West Bromwich may be perceived an in-between place. In between the city of Birmingham and the city of Wolverhampton; in between Manchester and London, on the west coast main train line. It is the principal town of the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell, an area of 33 square miles (8600 hectares) with a population of over 300,000 in the census of 2011. In these terms, it’s similar to Belfast or Bradford. It sits on the north western side of the West Midlands conurbation, surrounded by Birmingham, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. In 1986, three young lads – all interested in learning photography – came to Jubilee with a project idea. The High Street was once said to be the longest high street in the country and called affectionately ‘The Golden Mile’ such was the hustle and bustle of commerce. Peter Singh, John Gayle and Michael Richards decided they would like to document the high street as it was today…
West Bromwich (Dartmouth; Great Western – 1901), a busy iron-manufacturing town, with 65,172 inhabitants, possesses a large park, commanding a beautiful view. Swan Village, with large Gas Works, built at a cost of £120,000, which supply many towns within a radius of 10 miles.
– Baedecker’s Great Britain: Handbook for Travellers, 1910
West Bromwich, West Midlands: The name Bromwich means ‘broom village’, and where the town stands was once a broom-covered heathland. Coal-mining began in the late 18th c. and led to industrialisation, and today West Bromwich pulsates with heavy engineering.
– The Book of British Towns, 1982
This street has since suffered many abuses, sliced through in several places, so its length is no longer apparent. In 1960, the ‘West Bromwich Today’ Masterplan proposed significant interventions. The then Town Planning Committee proposed a new town centre that would expand beyond the existing pattern in the High Street. The plan stated that: ‘the whole area as been carefully planned with a view to the complete segregation of road traffic’. It estimated it would take 50 years to realise the plan and many aspects fell by the wayside.
This is what did happen. An inner ring road was created, enclosing a newly built shopping area, which was to be pedestrianised (only partially completed by 1986) and accessed by subways, multi-storey car parks and a new bus terminal opposite a police station. Two small indoor shopping malls were created, The Kings and The Queens. A new four lane expressway from Junction One of the M5 was built bypassing the town; this also severed any proper link with Dartmouth Park. A spur from this road broke the line of Beeches Road in two – this road was once one of the more desirable and well to do residential areas, nearest to the park. The southern end of the High Street is mostly occupied by small Caribbean and Asian grocery stores, takeaways, a Sikh Temple, sari shops and clothing factories. Look closely and you might spot an old coaching milestone, set into a wall and whitewashed, which simply states: 113 MILES TO LONDON. (It’s right next to the Fox and Dogs pub.) At this end of the High Street you would also find one of the buildings occupied by Jubilee Arts; after the days of coaches and horses, it was variously a newspaper office, a massage parlour, a sewing workshop, a car show room.
Peter Singh takes up the story from 1986: “Michael and John have lived in West Bromwich all their lives. I live in Dudley but I spend my time in Smethwick (where Jubilee had a community darkroom with the Community Association of West Smethwick). In a way it was a good idea to bring somebody in from the outside to work on the project to bring a different view from John and Michael. We all met at Jubilee in September 1986 and every week after that we came together and wrote down what we wanted to do. At first it sounded like a big task to do, but gradually as we got towards Christmas it was getting exciting in terms of covering things in West Bromwich that no-one else had done before.
We sent off an application to West Midlands Arts for a grant to do the project and during that time we decided it would be a good idea to go round and introduce ourselves to people. We started out at Lodge Road Junior School where they were doing their Christmas plays, and talked to children about Christmas in West Bromwich. Also at this time we brought in a well-known black photographer, Vanley Burke, to come in for a number of workshops to advise us, and show us where we were going wrong, as well as helping us plan. In January 1987 we received the grant and made a four month plan with the places, shops and various other areas and people we wanted to interview about the changes in life in West Bromwich. We found a lot of people were helpful to us and giving us names of people that sounded interesting to us. Artists from Jubilee helped us with editorial and production and promotion.”
When one works in a place like West Bromwich, one may be appalled at the mental resistance to all forms of culture. One may be shocked by its crudity and bluntness. Yet living away from a place like West Bromwich one realises something is missing. It is the lack of cant and hyprocrisy that characterises the people of places like West Bromwich and which is such a credit to them. Was it not in the Black Country in the 1945 General Election that a group of women workers in defiance of all orders, chalked on a board outside the small works where they had been engaged on war work, ‘Gaffer’s A Tory. We bain’t.’?
– from R.D. Woodhall, West Bromwich Yesterdays, 1959
Different ways of spelling West Bromwich.
West Bramwick, Brammidge
The group created their documentary record of local life which was then installed in an empty building of the high street (prior to its refurbishment) and opened by Peter Snape, M.P. A laminated version of the photographs and texts was then made and toured to libraries and schools. A copy of this exhibition is preserved in the archives at Sandwell History and Community Archives service. providing a record of changes in the high street.
“A typical day for me would be to come in around 9am, pick up any correspondence from the Town Clerk’s department that is for me, dictate a few letters. Then there is invariably a few people who want to come in, such as yourselves, and talk to me about what is happening in Sandwell. So I get a fair sprinkling of people coming in that would take me anything up to 2 pm. Then, probably an afternoon meeting, because I do attend meetings of the council and I can sometimes spend a day from 9 am to 9 pm at night before my day is finished. We’ve got relationships with the business people foremost in our minds because of trying to create employment.”
– from project interview with Geoff Hadley, Town Clerk, who had an office in West Bromwich Town Hall on the High Street, along with the Leader of the Council, Labour Councillor Joe Adams (both pictured with Geoff on the right). Sandwell was one of the last local authorities in the country to retain the old Town Clerk position rather than a Chief Executive.
Watch “The Golden Mile”: An audio-visual piece by Brendan Jackson and Urban Monk, exploring West Bromwich High Street (2023), responding to archive materials. Voiced by Billy Spakemon and Steve Trow. (Best listened to with headphones.)