staffordshirebred on Westerly sets the sun. Bill Breakwell on Westerly sets the sun. Lissa Evans on The McGonagall of Gaia La… staffordshirebred on The McGonagall of Gaia La… Lissa Evans on The McGonagall of Gaia La…
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Even his daughters are all in their ninth decade of life. Only they remain able to squint at this little photograph and confirm his identity: Edward Sheldon, my grandfather. War veteran, Seaforth Highlander with a rich Black Country accent. On the Somme and at Passchendaele, it was unspeakable. He survived his pals But they were so loyal. They revisited him always, and the big man wept.
Scion of foundry working Black Countrymen. They were hammering as Tipton began to blacken, before 1800, and they shifted, with their wives and surviving children in their wake, incrementally eastwards from Ocker Bank: first Wednesbury, then Walsall. His mother, Irish, an Egan. A big, impressive woman, who bequeathed to him her Roman Catholic faith, and her stature.
No one remains to interpret for me with certainty the sizeable wrench he grips in his strong hand, or the little vehicle, the shovel and the pipes. Behind him looms, instantly recognisable, Reedswood Power Station in its second incarnation, so this must be at least 1949, and he perhaps beyond his 50s, though he wears a cap full and pulled to one side in the attitude of two decades earlier. His collarless shirt has its sleeves rolled up. Is he warm? Is it summer? Is it the poor quality of the photograph, or the product of Walsall’s chimney stacks, although less numerous by now, that is the cause of the hazy atmosphere?
The cooling towers are gone, and I try to picture where he is standing from studying the shape they make on the skyline here. An ariel photograph of Pouk Hill from the same era suggests to me that the chimney and buildings to the right resemble the Rubery Owen brickworks, but that would mean that Reedswood Park must extend behind him in this picture. I can almost read some letters chalked on the wagon. He was a pipe fitter by trade – sent far and wide by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company – but here he is caught, mysteriously, alone – just him with his wrench and the unknown photographer. I read that the BCN was involved in the installation of two Mather and Platt pumps near the Anson Bridge on the canal, their purpose to pump water to the power station, and I speculate – floundering for clues – that his expertise might have been relevant to their maintenance.
No questions for the distaff side to be trusted to answer, these. But I can and will loudly tell you his name. If this photograph turned up in an anonymous box in a junk shop, or if its fragments, heaven forbid, floated to you from some seasonal bonfire, I suppose that he would be just some working man blocking the view of industrial archeology.
Postscript: 18/10/16: With the help of the online community, the site has been identified as the nascent Beechdale Estate, an early service road in the near background, and the activity, the laying of new water mains, as an employee of the South Staffordshire Water Company. Looking forward to any further information about the other chimney stacks…….
If I climb up a short way behind this gravity-defying pile of stones in the Welsh mountains that I now call home, I can view a dozen lofty peaks three times higher than the eminences of Barr Beacon and Castle Ring, which were the most elevated points in my childhood landscape of South Staffordshire.
I can even see Cardigan Bay this morning, in the clear Autumn sunlight, but yet I suffer very much from hiraeth, as they say around here. This is the longing for a point on the life graph which, it really must be remembered, has two, equally important, axes: time and place.
But it is lovely here today. On this valley-side platform, which has evidence of human habitation stretching back through the last several millenia, my upbringing in the lowlands engenders a feeling of vertigo in me: It’s as if I am looking down from the balcony of an auditorium, onto a screen which shows a long, slow, musical film in which the leading roles are played by waving treetops, brisk singing water, ravens, buzzards, and a chorus-line of a million songbirds. I gasped with starstruck delight to find that the osprey is even an occassional guest star. This glamorous show-stopper, I surmise, is contracted to a studio elsewhere, and has now migrated for the winter. If this were the Savoy, at Townend Bank in Walsall, as frequented by my parents in the late 1940’s, I’d be in one of the very best of the soft, plush seats and I would have handed over two-and-thruppence, Mother tells me, at the booth in the huge foyer, where any sort of chocolate could also be purchased. She wrinkles her nose at the thought of the cheaper seats at the Classic, known to them as “the Flea-Pit” at the bottom of Stafford Street, run by two enterprising middle aged ladies.
The finest vantage point from which to view the past seems not to be high ground, but underground. My memories are the “deepest” cracklings of my mind, and my earliest personal archaeology resides at the bottom of boxes, comprising photographs, diaries, and precious slips of paper. Buried treasure. The faces of the dead start to lose their definition in our mind’s eye within months of their demise, but here are their features, sharply rendered in the heist of a breathing, smiling moment, so clear and real an image that you find yourself lobbing a few light conversational words at it. How could I begin to recall the exact strokes of his writing? Yet here is the actual imprint of his moving hand. I gathered up whatever I could from 155, Bosty Lane in 2007. The present seems out of focus in comparison.
