Nineteenth-century visitors were quick to comment on the unique charms of the Black Country, a region west of Birmingham which was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
Dickens remarked in The Old Curiosity Shop that the factories “poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light and made foul the melancholy air” – presumably a generous two star review. American diplomat Elihu Burritt offered an international perspective on the furnace-lit landscape, reporting that all was “black by day, red by night”.
This stark palette and industrial legacy inspired the Black Country’s moniker and, more recently, its flag.
Adopted in 2008, the red, white and black tricolour is a clear statement of differentiation from a region that has always strived to separate itself from the sprawl of nearby Birmingham. Most noticeably, it features a chain. After all, it was here in the Black Country that the anchor chain for the ill-fated RMS Titanic was crafted, now wryly celebrated by locals as “the only bit that worked”.
However, for others the design has darker associations. Many of the chains struck in the Black Country found their way to slave traders and plantations across the Americas and the British Empire, raising questions over its suitability as a symbol.
Most recently, the debate was reignited by Eleanor Smith, MP for Wolverhampton South and the constituency’s first black representative, who suffered a backlash after calling for an “intelligent conversation” on the potentially “offensive” design.
It is a painful conflict for the Black Country, where the gradual decline of industry has had wide-ranging social consequences. The attempt to combat the sense of loss felt by a society rapidly moving away from its past has been underscored by the proliferation of heritage museums, such as the Black Country Living Museum.
More widely, the debate over the Black Country flag highlights the difficulty of forging an identity through historical allusion. As Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith lectures on history have shown, the past is a contested space which offers no definitive narrative. To avoid creating a version of historical events that is always ‘written by the victors’, it is important that we support and encourage engagement with different viewpoints.
There is no definitive position on the Black Country flag and its historical associations, but the conversation it has provoked is itself a healthy and important part of our modern identity.
Heather Curtis is an account executive at Camargue