and narrow that it is surprising that it doesn’t finish up in somebody’s front parlour. … It is a picture of desolation, and no-one yet seems to have made a start in cleaning it up.

Certainly, for all the money that must have been made in these parts since industry moved in, precious little was spent on the needs of the local communities. Tipton was so bereft of civic facilities that the mayor had to entertain either in the local pub or the Territorial drill hall. As far as Moorhouse could tell, there was not a scrap of difference between Tipton, Coseley, Bilston and Willenhall, not a rusty piece of iron that you could insert between one boundary and the next. The only advantage that this gave them was that they were obviously all in the same boat together and that they might as well pool their resources and try to work out an overall plan. The Local Government Commission came to a similar conclusion in 1962, resulting in a reorganisation of the Black Country with the small towns being amalgamated into larger groupings or assimilated into the bigger places – Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Smethwick, and Dudley. These changes were not brought about without a fight, however, as civic jealousies were strong among the Black Country towns. The hearing of objections to the Commission’s plan lasted over five weeks and was the costliest in the history of British local government; some of the local authorities even threatened to sue the Minister of Housing and Local Government. With the consolidation of the Black Country, there was some hope that some of Birmingham’s ‘bright ideas’ might get transfused to its hinterland.

Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.

The Black Country outside Birmingham may have appeared to have been standing still for a century or more, but by looking at its population it was possible to see that an enormous change had come over it in the late fifties and early sixties. The pallid, indigenous people had been joined by more colourful folk from the West Indies, India and Pakistan. In some cases, the women from the subcontinent could not speak English at all, but they had already made their mark on Black Country society, queuing for chickens on Wolverhampton market on Saturday mornings. The public transport system across Birmingham and the Black Country would certainly have ground to a halt had the immigrant labour which supplied it been withdrawn. Several cinemas had been saved from closing by showing Indian and Pakistani movies, and a Nonconformist Chapel had been transformed into a Sikh Gurdwara. The whole area was ‘peppered’ with Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Several years before the national press discovered the West Indian cricket supporters at Lord’s in 1963, they were already plainly visible and vocal at Edgbaston Cricket Ground.

The overseas immigrants had been coming into Birmingham and the Black Country in a steady trickle since the end of the war for the same reason that the region attracted migrants from all over the British Isles since the mid-twenties: comparatively high wages and full, stable, employment. The trickle became a torrent in the months before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was enacted in 1962. By 1964, the region had one of the biggest concentrations of immigrants in the country. Their integration into the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country had proceeded without the violent reaction which led to the race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. But tensions had been building up in the region as they had in every mixed community in Britain. One of the first open antagonisms took place in Birmingham in 1954 over the employment of coloured migrants as drivers and conductors on the local buses. After that, little was heard of racial pressures until the end of 1963, when events in Smethwick began to make national headlines. The situation there became typical in its effects on traditional allegiances, and in its ripeness for exploitation, of that in every town in England with a mixed community.

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With a population of seventy thousand, Smethwick contained an immigrant community variously estimated at between five and seven thousand. It was claimed that this is proportionately greater than in any other county borough in England. The settlement of these people in Smethwick had not been the slow process over a long period that Liverpool, Cardiff and other seaports had experienced and which had allowed time for adjustments to be made gradually. It had happened at a rush, mainly at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. In such circumstances, the host communities learnt to behave better, but it was always likely that a deeply rooted white population would regard with suspicion the arrival of an itinerant coloured people on its home ground, and that friction would result. In Smethwick, the friction followed a familiar pattern. Most pubs in the town barred coloured people from their lounge bars. Some barbers refused to cut their hair. When a Pakistani family were allocated a new council flat after slum clearance in 1961, sixty-four of their white neighbours staged a rent strike and eventually succeeded in driving them out of, ironically enough, ‘Christ Street’.

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Looking for lodgings on Gillett Road, west Birmingham, 1955.

