Skip to content


Made in the Black Country is a site for the Black Country Museums to tell stories and showcase objects from our industrial past. Check out our objects of the week, learn about something new like japanned ware or just browse our posts below. New articles will be added regularly, so keep checking back, or better still, subscribe to our RSS feed!

Charge of the Light Brigade remembered


John Ashley Kilvert was one of the few survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava on 25

Photograph of John Kilvert, 2004_389

Photograph of John Kilvert, 2004_389

October 1854.  Here is what he said about that day:

“I can never forget the 25th October 1854.

There were about 600 British, and about 30,000 Russians.  The question as to whether the famous orders to charge the Russian Army was a mistaken idea or not, is a debatable point.  I am inclined to think the responsibility rested with Captain Nolan, a daring officer, who revelled in war, and who thought the cavalry ought to have done more at Alma.

Nolan brought the order to Lord Lucan, who in turn conveyed it to Lord Cardigan.  The latter remonstrated against such an order, remarking, “there must be some mistake.  I shall never be able to bring a single man back”.

Obedience was the first law, and placing himself in front of us, he gave the order for the Light Brigade to advance, and we rushed on to what appeared to be certain death, Cardigan calling out, “Here goes the last of the Brudenells”.  Nolan was the first man killed.

I was the second in line, and as we careered down the valley shot and shell were flying about like hailstones, it was only the pace of the horses, that carried us through at all.  I don’t think if it had been a body of infantry, that a single man could have reached the bottom of the valley.

 As we advanced, there was a hot fire from the Russian batteries on either side, we survived and rode over the prostrate bodies of those who preceded us.  Horses were killed, others galloped about riderless and before long, order was abandoned and it was a desperate attempt to cut our way back through the best we could.  The Russian gunners were cut down and we started back to our lines, but I do not know what would have happened had not one of the Russian batteries been attacked and forced to retire.

The survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade, 2004_391

The survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade, 2004_391

Of 110 men the forming my regiment, only 25 returned and of 14 comrades sharing my tent, only one was spared besides myself.  As to my injuries, I was shot by a musket ball through my right leg and also received a slight cut on the head.  My horse was shot under me, but although frightfully injured, bore me back to safety.  All day long neither horses nor men tasted food or water. 

I lay in a ditch waiting to be removed on an ambulance and had practically given up hope of ever being attended to, as darkness was setting in and I was nearly frozen.  However, by-and-by, I heard an ambulance coming and, as the boys say, I hollowed with all my might and very thankful, I was picked up and taken aboard the steamer.”

On 18th May 1855, John Kilvert was awarded the Crimean Medal, presented to him on Horse Guards Parade by Queen Victoria.   After leaving the army in 1861, he set up a pawnbrokers shop in Wednesbury.  He went on to become mayor of the Borough in 1905.

You can see more images on our Flickr page


Cholera hits Bilston

Medal commemorating the opening of the Bilston Chlorea Orphan School, BIEPH140, 1833

Medal commemorating the opening of the Bilston Chlorea Orphan School, BIEPH140, 1833

Life in Britain’s towns and cities was not pleasant during the 19th century, and was a far cry from the living conditions that we have today.

The first cholera outbreak to affect the whole world started in 1817 in South East Asia.  It soon spread across the world and arrived in the Midlands town of Bilston in 1832.  Overcrowded living conditions, poor sanitation and unclean water meant the disease spread quickly through the town.  Within two months over 3500 people had been affected by the disease, 749 people, 1 in 20 of the population died, 37 in Temple Street alone, and 450 children were orphaned. 

Rev. W. Leigh, Vicar of Bilston in his ‘History of the Cholera’ wrote:

‘Manufactories are closed, and business completely at a stand…. the hearse carrying the dead to the grave without intermission.’

Sadly these deaths were avoidable; the cholera could have been treated by giving patients clean water and salt to drink, but ignorance and a limited supply of clean water took its toll.

This medal commemorates the opening on 3 August 1833 of an orphange to house those children in Bilston that were left without any family to look after them as a result of the epidemic.

Victorian childhood



The Sick Child

The Sick Child

Being a child in the 19th century was hazardous, particularly if you were born into a poor family.  Many young children were left unattended while their parents went out to work, while others as young as eight had to undertake dangerous jobs in factories and mines.

