Who is qualified to weigh the merits of only-childhood against the rough and tumble of a busier family life with siblings? Or assess the benefits or dangers to a young child’s healthy development of lengthy confinement to the company of its parents alone? I am child-free. My opinions have limited validity. I can only lay open how it was for me.
For the first five years of my life, I was rarely in the company of other children, and even more rarely in the company of other little girls. On my father’s side of the family, my three cousins, are all, like me, only-ones, and were born a decade or two before I was hatched in 1961. One of my mother’s four siblings had married, and although Irene’s three boys were nearer to me in age, I was still the youngest, and we only saw them a couple or three times a year, driving down to Worcestershire in my dad’s Ford Thames van, where my Aunt and Uncle made an interesting, hybrid living out of farming and running a pub in Powick.
On most of the fatherless, working, weekdays my mother and I had only each other for company, and the scope of my infant experience were the immediate environs of our orderly, ordinary, semi detached house and its well tended gardens.
The outside world seeped in through the red brick walls of 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge, in the form of radio and television broadcasts. The wireless was tuned to the Light Programme at a quarter to two in the afternoon, to receive Daphne Oxenford’s mellifluous presentation of Listen with Mother. The title seemed a perfectly sensible description of what we contented pair were doing, as we took our cup of tea, and glass of milk, in front of the Parkray fire.
At 2 o’clock, the next scheduled item would be announced, quite inexplicably to my ears, as Woman’s Ahhh! When the schools’ programme Music, movement and mime came on the air, I joined in with the imaginary other children prancing around the “hall”. I could only imagine that by this they meant the small irregular space that our downstairs rooms led off, but felt faintly puzzled .
The nightly television news prompted further confusion. The versatile David Nixon was popular in our house and his career as an affable television host and expert magician was in full swing in the mid 1960s. The simultaneous rise in the profile of American politician Richard Nixon caused me to conflate the two middle aged men on the tele’ into one truly versatile operator. I interpreted the revelation that this paragon was intending to take up residence in The White House to mean that he might, in future, be very close at hand. The White House being, of course, the large public house at the “top” of Bosty Lane, sitting at its junction with Walsall Road.
My father never drank in a pub, but as a treat, some evenings, fancying some crisps of some chocolate, we might walk up to the “Outdoor,” of the White House where a separate door to the building opened into a tiny room with a counter. Such a facility was a point of interest at a time when no other type of retail outlet would be open much later than tea-time.
The White House is not completely without architectural merit. Its exaggeratedly tall chimneys, curving walls and roof-lines, and dormer windows, reveal it as a grand-child of “Arts and Crafts” design, filtered through Lutyens and that enthusiastic exponent of inter-war pub design, Basil Oliver. There is a touch of a grossly overgrown Home Counties cottage about its profile.
Close observation reveals that great trouble has been taken over a decorative band comprising edge-on tile work under its eaves. The White House is now indeed white. A new visitor could be forgiven for thinking that was always the case, and that its name is derived from a prosaic description of the building. That is not the case. It has only been white for a handful of years. The site where the pub now squats by the traffic lights was once “White House Farm.”
A quarter of a mile away, 155, Bosty Lane, with another family now resident in it, looks forward over an old hedge to College Farm and Berryfields Farm. Beyond this still-surviving Green Belt, lies the Black Country conurbation. The highest point on the horizon is the plateau to the left where Dudley Castle sits, and even now it is obvious why the Norman knight Ansculf and his son William chose it as the site from which to oversee the lands that they controlled – including the manor of Aldridge. A distant row of amber street-lamps, which twinkled on frosty nights, delineated for us where Walsall began, as my parents waved off their evening guests near midnight, clouds of Woodbine and Kensitas smoke shamefully billowing into the cold night air. In September, the gayly coloured lights of the late, lamented Walsall Illuminations in the arboretum were visible too.
Despite the inexorable increase of traffic on Bosty Lane, (unbelievably, cows were still being driven down it in the 1950s) the view across the road remained a constant source of pleasure, and my dad photographed it, and even drew it, repeatedly, and in various weather conditions. From their bedroom at the front, my parents could observe hares boxing on the stubble in spring, and a vixen hunting, dainty and dark against the snow in winter. Through both bay windows they watched the changing seasonal activities of the neighbouring farms for half a century, from when the house was newly built in 1957, until March 30th 2007 when we moved their furniture from this Aldridge house to a bungalow in Kings Bromley. By bad luck or by some design, that was the day my dear dad died.
How long, I wonder, did my dad imagine he would live in Bosty Lane when he was setting out the plot of his future home, the momentous day recorded on this photograph?
