Those were the Days

St Matthew's parish church, Walsall, a church with Norman origins.  Victorian tombstones are interleaved with Myosotis....... ****FORGET ME NOT***

St Matthew’s, Walsall, a parish church with Norman origins. In April its Victorian tombstones are interleaved with Myosotis, or “Forget Me Not”

8, Church Street, Walsall:

Sunday 7th April 1861.

Name: Thos. Day

Age: 19

Occupation: Baker

Where born: Boston, Lincolnshire

Church Street, Walsall, its course and proportions enduring, but the dwellings and taverns that once crowded its margins - long gone.

Church Street, Walsall, its course and proportions enduring, but the dwellings and taverns that once crowded its margins – long gone.

My mother’s great grandfather, Thomas Watson Day, was not yet out of his teens. He had left behind all that was familiar to him:  the flat, fertile Fenlands, with low milky ribbons of mist afloat on the peaty fields that his father had farmed, and had made his way alone to lodge in the steep, teeming streets which fell away from the limestone escarpment on which Walsall’s Parish Church of St Matthews had first been sited at least seven hundred years before.

As the April light pushed optimistically through dirty air in this increasingly industrial town, and illuminated what gritty corners it was able to between the close met walls of the houses and courts, the census enumerator worked his way methodically along  Peal Street and up Church Hill.  Reaching the south west corner of the churchyard of St Matthew’s, he followed Church Street as it swept back down the incline to Peal Street, and collected – for later transcription into his ledger – the  individual schedules of the 1861 census that had been completed  – if their level of literacy allowed – by buckle filers, brass polishers, and chain makers. And there are bridle stitchers and saddle stitchers noted, too –  all typifying the many specialised skills needed to produce the leather and lorinery goods for which the town of Walsall was already, in the mid 19th century, internationally famous.

The ancillary services of candlemakers, shopkeepers – and bakers, like Thomas – supported their activities. Some of the unmarried workforce – many in their teens or 20s – boarded in official or unofficial Lodging Houses. Thomas Watson Day rents space in number 8, Church Street, from Edward Jones, aged 24, a carter, and his 20 year old wife Emma.  Lucy Bigmore, a buckle stitcher, who is 21, also lodges there, as does Hannah Robinson, an 18 year old girl employed as a house servant. I can’t help thinking how the age and relationship profile of this household resembles the cast of “Friends,” and that there might have been moments of fun and laughter; of romance, and mutual support between the young people.   I picture them retiring for the night in small dark rooms, further subdivided in the name of decency and modesty with curtains that are strung across them.  There is just a wooden peg or two on which Thomas can hang clothing, and a shelf, perhaps, above his bed.

Unlike Thomas, most inhabitants of the area have been born in the immediate vicinity of Walsall, although a strong contingent of Irish labourers is apparent in the neighbourhood, foreshadowing the marriage alliances that Thomas’s son and grand-daughter will make in Walsall in the decades to come. There are Public Houses, too, and how tiny their stuffy drinking rooms must be.  It is difficult to imagine how so many buildings fitted together on the margins of these old streets. Now prettily fringed by trees instead of squint-eyed houses, the curving  course and narrow extent of Church Street is still apparent if you plod up it today.  At some points neighbours would have been able to reach from one attic window to another above its cobbles, like Kay and Gerda in “The Snow Queen.”

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St Matthew’s church and environs from the 1901 Ordnance Survey map, following partial slum clearance, that would be completed only after the Second World War

 

Thomas Watson Day’s distinctive name would later be bequeathed to two generations of his descendants in Walsall.

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The parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Algarkirk, Lincolnshire. “The little cathedral of the Fens.” The names of members of the Day family pepper its registers, and its gravestones.

Elizabeth Watson and George Day were married on the 25th February 1836 in the in the magnificent, cathedral-like church of St Peter and St Paul in Algarkirk, near Boston, Lincolnshire.  The 1840s saw them prospering on their farm on Algarkirk Fen, if the several farm servants they employed are anything to go by. They were beginning to raise a respectable home-grown workforce –  including their son Thomas Watson Day – when in 1849,  George died, and life changed for Elizabeth.  The 1851 census describes what must have been a miserable come-down.  She is a “Pauper, farmer’s widow”.  She and her fatherless brood of six  are crowded in with her elderly father in Swineshead, with him damningly categorised as “Pauper, former pig jobber” [pig dealer].  The family, with no means of support, were evidently not encouraged to remain in Algarkirk, as a burden on that parish, or indeed on the wider Day clan. The youngest child, Abraham, subsequently went to live with another of his mother’s Watson relatives.  As much Watson as Day, my great great grandfather made the choice to head for Staffordshire, but his motivation for choosing Walsall must remain a mystery.

The turn of the year in 1867 saw Thomas married to a Miss Mary Ann Round.  She had in common with her bridegroom the loss of her father whilst still an infant. But, in the employment-rich, skill hungry, mid 19th century Black Country, as it grew into the “Workshop of the World,” the loss of a male breadwinner was not necessarily as devastating as it was for poor Elizabeth Watson Day: Mary Ann Round’s family confers the welcome genetic inheritance of some sturdy Walsall wenches upon me. The head of her household as she grew up in Birchills Street was her grandmother Phoebe. Phoebe was a widow of 75 years of age, in 1861, and must have continued to retain formidable skill and vigour: she is still described “a Lockmaker.”