My father was 81 when he died, but had barely stopped working. Apprenticed as a bricklayer to J. R. Deacon of Lichfield in the early years of the war, his position was left open for him during his service in the Welsh Guards. He rose to general foreman but “went on his own” during the 50’s and was responsible both for the construction of trendy modern edifices, and the sensitive repair of dear old buildings throughout the Lichfield, Walsall, and Birmingham area. The projects were smaller and smaller undertakings* as he got into his 60s and 70s, but the working clothes still got a regular outing. The under layer was that mysteriously insulating garment, a string vest, followed by a shirt whose collar couldn’t stand another turning by my mother, always with a tie, that perhaps worn just a little skew-whiff. Brown dungarees were for building work and the white over-trousers and jacket for painting and decorating. Both were of a thick cotton that had been laundered over the years into a soft and comforting fabric. The painting and decorating outfit was a coat of many colours when inspected closely, bearing the painterly battle scars of a portfolio of jobs that encompassed the capacious sitting rooms of Rosemary Hill Road and the factory toilet facilities at Churchhouses factory. Tools were gathered in what I thought was an ingenious means of carrying them – a bag made of a complete circle of tough brown hessian stuff, with handles either side. Flat on the floor it displayed every hammer and chisel at once to be chosen from, but everything could be clanged and chimed together in an instant for transport purposes.
It wasn’t all about the mortar and the paint. The customers were his friends. He didn’t get rich out of them, that’s for sure. Interesting tales filtered home of lives beyond our experience. In Four Oaks, Miss Harvey’s ancient aunt, who lived with her, had been a suffragette, and armed with an enormous ear trumpet, was able to detect my father’s responses to her fiery anecdotes of activism before the first war. In Brownhills, Barry Chaplin has sunk all of his money into the “Beehive” – an old pub, converted into a foundry, and intended to make a fortune. My dad pointed the brickwork under the upper windows by leaning out of them with me holding on to his ankles. This is true.
Mr Sparshott’s affluent ancestors on his mother’s side had bequeathed him a vineyard in Bordeaux. The old man used to beckon my father away from his work and into the greenhouse of his enormous garden in Court Drive, Shenstone, when Mrs Sparshott wasn’t looking, under the pretext of sampling what had arrived in the latest crate, but really in order to muse on life with an affable companion, who was an excellent listener. I even remember my dad’s amused report on one of their conversations about their different stations in life: “Just got in the right place in the queue when they were handing out parents,” was Leon Sparshott’s pithy conclusion. I trace to this my firmly held belief that we deserve neither credit nor blame for where we are born. Never a drinker, my dad used to have to repair to his father’s home, Keeper’s Cottage, in Footherley Lane, to sober up before driving home to my waspish Mother. The smell of alcohol on his breath was cause enough for vexation, and they would only be able to put an invoice in for half a day’s work.
But that’s how he was happy to approach the working day, expecially after his heart attack. I nearly lost him in 1971. He knew stress was the killer. In season, each Tuesday was strictly reserved for fly-fishing at Packington Lake in Warwickshire. And if his day undertaking regular maintenance work on the Avion in Aldridge included a lunchtime hiatus for a pool contest or an opportunity to record the changing face of Aldridge’s road system, then I for one, don’t blame him.
*Sometimes literally. One lovely lady could turn to no-one but my father, to carpenter neat little (lined) coffins for her beloved late cats, and supervise laying them to rest in her garden.
Like many old dwellings, Keepers Cottage, Orgreave boasted a wooden threshold gently gouged concave with age, but not at the front door, through which I was ceremoniously carried, when we became its owners. No, this one had been fashioned by the tread of generations of feet passing between what were, at the end of our time there, the cottage’s commodious kitchen and its smaller, square, sitting room.
Up at the top, revealed when renovations began, the arrangement of the roof timbers, and the treatment of some of the brickwork in the loft, suggested to my father that the worn threshold might mark an old entrance point, where stoutly shod feet would have passed indoors from a dusty yard where the brick lined cylinder of the well we discovered still plunges secretly beneath a safe, thick, layer of concrete.
In the time of our predecessors of the last 200 years or more, this now internal doorway divided what were described as the “offices” of the scullery and sunken pantry from the busy living kitchen. This was the arrangement of rooms remembered by our older neighbour, from his childhood in the 1930s. Where a wood burner now cheered our television-watching evenings, once had burned a bright fire in the black-leaded range. Bill could still see his young self, with his friend Brian, warming themselves there, as they enjoyed a piece of bread and dripping thrust into their small hands by Brian’s mother, Mrs Johnson, the gamekeepers wife, to keep them quiet for just a minute. The boys wouldn’t sit still for long, eager to run back outside amongst the hedgerows of hawthorn and holly and the planted spinneys of aspen and Scots Pine, where Harold Johnson seasonally found wild partridge to nurture. The unfortunate hatchlings would be shot with great pleasure by Mr. Harrison and his aristocratic guests, come autumn. Bill recited some of the famous names who had been refreshed by Mrs Johnson’s comestibles and their own hip flasks in the “parlour” of our cottage, but I have forgotten who these tweedy, moustachioed Edwardians were. Despite my having no small amount of firearms training from my father, why should I identify with them?
I felt lucky to be given Bill’s word-portrait of the cottage’s former layout, but tangible evidence of the old life was already all around. See the bars at the pantry window, so that cool air could be let in but intruders kept out? And the salt-saturated walls, that still, decades later, bled stains into the renewed render and plaster. They were the legacy of the curing upon the thrall of the flesh of many a poor old piggy, reared a few strides away in what was our woodshed now. The low walls of the old sty had been raised in the 1960’s, according to the date neatly scratched by the Wychnor Estate’s builder in the concrete. The same effort of modernisation had seen an indoor bathroom installed, and almost swept away traces of the old privy, still covertly marked in our early days there by the scattered bricks of its footings and a vigorous patch of nettles, which love a nitrogen-rich earth to weave their nets of gingery roots through.
The arguments began immediately. Me, in favour of a meditatively slow soaking and scraping of the remnants of pre-war wallpaper from the undulating lime plaster surface of the walls and ceilings of the cottage bedrooms. He, my fiancé, an alarmingly masked and be-goggled alien, a colourful plastic carrier bag tied protectively over his curly hair, is armed with a scutch hammer. He loathes the old plaster I am trying to preserve. Back in the farm hand’s 400 year old tied cottage in Hickleton, Yorkshire, which, at 19 years old, he had begun his first married life with his late wife in 1963, the unsealed limestone walls had coughed dust into the air, to their constant annoyance. The dust might get worse before it gets better, but our old plaster, fortified with the hair of forgotten horses, has to go.
I watch sulkily at he kicks up a thick, choking, puther of pale pink particles. He abrades the chalky flesh from the venerable skeleton of Keeper’s Cottage over the course of the next couple of week-ends. The debris is wheelbarrowed down the garden, where, for years to come, it helps to raise the pH of the already hospitable loam of the vegetable plot. Earth to earth. He doesn’t hold back from throwing all of his considerable strength and energy into what he sees as this necessary job. These walls have perched sufficiently solidly on their sandstone block foundations for centuries, but now they rhythmically tremble because of a late-millenial desire for cleanliness and straight lines that I simply don’t share.
My father winced in time with those blows. He had considerable experience of working on old cottages round and about Lichfield, and he had an oft-repeated theory: that they stand up, despite their single-skin construction, despite any sags and twists in their structure, or even in seeming defiance of gravity, simply through the almighty “Force of Habit.”
You disrespect the proper, incremental pace of their movement at your peril. But Keepers Cottage survives, and now lives its next long day as yet another family’s home.
Now long ago, in the Summer months of 1991, whilst I still could, in the sitting room, before the excavation, before the plastic membrane, and, onto it, the gravelly retchings of concrete from the wheelbarrow, I took joy in the fact that the floor we inherited was still paved with red clay pammets. They were laid directly onto the sandy earth. When they were lifted, pieces of a broken clay pipe gleamed whitely beneath them like old chicken bones buried in the dust. I wheeled round on my heels in the little square room, in those early days, before we were married, wondering what my future life would be like in my new home. It was a comfortable thought that generations of housewifely shoes had pattered, long full skirts brushing around them, across these very blocks of terracotta, laid a very long time ago by a workman who paused in his labour to enjoy a screw of baccy through his clay pipe. For all I know, that stack of baked earth pieces that we removed, that jumbled floor, custodians of faint ghosts of a million purposeful footfalls, will remain piled at the edge of the garden where we left it in the lee of the Dutch barn, until frosty winters finally erode them beyond re-use.
Why the weight of meaning to stepping on the invisible footprints of the dead? I often thought about my predecessor, Mrs. Ivy Johnson as I trod where, in neat apron, so house-proud, she herself had daily trod for sixty years. I knew her at the end of her life. And I can read from the 1911 census that in that year, it was Mrs. Lizzie Blake, aged 30, who had watched through my windows for the return of her husband, the butler, George. Of her, I hold a detailed mental picture, although it may be almost entirely inaccurate. What of my earlier counterparts? Those who had bent over a cooking pot there, or, just as I did, as a prelude to the working day, brushed morning dew off the greenness of the singing springtime Staffordshire verges as they passed on an early walk?
They are a fellowship of anonymous individuals.
The wealthy and literate have left a surer trace of their movements in the locality. This time of year, in my later years at Orgreave, I was lucky enough weave my dreamy way through the bluebells that unfurled into a haze of sapphire charm around the grounds surrounding what used to be Yoxall Lodge, then open to visitors. I brought to mind the gentle poet John Gisborne, who was brought up there in the late 18th century, and continued passionately to love the natural beauty of Needwood Forest throughout his life. It was his brother Thomas who was to make the lodge his family home in adulthood. In the Autumn of 1806, according to a careful record of his life by his daughter, Emma, John Gisborne and his wife Millicent, (a step daughter of Erasmus Darwin), moved to Orgreave Hall from their home near Newborough, because they were appalled by the irresistible changes afoot as a result of forest enclosures.
When I was young, my dad would often drive us around the pretty lanes beyond Yoxall, within the bounds of the old Needwood for a Summer afternoon outing. The landscape of frothing hedgerows and little green fields seemed the epitome of an unadulterated rural landscape to me then. I knew nothing of “enclosure,” or that the weighty oaks surviving at the field corners, or displaying their imposing silhouettes to good advantage isolated amidst a field, were remnants of a once magnificent Forest of Needwood. The tall, attractive, Georgian farmhouses, built with lovely symmetry in that warm, familiar, plum-red brick, seemed as if they had grown out of the earth there, so well do they suit their position within their ring-fenced requisitioned acres, accessed from the arrow straight lanes that had been driven through the forest.
To my peasant antecedents of the district, seven or eight generations back, I now realise, they must have seemed like brutalist symbols of dispossession, their geometrical lines fierce in contrast to older, lower, rambling farmhouses near the sides of the winding lanes.
Sunday afternoon tea with a customer whose cottage at Hadley End my dad had worked on was a treat. There, I remember finding the new flavour of “granary” bread and butter an exciting revelation, and the glory of the antique-stuffed, gentrified, little cottage was very attractive, but necessitated walking sideways. Mom kept me well away from a marble bust positioned on a plinth, although it drew my attention mightily.
Hoar Cross Hall – not yet an hotel or “spa”- was newly open to the public in the early 70’s, and we visited many times in the following years. The eclectic mix of displays of arms and armoury, collections of period costume and textiles, and generally dusty and magically atmospheric corners in lofty panelled rooms meant that there was something there to fascinate each of us. The old family had gone from the grand, Elizabethan style house. We knew that they had been the fox-hunting Meynells, and that a pious widow of their number had commissioned the stunning Church of the Holy Angels near the hall, in memory of her husband. That woman was Emily Wood, who was born at Hickleton Hall, a century before and a mile away from where my future spouse entered the world. His family’s bread and butter – and jam and cheese – got onto their tables through the indirect agency of Emily’s relatives, the Lords Halifax, coal owners. They were also granted the tenancy of a spacious, modern house and garden, all in return for the hard labour that maimed and poisoned and choked their menfolk into early graves.
The church of St Michael and All Angels, adjacent to the old manor at Hamstall Ridware had captivated us even before the commercial enterprise of the “Ridware Arts Centre” opened in the early 1980’s. My mother, never usually given to spiritual pronouncements, declared the site of the bench outside the South front to be the most inspiring spot she knew, suffused with a feeling of auspicious calm.
With visitors encouraged in to purchase crafts and pottery in the barn, and to view the restoration of the stables and cart sheds surrounding the yard, it became possible to approach close to the old Manor House itself, sit in its garden, and wander around the detached Tudor tower and incongruous gatehouse, too. The nearby looming mass of Rugeley Station is barely perceptible from the village, and 30 years ago, when the lanes suffered less traffic, and the new-builds had only just begun to sprout, you could imagine that the appearance of Hamstall Ridware had changed little in the 200 years since the Leighs finally ceased maintaining the manor house as a residence, if you were to ignore the gradual deforestation of the surrounding land.
Closely related via their Leigh family connections, in 1806, the Rector of Hamstall Ridware, Edward Cooper received a lengthy visit from his – later – more famous cousin, Jane Austen. The as yet unpublished writer spent five summer weeks in the rectory along with her mother, and sister Cassandra, as guests of Edward, his wife, and their children. Some scholars have found many parallels between the landscape of the Ridwares with the fictional Dorsetshire village of Delaford in her novel “Sense and Sensibility”. Indeed “Ridware” means “dwellers by the ford.” Others see a less than flattering portrait of Edward Cooper in her portrayal of Elizabeth’s unsuccessful, pompous suitor, Mr Collins, in “Pride and Predudice,” although local Midland obituaries of him on his death in 1833 seem sincerely complimentary.
Apart from the evidence of her later fiction, we have no record of Jane Austen’s activitiesin Staffordshire , her most Northerly sojourn. Other of Reverend Cooper’s visitors described outings to Tutbury Castle, to Lichfield, or making visits to notable local families such as the Ardens in Yoxall, (descendants of relatives of Shakespeare’s mother), so it is easy to presume that Jane and her family enjoyed these diversions too. But was the modest Queen Anne mansion of Orgreave Hall of sufficient interest to warrant the short enough carriage ride from Hampstall? Did the kid leather slippers of our most feted female novelist make contact with the grounds I walked in on a thousand mornings?
