Lord Dudley and the Making of the Black Country

TJ Raybould (from The Blackcountryman volume 3 issue 2)

The death of the third Earl of Dudley in Paris on 26th December 1969, severed the last close link between the Dudley family and the Black Country. As Viscount Ednam, and after 1932 as Earl of Dudley, he was personally responsible for the revival in the fortunes of Round Oak Steelworks and the Baggeridge Colliery in the 1920s and 30s.

After World War 2, nationalism and the disposal of estate property, especially in 1947, destroyed the relationship between the Dudley family and the area, which had endured since the Black Country came into existence during the last 4 decades of the 18th century. This close link had been established by John, 2nd Viscount Dudley and Ward between 1774 and 1788. When he succeeded to the title in 1774, a number of factors were already in operation, which would have transformed the local economy from a mineral and ironworking district into a major centre of mineral and iron production.

The work of the 2nd Viscount facilitated and speeded up this revolution in the scale and variety of economic enterprise within the area - to the financial benefit not only of the Dudley estate, but of the Black Country as a whole.

Two factors in particular brought the 18th century industrial revolution to the area: these were technological advances in the iron trade and the construction of canals. Mineral - smelted pig iron released the iron trade from dependence on a dwindling supply of charcoal and resulted in increased output and the concentration of blast furnaces on the coalfields. This process was introduced into South Staffordshire in 1766 when John Wilkinson constructed an iron works at Bradley near Bilston. It is generally agreed that this date, if any, marks the birth of the Black Country, as demand for local ironstone, limestone and coal rapidly increased thereafter.

Without a complementary improvement in local transport systems, expansion in the iron and mineral trades would have been restricted. But, as the Black Country grew up on the watershed of England, there was an absence of navigable rivers. The construction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal (1766-72), enabled this problem to be overcome. This canal was not made with the interests of South Staffordshire in mind, but its link with the river Severn at Stourport opened up the wider markets.

Accordingly the Birmingham canal (click link to visit Worcester Birmingham Canal Society webpage) with its branch to Wednesbury - was cut to link with the through-route at Aldersley. For the first time, adequate water transport - particularly essential to the movement of heavy materials and iron goods - existed to the north of the Sedgley-Dudley ridge. This was the situation when the 2nd Viscount inherited the Dudley estate in 1774.

At this time most of his property lay south and west of the ridge and he was, in addition, Lord of the Manors of Dudley, Himley, Kingswinford and Sedgley. Considerable areas of these manors were un-enclosed commons and waste: for example, out of a total of 7315 acres in Kingswinford, over 3000 acres were un-enclosed The enclosure bills introduced by Lord Dudley not only prepared the way for a more national exploitation of the land and minerals for all concerned, but also increased the area of his own estates.


Although the purpose of each act was stated to be:

"improvements....so as to be converted into tillage"

the real motive in the last two cases was to facilitate the working of minerals and the development of the iron trade. The proportion allocated to Lord Dudley for loss of rights of common as a property owner was increased by compensation made to him as infringement of his rights as Lord of the Manor. Such rights were:

"loss of soil....and Right of Coney or rabbit warren"

In addition, each act made provision for the enfranchisement of copyholders as freeholders, after payment of compensation to Lord Dudley for loss of manorial rights.

Compensation took the form of a grant of land equivalent to the value of a monetary fine assessed by the enclosure commissioners. This was not unusual practice in the 18th century. As a result of the Ashwood Hay Act, Lord Dudley received a total of 210 acres 25 perches, equivalent to a fine of £3372 3s 8d paid by 45 copyholders who availed themselves of the opportunity to become freeholders and free themselves of manorial control.

The area affected by the Ashwood Hay Act lay south and west of the Wolverhampton to Stourbridge turnpike and was bounded by the Stour, the Smestow and the stream from Holbeache to Hinksford. This district remained largely agricultural and provided a source of food for the Black Country as population increased rapidly after 1780.

Of general value to the development of the area was the provision made in the act for the construction of roads: a total of 74 acres 2 roods 38 perches was allocated for this purpose. With its provision for enfranchisement, road construction, and compensation to all concerned for loss of rights by enclosure, the Ashwood Enclosure Act was typical of all the local acts.

