Some history of the Off-Licences of Reddal Hill at Cradley Heath in the County of Staffordshire
Well, I was going to publish a page for the off-licence at No.95 Reddal Hill Road simply with some historical information regarding ownership and the breweries involved. I had a plan of the building but no photograph. However, David Attwood changed all that in January 2021 when he posted the photograph [below] on Facebook. An old school friend spotted the image and forwarded it to me. Wow! I was so pleased as this was my home from the age of five until I left for new adventures in 1977. The shop is in the centre of this photograph, the white van belonging to my mother. This is the only photograph I have seen of the place - I will tell you why I have no photographs myself later on. In the meantime, I will type up some of my recollections of the building and the business.
My name is Kieron McMahon, not a name one would associate with the Black Country. Then again, Cradley Heath is a place that has been settled by immigrants for many centuries. I was born in a two-up, two-down house on the edge of Lye Waste which was then in Worcestershire. My family then moved closer to Lye Cross until I was almost four years-old when my father suddenly upped sticks and re-located to Ireland, the land of his birth. Consequently, I spent a year of my childhood on the Emerald Isle. I guess things did not work out, perhaps my Wolverhampton-born mother missed her family. Her name was Shirley Green and her family were based around the Goldthorn Hill area. Whatever the reason, my parents decided to return to the Black Country and bought this off-licence on Reddal Hill Road. My father, Michael McMahon, a former steel erector, must have made a few quid at some point which enabled him to fork out for this going concern. The beer licence of the house was transferred to him by the magistrates in March 1964.
Despite being born in Worcestershire and not moving to Reddal Hill until I was five years of age, I still regard myself as a Staffordshire lad. The term topophilia was coined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and, essentially, it means the sense of cultural identity, combined with a love of place, particularly developed by individuals as they grow up in one location. I am almost a stranger to Lye, the place of my birth, in many respects, but I knew almost every centimetre of the locality around Reddal Hill and many of the people who lived in the community. I no longer live here but this to me is home. These days, when I cycle past the grass verge and car park occupying the site of this row of properties, I still feel a sense of belonging.
Michael McMahon hailed from a rural farm on the outskirts of Castleblayney in County Monaghan. He visited the old place around 1966 and, leaving my mother and elder sister to run the shop, he took me with him. It was terrifically exciting because there were very few young boys who had flown on an aeroplane in the mid-1960s. We boarded a relatively small propeller-driven Aer Lingus flight from Elmdon Airport, which was just a control tower and a small terminus in those days. We walked across the tarmac and clambered up the steps of the old crate. We travelled from the airport to Castleblayney in a taxi, a brand-new shiny blue Ford Zodiac Mk.IV. My old man must have turned some heads turning up in such an exotic automobile. I was sat in back probably looking tiny sat on the massive bench seat.
Thankfully, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Castleblayney because the farm was like something out of the 18th century, a ramshackle old place filled with the pong of people who had never seen a shower in their lives. A bath tub in the farmyard may have been an annual affair! The toilet was a hole in a nearby field. This was as basic as things could possibly be in those days and the family seemingly just about survived on subsistence farming.
In hindsight, it was easy to see why my father, together with most of his siblings, bought tickets for a boat bound for Liverpool after the Second World War. There was simply no work to be found on the other side of the Irish Sea. On returning to Cradley Heath my mother was horrified to find that I had fleas! That farm was a real eye-opener and helped me understand the character of my father. He almost certainly had a very harsh upbringing and food was probably scarce. He would always ensure we cleared out plates as he had known what it was like not to have much on there in the first place. This was, at times, cruelly enforced, and it has resulted in me never leaving a scrap of food on my plate. Ever.
In the last paragraph I have stated that we returned to Cradley Heath but this building was technically and historically part of Old Hill. However, for one reason or another, I have always thought of myself as a Heathen. I generally spent more time heading towards The Ways than I did going to Ode 'ill. You can tell the genuine old lags of Reddal Hill, and differentiate them from the white-flight Brummies, because Cradley Heath was known as The Ways, meaning the road junction at Charlie Wright's, and the 'L' in Old, along with the 'H' in Hill were, and remain, superfluous. I know that the dialect is fading but it is safe with me, for now at least.
Many of the McMahon family settled in Liverpool but, through his work in the construction industry, my father drifted south and met my mother at the Fighting Cocks, a large public-house where today an Aldi store stands at the bottom of Goldthorn Hill at Parkfield, Wolverhampton. Apparently, my father got into an argument with three locals and took them all outside for a bit of fisticuffs. After successfully giving them a good seeing-to, he returned inside the pub, put his jacket back on and asked my mother out for a second date. This should have set the alarm bells ringing for my mother and a good indicator that she was destined for troubled waters. During the decade that I knew my father, domestic violence was almost a daily occurrence. Having said that, my mother was a bit unhinged herself and my father would end up dodging the odd flying saucepan or plant pot.
The domestic violence was not confined to the adults in the house and my sister and I would often be on the end of a good walloping. It was in the yard of this off-licence that my dad became the first person to break my nose. This happened on my seventh birthday. It was my job to sort out the empty beer bottles brought back by customers and plonk them in wooden crates ready for the draymen from Aston who would quickly sling them on their lorry. I had placed a bottle in the wrong crate and this was spotted by my hawk-eyed old man and, bang, I spent the rest of the day lying on my bed with a kitchen roll to mop up the blood. However, I do not want readers to think that I look at this photograph with harrowing memories. On the contrary, I have many happy recollections living on Reddal Hill Road. Besides, my sister and I knew little else back then. When my parents went for each other with hammer and tongs we would just crouch in fear waiting for the calm after the storm. Perhaps we assumed that everybody else lived on the edge of violence. It was only when I grew up a little that I realised most other folks enjoyed living within a happy and settled nuclear family. In Reddal Hill Road the nuclear element was the next time my father kicked off.
I assume that my father was civil to customers - or else we would have gone out of business in no time. The off-licence was free-of-tie but my father retained the links with Ansell's brewery, probably fostered by the agent or sales representative of the Aston-based company. Thinking about it, the rep probably provided my parents with incentives to remain with the brewery. I can only share my memories of the business as I saw them as a child. I could hardly see over the counter when we first moved into the premises.
In the above photograph the dustbins have been put out for the bin men. Beneath them was the cellar trap where barrels of Ansell's ale were rolled down and placed on brick ledges around the outer walls of the building. There was only a cellar beneath the shop at the front of the building. It would have been more fun if we had a labyrinth of subterranean vaults beneath the entire building but, alas, it was just the one space. The steps down to the cellar were from our private quarters, a steep flight and a corner to turn as it went through an archway of the foundation or supporting internal wall.
These days most public-houses are serviced with firkins or kilderkins but in those days we stocked full-sized 36-gallon barrels. The draymen were, as was the custom, given a free glass of beer for their efforts. On any given delivery round this could add up to a fair few pints of beer being consumed. How the drivers of the lorries were not pulled over by the police is a curious thing? When I was in my late teens, I did a week as a driver's mate on the delivery lorry of a soft drinks firm based near Rounds Green. My older sister Karen worked in the office and, as I was saving up for a car, I had asked her for a week's work during my annual leave. The lorry called at plenty of pubs and at each tavern the landlord would hand me and the driver a pint of bitter. Of course, through showy bravado, one simply could not refuse the beer. At the end of the delivery run I was completely legless. However, the driver, who did this sort of thing week-in, week-out, was completely compos mentis. When we clocked out he even went to the social club for a few more pints before driving home!
It was rather dank down in the cellar and the blue bricks on the [sub] ground level would often squelch underfoot. I would watch my father hammer in the taps and I can remember the boxes of vent pegs used to prevent the beer from being tainted by any impurities in the air. These also served to preserve the beer overnight when the barrel was pegged. It is important to minimise air coming into contact with the surface of the beer as bacteria then gets to work and the end result is beer tasting like vinegar. Just like any diligent publican, my parents needed to sell good beer to maintain their customer base.
There were no self-tilting stillages in the 1960s so, as the beer level lowered, the barrel would have to be manually tilted very carefully to avoid stirring up any of the sediment or dry hops in the bottom. The brewery charged for 36 gallons so the licensee had to maximise the amount of beer sold to enjoy a healthy profit margin. Any waste was known as ullage and this had to be kept to a minimum, a pint or two at most. I do remember my father making a pig's ear of hammering in the tap one time and there was beer spraying all over the place until he rammed it home. I found this most amusing until I received a punch in the face for laughing out loud.
We had several of these barrels delivered every week so my parents were turning over quite a bit of beer. The off-sales market was different in the 1960s. Folks would arrive at the shop with a shopping bag containing empty bottles. Some would just turn up with one bottle under each arm. My mother or father would then use hand-pulls to draw the beer through the pipe or line into a large glass jug. The hard bit, particularly if the cask was fresh and full of condition, was to pour the beer from the jug, through a funnel, and into the customer's empty bottle. This was done over a sink which was part of the counter. Again, spillage had to be minimised to keep those profits healthy.
Through licensing legislation, off-sales beer was regulated in the same way pubs were. We would serve from 17.30hrs in the late afternoon until 22.30hrs at night. Any later and my father would risk his beer licence being endorsed. Having said that, the officers at Old Hill Police Station were patrons. Also, the people staffing the ambulance station in Lawrence Lane would pull up for some beer to get them through the night shift. Sometimes they would be late due to a call-out. However, they would use their blue lights and bell to get to our off-licence just before closing time. A complete abuse of ambulance protocols but my parents found it hilarious. My mother was known to start pouring their beer at 10.20pm in the knowledge they would coming screaming around the bend from Spinner's End in order to pick up their nightly rations. That's simply how it was back in the day - drinking beer was part of many people's daily life.
Seemingly, nearly all the households in our locale would buy some beer in the evening on one night or another. Some men would send their wives on a nightly mission to get their ale which would be consumed whilst watching Coronation Street. Many women would come to buy their own beer as their husbands were in the pub, leaving them to look after the children. Some of them may have been unaware that their wives were enjoying a tipple themselves back at home!
Our off-licence sold Ansell's and across the street, on the corner of Lawrence Lane, there was another outdoor that sold M&B beers. Both businesses prospered, the only difference being the taste buds of the local patrons. Some liked beer from Cape Hill whilst others preferred the Aston brews. Fred Harper was the licensee of the M&B offie when we first moved into Reddal Hill but the licence soon passed to the woman who everyone remembers the shop by - Beryl's. My mother became quite good friends with Beryl and would spend ages chewing the fat. Between them, they probably knew all the gossip of Reddal Hill.
Returning to the first photograph, there are a few elements of great interest to me, perhaps to you too. Working as a steel erector during the 1950s, my father possessed good balance and had a great head for heights, both key assets for somebody bolting together steel girders on high-rise buildings. One day, there was a job that needed doing on the roof and he climbed up some ladders to fix things. I was stood on the pavement outside the neighbour's house to the left of the photograph. My father shouted down to me and told me to watch. He then walked across the apex of the roof from the one chimney stack, across the neighbouring property, to the next chimney stack. He then turned around and walked back. As a seven year-old, I was completely amazed by what was something one would only see at the circus, or in a Harold Lloyd movie - there's a bang up-to-date cultural reference for the Covid generation!
When I was around nine or ten, I found a way of reaching the roof apex myself. I would hop over the wooden fence into the neighbour's back garden, clamber up a low building, jump over to a leaded channel between the two properties and then, as I was only light, walk up the roof and sit on the apex to watch the world go by below. A great bit of fun, I did this on several occasions until a woman across the road screamed at the sight of me on the roof. My mother came into the street and, following the pointing gaze of the pedestrian, looked up to see me enjoying the view - except she probably thought I was going to jump and end the misery of domestic violence. I was ordered back down and was promptly beaten by my mother wielding a mop. In her fury she broke the handle of the mop. I guess my head was pretty sore too. Apart from the dreaded moment that I knew I was in for it, and during the moments of being on the receiving end of some physical attack, I was not really scarred by it all. It was simply a normal part of life and I accepted that, from time to time, the tempers of my parents would fray.
By the time the photograph was taken in July 1979, the gates of the yard had long gone. In the 1960s we used to have a pair of large wooden gates. I cannot remember them being closed that much as it was a bit of a pain to close them with a van in the drive. One day, again when I was around seven or eight, I had an orange to eat and discarded a couple of segments behind the gate. I do not know why I did this, perhaps I thought a bird or rat would enjoy the feast. They did not. Instead, two days later my father found the withered bits of orange in the dirt. He was like an East German Stasi Officer for finding all the things I was not supposed to do. He waited for me to come home from school and forced me to eat these revolting segments. I cannot remember what was the most offensive taste, the decaying orange or the dirt stuck to the segments! Another small chapter in the life of being born into this family.
Happier days were spent on the steps of the house to the left of the photograph. This was occupied by a rather austere couple named Hodgetts. I got on their nerves because I was forever knocking on their door asking if I could go up their garden to retrieve my football. Our decent-sized yard was my practice area for footy - the usual sort of thing like keepy-uppy or bouncing the ball off the walls in order to volley a cup-winning goal into the garage doors at the top of the yard. Like most boys, when I struck the ball to perfection and it rocketed into the top corner it was the last minute winner in the World Cup Final and I would celebrate wildly with the pretend fans. Despite the vast amount of time I devoted to practice, I was fairly useless and there appeared to be no inherent latent skills in either foot. The bang, bang, bang against the walls and garage door drove my mother to the edge of madness. As for Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts, it must have been a living hell without the classic Kenneth Wolstenholme commentary. And then they had to put up with the 'knock knock' on the door and the immortal line of "can I have my ball back please?" Every now and then, after attempting an Alex Young-like volley, the ball would generally end up in the garden of Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts. A particularly ambitious shot that missed the top corner of the garage door would end up in the next property. And this building has survived because it was behind the properties fronting the main road that were demolished. Back then it was offices for a legal firm or property agent.
I have digressed about the steps in front of the Hodgetts household. A rubbish bin attached to the post of the stop sign is obscuring the three stone steps that still left a bit of a climb to the front door. Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts never used the door and would go through the gate and enter their house via a side entrance. Accordingly, I claimed their front steps as part of my empire. I would sit there recording the number plates of passing vehicles. This was a rather silly exercise that we were taught at junior school. It may have been more insightful if we had plotted the numbers in some form of geographical spatial analysis that would have identified patterns of behaviour or commercial networks. However, I guess the curriculum for primary education did not encompass such studies. We were at least taught where many of the vehicles originated. I have no idea how number plates are organised these days but in the 1960s number plates ending in FD were registered in Dudley and those ending in HA originated from Smethwick, and so on. This allowed children to compete in a game of spotting the vehicle that had travelled the furthest. This could be played with another local pal. We would have a map of the UK on which we would draw circles radiating away from Cradley Heath. A book in Reddal Hill library was invaluable in learning where cars originated based on the registration number. Local places would only score 1 point when spotted and recorded. However, when cars from further afield were spotted you scored more points. A car from somewhere distant such as Newcastle was worth ten points. Accordingly, this battle for points would go on for hours, or until we were shouted for tea. Today's children would probably consider this game rather pathetic but it was, at least, our own creation. Moreover, it was simple fun and, in my humble opinion, beats looking at a screen all day.
Another time that I used the steps was to sit next to a guy I had made. In other words being a beggar on the street whereby it would be sort of legalised by shouting "Penny For The Guy." I have to admit that, despite my efforts, my guy was fairly pathetic and the passers-by who tossed a penny in my tin did so out of pity. I am not clear why my father did not attempt to provide me with any political education in the run-up to Bonfire Night. As a Catholic, he would have been rooting for anybody to blow up Parliament, not burning the bloke who attempted to ignite the place.
Sitting on those steps also resulted in getting to know the locals who would venture along the pavement on their way to "The Ways." For example, there was a bloke from Park Street who would always say hello. His name was Brian Williams and he had suffered from polio as a youngster and had quite a bad limp, though this did not seem to stop him from walking everywhere. Also from Park Street there were what looked like identical twin sisters named Mary Priest and Lucy Dimmock who went everywhere together. They were a bit like female versions of Charles Hawtrey and always seemed to have long grey coats, even in the summer. Actually, looking them up I can see that they were not twins and were separated by a couple of years. However, to me they looked identical. Records show that they lived in Park Street during World War 2. They probably occupied the same properties until they were knocked down. There are no houses these days in Park Street but once there were plenty of terraced houses right next to the factories. Anyway, back to sitting on the steps ... Mrs. McCann from Claremont Street would always be well turned-out when she walked along Reddal Hill. She used to live in a row of cottages behind the Liberal Club but accessed via a track from Claremont Street. She had around seven children, including Terry McCann who got into information technology long before anyone thought this was a career path. He probably ended up in Silicone Valley. Or heading up the future Skynet! Next to the McCann's were the Harris family, the two children being Julie and Broderick Harris. I think Broderick became a chef. He was another who overcame a childhood disability to engage fully in sport and games. Those well-worn steps were a key part of my childhood, a safe place from where I could view the 'outside' world, a base from where I would interact with the local community, or where I simply watched the world go by. The hours spent sitting there on Reddal Hill Road helped to foster my sense of place and cemented an affection for my locale.
The scene here shows a relatively quiet street but in the 1960s the footfall along Reddal Hill Road was fairly busy. There was a decent range of shops selling food, utility items and some luxury goods. In some respects Reddal Hill was a fairly self-contained community where most things could be obtained. Of course, for added choice and buzz one could walk the short distance to the High Street at Cradley Heath. As a pre-teen Reddal Hill had everything a young lad could want. Across the road there was Ashman's newsagent's where I could buy a comic. The bloke running this place was a keen golfer and when the shop closed for a half-day on Thursdays, he would load up his Ford Cortina estate with his golf bag and head for Oakham Hill in the days before the quarry ate most of the land. The former Bridge Inn on the corner of Newtown Street had been converted into a toy shop where I could buy football cards, toy soldiers and balsa-wood aeroplanes. I still have the wooden chess set that my sister bought from this shop for my eleventh birthday. The library on the corner of Plant Street was only a very short walk and I joined as soon as I could when I was seven. The other key location, and one where I was forcibly made to attend as a pre-teen, was Jack's Barber Shop. A legend of Reddal Hill, he really did know all the gossip in the locality. In relation to these steps, I would be able to sit here when I could occasionally afford the sixpence required to buy a Jubbly ice lolly from the shop on the corner of Lawrence Lane. This was kept by the Mastin family before the premises were converted into Ivan's Chip Shop in the early 1970s. I remember the shop frontage being completely changed. Prior to conversion, one had to climb some steps to enter the grocery shop. At sixpence, a Jubbly was a rare treat and one to be savoured to the max. I would sit on the step of Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts where I would be in heaven. By the way, if memory serves me correctly, Ivan had a chippy in Old Hill not far from Cox's Lane prior to moving to Reddal Hill. He must have sold a good quantity of chips in his day as he built a new house on Halesowen Road between Harcourt Road and Barrs Road.
The money required for all essentials such as a Tiger comic or, in my sister's case, the Bunty, was in our wages. Most youngsters would call this pocket-money but it was regarded as pay in our household. My elder sister's key role was to go down the cellar to retrieve bottled beers and re-stock the shelves so that they were always full for maximum effect. All stock had to be rotated or else she would be in big trouble. In addition to selling draught bitter and mild, the off-licence stocked a range of Ansell's ales, such as Special Pale Ale, Bruno Brown Ale and Pioneer Bitter. We also sold good quantities of popular bottles such as Mann's Brown Ale, Mackeson Stout and Guinness. Helped along with illuminated signs and point-of-sale material, the shop also sold plenty of bottles of Babycham. My sister also had to attend to items such as the crisps. Back then a shop did not simply cut a hole in the box and stack them up. Each packet had to be placed correctly in a display stand. A well rolled-out cliché on the High Street is that "retail is detail," a maxim fully implemented by my father. As the wee eejit, a term generally used by my father to address me, my tasks included work in the yard and garage, sorting empties and stacking wooden crates neatly for the dray. On Saturday morning we would stand behind the counter awaiting our weekly remuneration for our week's work. As she was older, my sister received a weekly sum of 1s. 3d. whilst I was given 1s. That is the equivalent of 6p and 5p. By using an online currency calculator the value today is still only £1.10p and 88p. We had to work all week for this! With one whole shilling, I could hardly run across the road and buy a Jubbly for sixpence as half of my pay would be gone. What about my comics? No, a weekly budget had to be figured out in order to stretch to all the things one wanted.