One of Edward Cooper’s closest friends and neighbours was Thomas Gisborne of Yoxall Lodge. For the two friends, along with Thomas’s brother John, 1806 was a year of bitter disappointment. The meetings and the protests that they had attended in opposition to the enclosure of Needwood Forest had been in vain, and the act that facilitated it was passed by parliament. Edward’s intelligent, sociable cousin could not fail to be interested in the contentious issue of local enclosures. Did her cousin’s fellow campaigner, John Gisborne invite her to view the home he was to move to in just a few weeks’ time, to escape the excruciating sight of the destruction of his beloved Needwood?
The last time I went to Fishpond Cottage was in about 1968, soon after my dad’s Uncle Jack had died. Whoever now owned it, or, for all I know, had owned it all along, wanted it completely refurbished, and had engaged my dad to do the job. No one was living in the old place, so, as was often the case, I happily tagged along with him. We turned off from the busy Chester Road, away from the modern world, through that most secret gap in the trees, and bounced along on what seemed to me a long, curving lane between the woods and the quarry in our van. I can just about still bring to mind an impression of a large, gloomy living room with a beamed, low ceiling. In it was a black varnished piano, whose keys I was allowed to bang tunelessly on. It must once have been Uncle Jack’s or Aunt Gertrude’s. She had been gone a few years. I remembered overhearing the story of how, after her very last breath, when Uncle Jack opened the window of her room at Fishponds to release her soul, he literally saw a milky vapour rise from the bed and leave. So whichever spirit haunted the place, it wasn’t her.
There wasn’t much that my skilful dad couldn’t do for an old building like Fishpond Cottage. He could lovingly re-point the old brickwork that had sheltered members of our Horton family during the past 7 decades. He could re-plaster walls as smooth as glass, and chamfer just the right bit of wood to make good the loss from rot on an old lintel. Electricals he left alone. His sparky was a great big chap from Lazy Hill Road. This man normally had a very puffed-up demeanour, but my dad received a breathless phone call from him late one night after he had been working alone at Fishponds, and without giving much detail, he said that under no circumstances was he ever, ever, going back there.
The Fishpond Cottages, at some point, became a single dwelling: – A rangy, white rendered affair that has changed hands in the last couple of years for a sum that would make my great uncle’s and my granddad’s mouths drop open in astonishment.
Back in the 1900s, there were four distinct households at Fishponds, living in what seem to have been three humble four-roomed cottages. From at least 1901, one of these housed Gertrude and her numerous brothers and sisters – a family headed by her father John Horton, related to me via two or three branches of my family tree.
By 1911, my great grandfather Thomas Horton also lived in another one of the cottages, with his wife Elizabeth, and their two youngest children – that is, their sons (Alfred) Noah – who would become my grandad, and John (Uncle Jack).
On the night of the census, April 2nd, 1911, Gertrude was not registered at her own home. Instead she was hob-nobbing next door with her second-cousins. My family seldom troubled themselves to seek far or wide for a suitable spouse. Noah married his cousin Mary Elizabeth Blann in 1912, and brought her home to Fishponds where their first child, my Aunt Mary, was born the following year. Then Jack married Gertrude, in the spring of 1914. Crowded out of the tiny house, or with my grandmother characteristically possessive over space and attention, my grandparents shifted the little distances to Shire Oak Hill, and thence to The Vigo, and finally back to the company of trees in Keeper’s Cottage, under Footherly Woods. I do imagine an unbearable bickering in the scullery amongst the sisters-in-law, and the mother-in-law (who was also aunt, and cousin) before they left, about which my grandmother might have borne a bitter grudge, because my Aunt Mary later remembered how the joys of a forbidden visit to her relatives at the Fishponds had, later, to be savoured very secretly…
When we were very young, Bill, me, one in the push chair used to go for a walk, taken by Dad. It must have been on Sunday mornings. The highlight of the walk was sitting on Uncle Jack’s and Aunt Gertrude’s squab, eating bread and butter spread with marrow and ginger jam. When we started home Dad used to take Cousin Georgina [Jack and Gertrude’s only child] with us as far as the road, then sent her back. Then he would spit on his hanky and wipe round our mouths so there would be no sign of food and say ” Now, if you tell your Mam , she won’t let you go again. Now… what ain’t you got to tell Mam ?”
