Between the two World Wars, the soundscape of the roads in most small provincial towns, such as Walsall Wood, in South Staffordshire, altered radically and irrevocably as vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine were introduced, and animals – of all sorts – everyday traffic, or beasts driven to market or slaughter – were seen less frequently in the street.
But in the earlier part of the period, human voices could be heard over the rhythmical striking of horses’ hooves on a rutted surface of pulverised stone or cobbles. The metal-rimmed wheels of horse-drawn vehicles sang along the streets, augmented by the whirr and ring-ring of bicycles. Steam engines were occasionally seen. The effect at a busy junction could be noisy. Around 1920, where several thoroughfares met at “the Vigo” it certainly was. My Aunt Mary remembered measures being taken to dampen down the clatter during her brother’s illness, and what a contrast the quiet time was to the usual cacophony: Little George was suffering from
……double pneumonia. I had to watch him one evening, [I] remember his eyes turned up under his eyelids, only a tiny bit of blue showing. For days there had been thick straw across the road and everybody coming to the house speaking in whispers. Somebody said ” He’s going to die ” Everywhere was so quiet – more frightening to me than the words I heard. As you know, he didn’t die……
But Walsall Wood streets were not too busy for playing children to be able to inhabit them. Even when draught horses were commonplace, there were certain circumstances in which they were a spectacle for young Mary Horton and her playmates:
I saw a hearse pulled by horses wearing purple ear covers and I think purple ribbons on the harness. The hearse was followed by the mourner in a purple veil and a purple scarf round one shoulder and across her body and tied, with some of it hanging. She cried so loudly us children felt like bawling too. Behind her came the people dressed in black, the ladies wearing black veils. After they’d passed out of view, I remember we sat down in the gutter covering our bare feet with the warm dry dirt… must have been a hot day……
Not all the children of Walsall Wood were allowed to lark unsupervised in the dusty gutter with their friends, and not all draught animals were horses: “When I was three or four,” my Aunt Mary began an anecdote in her hand-written memoirs, ( meaning that this memorable incident took place towards the end of the first World War):
I remember a lucky small child coming down our road in a small dogcart, pulled by a goat, their nanny holding the reins, walking behind
The streets that surrounded the family home at the top of Aldridge Road circumscribed Mary’s early experiences. Even the short journey on foot to and from school could be eventful:
I remember I had to come home at dinner time to have mostly bread and jam, or what I particularly liked: condensed milk on bread. Going back to school one day I saw a man whipping his two mules supposed to be pulling a long cart. I shouted at him ” Mister – don’t hit them horses…”. He stopped, cracked the whip in front of me, spat on the horses leg and shouted ” Bugger off ta school or I’ll cut yow across th’arse wi it !- Goo on ” I went – running as fast as my little legs could take me
The local sweet-shop was a cornucopia of delicious confectionary, but frightening sights lurked upstairs:
Across the road from school was Suranne’s little sweet shop. All sorts of mouth-watering sweets were in small boxes with price tickets on. Liquorish Laces were 3 for 1d., birds nest with 3 eggs a penny, gob stoppers a halfpenny, sherbet suckers a halfpenny with a liquorish “straw” in the corner of the sucker bag 1d. “Sucky” fish 3 for a halfpenny, sucky pigs and mice 1d. Chocolate bars a halfpenny, penny or three ha’pence according to size.
One day when Suranne’s mother was ill (Suranne was mother’s cousin) my mother said I was to go in after school…. remember being taken upstairs into a room with curtains half closed. There were lots of people standing about – and a large bed in the middle of the room – in it lay the oldest, wrinkliest, most frightening old woman I had ever seen. Always before I had just heard her voice…” Suranne !.. Suranne!..” ” Coming Mother….” Suranne answered, but still attending to our wants, until once again the voice came ” Suranne!!!!”
She lay there propped up on the pillows. I peered at her through the slats on the bottom of the bed. Her eyes saw me – fastened onto me – ” Suranne, is that Mary?” I was so terrified I ran down the stairs and out into the road and ran all the way home.
By now, quite an elderly person herself – though she never really seemed it – Aunt Mary wrote, apologetically “Thinking of it now, the poor old thing must have been near to death.”
Mary left Walsall Wood school on her 14th birthday, in 1927, and so we can date the following, most exotic of her childhood animal encounters quite accurately:
Soon after I left school – in the November – Brownhills Wake was on, and there was a menagerie. Four chained elephants stood in a row, one put its trunk out so I gave it a sweet, then another, and another, til I only had two left. I walked away, but the elephant had other ideas, she wrapped her trunk around my waist and I couldn’t feel the floor I yelled”Mister !… Look what it’s doing !!!”… “Don’t be frightened.. give her your sweet bag ” I did. …and she put me down. Her name was Margaret and she often caught people like that ………
The tours of Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie had been interrupted by the Great War, but the Tamworth Herald records its appearance back in the Midlands in 1925, and in 1930, and so I am tempted to assume that alarmingly sweet toothed and playful “Margaret” was one of the stars of their entertainments.
The appearance of a travelling menagerie, a fair, a circus, contests of athleticism, sparrow shooting and pigeon racing and the relaxation of licencing laws are all documented in the local press as events to look forward to at “Wakes Week,” although the Lichfield Mercury, with disparaging tone, refers to all this as “the usual paraphenalia” being assembled near the Hussey Arms. Consultation of the local press in the first decades of the 20th century also confirms the traditional occasion of the Brownhills “Wakes”, (a gathering or fair) in November – unusual amongst the survivals or revivals of these ancient festivals in the North of England, and suggests that it pre-dates the mass holidays which have co-incided with annual closures in mining and manufacturing communities since the Industrial Revolution. As Brownhills only came into existance as a significant centre of population in the 19th century, the Wakes must have evolved in one of its older neighbours – Ogley Hay, perhaps, or Pelsall.
Brian Stringer, “The Clayhanger Kid” remembers the pit ponies coming up for a week or two in August during the miners’ holidays, consistent with many mining areas. Margaret Brice, in her “Short History of Walsall Wood,” records the pleasingly alliterative Walsall Wood Wakes Week as the last week in October/first week in November, but relates that this particular custom ended in 1913, the year Aunt Mary was born.