There was a cheap option for some tuck at a small shop on the corner of Park Street. I would never have remembered the name of the old woman who kept this calorific emporium but thanks to Carole Billingham, a resident of Park Street for seventeen years, I am able to say it was Miss Ellis. Carole told me that "she was a spinster of Victorian times. She wore a black dress with a tight-fitting bodice and frill around the neck. She was a lovely lady and made little twists of bits of sweets out of the jars and sold them to us for 1d." Oh yes, I can remember those little twists that she made up for us. Like many of the local shops, one had to climb three or four steps to enter the premises. She may have had a cat. I certainly remember one day when the cat sat on the steps went for an angry dog. The moggy made a right mess of the dog with its claws. It is one of those odd events that has lodged in the memory bank. On looking in the records for this property Pamela Ellis was recorded as a sweets shopkeeper during the Second World War. Her date of birth was given as 1863. So the business must have passed to her daughter, Elsie, who was born in 1892. Of course, a youngster I did not yearn for tales of the old days. However, imagine all the local history this woman could have imparted had I been as inquisitive as I am now. If only I owned a tape recorded back in the mid-1860s and plonked a microphone down on the counter.
As licensee, my father would always be turned out in a suit. Indeed, I cannot recall a day when he did not wear a suit. In the morning he came downstairs in his trousers and vest until he had shaved. After that it was shirt, tie and jacket. I have no memory of him wearing any casual wear. All customers coming into the off-licence would possibly feel an air of authority as he was stood there in his finery. He was regarded as a fairly big bloke. In his prime he measured 6ft. As a child, he certainly loomed large over me. He did not buy his suits off the peg. I went with him once to the Pathfinder on King Street at Dudley, a menswear and outfitters housed in the large edifice on King Street. In later years JB's would open behind this building and I would be a frequent patron seeing the likes of Radiohead, The Shamen and Ride. At the Pathfinder it was very "suit you sir" as they whizzed around my father with a tape measure. We would return at a later date for his new suits.
I am not sure if our off-licence sold groceries when we first moved into the premises. However, this was certainly a side of the business developed by my parents. Customers walking through the front door would find groceries to the left of the shop and sweets and cigarettes to the right. The beers were dispensed from the counter to the back of the shop, the back wall featuring shelves of bottled ales. There was quite a range of confectionery with all the popular chocolate bars. I can remember Aztec chocolate bars when launched just before the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Produced by Cadbury's, these were chunky bars, similar in size to the old Mars bar, and very chewy due to the combination of nougatine and caramel. They were a premium-priced chocolate bar and this probably stopped it from becoming a big-seller. I certainly could not afford such luxury on my meagre pay! The Marathon bar name was possibly linked to the Olympics but many years later this became Snickers. Just inside the door and to the left we had an ice cream freezer cabinet. I think we only sold Wall's Ice Cream and Ice Lollies. So, as opposed to the Jubbly's sold across the road, we stocked the budget Tip-Top ice lollies. These were no more than 2d. so were very popular with youngsters. The cheeky kids on Reddal Hill would enjoy winding up my mother by asking how much was the Thrupenny 3d. ice lolly. It would drive her potty. My lolly of choice was the Sky Ray, shaped like a rocket in Thunderbirds. Sometimes we were given an ice cream bar as a rare treat so I would generally pick a Top Ten. A real once-in-a-year treat would be the Heart, a strawberry and vanilla ice cream bar with a heart-shaped chocolate coating.
Dating from 1901 and part of a plan drawn up by the Stourbridge-based architect Thomas Robinson, this image shows the floor plan of the shop. This will help to picture the elements already discussed. The plans were drawn up when the shop floor was lowered after the cellar was dug out. There was no cellar in the original building and, like many of the other properties on Reddal Hill Road, there were steps up to the raised floor of the shop. This was deemed unacceptable to the brewery who owned the building so the ground was excavated, foundations adjusted, and a new shop floor laid over the top.
As a result of the floor being lowered, there were wooden steps up to the lobby. Although we did use the side entrance into this lobby, we tended to use another entrance from the yard into the kitchen. This was via a verandah that had been added to the side of the building. The second door led to a general living-room, the 'best' living-room being at the back of the house. This smaller living-room allowed my parents to sit and watch the telly at quiet periods when there were no customers to serve. This was quite rare and they would alternate until a busy period when it was all hands to the pump.
It was in this living-room that I watched the moon landing in July 1969. That is, indeed, if they went to the moon. I am not one for conspiracy theories but, considering they cannot even get a rocket off the ground these days, it is hard to believe that a machine, kitted out by a computer with less capacity than a Commodore 64, could plonk itself on the moon surface, take off and dock with the mother ship whizzing around in orbit. The more I think about it, the whole episode is more ridiculous than the journey made by Wallace and Gromit. At least they came back with cheese rather than dust. But, back in 1969, I had already gone to bed when the lunar module was supposedly sat on the moon's surface, but my father got me up to watch Neil Armstrong descend the steps and awkwardly jump on the surface. I think my father must have thought that I should witness such a historic event. Oddly, I cannot recall my elder sister being in the room. Perhaps my parents were gender stereotyping and thought science was not for girls!
Management of the shop over Christmas 1966 must have been problematic. My mother was whisked off to the maternity hospital at Loveday Street in Birmingham where she had another daughter on Christmas Eve. I can remember visiting her and my younger sister Clare on the ward on Christmas Day, possibly the only day that my father could close the shop and drive over from Cradley Heath. The nurses handed me a paint set and invited me to add to the festive splodges on the windows of the ward. I cannot remember how we coped in the kitchen as I do not recall ever seeing my father prepare a meal. He was old school and this was regarded as woman's work. After being discharged, my mother probably had to go straight back to the stove. Including myself, there were three children from this marriage. My mother did have four other sons but they died during infancy. I was born prematurely by several weeks and, apparently, it was a bit touch-and-go when I was in my cot.
The alterations to the shop almost certainly resulted in a new frontage with improved fenestration, double doors and fascia. This work was commissioned by the North Worcestershire Breweries Ltd. who were based at Duke Street in Stourbridge. The letters of the company can be seen on this architectural drawing. The occupier of the property at the time of these alterations was the furnace man Joseph Hiram Robins and his wife Sarah. Listed as beer retailers, the couple remained after the building work but later moved to Furlong Lane in Cradley.
This off-licence does not follow the usual pattern of ownership that can often be found at other establishments. The North Worcestershire Breweries Ltd. were taken over by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd. towards the end of the Edwardian period. By 1911 Mrs. Alice Williams was running the shop and the licence register shows that in 1919 she was a tenant and that the owners of the premises were Oliver's Brewery at the Talbot Hotel at Cradley. Logically, one would expect that the property became part of Charles Darby Ltd., a brewery based at Greets Green who acquired Oliver's in 1935. This would have led to M&B taking ownership in 1951 when they took over Charles Darby Ltd. However, look at the ghost sign on the wall of the off-licence in the first photograph. Here one can see that the off-licence was an outlet for beers produced by Thomas Plant & Co Ltd. No doubt the Black Country Living Museum wished they had that ghost sign on the side of the Bottle and Glass, once an outlet of the Netherton-based brewery. Indeed, the brewery had a tied estate of 63 public-houses by the time Ansell's Brewery acquired the business in 1936. And this must have been when the relationship with the Aston brewery was forged, but only as suppliers to Laura Jasper who had taken over the licence in 1930.
I believe that Laura Jasper was a tenant for Oliver's at the outset but eventually acquired the property. Born Laura Tromans at Cradley in 1872 she married James Jasper at the age of 20. The son of an iron roller, he had grown up at Lyde Green. He followed in his father's footsteps and went to work in the iron works, his younger brother becoming an anchor smith. Following their marriage, James and Laura Jasper relocated to Derby where he worked as a wheel maker. Their two children, Annie and James, were born there. However, by the mid-Edwardian period they were back in the Black Country and running the Bridge Inn at Cradley. That pub used to stand close to the site of the Steve Bloomer memorial next to the River Stour.
James and Laura Jasper seemed to have moved back to Cradley in 1901 as it was reported that James Jasper had broken a leg whilst playing for Colley Gate White Rose F.C. A benefit match was held for him in which £7 was raised. The couple were certainly at the Bridge Inn by July 1906 and were running the tavern for the brewer and publican Frederick Cutler. The couple remained for many years, including throughout the First World War. James Jasper died in October 1922. Widow Laura Jasper took over the licence here at Reddal Hill Road in February 1930. She was helped by her daughter Annie who lived on the premises with her husband. She was given away by her father not long before he died when she married the tailor's cutter Frederick Sidaway in July 1922.
Laura Jasper died in October 1940. Her will indicates that she had made a success of her time at Reddal Hill Road. Her son Joseph, who was working as a chartered accountant on the High Street, was a beneficiary, along with Annie who took over the licence of the shop on December 4th 1940. The licensing register records her as owner of the property. By this time her son James was 16 years of age. He would go on to become a school master and married Una Priest down the road at Saint Luke's Church in 1954. He lived until September 2014 so if I had started looking into this building earlier in my life I could have spoken to him and asked what the place was like during the Second World War. Perhaps he had a photograph of his mother running the off-licence? What a fool I am for leaving my research so late!
Annie Sidaway ran the off-licence until her failing health. She died in Wordsley Hospital at the end of November 1954. Her will shows that she was highly successful in business. I presume her husband Frederick kept the off-licence going although there is no record of him in the licence register. Indeed, it was not until December 1957 that the name of Hilda Smart appears as the new licensee. Frederick Sidaway moved into one of the cottages to the rear of the off-licence until his death in December 1963. This surprised me somewhat as I know that cottage well and it seems rather incongruous as he was a man of some means.
I guess now is an appropriate time to mention the cottages to the rear and to drop a map in to help with some of my notes. The above map extract dates from 1968 and is exactly how I remember the surroundings. From the age of 5, when we moved into the property, until around the age of around 10, the extent of my explorations were confined to the junction of Newtown Street, north to Mousesweet Brook, and as far as Park Street to the north-east. I also knew the area between our shop and Bearmore Bank, a key playing area during my formative years. My parents did not have any qualms about me wandering around alone on these streets. In the holidays I would be out for hours, often kicking a football or playing in Mousesweet Brook. How I survived the latter with its waters full of industrial waste is something of a mystery. In building some stepping stones behind the nut and bolt factory, I would often fall into the water. I can remember walking back home with squelchy socks after one accident or another.
Anyway, back to those cottages. I know about them because my parents owned them. When they bought the off-licence, it came lock, stock and barrel with the adjoining No.94 and the three cottages No.91, 92 and 93 Reddal Hill Road. These were rented out to other people. I do not know why a more discreet method of payment was not arranged but my father would go up the path and knock on the doors each week and collect the rents. I went with him on one occasion and in retrospect I wished I had not. He would brandish a rent book and take their money in a rather imperious fashion. It was not as awful as the heartless Mr. Pancks in Little Dorrit squeezing money from the residents of Bleeding Heart Yard, but it was rather uncomfortable to watch.
I could be wrong but I think in the early 1960s the rents were around ten shillings a week. This may seem quite low but the cottages were ancient and only had two rooms on each floor. There was only one fireplace for heating. They had no bathroom and the toilets were in the corner of the yard, three in a row, each with a corresponding number to the house. They were just the sort of abode in which I was born a few years previously. There was a little bit of garden to the rear but I do not recall any of the residents attempting to grow their own vegetables. A narrow strip of blue bricks ran alongside the front of the houses which were separated from our garden by a hedgerow. The residents were generally middle-aged to elderly, the men working in local factories. I would see them heading off to work or coming home for dinner as they passed our kitchen window. I did not get to know them really and, understandably, they regarded me as the offspring of their mean landlord who spent little money improving their accommodation. I am not sure when they were constructed but the cottages appear on a map dated 1884.
No.94 was a self-contained flat with a small kitchen and toilet to the rear. A staircase led up to a living room with one bedroom attached. The living room was above our 'best' room to the rear of our accommodation. The flat was rented out, though most people stayed short-term, whereas the residents of the cottages remained for several years.
My parents were not keen gardeners when living at Reddal Hill Road, though in her later years, my mother did grow some of her own produce. In some weird throwback to his days living on the farm, my father insisted on cutting the grass with a scythe, a long-handled implement that could have doubled as a weapon defending against invasion by Cromwell's forces. I quickly learned to remain behind him when he was swishing this around wildly, otherwise I would have been in the Guest Hospital begging the surgeons to stitch my legs back on.
There was a large mature apple tree in the garden which provided me with my own personal refuge at times. The apples from the tree were really sharp in taste so we did not harvest them for cooking. I can remember playing in the back garden with Broderick Harris and using the apples for a bit of sport. Using whatever bits of junk that was lying around, we would each build a barricade in opposing corners of the garden. We would then gather up the fallen apples in the autumn, carrying them to our own 'lines' as ammunition. We would then engage against each other by throwing the apples, attempting to score a direct hit on the head as we bobbed up and down behind our barricades. It was serious front line action - those apples were lethal projectiles. Inevitably, there was some mess but the garden was generally messy anyway so it took little time to clear up afterwards.
I am not sure if my father tired of the scything action and so came up with another method of keeping the grass down. Either that or he missed the soundscape of the family farm at Castleblayney. One day he brought back several banana boxes of chicks he had bought at the Kidderminster livestock auctions. He erected a makeshift pen in the corner, next to the apple tree, and for a while the sound of the garden was one of several dozen chicks cheeping their heads off all day. I used to sit on the ground next to them and bathe in the sound whilst they plodded around pecking their corn. Sadly, this did not last. I came home one day from school and the garden was silent. I enquired but was given short sharp shrift. I suspect that either the local cats or fox had taken a few and my parents found a new home for the rest.
Another mystery of the garden was the washing line, or rather how the heck did my mother manage to get the clothes dry without them stinking of the local factories. We were surrounded by heavy industry and the smell of iron hung in the air. I used to marvel at the men working if I walked around the block. I would walk along Park Street and left into Oak Street. On the left there was a factory with a very large doorway where one could see and smell the labour of men engaged in their work. Sparks would fly out into the street and was fearsome to a very young lad. There were more works on the other side of the Oak Street, a road known for its tradition of chain-making.
Down Newtown Street one would run the risk of getting run over by one of the fork-lift trucks as goods were moved from one building to another. The road surface was orange from the rain falling on iron filings. The sound of these and other factories would continue all night. From the comfort of my bed, the sound of the heavy stamping at Burton Delingpole could be heard. The movement of goods trains was another part of the aural backdrop. Another clanking sound came at dawn. In the first photograph one can see a lamp-post in front of the house of Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts. In the 1960s this used to have a no-waiting sign. On Reddal Hill Road cars could park on one side of the street in the morning and on the other side during the afternoon. This would be displayed by the road sign which had to be manually flipped by a council worker wielding a long pole. At dawn on a quiet morning you could hear the clanking of the cast-iron signs being changed. Funny, the things one remembers.
On Sunday the residents of Reddal Hill could enjoy or groan at the live music. The brass band of the Salvation Army used to march up from their fort in Foxoak Street, along Upper High Street, through Spinner's End and up to our shop where they would right wheel and parade up along Lawrence Lane towards the Ambulance Station. I am not sure of their designated route after they disappeared around the bend. I am also not sure of the time they marched along the road. Certainly, it would not be at a time when we had to attend church. Hailing from the Republic of Ireland, my father was a Catholic. In the early 1950s if a male catholic married somebody from the Church of England the woman would be expected to 'convert.' For reasons unbeknownst to me, my mother embraced this with some vigour and aplomb. The pair of them had a crucifix on the wall of the kitchen and large statues of Jesus and Saint Mary. Oh, and a framed portrait of the Pope. Accordingly, every week, either at 11am or 5pm, we had to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Halesowen Road at Old Hill for the service. And more; for there were other services at particular times in the holy calendar. Now, I am not saying that going to mass is such a bad thing, but one of the reasons that I am a recusant of the Catholic Church is that my father would beat his children during the week, then probably go to Friday confession to receive Holy Communion on the Sunday. We did not even have to wait until Mondays for another display of cruelty, that could arise later on the Sunday. In my experience the whole weekly ritual was one of hypocrisy.
In my advanced years I can look back at the church, any church that is, and lament the decrease in numbers attending such institutions. Whatever one's view of religion, attending church or Sunday School instilled some sort of moral compass within children and fostered a good degree of community spirit. This has largely vanished and, in my humble opinion, we are poorer as a result.
Perhaps the worst element of being brought up by ardent, though deeply flawed, religious parents was the fact we were sent to a Catholic school. This meant a bus-trip to Dudley to attend St. Joseph's, just down from the bus shelters at Porter's Field. I must have made the first trip to St. Joseph's with some trepidation. I had started off my infant education in Ireland where the nuns were truly brutal. We were beaten for all sorts of silly things. I remember a pupil in my class spilling his paint set all over the floor. The nun in charge came from her desk with a face of thunder. The terrified pupil pointed at me and said that I had done it which was a complete fabrication. I was dragged by the hair to the front of the class where I was beaten terribly. This was standard practice and another reason why I feel antipathy towards Catholicism and the 'tender love' of the nuns who had somehow twisted the biblical line of "Suffer little children."
In contrast to my experience in Ireland, St. Joseph's was actually quite a good school and I received a decent infant and primary education. Sister Lucy, the head, although quite strict, had some warmth to her. My parents were summoned to her office on several occasions for my bad behaviour. When I went to the school in Ireland I stood out because I had a Black Country accent. This led to conflict in the playground and the other boys started to gang up on me. The advice I received when I got home was to go back the next day, target the ringleader and punch him in the face. Several times if need be. I followed out the instructions accordingly and I received no more provocation during my time there. In just one calendar year, probably because it was early in my formative years, I had developed an Irish flavour to my accent by the time I went to the school at Dudley. This time I had the same scenario as my voice was different. The same tactic was deployed to equal effect. However, this is a fundamental issue with domestic violence at home, vicious teachers donning habits, and the wrong advice from parents. When violent behaviour becomes normalised, coupled with inherited genes, a child falls into the trap of responding accordingly. It has taken me most of my life to deal with this issue.
The trouble with being sent to a school in Dudley was that I did not mix with the children of Reddal Hill until I was eleven. The vast majority of the pupils at St. Joseph's lived in Dudley, Tividale and Tipton. This had a detrimental effect on developing a social network within the locality at an early age. The children in the vicinity of our shop went to Meredith Street, Lomey Town, Temple Meadow and just down the road at Reddal Hill Primary School.
For every negative there are plenty of positives. For example, the journey to Dudley was often interesting for a young lad. Three years older than me, my elder sister was charged with taking me to school on the bus. In front of the Waggon and Horses, we would jump on an old double-decker with no back door and, in the winter, sit as far away from the rear open platform as possible because it was freezing. Winter weather was seemingly worse in the 1960s and it was guaranteed to snow on the higher ground at Dudley. If possible we would huddle up to the gearbox housing that protruded into the front area of the lower deck. This generated a little heat so we stuck our feet on this. Hardly anybody had a car back then so when the bus stopped at the Victoria Hotel at Old Hill a large crowd would board the bus. Another load of passengers boarded by the Iron Schools at Saltwells and, as a result, the bus struggled to climb the hill and over the canal bridge. The men finishing their night shift at Danks's and Hingley's would board the bus at the Loyal Washington. By now we were packed into the bus like sardines - and we had not yet picked up the passengers at Netherton. With the weight on the bus it would have been quicker to walk up the hill past Sir Gilbert Claughton's School. But in the midst of anchor smiths and factory women, one received a good grounding and an excellent education in class and society.
I remember one morning when we were running a bit late and at risk of missing the bus. I wolfed down a bowl of Rice Krispies but my mother told me to leave my tea and run to the bus-stop. My father generally did not come downstairs until we had long gone. However, on this particular morning he came down early and spotted the cup of tea that I had abandoned. When I came home from school and walked into the kitchen there he was waiting for me. You would think that during the course of the day he would have calmed down. On this occasion I was spared corporal punishment but I was told to sit at the table and finish my cold cup of tea. To this day I can almost taste that cup of tea with its skin of cold milk on the top.
I do not know if my parents met Hilda Smart during a formal handover of the business at the fag end of 1963. As my parents are long gone, it is not possible to ask the questions I should have asked years ago. For example, when running a business in Ireland, how did they learn of a shop in Cradley Heath becoming available? I guess it was probably something simple like a copy of Dalton's Weekly but who knows? Anyway, I certainly cannot recall meeting Hilda Smart or, indeed, if there was a Mr. Smart. However, whoever occupied the property prior to us moving in, they were a dab hand with a paint brush and left quite an unusual legacy within the building. At the bottom of our stairs there was a very large landscape mural. Moreover, high on the four walls of the off-licence a rural scene had been painted with cars travelling on roads between country taverns. I am not sure how an art academic would rate the aesthetic value of the work but to everyone who called into the shop the painting was rather enchanting.
Visits from the agent or representative for Ansell's was always a good experience for me. Despite that fact that we were not a public-house, it was easy to blag a new box of dominoes or playing cards. These, of course, featured the brewery name and certain beers for subliminal, though rather overt, advertising. The agent probably had a car boot full of goodies to keep the customers happy and ensure continued business. The point-of-sale material was always interesting and would now be regarded as prized items for those who collect breweriana. We had a giant-sized Bambi to help stimulate sales, along with illuminated signs for some of the ales. At Christmas Ansell's always supplied our family with a turkey.
A turkey would have been a welcome addition to our diet as my father continued war rationing in our household. This was perhaps some sort of legacy from his days in Ireland but our meat rations were skimpy at best. He even watered down the milk! Our worst meal of the week was on Friday evening. Observing his Catholic teaching, we were not allowed any meat on Friday. I believe fish was allowed but, no, we had to have some hideous meal no doubt redolent of my father's household in the 1940s. He called it slosh and it was simply a plate of boiled potatoes with watered-down milk poured over the top. It was vile but we had to clear our plates if we knew what was best for us. A legacy of my lack of calcium in the diet of my early years is evident in the tell-tale white spots on my teeth. I only mention all these things because customers of the shop would probably have the impression of a well-run business by a happy family. However, things were not quite so marvellous living on the other side of the counter. I am aware that it may sound like a mild version of Angela's Ashes, but this is an honest account of my early life on Reddal Hill Road.
It is important to stress that, despite all the horrible events, I look back on a happy childhood. It is true that neither my mother or father hugged and kissed me. Ever. But they would spend materially for birthdays and Christmas. In this respect, I had more than many children living through the same period. For example, in the run-up to Christmas in 1965 there were television adverts for the 'hottest' toy of the time, a Johnny Seven OMA [One Man Army]. First sold in the previous year, it was every boy's dream to own this toy. Whatever one's view is today on mock weapons as toys, in the 1960s this was one of the most desirable of objects. I kept banging on about having one for Christmas and wrote it down on my Santa list. I imagine that most boys, in what was a relatively poor neighbourhood, were told that it was too expensive. I was certainly told this by my mother. However, on Christmas morning I was so excited by the prospect I snuck down the stairs in the middle of the night to see if Santa had delivered my Johnny Seven. And, voila, there it was. Trying to make as little noise as possible, I unpacked it and set up all the weaponry. However, I was clearly no Jason Bourne and had awoken my father who came down the stairs to see if we had burglars. When he opened the door to the kitchen I did what every enlisted soldier was bound to do by duty - I shot him. I pulled the trigger and peppered my father with a stream of white plastic bullets. I was inevitably given a thick ear and my Johnny Seven was confiscated. I think it was about a week before I was allowed to play with it again. It did not take long for the toy to annoy my father again and, in a fit of anger, he smashed it over his knee, the plastic shattering across the room. I have just searched for a Johnny Seven on e-bay and see they are now collector's items and selling for up to £800. Anyway, for a brief spell I was the proud owner of a Johnny Seven until my father's temper forced me to be demobbed from active service.
From time-to-time my father's brother would visit, perhaps once or twice a year. He worked in construction and was something of a drifter. He would rock up in his black Morris Minor, a vehicle of which he was proud of having gone around the clock. In those days manufacturers only installed a milometer that went up to 99,999 as hardly any vehicle made it that far before falling apart. So my uncle's Morris Minor went past this landmark and started again at zero. I really liked visits from my uncle Owen as my father would have to be on his best behaviour and we felt safer. In the living quarters immediately behind the shop we would play cards as a family. I was pretty good at cards and I remember once when I won, my mother insisted on double or quits. I won again and again. It was getting to the point that she would have had to get a bank loan to pay me! However, although I wanted to walk away from the table she forced me to play until I eventually lost. For a brief spell they were fearful that they would end up working for me, not that this would have happened in reality. My father, incidentally, thought he was good at cards but he was in fact the mug sat at the table. Anyway, we would sit around the table to play and my father and uncle would have some beer. One evening my father invited me to try drinking from his glass. Yuk, it was horrible. Imagine, that I would end up writing about pubs, breweries and beer, all of which I cherish. But back then, as a young whippersnapper, beer tasted revolting!
My father and uncle liked a flutter on the horses. I remember one Saturday in particular when they would run down to the betting shop on the corner of Park Street to place a bet at the last minute. We would then watch the race on the telly and I would be amused by seeing them tearing up their betting slips. On this Saturday I picked a horse for each race but they refused to take advice from a wee eejit. As it turned out, my selections won every single race. My father was furious and if it were not for the presence of my uncle I would have been whipped in the style of Lester Piggott trying to gee up a useless nag.
Soon after we moved into the shop my father bought a second-hand dark green Ford Thames van for transporting goods from the cash and carry. A couple of chairs went into the back whenever we went anywhere as a family, such as church or a short trip. Around 1965 my father bought a brand-new version of the same van. This was in light blue and white. Probably proud of his new wheels and the thriving off-licence, he commissioned a sign-writer to have his name and details painted on both sides. These days, people just buy some stickers and slap them on but I remember coming home from school and seeing a proper craftsman at work.
A new van opened up fresh possibilities in that we could have an afternoon out on Sundays. With the shop to run, this was the only window available for such trips. So, in the warm weather, after church and Sunday lunch, we would be taken on outings. My parents were not too imaginative so we generally went to Stourport. Like I say, most folks in Reddal Hill did not have a car in the 1960s so any destination was a thrill. On arrival, my sister Karen and I would vanish for the afternoon along the river whilst our parents sat in folding chairs. I cannot recall them showing any athleticism, not even a short walk.
My father's driving was appalling. Hunched over the front wheel and using a column gear shift, he rarely got out of third gear. He cut somebody up once at the Four Ways by Saint Luke's Church and this caused a bit of a verbal exchange. I found his lack of driving skills amusing and this incident was typical. However, this cost me a good slap from the driver's seat. It often puzzles me why a father would belt his son. Surely he must realise that this small boy is going to grow up into a man bigger than himself and all these incidents would add up to a day of reckoning.
So, it is 1966, England have won the World Cup and the shop is ticking over nicely. Time to take a look at the competition across the road. Well, there was not that much competition in that the two off-licences sold different beer brands so it was down to taste and choice. My parents did however maximise sales by offering grocery lines. They even branched into a bit of greengrocery later.
I did not appreciate the layout of the premises of what became Beryl's until I saw the above plan dating from 1903. The gates to the yard were rarely opened so I only saw the rear of the property briefly on a couple of occasions. The most interesting element of the yard is the bakehouse and oven, suggesting some sort of bakery. However James Rock, for whom the plan was drawn up, was formerly a blacksmith. The Rock family had their fingers in many pies around Reddal Hill. Indeed, the whole row attached to this property was known as Rock's Buildings so he almost certainly had them all developed. Once occupied he would, like my father many years later, collect rents from his tenants.
At the time of this building plan, Thomas and Rose Hannah Rock had been operating an off-licence here for a number of years. They were able to afford two servants, Annie Wright and Martha Gray, to undertake many of the chores. Rose Hannah had earlier traded as a draper. In addition to sales of beer, the couple were agents for W. & A. Gilbey Ltd., wines and spirits merchants. As far as I know, our off-licence only sold beer and cider. Indeed, I think I remember my mother nipping across the road to buy whiskey from Beryl. She did like the odd drop of Bells. If I had known more about the subject of whiskey distilleries at the time, I could have steered her towards something a little more refined.
It would appear that James Rock had a much better cellar than the one excavated under our shop by the North Worcestershire Breweries Ltd. James Rock had a three-sectioned vault under the shop and beneath the front parlour. The layout was the same as when I patronised the shop. When there were no customers Beryl used to watch the telly in that sitting room with verandah adjoining. When the door bell rang she would emerge from behind a hanging jewels beaded curtain like a 1950s sultry vixen.
James Rock died in August 1909 but the elderly widow Rose Hannah, helped by her two servants, continued to trade on the corner. In the 1911 census she is recorded as a baker so it appears that she did use those out-buildings to produce bread. Perhaps the ovens had recently been installed when the plans were drawn up by William Bloomer, an architect and surveyor based at 307 Halesowen Road at Old Hill.
Rose Hannah Rock's son Jason had worked in the nail trade for most of his career. He was a clerk to David Willetts who had a large works in Lawrence Lane. When his mother died in August 1911 he took over as licensee and kept the off-licence with his wife Sadie. Their daughter Clara lived on the premises whilst working as a school teacher. Jason Rock also operated the bakery within the yard of the off-licence. He sold the loaves in the shop and through a delivery round in the locality. He and his wife decided to retire in 1916 and, as can be seen from the above notice for an auction, they sold the contents of the household. The couple moved to Ravensdale in Sidney Road at Lomey Town, a thoroughfare widely regarded as a haven for the well-heeled.
James Rock leased the property to Mitchell's and Butler's and the licence was transferred to William Morgan in June 1916. James Rock did not enjoy great health in his retirement and was ill for a number of years before he died aged 55 in July 1924.
Thomas Bert Hadley was the next licensee on the corner of Lawrence Lane. He was granted the licence in June 1926 and ran the business with his wife Lucy. Thomas Hadley was also a baker and had traded at Haden Hill. The couple remained until just before the start of World War 2 after which they moved back to Haden Hill. Living close to the Haden Cross, Thomas Hadley followed a more industrial career path. John and Harriet Downes were running the shop throughout the war. Fred Harper took over the licence on August 1st, 1945. As I have said, he was running the place when we moved in across the road.
This aerial photograph, courtesy of Britain From Above, shows the junction of Reddal Hill Road and Lawrence Lane in 1952. This is pretty much how the locale looked when I was a young boy. I can remember all of these buildings. Our off-licence, which was still being run by Annie Sidaway when this photograph was taken, is taking a delivery of soft drinks from Shaw's. This firm based at Merry Hill at Quarry Bank later traded as Gardner-Shaw. The driver of the lorry is probably delivering to both shops. They were probably responsible for the soda water syphons that, when the coast was clear of our parents, my sister Karen and I would enjoy squirting each other in the face.
From the left, the fenestration of the house, later occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Hodgetts, is original and different from the later photograph. It looks as though there was a date stone on the property but was later covered when the house was coated in pebble-dash and painted white. That is frustrating as that stone could have provided a date for the development of the row. It is interesting to see that our shop frontage had changed by this date. A small overhang had been added since the building plan on 1901. I remember that we had a pull-out canopy similar to the one seen here at the end of our row. These were on a roller and made of canvas. A shopkeeper had to be vigilant with the weather as it was not a good idea to leave it out when it rained. The wet canvas would have to be dry before rolling back into the fascia otherwise it would rot very quickly. The main role of these blinds was to protect the shop front and goods in the window from the sun. They were not supposed to be cover for pedestrians caught in the rain. However, I can remember standing under such sun blinds when avoiding a shower in the High Street. One such canopy was generally extended in all weathers at the greengrocer's close to where Wetherspoon's is located today.
When we operated the off-licence in the 1960s the shop with the blind unrolled used to sell fruit and vegetables. Between that and our shop was a bread and cake shop. This was run by Emily Tromans, a kind woman I remember. Her son David went to Rowley Regis Grammar School. Next door was Mrs. Newton's sweet shop. Next door, and closer to our shop was the Valeting Shop where we would take our clothes for dry cleaning.