In the 1830s, two-thirds of families in Wolverhampton lived in houses with no sewers or drains. Babies were particularly vulnerable to the diseases caused by these conditions – of all children who died before the age of 18, over 40% died before their third birthday.

Those who survived these hazards were often in poor health. In 1843, Mr Horne examined a number of working class children for his report on ‘The Iron Trades and other manufacturers’ and concluded that “in stature they are stunted, nearly all of them, to a degree”.

He also found that the pressures of long working hours led mothers to placate their babies in harmful ways:

“There is a quack or patent medicine called Godfrey’s Cordial, of which great quantities are sold in Wolverhampton. It is a mixture of boiled treacle and water, with the addition of a certain portion of opium. Mothers purchase it for the purpose of keeping their children quiet, or of ‘sleeping them’, during the time the mother goes to work. Many children are killed by it. Some waste away to skeletons, and their sufferings are prolonged; others die more easily… …Since infants are continually left in charge of children of eight or nine year’s old, during the whole day, it is not too much to suppose that in many cases this child knows where to find ‘the Godfrey’.”


Only the wealthiest of Victorian families could afford a formal education for their children, either by hiring a governess or tutor or by sending their children to boarding school.

Some poorer children were lucky to attend schools run by the church or charities, but many more didn’t receive any schooling.  In 1861 only around 10 per cent of poorer children attended primary school, often for less than a year and rarely beyond the age of ten. 

In 1870, the Government passed an Education Act, which made elementary education compulsory for all.  Elected school boards were set up throughout the country in order to oversee local schools, to build and run new schools and pay the school fees for poorer children.  All children were taught to read and write, but boys also studied practical subjects such as woodwork and mathematics.  Classes of up to 80 were common and strict discipline was maintained.


In the 1840s most working class children over the age of eight worked full time. Children provided cheap labour and were often used to do the jobs that adults could not do, such as crawling underneath machines in factories or staying underground in mines to open and close the ventilation doors.  It was normal for children to work up to 13 hours a day.

Thomas Parker, who grew up to become a renowned inventor, described his childhood work in an iron foundry:

“In those days lads had to go to the foundry at half-past five in the morning to light the fires, and so prepare for the men. Sixty hours or more was the week’s work… If a boy did not quickly do what was ordered, he would often receive a kicking from his superior. I well remember working for a man at 5d. a day who would dig me in the ribs until they were black as coal, if my celerity did not keep pace with his requirements.”

The more fortunate children became apprentices in a trade such a japanning that would help them earn a decent wage for life.  Others were destined for a life of drudgery and poverty, unable to better themselves because they were so few opportunities for education.


Simple toys

Simple toys

Because they worked up to 13 hours a day, six days a week, working class children didn’t have much time for play. But on Sundays, their day off, after going to church and Sunday School, they would have had time to play with their friends.  Children in the same street would play together, sharing marbles and hoops or playing simple games like hopscotch and tag.  Ball games were also popular, and they would fashion balls out of old rags to play catch and make bats out of old pieces of wood. 

Poor families couldn’t afford the toys like rocking horses, dolls’ houses, tin soldiers or clockwork models that wealthy children played with, instead, their toys were homemade or simple objects like beads or tiny dolls bought from the penny bazaar.

In contrast, rich children would have special nurseries filled with toys. Their nanny or governess would ensure that they had plenty of time to play.  When wealthy boys were older and sent away to boarding school, their education would include games like rugby and cricket, while their sisters left at home might enjoy riding bicycles and playing tennis.

Sidney Cartwright

Portrait of Sydney Cartwright

Sydney Cartwright

Sidney Cartwright was a Wolverhampton business man who manufactured toys.  He was also an art collector and his art collection is now in the possession of Wolverhampton City Council.

Sidney Cartwright was a well-respected gentleman who was very involved with the community.  He was an alderman of the borough, a magistrate for Staffordshire, chairman of the Wolverhampton Branch of Justices and chairman of the Wolverhampton Bank.

He befriended many of the best artists and bought their best works.  His collection included works of art by Hardy, Landseer and Faed among others.

He died in 1883, aged 81, leaving his collection of paintings to his wife, Maria.  When she died in 1888, she left it to the borough of Wolverhampton as her husband would have wanted:

“I make the last preceding gift as a memorial to my late husband who during a long life accumulated all of the greater part of the said pictures and who was desirous that eventually the same be dedicated to some public purpose in a manner calculated to impart general pleasure.”

Many of these pictures are now on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Ruskin pottery ginger jar

Orange lustre glaze ginger jar

Ruskin orange lustre glaze ginger jar, 1922, 1997.83

Lustre glazed items like this ginger jar were first produced at the Ruskin factory in 1905. 

The lustre glaze is easy to recognise as it has an iridescent pearly sheen over the underlying glaze colour.   Howson Taylor described the lustre glaze as “delicate and brilliant colours made jewel-like by the medium through which they are seen”.   The glaze was used on thinner clay which has meant that not so many lustre glazed pieces have survived undamaged. The lustre glaze was popular with customers even though it was more expensive than the soufflé glaze.

Lustre glazes were widely produced in Europe during the late 19th century and Howson Taylor would certainly have taken inspiration from other factories producing this glaze.

From artisan to artist


Wolverhampton Art College, today a vibrant part of the city’s University, was established by a seemingly unlikely catalyst – the japanned ware trade.  From modest beginnings at Old Hall Wolverhampton from 1767, firms like Walton and Loveridge grew to be famous for their japanned ware, decorated in increasingly elaborate and artistic styles.

Early trays were often decorated in ‘Chinoiserie style’, in imitation of the original Chinese and Japanese imports. Bronzing, gold leaf and pearl shell decoration followed in succession, and in 1832 ‘natural’ flower painting, developed originally by the Birmingham firm of Jennens & Bettridge, became popular, placing increasing demands on the artistic skills of the workers.

The most famous of these, Joseph Booth, created a piece for the Prince Regent, and the emerging Wolverhampton art form was shown off at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

There was, however, threat from across the channel: japanned ware from French and German workers was also on display, and the standard of quality was high.  Manufacturers decided there and then that if Wolverhampton, and therefore England, was to stay competitive and keep its prized position at the top of the papier mâché podium, something would have to be done.

Print of Rembrandt's etching 'St Jerome Reading, in an Italian Landscape', ~1653, from the Reproductions of Prints in the British Museum, Third Series, Part VI: 'Specimens of Etching by Rembrandt, Livens and Bol, 1630-1680'

So began the Wolverhampton School of Art in 1854, with the intention of teaching drawing and design to the local craft workers of the future.  The idea was such a hit that it was extended into a national campaign to keep British craftsmanship at the forefront of world trade.

The British Museum responded by producing portfolios of Old Masters, prints and architectural designs from its collections and distributing them to art colleges springing up all over the country.  At a time when travel to London was impossible for many working people, this was a wonderful opportunity to see reproductions of the best art in the world, and many students benefited.

One of Wolverhampton Art School’s most famous students was Sir Charles Wheeler, born in Codsall and the first sculptor to be president of The Royal Academy.  The portfolios are now held by Wolverhampton Art Gallery.


Yvonne Jones, Georgian & Victorian Japanned Ware of the West Midlands (ISBN 0950432415)

Oxford DNB article: Wheeler, Sir Charles Thomas (accessed 03/12/2009)

It’s a man’s world

Snuff Box LP99

Decorated wooden rectangular snuff box with hinged lid and a coloured print of two figures in a punt boat near a pier, 1800-1825

If the head of a Victorian household wanted some time to himself, where did he go?

If he was comfortably-off, he might have gone to his study.  This is where he would settle his accounts, write his letters or just read a good book.  Usually, the study was his territory, often not a place where his wife or children would go uninvited: it was his private space.  If the children had misbehaved, he might tell them to wait for him in his study – not a welcome prospect!

In Victorian times it was unusual for married women to be involved in financial matters.  Their domain was the house, and for that they would receive an allowance from their husband, but were expected to keep household accounts for him to look at.  He would have looked after everything else, and the study was a place he could work without interruption.

Japanned Ware Spectacle Case LP186

Flip-top spectacles case with pewter decoration, edged with ivory and lined with velvet.

In the study there might be a large desk, on which he would keep writing equipment, some of which might have been made from japanned ware: perhaps a pen tray, a blotter (ink was very slow to dry then), a small stand for ink wells and a tray for candle snuffers.  There might also have been a note-paper holder, a letter rack, a pin tray, a snuff box or tobacco tin and a spectacle case all made from this amazing material.

Locked drawers would be the safe haven for cash and document boxes; both made of tin japanned ware for their fire resistance.

And when there was no business to attend to, by the fire place he might have a comfortable leather chair for reading, with a small table at the side for convenience.