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Hill Street, Walsall – or what’s left of it. Surely this is the original road surface. Why does it mean so much to me to tread where the segs on my ancestors’ boots once rang out on the cobbles?

On the eastern slope of Walsall’s Church Hill, Hill Street descends to Ablewell Street.  Marked out like the thoroughfares of a Roman habitation after a careful archaeological excavation, the former “residential” road is flanked by lawn and trees these days and provides a small garden-like oasis in central Walsall.

 

 

 

Here, the 1871 census captures a picture of Thomas Watson Day and Mary Ann in their 20s, him now a “furnaceman” My mother’s dear grandad – also “Thomas Watson Day”, and the second of their children, George, are already at Mary Ann’s knee, and they live in one of many a “court” – or “back-to-back” house on Hill Street.

Thomas is a “Walsall mon” now.

 

Gorton's Yard, Church Hill, Walsall, c. 1900. Reproduced in "For want of due regulations: Public Health and Housing in Walsall, 1800-1914".

Gorton’s Yard, Church Hill, Walsall, c. 1900. Reproduced from “For want of due regulations: Public Health and Housing in Walsall, 1800-1914″.

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The tiny parlour

 

100_8025My dad told me that when he was at work pegging out building plots for the new estates that were springing up north of Birmingham in the post-war years, he would marvel at how inconveniently small the allotted spaces for sitting room, dining room, and kitchen appeared to be on the barren site. As the level strings edged upwards, closely followed by courses of bricks, the rooms would proceed to settle themselves in his visual perception as of perfectly adequate proportions for happy families to conduct life in during the following decades.

And so, pondering this small area of open grass and trees at the junction of Green Lane and Old Birchills, my mother can’t quite believe that when she trod this ground during her childhood, there were scores of miniature dwellings converging just here around the yards behind Forge Street and Little Street, with nearly as many more facing them across the narrow cobbled thoroughfares, all in the shadow of the still-thriving foundries – but not, by that time, the furnaces –  for which “The” Birchills, just north-east of Walsall, was widely famous. My grandmother’s sisters both married into Birchills families, families of foundry workers, furnacemen, and boatmen.

Green Lane, the Wheway & Son Ltd Birchills Hame & Chain Works and environs, Birchills, 1946.  Forge Street can be seen  running in a short diagonal near the centre top of the photograph.

Green Lane, the Wheway & Son Ltd Birchills Hame & Chain Works and environs, Birchills, 1946. Forge Street – where my great-aunt Maud lived at this time, can be seen running in a short diagonal near the centre top of the photograph.

 

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From the 1902 Ordnance Survey Map, Forge Street and Little Street in Birchills. My great-aunt, Maud Ford, nee Day, lived in one of the middle group of houses on the east side of Forge Street. The building housing shared privies and brewhouse is in the communal yard.

In those days, Mother would be stepping from Forge Street into the tiny parlour of her Aunt Maud’s house, after a short walk from St Patrick’s in Blue Lane East, or from home in  Bentley.  Until its demolition in the 1950s, the little dwelling had no running water supply, and possessed only one other downstairs room in which Maud and her husband Billy – along with their two children – could bide their waking hours indoors, and yet the unused space, the sacrosanct parlour, had to be afforded: a defiant statement about the extent of the family’s accommodation.  That they had enough. That there was – of space, if nothing else – a surplus.

In the back room, the lino on the floor always showed a high  polish; spotless, my mother emphasises.  A white enamel bowl sat on a stool near the door.  It was filled, ready, with water drawn from a communal stand pipe in a tidy yard paved with durable blue bricks. The Ford family’s comforts were meagre, and the conditions of their life were unmercifully spartan, but not necessarily squalid, given the co-operation of a group of neighbouring housewives who shared clean and orderly habits.

1950s advertisement for the Walsall, Wednesbury and District  Society for the Blind.  As reproduced in "Memories of Walsall by Alton Douglas and Dennis Moore"

A 1950s advertisement for the Walsall, Wednesbury and District Society for the Blind. Reproduced in “Memories of Walsall ” by Alton Douglas and Dennis Moore.

Billy Ford was blind.  An industrial accident some years earlier had robbed him permanently of his sight, but Mom remembers a cheerful Uncle Bill, smiling and immaculately dressed, cared for with kindness by his wife, their laundry willingly taken in by her sister Emma in nearby Dalkeith Street, to save the indignity of the shared “brewhouse”, and returned in a crisply ironed pile.

How did the family manage to support themselves? Maud regularly “walked” Billy to the premises of the society for the blind in Hatherton Road.  Perhaps some small income derived from his pastimes there. What a hard, hard life.

My grandmother, Elsie-May Day, at the age of 15, and already at work as a “Sorter, Iron Foundry Worker” according to the 1911 census, had found herself, on her own mother’s untimely death that year, a surrogate parent to her two surviving sisters: Emma, two years younger than her, and “ower poor little Maudie,” as she was forever to be called, just 8 years old.

My mother tells me that her dear little Aunt Maud received my swaddled infant self into enthusiastic arms when we were introduced, and twittered sweet nothings into my baby face with a child-like delight. Although I remember nothing of this meeting, I am very glad to know about it.

By the time that I was born in 1961, Forge Street had been demolished, and the family had been moved into a new council house in Leckie Road.  Maudie died, and Billy ended his days in a home for the blind.

Among this little Copse where Forge Street stood, there don't seem to have been any birches planted  in memory of the landscape of the "Birch-Hills" before the coal working, the lime working, and the metal working began.  There is a posy's worth of bluebells in the grass.

Among this little copse where Forge Street stood, there don’t seem to have been any birches planted in memory of the landscape of the “Birch-Hills” before the coal working, the lime working, and the metal working began. A posy’s worth of bluebells brightens the grass.

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Beyond the Curtain Wall

100_7892These snuff-brown pieces of thick, stiff, dry, hide have the passing appearance of relics from a medieval fortress siege.  They are my dad’s “tab” (finger-guard) and “bracer” (arm-guard), from his practice of archery , which my parents had taken up some time early in the 1950’s.

They say that every man’s home is his castle. Our home, 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge, being a three-bed-semi, had not moat nor drawbridge nor portcullis.  Within its modest curtilage, however, I was endowed with a liberating sense of complete security. And it had its own strong-room, its very own armoury.

This stronghold was the 7’6″ by 9’3″ Dark Room. Named thus not for any sinister connotation, but only because of the long, suspenseful evenings when felted blanket, as well as curtains, were fixed to the window of the smallest of the three bedrooms – the one that had been mine when a younger child –  and the alchemical creation of photographs from film took place. Along with the photographic paraphernalia, and the angling and fly-tying equipment, were housed here an eclectic arsenal of weaponry.  The his-and-hers longbows were propped in a corner – a 34lb draw, 5’2″ for my mother, and one 5’9″ in length with a more manful draw weight of 48lb for my father. An old African tribal spear brushed shoulders with a 19th century hand-gun, powder and shot flasks, and a real American Cavalry sword. The impressive unsheathing of this yard-long blade from its scabbard reliably drew gasps from the favoured guests to the house who were witness to this spectacle.  My mother would wince.  She hates the thought of any sort of killing, and fought hard – verbally – against my dad’s repeated attempts to have some of the more attractive items in his collection mounted on gruesome permanent show on the chimney breast in the sitting room. As a small child, I echoed her sentiments entirely. Sometimes, my father could be seen shaking one leg gently as he tried to leave the house with a shotgun in a bag, attempting to detach himself from my thin white arms which clasped his ankle,  and to ignore the desperate piping pleas of “Don’t shoot the birdies, Daddy!”

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Licensing for shotguns was introduced in 1968.

There was a sea-change in attitudes in the 1960s.  The shotguns, once casual and anonymous in the room had to be licensed following the 1968 Firearms Act, and an amnesty was declared for other “interesting”  items, such as – say – a “liberated” German wartime pistol, the unexplained possession of which could now “trigger” an automatic prison sentence. In the unlikely event that my parents had wanted to bag wild game with their longbows, that archaic practice was outlawed in 1965.

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Archery in the orchard at Owletts Hall Farm, Lynn, Shenstone.

No, to inveigle my mother into an interest in the sport, it had to be a light-hearted affair. They set up their targets in the orchard at my dad’s sister and brother-in-law’s farm near Shenstone, to try their aim with their Slazenger equipment.

Their arrows were skilfully fletched and re-fletched, each with their three “vanes” of feathers, at the little workshop, in Station Street, Walsall, of Mr Lingard, who had been a neighbour of my mother’s family,  in Deepmore Avenue, Bentley, where she had grown up in the 1930s.  During the war, his brother, George, had served in the Merchant Navy, and there had been the excitedly received boon of priceless, rare bananas for the four girls and little Patrick at number 32.

 

Without realising that they were later to spend a whole half- century living in Bosty Lane, Aldridge, Ted and Marie Horton also had use of a handy field in which to practice their toxophily, less than a mile away from their future home, beyond the fields of College Farm and across the canal – this waterway being the Daw End branch of the Wyrley and Essington, dug at the end of the 18th century to transport limestone from the workings that have been a particular feature of the immediate area for, reputedly, two millenia.

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So here they are, my dad, my mom, and their friend, Ken, lined up balletically on a rise of ground opposite Calderfields.  At the rear of the picture, Aldridge Road runs from side to side. Facing the road are Longwood Cottages, then, in the 50’s, still a pair, today a single dwelling, that retains in its grounds remarkable, surviving evidence, in the form of a rounded couple of acres of puddle, that is a feature from a much earlier settlement: It was a moat, fed by a stream, that fortified a manor house of the 13th century.

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The first Ordnance Survey map of the area dating from first part of the 19th century. Note the Lime Workings, “Bosty Lane”, “The Butts” (which may possibly have been named after a practice area for earlier archers); “Caudy Fields” with the way to the moat and therefore the early manor marked. The rise of ground opposite where the photograph was taken would seem a better site to build, but the moat area still receives a flow of water from a natural stream that rises nearby. “Caldewell”????

“Calewenhull Grange”,  “Caldewell” – or “Caudy Fields” (at the time of the first Ordnance Survey map) – we can be fairly sure that this was the local seat of the de Boweles family, and Sir Hugh is said to have

bilte and repairede a mansion at Caldewalle, and made a moot abowte the seyd mansion, and there dwellide the seyd William and his wyf manye yeeris.  And there deyde sire Hugh de Boweles.

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The Rushall Psalter, with its original 14th century chain. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk

 

For this narrative, I am endebted to the anonymous 14th century author of the notes on the history of Rushall, which are bound with the other parchment pages that comprise the Rushall Psalter, a precious object now cared for by the University of Nottingham.

