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Black Country Elites: The Exercise of Authority in an Industrialized Area, 1830-1900.

By Richard H. Trainor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. xix plus 437pp. $72.00).

The "Black Country" (so-called because of the effect of the belching chimneys of the iron works in the early industrial revolution) refers to the cluster of towns immediately northwest of Birmingham. From this cluster the author has chosen to study in detail the people who ran the towns of West Bromwich, Dudley, and Bilston. Why choose this particularly grimy region of the storied West Midlands? Because most of the previous studies of Victorian urban elites have focused on either mercantile cities such as Bristol, Cardiff, and London, or on northern commercial and industrial towns such as "Brum" itself. Moreover, this study reflects the shift in emphasis for British social historians during the last twenty years, moving away from an exclusive preoccupation with the working class and ordinary people, to a realisation that the rich and powerful played a role in the creation of viable class relations. Or as Richard Trainor himself puts it, ". . . after years of focusing on change and conflict, scholars of modern British society have started to take a keen interest in continuity and cooperation." (p. 9) And that leads naturally to the principle thesis, or suggestion, of this book. In the Black Country energetic, flexible, conciliatory, and increasingly diverse and cohesive social elites improved working and social conditions thus promoting social harmony and taming early social unrest, helping "to transform this `frontier' into a viable and especially stable part of British society". (p. 375)

In this richly researched, detailed, and statistically documented investigation of Black Country elites Trainor considers such factors as the identity, aims, recruitment, background, internal cohesion, and the external interactions of local elites. But why were these particular elites so effective at wielding power, creasing civic unity, and avoiding social confrontation?The traditional argument would focus on the larger trends in Britain, especially the growth in real income, the expansion of the suffrage, the creation of a whole network of legislation and voluntary initiatives that tamed the working class. Yet Trainor argues all this had to be mediated through the local elites, and how all this came out in the end varied of the local elites have to be sought in the Black Country itself. And within the district the expansion of elites had taken concrete form in the Poor Law, works canteens, police forces, church accommodation, political associations, local government services, and philantropy, all of which gave the elites coercive power while enhancing the legitimacy of the social regime generally. In this give and take process, Black Country elites found that the suffrage and the organizations of working people did force them to make concessions on wages, the the enforcement of some ordinances, and the distribution of philanthropy, but as Trainor writes the "leaders remained overwhelmingly middle class and but mainly prosperous, and their policy adjustments so far had eroded the margins rather than the core of their expanding programs. The alternatives of margins lower-middle-class dominance, wide-ranging influence for working people, or social stalemate had all been avoided." (p. 336) people, or

What then are the wider implications of the Black Country for the study of Victorian elites? For Trainor the strength of this local industrial elite suggests the need to reexamine the influential view that Victorian Britain's social development was dominated by London and by land, the professions and finance. And by only "suggests" he means just that, because after a statistical tour de force his conclusion comes across as bland and equivocal, at least to this reviewer: "If it is no longer acceptable to see manufacturers and their localities as dominated, it is also untenable to return to the assumption that they swept all before them." (p. 384) Trainor's study of the Black Country elites provides no spear through the heart of the new orthodoxy of industrial marginality, but it does at least provoke a rehearing, and furthermore it indicates the robustness of detailed studies of local exercise of authority within the changing field of British social history.
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Author:Voeltz, Richard A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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