A few weeks ago I headed west along the A5 in search of my Shropshire roots. Ah, that A5. Thomas Telford’s improvement of the “Watling Street’, closely following the Roman road from London to Holyhead has now been honoured with brown Tourist Board signs denoting “Historic Route”.
For many Midland families, joining the A5 and heading west has heralded the start of annual holidays in North Wales. I still feel an echo of childish delight passing the landmarks: the black and white viaduct with Telford’s name on it, near the start of the journey; then “The noted Ham and Eggery” inscribed on the wall of the Bell Inn; and Atcham, now bypassed, where my mom would shout “Atcham!” when the village sign came into view, and my dad would unfailingly reply “Where they catch’em!”. And then the majestic Wrekin, precursor to the lofty peaks of Snowdonia, the awe inspiring climax of the journey.
These days, I also think about my great-grandfather, Enoch Blann who took the A5 in the opposite direction in the 1870s, from the rolling green hills, rich in mineral wealth, south west of Shrewsbury, to the vicinity of the newly opened colliery in Walsall Wood. He was not alone. Incoming workers from the lead, copper and barytes mines of Shropshire founded several Walsall Wood dynasties.
By the time of his death in 1913, Enoch had established his own business in Walsall Wood High Street, and was listed in Kelly’s Directory as a shopkeeper. His wife Fanny completed the 1911 census form for the family, and described her husband’s occupation as “haulier”. My impression is of a resourceful man who would exploit what opportunities he could to maximise his income. My grandmother spoke of her father as “Nocky Blann, the coal haulier”, but also reminisced about their selling fish and chips through a window of their dwelling, and having an ice cream cart plying the streets of Walsall Wood in the summers before the First World War.
Fanny Blann, nee Shingler, Enoch’s wife, was a local girl who had been brought up in Cartersfield Lane, Stonnall. When they married in 1890, she already had a three-year-old illegitimate son. That Enoch took the lad on, and that David Shingler soon took his stepfather’s name to become known as David Shingler Blann, also speaks well of Enoch.
My grandmother remembered her father as a strict disciplinarian, a Methodist, who had served as a lay-preacher, as did his brother, Harry, in Russell. It was this thread of information I was following at the Shrewsbury archive, where I understood that some written records from the chapel at Snailbeach were held. The books in question were largely illegible, having been badly water damaged, and I drew a blank there. So the records of the 1841 to 1911 censuses, and records of births, marriages and deaths are, to date, my main sources of information on the Blann family.
I found that the Blanns in the 18th and early 19th centuries were a family of farmers, farm workers, and blacksmiths dwelling in the Welsh Marches and marrying Welsh girls.
Perkins Beach, where they settled, is in a picturesque valley behind the Stiperstones. In his detailed book about the mines of the area, Michael Shaw says that “activity is first recorded in the early 1840’s” in area where small, independent workings were relatively commonplace. In that case, Enoch’s parents, William and Elizabeth Blann could be seen as pioneers. Aged 20, and with a 4 month old daughter, the 1841 census already describes the familiy living at Perkins Beach, and William as a lead miner. There they remain, throughout the middle years of the 19th century, their family growing in number. Who knows what toll on the health of my great-great grandfather William Blann was taken by his occupation? Breathing healthier air in 1871, William and his family are living in the countryside in nearby Lower Vessons, where as a gamekeeper, William has tenure of “Wood House”. Three of his sons still earn their living as lead miners, including 13-year-old Enoch, my great-grandfather. But there were particular insecurities inherent in being employed by the big estate: In 1873, at the age of 59, William Blann died, and his family became homeless. By the 1881 census, it was a William Griffiths who occupied what was by then renamed “Brook Cottage”, and enjoyed employment in William’s former position as gamekeeper.
Young Enoch, taking his widowed mother Elizabeth, and young unmarried sister Roseannah with him set off for Staffordshire, where coal mining was booming, in contrast to the decline of the mineral extracting operations in Shropshire. In 1881, according to the census, they are living in a house on Shire Oak Hill, and Enoch, proving himself a responsible man, is keeping the household by working at the coal pit.
They were not the very first Blanns to migrate to Walsall Wood from Shropshire. Enoch’s eldest sister Margaret Blann, and her husband Samuel Pryce made the move some time between the birth of a son in Pontesbury in 1866, and that of a daughter whose birth was registered in Ogley Hay in 1869. Those were just two of their considerable brood of children.
Young Roseannah Blann married Frances Jewell only months after her arrival from Shropshire, left her brother’s household and began as serious a campaign of child rearing as her Aunt Margaret. Margaret and Samuel Pryce named their second daughter “Roseannah”, too, and this Rosehannah Price (now Anglicised from the Welsh) made a marriage to Job Painter and set about producing their many Painter children. In 1901, she was near neighbour to her Uncle Enoch Blann in “Walsall Road, Shire Oak”. By 1911, the Painter family, totalling 14 souls was living in crowded conditions on Salters Road in a dwelling of only 4 habitable rooms. From these veritable litters, descendants of William Blann, the lead miner, who returned to his rural roots as a gamekeeper for the final years of his life, would continue to populate the area for decades to come.
Enoch Blann died in 1913, aged only 56. The previous year, my grandparents had got married. Enoch’s daughter, my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Blann, wed her cousin Afred Noah Horton, the son of her maternal aunt, Elizabeth. It must have been a well attended party, that. Every few doors up and down Shire Oak Hill to Walsall Wood, Catshill, Lynn and Stonnall, I imagine the large clan of Hortons and Shinglers as well as William Blann’s decendents and their families the Prices, the Jewells, Painters, Coynes, and Raysons raising a glass to toast their relatives’ nuptials.