I was delighted to acquire this photo-negative of the Crown Inn which dates from the Second World War years. The building, it would appear, had recently been refaced with stone cladding by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd. This is one of only two images I have seen that shows the property that once stood on the corner of what is today called Burfield Road.
The name of this short thoroughfare possibly derives from the Saxon "būr," or stone dwelling. This corner property, however, looks like quite a residence. The two projecting bays with balconies could have been a later addition to this elegant house. The occupiers also enjoyed the benefit of having a nice little boozer next door so that they could nip in for a quick pint of Banks's ale before dinner! Barrack Lane, the road on which the Crown Inn faces, is thought to commemorate a barracks for Parliamentary troops stationed here during the English Civil War.
When I first acquired this photo-negative I assumed it was a post-war picture but zooming in on the scanned image shows that the licensee has scrawled "NO BEER" on the front door to let locals know that the war-time shortages had impinged on trade at the Crown Inn. Despite the negative impact on morale, the war often interrupted the constant supply of ale. The licensee at this time, as can be seen on the name plate above the door, was Daisy Smith.
This view of Barrack Lane shows the buildings that stood between the Crown Inn and Park Road. Apart from the pub, only one building stands in the 21st century, a thoroughly-restored property named Blantyre House and occupied by Barnardo's as part of their Dudley Community Routes project. The junction at the 'bottom' end of Barrack Lane was once known as Cuckoo's Corner.
And so to the big question... why is the pub known as The Widders? I have asked loads of Cradley people the reason for this but nobody seems to know. I imagined that it may have been something to do with a mining accident or perhaps, given the name of the road, something to do with war widows.
There was a terrible disaster at Homer Hill Colliery in November 1867 in which twelve miners lost their lives following an explosion of gas. It is thought that there was insufficient wooden supports and a roof collapsed which released the flood of gas that was subsequently set alight. Hundreds of people flocked to the pit head where the injured men were brought up to the surface and attended by local surgeons. The inquests for this tragedy were held in other local pubs and I have not found a direct link to this incident and the tavern in Barrack Lane. However, this does not mean that the public house did not play a social role, particularly as it was so close to the pit. Perhaps a fund was organised by the publican?
It was following the discovery of this newspaper article that I distinguished another link between the pub and local widows. The article appeared in the Worcester Journal in January 1866 and refers to the distribution of butter and plum cake to eighty widows and poor persons of the neighbourhood. Moreover, the article points out that this was an annual custom by J. Wood of Coley Gate so we can see from this that some form of convention had been established by the family that lived in Colley Gate House, a property located on the corner of Chapel House Lane. This article pre-dates the construction of the Talbot Hotel and, although the Vine Inn was close to the home of the Wood family, it is possible that the provisions were distributed from the tavern near Cuckoo's Corner. It's conjecture but there could be some substance in this supposition.
There is a third theory for the pub's name that I am putting forward and, if I had to place a bet on which one is the most likely then it the fact that, for two generations, the Crown Inn was kept by the widow Eliza Oliver during the late 19th and early 20th century. She was the licensee of the former beer house for over fifty years from 1872 until the mid-late 1920's. She must have seen some incredible change over the years. Her long tenure at the Crown Inn would have made her an institution. In the 19th century it was quite common to address women as widow rather than Mrs. I can imagine the locals saying to one another "fancy going for a pint down Widow Oliver's?" and this would naturally be abbreviated to simply "The Widows" but in a Cradley twang making it "Widders."
Slade Road, the lane connecting Barrack Lane with Church Road was once called The Sladpiece, probably derived from the Germanic 'slecke,' meaning small pieces of coal. Miners would have made up a good number of the customers who used the Crown Inn during the late 19th century. There were several pits within walking distance, the closest being Cradley Colliery on what is now Cradley Park. This pit was operational from 1864-5 until 1917 and produced both coal and fireclay that was transported in tubs down an incline via an endless chain to the brickworks close to the Park Lane Tavern. Widow Oliver's tavern would have been a welcome watering hole after a hard day's graft at the colliery. Other local men were mostly engaged in the making of bricks or chain. The chainshop of Thomas Perry was only yards away at Cuckoo's Corner.
The thoroughfare's name of Barrack Lane does not seem to appear until the early 20th century. In 1871 the building is listed as "Back of Park Row" and it was known as the Rose and Crown. Park Row was the line of houses that once fronted Park Row, formerly known as The Park. Today, this main road forms part of the A458 from Halesowen to Stourbridge. It was in 1762 that an Act of Parliament authorised a toll to be charged for those passing along the turnpike through Cradley Park. Fees were still being charged in 1871 when Stephen and Elizabeth Lester took the money from travellers whilst living in the toll office on the corner of Park Lane. At this time the Rose and Crown was kept by the Cradley-born blacksmith Joseph Oliver. His wife Eliza hailed from Lye Waste. They lived on the premises with Joseph's daughter Maria, along with young Mary Worton, a girl employed as a general servant.
Joseph Oliver had grown up in this locality as his father was the road contractor Benjamin Oliver. The family business was successful and his father employed a dozen men. Whilst his brother Edwin followed in his father's footsteps, Joseph took up the trade of blacksmith. He married Sarah Hipkiss in May 1852. She was the daughter of the iron manufacturer Moses Hipkiss of Rag Mill Forge at Overend. The newly-weds settled in Overend from where Joseph plied his trade.
Sarah Oliver died in 1862 and Joseph moved back to Cuckoo's Corner. It was in 1868 that he re-married after finding happiness with Eliza Homer, daughter of Nebo Homer, publican of the Dudley Arms at Lye Waste. This connection with the licensed trade may have marked the opening of the Oliver home as a beer house.
The census of 1871 records the beer house as the Rose and Crown. Joseph Oliver worked as both blacksmith and publican. The couple's daughter Annie was born in 1872. However, Joseph Oliver died of consumption in the same year on August 27th, 1872. He was 38 years-old.
The licence of the pub was transferred to widow Eliza Oliver and she remained at the helm, helped by her daughters. Maria, step-daughter from Joseph's previous marriage, became romantically involved with the iron worker Joseph Hickman who worked next to the pub. After they were married she only had to move to the neighbouring property. Younger daughter Annie took over duties behind the bar of the Crown Inn. Eliza Oliver also employed a domestic servant to undertake the chores of the household. And this was the situation for many years. Annie, who didn't marry, remained with her mother at the pub.
Joseph Turner had the challenging task of following the Oliver family as custodian of the Crown Inn. He remained for much of the 1930's before the arrival of Daisy Smith who was the licensee at the time of the photograph at the top of the page.
In these interior photographs of the pub, you can see the ceiling joists across both the bar and lounge of the former Crown Inn. The original layout of the pub would have had much smaller rooms, one of which may have been a sitting room of the publican. The census of 1911 records that the property had seven rooms. Despite being opened out in succeeding years, the pub remains quite a cosy little tavern.
Towards the end of the 20th century
Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd. sold the pub to Avebury Taverns. I
can remember the Crown being run by Graham Hickman during the 1990's. He kept a
tidy pub and it was a convivial and lively community meeting place.
This extract from a map drawn up in 1938 shows the Crown Inn on Barrack Lane, along with some of the key sites and buildings that once surrounded the pub. West Road was a fairly new development when this map was drawn. The triangular plot formed by Barrack Lane, Park Road and Burfield Road was developed in the early-mid 19th century, the properties facing the old turnpike road being the oldest. The Crown Inn was formerly listed as "back of Park Road" with Barrack Lane being little more than a dirt track. Cradley Colliery is marked to the north of the Crown Inn but production had ceased by the time of this map's publication. Two important buildings, Park House and the Chapel House are highlighted to the south of the pub.
The Crown Inn had been colloquially known as The Widows, or Widders, for generations so it was almost inevitable that the name was changed in 2007. A new sign was erected but it was not well produced and didn't last too long. This signboard appeared in 2013. As you can read in the left-hand column the Crown Inn was kept by the widow Eliza Oliver for over fifty years. The publican was born in the early 1840's and died in the late 1920's. Nowadays, we are told our lives have changed much more than those of previous generations. However, although it is true that the pace of change has increased, can we really argue that life changes more dramatically in the modern era? Sure, we have piles of consumer goods at our disposal but they only tend to be improvements or refined versions of something we already had. And whilst it is true that inventions like the Internet have changed the way we interact and communicate, this could only work if you have electricity - and this came along during the life of Eliza Oliver. Gas power to our homes also happened during her life - not to mention clean running water through pipes and taps. And what about the postage system that evolved and peaked during her time at Barrack Lane. Horses were replaced by bicycles and cars whilst she was pulling pints. And when she had a day off she could walk down to that new-fangled invention called the railway! During her lifetime there were three changes to the throne and, as licensee of the Crown Inn, she witnessed the effect a World War had on her local community. On a civil or social level Eliza Oliver witnessed the introduction of mass free schooling, women earning the right to vote, the formation of trade unions, a modern police force and other emergency services, even hospitals where major medical advances were made. Eliza Oliver would have heard radio for the first time, perhaps bought a record or enjoyed a night at the cinema. Yes, life does change, but does it change as much for us as it did for Eliza Oliver?
"A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in.”