 

Hugh de Boweles had been in the service of  Henry III, who was a monarch troubled by having to commit much of the years and resources of his long reign (1207-72) to waging war against his own barons. Archery equipment not dissimilar from our bows was no doubt employed, but both would be a far cry from modern bows with mechanically assisted draws that demand much less strength in the arm of the exponent.

The third Henry Plantagenet was not, perhaps, a master from whom Hugh could expect much in the way of material rewards for his service.  But Hugh had another strategy for extending his influence in this corner of the Shire of  Stafford: His wife was Alice, the daughter and sole heir to William of Rushall, to which “castle” (as the 19th century Ordnance Survey still describes the modest hall,) the de Boweles family removed, leaving the building they had repaired a mile away at Caldewalle to disappear without a trace, except for its persistent moat.

When Hugh’s grandson, another William, perished of the Black Death in the 1340s, it was his daughter’s descendants who inherited the manor.  Once again lacking male heirs in the following century, the Harpur family took the lordship of Rushall.  By the same process, the Leigh, Mellish, and Buchanan families succeeded them, all of which names are commemorated in street names on the north west side of the present day Walsall conurbation.

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Park Lime Pits, afternoon stroll, mid 1960’s. Our relatives from rural Worcestershire had to agree that Park Lime Pits, by any standard, was an attractive bit of countryside for us to be lucky enough to have on our doorstep.

The excavations of the productive Lime Workings that lay within the parkland of Rushall Hall have flooded and the scenes of industry where some of our family toiled decades ago have metamorphosed into a picturesque landscape of lakes and woodland – a haven for wildlife.  Apart from the distant view of the steamy excrescences from the cooling towers of Reedswood Power Station at Bentley (demolished 1987) – that, in any case, I romanticised in my in young imagination into the austere, windowless battlements of some castle, you might be way out in the country, wandering its winding paths, as we occasionally did.

 

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Lambs

100_4585Berrow’s Worcester Journal attributes to itself the distinction of being the oldest surviving newspaper in the world.  For over three centuries, its pages have the aired the  local indignations of this largely agricultural corner of England, and proffered its goods for sale.  On an early spring day in the 1960s, the Journal’s photographer was called to immortalise this Suffolk-cross ewe with her odds-defying, news-worthy, quintuple of healthy lambs, at a farm near Upton upon Severn, in the attractive, undulating farmland that skirts the Malvern Hills.  He arranged an engaging composition : the concerned mother watchful, as the five little warm woolly bodies wriggle in the arms of  the farmer’s three young sons.

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Contented amongst the flock in my cardigan, with Uncle Trevor, cousin Gary, and Pam the sheepdog. Worcestershire, about 1966.

Good news for a young visitor to the farm when a ewe had too many lambs to cope with – or, sadly, rarely, had expired in the process of producing the next generation of tasty midweek chops or Sunday roasts.  Then there would be bottle feeding to be done: just another necessary chore for the farmer and his family, but a delight for a little girl to be allowed to hold the dripping plastic teat to the pliable, rubbery gums of an orphan lamb, and endeavour to remain standing, despite the surprisingly powerful, greedy butting of its dainty carcass against her bare legs.

Or – less bucolic a scene – if a lamb had died, it would have been stripped of its pelt, which would be laid over the back of an orphan, in an attempt to entice the bereaved ewe to take to a motherless child.

The boys in the photograph were my cousins.

Our mothers are sisters: themselves two of a brood of five, comprising four girls: Winnie; Rose-Marie; Irene; Kathleen; and, finally, a longed-for boy, Patrick – who were brought up in Bentley, near Walsall, during the difficult decades of the Depression and Wartime.

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“Peas in a Pod” – Mom, (right), and her sister Irene, on holiday in Torquay in the 1950s

“Like peas in a pod,” as people still remark about Marie and Irene, when they are seen together, on their lengthy visits to each other in these, the years of their widowhood – either here in Staffordshire, or at the pretty little agricultural worker’s bungalow, in the shadow of British Camp at Little Malvern – constructed of concrete panels, and painted an intense pastel pink just like the render between the medieval timbers of their old farmhouse used to be.

That’s where Irene and Trevor retired to – him still lambing ewes each Spring in his adjacent fields, right up until the year before his death.

 “Like peas in a pod.”…..I kept it in the back of my mind when I was a child that I could always, in the end, turn to Irene as an excellent substitute for my mother.

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Interchangeable mothering: My mom dandles her sister Irene’s first baby.

That was a comforting thought when, occasionally, I woke in the night at Bosty Lane, panicky breaths lifting the pink nylon eiderdown on my single bed, my strange brain brimming with an unspeakable childish fear that something would happen to take my parents away from me.

 

As a young woman, before her marriage, my Aunt Irene had a successful career as a store manageress for Dorothy Perkins.  This was what took her to Worcester, where she met Uncle Trevor, and she has lived in rural Worcestershire ever since.

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Winnie went to Alfred Stanley and Sons.