I wish I could swing the camera around to the right, and see what the view looked like in the direction of the Red House Farm, north-east of Bosty Lane, then also undergoing intensive development into a housing estate. The 1951 Ordnance Survey map captures the layout of the fields as they remained before their post-war development, and assists me to imagine the scene. The exact position of the farm house and buildings can be pinpointed. Its land, recorded on the 1881 census as a sizeable farm for the day at 130 acres, was bounded by the railway line, beyond which were small abandoned colliery workings. Before any of the new building took place, before the war, would it be the pit head gear of the larger Leighswood Colliery that was most visible on the skyline from where we three were going to sit at the dining table in the back room of 155, Bosty Lane? The chimneys of the brickworks? Or was the 14th century tower of St Mary’s church visible across the mile or so of flattish terrain? “High Ridge”, the builders chose to call one of the roads on the Red House estate, but its supposed altitude is not perceptible.
Charles Walter Gretton, farmer of Red House, died in 1953, having retired to “The Limes,” in Leighswood Road. His estate amounted to a respectable £9834 and 16 shillings. Of this, £5735, 11 shillings and fourpence was his bequest from his wife Ruth, nee Myatt, who had passed away the previous year. Ruth’s family had farmed Red House before Charles Gretton married her, and it seems clear that ownership of at least some of the property remained in her hands. After all, she was a mature woman in her forties when they wed in 1905, and several years her husband’s senior. In their names lie the origins of the names of Myatt Avenue and Gretton Crescent. Between these little roads sit four blocks of three storey flats where chickens once scratched in the dusty farmyard of The Red House, and beasts lowed from the byres.
Neither the Myatts nor the Grettons had been local to Aldridge for very long, but there was a time when they dominated the farms around Bosty Lane. Ruth’s father James, had been born in Wollstanton in around 1825, and was installed in College Farm with his family by 1861, when the census describes him as a “Lime Agent” – Lime working being, then, the dominant industry of the area around Daw End at the “bottom” of Bosty Lane. By 1881, he had moved to The Red House Farm, which his widow, Mary would continue to run after his death in 1895. James’ eldest son, John Myatt, was farming nearby Calderfields Farm by 1891. John married Miss Dora Hellaby, a farmer’s daughter from Warwickshire when he was 40 and she was 34, their ages and acreages suggesting another ‘dynastic’ alliance. From 1901, John and Dora had moved a short way from Aldridge and farmed at Lynn, where their young assistant was none other than the Charles Walter Gretton, from Branston, who was to marry John’s younger sister Ruth and take over The Red House Farm for its last decades of operation.
Bonner Grove extends in a loop from Gretton Road and Gretton Crescent. Sometimes thought to be named for Charles Bonner V.C., who had died so recently in 1951, the name nevertheless sits well with Myatt and Gretton, since the Bonners had been another prominent Aldridge farming family, moving in from Warwickshire in the latter part of the 19th century to The Manor Farm near Aldridge Church. Charles Bonner is proudly claimed as Aldridge’s own, and his ashes are interred in its churchyard, but he was born in the Warwickshire village of Shuttington, and spent scant few years in Aldridge before going to sea. To neatly connect the Bonners to the Myatts, the 1881 census catches Charles Bonner’s aunt Catherine on a visit to the family of Dora Hellaby – later Myatt- on their farm in Grendon.
You might look at the scruffy Red House Housing Estate now, six decades later, and wish the fields and the farmhouse back, but the expanse of spacious new family homes, with their indoor plumbing and their surrounding gardens must have seemed a bright and cheerful new thing in the 1950s. Beyond it, factories on the new industrial estates provided jobs in a clean and safe environment, and the detritus of the old coal workings was gradually being cleared away. The housing estate was provided with its own public house, “The Bowman”, the building a boxy affair, on which expense seemed to have been spared, unlike The White House. Had architectural fashions just changed, or, just as the best views were afforded to the privately developed houses along Bosty Lane, was it just a question of it, so unfairly, not mattering as much what the working man’s drinking hole looked like? A little row of shops – shuttered and forlorn on a Saturday morning when I recently revisted them – were, in my childhood, friendly and appealing. A fruiterer and a grocer were often where my mother shopped – “round the back” as we called it – with her wicker basket over her arm. Do you remember those now rare drapery shops which sold baby clothes, haberdashery and knitting yarn, which had wire torsos in the window displaying a pretty blouse or two. Ours was run by Mrs Love and Mrs Lavender. Love and Lavender, – it’s almost too sweetly appropriate isn’t it, along the lines of the apocryphal “Dr Payne”, or “Constable Lawless” ?
Redhouse Infants, and then Redhouse Junior School were where I scampered off willingly to begin my education, and my quiet days with mother were at an end.If you enjoyed this pavane for the area of Aldridge I knew so well, so long ago, you will love the pieces written about it by my schoolfriend from Redhouse, Linda Mason in her fabulous blog http://ramblingsofamadoldbaggage.blogspot.co.uk/