Ringing home

My parents finished building the house at 155 Bosty Lane, Aldridge by the summer of 1957. They had, by this time, been married for almost nine years.  These had been nine years of a childless, double-income life in rented rooms comprising half of a nice house on Broadway in Walsall.  These had been nine years of delightfully carefree week-ends in the country: cycling trips, picnics, or fishing expeditions. They had enjoyed a little money in their pockets and no domestic responsibilities.

Now a mortgage had been taken out by the new property-owners in order to purchase the plot of land and the materials for their home (a risibly small sum by 21st century standards), and they decided to begin this new phase of their life with a celebratory fortnight’s holiday in Berrynarbor, North Devon.


Simon, our English Setter.

“English Setter Puppies For Sale,” read the chalked sign outside the Poltimore Arms at Yarde Down on Exmoor, as they passed the old pub in their V8 Pilot, and suddenly, unaccountably,  they felt more than ready to down a thirst quenching tankard of Shandy.



How could they refuse the landlord’s daughter’s invitation only to peek into the outbuildings out at the back, and admire the litter of pups squirming in the straw, just about ready to leave their beautiful mother, Lucinda for lives in their new homes?

Inevitably, when they returned to Aldridge, the patter of four furry feet now sounded on the newly laid red quarry tiles in the little kitchen on Bosty Lane, and a soft, silky muzzle nudged Mom’s hand as she finished painting the window frames, (black and white) and stitched up the bark-cloth cushion covers. Dear Simon became my dad’s shooting companion, and as gentle and obedient as you could wish a dog to be – apart from the afternoon he leapt on an unsuspecting lady visitor, whose “visiting hat” was adorned with a cockade of pheasant feathers.

This house was furnished with marvellous things, from the perspective of my grandparents on both sides of the family.  There was hot and cold running water from the taps, and to store food in, a refrigerator. ( the 1950’s Frigidaire was still in service there when I got married in 1992: ” My word, it’s like the bonnet of a Buick!”  said my husband when for the first time he saw the convexly curvaceous  fridge door, with its slender, vertical, chromed handle).

Luxury of luxuries, there was a television, sitting on its spindly “atomic age” legs in the living room. And, considered a necessity because of my Dad’s building business, a telephone was soon installed.

Even twelve years after VE day, post war shortages were blamed for the practice of installing a “Party Line” connection  – to the ponderously heavy, black Bakelite telephone receiver  supplied to my parents.  My parents at 155 shared the line with the Aldridge family at number 143 – perhaps the only other household in Bosty Lane to have a ‘phone in the 50’s.  Mr Aldridge of Aldridge, worked as a manager for Rock and Downes builders on the Walsall Road.  Clearly, the dangers of not being able to receive out of hours cement or scaffolding queries were taken very seriously by the General Post Office at the time.

At 3.30 a.m. on the morning of Friday September 8th, 1961, my father woke to hear that telephone emitting its characteristic, rhythmic, shrill, mechanical ring.  Some momentous, and long anticipated news was bursting to come through.  From Bloxwich Maternity home, a midwife was calling him with news of my birth.

“Husbands only,” we read, “may visit every evening 7-45 to 8-30 p.m., without a visiting card.” – which perhaps accounts for the perfect state of preservation of the visiting cards in my possession.

100_9564We were soon released from the six-bedded maternity ward at Bloxwich that had once been one of the generously proportioned bedrooms of a wealthy Victoria family’s Italian style villa.  The building is still discernible behind a high hedge, and is part of the present day Bloxwich Hospital.

100_9688Mother and I spent the following – then requisite – several days of complete rest both happily be-pillowed between the dark polished oak headboard and footboard of my parents’ bed at Bosty Lane.  Aunty Rene kindly double-bussed it from Stonnall to make light of the housework, and a community midwife attended to us.  Mrs Gombridge was that right-thinking professional who seems to have esteemed dogs at least as highly as she did babies.  Two large mongrels accompanied her on her rounds, panting and wagging their tails in her little car as she made her calls on new mothers, and her dark uniform was liberally coated with their hair. She put paid to any misgivings my mother had about big dogs and new babies and briskly insisted that Simon should be introduced to his new human immediately. His kind brown eyes watched protectively over me for the next several years.  With angelic patience, he suffered my little arms to probe deep into his soft liver-and-pink mouth to retrieve an important piece of Lego that he might have purloined from my play.


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Piping down the valleys wild.



100_8866Deepmore Avenue, Bentley, near Walsall – nineteen thirty something….


My maternal grandparents.

He is out of bed well before the five children rise and put their reluctant toes onto the cold lino before dressing for school. His faithful little wife – in her morning pinafore – the wrap around variety –  fries bacon for his breakfast sandwich. It sizzles in a pan on the gas hob, or, sometimes, on the living room fire, livened from its night-time blanket of slack, if they hadn’t had a penny for the meter.

She has wrapped his lunchtime snap in yesterday’s Daily Herald, and his white enamelled billy with its lid and wire handle is clean and ready for a brew when he gets where he’s going – there will be no shortage of freshly drawn water.

The kids don’t wear a uniform for St Pat’s – that’s for the sort who are not only able enough but also affluent enough to go on to the Grammar School.

