Yeomanry occupying observation post (Walsall Local History Centre)

This article returns the Blog to the Cannock area and to the First World War period, but what turned out to be a straight-forward question actually, in my view, has opened the door on an interesting piece of general social history and has also offered a solution to a personal mystery on the Cannock war memorial…

Whispers From The Past is available from the Walsall Local History Centre – £8

Unable to promote or advertise it at the time, some months back I put into book form a collection of cases I had written-up from the records of the Walsall Coroner: Lost Leamore – Death at the Black Horse; Suffering in Silence – Harriet’s Story; A State of Mind – The Butts Murder; Run! – The Ryecroft Plane Crash; Finding N – The Pleck Canal Mystery and, perhaps the strangest of all, the Curious Death of Maud Minnie Mills.

The cases, which date between 1911-1917, are of course under-pinned by tragedy, but they have so much more to tell us about what life was like at the time: they not only show us the warming reaction of the community of Ryecroft to a grief-stricken family and help us understand the problems of the Walsall Police in an age of basic communications and forensic techniques, but also act as a warning by revisiting a world with no National Health Service, little understanding of mental health and no recourse to help through institutions like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Reflections at Woodward’s Bridge: scene of the death of Harriet and a few yards from the discovery of ‘N’

The book costs £8. It is available from the Walsall Local History Centre, or through myself (contact me via the Blog’s Facebook/Twitter accounts).

The Hall on a later copy of the 1845 Tithe Map (Walsall Local History Centre)

I thought I would turn-out a few shorter articles that have their origins in the interesting questions that have been submitted to the Blog Facebook page recently. This one concerns a grave slab in Bloxwich All Saint’s Church to the ‘memory of HARRY PARKES Of Birch Hill Hall’, who was killed on 3 Aug 1833. It seemed to me that the focus of the question was the accidental death of Harry Parkes – and yes, I could help with that – but I also picked out Birch Hill Hall (Birchills Hall) and so I thought I would do a few quick paragraphs on that too…

The site of the workhouse on Sandford Street, as shown on Snape’s map of 1781. (Lichfield Record Office)

Part I dealt with the background to the poor-law both nationally and in Lichfield, as well as a little about James Wickins himself. This part will look at what Wickins actually proposed in 1775, and how that fitted into existing or influenced future practice within Lichfield…

Site of the Sandford St Workhouse, Lichfield.

I was rooting around in the loft the other day when I came across an old assignment that I wrote on the old poor-law in Lichfield, which took as its source a pamphlet written in 1775, which outlined the vision of a Mr. James Wickins on how the task could be more efficiently and economically undertaken within the city…

The Cross Keys, Hednesford, where Freddie attended the John Wesley lodge of the RAOB not long after the picture was taken. (HeathHaysHistory)

The title to this story is a little bit different and I am sure the mind is boggling as to just how a man, a war, a harp and a monkey could all fit together. Well, the first link is easy: the search for the man, Frederick George Wray, started with a bit of a mystery that arose from the war memorial in Hednesford. What happened then was that the mystery was partly solved through a moment of serendipity, however, the answer that moment of serendipity provided only served to take the story on – and to try to answer a question posed by a harp and a monkey! Confused? I will explain…

The heart of what was Little London. (2017).

The heart of what was Little London. (2017).

I started to look into the history of the White Lion pub in Walsall, which is located on the corner of Sandwell Street and Little London, in what is generally called the Little London area of Walsall. It quickly became apparent that it was old – and by that I mean it predated the both the current 1890s rebuild and the 1830 Beerhouse Act – so I knew that its early origins would be difficult, if not impossible to track. So, this part will indirectly look at the pub by concentrating on the place name and early development of the area known as Little London in Walsall, with some reference to the Little London in Willenhall; while the second part will look at the pub itself…

We are again near that time of year of the year, especially so during the centenary of the conflict, that the people of the Black Country come together to remember the ‘Great Zeppelin Raid’ of 31 January/1 February 1916. This article, taken from the holdings of Walsall Archives, focusses mainly on the blackout policy of Walsall Council both before and after the raid.

It was the first time that Zeppelins raided in-land and we are often led to believe, and I can only speak of Walsall here, that it caught an area that arrogantly thought itself safe from aerial attack: Walsall famously having its street lights full-on and its tramcars running. This is actually not the case: Walsall’s Chief Constable had ordered street, shop and theatre lighting reduced by half back in February 1915 and, as a letter from Walsall Council to Nottingham Council dating from October 1916 shows, a plan existed for ‘complete extinguishment’ upon a warning transmitted from ‘a Midland Centre’. This Centre was told around an hour and a half before the first bombs dropped on Walsall that night – when the Zeppelins were around ’40 miles away’ – however, while Birmingham was informed and put its ‘blackout’ plan into operation, ‘Walsall and other towns’ were not and suffered accordingly.

An account of the raid in October 1916, in a letter to Nottingham County Council.

An account of the raid in October 1916, in a letter to Nottingham County Council.

The Zeppelins had exposed a weakness in communications and by 12 February a new warning system was devised that replaced the responsibility of the police with that of Telephone District Managers. They had also exposed the limitations of the Council’s policy of turning the lights off and trusting to luck; so, over the next days, weeks and months Walsall put into operation a system of public sirens, initiated a total black-out, petitioned for Anti-Aircraft guns, improved their ambulance facilities, looked at air raid shelters and carried out a test mobilisation of up to 300 people. Elsewhere, the local Co-op started selling ‘Veneta Zeppelin blinds’ (in any colour as long as it was dark green) and the first newspaper after the raid saw agents selling Zeppelin Insurance.

