Local Open Air Museums - A matter of choice

Iris and I decided it was time to visit the two open air museums at Ironbridge and Dudley. In this article I will try, with the help of Wikipedia and a few photographs, to describe both sites, then at the end give a personal viewpoint and preference.

The first visit was to Blists Hill Victorian Town an open-air museum built on a former industrial complex located in the Madeley area of Telford, Shropshire. The museum attempts to recreate the sights, sounds and smells of a Victorian Shropshire town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is one of ten museums operated by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

Blists Hill Victorian Town, originally called Blists Hill Open Air Museum, was opened in 1973, and has been slowly growing ever since.

Entrance to Blists Hill

The museum's buildings fall into one of three categories: buildings that were already part of the industrial site (e.g. the brickworks); buildings that simply represent a generic type (e.g. the sweet shop), some adaptively reusing existing premises on site or being replicas of those still standing elsewhere; and original buildings that have been relocated to the museum (e.g. The New Inn public house, which originally stood between Green Lane and Hospital Street in Walsall).

Each building is manned by one or more costumed demonstrators, who have been trained in the skills and history of the profession they re-enact. For example, in the printshop, visitors can watch posters and newssheets being printed.

The print shop

The demonstrators normally talk in the third person, referring to the Victorians as "they" or "them" (rather than in the first person "I" or "we" which some similar museums employ): the museum management believes that this allows greater scope for comparing modern techniques with those re-enacted at the museum. Staff may also be seen performing such diverse tasks as operating stationary steam engines, iron founding and mucking out pigs.

The first building visitors see in the museum is the bank (modelled on the still-standing Lloyds Bank branch in Broseley), at which they can change modern coinage into token coinage that represents the pre-decimal farthings, halfpennies, pennies, three penny bits and sixpences, at an exchange rate of 40 new pence to 1 old penny. They can then use the token coins as an alternative to modern currency for buying goods whilst visiting the museum.

The High Street area of the Upper Town has been developed around a London and North Western Railway interchange siding with a plateway which is an original feature of the site. Shops erected on the site include a chemist (with fittings from Bournemouth), butcher (from Ironbridge), grocer (replica of a building from Oakengates), and printer (with equipment from Kington, Herefordshire.

The chemists shop

A bootmaker (below), locksmith, decorative plasterer (with equipment from Burton upon Trent), builder, and sawmill.

Premises in Quarry Bank include a tallow candle manufactory (from Madeley), a bakery (from Dawley), a physician's surgery (in a Sutherland Estate cottage from Donnington), and a Board School (from Stirchley).

Tallow candle factory

Recent new developments have included the addition of 'Canal Street', which was a new build closely, modelled on extant and historic buildings in the Telford area.

Canal Street

This area includes a new Fish and Chip Shop, Drapers shop and Post Office, as well as an enlarged Sweet Shop. A walkway is located at the end of Canal Street, which leads visitors to the ruins of the brick and tile works. Adjacent to the ruins, and on select days, an operational replica of a steam locomotive designed and built by Richard Trevithick in 1802 runs on a short segment of 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge track. The original locomotive was the world's first steam locomotive on rails and was commissioned by the Coalbrookdale Company, which was located nearby (however, no record exists of this locomotive ever being successfully run). In 2015, the Trevithick Shed was built to house the locomotive when not in use.

One of the many working exhibits

(Above) Old brickworks (below) the Squatters Cottage


The front room in the Toll House and below a working self-propelled example of a funicular railway

Next, and not on the same day I hasten to add, we visited the Black Country Living Museum, rebuilt historic buildings in Dudley, West Midlands. It is located in the centre of the Black Country, 10 miles west of Birmingham. The museum occupies 105,000 square metres (26 acres) of former industrial land partly reclaimed from a former railway goods yard, disused lime kilns, canal arm and former coal pits.

The museum opened to the public in 1978, and has since added over 50 shops, houses and other industrial buildings from around the Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall and the City of Wolverhampton (collectively known as the Black Country); mainly in a specially built village. Most buildings were relocated from their original sites to form a base from where demonstrators portray life spanning 300 years of history, with a focus on 1850-1950. The museum is constantly improving as new exhibits, especially buildings, are being added.

The museum is close to the site where Dud Dudley first mastered the technique of smelting iron with coal instead of wood charcoal and making iron enough for industrial use. Having a claim to be "the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution", the Black Country is famous for its wide range of midsteel-based products from nails to the anchor and anchor chain for the Titanic.

The site's coal mining heritage is shown by an underground drift and colliery surface buildings. The museum has a working replica of a Newcomen atmospheric engine. Thomas Newcomen's invention was first successfully put to use in Tipton in 1712. The museum's reconstruction was based on a print engraved by Thomas Barney, filemaker of Wolverhampton, in 1719.

The boiler which will soon be replaced

Electric trams and trolleybuses transport visitors from the entrance to the village where thirty domestic and industrial buildings have been relocated close to the canal basin. The museum is one of three in the UK with working trolleybuses. The route to the village passes the Cast Iron Houses and a 1930s fairground. A narrowboat operated by Dudley Canal Trust makes trips on the Dudley.

On 16 February 2012, the museum's collection was awarded designated status by Arts Council England (ACE), a mark of distinction celebrating its unique national and international importance.