But if you saw him and his oppos climbing into the lorry to take them from Walsall to Lichfield, you might well think that their employer had prescribed their uniform clothing:

Dressed up to the nines on a club outing...How tall he is!  There's a swagger stick under his arm.  The young officers he encountered during the first war are duly ridiculed...to the entertainment of all.

Dressed up to the nines on a club outing…HOw tall he is! There’s a swagger stick under his arm. The young officers he encountered during the first war are duly ridiculed…

To a man, the same flat cap, moleskin trousers, collarless shirt, waistcoat, and, perhaps, a donkey jacket.

However thoroughly you might scour the vintage clothing shop now, in the 21st century, you would struggle to find original examples of a working man’s clothing from the inter war period. Let alone his boots. My mom cleaned her dad’s working boots on Saturdays until they shone like glass, and matched his weekend drinking outfit. Payment: 2d. What more proof do you need that he only owned one pair?

Those boots, those boots – worn out, not recycled or passed onto someone more needy. Where was there someone more needy? Only someone who had no boots at all.


He was worn out too, too young. I was barely two years old when he died, still in his 60’s. Careering past him, delirious with delight at the newly mastered facility with my little limbs, nearly knocking him over.

“I’ll gi’it yo!” – he said , smiling, mock-exasperated, my mother remembers. To me, a shadowy figure, a memory thoroughly overlaid by other people’s reminiscences of him.

He was unsteady on his tired legs, one of which would have to be amputated before that premature death. Those legs that were months up to their knees in mud, in the Great War. Couldn’t have done them much good. But it was the same for all of them.

So, let’s board the work lorry for Lichfield, bleary eyed: “Worro, Ted,” they grunt, as he heaves his long, lean frame up on the back with his bundle.

“Worro,” he replies. “How bist?”


My maternal grandfather, Edward Sheldon, (left) at the South Staffs Water’s Trent Valley Pumping Station, Lichfield. 1930’s

Up to Trent Valley, Lichfield – where a junction in the railway network existed because the South Staffordshire railway (Dudley to Burton) developed, mid-19th century, alongside the London to Manchester line.

Perhaps only the foreman has the privilege of arriving by rail to the site, along with the bulky components of the job.

Adjacent to the premises of the Lichfield Brewery, a water pumping station was established just before the turn of the 20th century. The men, including my grandad, Edward Sheldon, are working for South Staffs Water. Something momentous is going on now, in the 30’s with some large-bore piping. Why else would someone have taken the trouble to photograph the job?  Why else would the images have been kept carefully throughout the lifetime of one of these workers, and, miraculously, preserved in a bedroom drawer through the half a century since he died?


Trent Valley Pumping Station – Its architecture still unmistakeable after 8 decades or so.

100_8871 100_8869 100_8868 100_8867



100_8870Home at last – but not before a few pints in “The Cottage” on Wolverhampton Road.   Singing the songs of his Irish forebears, he comes in, at last, to his hot meal, and the patient Love-of-his-life.  If there’s a little steak, there will be a fresh egg plucked from its safe home in the sugar bowl and fried as a jaunty topping.

What a long mournful face!  My mother has inherited it – I am always asking her “What’s up?”

“Inside, I’m smiling!” she reassures me.

So was he – “Goo on gi’us yower apron,” he said to the missus – and pinched her sun-hat while he was at it, and gurned ludicrously for the camera!






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Dirty Money



Ken, my husband, dug up this livery button in the vegetable garden of our cottage the other day.

He might be a bit mutton, but he’s still a hawk-eye for a bit of garden archeology, and swooped on what looked like a very dirty coin indeed, until we swilled the gobbets of soil off the back to reveal the shank of a button. After some more soaking and rubbing, the relief casting of a simple crest emerged, with what look like the smallest traces of gilding in its crevices. I have not yet identified the achievement from which this emblem comes.

Horace Roome, a liveried footman at Shugborough Hall, an establishment still grand and wealthy enough to support him in the 1920s when this photograph was taken.  Horace Roome worked for the 4th Earl of Lichfield, whose g.g.g.grandparents left Orgreave for Shugborough in 1773.

Horace Roome, a liveried footman at Shugborough Hall, an establishment still grand and wealthy enough to support him in the 1920s when this photograph was taken. Horace Roome worked for the 4th Earl of Lichfield, whose g.g.g.grandparents left Orgreave for Shugborough in 1773. Image: http://www.staffspasttrack.org.uk/

Once upon a time, this button fastened, or merely decorated, a garment worn by a male servant. A garment forming a part of a sort of archaic uniform, known as livery, that identified the servant’s employer. A grant of heraldic arms made to the employer’s family would be echoed in the colour and special adornments of the clothes distributed to these servants. The word livery comes from the Norman French livree, to hand over.

What person may have mislaid this button, this little badge of servitude, as he once traversed the ground  where now is our well-manured ‘tater patch?

To my untutored eye, the back-stamp “Extra superfine – Best quality” doesn’t suggest a date for it as far distant in the past as the 18th century, when Orgreave enjoyed its most intimate aristocratic connections – (that is if we don’t count members of the Jordanian Royal family who make the occasional appearance today). George Adams Anson, his wife Mary, and their children – the eldest of whom would become the first Viscount Anson “Of Shugborough and Orgrave” [sic], left their home at Orgreave Hall  in 1773 to take over their inheritance at Shugborough.

