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.

Anonymous grave markers,  now divorced from their graves, at the Burntwood Asylum graveyard. 2016.

Anonymous grave markers, now divorced from their graves, at the Burntwood Asylum graveyard. 2016.

The first of a 3 part article on depression in WWI, with special emphasis on the Cannock Chase camps. Part 1 investigates how well mental health was understood back in World War One and the story of a local soldier Silas Sargent of Bloxwich and Cheslyn Hay…

A recruitment cartoon in the Advertiser, Sep 1914. (Cannock Library)

Mr Phillips and Don the Dog raising money for the Tommies, 1914. (Cannock Library)

This is the story of John Henry Degg from High Town, Hednesford. John Henry epitomises the opening day casualty of the Battle of the Somme – one of 19,240 dead – but I wanted to show that he was a person and not just a statistic. I have also used his family experience in order to give some local (Great Wyrley and Cheslyn to Cannock and Hednesford) and general military and political background not only to the battle, but the entire war…

Bath St Cemetery, early 1900s, now devoid of most of its headstones and funerary art. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Bath St Cemetery, early 1900s, now devoid of most of its headstones and funerary art. (Walsall Local History Centre)

This article started off as the story of Albert Edward King RE, a soldier from Chalford in Gloucestershire, and it still is, but the disappointment over the slightly unkempt nature of the graveyard he, and all the others, lay in mean’t that I wanted to extend the article to encompass through local examples, Great Wyrley, Cheslyn Hay, Walsall, Birmingham, as well as Chalford in Gloucestershire, the role of graveyards and funerary art (including headstones, statues and war memorials) in local communities. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but a brief look at the history and responsibilities that go with them…

King's grave in the rather unkempt churchyard at Chalford.

King’s grave in the rather unkempt churchyard at Chalford. 2016.

Station Street, Walsall, in the 1980s, where Bob Holmes worked around 1951-1952. Walsall Local History Centre.

Station Street, Walsall. Bob Holmes worked here around 1951-1952. Walsall Local History Centre.

Recently I discovered connections between Doctor Who, Cheslyn Hay and Walsall, so, as a bit of fun, I thought I would write an article on these connections, Bob Holmes and Tony Read, that I hoped would appeal to general local interest or TV nostalgia. Bob was a prolific writer for the series for near 20 years, becoming the series Script Editor as Tom Baker took over the role in 1974. Holmes spent a few years in Walsall as a journalist before moving on and eventually into television. Tony succeeded Holmes for a year as Script Editor in 1977. He was born in Cheslyn Hay in 1935 and would later move to Walsall, being educated at Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Walsall.

The Swan Inn, Walsall Road, Gt Wyrley. 2016.

The Swan Inn, Walsall Road, Gt Wyrley. 2016.

As I started to piece together a development theory for the Swan Inn in Wyrley it became obvious that somewhat larger elements of local and family history were involved: chief of these were the fact we were dealing an extended family – named Greensill – that operated two pubs, at least in 1834, which were both called The Swan. One Swan, that in Great Wyrley, survives; the other, a stone-throw into Leacroft, is now defunct. I knew that if I traced what I could of the Leacroft Swan this article would be significantly extended, I therefore decided to split the original article into two with this part dealing with the name and origins of the two pubs, as well as the lifespan of the Leacroft Swan…