A Shropshire Lad

Rosa “A Shropshire Lad”, growing in my garden. This rose was bred by David Austin, a Shropshire lad himself, and introduced in 1996. It was named after the wistful late Victorian poetic work by A. E. Housman – not a Shropshire lad! It is said he had never visited the landscape he visited at the time he wrote about it. However, the mood of the poem is echoed perfectly by this beautiful, fragrant, peachy pink bloom.

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 taking the road 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. 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 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 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 William’s health 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.  In 1873, at the age of 59, William Blann died, and his family became homeless.  By the 1881 census, a William Griffiths occupied what was by then renamed “Brook Cottage”, and enjoyed employment in William’s former position as gamekeeper.

Enoch, his widowed mother Elizabeth, and young unmarried sister Roseannah set off for Staffordshire. 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 as a miner of a different commodity.

They were not the first Blanns to migrate to Walsall Wood.  Enoch’s eldest sister Margaret, 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 in Ogley Hay in 1869. Those were just two of their considerable brood of children.  Young Roseannah married Frances Jewell only months after her arrival from Shropshire, and began an equally serious campaign of child rearing.  Margaret and Samuel named their second daughter Roseannah, too, and her marriage to Job Painter had begun producing its many children by 1901, when 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.  Decendants 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, his daughter, my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Blann, had married her cousin Afred Noah Horton, the son of her maternal aunt, Elizabeth. It must have been a well attended party as every few doors up and down Shire Oak Hill to Walsall Wood, Catshill and Stonnall, if not one of the large clan of Horton then a Blann, a Price, a Jewell, a Painter, a Coyne, or a Rayson would have been raising a glass to toast their relatives’ nuptials.

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7 Responses to A Shropshire Lad

  1. William and Elizabeth Blann were married in Atcham in 1840…and we never knew.

  2. Pedro says:

    Nice follow up from the last article. It is interesting to read stories like this that may be useful for someone who may be seeking connections.

    The mention of Staffordshirebred crossing into Shropshire reminded me of the time we were walking somewhere in Staffs. We met with a man walking his dog, and after exchanging greetings, he proceeded to tell us that we should go walking in the county of Shropshire. When out of earshot my friend turned to me a said, “will have to walk the Shropshire Way in the reverse direction!”

    How many Midland families have headed up the A5 in the days when Bank Holidays saw everyone escaping? The expression “Atcham! where they catch’em” reminds me of the days when anglers swarmed there in search of huge nets of barbel.

    Regards Peter

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  4. 5currantbuns says:

    Hello, did you have any luck finding the Blann’s in the 1861 census ? I’ve tried all the searches I can and none of them are working…I know that at around 1866 they were at the Stiperstones as both Samuel Pryce and Margaret Blann give that as their address when they married…incidently Margaret Blann’s grandaughter went on to marry a Rayson/Raison…from what you say in your article it sounds as though this wasn’t the first time that someone of Blann descent married a Rayson/Raison…

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  6. John Griffiths says:

    Quite by chance I found your post ‘ A Shropshire Lad’. I was looking for William Griffiths, Gamekeeper. He was my ggGrandfather and according to the census was born in Pontesbury, had six children, one of whom also married a gamekeeper and lived in Warwickshire. We went to visit Shropshire a few years ago and found Brook Cottage but were unaware it was previously named Wood House. Your blog is very interesting as Shropshire isn’t a county we know very well and the information you’ve given about the locality is very revealing. Another of Williams children moved to Cornwall and married into a mining family
    We’ve long been curious at the leap between Shropshire and Cornwall – could it be mining that was the association? More investigating to be done here I think and any further information will be very much appreciated. John Griffiths

    • Hi John,

      I am most interested to hear about your ancestor William Griffiths! I bet your hunch is correct, and that miners from the troubled lead mining industry around Pontesbury moved to work in Cornish metal ore mines as well as to the coal mines in Staffordshire. My great grandfather William Blann wa one of a score who seem to have turned up simultaneously in Walsall Wood and environs. My research continues. I wish you luck with yours.

      Kindest regards

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