Fishponds was a strange place to live, when you think about it: Isolated, unconnected to the nearby settlements of Stonnall or Walsall Wood, which were, even so, so near; hemmed in by trees and the adjacent excavations. I don’t see the cottages mentioned by name earlier than the turn of the 20th century. Could they have been constructed for workers at the quarry? If so, how come my grandfather and his family ( then coal miners), and his cousin, Gertrude’s father, John ( a bricklayer) lived in them? And what of the Fish Pond itself? Clearly marked on maps contemporary with my family’s occupation, just how old was it, and why was it significant enough to give its name to the wood, and the cottages? Was it, as it appears to me, man made? What was its connection with the Iron Age Hillfort of “Castle Hill,” looming on the other side of the Chester Road?
By the 1960s, only Uncle Jack and Aunt Gertrude remained at Fishponds, and our association with it ended soon afterwards, when the required work on the cottage was completed. Their parents were long dead, of course, and I don’t know when Gertrude’s remaining siblings had drifted away. Records show that her pigeon fancying brother Bert seems still to have been knocking about at Fishponds according to an account of a hearing at the Brownhills Petty Sessions in August 1934: A fauna-based fracas involving a rabbit, a pigeon and a duck resulted in a telling off from Mr Cooper, the prosecutor, and payment of costs, with the pugnacious Horton brothers and their associate John Seedhouse bound over to keep the peace.
…………Fragments of hand written notes come to me from my Aunt Mary about her early years in Stonnall and Walsall Wood, and married life in Lynn Lane, transcribed by my cousin Rosalind. Along with stories I remember her telling me, these form the entire basis of what follows…..
There’s yet another commotion in Aldridge Road. What is it now? It’s now a bit late in the morning for it to be poor Jimmy Pitt, who came back “touched” from The Great War a couple of years ago. With a broom stale under his arm, gruff and hysterical, it would be grey dawn at The Vigo when he had loudly drilled his imaginary troops on the pavement, just as the neighbours on “earlies” left him behind on their way to the pit.
Whatever this fracas is, it must be something sensational to be causing people to rush across the street in such numbers that Mary Horton has no hope of observing proceedings properly from street level. So she darts back under the brick arch and through the entry, to the rear of the tightly packed row of two up, two down, terraced cottages, and into to the yard where the privies steam gently behind their gappy wooden doors. Now she can get into their house through the scullery, and bolt up the narrow, enclosed staircase to the front bedroom, a perfect vantage point.
This is the room where, come 1925, my father, Edwin Noah Horton would be born: Mary’s last little brother, and the final child in this, particular, Horton brood.
I can drive myself a few miles, morbid and eccentric, and stand within this very column of empty but significant air right this minute, if I so wish. But my toes would dip into the modern day gutter and I am in danger of having them amputated by much passing traffic at the top of what was once Aldridge Road, but is now called Northgate. Behind me, three or four boring modern houses sit behind their small front gardens on the very spot where a score of crowded households birthed and were bereaved in the shadow of the collieries and the brickworks early in the last century.
Above me, on my precarious kerb, and in another time and space, the child, copper haired Mary, presses her high forehead (a characteristic of our family physiognomy that I share) eagerly against the window pane, sapphire gimlet eyed towards the place from which, this particular day, the screams are issuing………….
No, not yet time for my father, but there had been a baby in Mary’s house recently. Little Margaret May Horton had been dressed up far finer and fancier than Mary or even sister Nellie (and she “the pretty one”) had ever been. Mary had spied her – lying still, waxen and be-ribboned – in a wooden box, on a high shelf that Mary was supposed not to be able to reach. For days, before the funeral, she believed that, beyond her wildest dreams, her parents had procured a beautiful doll that she might be able to play with ostentatiously on the front step. What exquisite envy that might have inspired in the hearts of Aggie Mushkin, Louie Beardmore, and Dolly Cowley, who also lived in the row. The boys in the gang (each of the five roads that meet at The Vigo has its own) had other fish to fry. But Mary remembered she was often up to mischief with them, that is, Mushy Tolley, Bachy Pinches, Mary’s brother Bill and cousin Jimmy.
We tormented the lamplighter by following him and shinning up the lamp post and pulling the chain which put the light out – then shouting ” Your lamps gone out !”. We helped ourselves to fruit from a cart pulled by a small pony. Pony quietly waited for his boss to come out of the pub. Guess who carried the fruit down the entry for the share out ? ME.. the only one with a skirt. We tied door knobs together, knocked the doors and watched the struggle to open the doors. We rubbed wet fingers on windows which produced a sound quite unbearable. We followed courting couples up dark lanes sniggering aloud when they went into a clinch and got chased for our pains. Dad called us in about 9 o’clock.
Mary also read avidly: “Peg’s Paper,” “Red Letter,” and, when she could get away with it unnoticed, “The News of the World” with its salacious tales of horrible murder. That was alright in print, but did she really want to look at what was transpiring across the road? No, but she couldn’t take away her eyes from the scene. And whose house was it?