The museum is run by the Black Country Living Museum Trust, a registered charity under English law.

One of the many transport exhibits

On the low ground at the northern end of the site, houses, shops, workshops and public buildings have been dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick to create an early 20th-century village. Activities in the buildings are demonstrated by staff in period costume. The village preserves a cross section of social and industrial history.

The village shops include Gregory's General Store, Emile Doo's chemist shop, a sweet shop and cake shop with a bakery at the back. There is hardware and ironmongers from Pipers Row in Wolverhampton. and a pawnbroker's shop that was relocated to the museum in 1991.

Brook Street back-to-back houses, built in the 1850s, were relocated from Woodsetton and were the homes of colliers, farm workers and ironworkers. The anchor maker's house from Lawrence Lane in Old Hill was the first to be relocated to the museum and is an example of late-Victorian housing.

Public buildings include Providence Chapel from Darby End/Hand near Netherton, one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, and the Bottle and Glass Inn a working public house set out as it would have been in 1910.

The village post-box stood on the corner of Baker Street and Blandford Street, London in 1865. It was and designed by architect J W Penfold and made by Cochrane, Grove and Company.

The Carter's Yard from Ogley Hay Road Burntwood, Cannock was built around 1900. It was dismantled and brought to the museum in the 1990s.

Old Birmingham Road links St James's School] with the Cradley Heath Workers' Institute. Here buildings have been set in the 1930s to tell the story of the years leading up to the Second World War.

Museum staff in St James's School demonstrate lessons and school life from the turn of the 20th century. The school building opened in Eve Hill, Dudley in 1842 for pupils aged 5–11. It was decided to transfer the building to the museum in 1989 and relocation was completed by October 1990, with the exhibit opening the following year.

Hobbs & Sons] fish and chip shop and H Morrall's gentlemen's outfitters (below) have been returned to 1935 condition. The shops come from Hall Street, Dudley and date from the late-18th century and refaced with bright red pressed brickwork in 1889.

The tiled interior of Hobbs features restored hand-painted tiled wall panels. The frying range is of a design patented in 1932 made by E.W. Proctor of Huddersfield. In the 1930s many of Joseph Hobbs's customers worked in factories or shops.

Four buildings were rescued from Birmingham Street, Oldbury and date to about 1860. The block is dominated by the green painted fascia of Humphrey Brothers, builders' merchants, who occupied the premises from 1921. It has a replica shop front from about 1932.

Humphreys sold fireplaces, sanitary ware and building supplies including Walpamur, a flat paint used for internal walls.

The motorcycle shop is based on the business of A. Hartill & Son which was located in Mount Pleasant, Bilston.

The window displays of locally made six motor bikes from 1929–34. Next door is Alfred Preedy & Sons tobacconist shop established in Dudley in 1868. James Gripton's radio shop is from the 1920s and this reconstruction, set in 1939, contains 'new' and second radios.

The brick tunnel and cart entrance provide access to a late 1930s kitchen with an electric cooker made by Revo of Tipton. There is a radio workshop behind Gripton's and then the stairs lead to two first floor living rooms and two bedrooms which are all set in the late 1930s and furnished with original 1930s style furniture and wall paper.

The Cradley Heath Workers' Institute was built with surplus funds raised in 1910 during the strike for a minimum wage by women chain makers. The Arts and Crafts style building was designed by architect, Albert Thomas Butler, and opened on 10 June 1912. It became a centre for educational meetings, social gatherings and trade union activities in Cradley Heath. Re-erected at the museum it is a monument to Mary Macarthur and her campaign to establish a national minimum wage in the "sweated trades" where people worked long hours for poverty wages typically in appalling conditions. The building contains reconstructed offices, a news room with a digital interpretation of the background to the strike and a large hall which is used for a wide range of activities including theatre performances and concerts.

A scene used in the TV programme “Peaky Blinders”

The 1930s fairground located behind the school represents a travelling fairground that would have brought entertainment to people in the early 1900s. Such fairs set up on waste ground and for a few days provided thrills, entertainment and a change for those who might never go on holiday. The collection of historic rides includes a helter skelter and the Ark, the latest thing in high-speed rides when introduced in the 1920s. It was updated over the years but not converted into a waltzer. It remains one of the few "fourlift" Arks in the country.

Work began on the boat dock in 1976 and the museum aimed to recreate a typical dock that would have been found on the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN). Docks like the one at the museum would have been formed from recycled wooden boats. They were used to build wooden boats or maintain iron and composite boats.

Rides can be booked in the tunnel through the historic limestone mines and caverns on a boat operated by the Dudley Canal Trust.

View of the main street at the village with the Bottle and Glass public house at the end of the street

To summarise, there isn’t much to choose between both sites. They are both authentic and take the visitor back in time to an era which, if the truth be known, most of us wouldn’t swap for the comforts and luxuries we experience today. Both museums give an insight into life as it was and for some visitors, they help to rekindle memories and evoke thoughts of their childhood. For the younger generation the museums create an image they probably cannot comprehend or believe. However, both sites are worth a visit and with the ticket being valid for a year give good value for money. Be prepared for a lot of walking and at Blists, quite hilly in parts. Overall my preference would be the local one at Dudley in the heart of The Black Country.

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