Nor does it look very “1810s”, when the rather fey, devout, Mr and Mrs John Gisborne were amongst the first of the Anson dynasty’s many tenants at the vacated Orgreave Hall.  Not only was the family short of money with which to support staff (It was his inability to purchase the exquisite wooded surroundings of their home at Hollybush near Newborough to save them from enclosure that drove him to Orgreave) – but they were closely connected with the anti-slavery movement, and one wonders whether they would have found it pleasing to enjoy the luxury of being fawned upon by uniformed lackeys. At John’s childhood home, Yoxall Lodge, his brother Thomas Gisborne famously hosted William Wilberforce as he worked on his abolition bill.

Orgreave Hall was downgraded to a working farmhouse rather than a gentleman’s residence in the mid Victorian era – and presumably no footmen or fancy coaches were kept.  Unhappy, “melancholic” farmer Samuel Winter made such a gory mess, much raked over delightedly by the local and national press, when he committed suicide by cutting his own throat in a stable at the rear of the Kings Head in Lichfield in 1847. He was succeeded by Thomas Shipton in the 1850s.  No, I’m looking for a grander household in Orgreave, and a more recent one….. members of whose smartly turned out retinue may have strayed onto what is now our little patch.

This button was not lost, I can be fairly certain, from the clothing of one of the gamekeepers whose home this cottage had been for most of the last century: Harold Johnson, and George Blake and Harry Goring before him, invariably wore a costume of tweed jacket and plus fours when working – even when ministering to the titled “guns” who shot the gentle terrain of the Wychnor Estate – extending to the farms on this, the Orgreave side of the Trent, as the guests of Colonel, and, later, his son, Mr. Harrison.

As the new owners of Keeper’s Cottage, Orgreave in the Spring of 1991, we inherited a  croft at the back that had only recently been cleared of the pens that Mr Johnson, the last gamekeeper, had used to raise game birds. He was a skilled gamekeeper of the old school, and had employed the “Euston” method (pioneered on the Duke of Grafton’s estate near the village of Euston in Suffolk) to multiply the numbers of wild, native, grey partridge on his patch.

We found dummy partridge eggs - as well as china hens' eggs in the croft.

We found dummy partridge eggs – as well as china hens’ eggs in the croft.

Experience had taught him where to find the partridge nests in spring, from which the eggs would be removed, and replaced with dummy ceramic versions. Examples of these little china eggs were amongst the first intriguing bits of garden treasure we ever dug up.

The partridge eggs would be brought back here to incubate in complete safety under broody fowl, to be returned to their real parents as the chicks began to chip the shells. This was the yearly routine where we now wander and hoe amongst vegetable and fruit beds, apple trees and pond. We laid the lawns and quintessentially “cottagey” flower beds at the front where vegetables used to be grown….and no one would know that now.  We have contrived the reality around the imagined picture.

It was over a decade after the First World War when Harold and Ivy Johnson, as newlyweds, had taken up residence here at Keepers Cottage, and the era of liveried “indoor” manservants  – footmen and coachman – had all but passed.

“Harmsworth’s Household Encylopedia” of the inter-war period reminds the householder that he was obliged to purchase an annual 15 shilling licence for each manservant he kept.  This was a piece of legislation instituted in 1870 that remained in force until 1937, making its own petty contribution to the almost terminal decline of male domestic service between those years.

A surviving exception was the new role of chauffeur, whose overcoat, Harmsworth’s instructs, might usefully match the upholstery of the car, and who might dress in a livery redolent of the coachmen of old, whose heirs, in some senses, they were. A certain Mr. James Ashford carried out chauffeuring duties for the Harrisons in 1911, when they were renting Orgreave Hall from the Earl of Lichfield, prior to their purchase of Wychnor Hall, over the river from Orgreave, from Basil Levett.  Billeted in his flat behind the coach house at Wychnor, it was Bert Bloomfield who then drove the Colonel to and from his appointments. It might have been the last thread holding a crested button to one of their coats that frayed untimely to let that button drop. Perhaps there were exchanges  of information between chauffeur and gamekeeper as he tended the pens out there – just where I am looking now from my office window?

The Harrisons kept a butler – not a liveried post –  at Orgreave in 1911 (he had come with them from their previous house at Aldershawe)  – along with eight female servants.

The household of the Burnaby Atkins family – tenants in 1901, had a similar profile. There were 6 maids, a nurse for the children, and 21 year old George Skett – yes, a footman. They were well to do. The daughters of the house, Millicent, Violet, Judith, Cecily and Emily flit fragrantly through the “society” pages of the press in Edwardian Staffordshire.

