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He was the author of the famous early description of the Black Country as "black by day and red by night", adding appreciatively that it "cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe".

Burritt used the term to refer to a wider area than its common modern usage, however, devoting the first third of the book to Birmingham, which he described as "the capital, manufacturing centre, and growth of the Black Country", and writing "plant, in imagination, one foot of your compass at the Town Hall in Birmingham, and with the other sweep a circle of twenty miles [30 km] radius, and you will have, 'the Black Country".

This definition includes West Bromwich and Oldbury, which had many deep pits, and Smethwick.

The thick coal that underlies Smethwick was not mined until the 1870s and Smethwick has retained more Victorian character than most West Midland areas.

Warley is also included, despite lacking industry and canals, as housing for industrial workers in Smethwick and Oldbury was built there.

Another geological definition, the seam outcrop definition, only includes areas where the coal seam is shallow making the soil black at the surface.

Jukes based his Black Country on the seat of the great iron manufacture, which for him was geographically determined by the ironstone tract of the coalfield rather than the thick seam, running from Wolverhampton to Bloxwich, to West Bromwich, to Stourbridge and back to Wolverhampton again.

A travelogue published in 1860 made the connection more explicit, calling the name "eminently descriptive, for blackness everywhere prevails; the ground is black, the atmosphere is black, and the underground is honeycombed by mining galleries stretching in utter blackness for many a league".

The geologist Joseph Jukes made it clear in 1858 that he felt the meaning of the term was self-explanatory to contemporary visitors, remarking that "It is commonly known in the neighbourhood as the 'Black Country', an epithet the appropriateness of which must be acknowledged by anyone who even passes through it on a railway".He also stated that the 'Black Country was twenty miles in length', which is also at odds with the 'restricted coalfield' version propsed by the Black Country Society.The phrase was used again, though as a description rather than a proper noun, by the Illustrated London News in an 1849 article on the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway.The Black Country Consortium (founded in 1999) and the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (founded in 2011) both define the Black Country as the four metropolitan boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton,).The borders of the Black Country can be defined by using the special cultural and industrial characteristics of the area.

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In published literature, the first reference dates from 1846 and occurs in the novel Colton Green: A Tale of the Black Country by the Reverend William Gresley, who was then a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral.