Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

New departure 

With England still under restrictions of various kinds, my mind goes back with something like nostalgia to a visit the Resident Wise Woman and I made to the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM), several months before Covid 19 struck. Britain has some magnificent open-air museums. Some are places like Avoncroft or the Weald and Downland Museum, where the primary aim is to relocate and preserve interesting old buildings that would almost certainly have been demolished; these are totally fascinating places that do wonderful work in both architectural and social history. At the other end of the scale are enormous sites like the Black Country Living Museum, at which costumed guides explain exhibits that range from rolling mills to Victorian sweetshops and you can buy fish and chips using Britain’s pre-1971 non-decimal currency. I have to say, before I went to the BCLM, I’d thought this was too gimmicky for me, but the guides are well informed, the food decent, and the work of architectural preservation very impressive indeed.§  

The BCLM contains several houses, all well cared for and beautifully displayed. Most of them are built of brick, but this one is different and without the museum’s excellent guidebook I’d not have known what it was. It’s actually a pair of semi-detached council houses, built in Dudley in 1925. It’s a reminder that, after World War I, people tried alternative ways of house-building because of a shortage of materials and skilled labour. This pair, one of only two pairs built, was an experiment with building using two-foot-square cast-iron panels, made in the Eclipse Foundry in Dudley and bolted together on-site.  

The house was impressive to anyone brought up on Victorian accommodation and its basic or absent plumbing – there were bathrooms with fitted baths and hot and cold running water for a start, although the kitchen had a traditional coal-burning range and the house was lit by gas.* But the main problem was not the mix of old- and new-style fittings. The problem for Dudley council was that the dwellings cost more to build than traditional houses, so this type of house was not produced in volume. 

So few people had the chance even to see this innovative dwelling (or to think of an ‘iron house’ as anything other than a corrugated iron house) until this one ended up in the museum. Something similar happened with the attempts at prefabricated house building after World War II. Postwar prefabs were built in large numbers, but most have now vanished and today you’re almost as likely to see one in a museum as anywhere else.† We’re still putting up houses using old technology today.  

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§ I should add that such performative and informative fare is also sometimes available at museums like Avoncroft, where I once saw nails made by hand, just as they were in the Victorian Midlands (John Ruskin memorably described nail-making in Fors Clavigera). But there such things are occasional extras, not part of the usual offering as they are at the BCLM. 

* When we visited, the interiors were not open because work was being done on the houses; a further reason to return to the Black Country Living Museum, one day. 

† I exaggerate slightly. There are still postwar prefabs about, but most have been adapted and reclad out of all recognition. There are some pristine ones, well looked after and listed, at Moseley, Birmingham.


Themissrayne said...

All the prefabs and Airey houses here have been reclassified in brick but there are two pairs of Swedish flat packs that still look as they were built - apart from the pvc windows of course.

Anonymous said...

also pre-fabs, mostly bungalows, which seem unaltered in Lincoln on the Outer Circle drive.

I like reading your blog. It brings forward the unusual 'gems.'

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

With the tendency to use as much metal as possible with some current building, the lessons learnt by Dudley with these houses should not be overlooked. We might also appreciate that they actually look like houses, and not "machines for living in", although designed for ordinary poor people, who generally get Hobson's Choice. In any case, if you expose ferrous materials to the elements (as with the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay) you have only yourself to blame when rust spoils your expensive newish structure. A nice waterproof coat won't last for ever.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Themissrayne: Thank you. Yes, much recladding all over the country. There are quite a few of those Swedish houses around, some in near-original condition (a couple near me too). The wooden walls last quite well if looked after.

Jan Marsh said...

Beamish in the north-east is surely the premier open-air/historic-working-buildings museum?