Most of the usual white prejudices were keenly displayed in Smethwick, the reasons offered for hostility to the migrants being that they made too much noise, that they did not tend to their gardens with the customary English care, that they left their children unattended too long, and that their children were delaying the progress of white pupils in the schools. The correspondence columns of the local weekly newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone, have provided a platform for the airing of these prejudices, as a letter quoted by a correspondent of The Times on 9 March 1964 shows:

With the advent of the pseudo-socialists’ ‘coloured friends’, the incidence of T.B. in the area has risen to become one of the highest in the country. Can it be denied that the foul practice of spitting in public is a contributory factor? Why waste the ratepayers’ money printing notices in five different languages? People who behave worse than animals will not in the least be deterred by them.

At the time, no-one seems to know who originated the slogan: If you want a Nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour, which was circulating in Smethwick before the 1963 municipal elections. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan but Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign; Jordan’s group in the past had also campaigned on other slogans, such as: Don’t vote – a vote for Tory, Labour or Liberal is a vote for more Blacks! Griffiths denied that the slogan was racist, saying that:

I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.

— quoted in The Times (9 March 1964).

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The specific issue which the Labour and Conservatives debated across the Smethwick council chamber was how best to integrate immigrant children in the borough’s schools. Many of them had very little English when they arrived in Smethwick. The Conservatives wanted to segregate them from normal lessons; Labour took the view that they should be taught in separate groups for English only and that the level of integration otherwise should be left to the discretion of the individual schools. But the party division soon got far deeper as the housing shortage in Smethwick, as great as anywhere in the Black Country, exacerbated race relations. The Conservatives said that if they controlled the council they would not necessarily re-house a householder on taking over his property for slum clearance unless he had lived in the town for ten years or more. While the local Labour party deprecated attempts to make immigration a political issue, the Conservatives actively encouraged them. Councillor Peter Griffiths, the local Tory leader had actively supported the Christ Street rent strike.

At the municipal elections in 1963, the Conservatives fared disastrously over the country in general, gaining no more than five seats. Three of these were in Smethwick. In the elections for aldermen of 1964, the Conservatives gained control of the council, the ‘prize’ for having been consistently critical of the immigrant community in the area. The Smethwick constituency had been held by Labour since 1945, for most of that time by Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. His majorities at successive general elections had dwindled from 9,727 in 1951 to 6,495 in 1955 to 3,544 in 1959. This declining majority could not, obviously, be solely attributed to Labour’s policy on immigration, either nationally or locally. It reflected a national trend since 1951, a preference for Tory economic management. But the drop in 1959 seemed to be in part, at least, a reaction to local issues. Moorhouse, writing in mid-1964, just before the general election, found few people who would bet on Gordon Walker being returned to Westminster, however successful Labour might be in the country as a whole. His opponent in the election was Councillor Griffiths, who was so convinced of the outcome by the end of 1963 that he had already fixed himself up with a flat in London. Moorhouse wrote:

If he does become Smethwick’s next MP it will not simply be because he has attracted the floating voter to his cause. It will also be because many people who have regarded themselves as socialist through thick and thin have decided that when socialism demands the application of its principles for the benefit of a coloured migrant population as well as for themselves it is high time to look for another political creed which is personally more convenient.   

There had been resignations from the party, and a former Labour councillor was already running a club which catered only for ‘Europeans’. The Labour Club itself (not directly connected to the constituency party) had not, by the end of 1963, admitted a single coloured member. Smethwick in 1964 was not, he commented, a place of which many of its inhabitants could be proud, regardless of how they voted. That could be extended to ‘any of us’, he wrote:

We who live in areas where coloured people have not yet settled dare not say that what is happening in Smethwick today could not happen in our slice of England, too. For the issue is not a simple and straightforward one. There must be many men of tender social conscience who complain bitterly about the noise being imposed on them by road and air traffic while sweeping aside as intolerant the claims others about the noise imposed on them by West Indian neighbours, without ever seeing that there is an inconsistency in their attitude. It is not much different from the inconsistency of the English parent who demands the segregation of coloured pupils whose incapacities may indeed be retarding his child’s school progress but who fails to acknowledge the fact that in the same class there are probably a number of white children having a similar effect. One issue put up by Smethwick (and the other places where social problems have already arisen) does, however, seem to be clear. The fact is that these people are here and, to put it at the lowest level of self-interest, we have got to live amicably with them if we do not want a repetition of Notting Hill and Nottingham, if we do not want a coloured ghetto steadily growing in both size and resentment. …

