“The workshop of the world”: race and place in the twentieth-century West Midlands

On the map, the University of Birmingham appears at the heart of a huge, uniform urban area, home to almost 2.5 million people. But its history is far more diverse than this: from Coventry’s ancient Cathedral to Wolverhampton’s state-of-the-art industry, the West Midlands built on its industrial heritage to become the beating heart of Britain’s manufacturing economy in the wake of World War Two. As the region turned to face the world, so the world came to the region: post-war Birmingham became known as the “English capital of Jamaica,” and parts of the Black Country gained some of densest Indian and Pakistani populations outside of the sub-continent.

This panel explores the local and regional context of post-war immigration. The papers take moments when the West Midlands was in the public eye because of issues attributed to race, but use these as an opportunity to understand the everyday experiences of life in distinct localities. These are not stories of the big city: they are stories of the wider urban area and the small town, the local social spaces which are so often more relevant to life than an amorphous metropolitan area. They are stories too of representation and misrepresentation, of polemic and peacemaking, and of the ‘ordinary’ individuals and communities that make up the West Midlands.

Chair: Izzy Mohammed (University of Birmingham)

Paper 1 Abstract: “Ravening wolves after their prey”: investigating the place of Dudley’s 1962 ‘Race Riots’
Simon Briercliffe (University of Birmingham/Black Country Living Museum)

In 1962, Dudley – a medium-sized town sometimes referred to as the ‘capital of the Black Country’ – found itself in the national news. Fifty arrests were made over four nights during the town’s industrial holiday, as locals attacked the local black and Asian population – or, as The Times put it, groups of “rowdies” went “on the hunt for coloured persons.” Coming after better-known ‘race riots’ in Nottingham, Notting Hill and Middlesbrough, and against a backdrop of politicised racism nearby in Smethwick, Dudley might be interpreted as part of a growing trend of race-related, violent resistance to immigration in the UK. At a regional level, however, Dudley was part of a very uneven patchwork of immigration, and was certainly not the Black Country’s main draw for migrants into the West Midlands.

This paper is part of a larger research project conducted through the Black Country Living Museum, studying the Black Country as a whole during the two decades following World War Two. The region, originally famous for its coal mining and ironworking, was now prospering: the post-war export drive enabled the Black Country to thrive, and its foundries and forges were running at full capacity. New Commonwealth immigrants had begun to arrive in Dudley, but by this time numbered only around 1,000 in a town of nearly 70,000. By looking at industry, housing and society in the whole of the Black Country, this paper aims to put Dudley and its race riots in their proper place: to explain their local significance within the town of Dudley and their regional representativeness within the Black Country.

Paper 2 Abstract (c.300 words): Enoch Powell, Rivers of Blood and the Racialisation of Wolverhampton
Shirin Hirsch (University of Wolverhampton)

Powell’s so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968 catapulted Wolverhampton onto the national political landscape. Journalists and national politicians descended onto the Black Country town to report on what the national press described as the ‘odd case of Wolverhampton’. Meanwhile, in the weeks following the speech the area responded with a ‘rash’ of protest, counter protests, strikes, petitions, mass votes, and racist attacks. This paper explores this localised moment, drawing heavily on the controversial Wolverhampton newspaper, The Express and Star, alongside interviews with local actors, speech transcripts, and archival material. The paper investigates the relationship between Powell and Wolverhampton, and the ways in which Powell turned towards a particular imagining of the area through his summoning of the anonymous local constituent, the ‘decent ordinary fellow Englishman’. The talk examines Powell’s construction of an ordinary Whiteness, through the figure of the ‘little man’, and contextualises such a figure within a recent local history of industrialisation and immigration, in which Powell reflected, distorted and renegotiated race within Wolverhampton. The paper therefore allows for a more in-depth analysis of Powell’s spatial discourse, through his newfound articulation of ‘localism’ and its intersections with race, class and nation.

Paper 3: Here and Now: Regional Media and Alternative Representations of Race in 1980s Britain
Rachel Yemm (University of Lincoln)

By the 1980s, popular stereotypes of black Britons were well established in British national consciousness. These perceptions were strengthened further by local and national media responses to ‘race riots’, which took place throughout the decade, in some of Britain’s most deprived inner city areas. When rioting broke out in Handsworth in 1985, national and local media depicted young West Indians as violent criminals, whilst depicting Asians as innocent victims of the attacks. Throughout the decade, Central News, ITV’s regional news programme for the Midlands, targeted its content at a white audience, depicting black communities as incompatible with the British way of life.

This paper will explore representations of black communities on an alternative form of regional media, also produced by Central TV: Here and Now, a weekly 25 minute long ethnic minority arts and culture television magazine, broadcast to the Midlands throughout the 1980s. I will compare depictions of the 1985 riots, and of black communities more generally, on Central News and Here and Now, arguing that Here and Now offered Midlands viewers a contradicting and far more positive representation of its black communities. Thus, Here and Now is an important example of how alternative voices within regional media were able to push back against reporting that consistently cast ethnic minorities in a negative light. By examining local media depictions of race, this paper will develop the work of scholars such as Kieran Connell, Gavin Shaffer and Sarita Malik, who have examined representations of race in national media forms, but have overlooked the vital role of local reporting. In doing so we can gain a greater understanding of the uneven development of race relations across post-war British communities.