The coal dust was yet to be brushed off the lucre with which the Harrisons financed their lifestyle.  The source of his family’s wealth came from operating the South Staffordshire coal mines where two of my own great grandfathers once toiled.  Settling down for three generations on this country estate, 10 miles from the grimy industry that paid for it, and then the industry’s nationalisation in 1947 had a distancing effect, and William Harrison was able to concentrate on his passion for the wildlife on the land surrounding Wychnor – both the sporting pursuit of it, and the corresponding interest in protecting it.  With his friend Peter Scott – a very keen shooter turned conservationist – he made a plan to develop a wildfowl sanctuary in the waterlogged plain below Wychnor Hall. It didn’t come to fruition, but he made a positive contribution to conservation on the banks of this stretch of the Trent. In the period since William Harrison’s death in 1975, tenant farmers have continued to run shoots on the estate in pale imitation of him.  But hedgerows and trees, fiercely defended in the old days, are habitually grubbed up and liberally doused with herbicide in the name of efficiency, reducing cover for wild birds, and compromising the habitat of the food chain of which they are part. Pheasants are farmed like poultry before they are put down to be shot, and when I see partridge – as I do – they are more often than not red-legged “Frenchmen” – and not native greys.

And the resources of the Burnaby Atkins? You may read of Mr Burnaby Atkins’ generous benefactions which completely rebuilt the church at Halstead in Kent, where he had inherited an estate and a considerable sum of money from his childless, fairly distant, relative John Pelly Atkins, in 1872.  Who are we to say that the repositioning of the church moved the bustle of the parishioners and the noise of the bells conveniently further from Halstead Place? The conditions of John Pelly Atkins’ will stipulated that The former Mr Burnaby take his name.  Although Burnaby Atkins and his family might live 170 miles away in Orgreave, his deceased benefactor had preferred to think that there would be no intention on his part to distance himself from the source of the fortune – the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and the six-figure sum with which the British Government compensated his father, John Atkins, erstwhile Lord Mayor of London, for the loss of his enslaved black workforce, at a rate of about £20 a man, or woman.

Ogreave Hall and Keepers Cottage in the 1990s. Vegetation and fencing has proliferated, and the two buildings are no longer simultaneously visible.

Ogreave Hall and Keepers Cottage in the 1990s. vegetation and fencing has proliferated, and the two buildings are no longer simultaneously visible.




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Those were the Days

St Matthew's parish church, Walsall, a church with Norman origins.  Victorian tombstones are interleaved with Myosotis....... ****FORGET ME NOT***

St Matthew’s, Walsall, a parish church with Norman origins. In April its Victorian tombstones are interleaved with Myosotis, or “Forget Me Not”

8, Church Street, Walsall:

Sunday 7th April 1861.

Name: Thos. Day

Age: 19

Occupation: Baker

Where born: Boston, Lincolnshire

Church Street, Walsall, its course and proportions enduring, but the dwellings and taverns that once crowded its margins - long gone.

Church Street, Walsall, its course and proportions enduring, but the dwellings and taverns that once crowded its margins – long gone.

My mother’s great grandfather, Thomas Watson Day, was not yet out of his teens. He had left behind all that was familiar to him:  the flat, fertile Fenlands, with low milky ribbons of mist afloat on the peaty fields that his father had farmed, and had made his way alone to lodge in the steep, teeming streets which fell away from the limestone escarpment on which Walsall’s Parish Church of St Matthews had first been sited at least seven hundred years before.

As the April light pushed optimistically through dirty air in this increasingly industrial town, and illuminated what gritty corners it was able to between the close met walls of the houses and courts, the census enumerator worked his way methodically along  Peal Street and up Church Hill.  Reaching the south west corner of the churchyard of St Matthew’s, he followed Church Street as it swept back down the incline to Peal Street, and collected – for later transcription into his ledger – the  individual schedules of the 1861 census that had been completed  – if their level of literacy allowed – by buckle filers, brass polishers, and chain makers. And there are bridle stitchers and saddle stitchers noted, too –  all typifying the many specialised skills needed to produce the leather and lorinery goods for which the town of Walsall was already, in the mid 19th century, internationally famous.

The ancillary services of candlemakers, shopkeepers – and bakers, like Thomas – supported their activities. Some of the unmarried workforce – many in their teens or 20s – boarded in official or unofficial Lodging Houses. Thomas Watson Day rents space in number 8, Church Street, from Edward Jones, aged 24, a carter, and his 20 year old wife Emma.  Lucy Bigmore, a buckle stitcher, who is 21, also lodges there, as does Hannah Robinson, an 18 year old girl employed as a house servant. I can’t help thinking how the age and relationship profile of this household resembles the cast of “Friends,” and that there might have been moments of fun and laughter; of romance, and mutual support between the young people.   I picture them retiring for the night in small dark rooms, further subdivided in the name of decency and modesty with curtains that are strung across them.  There is just a wooden peg or two on which Thomas can hang clothing, and a shelf, perhaps, above his bed.

Unlike Thomas, most inhabitants of the area have been born in the immediate vicinity of Walsall, although a strong contingent of Irish labourers is apparent in the neighbourhood, foreshadowing the marriage alliances that Thomas’s son and grand-daughter will make in Walsall in the decades to come. There are Public Houses, too, and how tiny their stuffy drinking rooms must be.  It is difficult to imagine how so many buildings fitted together on the margins of these old streets. Now prettily fringed by trees instead of squint-eyed houses, the curving  course and narrow extent of Church Street is still apparent if you plod up it today.  At some points neighbours would have been able to reach from one attic window to another above its cobbles, like Kay and Gerda in “The Snow Queen.”


St Matthew’s church and environs from the 1901 Ordnance Survey map, following partial slum clearance, that would be completed only after the Second World War


Thomas Watson Day’s distinctive name would later be bequeathed to two generations of his descendants in Walsall.


The parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Algarkirk, Lincolnshire. “The little cathedral of the Fens.” The names of members of the Day family pepper its registers, and its gravestones.

Elizabeth Watson and George Day were married on the 25th February 1836 in the in the magnificent, cathedral-like church of St Peter and St Paul in Algarkirk, near Boston, Lincolnshire.  The 1840s saw them prospering on their farm on Algarkirk Fen, if the several farm servants they employed are anything to go by. They were beginning to raise a respectable home-grown workforce –  including their son Thomas Watson Day – when in 1849,  George died, and life changed for Elizabeth.  The 1851 census describes what must have been a miserable come-down.  She is a “Pauper, farmer’s widow”.  She and her fatherless brood of six  are crowded in with her elderly father in Swineshead, with him damningly categorised as “Pauper, former pig jobber” [pig dealer].  The family, with no means of support, were evidently not encouraged to remain in Algarkirk, as a burden on that parish, or indeed on the wider Day clan. The youngest child, Abraham, subsequently went to live with another of his mother’s Watson relatives.  As much Watson as Day, my great great grandfather made the choice to head for Staffordshire, but his motivation for choosing Walsall must remain a mystery.

The turn of the year in 1867 saw Thomas married to a Miss Mary Ann Round.  She had in common with her bridegroom the loss of her father whilst still an infant. But, in the employment-rich, skill hungry, mid 19th century Black Country, as it grew into the “Workshop of the World,” the loss of a male breadwinner was not necessarily as devastating as it was for poor Elizabeth Watson Day: Mary Ann Round’s family confers the welcome genetic inheritance of some sturdy Walsall wenches upon me. The head of her household as she grew up in Birchills Street was her grandmother Phoebe. Phoebe was a widow of 75 years of age, in 1861, and must have continued to retain formidable skill and vigour: she is still described “a Lockmaker.”


Hill Street, Walsall – or what’s left of it. Surely this is the original road surface. Why does it mean so much to me to tread where the segs on my ancestors’ boots once rang out on the cobbles?

On the eastern slope of Walsall’s Church Hill, Hill Street descends to Ablewell Street.  Marked out like the thoroughfares of a Roman habitation after a careful archaeological excavation, the former “residential” road is flanked by lawn and trees these days and provides a small garden-like oasis in central Walsall.




Here, the 1871 census captures a picture of Thomas Watson Day and Mary Ann in their 20s, him now a “furnaceman” My mother’s dear grandad – also “Thomas Watson Day”, and the second of their children, George, are already at Mary Ann’s knee, and they live in one of many a “court” – or “back-to-back” house on Hill Street.

Thomas is a “Walsall mon” now.


Gorton's Yard, Church Hill, Walsall, c. 1900. Reproduced in "For want of due regulations: Public Health and Housing in Walsall, 1800-1914".

Gorton’s Yard, Church Hill, Walsall, c. 1900. Reproduced from “For want of due regulations: Public Health and Housing in Walsall, 1800-1914”.

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The tiny parlour


100_8025My dad told me that when he was at work pegging out building plots for the new estates that were springing up north of Birmingham in the post-war years, he would marvel at how inconveniently small the allotted spaces for sitting room, dining room, and kitchen appeared to be on the barren site. As the level strings edged upwards, closely followed by courses of bricks, the rooms would proceed to settle themselves in his visual perception as of perfectly adequate proportions for happy families to conduct life in during the following decades.

And so, pondering this small area of open grass and trees at the junction of Green Lane and Old Birchills, my mother can’t quite believe that when she trod this ground during her childhood, there were scores of miniature dwellings converging just here around the yards behind Forge Street and Little Street, with nearly as many more facing them across the narrow cobbled thoroughfares, all in the shadow of the still-thriving foundries – but not, by that time, the furnaces –  for which “The” Birchills, just north-east of Walsall, was widely famous. My grandmother’s sisters both married into Birchills families, families of foundry workers, furnacemen, and boatmen.

Green Lane, the Wheway & Son Ltd Birchills Hame & Chain Works and environs, Birchills, 1946.  Forge Street can be seen  running in a short diagonal near the centre top of the photograph.

Green Lane, the Wheway & Son Ltd Birchills Hame & Chain Works and environs, Birchills, 1946. Forge Street – where my great-aunt Maud lived at this time, can be seen running in a short diagonal near the centre top of the photograph.



From the 1902 Ordnance Survey Map, Forge Street and Little Street in Birchills. My great-aunt, Maud Ford, nee Day, lived in one of the middle group of houses on the east side of Forge Street. The building housing shared privies and brewhouse is in the communal yard.

In those days, Mother would be stepping from Forge Street into the tiny parlour of her Aunt Maud’s house, after a short walk from St Patrick’s in Blue Lane East, or from home in  Bentley.  Until its demolition in the 1950s, the little dwelling had no running water supply, and possessed only one other downstairs room in which Maud and her husband Billy – along with their two children – could bide their waking hours indoors, and yet the unused space, the sacrosanct parlour, had to be afforded: a defiant statement about the extent of the family’s accommodation.  That they had enough. That there was – of space, if nothing else – a surplus.

In the back room, the lino on the floor always showed a high  polish; spotless, my mother emphasises.  A white enamel bowl sat on a stool near the door.  It was filled, ready, with water drawn from a communal stand pipe in a tidy yard paved with durable blue bricks. The Ford family’s comforts were meagre, and the conditions of their life were unmercifully spartan, but not necessarily squalid, given the co-operation of a group of neighbouring housewives who shared clean and orderly habits.

1950s advertisement for the Walsall, Wednesbury and District  Society for the Blind.  As reproduced in "Memories of Walsall by Alton Douglas and Dennis Moore"

A 1950s advertisement for the Walsall, Wednesbury and District Society for the Blind. Reproduced in “Memories of Walsall ” by Alton Douglas and Dennis Moore.

Billy Ford was blind.  An industrial accident some years earlier had robbed him permanently of his sight, but Mom remembers a cheerful Uncle Bill, smiling and immaculately dressed, cared for with kindness by his wife, their laundry willingly taken in by her sister Emma in nearby Dalkeith Street, to save the indignity of the shared “brewhouse”, and returned in a crisply ironed pile.

How did the family manage to support themselves? Maud regularly “walked” Billy to the premises of the society for the blind in Hatherton Road.  Perhaps some small income derived from his pastimes there. What a hard, hard life.

My grandmother, Elsie-May Day, at the age of 15, and already at work as a “Sorter, Iron Foundry Worker” according to the 1911 census, had found herself, on her own mother’s untimely death that year, a surrogate parent to her two surviving sisters: Emma, two years younger than her, and “ower poor little Maudie,” as she was forever to be called, just 8 years old.

My mother tells me that her dear little Aunt Maud received my swaddled infant self into enthusiastic arms when we were introduced, and twittered sweet nothings into my baby face with a child-like delight. Although I remember nothing of this meeting, I am very glad to know about it.

By the time that I was born in 1961, Forge Street had been demolished, and the family had been moved into a new council house in Leckie Road.  Maudie died, and Billy ended his days in a home for the blind.

Among this little Copse where Forge Street stood, there don't seem to have been any birches planted  in memory of the landscape of the "Birch-Hills" before the coal working, the lime working, and the metal working began.  There is a posy's worth of bluebells in the grass.

Among this little copse where Forge Street stood, there don’t seem to have been any birches planted in memory of the landscape of the “Birch-Hills” before the coal working, the lime working, and the metal working began. A posy’s worth of bluebells brightens the grass.

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Beyond the Curtain Wall

100_7892These snuff-brown pieces of thick, stiff, dry, hide have the passing appearance of relics from a medieval fortress siege.  They are my dad’s “tab” (finger-guard) and “bracer” (arm-guard), from his practice of archery , which my parents had taken up some time early in the 1950’s.

They say that every man’s home is his castle. Our home, 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge, being a three-bed-semi, had not moat nor drawbridge nor portcullis.  Within its modest curtilage, however, I was endowed with a liberating sense of complete security. And it had its own strong-room, its very own armoury.

This stronghold was the 7’6″ by 9’3″ Dark Room. Named thus not for any sinister connotation, but only because of the long, suspenseful evenings when felted blanket, as well as curtains, were fixed to the window of the smallest of the three bedrooms – the one that had been mine when a younger child –  and the alchemical creation of photographs from film took place. Along with the photographic paraphernalia, and the angling and fly-tying equipment, were housed here an eclectic arsenal of weaponry.  The his-and-hers longbows were propped in a corner – a 34lb draw, 5’2″ for my mother, and one 5’9″ in length with a more manful draw weight of 48lb for my father. An old African tribal spear brushed shoulders with a 19th century hand-gun, powder and shot flasks, and a real American Cavalry sword. The impressive unsheathing of this yard-long blade from its scabbard reliably drew gasps from the favoured guests to the house who were witness to this spectacle.  My mother would wince.  She hates the thought of any sort of killing, and fought hard – verbally – against my dad’s repeated attempts to have some of the more attractive items in his collection mounted on gruesome permanent show on the chimney breast in the sitting room. As a small child, I echoed her sentiments entirely. Sometimes, my father could be seen shaking one leg gently as he tried to leave the house with a shotgun in a bag, attempting to detach himself from my thin white arms which clasped his ankle,  and to ignore the desperate piping pleas of “Don’t shoot the birdies, Daddy!”


Licensing for shotguns was introduced in 1968.

There was a sea-change in attitudes in the 1960s.  The shotguns, once casual and anonymous in the room had to be licensed following the 1968 Firearms Act, and an amnesty was declared for other “interesting”  items, such as – say – a “liberated” German wartime pistol, the unexplained possession of which could now “trigger” an automatic prison sentence. In the unlikely event that my parents had wanted to bag wild game with their longbows, that archaic practice was outlawed in 1965.


Archery in the orchard at Owletts Hall Farm, Lynn, Shenstone.

No, to inveigle my mother into an interest in the sport, it had to be a light-hearted affair. They set up their targets in the orchard at my dad’s sister and brother-in-law’s farm near Shenstone, to try their aim with their Slazenger equipment.

Their arrows were skilfully fletched and re-fletched, each with their three “vanes” of feathers, at the little workshop, in Station Street, Walsall, of Mr Lingard, who had been a neighbour of my mother’s family,  in Deepmore Avenue, Bentley, where she had grown up in the 1930s.  During the war, his brother, George, had served in the Merchant Navy, and there had been the excitedly received boon of priceless, rare bananas for the four girls and little Patrick at number 32.


Without realising that they were later to spend a whole half- century living in Bosty Lane, Aldridge, Ted and Marie Horton also had use of a handy field in which to practice their toxophily, less than a mile away from their future home, beyond the fields of College Farm and across the canal – this waterway being the Daw End branch of the Wyrley and Essington, dug at the end of the 18th century to transport limestone from the workings that have been a particular feature of the immediate area for, reputedly, two millenia.


So here they are, my dad, my mom, and their friend, Ken, lined up balletically on a rise of ground opposite Calderfields.  At the rear of the picture, Aldridge Road runs from side to side. Facing the road are Longwood Cottages, then, in the 50’s, still a pair, today a single dwelling, that retains in its grounds remarkable, surviving evidence, in the form of a rounded couple of acres of puddle, that is a feature from a much earlier settlement: It was a moat, fed by a stream, that fortified a manor house of the 13th century.


The first Ordnance Survey map of the area dating from first part of the 19th century. Note the Lime Workings, “Bosty Lane”, “The Butts” (which may possibly have been named after a practice area for earlier archers); “Caudy Fields” with the way to the moat and therefore the early manor marked. The rise of ground opposite where the photograph was taken would seem a better site to build, but the moat area still receives a flow of water from a natural stream that rises nearby. “Caldewell”????

“Calewenhull Grange”,  “Caldewell” – or “Caudy Fields” (at the time of the first Ordnance Survey map) – we can be fairly sure that this was the local seat of the de Boweles family, and Sir Hugh is said to have

bilte and repairede a mansion at Caldewalle, and made a moot abowte the seyd mansion, and there dwellide the seyd William and his wyf manye yeeris.  And there deyde sire Hugh de Boweles.


The Rushall Psalter, with its original 14th century chain. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk


For this narrative, I am endebted to the anonymous 14th century author of the notes on the history of Rushall, which are bound with the other parchment pages that comprise the Rushall Psalter, a precious object now cared for by the University of Nottingham.


Hugh de Boweles had been in the service of  Henry III, who was a monarch troubled by having to commit much of the years and resources of his long reign (1207-72) to waging war against his own barons. Archery equipment not dissimilar from our bows was no doubt employed, but both would be a far cry from modern bows with mechanically assisted draws that demand much less strength in the arm of the exponent.

The third Henry Plantagenet was not, perhaps, a master from whom Hugh could expect much in the way of material rewards for his service.  But Hugh had another strategy for extending his influence in this corner of the Shire of  Stafford: His wife was Alice, the daughter and sole heir to William of Rushall, to which “castle” (as the 19th century Ordnance Survey still describes the modest hall,) the de Boweles family removed, leaving the building they had repaired a mile away at Caldewalle to disappear without a trace, except for its persistent moat.

When Hugh’s grandson, another William, perished of the Black Death in the 1340s, it was his daughter’s descendants who inherited the manor.  Once again lacking male heirs in the following century, the Harpur family took the lordship of Rushall.  By the same process, the Leigh, Mellish, and Buchanan families succeeded them, all of which names are commemorated in street names on the north west side of the present day Walsall conurbation.


Park Lime Pits, afternoon stroll, mid 1960’s. Our relatives from rural Worcestershire had to agree that Park Lime Pits, by any standard, was an attractive bit of countryside for us to be lucky enough to have on our doorstep.

The excavations of the productive Lime Workings that lay within the parkland of Rushall Hall have flooded and the scenes of industry where some of our family toiled decades ago have metamorphosed into a picturesque landscape of lakes and woodland – a haven for wildlife.  Apart from the distant view of the steamy excrescences from the cooling towers of Reedswood Power Station at Bentley (demolished 1987) – that, in any case, I romanticised in my in young imagination into the austere, windowless battlements of some castle, you might be way out in the country, wandering its winding paths, as we occasionally did.





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100_4585Berrow’s Worcester Journal attributes to itself the distinction of being the oldest surviving newspaper in the world.  For over three centuries, its pages have the aired the  local indignations of this largely agricultural corner of England, and proffered its goods for sale.  On an early spring day in the 1960s, the Journal’s photographer was called to immortalise this Suffolk-cross ewe with her odds-defying, news-worthy, quintuple of healthy lambs, at a farm near Upton upon Severn, in the attractive, undulating farmland that skirts the Malvern Hills.  He arranged an engaging composition : the concerned mother watchful, as the five little warm woolly bodies wriggle in the arms of  the farmer’s three young sons.


Contented amongst the flock in my cardigan, with Uncle Trevor, cousin Gary, and Pam the sheepdog. Worcestershire, about 1966.

Good news for a young visitor to the farm when a ewe had too many lambs to cope with – or, sadly, rarely, had expired in the process of producing the next generation of tasty midweek chops or Sunday roasts.  Then there would be bottle feeding to be done: just another necessary chore for the farmer and his family, but a delight for a little girl to be allowed to hold the dripping plastic teat to the pliable, rubbery gums of an orphan lamb, and endeavour to remain standing, despite the surprisingly powerful, greedy butting of its dainty carcass against her bare legs.

Or – less bucolic a scene – if a lamb had died, it would have been stripped of its pelt, which would be laid over the back of an orphan, in an attempt to entice the bereaved ewe to take to a motherless child.

The boys in the photograph were my cousins.

Our mothers are sisters: themselves two of a brood of five, comprising four girls: Winnie; Rose-Marie; Irene; Kathleen; and, finally, a longed-for boy, Patrick – who were brought up in Bentley, near Walsall, during the difficult decades of the Depression and Wartime.


“Peas in a Pod” – Mom, (right), and her sister Irene, on holiday in Torquay in the 1950s

“Like peas in a pod,” as people still remark about Marie and Irene, when they are seen together, on their lengthy visits to each other in these, the years of their widowhood – either here in Staffordshire, or at the pretty little agricultural worker’s bungalow, in the shadow of British Camp at Little Malvern – constructed of concrete panels, and painted an intense pastel pink just like the render between the medieval timbers of their old farmhouse used to be.

That’s where Irene and Trevor retired to – him still lambing ewes each Spring in his adjacent fields, right up until the year before his death.

 “Like peas in a pod.”…..I kept it in the back of my mind when I was a child that I could always, in the end, turn to Irene as an excellent substitute for my mother.


Interchangeable mothering: My mom dandles her sister Irene’s first baby.

That was a comforting thought when, occasionally, I woke in the night at Bosty Lane, panicky breaths lifting the pink nylon eiderdown on my single bed, my strange brain brimming with an unspeakable childish fear that something would happen to take my parents away from me.


As a young woman, before her marriage, my Aunt Irene had a successful career as a store manageress for Dorothy Perkins.  This was what took her to Worcester, where she met Uncle Trevor, and she has lived in rural Worcestershire ever since.


Winnie went to Alfred Stanley and Sons.

But like all her sisters, Irene’s first job at home in Walsall was in the leather industry.  Of the others, Winnie went to Alfred Stanley and Sons on Wednesbury Road.  My mom started at Frederick Hucker, where her best friend’s aunt, Florence Noble, was the forewoman overseeing the manufacture of dog collars, amongst other items. Tea making and running errands seemed tedious to Mom, who had been a reluctant school leaver, and she didn’t stay there very long. Kathleen, the youngest girl, later began at Wincer and Plant.  Of the town’s reputed “100 Trades” that prospered between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was Walsall’s world-wide reputation as a centre of excellence in the manufacture of saddlery, bridlery, and all manner of fancy leather goods that dominated – and gave the Walsall Football Team its name – “The Saddlers.” Men, and many women all over the district were drawn to the industry.  On my father’s side of the family, his eldest sister, Mary Horton, came to Walsall for her (shortlived) first job, when she left school in Walsall Wood. She wrote about it:

August came ( schools broke up last Friday before August Bank Holiday, the beginning of August ) Walsall Observer was full of jobs for under 16s. I got one at the leather goods factory Dance and Spiers glueing the insides of purses ready for the machinists. insides came back, ready for the outsides to be glued on… back to the machinists to be stitched, then back to us for bevelling. The Bevel was a hot iron used for making a dark brown or black line round the edge of the finished purse.

That was in 1927, the year in which Mom and Irene’s eldest sister Winnie was born.  When Winnie herself started work – during the War – she too, quickly tired of life cooped up in a leather factory, and began a job with Co-Operative Dairies in Walsall. It was an early start, but she got lots of fresh air and variety, as she accompanied the horse-drawn milk float round Walsall, making deliveries.  Not to her own family though – they had the “Midland Counties.”

Still not yet 15 years old, she became unwell somewhat suddenly, and in just three days, died of meningitis.


A studio portrait of Winnie, by J.H.Jamieson, “of Preston and Walsall” 1927. At a time of such hardship, such an expenditure speaks volumes about how cherished my grandparents first daughter was.

It was 1942. Penicillin, the first anti-biotic, which can save such patients now, had not come into general use.  There was nothing to be done.  The blow was emotional, and financial.  A wage was lost, and funeral costs struggled to be found.  It was a ridiculous fancy that my twelve year old mother might leave St Patrick’s and go on to Grammar School, even though she passed the exam.

It is March. There are lambs – Mom and Irene can still walk up the lane to where another shepherd is now lambing his flock in the sheds that Uncle Trevor used to use. Mom watched some seasonal hare-boxing in the field from the window of Irene’s spare bedroom on her recent visit. And there’s that welcome cliche of colour.  Acidic blazes of yellow petals unfold in broad brushstrokes under the trees on the  stream bank, and in the garden.  A bright bunch of the cut daffodils against a headstone is arranged to mark that a beloved face can still be brought to mind. In Upton upon Severn’s “new” Victorian cemetery, with its Gothic twin chapels for Anglicans and “Dissenters”, by architect George Row Clarke, there were flowers for Trevor, but also for Irene and Trevor’s son, my cousin Nigel, thought about very often by us all in the 28 years since we lost him.

Gorgeous Kerry Hill ewes and lambs at Little Malvern last year.

Gorgeous Kerry Hill ewes and lambs at Little Malvern last year.

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