Dudley? It’s near Birmingham isn’t it?
For about a century, the capital of the Black Country has suffered the scars of living in the shadow of noisy neighbors up the road. The brash, new-rich town, where the people all speak in amusing accents and exhibit strange metropolitan manners. Where they can annoy for England to be an international city with the youngest population in Europe… zzzz.
Birmingham. I can barely bring myself to say his name.
If that wasn’t enough, Dudley’s smaller neighbor up the road was also granted city status to mark the millennium. Fair enough, Wolverhampton probably deserved it, even though it has a much smaller population than Dudley.
But what really irritates us Dudleians is that our city shaped national events when Brummagem was just a small two-horse town populated by straw-sucking peasants. Prior to its meteoric rise in the 19th and 20th centuries, Birmingham was the junior partner in this rivalry.
Dudley Council is this week submitting its bid to become the UK’s next town, as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee next year. This will be Dudley’s fourth time in contention, and hopes are high that Town’s time has finally come.
If successful, it won’t be before time. Indeed, you could say that Dudley has been a city in the making for 425 million years, given that it was the vast resources of Silurian limestone that transformed modern Dudley into an industrial powerhouse.
For hundreds of years, the epicenter of power in the West Midlands, the Barons of Dudley Castle ruled the region with a rod of iron.
From the Norman Conquest, through bloody battles for succession over the centuries, to the English Civil War – when fighting ceased to allow Mistress Beaumont’s funeral – the intrigues and shenanigans at Dudley Castle have shaped the country we live in today. .
And then in the 17th century, through the efforts of Baron Dudley’s steelworker son, Dud – and his great-grandnephew Abraham Darby – the town reinvented itself to become the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Dudley is believed to have been established in Anglo-Saxon times, when Dudda, the town’s founder, decided to settle in a ‘leah’, or clearing, and Duddan Leah was born.
But it was the arrival of the Normans and the acquisition of the town by Ansculf de Picquigny, loyal lieutenant of William the Conqueror, that really put Dudley on the map. He built a castle from which he would rule the West Midlands, completed around 1070, and over the next hundred years a bargain was established between St Thomas’ Church at the top of the town and St Edmund below. The layout has remained broadly the same to this day.
A later baron of the castle, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, decided that being master of the Midlands was not enough. Thus, in 1551, he became the de facto ruler of England during the regency of King Edward VI. But he probably went a bit too far when he installed his stepdaughter, Lady Jane Grey, as queen. Nine days into her reign, the Duke – and short-lived Queen – became the first to find out how ‘Bloody Mary’ would earn her nickname.
By the 1600s Dudley was already a major industrial centre, but Baron Dudley’s son Dud realized the area was being held back by a shortage of charcoal to fuel the kilns.
“Within ten miles of Dudley Castle there were 20,000 blacksmiths of all kinds, and many forges within this circle were decaying for lack of wood,” he wrote in 1665. But on leaving the Oxford University in 1618 to take over his father’s furnace. at Pensnett he devised a means of smelting iron ore using coke using Dudley’s vast limestone resources. After his death, his great-grandnephew Abraham Darby – born in the shadow of the vast limestone cliffs of Wren’s Nest – continued the work, transforming the way metals could be used. Around this time, Thomas Newcomen also built the world’s first atmospheric steam engine at Dudley, and between them these two men sparked the Industrial Revolution in which Britain – and the Black Country in particular – dominated the world. .
Of course, all of that is in the past, and now is the time to look to the future. Dudley was first selected as a candidate for town status by the Home Office during the Silver Jubilee in 1977, but the honor eventually went to Derby. It was a candidate in the first competition to create a new city in 1992, but lost to Sunderland and also made a bid during the Diamond Jubilee year in 2012.
It has to be said that the years that have passed since Dudley was first identified as a potential town have not been much of a stir.
The closure of the Round Oak Steelworks in 1982 and the collapse of the town center following the opening of the Merry Hill Center in 1985 were certainly low points for this famous old town. On the other hand, the success of the Black Country Museum, Dudley Canal Trust and Castle Gate Leisure Park shows that there are still plenty of people who want to visit Dudley if given a reason to do so. Dudley Zoo has also seen something of a renaissance over the past decade.
With a population of 313,000, Dudley would certainly be one of the largest towns in the UK. Steeped in history but struggling to find its place in the 21st century, Dudley is a town that needs to find its voice, just as it did in the 1600s when the seat of feudal power reinvented itself as a heart industrialist of Great Britain.
Hopefully official recognition as a city – a role it has surely played for hundreds of years – will give Dudley that voice. It will inspire people to look at the city with new eyes, raise the profile of what it has to offer and, most importantly, attract much needed investment.
And hopefully stop Londoners from calling us Brummies.
Prehistoric wonder. Norman fortress. Medieval village. Scene of some of the greatest power struggles for control of the monarchy. Crucible of the Gunpowder Plot, bloody battlefield of the English Civil War. Cradle of industry. And it’s also where the oldest condoms in the world are. You can’t say that Dudley’s claim to city status lacks variety.