Some history on Netherton in the county of Worcestershire
Traditional old boozers was what Netherton was all about. Located in the heart of the Black Country, the town and surrounding settlements had many pubs. Even back in my early drinking days the number of pubs in and around Netherton was mind-boggling. And yet by my day many had long closed for good. During the town's halcyon days of the industrial revolution you couldn't move for boozers. Just take a look at the list of pub names and you will get an idea of what has been lost. Around half a dozen remain from a list of more than 100. Yes, around 95% of Netherton's pubs have gone. Thankfully, the town is still home to one of the legendary homebrew houses of the UK. Brewing did cease at the Old Swan for a few years but the pub is brewing once more and the boozer remains a place of pilgrimage for real ale enthusiasts across the land.
Netherton's name is Anglo Saxon and means 'Lower Settlement' and, located in the vale below Dudley Castle, has always remained intrinsically linked with its close neighbour, particularly after 1865 when it became part of Dudley. The Church of Saint Andrew, perched on its hilly position, can be seen for some distance. It is thought that an Iron Age fort existed on the hill long before the construction of a Saxon church.
Like many towns in the Black Country, Netherton grew on coal and iron. This led to a large number of factories, big and small, developing in the town. The most famous was that of Noah Hingley and Sons, the firm responsible for the chain and three anchors required for the ill-fated Titanic. Some of the manufacturing was contracted out to other factories, particularly the steel drop-forged anchor shank which was produced at Halesowen by Walter Somers Ltd.
Many of the photographs taken at Noah Hingley and Sons were the work of Edwin Beech, a photographer of some note who operated from the Imperial Studio in Cradley Heath. I have spent many years collecting his superb photographs of the region. He was a fine photographer. Having the original photographs I can zoom in on the images to show some detail. For example, the image above shows some of the men who worked with Benjamin Hodgetts on heavy chain.
One can only imagine how many beers these men would need at the end of a shift. No doubt places like the Loyal Washington would have the ales lined up on the counter in time for the hooter blowing to mark the end of the working day. They were a tough-looking bunch and not the sort with which a Pimms drinker knocking over one of their pints would start an argument with. This photograph has a caption stating that this particular chain was tested to stand a strain of 350 tons. I have read that the chains manufactured at Hingley's sometimes had links measuring up to forty inches in diameter.
This is the iconic anchor with which Netherton is so closely associated. I guess they could roll out or paraphrase the Belfast joke that "it was alright when it left Netherton." Netherton is very proud of its Titanic connection - a commemorative replica anchor stands on Netherton&;45;s small triangular plot boldly dubbed The Square.
The bow anchor for the RMS Titanic weighed nearly 16 tons and was the biggest in the world at the time. In April 1911 the anchor needed 20 horses to haul it from the proving house for testing. There were another two stern anchors which weighed 8 tons each. Indeed, the anchors and chains altogether weighed 100 tons. A heavy waggon was used by the Great Bridge haulage company W. A. Ree - the company name can be seen on the side of the flatbed in the first photograph of the anchor. They sent eight Clydesdale horses to pull the waggon and this was supplemented by six more horses from Hingley's, along with another six from the railway station at Dudley Port. The journey took place on a Sunday to ensure less traffic or trams would interrupt the haulier. It was quite an effort to pull the anchor up the hill to Dudley. A great number of people turned out to watch the horses pull the anchor through Netherton, Cinder Bank and Blowers Green.
The Congregational Church at Primrose Hill was located close to the works of Noah Hingley and Sons. The building has suffered from mining subsidence and tilts slightly. I have stood outside the building for a while trying to imagine what it was like here the Sunday after the news broke that the ship had sunk. The factories that normally made the ground shudder would have stood in eerie silence. When I visited the site a relatively recent building had been erected next to the chapel but I found a memorial stone lying on the ground which said: "laid by Thomas Mosley on July 21st 1884 who for 27 years laboured in connection with this school."
Like many other Black Country places, particularly around the River Stour and Mousesweet Brook, Netherton once had an extensive cottage industry in nail-making. It was the workers of Netherton who led a strike in 1862 in which nailors marched from the town to Bromsgrove hauling a tub of coal. A song was composed for the march and broadsheets of the composition were sold along the route. They achieved a pay increase for their labours but the success was short-lived as machines were soon to make their handcraft skills redundant. Although the firm of John Barnsley went on to manufacture lifting gear, they became famous for the production of Jews Harps, most of which were exported to the United States.
The Church of Saint Andrew was built between 1827 and 1830 and is the work of Thomas Lee. It is a Commissioners' Church with a tower and lancet windows. The interior features three galleries. The graveyard is noted for its many unmarked common graves. These were dug extremely deep for the victims of the cholera epidemic that hit the area in 1832. Indeed, St. Andrew's has one of the largest churchyards in the Black Country and was once the scene of a spontaneous underground fire in an outcrop of coal in 1958 which threatened the church itself.