Across the road from where we lived were five houses in the shape of an L upside down. The first house was used as a barn Mr Tolley kept his pony, cart, hay, straw and all kinds of things in it. He was a stone breaker for the roads. He once showed me a stone he had just broken, it contained a space in the shape of a caterpillar. The stone was the size of a big potato.
Next to the barn was the home of Lottie Pinches and her family, then Tolley’s house. Mrs Tolley wore a dark coloured bustle dress, floor length, when she walked she appeared to float.
Two more houses formed the bar of the L. Our bedroom window was directly opposite the two houses, there was a Mrs Whitbread and her two sons in one, and a woman who appeared to live alone occupied the last house. One morning the woman was screaming, I ran upstairs to see better as everybody seemed to be rushing to her house. Looking across their gardens I saw the woman come out of her house in a flame, People tried to beat out the flames but she kept backing away saying “Don’t touch me ” and eventually fell over into her pigsty. Her screaming stopped. The ambulance came and she was carried through the garden and down to the road in a red hospital blanket, as the passed a tree near her back door something dropped from the blanket, a man stopped, made a hole and buried the object, when he caught up with the others he shouted ” That was her hand , I buried it ”
For weeks I was terrified to look through the window across the garden to the tree. As soon as my eyes closed I saw the hand squirming out of the ground, fingers flexing as though looking for the body, I was sure if it saw me it would ” cotton on ” to me. Can’t remember how long my fear of the hand lasted. It seemed a long, long time. She had poured a can of paraffin over herself and set herself on fire.
I wonder whether Orgreave House feels uncertain…. and a little wistful…. about its identity? After all, if it wasn’t for its gracious neighbour, the Queen Anne mansion of Orgreave Hall, it would be the largest and most imposing dwelling in our hamlet.
And its architectural personality is full of contradictions.
It turns its Sunday face to the south. Bay windows bulge from its two principal reception rooms, scanning a large, sweeping lawn, that is adorned by a majestic cedar tree. The formal entrance drive – protected by a surprisingly substantial cattle grid – curves its way through mature rhododendrons, that welcome visitors with large gaudy blooms in the springtime.
But if you should make the muddy trudge to the rear – tradesman’s – entrance, where a gate leads into a generous courtyard bordered with outbuildings, the house squints at you as you pass the utilitarian windows of its north facing service rooms. On this side, the building abuts immediately onto the now blind ended track, that long ago and for many centuries gave access past the site of the Hall to Alrewas and beyond. No longer troubled by the passages of cart, pack horse and pedlar, instead it endures its proximity to what is a rutted shunting area for Hall Farm’s big, busy, blundering, pea-green tractors.
And the north-eastern corner of the house terminates most oddly in a single, foursquare crenellated tower.
The Orgreave House of two hundred and fifty years ago I imagine as a neat and almost symmetrical Georgian building, that still secretly forms the south-western core of the present house. Much later “improvements”, including the tower, the parapets atop the porch and bays, and the asymmetrical extension to the east, suggest inspiration drawn dilutely from the Gothic Revival style.
A map held at Stafford Record Office helps to put this house into context in mid 18th century “Orgrave” – as the cartographer spelled it – probably during a survey conducted in connection with the purchase of the Alrewas and Orgreave Estates by Admiral Lord Anson from the Turton family.
At the end of the 19th century, alterations to the house, and development of the outbuildings to provide copious stabling were undertaken by Mr. Henry Edward Audley Charles, with assistance from Walsall architects H. E. Lavender. The Lichfield Mercury of 29th November 1901 speaks of veterinarian Mr Charles’ “equine veterinary hospital” at Orgreave House, although he had been at pains to publicise, via his own advertisement in the newspaper that year, that his “shoeing forge” had been transferred from here to Frog Lane, Lichfield.
Mr. Henry Edward Audley Charles was a scion of the affluent Charles Family of Pelsall Hall, but his family had deep roots in Orgreave: His grandmother, Catherine, who married Thomas Charles at All Saints Church, Kings Bromley on Christmas eve in 1816, had been born in Orgreave. Her father, Henry Smith, is described – in his will of 1817 – as a Yeoman, in possession of the copyhold and freehold of various local tracts of land.
Catherine and Thomas’s second son, Abraham Charles, took up some of his matrilineal inheritance at Orgreave, where he settled with his wife, Hephzibah. Their son, Henry Edward Audley Charles was born at Orgreave in January 1871, but, sadly, the beautifully named Hepzibah died only weeks later.
Happier times, perhaps, are captured by the enumerator of the 1901 census as he visited Orgreave House. Now 30, Henry, the successful veterinarian, and his wife Kate, live here with their eight year old daughter Muriel and her three younger brothers, Edmond, John, and Hugh. A governess and nurse are on hand to take care of the children, whilst a groom and two maids attend to other domestic duties. Intriguingly, the whole family shortly up-sticks and emigrate to Canada, where Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, was pursuing a vigorous policy of inviting suitable new citizens to his country. Farmers were preferred, but opportunities must have been manifold for an expert equestrian vet, in that horse powered age.
