Harrisons Club and the Great War

William Harrison opened the Brownhills (no 3) pit, known locally as Harrison’s pit, just off what was then called Slacky Lane (now Hazel Lane), in Landywood, Great Wyrley, in 1896. The family had, however, been involved in business for much longer than that: seemingly starting out in Walsall, and in the lime trade, the family had, according to the Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society, branched out into coal by 1834. A mining lease for the Brownhills colliers on the lands of Phineas Hussey came up for grabs in 1849 and William Harrison took it (we need to think of this as grand-father William, as it was the two others that followed him, and also called William, who were involved with the Club itself). It was this William Harrison, a Lt-Colonel in the Staffordshire Rifle Volunteer Corps, who laid the foundation stone for the Great Wyrley Workingmen’s Institute (now the table tennis club, on the corner of Walsall Road and Norton Lane), a centre for learning and sobriety, in July 1870.

With the success of their business ventures, the family were able to afford move to Norton Hall around 1851 (in Norton Canes, and demolished in 1933); they then leased further land, opening the Wyrley Grove pit in 1857. The 1860s saw William’s son, Captain William Bealey Harrison (this would be father William, who was appointed as a captain the same volunteer force as his father, and also played first-class cricket), take more of a part in the family’s business affairs and it would be him, with his brother, that sank the mine in Great Wyrley. It would also be during his tenure that Harrisons Club opened.

Captain Harrison passed away in 1912, so the war years and the unveiling of the Club memorials took place while Colonel William Harrison (his son) headed the company. Colonel Harrison had received his rank through the formation of the 2nd North Midland Field Company (a part of the new Territorial Force), in 1908. The Company were based at Norton Canes (the hall was their drill-hall). He served on home soil during the war due to a health condition, and was later elected to lead Staffordshire County Council.

The pre-club history is far from clear but Captain Harrison must have been approached in 1908, if not before, to help to establish it. The land on which the Club sat was taken from an allotment field affronting Gorsey Lane and stretching between Bentons Lane and Wharwell Lane. According to the Lichfield Mercury, the edition dated 26 April 1895, this field had been offered for allotments by Captain Harrison. Housing, in the form of Harrison Villas, had been built around this time, opposite, on Gorsey Lane.

The building has altered little in shape since it was opened, the enclosing of the veranda being the major change, although the internal arrangements, with the stage, toilets and room use and partitioning, have changed over the years. The original boundary took in the land on which the Club and car park stand, as well as that of the garden area behind (which was the original bowling green). The current footpath that borders the Club grounds is in fact much older than the Club, it was path on the 1884 Ordnance Survey map and a field boundary on the Great Wyrley tithe map (1838).

The origins of the building are a little mysterious, in that the Club building was already constructed when the Club minutes start. A committee was formed at some stage, and its earliest recorded meeting was at the ‘Council School’ on 8 January 1909 (likely Landywood, which opened that year). Under the chairmanship of Thomas Cook, it started the process of drawing up rules, sought a steward, sought a billiard table, sought brewing tenders, and set the subscription at a shilling a quarter. An advance for £120 was asked from Captain Harrison in order to furnish the Club, which was to be known as Harrison’s Institute. At this meeting it was recorded that Captain Harrison signed over the Club on Landywood Lane (in fact, it was Gorsey Lane). The meeting of the 22 January was also held at the school, it decided the first steward (a Mr Milner), the first doorkeeper and Bass for the first beer supplier.

The meeting on 4 February was the first at the premises, and the purchase of 100 pint glasses, 50 half-pint and just 36 wine glasses was agreed. Later, carry-out beer was also agreed, as was the acquisition of a piano and, at a cost of two pints of ale, a Mr Morris was engaged to play it. A billiard table was procured, as were agreed newspapers for general readership. The construction of a stage area was agreed in April, along with a dressing room for artistes, however, the fact that the Club was a miner’s den was brought home when rules were passed on the prohibiting of bad language, drinking other men’s beer and the added purchase of three dozen spit-toons.

A bowling green was laid and a competition arranged in June 1910, as to was a domino and a bagatelle tournament – the prize for these being counted not in money but in whiskey. Further, November 1910 would see instruction for members not to supply non-members and children with ‘intoxicants’. The acceptance of member’s wives to attend certain functions was also agreed. 1911 also saw the Club raise funds to purchase hospital notes for members – this entitled the holder to a level of care (up to the value of 10/6d) at either the Walsall or Wolverhampton hospitals. The coronation of George V also took place, members were given a free pint and Captain Harrison donated a photograph of himself to the Club as a gift. A second billiard table was also purchased, and the large room was partitioned-up.

1912 saw the steward, not a local man, resign as the Club had no house attached and so from this point only local people were engaged. The Club also allowed a level of credit during the first ever national coal strike in March – where miners sought a minimum wage and won thanks to government intervention. The Club planted a tree in honour of Captain Harrison upon his death in March that year and April saw the Club broken into by two brothers who stole ‘wines, tobacco etc’; the boys were treated leniently when the case came to court.

The year saw a hiatus in travel that affected the Club when the London North Western Railway ceased its motor train service to Landywood (Landywood Halt was opened in 1908) although they re-instituted it later in the year (the station eventually closed in 1916, after the Walsall – Cannock bus service was introduced in 1915). A motor train was effectively a railway carriage with its own motive power (in this case a small steam engine).

By 1912, the Club had 196 members; this rose to 219 the following year. It must be remembered that members did fall into arrears and names were often posted in the Club of those that were not paying subscriptions. Members were not only from the Great Wyrley, Landywood and the Cheslyn Hay area, but reflected the workforce and came from slightly further afield such as Brownhills, Cannock, Norton Canes, Rushall, Bloxwich, Essington and Birmingham.

The membership stood at 253 in 1914, although some would have left for the war; indeed, Major Hatton would later comment that the area was ‘a valuable hunting ground for the recruiting sergeant’. Initially, the war affected the Club only superficially: in November the beer prices increased by a half-penny per half-pint, they were then raised again in December to 3½d per pint (presumably of Mild Ale, or 2d for a half). It has to be remembered that beer was far stronger than it is today – an average pint of Mild was around 6.5% ABV, compared to 3.5% ABV for that of Banks’s Mild today.

1915 saw the Club easily purchase 30lbs of beer to distribute to members for what may have been a belated new-year feast or, more likely, the anniversary of the opening of the Club. February saw the Committee write to Bass regarding the level of the ‘War Tax’ levied on their beer. The government were against alcohol as soon as war was declared, as it damaged productivity, although its first measures were to encourage voluntary abstinence. When that failed, and in a process that lasted throughout the war, licensing hours were reduced, beers were weakened and watered down, spirits were watered down, taxes increased, prices increased and production was cut. These would be reflected in the Club’s fortunes as the war went on, especially from 1916. At least the Club had the benefit of better access from the April of 1915, as Wharwell Lane was effectively turned into a road from a boggy trackway (with a dangerous corner) and then the bus service followed. The Club membership had risen to 272 that year.

On the night of 31 January/1 February 1916 two Zeppelins raided Walsall. Initially, the impact that the raid had on Harrisons would likely be contained to one of causing fear in the membership – after all, that is what they did to the population as a whole (far in excess of the death and destruction they actually delivered). This fear would have been increased as this was the first time Zeppelins had bombed inland; it is also more than possible that people in the locale had seen one of the Zeppelins, or heard it at least (as it mustn’t be forgotten that it was winter night when the two craft visited), as both the L21 and the L19 had skirted Wolverhampton on their way to the Black Country.

Immediately after the raid the government repudiated liability for damages and, after restricting its lighting in July, Harrisons purchased Zeppelin insurance in August that year. This may be considered an extreme response by the Club, however, on 15 May 1920, the Walsall Observer printed a small article claiming that something like a ‘miniature shell, of a type used by Zeppelin crews to be flung from the air and exploded by contact with a hard surface’ had been found, two feet down, in an allotment garden in Great Wyrley – this may have been the allotments next to the Club, so maybe not such an over-reaction.

Shortages and the government’s war on drink began to bite. In April 1916, the Club licensing hours were reduced and tickets had to be purchased to play billiards as games were not being paid for and the table was making little. The committee again wrote to Bass complaining about their ‘excessive charges’ considering those charges has not been applied to the local pubs. By May 1916 the cost of Mild had gone up to 4d a pint, while that of Old Ale (a stronger beer) went up to 5½d a pint and 3d for a half. In June, a half-penny went on the price of a bottle of stout.

On 25 May, the Club also decided to join the Cheslyn Hay Red Cross Bowling League: the League had been started in July 1915 under the chairmanship of Mr Hawkins and had six clubs initially including the Talbot, Cheslyn Hay Workingmen’s Club, Landywood Club and the Anglesey in Bridgtown (later, the Stumble Inn). The idea of the League was to help raise money for the Red Cross, and both Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay had branches.

In July two of the members were appointed as stock takers for the Club as the current stock taker, Mr Anstey, had ‘joined HM Forces’. In the same month, for some reason, the Club decided not to renew its membership of the Cannock and District Billiard League; it also, again without a stated reason, and we have to assume it was innocent, decided to pay the subscriptions for two local policemen: constables Hadley and Neaverson. While members were starting increasingly defaulting on subscriptions, and it was agreed by the committee to post names and suspend them, the Club was still sufficiently financed to undergo some renovation in August 1916 and purchase beef to feed members as a part of the wakes. By November only 85% of the beer order was being delivered and so the Club restricted out-sales to one pint per member. The membership at the close of 1916 stood at 297.

The Club did not record in their committee minutes that any individual members had been killed or any reaction to any death either in action or as a result of it. Local men had been dying since the outbreak of the conflict – Joseph Masters, one of the railway station workers at Wyrley station had been killed, as a territorial soldier, in 1914 and everyone locally would have known of him. September 1916 would see the death of the first two members: Patrick Downey, though how well he was known in the Club is difficult to know, and Thomas James, who eventually passed away a year after he was shot in the head.

Things began to get worse in 1917, although the first few months were dominated by fund-raising for the war effort: in March the Club purchased 130 war savings certificates (valued at £1 each) at a cost of £100 and 15 shillings, although these were later purchased via Club officials as the Club itself could not purchase them; then, in the same month, a concert and collection were held to raise £6 for the Red Cross Fund.

In April the Club announced a significant price rise: Mild Ale went from 4d to 5½d per pint, a small bottle of Bass went from 3d to 4½d, a large bottle of stout went from 5½d to 6½d and a small bottle from 4d to 4½d. Further, members were only allowed to purchase three pints per day. It is unlikely that the purchase of twelve pairs of bowls and six jacks would have offset the whinges of the membership, especially as in the May whiskey went up to 5½d a glass, 8d a quarter (quarter of a pint) and to seven shillings a bottle. On 29 June the committee agreed that due to insufficient supply members would only be allowed to buy two pints per day, whether in-custom or take-away, and bottles were to be classed as pints.

The second half of 1917 saw Harrisons continue with supporting the local community and war effort – hosting a bowling tournament in the August for the Great Wyrley Red Cross Fund. The Club also hosted a flower and vegetable show – presumably for the Great Wyrley Horticultural Society – the same month; this was important, as Germany had returned to unrestricted submarine warfare back in February and growing more home produce was important to stave off rationing (which came in the following year) as the shipping was sunk.

The administration of the Club saw Mr Croxton, the steward, receive an extra five shillings per week as a war wage for the duration of the conflict only. The Club also began to source its rum from the Lichfield Brewery and then, in November 1917, the committee wrote to Thomas Boulter & Son requesting samples as they were seeking a change of supplier; the Boulter brewery supplied and was located behind the Shire Oak Hotel on the Chester Road (it eventually closed in 1930), but what became of this request is not recorded.

April 1917 had seen a ban on new members joining the Club, and had seen overall membership fall in 1917 to 283; this ban was to be lifted in January 1918, then re-imposed on any persons other than Harrison’s workers in the May, yet by the end of that year the membership had grown to 315.

June and August 1917 would see the deaths of the third and fourth members of the Club recorded on the memorial plaque; both had been long-standing members and both were mature, married men. William Henry Simpson had returned to the army after being a territorial for some years, his widow would go on to be employed by the Club as a cleaner – no doubt helping a little with what would have been a financial struggle for her. Ernest Thomas had been a local baker, one time losing his little horse during the 1903 horse maiming spree. The death of both Thomas (who had been ill over a long period in Egypt) and Simpson had been recorded in the local newspapers and must have caused some shock at Harrisons despite nothing being mentioned in the minutes.

Fundraising for early 1918 was again split between the national and local: in March £100 was used to purchase war bonds upon the visit of Julian the tank (an official Tank Bank scheme) to Walsall that month – over £800,000 was forthcoming from the Walsall area that took in the Great Wyrley locality as well. A further £50 was also invested by the committee in the May. Locally, the Club through their bowling team supported the Red Cross Fund with continued entry in the Cheslyn Hay League and one-off competitions.