But like all her sisters, Irene’s first job at home in Walsall was in the leather industry.  Of the others, Winnie went to Alfred Stanley and Sons on Wednesbury Road.  My mom started at Frederick Hucker, where her best friend’s aunt, Florence Noble, was the forewoman overseeing the manufacture of dog collars, amongst other items. Tea making and running errands seemed tedious to Mom, who had been a reluctant school leaver, and she didn’t stay there very long. Kathleen, the youngest girl, later began at Wincer and Plant.  Of the town’s reputed “100 Trades” that prospered between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was Walsall’s world-wide reputation as a centre of excellence in the manufacture of saddlery, bridlery, and all manner of fancy leather goods that dominated – and gave the Walsall Football Team its name – “The Saddlers.” Men, and many women all over the district were drawn to the industry.  On my father’s side of the family, his eldest sister, Mary Horton, came to Walsall for her (shortlived) first job, when she left school in Walsall Wood. She wrote about it:

August came ( schools broke up last Friday before August Bank Holiday, the beginning of August ) Walsall Observer was full of jobs for under 16s. I got one at the leather goods factory Dance and Spiers glueing the insides of purses ready for the machinists. insides came back, ready for the outsides to be glued on… back to the machinists to be stitched, then back to us for bevelling. The Bevel was a hot iron used for making a dark brown or black line round the edge of the finished purse.

That was in 1927, the year in which Mom and Irene’s eldest sister Winnie was born.  When Winnie herself started work – during the War – she too, quickly tired of life cooped up in a leather factory, and began a job with Co-Operative Dairies in Walsall. It was an early start, but she got lots of fresh air and variety, as she accompanied the horse-drawn milk float round Walsall, making deliveries.  Not to her own family though – they had the “Midland Counties.”

Still not yet 15 years old, she became unwell somewhat suddenly, and in just three days, died of meningitis.

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A studio portrait of Winnie, by J.H.Jamieson, “of Preston and Walsall” 1927. At a time of such hardship, such an expenditure speaks volumes about how cherished my grandparents first daughter was.

It was 1942. Penicillin, the first anti-biotic, which can save such patients now, had not come into general use.  There was nothing to be done.  The blow was emotional, and financial.  A wage was lost, and funeral costs struggled to be found.  It was a ridiculous fancy that my twelve year old mother might leave St Patrick’s and go on to Grammar School, even though she passed the exam.

It is March. There are lambs – Mom and Irene can still walk up the lane to where another shepherd is now lambing his flock in the sheds that Uncle Trevor used to use. Mom watched some seasonal hare-boxing in the field from the window of Irene’s spare bedroom on her recent visit. And there’s that welcome cliche of colour.  Acidic blazes of yellow petals unfold in broad brushstrokes under the trees on the  stream bank, and in the garden.  A bright bunch of the cut daffodils against a headstone is arranged to mark that a beloved face can still be brought to mind. In Upton upon Severn’s “new” Victorian cemetery, with its Gothic twin chapels for Anglicans and “Dissenters”, by architect George Row Clarke, there were flowers for Trevor, but also for Irene and Trevor’s son, my cousin Nigel, thought about very often by us all in the 28 years since we lost him.

Gorgeous Kerry Hill ewes and lambs at Little Malvern last year.

Gorgeous Kerry Hill ewes and lambs at Little Malvern last year.

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A figure in the mist.

100_7575Beyond the helmet of imaginings that my head is often bubbled within, Ken and I live in a subtle microclimate here.  On a still morning, the mist will still be winding its long fingers round the ankles of Orgreave and Fradley, long after the view is clear to see in Lichfield. I love to lope out into it. Under muffling cover of the milky air, both I and the landscape can peacefully relive exciting old times of more violent emotion. With this century hushed, that which is inclined to, is free to emerge.

This foggy phenomenon must be related to our wealth of waters. The River Trent yarns broadly for four miles from quarried pool to quarried pool behind us; from the submerged site of Kings Bromley Hall (demolished in the 1920s), to the wildlife haven of Croxall Lakes, adjacent to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. Nearby, the river carries on a family conversation with its brothers Swarbourne, Tame, and Mease, contributing to a watery flux that has often inhibited the passage of pack horses and pedlars and pilgrims, and prompted the ancient village of Alrewas to grow up here in the first place. The Trent also loses itself in a canal for a short stretch near Alrewas, before its indignant, foaming departure over the weir.

It was in 1790 that the liquid thoroughfares of the Trent and Mersey Canal and the Coventry Canal finally melded on Fradley Heath, the climax of the late James Brindley’s Grand Cross Scheme to link together, for commerce’s sake, the four great English rivers.

Although its heyday for traffic was long past, Brindley’s engineering triumph was respected when work began to construct RAF Lichfield in mid 1939.  The Coventry Canal was to delineate the north-eastern extent of Fradley Airfield.

The site was originally conceived to house only a large aircraft Maintenance Unit. Here,  aircraft were received from manufacture, prepared for service, stored, and sometimes packed for dispatch to overseas centres of operation. As the Second World War continued, Fradley became the generator of additional, more dramatic activity. In 1941, an Operational Training Unit was formed.  Its students were the astonishingly youthful rookie pilots, navigators, wireless operators and gunners gathered from some of the furthest reaches of the Empire in Canada and Australia.  They had travelled all the way to damp South Staffordshire in order to team up into crews and prepare for perilous forays into enemy territory.  They were trained by other, barely older, young men, the smooth cheeked veterans – against the odds – of a sufficient number of flying missions.  The trainers’ job was to pass on the expertise that, over and above sheer luck, had facilitated their own survival.

New crews could have their mettle tested on “Nickel,” or leaflet raids from Fradley over Northern France, occasionally coming into contact with hostile aircraft.  But demand for deployable bombers soon outstripped the supply of fully trained  personnel, and OTU crews were recruited to fly into the thick of it from Fradley in the Septembers of ’42 and ’43. Fradley was the busiest war-time airfield in Staffordshire. Casualty figures increased.   New recruits arrived via the London, Midland, and Scottish railway station at Alrewas to reinforce numbers, and Fradley’s considerable contribution to the war effort continued without a missed beat.  The village lasses put on a brave face, along with their bright lipstick, and jolly, printed cotton frocks, and continued to laugh their waythrough the Lambeth Walk at dances. For ever and ever after though, the sound of the velvet swoop of the clarinet in Moonlight Serenade might bring to mind a certain lucite brooch at the bottom of a jewellery box, and an absent dancing partner, whose gift it had been.

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St Stephen’s, Fradley, Staffordshire.

More than 200 RAF personnel lost their lives as a result of service at Fradley, in battle abroad, and in local crashes, some the result of our foggy conditions. There are a dozen or so immaculately maintained airmen’s graves outside the pretty little church of St Stephen’s in Fradley village.  The names on some of them have been used to christen the roads on a new housing estate that has been built in one corner of the old airfield in recent years. George Rumbold, the first casualty at RAF Lichfield during the war, has his Avenue. Seargeant Joseph Rogerson, a navigator, of the Royal Australian Air Force, has his Road.  The names of their aircraft, too, are commemorated on road signs on the growing industrial estate.

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Wellington Crescent and Lancaster Road meet at the roundabout on Wood End Lane. The saplings and the gorse rise up from the erstwhile Fradley Heath when given the opportunity, joining trees, that somehow, have managed to stand watch over all the changes.

Only one runway now remains where hundreds of Lancasters, Hurricanes, and Wellingtons once took off and landed, but the well constructed hangars are still put to good use for a variety of storage purposes. When we came to live here in 1991, the old airfield was remarkably unchanged from the time of its use during the war and until its eventual closure in 1958.  In the early 1990s there was  little more industry than Lucas’s storage and packing facility on Wood End Lane, still using the old RAF gatehouse as its entrance. Where the huge edifice of Tesco’s RDC now radiates noise and light, it was quiet and dark down Gorse Lane to the curvaceous little red-brick bridge over the canal.

I was a Transport Manager in Amington then. Tiny Golby was one of my drivers.  A man of spectacular proportions, his uniform was a special order. Ringing in for his reloading details, he would boom my name, “Sowzunn!” down the line with a comfortingly familiar cadence, courtesy of  his uncorrupted Willenhall accent. It was Tiny, who, on finding out where I lived, first warned me against the gruesome spectre of a headless airman in WWII uniform, that had staggered blindly into the road, to be picked out in the headlights of his brother’s lorry, as John Golby was making a nocturnal delivery of goods into one of the old hangars.  

Most local people have, like me, heard a second hand account of the appearance of the Headless Airman of Fradley.  Those with first hand memories of the war-time airfield are now rare to find.  The children at Orgreave Farm who were shooed away from the wide, Georgian front door by their mother when a living but bloodied airman – with head firmly in place –  knocked for assistance, are elderly men and women now.

Ghostly manifestations are rife where untimely deaths in extreme circumstances have occurred.  Peacetime RAF personnel seem to have an empathy with the arduous careers of their wartime counterparts, and are not immune to seeing and feeling evidence of those who have passed short but intensely lived years in the service before them. Their experiences, if not the ghosts themselves, deserve our respectful credulity.

Flight Lieutenant George Robertson had served in the Royal Navy during the war, but by the 1950s was employed in a position of seniority within RAF Lichfield at Fradley. When he found himself responsible, one memorable day, for moving a young airman to hospital, suffering from shock, he related to his family what had happened. His son Andrew remembers being told: “….a young airman, who was a night guard for the base and accompanied by two powerful guard dogs….on his rounds he saw lights on in one of the hangars and thinking that maybe thieves were at work approached the building. At about 100 meters, both dogs stopped and refused to move further. The guard continued, and then claimed he saw a figure, dressed in WW2 flying clothes, but apparently headless.

A shocking sight indeed.

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The Fradley Memorial. Visited from all corners of the world.

The RAF Lichfield Association have been instrumental in creating a fine memorial area near to the church in Fradley, and their website includes a list of Fradley’s casualties, with details of the dates and causes of their death.  Two unfortunate candidates for our restless, headless, spirit catch the eye: both met their end by inadvertently walking into the spinning propellors of their aircraft at Fradley.  The war in Europe had already ended when one of them, Sergeant Richard P Withrington, was killed.  His body was transported to his home in Middlesex to be buried.  The rumour- a mighty thing that takes on a life of its own- has it that our ghost has Colonial origins. Flight Sergeant, Kenneth Helmsley Hewitt, from Toowong, Queensland, was just 21 years old when he died on the 15th of April 1943. About to take off, he left his aircraft to retrieve the codes he had forgotten and walked into its propellor.  He is remembered in Hewitt Close on the housing estate, and lies in Fradley churchyard, from where he may, or may not, walk, in ghostly form, to the airfield where he lost his life.  It can’t be right to make a cypher of him as the mere focus of our scary tales.  Rather remember the real young man, 10, 000 miles from home, who was willing to give his life for our freedom.

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Written with reference to “Staffordshire Airfields in the Second World War,” by Martyn Chorlton, and with the kind assistance of Andrew Robertson and Paul James.

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Come up and see my etching.

100_7444These etched copper pictures of topographical scenes were popular in the 1970s, and this one, of our local parish church, was very much appreciated by my parents, and by me, and  it hung, for many years, on the wall at the top of the stairs in 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge.

We were not a churchgoing family.  Few were the times we ever darkened the door of St Mary’s.  I know how the first time came about – in my early childhood in the 1960s: Miss Khan, our teacher at Redhouse Infants School, got up a party of her young pupils to be shown around the lovely old building, which she rightly judged to be part of our collective heritage.  My own mom volunteered to tag along to help marshall the little hoard, with, I recall, one nervous small boy in a pathetically ragged pullover doggedly clasping her protective hand throughout.  The tour was conducted by the Rector, the elderly (Ronald) William Cartmel, who was white haired, quietly spoken, and, it transpires, nurtured a keen interest in extra-terrestrial beings.  I refer to a particularly intimate encounter (resulting, it’s rumoured, in “issue”) that the unfortunate Mrs Cynthia Appleton was party to, in 1950s Aston.

The earliest account of Cynthia Appleton’s claimed experiences, beyond media stories comes from the British magazine Flying Saucer Review (FSR) which carried an article, “Birmingham Woman meets Spacemen” in its March-April 1958 edition. This was largely a report sent to the then FSR editor Brinsley Le Poer Trench by the Rev. William Cartmel, Rector of Aldridge, Staffordshire. Cartmel had also personally interviewed the lady……( Australian UFO researcher Bill Chalker, http://www.auforn.com)

Apart from that nearby excitement, quiet Aldridge in the 1960s looked much as it had done for many years, with timber framed cottages in the High Street, and narrow thoroughfares carrying few passing cars. By the time I heathenly graced St Mary’s with my presence for the next time – (declaiming a short reading from the pulpit during a Christmas carol service somewhat later in my school career with my parents among the audience) – the timber framed buildings in the High Street had long been (tragically) pulled to the ground. Throughout my childhood, numerous new houses sprung up around “The Village,” and the roads,  – widened, re-routed, were beginning to be a menace.

Unbeknown to us, our family connections with the church of St Mary the Virgin in Aldridge, Staffordshire, were deeply rooted.

Two hundred years ago, on Monday 3rd January 1814, the body of my father’s great great great grandfather, Thomas Lees was laid to rest in its overcrowded graveyard.  He was 59 years old, and had outlived his wife Mary Pott by just over a month. Were mourners numerous at the interment, taking place, as it did, before Christmas festivities ceased on Twelfth Night?  Would the sonorous tenor bell have summoned his fellow parishioners Thomas and Mary Hathaway to witness their neighbour being lowered into the cold earth to join his wife?  – Thomas Hathaway, at least fourth in a line of Thomas Hathaways of Aldridge, was one of my great great great great grandfathers too.

The bells in the ancient tower of the church had been cast in 1738 by Rudhall of Gloucester.  All five were inscribed, the largest with this solemn couplet, thankfully re-inscribed during the re-casting in the 1970’s:

I to the Church the living call,

And to the Grave do summon all.

No doubt that this bell was the one that was rung, steadily and gravely, for the ten minutes, before Thomas Lees’ burial.

How much must the sexton have suffered in his work, blowing foggy breaths into his frozen hands from time to time as he had excavated the little pit.  A severely harsh spell of weather had begun that winter on the feast of St John the Apostle, the 27th of December 1813, and was not to relent for many weeks.  By the beginning of February 1814, in London, the accumulation of ice on the frozen Thames was deemed thick enough to support the last of the great “Frost Fairs.”

100_7452The difficulty of finding a vacant coffin’s-length of earth in the small graveyard  – which had provided for the expiring population of both Aldridge and Great Barr until 1732 – must also have been trying for the gravedigger. Meetings of parishioners began to discuss the problem in 1825.  Space had been at such a premium for so many years that the clean bones from earlier burials were exhumed and reburied together near the walls of the church to make room for more, and the ground on the north side of the building was also dug up.  That area  was eschewed for burials when possible, as it was feared by superstitious country-dwellers to be the shady haunt of evil spirits.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep………….

Thus described Thomas Gray in his “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” in the mid 18th century. The whole graveyard around St Mary’s is elevated from the boundary wall, but rises again, a grassy pillow, stuffed in part with the remains of some of my very own rude forefathers, demonstrating its previously small extent to the keen observer even today.

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The graveyard rises, then rises again from the boundary wall to the church.

When  Rector the Reverend Jeremiah Finch Smith arrived to take up his position in Aldridge in 1849, extensive renovation of the previously dilapidated church had already taken place during the time of his predecessor, Henry Harding.  The Reverend Finch Smith was a diligent recorder of the details of the further rebuilding of the chancel and north aisle in his “Notes and collections relating to the parish of Aldridge in the county of Stafford,” but, valuably, he also included information relating to earlier periods.

St Mary the Virgin, Aldridge.  The Church Tower.  January 2014

St Mary the Virgin, Aldridge. The Church Tower. January 2014

Externally, only the medieval tower of the church remains unchanged from the time of my ancestors, the Thomases Lees and Hathaway, at the turn of the 19th century.  Internally, the nave they would have known was crowded with a ramshackle collection of box pews, deemed “objectionable” in a multitude of ways by Jeremiah Finch Smith. Their occupants – important families who considered the little enclosures to be their own private property – were, in making use of them, not able to face towards the minister during services, nor to kneel properly when appropriate.  This was a most undemocratic system of seating, that made virtually no provision for the poor of the parish to sit in church.  The Reverend Finch Smith was delighted that the furniture he disparaged as “sleeping boxes,” was demolished, starting a low church trend which culminated in the complete replacement of pews by chairs in Aldridge church in the 1990s.