Smethwick is our window on the world from which we can look out and see the street sleepers of Calcutta, the shanty towns of Trinidad, the empty bellies of Bombay. And what do we make of it? Somebody at once comes up and sticks a notice in it. ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’   

Smethwick Town Council

The 1964 general election had involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker. Griffiths did, however, poll 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick constituency in 1959. He was declared “a parliamentary leper” by Harold Wilson, the new Labour Prime Minister (below).

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Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. The election result led to a visit by Malcolm X to Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and Asian communities. Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick was “no accident”; the Conservative-run council attempted to put in place an official policy of racial segregation in Smethwick’s housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. Malcolm X claimed that the Black minorities were being treated like the Jews under Hitler. Later in 1964, a delegation of white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to compulsorily purchase vacant houses in order to prevent non-whites from buying the houses. This, however, was prevented by Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money in order to enact their policy. Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York. The Labour Party regained the seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the new Member of Parliament.

The actions taken in Smethwick in 1964 have been described as ugly Tory racism which killed rational debate about immigration. However, colour bars were then common, preventing non-whites from using facilities. As already noted, The Labour Club in Smethwick effectively operated one, as, more overtly did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town’s Labour councillors. Moorhouse pointed out that had the community been on the economic rocks, it might have been possible to make out a case for controls on immigration. Had there been a high rate of unemployment, where the standard of living was already impoverished, there might have been a case for keeping migrants at bay so as to prevent competition for insufficient jobs becoming greater and the general sense of depression from deepening. But that was not the case in west Birmingham and the Black Country in 1964, or for at least another decade. It may have been as ugly as sin to look at, at least in parts, but outside the Golden Circle around London, there was no wealthier area in England and no place more economically stable. When the Birmingham busmen had objected to coloured colleagues a decade earlier, it was not because these would be taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to ‘Brummies’ but because it was feared they might have an effect on wages which a shortage of labour had maintained at an artificial level. These were real fears that had led to prejudice against previous immigrants to the region, most notably from Wales in the thirties and Ireland in the forties. At root, this was not a problem about colour per se, though there were cultural stereotypes at play, as there were previously and as we have seen there were in the early sixties. It was essentially about wages. This is how Anthony Richmond summarised it in his book The Colour Problem:

The main objections to the employment of coloured colonials appeared to come from the trade unions, but less on the grounds of colour than because, if the number of drivers and conductors was brought up to full establishment by employing colonials, their opportunities for earning considerable sums as overtime would be reduced.

fearful social sickness?

Smethwick’s problems in 1964 sprung from the same root, if not over wages, then over rents, with tenants fearing that competition for housing would drive these upwards, and quickly. According to Moorhouse, this was part of a fearful social sickness affecting the Midlands as a whole which seemed to be compounded of a desire to make money fast while the going was good, a willingness to go to any lengths to achieve this. For the first time in the industrial history of the West Midlands, it was possible for the working classes to reach their target of acquiring a surplus through full employment. This left no space or energy for any other considerations. It was an attitude of mind which had been copied from those higher up the social scale in industry and was most in evidence in the car factories. There men were earning over twenty pounds and sometimes thirty pounds a week on the production lines, putting them up among the highest-paid manual labourers in the land. The Coventry Evening Telegraph made it clear what it thought of car workers striking for higher pay in 1956 by juxtaposing the two photographs below:

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Wages in Coventry motor firms were undoubtedly higher than elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, but the caricature of the ‘greedy car worker’ was somewhat misleading, both in Coventry and the West Midlands more generally, as economic historians have pointed out. I have written about these observations in other articles on this site. Nevertheless, Moorhouse identified, that emerging from the works around Birmingham was…