The supply of tobacco from B Dean & Co was dwindling, but it was really the beer supply that was causing concern. At the opening of the year the Club was serving a beer called 3 XXX, which appears to have been a weak ‘war beer’, and a bitter; members were allowed two pints (four on a Saturday), which was one of each with the bitter being first. In March the price of a pint went up from 5½d to 6d. In July, perhaps not trusting their supplier, the Club purchased a hydrometer to test the strength of liquors purchased by the Club. As the war headed to a close the Club was forced to pay just short of £50 for a new boiler, and with the beef becoming difficult to obtain, ham was instead ordered for the wakes and Christmas. Members were to get a free pint at both; more beer was requested from Bass in the October, but its delivery was a problem – the minutes stating that there would be difficulty in getting this from the railway station.

The Club was still raising money, this time for the local Soldier’s and Sailor’s Comfort Fund in the December as men were slowly coming home. In January 1919 the steward’s pay was increased to £20 per annum. There were some immediate benefits when the war ended regarding supply, as Bass agreed to supply more beer as some restrictions were lifted, however, this was still ‘war beer’.

Also in January it was agreed by the committee that war beer could be mixed with other beers. With the ban on non-Harrison’s employees still in force, the membership sent a petition in April 1919 to the committee regarding to poor quality of the war beer; Harrisons contacted Bass who said that all was being done to replace it as soon as possible, but the trade was still under restriction of the Liquor Control Order. The membership mood would not have been helped by the fact that the price of a pint of Mild went up to 6½d a pint and Bitter to 7½d a pint in May.

May 1919 also saw the committee donate ten guineas (a guinea equates to £1 and 1 shilling) to the Great Wyrley Peace Celebration Committee and offered the use of its room if the Peace Committee wanted it. In June it was agreed to supply sandwiches and two pints to members on the day itself (19 July) and a concert was to be provided. The committee also agreed, although not harmoniously, to allow a collection for gifts to be purchased for those from Great Wyrley that had won distinctions in the field – possibly as a few of the members had won the Military Medal or the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

In July, the committee offered the bowling green for a tournament in benefit of a fund for creating a permanent war memorial; while flushed with war success, the committee also approached South Staffordshire Water to see if they could connect the toilet and urinals to their supply. Interestingly, and clearly a complaint must have been made, the steward was also instructed to inform members if the beer was not up to ‘sufficient quality’, although he was to serve it if the members insisted he did!

The committee opened membership back up to everyone in the August and by the end of the year the number had risen from 315 to 462 (boosted by returning soldiers, no doubt). As the year rolled to a close there were some attempts at compensation for the massive price hikes during the conflict; the Lichfield Brewery Bitter was reduced by a half-penny a pint for members in the September and there was a further 5% reduction in prices charged to the Club in the November. In October 1919, the Club offered a nice touch when Mrs Simpson, the widow of member William Henry Simpson, was engaged as a cleaner – her hours being increased over the forthcoming months. The Club was, at this stage, divided into a bar, a clubroom, a smoke room and a reading room.

1920 saw membership increase: there were 536 by the end of the year despite another committee decision to only accept new members from Harrison’s employees or from inhabitants of Great Wyrley. Fund raising had now switched from war relief charities to supporting the parish war memorial and a bowling tournament and concert were arranged at the request of local War Memorial Committee. The slight reduction in prices, which also extended to the Highgate Mild (which was also reduced by a half-penny in March 1920) was lost when later on that month, due to a budget tax, a penny went on the price of every pint; the free pint at Christmas was not much compensation.

In the September of 1921 all beer went up by another half-penny, which means that prices had somewhere between doubled and trebled within around seven years – while the drink itself had been made weaker. This would be equivalent to a current pint of Holden’s Golden Glow served at the Club, a 4.4% ABV bitter, currently costing £2.89, being reduced to say around 2.2% ABV and retailing at around £7.22.

This story finishes in 1921, as the Club symbolically lays the conflict to rest not only with the steward finally losing his extra war pay, but with the planning, execution and unveiling of its roll of hour and memorial plaques (the story of which is related in another Wyrleyblog article). Some members of the Club may have fought in the war, and after the armistice in 1918 may have thought their fighting done; this, however, was not the case as before long they found they had to fight for the right to go to work: 31 March 1921 saw the government hand back the coal industry to the private owners (it had been nationalised during the latter part of the war) and the increasing post-war depression meant that wages were likely to be cut and miners went on strike, or were locked out, if they didn’t agree to cuts. Harrisons had its problems, it was even referred to by Colonel Harrison when he unveiled the memorial plaques in July 1921, but the Club itself sought to help members where it could by providing tea and lunches for children through the troubled months. Nationally, the miners returned to work in the July with their wages much reduced, and feeling betrayed by other trade unions.