Five ways Black Country folk spent their leisure time

by Clare Weston, BCLM Researcher

As so many holiday plans have been disrupted by the recent pandemic, my thoughts have turned to how Black Country folk once spent their leisure time, reflecting on their opportunities to escape everyday working life and unwind in fresh surroundings.

1. Hop Picking Holidays

One of the most ‘popular’ holidays accessible to many working class families in the Black Country in the 19th and early 20th centuries was hop picking, in essence, a working holiday. The common hop is a flowering plant, used in beer making. Families packed up their ‘hopping boxes’ with essential provisions and headed out to the hop fields of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, for up to six weeks from late August. They travelled on foot, by cart and by train, with ‘hopper specials’ running on the train lines by the late 19th century.

Accommodation was basic, often farm sheds, which was shared with other families. A bucket lined with straw to muffle the sound was the night-time toilet facility, a far cry from the glamping trend of today. The working day was long, come rain or shine. One person looking back on those trips as a boy was nostalgic. He thought “there was nothing quite like a crisp morning in the hop yard, starting out for work at 7.00 a.m. walking sometimes nearly a mile loaded with kettle, teapot, water, bread and cheese sandwiches.” This did mean many children were absent from school for a period of time, as was often noted in the logbooks for St James’s School in Dudley.

Hop picking holidays continued into the 20th century, but the practice of picking by hand was dying out. As the process became mechanized, by the 1950s the number of Black Country people travelling to the hopyards was very much in decline.

2. Day Trips

Day trips within the local area provided a welcome escape from everyday life for many Black Country people. The women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in the early 20th century enjoyed excursions at Easter, as well as attending nearby horse races. For many living in the southern parts of the Black Country, Clent was a popular draw. In the late 19th century the Fountain Inn, at the foot of the hills, boasted a large room that could seat 200 people. In the same period The Coffee House in Kinver was advertising its picnic areas and pleasure gardens. The Kinver Light Railway carried many folk from Amblecote by tram to enjoy a day out.

Annual Sunday School outings were often eagerly looked forward to, organised by the local church or chapel. In Tipton, the Princes End Baptist Sunday School outing one year was a canal boat trip to Ashmore Park, Wednesfield. Children took part in the 100 yards, three-legged and sack races, with prizes handed out. This was followed by refreshing lemonade, a buttered roll and a piece of cake.

And it wasn’t just locals who enjoyed excursions within the locality. In August 1799 the Russian ambassador, Count Woronzow was visiting Matthew Boulton, industrialist and entrepreneur at Soho House, just outside of Birmingham. Boulton arranged a canal boat expedition to Dudley Caverns, stopping at Boulton & [James] Watt’s Soho Foundry in Smethwick, where steam engines were made. Boulton sent a boat ahead, with an orchestra on board, so the party could hear the music as they travelled along. En route the party were interested in the sites of coal mines and ironworks. When they reached the Dudley caverns 100 torches were lit, with “the band of Musick playing all the time”.

Further afield, Midland Red, who operated in the Black Country, were running coach and charabanc trips from 1921, to Weston-Super-Mare and Llandudno. A coach trip to see Blackpool Illuminations also became very popular.

3. Company Excursions

Work outings were another opportunity to escape everyday surroundings. In the early 20th century, Alfred Austin of the Eagle Foundry in Brierley Hill was busy preparing letters to send out to potential benefactors, seeking donations to assist with the funding of a staff outing.

On Whit Monday in 1917, the Coseley-based Cannon Ironworks’ Fire Brigade enjoyed a boat trip on the Walsall canal, up to Birchills, in a motor boat owned by the captain of the fire brigade, Mr Clayton. The boat was described as being “luxuriantly fitted out with every convenience, fit for a King”. The trip was blessed with good weather, as the boat “glided along without a hitch”. They stopped for dinner in a pretty wooded area, “which added greatly to the enjoyment of the meal”. On-board entertainment was provided by a gramophone, “as time itself seemed to glide as smoothly as the boat”.