However, additional clauses in the Pensnett and Dudley Wood Acts indicate that the real motive was mineral and industrial development. The former concerned lands on both sides of Brierley Hill: down to the Stour on the south and east, and as far as Barrow Hill, Kingswinford village, , and Wordsley on the south and west. The latter act concerned land on the Dudley Wood, Holly Hall and Netherton area. There is no doubt that it was no accident that many of the allotments made to Lord Dudley lay on either side of the thick-coal outcrop along the slopes of Brierley Hill in the region of the Level, the Delph and the Fens Pools. Moreover, Lord Dudley was entitled to work all minerals under the enclosed area no matter who owned the surface. In addition he could:

"make and use all convenient ways, roads and railways in, upon and over the said lands....for the use of....mines....without paying or making satisfaction to any person....for the damage to be done....doing as little damage thereby as may be."

This right was to be the subject of considerable discord over the next 120 years.

As Lord of the Manor, Lord Dudley was entitled to all timber within the enclosed area. The act allowed him to fell all the timber he wished within the space of one year. Presumably sales of timber would be considerable for the purposes of enclosing and construction work in the pits. It was at this time that Lord Dudley established a timber yard at Round Oak on the banks of the Dudley Canal - this undertaking was the first economic enterprise on a stretch of the canal, which later saw the construction of the New Level furnaces, the Round Oak iron works, and finally, Round Oak Steelworks. There was a great deal of timber in the area: of the 679 acres allotted to Lord Dudley in 1786, approximately 452 acres consisted of woodland such as the Level and Saltwell Woods and Hartshill Coppice.

Enclosure enabled not only Lord Dudley, but also other freeholders and those copyholders who had enfranchised their property and become freeholders to exploit their property without hindrance or restriction. However, enclosure alone would not by itself have brought rapid expansion: transport developments made this possible.

Indirectly, Lord Dudley was responsible for the construction of many local roads, which the enclosure acts had made provision for. In addition, he supplied capital for the development of local turnpikes throughout the Black Country. By 1779 he had loaned a total of £6200 to local turnpike trusts such as the Stourbridge to Dudley, Wolverhampton to Birmingham, Dudley to Wednesbury, and Wombourne to Bilston turnpikes. These were, however, of limited value for the movement of heavy materials, except over short distances. Moreover the existing canals were of little direct value to the Dudley estate, which possessed little property in the vicinity of the Birmingham canal, while the Staffordshire to Worcestershire canal lay several miles away from the rich mineral areas of Pensnett, the Level, and Netherton. To remedy this situation, Lord Dudley introduced a bill into Parliament seeking the right to cut a canal from the Staffordshire - Worcester at Stourton to Stourbridge. From this, two 'collateral cuts' were to be constructed up the slopes of Brierley Hill: one to the Fens Pools in Pensnett and the other to the Delph on the southeastern side of the hill. Although named the Stourbridge Canal, this enterprise derived far more revenue from its 'branches' than from the main cut to Stourbridge.

The scheme was conceive in conjunction with a proposal to construct another canal - the Dudley Canal - from the Delph to Parkhead. This was jointly sponsored by Lord Dudley and TT Foley who both owned minerals in the area. In spite of opposition, both bills were sanctioned in 1776 and the line was open from Parkhead to Stourton by 1779: the junction between the two canals was at the foot of the Nine Locks at the Delph.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT Reprinted (in The Blackcountryman by permission of the Staff. and Worcs. Canal Society and the authors of "The BCN, a cruising guide to the canals of Birmingham and the Black Country" (1970)

The potential of the Stourbridge Canal in particular resulted in a number of petitions being submitted by coalmasters and coalowners who worked collieries along the line of the Birmingham Canal in Bilston and Coseley. These opposed the new canal on the grounds that the petitioners would 'lose all prospect of reaping any fruit of their labour.' They no doubt feared the loss of markets at Stourport and along the Severn as the Stourbridge Canal joined the Staffordshire-Worcestershire at Stourton, which lay about 13 miles nearer to Stourport than did Aldersley. All opposition was in vain and the two new canals were constructed. It is significant that their line closely followed the thick-coal outcrop and that, in 1786, Lord Dudley was allotted large tracts of land on both banks of the two canals by the Pensnett Enclosure award. It is probably no coincidence that, as the Dudley canal passed through Lord Dudley's largest colliery at this time, which was situated at the Level, coal passing along the Stourbridge Canal from the Dudley canal was to be transported at the rate of 3d per ton. The normal rate was 6d per ton: the preferential rate for coal from the Dudley canal would enable it to remain competitive with coal mined nearer the Staffordshire-Worcestershire canal.

