The changing landscape and economy of the west Midlands can also be traced through language. Some words are related to early farming methods, such as clod-hopper (Herefordshire), meaning a cart-man, and clod-hopping (Warwickshire), meaning to drive a plough. 

Traditional methods of threshing are often discussed in the west Midlands recordings. Threshing is the process by which grain is separated from the stalk of the wheat, oats or barley – traditionally by beating it with a flail or threshel. The fieldworkers found lots of different dialect words related to threshing. The short pieces of straw left behind after threshing were known as rissom in Staffordshire, cavings in Herefordshire, and rowings in Worcestershire. In Shropshire and Staffordshire, a flail was known as a swipple or a swopple, while thunk was a word recorded in Hartlebury (Worcestershire) for the leather part of a threshel – who’d have thunk it!

In this recording from Hoar Cross, Staffordshire, John Tunnicliffe describes traditional methods of threshing.

The threshing barn at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings helps to tell the story of farming from field to plate. The grain stalks in the fields were cut at harvest-time and loaded on to a wagon. They were then taken to the barn for threshing.

Avoncroft’s 16th century thatched cruck-framed threshing barn, originally from Herefordshire

Afterwards, the grain could be taken to the mill to be ground, while the straw was stored in the side bays of the barn for use as animal bedding.

Avoncroft’s windmill, originally from Warwickshire: the entire upper structure pivots on a huge central post so that the sails can be turned around to always face the wind.

The fieldworkers for the Survey also collected language relating to traditional practices such as perry and cider making, and the West Midlands was fertile ground for this mouth-watering pursuit. Perry is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting the juice from a small, bitter pear. Along with cider, perry is a speciality of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Worcestershire was known as the County of Pears and has its famous ‘black pears’ on its coat of arms. In this recording, retired farm labourer George from Clun in Shropshire talks about the process of cider making.

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'George from Clun talks about Cider-making'

At the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, you can see the heavy equipment originally used to make the drink at its perry mill, probably built between 1790 and 1810. One of the fieldworkers for the Survey drew a similar cider mill and cider press in his notebook based on the cider-making apparatus he saw on a visit to Lyonshall, Herefordshire.

The Jenny Ring at Avoncroft’s perry mill: - a donkey was yoked to the shaft which turned the stone in the trough to pulp the pears. The pulp was transferred into hessian sacks or ‘cheeses’ to be squeezed in the press to make perry.

The pear press at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings

Fieldworker’s drawing of a cider mill and cider press in Lyonshall, Herefordshire

Other words from the west Midlands reflect the new industries that have characterised the region’s landscape, for example its network of cuts (canals) used to transport heavy goods and building materials. Tacky bonk is a Black Country word for a slagheap or hill built on waste material from a nearby mine.

The craftsmanship of the Black Country’s nail and chain-makers was famous in the 19th century. Chains had many important uses including military, naval, fishing and railways. This chainshop at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings came from Cradley, near Dudley, and was producing hand forged chains until 1969. The interior is laid out with 14 hearths. Each would have had a pair of bellows and a foot operated heavy hammer, known as a tommy, for shaping the chain. Nail-making was a home-based industry; the nailer and all his family would work in a small nailshop next to their house.

Chainmakers’ Workshop at Avoncroft Museum

Mid-19th century Nailer’s cottage at Avoncroft Museum, originally from Bromsgrove

Just as the Survey of English Dialects fieldworkers were interviewing rural communities in the post-war period, the arrival of the tractor was revolutionising farming. In some of their conversations with the researchers from Leeds, west Midlanders lamented these changes. In this audio clip from 1955, Jack Jones from All Stretton in Shropshire discusses the mechanisation of farming and uses the local saying ‘you cannot talk to a tractor’.

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'Jack Jones from All Stretton in Shropshire discusses changes in farming'