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…….