A car is parked outside the opposite off-licence run by Fred Harper. Adjoining the shop is the row formerly known as Rock's Buildings. These were demolished in the 1970s if memory serves. Michael Loveridge, a young boy about my age, lived in one of the middle two-up, two-down houses with his parents Vesta and Grace, though as a youngster I would not dare to address them by their first names. You would have to walk many a kilometre to come across a more congenial couple than Vesta and Grace Loveridge. Always very kind to me, she seemed to be quite in charge of Vesta who was a quiet bloke. When this row was pulled down the family moved to Sutherland Road. When living across the road I would occasionally play with him if he was out. He had a small bike with fat white or cream tyres and it was on this machine that I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about seven or eight. I climbed on at the corner and was wobbling reasonably in a straight line by the time I got to the triangle known as Plant's Green. This was a major moment of my childhood and I ran home to inform my parents that I could ride a bike. However, their reaction was rather indifferent. My elated spirits could not be dented by their lack of enthusiasm. I was starting my life on two wheels, an adventure that has taken me to some wonderful places in the UK and on the continent.
Rock's Buildings were numbered 72 to 75 Lawrence Lane. An entry was between Nos.73-74 which led to the back yards and brewhouses. These outbuildings can be seen on the aerial photograph. Note also that it is possible to see the chimney of the bakery behind the off-licence where the Rock family baked bread. The building on the extreme right of the photograph was the Lawrence Lane Meeting Room [Brethren]. This structure, along with Nos.76-78 were demolished in the late 1960s or very early 1970s and eight new houses built along the north-west side of Lawrence Lane. These were named, in order, Jay Don, Chez Nous, Baycott, Homestead, Lawnswood, Micasa and Candyholme. One of the houses was occupied by the Baynham family. I remember this as their daughter Julia, a year younger than myself, attended the same school.
I must have ventured along Lawrence Lane a few thousand times, either along Plant Street up to Bearmore Bank or up through the narrow Tittlebally Gullet between the high walls of the former iron works, emerging on Clyde Street. This once formed a footpath to Peartree Lane prior to the construction of Petford Street. As a young boy I would often disturb the canoodling of many a couple in this alley that even had its own street lamp. It was not called Tittlebally Gullet for nothing! I have been reminded about the huge pile of gas masks that were stored in the yard at one time.
It was around 1967 that my father either rented or acquired a second shop on Reddal Hill Road. It was the former greengrocer's shop at No.99 next to the car park of the Waggon and Horses. It was a lock-up from where he started buying and selling second-hand furniture. Although the off-licence was doing well, this was a business which was of greater appeal. He first starting dealing in furniture when we were living on the Stourbridge Road at Lye Cross. He had given up his job as a steel erector and started trading from a shop on the corner of Engine Lane.
We lived at No.40 Stourbridge Road, a building that still stands. He would commute the few metres to the shop and my mother worked at the Helix factory around the corner. It was at this house that I was first introduced to corporal punishment. My father had a stick with which he would discipline us. I remember hiding the stick in a bush in the back garden. This was in the summer or late autumn of 1962. Unfortunately for me, as a really small boy, I did not know about leaves falling off deciduous bushes. Subsequently, as the plant shed its leaves for the winter, my father spotted the stick that I had hidden. This was retrieved and instantly deployed. This was an early lesson in horticulture.
I can also remember falling down the stairs in that house. However, on this occasion it was a complete accident as I fell down what was a very steep staircase. I cracked my head on the telephone at the bottom of the stairs. It was in the back yard of this house that I have my very earliest recollection. I was in my pram and my sister was shoving a sugar-coated dummy in my mouth. I could only have been about one year-old, perhaps a few months more. My happiest memory of my time on the Stourbridge Road was the toy shop in the Centre Buildings near the crossroads. It was here that my parents bought a Betta Bilda set for me. In my opinion these were superior to the clunky Lego bricks that became more popular. The bricklaying and roof tiles were more realistic.
No.99 Reddal Hill Road would be stocked with a wide range of utility goods and a few luxury items. My father would buy furniture and other items from people living in the Reddal Hill area. However, his key source of cheap furniture was a weekly visit to the auctions held at Kidderminster. Younger people would be amazed if they could be transported back in time to the site which seemingly flogged everything from livestock, produce, china, cars, carpets and furniture. The area has been redeveloped but it stood next to where the Severn Valley Railway is located. In the summer holidays I would accompany my father each Thursday the sales were held. This was a day of wonder and amazement. On sale day the place would be heaving with people, many of whom would pour into town from neighbouring villages. The Farmer's Boy and Market Tavern would be rammed with farmers on the lash with money earned from the sale of their produce and livestock.
Before heading to the furniture saleroom my father would get rid of me by giving me a shilling. I would then disappear for the day, ensuring I made the rendezvous at the end of the auctions to avoid punishment. Nowadays, people are afraid to let their children out of their sight but my days at these auctions meant wonderful liberation. For a start, my shilling, combined with my regular weekly remuneration, allowed me to enjoy a slap-up lunch at the chippy. I would then wander around people-watching, marvelling at the various auctioneers who had a rapid-fire verbal style. There were always a few dozen cars which were not sold until later in the day. This meant I could jump in the driver's seat of a Jaguar, Ford Zephyr, MG or whatever was on offer. There I would sit at the wheel, going through the motions of driving, pretending I was the proud owner. Well, until one of the staff ordered me out. At the end of the day my father would reverse up to the furniture room and we would load up whatever he had bought for resale at Reddal Hill Road. I imagine much of the furniture came from farm households. It was all sold wood, generally of oak but sometimes a little more exotic.
It was just before my 9th birthday that somebody brought a fairly new bicycle into the shop for my father to buy. He acquired the Raleigh machine and put it away for my present. I did not know anything about the bike until the morning of my birthday. Oh, the thrill of having my own wheels. I was not allowed on the road until I had gained some riding competence. Therefore, I was made to walk the bike to Bearmore Bank on the following Sunday afternoon. My father walked behind me to check up on me. I then rode around the playing field, not so easy on the grass when getting used to a new bike. However, I mastered the art of staying upright and was really over the moon. Cloud nine - my own bicycle. On Monday, the next day at school, I was caught day-dreaming in the class. All I could think about was getting back home and riding my bike for the second time. I couldn't wait for the bell to ring. And then I rushed back to Reddal Hill Road and up to the garage at the top of our yard. There was no bike. I ran into the house where my mother told me that the old man had sold it. Somebody had come into the shop asking if he had a bike for his son so my father accepted his offer for mine. I could not believe my ears. I only had the bike for a day. I ran upstairs and lay on my bed sobbing. Of all the cruel things that my father did when I was a child this was the most unforgivable, worse than any beating. Later in the week I saw the boy riding what was supposed to be my bike. He was riding across Plant's Green. It was sickening.
I should now talk about the records played in our off-licence. Actually, I could waffle on about records across pages of this website as music has played such an important part of my life. However, I will keep on track, sort of. Most juveniles grow up to the soundtrack of their parents. Before most children grew up and purchased their own music they were dependent of whatever was in the LP rack in the living room. Some lucky children had really cool parents and kick-started their voyage of audio discovery to the likes of The Beatles, Rolling Stones or The Byrds. However, in the early 1960s my parents showed little interest in music. However, my father had a few LPs in his collection that would probably be regarded as important historical records. Because he was a Catholic, he had purchased a record of speeches by John F. Kennedy. We also had a 10-inch LP documenting John Glenn's flight in space. In terms of music the LP rack had the likes of Jim Reeves and Mario Lanza. Frank Ifield was about as contemporary as it got in our household. I was living under the regime of a pair of weazens who had not embraced rock 'n' roll.
Running two shops and being generally busy, I am not sure how my father squeezed in an extra-marital affair. This must have started in 1967 as he went out and bought "Release Me," a chart-topping record for the Indian-born crooner Engelbert Humperdinck. He would put this record on the radiogram and start humming along. It was the audio equivalent of lighting the blue touch paper. My mother would instantly explode and attempt to rip the arm off the record deck, being thwarted by my father who would replay the record. Then other objects would be flying around the room. You couldn't make it up, except that I am not. This is the scene which would have been hilarious if it weren't for the fact that we were too busy avoided projectiles being hurled by my mother.
The acrimony and rancour was totally off the scale as the marriage fell apart. My father moved out and headed off to the Brickhouse Estate to live with the 'other woman,' as she was called by my mother. I have no ill-feelings towards this woman as these things happen in life. This was when the off-licence ceased to trade. The situation was such that we had to go and live elsewhere for a while. For a brief spell my mother and her three children lived at her sister's in Wolverhampton. This was the nadir of my existence/ It is bad enough having a mother born in Dingleland but having to live amid tatters was all a bit much. To my surprise the domestic violence continued. I upset my aunty one evening when sat at the dinner table. She hit me so hard that I landed halfway across the dining room. She was a big woman with arms the size of Usain Bolt's thighs and delivered a punch the equal of my father.
There was a brief reconciliation and my mother and father moved back into the shop. This must have been mid-1968. I assume my mother stipulated that the whole house was redecorated. I can remember a team of men in white overalls working on each of the rooms. I am not sure why they were reunited, perhaps the priest has a word with my father. During the 1960s, in the Catholic church, adultery was just about as bad as it gets, worse than murder! He probably had to spend a whole week reciting Hail Mary's with his rosary!
Of course, within no time at all the clashes started up again when the lure of the 'other woman,' proved too much for my father. He moved out of the battleground and into the arms of another. As for him leaving, well this was joyous. He was such a git during my childhood I was glad to see the back of him. However, the next few years were a tough gig for my mother. She claimed that she received no maintenance from my father and I remember she went to the courts at Smethwick trying to get an order. But in 1968 her focus was on getting the shop going again and bringing up three children on her own. Looking back, I have to hand it to her. She was, at times, off her trolley and would fly off the handle at least once a day but she worked harder than any woman I have known.
Following the departure of my father I must have eaten more as I look reasonably healthy in this school photograph. We did not eat expensive meals as things were tight but there were plenty of chips. Anything was better than the slosh our father had forced us to consume. Friday's were now fish fingers, chips and peas! There was one meal in particular that I remember. Whilst my mother was busy working on a Saturday, my sister prepared some tomatoes on toast for lunch. I did not like soggy toast covered in tinned tomatoes so declined. My sister did warn me that I would be in for it. At the end of the working day my mother demanded to know why I had not eaten my lunch. As she was working hard to put food on the table I can see why this made her angry. She made me sit at the kitchen table and placed the cold meal before me. However, as a stubborn young boy I refused to eat it. Perhaps I was thinking my father was not around to inflict any serious pain so I sat there for several hours with the plate in front of me. Thinking about it, my mother took an extraordinary amount of time to crack. But crack she did. She put both hands around the back of my head and slammed my face into the plate. I must have looked a sorry sight with bits of toast and tomato on my face and in my hair! As a result, I have had quite a thing about tinned tomatoes over the course of my life.
No.95 Reddal Hill Road gradually become quite an emporium of all manner of second-hand goods. My mother picked up the knack of turning some junk into a few quid. The most profitable element was when there was a house clearance in the locality. When somebody in Reddal Hill departed this mortal coil the relatives would ask my mother to clear the house of everything. And I mean everything. They wanted the lot gone in order to sell the property or rent it to somebody else. After school I would often spend the rest of the evening doing trips in the van to do the heavy lifting. I was still at primary school but managed to lift wardrobes and beds down the stairs and into the van. The relatives would have taken what was of interest to them and required us to clear the rest. It was strange but we would have to remove photographs, clothing, and most of the ornaments, picture frames, the lot. The worst part of clearing the house was generally the kitchen or brewhouse. The cookers were heavy, along with mangles and other equipment. All of this was sold in the shop or moved on somehow.
In the first year of being on her own, her brother made an effort to help with the "man stuff." He came over one day and built a soap box for me by adapting an old pram from the shop. He was a good engineer and had built his own go-kart which he raced at Halfpenny Green before it was made into an airport again. I went to stay at his house one weekend and it was like having a proper dad, one that spends time teaching you things. He taught me how to play chess and introduced me to Scrabble. Once he showed me how to play, we had our first game. I played quite well and eventually dropped the word Razor on a treble word score to secure a victory. He was amazed and phoned my mother in his delight. My father would have scattered the tiles and thrown the board across the room.
The first year after my father had left we had little money. The small wage I used to receive for jobs in the off-licence was a thing of the past. I had to find another way to earn some cash to buy my comics and toys. Oh, and begin my life of buying records. My mother told me that I had to work for such luxuries. I was allowed to keep any money I earned for myself.
The newsagent's and general shop on the corner of Holly Bush Street is where I first started work at the age of 10. I did a paper round in the evening delivering the Express and Star around the estate behind the Golden Cross at Saltwells. My round kicked off in Golden Hillock Road and took in Maybank Road, Stoney Lane and Saltwells Road. That may seem a small area but I took at least forty newspapers with me as loads of people had the paper delivered in those days. On Thursdays the paper was much thicker so the weight of the canvas bag was considerable as I trudged across Mousesweet Brook and up the hill. After I got home from school at Dudley I would walk down to collect the papers and then trudge around the estate delivering the papers in all weathers. The paper round could be pretty miserable in the winter months but, come rain or snow, you had to deliver the newspaper no matter what. I remember coming home soaked to the skin on many occasions. We would then have some dinner and go out again if there were any deliveries or collections to be made by my mother. I think this period probably instilled a strong work ethic which I maintained throughout my life.
The newsagent's shop was run by Roy and Vera Lander, a couple who met when they both worked at the BSR record player company. They were very good to me in my first job. By the way, that was their Ford Cortina that can be seen parked outside the shop in the above photograph. In their retirement years they moved to Darby End.
Roy Lander was the man who unwittingly started my cycling career. I was chuffed when this photograph appeared in the Express and Star in March 2006 - it shows Roy and Vera Lander who were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Anyway, when I delivered the newspapers for them there was a second-hand shop run by Mr. Talbot on the opposite corner of Holly Bush Street. One day when reporting for work I noticed he had a lovely white racing bike outside the shop. It had a price tag of £5. Roy Lander could see me caressing the steel tubes and gripping the drop bars. He said it was a bit big for me but I would grow into it. "But I haven't got £5," I told him. He came up with a masterplan in that he would purchase the bike and I would work for free until I had repaid him - the wage was 10 shillings per week. And so, after delivering the papers for another 10 weeks I was the proud owner of my first racing bike. So thank-you Roy Lander for kick-starting a lifetime of pleasure on two wheels. I loved that bike and it lasted me a few years until I was too big to ride it.
After I had been working for the Lander family for a while, one of the other lads left so I started to deliver the Sports Argus on Saturday evenings. Soon after this I was also delivering the Sunday papers around the Codsall estate. I was unable to undertake this round with my bike as there was a mountain of papers, along with all the Sunday supplements, to deliver. I had to walk around the estate with an old pram loaded with newspapers. I would start at the bottom of Surfeit Hill Road, up Codsall Road, down The Parade and around Meadow Walk. It was also my job to collect the money from the residents. There was many a time when the house suddenly fell silent when I knocked the door, the occupants pretending they were out so they did not have to pay. I even saw one family, who owed a few weeks, crouched under the table as I looked through the window.
Much of my early earnings was spent on records, a trait that has continued to the present day. I am convinced that some guests on Radio 4's "Desert Island Discs" reinvent their musical childhood and select records that make them appear cool. However, most children go through a phase of buying some awful chart records. I would become sort of cool later in life. I saw Joy Division play live, went to Portsmouth to see R.E.M. at a time when hardly anybody had heard of them. I was at a very early Radiohead gig with a very small audience. I have been in Richard Thompson's dressing room, shook the hand of Townes Van Zandt backstage and Bob Marley played in my back garden - that's another story for another page on the site. But back in 1968 I was definitely not cool. In August 1968 the first single I bought was "The Red Balloon" by the Dave Clark Five, a cover of the Raymond Froggatt song. Perhaps the most embarrassing purchase was "Little Arrows" by Leapy Lee, the only salvation being that it was written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood who would pen some better material in later years.
These records were bought from a shop in Highgate Street at Old Hill. Featuring singles in wire racks on the left-hand wall, the shop was run by quite an elderly lady. In 1969 I bought "The Ballad of John and Yoko" from this shop but when I got home and played it on our radiogram my mother, in one of her pious fulminations, went beserk, claiming it was blasphemous! She ordered me to take the record back to the retailer of such devil's music. I did have to go back rather sheepishly, putting on hold the selling of my soul à la Robert Johnson at the crossroads of Clarksdale, Mississippi. There was nothing wrong with the single so I am not sure how I managed to swap it for another record. Perhaps I did tell the woman that my mother was a complete fruitcake. Anyway, I returned home clutching a copy of Stevie Wonder's "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday." A poor swap under any circumstances.
As for Reddal Hill customers seeing and being served by my father during his brief return, this would be around Spring 1968 to the Summer of 1969. I have worked this out by the known presence of him during two key events of my childhood. Firstly he was, as mentioned, present during the first moon landing. He must have left for the second time soon after this date. I can also remember that he was stood next to me at the counter of the newsagent's shop when he was talking about the impending F.A. Cup Final with Eric Ashman. Of course, the whole neighbourhood was rooting for The Baggies so Eric Ashman had a shocking look on his face when my father told him that I was hoping for an Everton win. If you have read how my father came to live in the Black Country you will have learned that many of the clan lived in Liverpool. During my childhood we headed north to visit relatives for weddings or other special occasions. It was during these visits that my relatives drilled into me that I should support The Blues. A football club is for life and not just for Christmas so I have had to endure a lifetime of mid-table mediocrity whilst The Reds have mopped up all the trophies. Admittedly, there have been the occasional successes so I should not complain, some people have never seen their team win anything. Everton did not win that day and, as one can see from the above image, Neil Armstrong was clearly at fault for not getting a tackle in and clobbering Jeff Astle.
I completely scuppered my mother's master-plan in the autumn of 1969. Some years later she admitted that her belated present for my birthday was to take me to the Albion hoping that I would pack in all this Everton nonsense and take a shine to The Baggies. One of the best things she ever did for me was to buy tickets for my first ever experience of professional football, my debut entry into a football ground. With my father departed and leaving my elder sister to run the shop, she took me to The Hawthorns in our van. We parked up in the Halfords Lane car park and watched the game from the same stand towards the Smethwick end with the noise of the travelling Everton fans.
As a young lad in the 1960s the first sight inside a large football ground, the real life-sized version of my Subbuteo table football, was overawing. There were no warm-ups by the players in those days so the pitch was empty whilst the ground filled up, the buzz, the expectation, the first time I had heard thousands of people chanting my team's name. It was all so very wonderful. The roar went up as the players emerged from the tunnel and my mother's plan fell apart in seconds. In the 21st century players wear all sorts of jazzy-coloured football boots. In 1969 all the players had the same choice that Henry Ford gave his customers in that they could "have a car painted any colour that they wanted so long as it was black." In cavalier fashion, Alan Ball emerged from the tunnel wearing white boots. With his red hair and gleaming boots he certainly cut a dash. Here was a member of the winning World Cup side, in the prime of his playing career, wearing an Everton shirt. I nearly fainted. My mother's plan lay in tatters.
These days children can watch live games all the time but, as a young boy who had only seen highlights on "Match of the Day," I could not believe how long a game lasted, particularly as Everton had a bad day at the office and lost 2-0. Still, the cement had been set and I have been stuck with The Blues for life. The Albion fans that surrounded me and my mother were very kind and patted me on the head at the final whistle, telling me that "there was always next week." Outside the ground there was a funny incident. On seeing my Everton hat, the stewards, thinking that we had a long journey home to Liverpool, stopped the rest of the cars and waved us through. We did not have the heart to tell them we were only going back to Reddal Hill. As it happened, this was one of the few games Everton lost that season and they won the league in some style. If I had supported a local team it would have been The Baggies and I look out for their scores when Saturday comes. Many of my friends are Albion fans, including the legendary John Homer. Moreover, they are the only other team that have fielded a Holy Trinity.
As if life wasn't chaotic enough in our household my mother left us one Sunday afternoon. I imagine that the social services, if they ever discovered that three children, the oldest of which was 13 years-old, were left alone for hours, would have taken a very dim view of matters. In what was a complete surprise, she came back with a boxer puppy. By the way, that is not the dog pictured above but another that came into my life in later years. On that evening she was helping me sort out some vinyl records. Our dog in the 1960s, whom we named Sadie, was a live wire of a boxer and full of beans. The breeder must have put acid in her doggy food.