All mines owners possessing property within 1000 yards of the new canals were also entitled to construct roads and railways over neighbouring property to convey minerals to the canal. Lord Dudley took advantage of this, together with his right to construct wharves under the Pensnett Enclosure Act, and established mineral railways and canal wharves by 1788 at Round Oak, the Old Level, Parkhead and Brockmoor. Under Lord Dudley's leadership, the logical step was taken in 1785 when a Parliamentary Bill was introduced to construct a canal tunnel from the Parkhead to the Birmingham Canal at Tipton Green. This linked the two canal systems on both sides of the ridge and Lord Dudley made a loan of £4500 to ensure that the work would be completed.

It is evident that from the outset the enclosure of the area and the construction of the canals were part of a plan to enable rational exploitation to take place. Although these measures were specifically designed to benefit the Dudley Estate in particular they also benefited the area as a whole. As Lord of the Manor and as a member of Parliament, Lord Dudley was in a position to act.

There were, however, other ways in which the estates policies worked to the common good. As industrial and mineral enterprise expanded in the area, there was an influx of population. Lord Dudley allowed anyone to erect cottages on his property and charged only a low annual ground rent for the copyhold - often as low as 6d per annum. Many of the copyholders in fact, rented cottages to other workers but received an economic weekly rent themselves. Many of the concentrations of population such as those at the Thorns, the Delph, Brockmoor and Bromley lived in cottage properties on the Dudley Estate. The relatively rapid expansion of the local economy was also facilitated by the provision of valuable leases on which pottery manufacturers, brickworks, glass houses and blast furnaces were erected.

The sale of many of the leased enterprises is indicated by royalty paid by one lessee in 1788: this was £18, calculated at 1s per 1000 bricks - a production total of 360000 bricks. New glass houses were constructed in Brettel Lane by Samuel Edge in 1779 and William Seager in 1774, and at Audnam. Pottery works were developed at the Thorns by Messrs Onions and Stimson after 1779. All of these developments foreshadowed the expansion which took place on the estate over the next few decades.

The iron trade was also firmly established by 1788 when at least three of the six mineral blast furnaces in South Staffs were in operation on the Dudley Estate at the Old Level and at Tipton Green. The main expansion, however, occurred in mineral enterprise as limestone production at Castle Hill, Hurst Hill and the Wren's Nest was increased to meet the demands of the iron manufacturers.

Wrens Nest Limestone Mine as seen in 1829

Coal and ironstone were mined in pits owned and managed by the estate. Production was concentrated at Coneygre, Parkhead, the Level and Brockmoor by 1788. The increased rental enjoyed by the estate after enclosure provided capital for the development of large collieries and limestone quarries by the estate. These supplied the raw materials in the expanding local iron trade. Without the capital supplied by the Dudley Estate, the transformation of the local economy would have taken longer to achieve.

After 1788 further enclosures and canal construction took place. However, all followed the pattern of development indicated by the 2nd Viscount. He laid the foundations for the basis of the Dudley Estate's wealth, which increased as the Black Country economy expanded to a peak in 1860.

Although his policies had been designed to benefit the estate, the area as a whole profited from enclosure: transport improvements, capital investments, and the growing productivity of Estate pits. His personal involvement in the management of estate enterprise, and in the economic expansion of the region, reflect the more constructive activities of the landed aristocracy during the 18th century. As such John, Second Viscount Dudley and Ward played as important a role in the making of the Black Country as John Wilkinson and James Watt, and established a family link with the area, which persisted until the recent death of the late Earl.

Other Articles By This Author

The Kingswinford Estate of Lord Dudley: Its Development and Organisation Between 1774 and 1833" MA Thesis, Birmingham University 1966 (copy in Dudley Library)
Systems of Management and Administration on the Dudley Estates (1774-1833) Business History X (1968)

The Development and Organisation of Lord Dudley's Mineral Estates (1774-1845) Economic History Review XX1 (1968)

email the web master Mick Pearson: