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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The road to matrimony

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“I prithee,
Remember I have done thee worthy service.”
- Ariel, in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
The vehicle that facilitated my parents’ meeting was manufactured in Birmingham in 1929, and according to its registration document, had been owned by Arthur Ball of Church Cottages, Wall, and W.J. Starkey, of Number 4 Council House, Lynn, before coming into my dad’s possession.

1726 was a pivotal year for Dean Jonathan Swift.  Travelling from his home in Dublin, he personally delivered the manuscript of his best known work, Gulliver’s Travels, to his publishers in London.  It was tremendously popular from the moment of its release that November, and remains so to this day. His  Thoughts on various subjects was also published in 1726, and in it,  Swift, man of the cloth and curmudgeonly misanthrope, recorded this musing:

Matrimony has many children; Repentance, Discord, Poverty, Jealousy, Sickness, Spleen, Loathing, &c.

Well how would he know?  His connubial ambitions – a fascinating story in themselves- were thwarted, which perhaps explains his splenetic remarks. I would defy any long-established couple not to have a brush with at least one or two of the items on Dean Swift’s list, but for my parents, Ted and Marie Horton, the “children” of their union also numbered security, mutual support and appreciation, shared interests, a delicious sense of humour, and, after nearly thirteen years of marriage, one single, strange, human, offspring. It would have been their 65th wedding anniversary recently, and it was me who offered the bunch of her favourites – freesias, into my mothers hands on behalf of my father, because death, in the words of their marriage vows, parted them seven years ago.

27th November 1948. The bride, Rose-Marie Sheldon, wore a smart, dark pink coat, and chocolate brown suede ankle-strap shoes.  In the “old” Lichfield Registry Office off Lombard Street, my dad’s next eldest brother, George, and his wife Rene, were witnesses to my parents’ wedding, and they were also the only two guests at the ceremony.  Back in the summer of 1941, Rene had a traditional white wedding to George at Stonnall: she was veiled, she was bridesmaided, and there was only a matter of yards for her to walk on the arm of her father, Albert Bastin, from Church Cottage, Stonnall, to the altar.  That day, the Hortons, (those who were not there early for the service, being already eternally green-blanketed under the turf of St Peter’s graveyard,) had just a mile or so to traipse, Sunday-bested, down steep banked Gravelly Lane from Footherley hamlet, and their family home at Keepers Cottage.

But my parents’ was a mixed marriage, and it was bound to be the Register Office for them.  My mother was a lapsed Roman Catholic, and from Walsall, with sisters and father still devout in the faith. At the opposite end of the Christian spectrum, my father’s mother’s childhood at the shop in Walsall Wood had been steeped in the Methodism her father had brought with him from the Welsh Marches. For his own part, my dad was, as he remained, pragmatic and agnostic. As a boy, he had sung for other people’s weddings in the church of St. John, in Shenstone…. and pumped the organ too – he was always a stocky, strong lad.  It was the satisfying jingle of silver coins in the trouser pocket beneath his white surplice that had motivated him, and not spiritual reverence.

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Mother with some of her new female in-laws in the late 1940s. Among the stooks, in the cornfield behind Keepers Cottage, with the Owletts in the background on the right, are my Aunty Nelly with my cousin Josephine Ann, and my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Horton, nee Blann, known as”Ma” – her pre-operation goitre very prominent.

In the fine, mild, late November morning, after the happy splicing of my parents in Lichfield, the wedding party made their way back to  Footherley, to the Hortons’ home, where Ma, always a competent caterer, having been a cook in service, had laid on a good spread. Pop, Ma, my dad’s brother Bill and sister Nellie, who still lived at home, welcomed my mother’s parents, who had come from Bentley to join the celebrations at Keepers Cottage. My (maternal) Grandad Sheldon, a pipe-fitter by trade, had travelled the country,  going where work could be had, and had ventured abroad, too, in the very worst of circumstances, during 1914-1918. Granny Sheldon, on the other hand, would have been  making one of her first visits to the countryside beyond the immediate environs of Walsall.

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Reassured by Aunt Mary, my Granny Sheldon is persuaded to touch one of the Owlett’s herd of Friesians, albeit gingerly.

Everyone laughed, but only kindly, at how deeply suspicious she was of cows, even the docile little Dexters that her daughter Marie’s new in-laws kept in the field belonging to their small holding.  She still trembled to remember the day when she had been shopping in Stafford Street in Walsall, and the barriers to the lairage at the abattoir had given way, rendering her a reluctant witness to a terrifying stampede.

The party over, Bill took Edward and Elsie Sheldon in his motor, a chunky black Jowett,  to the Stone House, on the Walsall/Lichfield road, at the end of Cartersfield Lane, to catch the ‘bus back to Walsall in the thickening fog that November evening.  Meanwhile, the newlyweds set off on foot to Owletts Hall Farm, slightly disorientated by both the weather conditions and excitement, where Ted’s eldest sister Mary was waiting to congratulate them, and put them up for the night. No one was surprised at Mary’s absence from the wedding breakfast, given her bitter feud with Ma.

My parents’ courtship had lasted a little over a year. Willowy, and taller than her Land Army colleagues, my dad had noticed my mom amongst a few of the girls as they were taking a recreational afternoon stroll in the late summer of 1947, near their billet, which was a commodious wooden hut on Lynn Lane. Tanned and lithe from his service in the Welsh Guards in Palestine, and his subsequent months back in England, working on building sites for J.R. Deacon, Ted Horton had stemmed the roar of all  577cc of his 1929 Ariel motorcycle in the lane and asked my mother: “Will you come for a drink?”

“I don’t drink,” said my mother, obstructively, although it was, and remains, perfectly true that she doesn’t.

“…..’Op on, and I’ll buy you a lemonade,” my father persisted, and, pillioned on HA5627, my mother was transported to The Boat Inn in that area along the Walsall/Lichfield road known as Summerhill, and into a new chapter of her life.

Christmas 1947 came and went, with the Land Girls were still in keen demand on the farms around Shenstone. Some week-ends, Marie made her way back home to Walsall by bus.   The Land Army truck might take her along the Walsall/Lichfield road as far as Streets Corner.  At other times, Ted waved her off  from the bus stop at the Stone House. As she was just about to negotiate her way to a seat one day, Ted, in his farewell, referred obliquely to the absolute certainty of their future marriage, and so they were deemed to be engaged.

In September 1948, my mother’s Land Army career was, finally, at an end, and she got a job in the offices of Crabtrees, off Broadway in Walsall.  Now, the journeys along the Walsall/Lichfield road were reversed.   There were weeks at work in town for Mom, then each week-end the Arial was in service, greedily using up the petrol ration, as my dad fetched her back to the country, eking out their time together as the year rolled on, so that the return journey on Sunday was now being made in the dark.

One time, in lashing rain, they set off on the Ariel from Keepers cottage back to Bentley, my mother furnished by Ted’s Ma with an ancient mackintosh, split right up the back. Near Aldridge, the bike conked.  Marie had to board the bus there for Walsall, all vanity futile as she lowered herself gingerly onto the bench seat, bedraggled in the hideous black garment.  Meanwhile, Ted had no choice but to push the cussedly heavy Ariel all the way home to Footherley. This was the final straw: the autumnal appointment with permanent mutual commitment was soon booked, and they hardly spent a night apart for the next half a century.

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The Boat Inn at Summerhill – Its atmosphere determined by its proximity to the Walsall/Lichfield road

“The Boat” still stands, and still trades, at Summerhill, its atmosphere sadly defined by the busyness of the road it faces. In 1947, it was still, coherently, (considering its name,) adjacent to the quieter comings and goings of barges on the Wyrley and Essington canal beside it. Today, that waterway is a silted up memory amongst the trees, and the new M6 Toll road, 100 yards away, adds to the 21st century cacophony in the air from the Walsall/Lichfield road underneath which it passes. The site of the Stone House Farm now lies beneath the tarmac where the road was widened at the junction with Cartersfield Lane.

We pass this way very often, Mom and me, and find ourselves exchanging a few words as a gesture of remembrance at these family landmarks. At Shire Oak Hill, as I wait for the traffic lights to change I sit poised equidistant between the twin loci of so many of the hatches, matches and despatches of my forebears.  Travelling Southwest, the highest point of the hill is reached after the traffic lights, where the conurbation of Walsall (my mother’s end) is spread legibly before you.  In the other direction, the spires of Lichfield Cathedral are visible ahead in perfect alignment with the road (my father’s family’s stamping ground).

View a road map and you will see that the A461 Walsall/Lichfield road crosses the Chester Road at Shire Oak in a perfect saltire, like a great big kiss. The A461 plys both Northeast and Southwest from Shire Oak in a remarkably straight line all the way from Muckley Corner to Walsall Wood –  in contrast to its gently waving shape as its limbs approach Walsall and Lichfield on either side.  The mid 18th century account of the area by the Reverend Henry Sanders of Shenstone had it that this immediate area was densely wooded and, “until recently” a “den of thieves”.  It is that woodedness – (also denoted by the name “Walsall Wood”) that accounts for the  straightness of this part of the road. It speaks of (relatively) recent, post-medieval clearance through ancient woodland that was once part of “Cank” or Cannock Forest.

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Saxton’s 1577 map of Staffordshire shows no roads, but does show “The Shire Okes” as a place of significance. “Fowderley” – Footherley – (the spelling gives us an interesting insight into how it was then pronounced) – was obviously a much more significant settlement in Elizabethan times than it is now!

Saxton’s 1577 map of Staffordshire shows no roads, only waterways, settlements and landmarks, of which, intriguingly, “The Shire Okes” (plural) is one. Perhaps the A461 over the rise at Shire Oak was no more than one of many shady paths that could be taken between the trees in the Elizabethan age, but the A452 road that now crosses it at this congested junction was certainly very well travelled at that time.  The “Chester Road” – or the “Welsh Road”, an ancient, long distance drovers’ road, provided an alternative – and possibly much older- route for traffic to the Roman Watling Street from Brownhills through the South Midlands. This ancient thoroughfare was a natural marker  - delineating the boundary of a “Shire.”

As Dean Jonathan Swift made his way back to Ireland from London in 1726, he used the Chester Road.  Through the wooded area between Walsall and Lichfield, on the high ground where one would need to turn to make for Lichfield, there were, even then, some remarkably large oaks which might provide good shelter from a “summer tempest” if a gentleman clergyman were eccentric enough to be on foot for this part of his journey.  It was a memorable and wryly amusing moment for him, when the summer rain pelted down that day, enough for him to relate the following anecdote in a letter to his friend and fellow writer, Alexander Pope:

DEAN SWIFT, in one of his pedestrian journeys from London towards Chester, took shelter from a summer tempest under a large oak on the roadside, at no great distance from Lichfield. Presently a man, with a pregnant woman, were driven by the like impulse to avail themselves of the same covert. The dean, entering into conversation, found the parties were destined for Lichfield to be married. As the situation of the woman indicated no time should be lost, a proposition was made on his part to save them the rest of the journey by performing the ceremony on the spot. The offer was gladly accepted, and thanks being duly returned, the bridal pair, as the sky brightened, were about to return; but the bridegroom suddenly recollecting that a certificate was requisite to authenticate the marriage, requested one, which the dean wrote in these words:

Under an oak, in stormy weather,

I joined this rogue and whore together;

And none but he who rules the thunder

Can put this rogue and whore asunder

My distant ancestors, I wonder?

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The well laid table

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With its replica WW1 trench, the excitement and pathos of soldiers’ lives on active service is well represented in the Staffords’ regimental museum at Whittington Barracks.
Of the inter-war years at the barracks, little is said – even in the museum’s publication “Whittington Barracks – 125 years of history, ” they are skirted over. Here, just three waxen figures amongst the displays allude to the period, illustrating formality and rank in the mess hall, as an officer of the 1930′s takes a postprandial stimulant, waited on by his “servants” – otherwise known as batmen.

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”

These familiar words have been echoing around all of our heads on Armistice Day, but, surprisingly, they were penned by Laurence Binyon in the summer of 1914, mourning the losses sustained by the British Expeditionary Force  - the regular army – that is, professional soldiers –  in the very earliest weeks of The Great War.

The vast number of subsequent war-deaths among the unlucky civilian volunteers and  conscripts were, of course, to dwarf the shocking early casualties that inspired the Ode of Remembrance.

Those that remained of the farmers and factory hands, loafers and labourers limped home from a nightmarish military interlude in their civilian lives to “grow old” before their later lives fell under the  shadow of yet another war.  They broke the routine of their peace-time occupations only to gather for remembrance each November, to hear a recitation of some of Lawrence Binyon’s pertinent words.

Spare a thought, also, for the ragged remains of the regular army after the First World War. In numbers diminished, with funding slashed, they soldiered on, sent to attempt to sooth the violent movements towards independence in Turkey and Ireland, and making themselves useful helping to police the rest of the vast British Empire. In barracks at home, such as those on the elevated wooded plateau of Whittington Heath,  near Lichfield, they fought the battle against boredom and lack of purpose by means of sporting activities, and the pomp and rituals of “square bashing.”

Well known as the home of the “Staffordshires”, the parade grounds of Whittington in the 1920s and 1930s also drummed to the boots of other regiments: The comings and goings of the East Yorks., the Shropshire Light Infantry and the Sherwood Foresters are noted with interest in the Lichfield Mercury of the time, along with reports of contests in  cricket, boxing and golf both amongst the troops, and against local village teams in Whittington, Elford, and Streethay.

A certain Lieutenant J. St.J. Balguy is mentioned as a useful batsman and soccer player in the Mercury’s reports of sport at the barracks in the early 30′s.

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The officers of the 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters in India in 1929. Lt. J. StJ. Balguy is third from the left in the second row.
From wfraworcester.com – photo from the collection of Roy Carter

John St. John Balguy was the scion of an ancient patrician Derbyshire family, and the county had been served by various of its members, in legal and military capacities, for several centuries. Born in 1899, by the time 2nd Lieutenant Balguy had obtained his commission in the Sherwood Foresters in April 1918, the victorious conclusion of The Great War seemed likely, but conditions for those fighting remained harsh and dangerous, and he certainly saw active service in France and Belgium. His promotion to Lieutenant came just after the end of the war. Via Turkey in 1922, the 1920s saw him stationed at Gharial on the North West Frontier, then in Karachnid and Multan, in what is now Pakistan.  He was ready for a few months at home.

Now a married man, Lieutenant J. St.J. Balguy was allowed a break from the heat and privations of life in the Sub-continent in 1932 by his appointment as Adjutant to more senior officers of the Sherwoods billeted at Whittington Barracks.

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3, Beacon Street, Lichfield, November 12th 2013.
A beautiful Georgian mansion falling into deriliction.
Remembered fondly as The Angel Croft Hotel. 

While they waited for their villa in Cherry Orchard to be ready for occupation, Lieutenant and Mrs Balguy bided their time at the Angel Croft Hotel, genteelly situated opposite the Cathedral Close, in Beacon Street, Lichfield. If they mourned the loss of the creamy, spicy, deliciousness of Punjabi cuisine they had enjoyed in Multan, I can confirm that some approximation to curry was available on the menu at the Angel Croft that year….

Suitably downstairs from the Balguy’s well appointed rooms, the hotel staff that were assembling at table for their late lunch in the hotel kitchen, included young Mary Horton, my aunt, half way through her first shift in the hotel as a chamber maid.  This is from her hand-written notes about that day:

My first lunch at the Angel Croft was, I found, a kind of initiation. Lots of food stood on the long kitchen table. One of the hotel waitresses, Alice Card, pointed to an empty chair next to her. She rattled off the names of all [the other staff]at the table.

There were a number of food dishes on the centre, many I couldn’t recognise – I put on my plate things that I knew. One dish, quite near me, was sort of brown. One by one they encouraged me to try it explaining:”Some people don’t like it, but you should try it” …… “Aren’t you going to try it ?” To please them I did take a spoonful and piled it on a piece of potato…

My whole “innards” went on fire – tongue, cheeks, throat right down burned. All at the table rolled about, convulsed with laughter. I drank water which seemed to boil inside me. When I recovered they were all very nice…

I gather that it was a bit of a step down in the world for 18 year old Mary, to be occupied cleaning hotel bedrooms.  She had fled from an over-earnest suitor in her last live-in position as cook-general in Wales.  Where to come but home? It was disappointing for her to be greeted on her arrival by her mother’s spiteful “Not big enough for two Missuses!,” and the whapp! of carving knives flung in temper in the poky rooms of Keepers Cottage, Footherley, where the rest of her family had moved to, from Walsall Wood, during her absence. The job at the Angel Croft was offered to her with an immediate start. It paid 12/6d per week, and she took it.

The Angel Croft, originally a mid 18th century mansion, had only recently been converted to use as an hotel.  Its final private resident, solicitor Herbert Russell, had died in the summer of 1930.  Kelly’s Directory places him still residing at 3, Beacon Street in 1928.  In his tight, small, handwriting, he completed the 1911 census for 3 Beacon Street, which he aggrandised to “Beacon House.” He, his second wife, and his son were rattling around in the 14 roomed dwelling with a cook, a parlourmaid, and a young housemaid to serve them.

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Mary Horton as a young woman.

As a hotel, a couple of decades later, the top floor of the building alone accommodated four guests in three rooms.  These were to be Mary’s particular responsibility, and she records that they were “permanent” guests. Post war, the middle classes, living on limited private means, had been deprived of an easy source of cheap and capable domestic servants.  Life in a respectable hotel like the Angel Croft was a decent approximation of the comforts they used to enjoy, before the footman went to war and the tweeny to the factory, or even the office.  The permanent guests, described by Mary as “the lady who put fresh lemon slices on her closed eyes during her afternoon nap,” the married couple, and the elderly gentleman, can be imagined peering from the smaller upper storey windows of the building at the fine views of the three cathedral spires.  It seems that the bedrooms of the piano nobile, with their taller, elegant windows, were the province of more affluent guests. Mary remembers:

One day Adjutant J. St. J Balguy and his wife arrived on the floor below mine – he was an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, home from a spell in India. On the rare times I saw her she was pleasant and smiling.  I took care to mind my manners and always say ” Yes, Madam” and ” No, Madam,” but thought no more about her. To my surprise, as I passed their room, she called me in and said:  ” Are you happy working in a place like this Mary ?” I said ” Not really, Madam, but at the time I needed a job.” ” What does your father do ?” ” He’s working  building houses,” I said, as I thought that sounded better than “he’s a building labourer”……. ” How would you like to work for me ?” I worked my week’s notice at the hotel – but doing not my usual work but cleaning bathrooms, and wash basins in the loos.

From this change of duties we can guess that the hotel management were less than pleased to lose a “good girl,” but Mrs. Balguy must have been delighted to be able to  recruit Mary to her household.  After India, the thought of having to run her home without help must have been daunting.

For Mary, it was an interesting move.

I learned a bit about what it’s like to be attached to the army. First, there was the Adjutant’s batman, a nice soldier who attended to all of Sir’s wants, including being his valet.  It was he who showed me how to wash Madam’s silk stockings which, I was told, must be done promptly every day.  Each morning I was given a list of things to cook and told how many people would be in for dinner. The batman did a lot of supervising, showed me how to “lay up” with all their monogrammed silver – even his chairs had his “coat of arms” on the backs, with  ” J. St. J.” entwined.

Those associated with the Sherwood Foresters continue to commemorate Badajos Day on the 6th of April each year, remembering  the victory the Foresters enjoyed in 1812, when they ended the siege of Badajos against the forces of Napoleon in the Peninsula Wars.  During the Foresters’ sojourn in Whittington,  that festive day was celebrated with a Trooping of the Colour, which provided a memorable outing for Mary.  Her presence was essential on the parade ground: her duties were to hold Madam’s handbag and coat.  Treat of treats, she was driven back to Cherry Orchard by the nice batman in the Rolls Royce.

It was disappointing for Mary when the Balguys were posted back to India, but her new job at Four Oaks began the following day, and she went to it, in the knowledge that, with her distinctive copper haired looks, she had already caught the eye of the son of the family who farmed the land adjacent to Keepers Cottage.

John St. John Balguy was awarded the O.B.E. in the 1950′s, and lived out his long retirement in Dorset.

As a child, I loved to help Aunty Mary lay the table for her B & B and Evening Meal guests during her retirement in North Wales.  The cutlery had to be lined up just so, and the butter –  that she had churned herself from the rich milk of long-lashed Jersey, aloof from the Welsh Blacks on the sloping pasture  - was always served in unnecessarily artistic curls.

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Haunting memories

100_7084They will soon be a forgotten set of rituals, all the practices of amateur photography before the advent of the digital camera.  Each frame was precious when the film rationed you to 36 frames and you assessed your composition more carefully before committing to capture it with the depression of a satisfyingly weighty button and a staccato swish from the shutter. Failure to wind the film on by one frame from spindle to spindle would result, at worst, in two ruined images amalgamated into one confusing double exposure, or, at best, the intriguing appearance of a ghostly figure superimposed on an inappropriate background.

Ever the enthusiast for his hobbies, my dad contrived a a domestic darkroom in our third bedroom to make his own prints from the negatives he had processed in Bakelite canisters. On the wallpaper of this little room, crinoline clad lady ducks, and gentlemen rabbits with their ears poking through their hats still cavorted. These I had studied sideways through the bars of my cot as an infant, until I had been promoted to a larger bedroom at the back.

The wizardry was performed in eerie red light.  The bulbous projector hung like a celestial object in the gloom, suspended over the light-sensitive paper in its frame. My dad told me to hold my breath for the few seconds of the exposure, hoping that neither we, nor a rare evening vehicle passing down Bosty Lane would cause a vibration that might mar it.

Into albums went photographs that presented us safely to the world, shoes polished, happy, and healthy.  The stash of negatives, which I am so glad to have inherited, was the id of photography: it was its subconscious mind, the repository of the forgotten, the secret, and the regretted – even the unbearable. Unflattering portraits; images of friends fallen out of favour; or dear faces, in hindsight showing glaringly obvious pain and decay.  Some things that we can’t bear to see, but can’t bear to destroy.

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Could I convince you that there was no living person in the lane when this particular photograph was taken? That the figure in the middle distance only became visible when the film was developed, and that the unnerving presence of the apparition was what caused the negative to be consigned to dusty ignominy at the bottom of a drawer for so many years until my curiosity ferreted it out?

Probably not – that mysterious, heavily coated figure is most likely to be my grandad, Alfred Noah Horton, “Pop” to everyone, just as my grandmother was “Ma”.  And the dark smudge of its familiar, trotting ahead? –  Just the dog.

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The old photo was taken from that corner of the cottage, some time in the 1950′s.

From the south-east corner of his family’s home, Keeper’s Cottage, near the side door into the tiny kitchen, here my dad’s camera points up Footherley Lane in the direction of Stonnall. The trees whose leafless outlines mark this particular curve of the lane are still easily recognisable from the same spot today, sixty odd years later. A recent fall of snow has shrunk back into the earth – apart from a stubborn patch clinging to the shadiest part of the high hedge banks that flank Footherley Lane, testament to the long history of this thoroughfare. In a hard winter, these solid margins formed a channel in which snow tended to collect, so that my dad and his brothers could excavate a tunnel to walk in, strangely lit by weak, filtered winter sun.

Information is precariously invested in these scraps of celluloid. Out of context, the location of this country lane will be meaninglessly anonymous as soon as I am not here to interpret it. I like the spooky atmospheric charm which the patination of age on the negative has conferred on this image.  Time has not yet destroyed it.

Keeper’s Cottage’s many years as a family home are well and truly over, and it looks much more of a haunted place now, with clumsy breeze blocks filling the window holes and all the garden overgrown, than ever it did at the time my dad took that photograph, when light still streamed through the little windows and a fire burnt brightly in the grate of the range. Whatever ghosts walk there now, no one is there to perceive them. Of the two manifestations that my Horton family witnessed in the 1930s, I can offer no evidence, just the retelling of the stories I was told – no less insubstantial, I suppose, than other folkloric tales of ephemeral family history that happen not to contain the supernatural. There is no narrative to connect the two stories, which I simply present as I heard them – there is, I am afraid, no twist in the tale.

Ghost stories attach themselves to ancient places, and the cottage is old, there is no doubt about that, and the dwelling place, near the brook, near the wood, and near the now invisible course of a stretch of Roman Ryknield Street, is older still.  The building which served as a barn, orientated at 90% from the cottage and the lane, showed signs of doors and windows now bricked up – both indicating that it might have been an earlier dwelling. The Besant family lived at Keepers Cottage for a few years before my family moved there in about 1929, and prior to that, the last Gamekeeper, Albert Reed, a Hampshire man by birth, was still living out a peaceful retirement there in 1911, according to the census of that year.  Did these families, I wonder, pass on to younger generations any tales of strange happenings within these walls?

Ma was up early to light the range one morning, in the decade before the war, and was the first to hear a wheezing, sighing presence in the corner of the room.  Pop perched on the stool to put on his boots ready for his cycle ride to work, and remarked to Ma that he, too, could hear it.  Bill, George, and my dad had the same experience as they bent to tie their laces, casting their eyes about for the source of the sound. When my dad came home from Shenstone school that day, the noise had gone.  Ma said that about 11 o’clock, there had been a final rasping gulp, and it was silent. It never made its presence felt again.

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The boys slept in the bedroom on the left.

Of the three small rooms that constituted the upper floor of the cottage, two were interconnected, and in the third, to the left at the top of the stairs, slept the boys, Bill, George, and my dad, Ted, all in one feather bed. When nights were still and sultry towards the end of the summer, a strange phenomenon repeatedly occurred. A loud thud against the outside wall of the bedroom would be followed by the unmistakable sound of a heavy object rolling across the bare wooden boards.  More intrigued than frightened, one night Bill said “I’ll have the bugger,” and piled all their clothes in a heap in the middle of the floor. Sure enough, in the darkest part of the night, the thud was heard, and the rolling noise began, only to pause thoughtfully at the pile of trousers and vests, before continuing on its way towards the landing.

Whatever will it do, this thing, when the walls of the cottage finally tumble?

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A site to see.

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My dad, Edwin Noah Horton, (1925-2007) , (left in the photo), on site for J.R. Deacon at the construction of Brooklyn Farm Technical College in Great Barr, in about 1951.
At the rear of the site is the “Drake’s Drum” public house.

When me and my dad were discussing our mortality, more ominously pertinent in the last years of his life, he used to say to me: “In a thousand years, Sue, it’ll be as if we’d never been here.”  My mom and my husband would each have staggered off, full of roast dinner, taking the Sunday newspapers to a comfier chair. In the kitchen of my cottage, my dad and I remained sitting side by side; my right mitt would be flat on the table between us, and his, large, yet elegant, dry, warm left hand over mine, anchoring us in conversation, both spoken and unspoken. It was comforting to imagine that we two atheists would moulder anonymously into the quiet earth. Together in our not existing, and together not inhabiting an afterlife.  But there was going to be a terrible parting to be endured.

Just a decade later, and his imprint on life is far from gone. Many of his possessions surround me. I can look through his eyes into his life through his photographs, admire many other examples of his creativity, and feel the smoothness where his strong hand gripped the wooden handles of the tools we have inherited.   In the fabric of our cottage and garden, are walls that he re-rendered and plastered for us, the skirting boards and wainscotting that he mitred and cut and fixed, ceilings we papered together, and vegetable beds that he and I cultivated companiably.  I couldn’t bear to remove the parsnips he had put in for us during his last early spring – in the patch by the greenhouse that he had erected with Ken, on top of the brick base he had built. I worked round them through six tearful seasons, until they flowered and then set seed, to the delight of the bullfinches.

And what about that thousand years into the future he spoke of? As a builder, perhaps my father, Ted Horton’s legacy has a better chance than many of enduring a whole millennium. What, I ask you, does remain, now, as physical evidence of the lives of our ancestors in Staffordshire a thousand years ago? The layouts of their settlements and their thoroughfares are just the shadows of their living movements, but a stone laid upon a stone, with mortar between – enduring in the lower courses of Lichfield Cathedral’s masonry, or the walls of Tamworth castle, is a fragment of tangible immortality for the individual skilled working man who placed it there.

Throughout his working life, my dad must have laid millions of bricks, especially in the early days when he was brickying a lot of the time.  Up to a thousand times per day, the familiar rhythm:  a blob of wet, grainy compo, scrape, scrape, then placement, and a wiggle into its place, of a good Staffordshire brick.  Surely some of them must survive, one overlapping the other, eroding slowly over the coming centuries.

My dad and his two brothers all chose to work in the building industry.  The coal mines in Walsall Wood and Aldridge – that were becoming  worked out as Bill, George, and Ted reached employable age in the 1930s – had seduced their grandfather’s generation of the family from agricultural labouring in and around Stonnall to better wages and more modern housing.  Pop and Ma – that is my grandparents, Lizzie and Noah – had come back to a primitive country smallholding to bring up their brood of five in Footherley. This, my father knew. But he may not have had any idea that his great, great, grandfather (his ancestor twice over, thanks to our family tree’s habit of “kissing” branches) had built walls for a living like him.  William Horton, (1792-1872) lived all his life only a mile or so away, in Lynn,  from my dad’s home at Keepers Cottage, Footherley. This patriarch is documented on the 19th century census returns, up to 1871, in his 77th year, as “bricklayer.” My dad certainly loved his job, for which he had a natural talent.  Perhaps it was “in the blood.”

My dad at about the time he was leaving Shenstone school in 1939, with the obstreperous goat, Billy. In the field at Keepers Cottage, Footherley, with the bridge over the Footherley brook in the background.

My dad at about the time he was leaving Shenstone school in 1939, with his obstreperous goat, Billy. In the field at Keepers Cottage, Footherley, with the bridge over the Footherley brook in the background.

Edwin Noah Horton left Shenstone C.E. school in the village in August 1939 with the following kind words on his report from Mr Saxton, the headmaster: “A steady and reliable boy.  He works well and can be trusted to finish a job.  Has shown great improvement in the last year.  I can recommend him.” Earlier in his school career, Mr Saxton had been more stern: “Does not do himself justice”  “Could do very well indeed if he would”  “He is inclined to let other things take his attention” are among the remarks written on school reports earlier in the 1930s, when “recitation” was a skill to be prized beside mathematics and reading, and the one academic discipline at which my father seemed to excel.  That other things took his attention was true. Book learning had not been high on his list of priorities.  Distractions included his rabbit breeding business/hobby, the odd day’s building work with his brothers, and being fetched out of school by Ma, for him to remove his unbiddable billy goat who would be head-down in the middle of Footherley Lane, defying any traffic to pass their cottage.

My dad turned 14 on August 31st 1939, the day before war broke out, which meant an unusual employment market for the young school leaver, as able bodied men volunteered for military service.  His first position was as a chauffeur-gardener to the Godrich family at Shenstone House.  Abraham Godrich had made the family fortune rapidly as a wire manufacturer in Nechells, Birmingham, and the family had gentrified as they relocated, via a villa in Streetly to the little mansion in Shenstone.  Remarkably, young Edwin Horton was tasked with driving their daughter Patricia, only a few months younger than himself, to school and back each day in their limousine.

The Lichfield "Mercury", Friday September 15th, 1944: "Guardsman Edwin Horton, of Keeper's Cottage, Footherley, Shenstone, joined the Welsh Guards in February of this year and celebrated his 19th birthday on August 31st.  He is a former member of the Shenstone Home Guard, and up to joining the Forces was in the employ of Messrs. J.R. Deacon and Co., Lichfield.

The Lichfield “Mercury”, Friday September 15th, 1944: “Guardsman Edwin Horton, of Keeper’s Cottage, Footherley, Shenstone, joined the Welsh Guards in February of this year and celebrated his 19th birthday on August 31st. He is a former member of the Shenstone Home Guard, and up to joining the Forces was in the employ of Messrs. J.R. Deacon and Co., Lichfield.

His bricklaying apprenticeship with J. R. Deacon in Lichfield followed.  Employment with them was interrupted by his service in the Welsh Guards, but they were pleased to re-engage him after the war.

In about 1951, J.R. Deacon and Co were fulfilling a large contract in Great Barr – the construction of the Brooklyn Farm Technical College.  This was an impressive project for the time, and my dad took his camera to work with him to document the construction of the building and some of the men who worked on it.  The building’s still there – now renamed the James Watt Campus of Birmingham Metropolitan University – as is the “Drake’s Drum” – the pub over the road which can be noticed in the photos.  Like my dad, most of those depicted will now be playing rainy-day, three card brag in the great site-hut in the sky – but it would be so good if some of them could be identified. Perhaps, in the computer networks of the future, there will be another way for a working man to be remembered after a thousand years.

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From a deep, muddy hole in the ground, Brooklyn Farm Technical College is born, while the “Drake’s Drum” public house looks on, anticipating many years of future business

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The steel superstructure rises out of the ground.

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Insert your own remarks about Health and Safety at work here.

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Parts of the building are clearly recognisable today.

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I love this photo of two of my dad’s colleagues. Look at the chap pointing in the background. Worthy of Picture Post, I think.

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Where is this building site? Who is this chap who looks like an extra from “The Grapes of Wrath??” What is this car?? The badge on the grille says “S.M” if that’s any clue. Looks non-British. I have trawled the web in vain for clues.

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1947. For you the war is over….

100_6302“Unterschreiben Sie hier Gefangener,” ordered the translator.

“Baier; Alfred” the prisoner inscribed, obediently, in blue ink on the form.

Prisoner number 535139, from POW Camp 96, Wolseley Road, Rugeley, was scrutinised and measured for the records: ” a) Colour of Hair.. dark brown: b) Colour of Eyes..grey c) Complexion…fresh: ……..d) Height…156cm.”

Although strong and stocky, “Gerry Alfred”,  (so called to distinguish him from his farmer-employer, my uncle, Alf Cooper) was, it seems, not very tall. He was the last in a numerous line of varied POW’s who augmented the workforce of the Owletts Hall Farm, and the Dairy Farm on Lynn Lane, Shenstone in the 1940′s – all hard workers, and some who remained friends for years after the war.

A copy of the comprehensive list of rules applying to the conduct and treatment of Prisoner Baier was left with the Cooper family, my Uncle Alfred, Aunt Mary, and their infant daughter, my cousin Rosalind.

For their part, they were to provide the prisoner “with suitable lodging quarters and full board”.  The conditions of the accommodation were described in detail – the man should be supplied with

“straw to fill palliasses, artificial light, heating, crockery, facilities for washing.” This might be within the farmhouse or “in a suitable farm building (e.g. barn or outhouse)”

Sternly underlined was the admonition: “Empty cottages which are suitable for civilian farm workers must not be used for  accommodating prisoners.”

A cottage should stand unused rather than offer shelter to a German, but in matters of food, there should be strict impartiality: “Each prisoner who lives and works on your farm must be provided with three meals a day on the same scale as for a British farm worker who lives in.  The prisoner will come under the civil rationing scheme. The Camp Commandant will issue ration books.  Farmers will be able to obtain the agricultural cheese ration for prisoners”  The standard cheese ration, per person, per week, which had been as much as 8 ounces earlier in the war, was now down to 2 ounces – a quantity equivalent to a couple of bites of a single evening snack in today’s gluttonous times.

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Alfred Baier at work on Owlett’s Hall Farm in the 1940s. Puppy Duppy sits happily at his feet, unaware of the German’s culinary designs upon her.

Aunt Mary was a resourceful cook, but like everyone, Gerry Alf was prone to complain about the monotony of the austere diet.  ” Feesh …feesh…all the time blutty feesh, ” was his frequent refrain, and although she was very young at the time, Ros remembers him looking, with wide, mischievous eyes at her little dog and saying,  ” Pup in oven…gut “

Conditions of employment included the receipt of modest wages, and the POW’s medical and dental treatment for was to be paid for by the Army Authorities, who also supplied his clothes. He was to wear battle dress, but emblazoned on the back with an almost comical large patch of felt, which displayed his POW status.  The authorities had been at pains to determine each captured alien’s degree of loyalty to the National Socialist regime he had been fighting for. The colour of the patch on their costume indicated the result of their assessment.  Lighter coloured patches indicated a relative indifference to politics.  Black patches flagged up an unrepentant Nazi – but such prisoners were seldom seen in a camp like No. 96 at Rugeley – (now invisible under the site of a sewage farm on the Rugeley-Stafford road) – they were usually dispersed to camps in remoter areas of the country, well out of harm’s way.

Nevertheless, the movements and conduct of German workers such as Alfred Baier were severely restricted.  Their employer, in the terms of the documents which accompanied his placement in Lynn Lane, was to ensure that he strayed no further than a mile from the premises, extended, with permission, and only during hours of daylight, to 5 miles on Sundays, when he was to enjoy a full day off.  Alfred had also signed his agreement to regulations which forbad fraternisation.  In particular,

German Prisoners of War may converse with members of the public but they will be warned that should any instances occur of a P.W. having entertained an attempted advance of an amorous or sexual nature he will render himself liable to vigorous and exemplary punishment.

Harsh but practical restrictions during war-time, you might say, with resignation, but it may come as a surprise to you that the date of Alfred Baier’s placement with my Uncle was 15th July 1947, over two years after VE Day, May 8th 1945, which marked the surrender of Germany to the Allies, and the end of hostilities of World War Two in Europe.

It was no idle threat that the authorities would seriously respond to breaches of the rules: A couple of months before Alfred arrived in Lynn, on the 30th May 1947 his fellow prisoner at Camp 69, Rugeley, Otto Port, was charged at a Court Martial with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline amongst prisoners of war” as a result of being found at 5 a.m. in a  hut on Tatenhill Aerodrome with a 17 year old housemaid from Burton called Eunice Jackson.  The case received extensive coverage in the press, and a very comprehensive account of the trial at Rugeley was published in The Lichfield Mercury of June 6th.  An audience were clearly agog to hear details of the young couple’s antics.  As the paper reports: “The Court was crowded by German prisoners, whilst the proceedings were also watched with interest by the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, (Lord Harrowby) and Lady Harrowby.”

