The Scots' Society of St Andrew, Bedford

Promoting Scottish culture, customs and traditions in and around Bedford

Event Report

Summer Outing - Black Country Living Museum


This year the Society Summer Members Outing was to the Black Country Living Museum. On a dull morning we set off from Aspects Car Park in Bedford and made our way (27 members and guests) to Dudley with Dave our Coach Driver from Saffords Coaches. After brief stop on the way, we arrived at the museum as the clouds were beginning to clear late morning and we dispersed for what was to be an informative and enjoyable day at one of the finest and largest open-air museums in the United Kingdom.


On the day of our visit, the tramways were not operating but, having passed through the Gift Shop to enter the main museum, two vintage buses provided opportunities for those who wished to be conveyed around the 40 acres site.  Immediately, period dwellings were visible, beside the tram depot and a vintage car collection. A short walk down the gentle hill towards the main part of the museum we passed the mine, part of the original coal mining in the area, and for a number of members and guests, an opportunity to experience the pitch black working conditions and at times the perilously low ceilings which man, boy and children as young as 8 would work in for 12 hours a day. 

As we moved further into the museum, we encountered the Fairground, as much a part of Black Country life as rolling mills, mines and trams. The collection of rides and amusements at the Museum accurately portray the Black Country travelling fairs of the first decades of the last century.  Just past the fairground was Broome's Garage,  an exact copy of one found in Wolverhampton in 1930. 

Moving on round the museum St James's School provided a flashback to schooling in the early 20th Century, with authentic bench desk, inkwells and slates to do lessons on. As we moved along the street Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop was a welcome sight for a bit of lunch, quality and portion-size reminiscent of 40 - 50 years ago (easily enough to feed two people!). A number of shops and builders merchants filled the rest of the street culminating in the Workers’ Institute (& Café), originally from Cradley Heath, stands as a landmark to one of the most significant yet hidden achievements of British labour history.  The interior of the Workers' Institute is set in 1935 and the ground floor houses the union offices along with the auditorium where trade union meetings would have taken place in the 1930s.  Upstairs is a memorial exhibition to Mary Macarthur – one of Britain’s greatest union leaders – marking the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chain makers’ strike. Adjacent was Folkes’s Park is a typical 1930’s public park. Complete with authentic planting schemes, rose bushes, mature trees and formal beds.

Crossing the Canal Street Bridge we were transformed into post World War II middle England, with traditional shops and houses mixed with an authentic Limelight cinema.  The sweet shop, bakers, haberdashery, butchers, and ironmongers transported us back to an age before Supermarkets and shopping centres.


image002Cobbled Stone Street, a traditional cobbled street where you could enjoy street games and visit the stables of the resident shire horses that live at the museum, next to the Bottle and Glass Inn, serving hearty food and cream teas. This lead to the dominant part of the museum with the Nail Making workshop, Brass Foundry, Chain Making and Blacksmiths Shop, with live demonstrations.  Beyond the Blacksmiths was the Rolling Mill and the Boat dock  The thousands of boats that used to work the Black Country canals all needed constant maintenance.

In the Black Country there were many working boat yards, or docks, like this one, where boats were built and repaired. They were busy, cluttered places not unlike a modern scrap yard as it was common practice to break wooden boats, salvaging the ironwork.

Castlefields boat dock is typical of the many on the Black Country canal system of the period and is equipped to build new working craft and to repair those of iron or composite construction. The dock can accommodate three boats, drawn sideways out of the water by winches onto the slip.

Nothing on the boat dock was wasted and most of these buildings are made from reclaimed boat timbers.  The two wheeled ‘rolling sheds’ were moved up and down the length of the boatyard on rails to provide shelter and allow work to continue in all weathers.

The lifting bridge between the Ironworks and the Boat dock was built across the railway transhipment basin at Lloyds Proving House near Factory Junction at Tipton. Huge weights hanging on chains over the four pulleys balance the weight of the roadway and the deck can be raised and lowered by operating a small hand winch.

Behind the stables and inn was Electric narrow boats, operated by the Dudley Canal Trust to take us into spectacular limestone caverns under Castle Hill. Canals were the lifeline of Black Country industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here the canal boats show how cargoes would have been carried to and from ironworks in the area. The canal tunnels under the limestone hills in the area are some of the longest in the country.


On the way back from the canal boat trips, we passed the large set of kilns overlooking the village.  Built in 1842 and in use until about 1926, burning limestone excavated from nearby Castle Hill and Wren’s Nest. Twenty-eight feet high chimneys topped the shafts of the kilns and belched out smoke and fumes continuously.

As the visit to the museum was drawing to an end and on the way back to collect a few mementoes of the day from the gift shop, we passed an impressive building.  In 1712 Thomas Newcomen built the first successful steam engine in the world which was used for pumping water from coal mines on Lord Dudley's estates.  In 1986, after more than ten years of painstaking research, the Museum completed the construction of a full scale working replica of that 1712 engine.  Not working on the day of our visit, but we could walk down various flights of stairs to see exactly how the pump operated and the sheer size of the machine.

 After a most enjoyable day, with the sun beginning to disappear we headed home by coach and bid our farewells in Aspects Car Park; another thoroughly enjoyable and educational summer outing over.

John Thompson [Treasurer]