Orgreave House is thus available to let. What sort of tenant would be soothed by the familiar toy-fort tones of its nether reaches, and appreciate the ample accommodation available for their grooms and horses? Who better than senior army officers, from the local Whittington Barracks?
Wintertons auctioneers held a sale of some of the effects that are no longer required by Captain Occleston and his wife in the spring of 1909, as they prepared for their posting abroad. The keys to Orgreave House were duly handed over to Brigadier General George Frederick Gorringe, C.M.G., D.S.O, appointed in April 1909 as Commander of the whole 18th Infantry Brigade at Whittington. What with the Sports Club, the officers’ Golf Club, the Barracks’ own Beagle Pack and the meets of the South Staffs or the Meynell Hunt who drew the coverts within easy reach of Orgreave, the Brigadier General was unable to make it to the Grand National in 1911. A piece of ephemera that has fluttered its way to me on the etherial breeze from eBay lets me peep at him making his courteous apologies to “May” from his desk at Orgreave:
Orgreave House, Near Lichfield
21 March 1911
My dear May
I am so very sorry but I shall not be able to accompany you to the National – I saw Herbert Hamilton & he is going from Stafford with Sir Bruce….but Thompson is going and Percival from here & possibly others who you know. So I do hope you will come here all the same, or my slump of luck will be indeed be heavy so au revoir on Thursday.
Yours as ever
The old charmer. Did May manage to rendez-vous with the party at Orgreave that Thursday, I wonder, and travel with Percival to Aintree? Did she arrive unchaperoned, with her huge hats and her furbelowed skirts to what was an almost exclusively masculine menage at Orgreave House? Just a week or so later, on Sunday April 2nd, 1911, in Gorringe’s distinctive, confident handwriting, he makes a list of his household for that decade’s census, noting that the house boasts a plentiful 20 rooms. The Brigadier General, his brother, Leonard, and the horses, are being cared for by a staff of eight young men – a butler, footman, orderly, kitchen boy, gardener, and three grooms. The gardener’s new wife, Sarah Powell, Gorringe’s cook, is the only woman in the place. Contrast this manly crew with the staff controlled by the butler in the employ of William Edward Harrison at nearby Orgreave Hall – it is its mirror opposite. There, Mr.Bird finds himself in charge eight female staff – cook, lady’s maid, and a small flutteration of young maids and children’s nurses – this a much more typical profile, as female domestic staff are both more numerous and considerably cheaper than their male counterparts in 1911.
George Gorringe was a bachelor in his forties during his appointment at Whittington between 1909 and 1911. Over 20 years in the regular army had seen him actively – and effectively – involved in a remarkable six military campaigns. During the Mahdist War in the 1890s in Sudan, he brushed shoulders with both Winston Churchill, and the more famous Lance Corporal Jack Jones. When Corporal Jones’ mentor, Lord Kitchener, had secured the reconquest of the Sudan at the Battle of Omdurman, and overseen the first steps in rebuilding Khartoum ( a process in which Gorringe was said to be closely involved), Gorringe left Sudan for South Africa with Kitchener, as his temporary Aide-de-camp. During the Boer War, Gorringe cemented his reputation as an effective soldier, although his heirs have judged him harshly for his role in the execution of justice against civilians who he deemed to have been assisting the Afrikaner enemy. How strange life must have been for him, marooned here in Staffordshire, in temperate weather, with no apparent threat to his life, an active social life to conduct, and the prospect of semi-retirement in “staff” roles for the rest of his career.
Winston Churchill desperately sought out the conflict in Sudan of the late ’90s as the only live theatre of war in which he could test his mettle as soldier and as writer. His first publication “The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan” was the fruit of that. By the time the Great War was really underway in 1915, no British – or Colonial -man had to look far for the opportunity to fight. In Canada, Henry Edward Audley Charles joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps. An experienced officer like Gorringe was, of course, a most valuable asset to the army. With his endurance both of unfavourable climates and the difficulty of waging war where insect infested water was both too deep for tanks and too shallow for boats, he was given a command in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). Himself a 21st century soldier with experience of fighting in Iraq, Paul Knight mentions Gorringe in his book “The British Army in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918.”
…….if ever a determined General was needed to force through a victory on the Euphrates, it was Gorringe. Russell Brandon, writing in 1969 considered him to be: “…..the ideal man for a relentless slog. A big man, highly coloured, deeply tanned, officious and utterly without tact. He reminded those less insensitive than himself of an enormous he-goat, and allowed nothing – not Turks, counter-attacks, casualties, swamps, Marsh Arabs, or deeply entrenched redoubts to stop him.”
He doesn’t sound like a fellow that May would have recognised.