A new race of artisans… which makes cars and the bits and pieces that go into cars. An increasing number live in mass-produced semi-detached houses with fitted carpets and all the latest domestic gadgets, mostly acquired on hire purchase. They take their wives out to dinner in the poshest hotels in the district rather than for a drink in the local pubs as their fathers did. They spend weekends in country in their own cars, and holidays touring the Continent. In some cases they even dabble on the stock exchange and think of buying plots of land in the Bahamas against the day of retirement. And why ever not, if they can afford it? There seems to be no good reason why such things should be synonymous with only with a front seat on the board and a back seat in the Rolls. But the price they pay for this taste of affluence is, it seems to me, a form of sweated labour. They spend their days doing a repetitive job alongside a conveyor belt, the most deadly dull thing imaginable. Their wages are high because they work ridiculous extra stints in overtime. When they get home, some of them say, they are fit for nothing but flopping down in front of the television set or a supine contemplation of their other riches. They are so worn out by this headlong pursuit of wealth that they cannot even enjoy normal family activity. How can a feeling for community expect to survive in such a climate? How can anyone be surprised that in such a single-minded environment, with everything geared to acquisitive purpose, there appears to be little contentment but plenty of hostility for anything likely to hinder the chase?

But Moorhouse presents no evidence to suggest that immigrant workers either hindered – or threatened to hinder – this ‘chase’ for ever- greater affluence among the indigenous population. We do know that in Coventry, the Caribbean and Asian immigrants were excluded from high-paying engineering jobs. Even on the less well-paid buses, the unions operated a colour bar more or less openly until 1960 when Morris Minta, a Jamaican, became the first coloured busman in Coventry. The only inroads they made into engineering were in the lowest-paid and dirtiest end of the trade, particularly the foundries, of which there were many in Smethwick and the Black Country. Even there they were they were confined to the lowliest jobs by a tacit consensus of management and workers. As early as 1951, the management of Sterling Metals in Coventry, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was their main desire to recruit white labour and agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated. The white labourers were given guarantees against the upgrading of Indians. At the ‘paternalistic’ Alfred Herbert’s works in 1953, the AEU Chief Steward threatened strike action if Indians were upgraded from labourers to machines and management gave them informal assurances that this would not happen.

Trade union officials began to be more critical of such attitudes as time went on, but they rarely took a firm stand against them. Overt discrimination within the workplace was comparatively rare, however, especially since most black workers never got inside the factory gates. Most significant engineering employers had long-since stopped recruiting at the gates anyway. Modern recruitment practices at the major firms were a sufficient barrier in themselves, since hiring through union offices gave advantages to local, skilled engineering workers. Informal networks of friends, relatives and personal links with foremen remained, as it had been for Welsh workers in the thirties, the other main mode of hiring. These methods kept out the new Commonwealth immigrants, who lacked access to channels of information and influence, especially as they were usually barred from pubs and clubs in any case. These practices were common throughout the industrial West Midlands. The engineering workers of the West Midlands had their hierarchies and, while many were changing districts, occupations and factories all the time, the newly arrived immigrants were at the bottom of the tree and unlikely to topple it, or undermine the fruits it provided for those near the top.

Therefore, the case of Smethwick in 1964 cannot easily be explained by reference to economic factors, though we know that the social and cultural factors surrounding the issues of housing and education did play significant roles. The main factor underpinning the 1964 Election result would appear to be political, that it was still acceptable, at that time and among local politicians of both main parties, together with public and trade union officials, for racial discrimination and segregation to be seen as instruments of public policy in response to mass immigration. In this, Smethwick was not that different from other towns and cities throughout the West Midlands, if not from those elsewhere in England. And it would take a long time for such social and industrial hierarchies to be worn down through local and national government intervention which went ahead of, and sometimes cut across the ‘privileged’ grain of indigenous populations. Smethwick represented a turning point in this process; four years later Wolverhampton and Birmingham would become the fulcrum in the fight against organised racialism. I have written about these events elsewhere on this site, especially about the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made by Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell.

Sources:

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1980), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press, University of Warwick.

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