Any visit to Netherton should encompass a walk along the Bumble Hole loop and the Dudley No.2 canal. Indeed, this will help the visitor to see just how Netherton ticked in the industrial revolution. The walk starts at Windmill End where Joseph Darby was born on August 5th 1861. He became the World Champion Spring Jumper, a sport long since vanished but enormously popular in Victorian times. Joe Darby was also the licensee at The Albion in Dudley's Stone Street. He could jump on the surface of water in a tank and out again, simply wetting the soles of his shoes. That this feat involved a double spring is proved by the fact that he would jump up to the water a distance of 5ft, and then clear the tank landing 6ft beyond. He could also alight on a spectator's face, springing off without hurting them. He was also able to clear half a dozen chairs with a jump taken off an ordinary glass tumbler filled with water without spilling a drop. Joe Darby must have attracted a massive crowd when he performed in public. Certainly, The Albion Inn must have been a lively place. He died on 22nd December 1937 aged 76.
Windmill End is the junction of the Netherton Tunnel Approach and the Dudley No.2 Canal which was built between 1793-8. It used to link with the Worcester and Birmingham canal at Selly Oak but now terminates at Hawne Basin between Coombeswood and Halesowen. The large blue brick bridge here is known as Cobb's Engine Bridge and once carried a double track mineral railway to serve the local collieries and bring coal to fuel Cobb's pumping engine. The horse-driven canal traffic around this part of the Black Country was once very heavy - look out for the grooves worn by tow ropes on bridge abutments and handrails.
Cobb's Engine house used to house a Watt beam engine to pump water from the deep coal mines in this area. The pump drained an average of 367,500 gallons per day into the canal nearby. A scheduled ancient monument, the engine house, originally known as Windmill Hill Pumping Station, was erected by Sir Horace St.Paul in 1831 but had ceased working in 1928. The chimney stack is 95 feet high and acts as an important local landmark. Behind it the spoil heaps of the former Warren's Hall colliery can be seen. Also behind the Engine House is Hailstone Quarry, a source of dolerite rock once used for road surfacing and kerbstones throughout the Midlands. This dark grey igneous rock was particularly hard and durable. It was difficult to break cleanly and took on a ragged appearance, earning it the name 'Rowley Rag.' The boats that transported this stone were known as 'raggers.'
The portal around the entrance to Netherton Tunnel is now a Grade II-listed structure. Measuring 3,027 yards in length, the tunnel was built between 1855 and 1858. Apart from those built into the limestone caverns under Dudley in 1984 and 1990, Netherton Tunnel was the last to be built in the country. It was also the widest, having tow paths on both sides, and therefore did not need to be 'legged.' The canal was originally fitted with gas lighting. The reservoir was closed early this century because of constant subsidence caused by underground mining. Parts of the rock structure of the dam can still be seen amongst the hawthorn by the path.
It is possible to walk through the tunnel although a torch and waterproof clothing is recommended. A walk around the path from the tunnel will bring the visitor to an old dam. Gadds Green Reservoir, started in 1790, used to cover 14 acres in the hollow where there are now playing fields and houses. The reservoir was fed by surface water and the various natural springs from the hills behind and in turn fed into the canal at Parkhead Locks.
Further along the path is Boshpoil Pool, an oxidised slag mound makes a colourful centre piece of this attractive pool and is all that is left of the furnaces and coke ovens that once stood here. The name 'Boshpoil' was derived from the cooling of hot coke from the adjacent coke ovens in bosh tubs - no doubt there was plenty of steam and bubbling associated with this process. This is a particularly good site to see dragonflies.
Bumble Hole Lake is a former clay pit and a haven for wildlife. It also serves as a storm water balancing lake. Legend has it that local industrialists installed a steam-driven hammer in an iron clad building in the bottom of the pit and the noise this hammer made, which was new to the area, sounded like 'bum-hul bum-hul...' This noise was referred to as 'bum-hul in the hole,' later shortened to bumble hole. The pool is fringed with flowering rush, an attractive and unusual plant.
Originally, the Boshpoil Arm and the Bumble Hole Branch Canals were connected and formed the Bumble Hole Loop. This was part of the original contour canal system engineered by James Brindley but made redundant when a straight approach to the new Netherton Tunnel was cut in 1858. Much of the old loop has disappeared because of subsidence, but this section was kept open to served the former Harris's Boatyard. This is now a quiet mooring and a residential mooring area so do respect the residents patch if you decide to take a look at the rare timber gallows-type dockside crane which is now protected as an ancient monument.
