May 1st offered a cool and damp afternoon to Walsall in 1951. Marshalled by Mr Day, the kindly manager of the Hoover company offices, my mother, her jolly friend Jenny Fisher, and other of their colleagues tripped down the stairs that emerged from between Wimbush the confectioners and bakers and “Zip” the French Dry Cleaners, into Park Street to prepare to join the crowds.
300 extra police men, and three mounted officers, had been drafted in from nearby Wednesbury and Bilston to control an excited throng of workers, housewives, and schoolchildren, many of whom lined the route of a limousine travelling along Park Street between the railway station and Church Hill. Its diminutive occupant was a celebrity of alluring glamour, and a glimpse of her person was, it seems, considered a tonic to most of her father’s subjects in these austere post-war times. Bread was now off-ration, but other commodities – sugar, eggs, and meat remained in shorter supply in the early 50’s than during the conflict.
My mom and dad, in the third year of their marriage, spent most of their week day evenings at “the pictures”. They walked (from Walsall’s bathetically named “Broadway”) to Caldmore Green’s bijou cinema, or to one of a choice of venues in Walsall town centre. When the lights were dimmed in the smoky auditorium, they drank in, keenly and passively, stories of adventure and romance portrayed by a flourishing film industry. Today, May 1st 1951, as glamorous and lovely as any Hollywood actress, their own royal star was to walk among them.
Princess Margaret Rose Windsor would have drawn a patriotic crowd to cheer her visit to Walsall, whichever way the concise portfolio of royal genes had moulded her young face and body. In May 1951 she was not yet 21. It was before tobacco, gin and sheer disappointment had blurred and coarsened her. She sported a perfectly proportioned figure, and large, sapphire blue eyes, set in a truly pleasing face. The press reports of her public engagements that Spring beat rhythmically with a lexicon of delight: “Smiling,” and “laughing;” “laughing,” and “smiling”, through endless parades and through the detailed inspection of industrial processes. In Walsall, at Alderman Wheway’s (The Mayor’s) family firm, the Birmingham Daily Gazette describes:
To the Mayor, who asked anxiously if heavy machinery was dull for her, the princess replied with a happy smile, “Oh, no, I love machinery.”
So here they are: assembled in anticipation of catching a glimpse of Margaret’s lovely face and gloved hand extended from a sumptuous costume of a blue velvet coat, with the full taffeta skirt contained beneath it billowing around small shapely legs and on to the lap of her Lady in Waiting beside her. The little feet, which were nestled in brown suede shoes, (as the press reports in detail) hardly reaching the floor of the car. In contrast, my mother, enjoying a Princess Diana rather then a Princess Margaret stature, had folded her long self carefully if hurriedly into Audrey Dickson’s Baby Austin for the lift which got her to work almost on time!
There’s Mother, at the back of the group on the left, wearing the double row of pearls – a 21st birthday present from her mother-in-law the previous November. They echo the no-doubt more valuable neckwear of the Princess in her portrait. Three floors above the baker’s shop are occupied by Hoover. On the first, capable Dorothy Rodgers, (front, left) operates a telephone switchboard with a spaghetti of wires, and two brown overalled engineers have a workshop in which vacuum cleaners are repaired. Mother works at a desk at the back of the office on the second floor. This she does diligently, but with a happy soundtrack of laughter and conversation with her colleagues, particularly sunny-natured Jenny (back, right of manager Clifford Day in the photograph). Her duties include the management of a card-system that records the details of every proud owner of a hoover cleaner in the West Midlands.
Astonishing as it may now seem, in the 1950’s, once a new cleaner was despatched from the Hoover factory in Perivale, Middlesex, a schedule was initiated of six monthly visits to inspect and service it by a company representative. Smartly suited, Mr Wharton, Mr Godber and Mr Pollack would report to the office to receive their weekly itinerary of customer visits, throughout the Black Country and as far as Much Wenlock in the nether reaches of Shropshire. In addition to my mother and Jenny, Betty Tinkler, Judy Cornwell, and Clarice Dych busied themselves taking and making telephone calls, typing and processing paperwork. The processes were overseen by Mr. Day – assisted by his own secretary, Margery Stretch. In turn, Mr Day ceded precedence to his superior in the company , a lady, whose visits to Walsall were welcomed by the workforce, as everyone was treated to afternoon tea and cakes at Pickerings bakery and tea-rooms on The Bridge, where their meetings were held. How civilised.
On the top – fourth floor, the small number of customers who had invested in a Hoover domestic washing machine warranted a manager all to themselves. Audrey was the secretary to the mysterious Scottish gentleman whose desk sat highest in the building.
Before Hoover, Mother had begun her clerking at the Crabtrees Electrical Factory. She wasn’t sorry to leave that unwholesome cramped office when, taking two forbidden week-days off to get married, she was duly given the sack. Her subsequent visit to Labour Exchange entailed being offered a selection of vacancies from which she was invited to choose a position to apply for. As easy as that, for her, in a Walsall still brim full of thriving enterprises in a consistently expanding economy.
Her wage was a fifth of my father’s. With no mewling offspring to feed it barely mattered what she earned. The crew at Hoover were cheap to employ and happy to come to work. That is how it was. She had a modest disposable income to choose how to spend, with her affable young husband ….”If you have enough and know it you are rich indeed” opined some Eastern Knowitall……and rich she certainly was in comparison to the privations of her childhood. My parents had a good life and everything to look forward to. They were unscathed, in a personal sense, by the recent war. No close family member needed commemorating in the Walsall Memorial Garden whose foundation stone – of Penrhyn Slate – was to be unveiled that May Day with the whisk of a gold cord pulling back a Union Flag, by the visiting, sparkling eyed Princess Margaret.
The Princess glowed with the joy of her burgeoning love for Peter Townsend, we now know. Her family too, was intact – she was still months away from the devastating loss of her beloved royal parent. She turned to The Church in her sorrow and, the official line has it, it was the censure of The Church against marriage to a divorced man that prevented her from consummating her first relationship, beside the consideration (put yourself in her brown suede court shoes) of the loss of royal privilege.
Her less-than-happy marriage was contracted with Antony Armstrong Jones in 1960. Lord Snowdon’s childhood home was a beautifully situated but modest manor house here in North Wales, which he and Princess Margaret used as their base when visiting these parts. Dining there, in what is now a lovely hotel, I imagined the discomfiture of a princess in the Welsh outback, in a house with one bathroom. They say that there are glass-of-gin-and-tonic shaped dents in the walls at Plas Dinas.
My neighbour, as a child, lined up with his classmates along the wall at our local woollen mill, when Margaret and Lord Snowdon opened its pebble-dashed extension – which was to be so busy in the 1960’s in the production of stiff A-line Welsh Tweed skirts and matching waistcoats with rouleau fastenings, as I well remember on my visits there with my parents.
They waved their conqueror’s flag with glee, those Welsh boys, as mesmerised by her allure as had been the Boy-Scouts of Walsall over a decade earlier. Another Royal engagement saw the little feet tread daintily in the dressing shed of the quarry that produced the Walsall plaque, to which, I feel sure, no thought was given.