I have a great affection for Darlaston, the town where I now live. I have watched with interest the changes that have taken place there during my life time. Changes which have been echoed in other small Black County Towns.
The centre of Darlaston was once filled with family owned shops and businesses. Many of the trades people lived above or near their premises.
People used to shop every day and they could be assured of bumping into friends, neighbours, or relatives, who would stop for a chat and a chance to exchange the local gossip.
Many of Darlaston's traditional industries were known all over the world, particularly for the manufacture of nuts/bolts, motor components, fabricated steelwork, and engineering products. In the forties and fifties the town's work places employed nearly 30,000 people, even though only 19,000 were residents. Statistics from these times show that 63% of the regular workforce lived outside the town's boundaries.
It was an amazing sight on work days around the Bull Stake. From 5.30 am hundreds flooded in. Some arriving for the early morning shift, some returning from night work. Shops would open at 5.00 am to cash in on the potential custom. These hectic scenes would be repeated in the rush hour as people hurried home for tea.
Generations of Darlaston families followed each other into employment with the same local firms. As a result whole families felt themselves to be a part of the company they worked for. Some employers provided after work facilities like sports grounds and social clubs. They also ran regular works outings, dances, and encouraged their workforce to join the firm's football, cricket , bowls, tennis and netball teams. Such things developed the workers' loyalty to the firm. It was quite common for people to work fifty years or more for one company.
Certain employers built homes for their workforce. This helped to make a special community atmosphere in the town. People worked together, lived together and socialised together. Bonds were strong.
Things have changed so much. The old ways of shopping have gone. The family run businesses have been replaced by supermarkets. Most people shop once a week now because they have fridges to keep food fresh and cars to carry their shopping in bulk.
When towns were redeveloped many well loved buildings were knocked down. The planners seemed to reject the idea of residential properties in town centres. This oversight left the streets deserted at night. Towns like Darlaston and Willenhall took on an almost ghostly atmosphere. Shop fronts were shuttered and became a target for vandalism.
In 1966 Darlaston had been forced to amalgamate with neighbouring Walsall. I personally feel that this contributed to the loss of the individuality of Darlaston and did much to destroy the feeling of belonging to a close knit community. Many other small towns were absorbed into larger local authorities too. Some people felt that they were being governed from afar.
It was during the mid-seventies and early eighties that the most dramatic change took place. This seemed due to several factors that occurred one after the other.
With the advent of a recession, new methods of automation and computerisation the traditional heavy industry went into decline.
The vehicle manufactures, like Morris, Sunbeam, Triumph, Riley, Austin, and Alvis, who had operated successfuly in the West Midlands began to utilise new methods of technology and standardised car design. This lead to companies amalgamating and cutting back on staff. For the smaller manufacturers, who produced and supplied old style component parts, this was disastrous.
Many of these Black Country companies could not, or would not, adapt to the changing commercial requirements and firm after firm simply went to the wall.
It is a tragedy to see the decaying sites which were once industrial enterprises of world renown. Sites like Rubery Owen, Charles Richards, GKN, Wellman Smith, FH LLoyds, and Martin Winn are now derelict.
My own opinion is that some of the massive changes have been tragic, but I concede that other developments have been very welcome.
I feel sad that the old communities have gone, but on the other hand I applaud the creation of a far healthier environment.
Anyone who encountered, first hand, the pollution, continual noise from industry, smog, slums, and poor working conditions in the Black Country of yesterday must surely agree that everyday life is much better for the modern generation.