As the Government repudiated liability after the raid, Zeppelin insurance was available in the following edition of the Walsall newspapers

As the Government repudiated liability after the raid, Zeppelin insurance was available in the following edition of the Walsall newspapers

The total blackout was a typical British knee-jerk reaction, being poorly thought out in my opinion. It makes me think on Laurence Olivier’s narration to ‘A World at War’ – on how the blackout in the opening months of World War Two was originally seen as a bit of a joke until the accidents increased and the joke didn’t seem quite so funny anymore.

Day;'s statement to the Coroner in February 1917.

Day’s statement to the Coroner in February 1917.

It took a full year and the death of Robert Saunders to get some change to the policy in Walsall. Saunders, a 60-year old locksmith from Fletchers Lane in Willenhall, was crossing Upper Bridge Street at around 9.30 pm on Saturday 10 February 1917 when he was struck by a Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Company bus. The bus, the 8.43 pm Birmingham – Walsall service driven by Smethwick man Walter Day, had been travelling slowly and, according to regulations, was only burning two side lamps that were obscured. Day states that he did not see him until it was too late, as there were no street lights and his bus was blacked out. Saunders, probably the last victim attributable to the Great Zeppelin Raid in Walsall, died a few hours later.

It was clearly not the first accident to have occurred and as consequence the Coroner wrote on behalf of the jury to the Council on the issue of street lighting. Finally, the Chief Constable arranged, at a cost of £3 per light, for 15 electric lamps to be erected at compulsory stops on the main roads of the Borough. All of these lights could be switched off automatically just in case the Zeppelins returned – which of course they never did!

For other stories on the Walsall Borough take a look at my Wyrleyblog: (also on Facebook and Twitter) and the Walsall Local History Centre’s blog: (also on Facebook and Twitter)

2 Heath Street, Hednesford.Home of the Rushtons and scene of the tragic fire. 2016.

2 Heath Street, Hednesford.Home of the Rushtons and scene of the tragic fire. 2016.

Rushton seems the ideal patriot: he was a volunteer that joined-up in 1914, getting himself passed as fit to serve despite there being evidence that suggests he was not. While training, his family went through a trauma which left him, understandably, petitioning the officer-in-charge to be able to go home. That permission was refused…

Acc1268/3/3/1 - Marjorie's notification of a job interview as a Tobacconist's Assistant with the Walsall Co-op. It sparked a debate with some school children at the Archives. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Acc1268/3/3/1 – Marjorie’s notification of a job interview as a Tobacconist’s Assistant with the Walsall Co-op. It sparked a debate with some school children at the Archives. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Every so often I pen a short article (500 words or so) for the Black Country Bugle – a weekly local history newspaper for those that don’t know it – on something of interest in the Walsall Local History Centre archives. Through the Walsall Co-operative, this one shows a little of how we have changed from 1938 to today…

One accusation I constantly hear is that members that attend the local history groups I give talks to are more interested in nostalgia, as in chatting about the period and memories of their own lives, than in ‘proper history’. There is some element of truth in this; most that put-up with my ramblings as a speaker are more mature in years and they do engage more if I talk about the WWI tank once of Reedswood Park – and how their dad talked of it – than the Russian cannon from the Crimea that were removed from the Bridge two generations before. Should we be surprised in that? No, of course not. In general, people love to talk about what they remember or know about.

The item I have chosen to briefly talk about today will appear to some as about a run-of-the-mill piece as you can imagine, yet I love it; to me it shows it shouldn’t be a case of nostalgia against history, but that one person’s nostalgia is another person’s history.

Acc 1268/3/3/1 is from the Jamieson family collection. Bill, wife Nellie, and their daughter Marjorie all worked at the Walsall Co-operative – Bill starting at the Caldmore branch in 1906, before going to the dizzy heights of the Highgate branch in 1911. After the war he managed at the Aldridge and Sutton branches. Nellie worked at the Leamore branch from 1916.

In January 1938 Marjorie, having left school, tried to obtain a position as a Tobacconist’s Assistant at the Co-op – and the item is a notification of her first interview. I used it for a display at the Centre and none of our more mature visitors asked anything about it as, I think, it fitted comfortably within their own nostalgia. It was in fact to be a couple of school aged kids that became quite fascinated by it – by how alien it seemed to them – and so they dissected it word for word while they quizzed me.

I remember the first question – which seemed a little naïve at first – about women not working back ‘in the old days’. Of course they did, but I did have to point out that, as did many employed women, her mother had in fact left the Co-op after her parents married in 1922.

I also pointed out Marjorie was 14-years old at this point – the school leaving age introduced in 1918. This led to two comments – the first being somewhat predictable – on her age and the suitability of the job. I pointed out that smoking was seen by some to be healthy at the time and the link to lung cancer was only suggested in medical journals in 1939 and studied seriously in the 1950s. It is interesting that while illegal to sell to under-16s even then, she was seen as able to work in that environment.

The second point struck me from left-field – which was about a perceived lack of consideration by the Co-op for Marjorie. Their point, and an interesting one to show social change, was why the ‘shop’ didn’t interview her during the day – after all, they were asking a 14-year old to attend a meeting at 6.30pm, which in January, is night-time. I smiled when one said something along the lines of ‘not sure my mom would have let me go’.

Marjorie didn’t get the job. A week or so later she was interviewed for a Draper’s Assistant position, which she did get. As for me, it was a fantastic day at work thanks to those guys.