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The Moot House, Aldridge. January 2014

Of the domestic buildings ranged around the church in Aldridge’s Conservation Area, only the beautiful Moot House presents the same appearance as it did in the early 19th century.  Both the Manor House and the Vicarage were to be entirely rebuilt in the following decades, and where the clustered buildings of the Manor Farm once stood, now lie the tarmac roadway of “The Green”, and the featureless lawns surrounding the uncompromisingly modern Masonic Hall.

A photograph from the John Sale Collection, reproduced in the 1991 “Aldridge in Old Photographs” by Jan Farrow, shows the Manor Farm yard in the 1890’s. The farmer, Samuel Robinson Bonner, posing with his womenfolk reclining on a small strawstack, are the family of Aldridge’s most famous son, Charles George Bonner, V.C.  Only the wall, to the rear left of  Farmer Bonner in the photograph, remains, the boundary of the garden of the old Rectory.

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Hilditch’s label on the reverse of the picture

Our family’s copper “etching’ from Bosty Lane depicts a smaller churchyard, with the farm buildings, nestling in beside it. The perspective is a little skewed.  Mom had purchased it from Hilditch’s shop in the High Street.  Downstairs, was the emporium of hardware purveyed by Reg.  Upstairs, Mrs. Hilditch, tall, elegant, and be-pinafored, ran a tea-room, where pictures and decorative items were displayed for sale.

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From “Aldridge in Old Photographs,” compiled by Jan Farrow in 1991, Thomas Potts’ store at the end of the 19th century, advertisements for various alcoholic beverages crowding onto the gable wall

“Hilditch”, first a grocery and general store, was still selling an extremely useful variety of goods when I remember it. It had been an asset and a fixture in Aldridge since Reg Hilditch’s grandfather, Joseph, had taken over the business of “Thomas Potts” in the 1930s.

Even then, most residents of the village would not be able to remember a time when the shop was not there.  The industrious Thomas Potts was a very young married man indeed – only 21 years old when he set himself up as a grocer in Aldridge back in 1868.

Reg Hilditch retired. He died in 2001.  The Hathaway girl, and the Lees girl, both married Horton men, and moved away – just a little way, to Stonnall.

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A Christmas Mystery

100_7318Knitted, carved, sculpted, or cast…. who and what are depicted in your Nativity Scene?   Despite their being no Biblical reference to their presence, our miniature Holy Families kneel in stables that are populated by cattle and donkeys.  Snow amasses on the thatched roof.  We do know it’s likely that only a camel was exhaling its malodorous breath over the celebrated events, and that the weather outside was actually frightfully hot, but the old images persist.

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A Mystery Play about the Nativity – being perfomed in Lichfield in December 2009. It is authentic that the costumes are reminiscent of British working clothes of yesteryear.

A Staffordshire farmer of my acquaintance returned in sceptical mood from one of his very numerous foreign holidays. He was dubious as to whether the church of the Holy Nativity in Manger Square, Bethlehem, truly marked the site of the First Noel, since no trace of barn, straw, or livestock was anywhere in evidence.

My dad spent Christmas 1945 in the Holy Land. When the rains fell in sudden torrents there that winter, it was onto ground so hot that the tents in which the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards were billeted near Lake Tiberius were filled with steam, and young Guardsman Horton was obliged to sign off abruptly at the end of his letter home to his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Alf Cooper at the Owletts Farm in Lynn, a world away in cold and foggy rural Staffordshire.

Guardsman E.N.Horton.  at Lake Tiberius (The Sea of Galilee) 1945

Guardsman E.N.Horton. at Lake Tiberius (The Sea of Galilee) 1945

As Zionist terrorist activity accelerated in Palestine, the Arab League was vainly fighting for its right to be heard in the debate surrounding the creation of a Jewish State.  British politicians lobbied against the US inclination to allow massive immigration of displaced European Jewry to what they considered to be their homeland. My dad was still accustoming himself to the otherness of the all the various peoples he was encountering in this foreign country.  He related to Alf and Mary that the Bedouin men, he had been told, were stealthy enough to steal rifles and a mosquito nets, and even the bedding from beneath a sleeping soldier without disturbing him – and would attempt the raids with their scantily clad bodies slippery with grease, so that they could evade the grasp of their victims even in the event that they woke them up.

To think that two years previously, the trip he had taken to the recruiting office in Bethesda Street, Hanley had been the furthest he had ever travelled on his own.  Here is an audio clip in which he tells me how chance had it that he evolved from (young) Shenstone Home Guardsman to Welsh Guardsman:

He’d had a wealth of character building experiences in the following months.  Many were the subjects of familiar anecdotes that were related in various degrees of detail from time to time down the years, depending upon their audience.  One of the most arresting is the story he told of a magical night near the desert camp that Christmas.  I wonder whether “0003 Porter”s family were ever regaled with the tale of the evening he and my dad spent at the party of their dreams, with beautiful girls, delicious food, and the most intoxicating of festive atmospheres.  Eager for more of the same, they retraced their steps for hours the following evening to no avail: the dazzlingly lit venue was nowhere at all to be found. Nowhere. At. All.

I have memories of the evening recounted in glorious detail by my dad as a younger man.  All I can offer you is this recording of a chat between us – middle aged daughter and elderly man – him giving a cursory account of the night because he knew I’d heard it all before.  Let this be a lesson to all would-be historians.  Soon, so soon, it becomes “too late.” Empty chairs at my Christmas feast.

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