The Summit Foundry, West Bromwich, organised a trip to Kenilworth and Leamington in 1893, to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of York and Princess Mary. The train left Spon Lane Station at 8.40am, with the morning spent exploring Kenilworth Castle. They then enjoyed lunch at the Porto Bello Hotel, Leamington, with a glass of ale or ginger beer included. This was followed by athletics at 3pm, featuring the long jump, a tug of war and the 100 yard race for married men, who specifically had to be over 40!  After tea and sports prizes, the day trippers took the 8.35pm train home.

In 1914 employees of Thomas William Lench of Blackheath headed further afield, to Portsmouth, for the day. It was an early start of 2.30am from Rowley Regis station, arriving in Portsmouth just before 7am. Suggested attractions included Southsea beach, Clarence esplanade and Nelson’s ‘Victory’. They departed at 9.40pm, with the company advising employees to “Be early. Don’t lean out of the windows. Get in the train before it starts and don’t get out until it stops.”

4. Strolling along the promenade

UK holidays began to be within the reach of more working class people during the 20th century. Coastal towns like Weston-Super-Mare and Brean understood the importance of Black Country tourists, selling Banks’s beer and the Express and Star. Travel was often by coach or by rail. In 1928 a Thomas Cook 7-day trip by train from Birmingham to Ilfracombe in North Devon started at £6, staying in a boarding house, an equivalent of 18 days’ work for a skilled tradesman or £246 today. 

The Aston family from Dudley always stayed at Brown’s caravan site in Rhyl in the 1950s, heading off when the factories traditionally shut for two weeks, in the last week of July and first week of August. They recall that one time the local station platform was “absolutely rammed” with holidaymakers, so the dad pushed the youngest son, Alan, through the train window to grab a compartment.

Seaside holidays really took off after a government act in the late 1930s granted every worker a week’s paid leave. This is when Butlin’s burst onto the holiday scene, opening the Skegness Holiday Camp at Easter 1936, followed by Clacton in 1938. Butlin’s offered the “jolly comradeship of a camping holiday plus all the amenities of a first-class hotel”. Olive Johnson from Dudley enjoyed visiting one of the Butlin’s holiday camps with her friend Betty in 1952, where they made friends with a couple on their honeymoon.

5. All at sea

Travelling abroad was originally restricted to the wealthy, such as aristocratic young men embarking on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, in the 18th century. By the 1880s, the Earl of Dudley’s son, William Humble Ward, was able to travel further afield, taking in the sights of Australia and South America.

The 1930s was the heyday for cruises. The Cunard –White Star Line launched the Queen Mary in May 1936, to sail between Southampton and New York. It featured 2 indoor swimming pools amongst other luxuries. In August of that year a girl living in Cradley received a postcard from a friend holidaying in the Isle of Wight, who described seeing the Queen Mary pass through Southampton. For the 1928 holiday season, the tour operator, Thomas Cook was offering a 27 day Orient Line steamer cruise from London to Naples, including stops at Rome, Florence and Venice, at a cost of £51 9 shillings and 6 pence. This roughly equates to £2,114 today, or the equivalent of 155 days’ work for a skilled tradesman in the 1920s. Such travels were, therefore, still out of reach for many people in the Black Country. So it’s lovely to find an early 1930s photograph of Thirza Gregory from Lawrence Lane, Old Hill, snappily dressed and leaning against the railings of a boat, with the island of Capri, off the coast of Italy, in the background.

For all these historic day trippers, holiday-makers and tourists, let’s hope they made happy memories and enjoyed glorious weather!

Images

  1. 1994-126-001 – a family from Old Hill hop picking, early 1930s, BCLM Archive
  2. 1997-028-3612 – “on the Clent Hills”, donkey riding at Clent, BCLM Archive
  3. 2004-381-001 – advertising material for Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Skegness, BCLM Archive
  4. 1992-162-002 – Thirza Gregory stands on deck of a ship near Capri, BCLM Archive