Constable Tomkinson was able to relate to the avid onlookers the prurient details of a heap of radar paper strips visible to him in the airfield hut, which bore a guilty impression as if two bodies had been lying down upon them…..together!

President of the Court, Major l’Estrange, remarked that Eunice was “an extremely foolish girl,” for giving a false name, refusing to answer questions, and being so impertinent. The Defending Officer’s suggestion that it had been Eunice who was running after Otto, seems to have been widely accepted.

Otto was just 20 years old.  Can we blame him, far from home, for succumbing to the attentions of a flibbertigibbet housemaid from Horninglow Street? The court heard that the “accused was a product of Hitlerite Germany, and yet, despite the doctrine and teaching of the creed of the superior race he was not a Hitlerite Nazi.  In fact he had taken an active part in assisting victims of Nazi persecution.”  How I would love to hear Otto’s account of his war.

If the purported romance between Otto and Eunice does not impress you as a great Love Story, there were other contemporary liaisons formed between British girls and German prisoners which endured despite overwhelming opposition from their families and the authorities. June and Heinz Fellbrich celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversary in August 2007, their 1947 nuptials in Hampshire being said to be one of the first to have permission to take place between a POW and a British girl, following a slight easing of the anti-fraternisation rules.  Despite being given permission to marry his pregnant girlfriend, (a degree of fraternisation had evidently escaped the eagle-eyed authorities) Heinz spent his wedding night back in the Camp, only being finally released some six months later. When ATS Sergeant Monica Cann married POW Leo Ganter clandestinely in Shropshire some months earlier, questions about the misdemeanour had been raised in Parliament.

In their treatment of German prisoners, Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government seemed to be barefacedly flouting the Geneva Convention of 1929 which stated that at the end of hostilities all prisoners should be released and repatriated without delay. They were actually exploiting a “loophole” created by the circumstances of Germany’s surrender  - the Potsdam agreement was, technically, “provisional.”* But they had good reasons of their own to adopt this policy.  Food shortages were a continuing and worsening problem.  As many hands as possible were needed to work the land. During a parliamentary debate in April 1947, the Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, Mr Ness Evans, revealed the statistic that 163,500 German prisoners of war in Britain were currently allocated for agriculture, and assured the House that there was no intention of decreasing that number before the harvest. The Conservative MP for Leominster, Archer Baldwin,  spoke up for this sizeable army of forced labour in the debate, and enumerated the shocking fact about the “wages” they were receiving for their work:

It is of importance that the German prisoners should be kept at least for this season. We are desperately short of men. But after two years, I think it is time that these prisoners of war were paid appropriately for the work they are doing. It is disgraceful to think that these men are being paid twopence halfpenny an hour while farmers pay one shilling and fourpence for their work. We can never get good work out of these men if we are paying them in a disgraceful fashion which makes them slaves. We should educate them in the fairness of British traditions, and not give them the impression that we are keeping them as slaves after two years. Let my hon. Friend tell us that we are going to pay these men, not give them slave rates.

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The letter from Phyllis Chapman, county secretary of the WLA, confirming my mother’s placement in Lynn Lane, accompanied by her terms of employment including the modest wages she could expect to receive.

Mr Baldwin was active in the National Farmers Union, and may well have been as outraged by the “profit” on the prisoners’ labour which was being kept from the farmers by the government – a practice perhaps not confined to the employment of prisoners and displaced persons.  My mother, at just 17 years old, having joined the Women’s Land Army, also arrived in Lynn Lane in the summer of ’47, ready to work on the land, and under conditions which resembled, in some respects, those of the German prisoners.  As a trainee, and living-in (in the WLA hut in Lynn Lane) she was paid just 21 shillings and sixpence for her 48 hour week’s work – the princely sum of 5 and a half old pence per hour.  Under the supervision of the hut Warden, Mrs Brand, she and her colleagues were also accountable for their movements whilst not engaged in agricultural labour!

By the autumn of 1947 my mother was being courted by my father, and began straying just a couple of fields away from the hut in her leisure hours, to spend some time with her future brother and sister-in-law at the Owletts. She remembers Gerry Alfred as the first German prisoner she had ever encountered, and confesses to having been afraid of him, and not a little startled when she passed the open door of the outbuilding which was his billet on the farm, and came across him scrubbing his back, deep in a hip-bath of water, singing loudly in German. We can conclude that Mrs Brand kept her girls’ work parties well away from the Prisoners of War on the local farms.

Gerry Alfred didn’t want to leave Staffordshire when the time came for him to be repatriated.  His home was now in the Russian sector, and the Soviets’  treatment of the prisoners they had taken during the war was already notorious.  His apprehension about returning to Germany was probably very well founded, but it had been decided that repatriation should be completed by the end of 1948.  British men needed their jobs back now.

Rosalind’s account of the last time she saw him suggests that he was reconciled to his fate:

……it’s one of my earliest memories, seeing Gerry Alfred with his kitbag and an army lorry pulling into the yard with flapping canvas sides and men in the back singing and stamping their feet, leaning down to give him a hand up, everybody so happy, and me peeved that he was so keen to leave us.

* Some pedants might argue that the second world war only really ended with German reunification in 1990

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