A pleasant walk along the canal will lead the visitor past the sites of Withymoor Goods Station, Noah Hingley's works and Lloyd's Proving House. The latter was close to the canal basin where a 'roving' bridge [one which took the towpath over a canal arm] is located. This was where the warehouses of the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company [called the London Midland Scottish Railway Company after 1924] were located. The basin would have been used for the storage and dispatch of local goods to all parts of the country. The wharf opposite the basin and the wider section of the canal is colonised by a large stand of reed mace providing a good habitat for water birds such as coot and mallard.
Further along the canal is Lodge Farm Reservoir, a flooded clay pit which was originally used to top up the water level in the canal. Water for this purpose is now drawn from elsewhere and the reservoir has become a centre for sailing and fishing - it is also a good spot for bird-watching. The maximum depth of the reservoir is 54 feet. Canalside cottage number 159 was built in the mid-19th century by the Birmingham Canal Navigation Company. It would have been occupied by a canal company employee, whose job it was to monitor the water level along this stretch of canal. This was a constant requirement when many would have used the eight Delph Locks further down the canal. In the garden of this cottage you can still see the pond and paddles that controlled the flow of water to and from the canal.
A short walk brings the visitor to Brewin's Tunnel. This was an earlier tunnel widened to form the present cutting in 1856-8 and this date can be seen inscribed on the key stone of the bridge above. Although officially called High Bridge, this is known as the Sounding Bridge because of the quality of echoes produced underneath. At 60ft high, it is one of the highest canal bridges in the Midlands and has been the site of a couple of suicide attempts. Thomas Brewin incidentally was a past superintendent of the canal. The cutting is a 'classic' site for geologists and is designated a SSSI [Site of Special Scientific Interest] because of the Carboniferous and Silurian strata exposed. Coal measures and an intrusion of dolerite can clearly be seen in the rocks.
Even those with only a vague interest in wildlife can enjoy Saltwells Nature Reserve which. in my view, is an essential place to visit. The reserve, which was once a mining and metal working area, has been reclaimed and contains woods, streams, springs, cliffs and marshes, all of which form the habitats to a wide variety of wildlife. Daphne Pool is one of the best places to spot dragonflies. Sixteen different species have been recorded here.
Arguably the most dramatic feature in the reserve is Doulton Clay Pit. Originally mined for coal, it became a site for clay extraction in 1870. The clay was used for fine china and heavy earthenware. The workings were abandoned near the end of World War 2 when water entered faster than pumps could clear it. The pit was once extremely deep but drowning of swimmers have caused it to be partly backfilled and today it is largely dry. The salt well which gave the area its name was formerly called Ladywood Spa, the waters of which were reputed to have healing qualities. Indeed, the water was sold commercially until the 1920s when the company who bottled it collapsed. Parts of their buildings remain. The oldest established part of the reserve is Saltwells Wood which was originally part of Pensnett Chase. The large trees are mainly Oak, Sycamore and Beech but over 50,000 other native hardwoods have been planted since 1981.
I put together a video of a cycle ride that we undertook some years ago in the early years of the new millenium. We had our mad boxer dog back then and she features in the footage. I have included a link to the video here as it features a number of views of Netherton. Below are a selection of photographs I have taken around Netherton over the years.
"Francis Norton, ironworker, of Netherton, was charged with being drunk and disorderly at Netherton, on the 12th inst. P.C. Hughes proved the
offence. Defendant stated that he had been a teetotaller for three weeks previous to this offence, but on going to the wake at Old Hill he was persuaded by his companions
to drink. He was very sorry for it. The Bench adjourned the case for three months to put the defendant on his good behaviour. Joseph Cook, hawker, of Netherton, was
summoned for being drunk and disorderly in High Street, Netherton, on the 13th inst. P.C. Clarke proved the case, and the defendant, against whom was recorded a previous
conviction, was fined 5s. and costs, or 14 days. William Jackson alias "Daisy" was summoned for being found drunk in Oakeywell Street. A long list of convictions
were recorded against him, but the last dated as far back as July last year. Defendant pleaded that he was affected with the bronchitis and was unable to follow up his
employment. He went about the town doing odd work, for which, sometimes, ale was given to him. The ale that made him drunk on that occasion was given to him for work he
had done. Defendant promised not to offend again and the case was adjourned for three months to put him on his good behaviour. Mary Clabby, an old offender, of the Belper,
was summoned for being drunk on the 9th of July last, in Wolverhampton Street, Dudley. This case had previously been heard and had been adjourned to put the defendant on
her good behaviour. The defendant, who had thirty convictions against her, was at the present time in gaol, and the Bench for this offence imposed a fine of 5s. and
costs; in default 14 days' imprisonment."
Dudley and District News : September 22nd 1883 Page 5