I suspect that, in buying a dog, my mother wanted to distract from the situation in which we found ourselves. I was reaching the age when I was going further afield from Reddal Hill Road so I walked miles with Sadie pulling me along. In those days, it was possible to undertake walks along old railway lines abandoned through the Beeching cuts. So, for example, I would pick up the line from Old Hill Junction [near the Foxhunt pub] and walk to Bumble Hole, and back over the reservoir at Lodge Farm and through Newtown back home. There was a wild network of paths accessed over Totnal Bridge across the land formerly occupied by the Eagle and Waterfall Lane collieries. The options for me and Sadie were seemingly endless and it was impossible to exhaust her.
Another possible reason that my mother bought a boxer was to act as a guard dog. However, Sadie was as daft as a brush. She would let you do anything to her, such as dressing her up with sunglasses and a hat. Her food came from just along the road at Kendrick's and the friendly butcher's shop almost next door. From there we bought Lights and during the long cooking process Sadie would be pacing up and down with levels of drool that created a BBC weather flood warning.
The next phase of No.95 Reddal Hill Road is a rather peculiar episode. My mother somehow came up with the idea of taking in lodgers. I have to say that the arrangements were little better than a doss-house but, once again, as a 10 year-old who went along with any idea cooked up by my guardian, life just rolled along as if it were quite normal. My mother moved my two sisters into her main bedroom at the front of the house and then created three bedrooms in which to accommodate literally anyone and anybody. There were three beds in two rooms and four in a larger room towards the rear of the property. I would have to sleep in one of the bedrooms, sleeping with whoever was staying at our house. No doubt, the social services would have taken me into care if they had found out. The occupants only stayed for a few days or a week, mainly itinerant workers, all male of course.
I am not sure how people found out that we offered accommodation but the house was always full. Looking back it was a crazy time and we all had to share the one bathroom. The men would stay whilst undertaking some contract or temporary work. My mother had to be up early to cook breakfast for everyone. Our former 'best' room was converted into a combined sitting room with a large dining table. I would eat my breakfast with some of them and then scoot off to the bus stop to go to school. If people left the house on any given day my mother would then have to get the twin-tub machine on the go to wash sheets, run the hoover around the rooms, then open the shop for the day, deal with customers, cook a big dinner for everyone at night and then undertake deliveries of furniture in the evenings. And bring up three children. What a workload. She would even do the men's washing but charged extra for that service. In the winter we would have to dry sheets and clothing by using the tumble dryers in the launderette on the corner of Plant Street. My mother lived to quite an elderly age but this workload would have sent some people to an early grave. She even did all this with a fag hanging out of her mouth most of the time.
Most of our guests were decent people and I found that it added to the rich tapestry of my learning experience. Many worked in labouring jobs but occasionally we would have white collar workers staying at our house. There was one pair of guys, both graduates from Keele University, who stayed for several months. They were way out there on the leftfield and really nice guys. Working as surveyors in the field, they would rush back to watch The Magic Roundabout just before the Six O'clock News. This became a total cult in our house, these two graduates explaining Eric Thompson's subversive and inventive storylines to a naive young boy.
I am sure that my mother bent, stretched or completely ignored all the rules and regulations of such a set-up. For example health and safety, fire regulations [many people smoked in the bedrooms], not to mention the fact that the property was full of men living in a house with three young children. My younger sister Clare was only four at the time. But it worked, none of our guests were nasty, they all brought something of their character to the building and our home was a kaleidoscope of human interaction. With people continually coming-and-going, it was our very own version of the Magic Roundabout. My early life was probably more unusual than most children but, looking back, it was all the richer for it.
Operating a second-hand shop one needs a set of wheels to transport the furniture. At the start, with a budget of next-to-nothing, my mother bought an old Commer van. Painted blue and featuring sliding doors, it was just like the model featured in this sales brochure. The key difference was that the illustration shows a nice shiny new van whereas ours was a bit of a old shed. When delivering furniture my mother would let me have the sliding door open and there were no seat belts. Within two years, my mother's hard work of running the shop, operating a full-board accommodation operation and collecting the rents from the three cottages, she was able to buy a brand-new Commer van. This is pictured at the top of the article parked in the yard of the shop. She bought the van from the local Rootes dealer at Halesowen, close to where the Travelodge stands today. Sadly, the sliding doors had been phased out. It came as standard but my mother later had a fibreglass roof extension to make life more comfortable when we went on holiday. Yes, not only was this a utility vehicle for the shop but it was also our accommodation when we went on holiday! My mother would simply chuck a double mattress in the back, pack a camping stove, and we would head off on our adventures.
Our annual holiday was another great element of our childhood. No matter what our situation was my mother would ensure we managed to go on holiday. Perhaps a legacy of her upbringing, we generally went to trashy seaside towns. Packed into the van, along with Sadie the boxer dog, we would head off to the coast with little spending money. But the beach and sea was free and we would entertain ourselves merrily. We would spend half a day digging a hole in order to bury our younger sister up to the neck. In her childhood Clare was a constant source of amusement. As lively as our boxer dog, she never stopped talking. My mother gave her the nickname of clackbucket.
I cannot recall going on holiday with my father, except for the one occasion. This was possibly when my parents first got back together for a brief spell. They rented a bungalow at Tywyn near Rhyl where we stayed for a week. Today I would consider this to be a living hell. As an adult I have ticked many of the boxes for visiting galleries, museums and architectural highlights but when you are a kid you only need a bucket and spade and a few coppers to spend in the amusement arcade.
One morning at Tywyn my father gave me six old pennies to go and amuse myself in the arcade. Anybody who has visited one of these penny palaces with flashing lights and tacky music, will probably think that six old pennies would not last long. Even as a nine year-old I realised that I would need to spend judiciously. I have no idea what today's amusement arcades offer in the way of trying to empty the pockets of punters but in the 1960s most of them had a multi-player slot machine based on horse-racing or formula one. The one pictured above is based on greyhound racing. In the machine at Tywyn there were five racing cars painted different colours. Players would place a penny in the slot and the cars would whizz around a circuit, one of the cars coming to a stop at the finish line. So, in order to win, one had to guess the colour of the car that stopped at the finish line. A red or green car paid out winnings of 2d., so a player would double their stake money. The red and green cars won the race on most occasions. However, a yellow car paid out more, 3d. if memory serves. A blue car won now and then and this paid out 6d. On a rare occasion the white car would stop at the line and this paid out a whopping 12d.
These days such machines, if they still exist, would be controlled by a computer chip and be completely random. However, the old machines were mechanically run and this is where the astute punter could turn the tables on the arcade operator. I watched the machine for about an hour and sussed out the sequence or running order. Subsequently, I placed my penny in the slot in the full knowledge my selection would pay out. After I emptied my station, I moved across to the next and emptied that of old pennies. It took a while to totally empty the machine of money. The pockets of my shorts were so full it looked like I had stuffed several bags of chips in each. However, old pennies weigh more than fried spuds. My shorts were held up by a snake belt but this proved inadequate and my shorts kept sliding down my legs. My cover was blown and the arcade operator grabbed me by the ear and ejected me from the premises. However, I had won the money legally and, holding up my shorts, walked back to the bungalow with my booty. My parents were gob-smacked. All such machines operated in a mechanical sequence and, once I had 'studied the form,' I would later empty them in other seaside towns which provided the funds to ride the rollercoaster and get the fish and chips in. Our holidays were as tacky as a Donald Mcgill postcard but I look back on them with fond memories.
My schooling at Dudley came to and end in July 1970. I admit that I was a tadge unruly at school and my mother spent several sessions being lectured by Sister Lucy. She told my mother that whenever she looked out of the window when some fight had started in the playground I was always in the middle of it. We would also clash with pupils of the neighbouring St. Edmund's School on the space by the bus station. This was not a sectarian issue - we were too young for such nonsense. However, occasionally there would be a bit of fisticuffs at lunchtime or when the schools tipped out.
One memory that will go to the grave with me is the 'avalanche' a few of us initiated at Dudley bus terminus. It had snowed heavily during the day and when we came out of school we went to the top of the hill and built a large ball, almost the size of The Snowman created by the illustrator Raymond Briggs. We then proceeded to roll it down the hill and it grew bigger and bigger as it picked up speed. The people waiting in the concrete bus shelters at the bottom of the hill turned to see this massive ball of snow thundering towards them. It was probably getting towards the size of a Fylingdales golf ball by the time it crashed into the bus-stop sending shoppers and other passengers flying. The inspector shouted after us but we ran off in the direction of the baker's shop in Hall Street to get some 'bosted' cakes from the kind ladies clearing up for the day.
There were some really nice pupils at my primary school but I have only seen one or two of them since leaving all those years ago. I was pleased to bump into Colin Brahms, the only black pupil during the 1960s. His parents were not from the Windrush generation but must have been early settlers in Dudley. One day one of the pupils racially abused Colin and the teacher immediately seized upon the issue. Today's teachers would be horrified with his solution. He marched the whole class down to the gymnasium and made Colin and the other pupil put on some boxing gloves. Colin gave him a good hiding and subsequently nobody dared to verbally abuse him again. Imagine that in a 21st century primary school? They would be banging on about it for the whole hour on "Question Time" leading to some Government enquiry costing millions. Of course, there were other possible erudite solutions but the impact of those few minutes was quite dramatic. It was different times.
Following the 11+ exam, during which I produced a highly-rated geometric drawing during the art element, I had the choice of schools in the region. My elder sister had gone to St. Paul's Convent School for Girls, at Edgbaston and my mother was keen for me to attend King Edward's School. However, having spent five years without any school friends in my locality, I insisted on going to Rowley Regis Grammar School up on the hill. Josie Boden was the only other pupil from St. Joseph's to go to R.R.G.S. but she was in another house. Jayne Plant, a Tividale girl for whom my heart skipped a beat, went to Holly Lodge Grammar School for Girls. The pupils at Rowley Regis Grammar School were not divided by perceived intellect but separated into three houses based on the geographical area in which they lived. Naturally, living down in Reddal Hill, I became a pupil of Vale House. My time at this school led to some lifelong friendships.
I ought to mention a few of the shops that were important to me in my early teenage years. I will discuss other businesses on Reddal Hill in a while but these were the outlets where the cash register was partly filled with my earnings from three paper rounds in the early 1970s. Chapman's, the electrical shop opposite the Liberal Club, was a place where I could buy relatively cheap LP records. This business, founded many moons ago, is still going in the 2020s. It was much different then and, whilst hardly antediluvian, the shop had a rather austere character - and a singular bouquet. I can almost smell it half-a-century on. Chapman's were not really record retailers but they sold record-players and radiograms so, consequently, they had a few of those revolving stands with a selection of budget LP's. Their stock-in-trade were labels such as Music For Pleasure or Studio 2 Stereo. The latter was a platform for some very dodgy easy listening but in amongst the releases one could find electronica gems. For example, John Keating's "Space Experience." The Music For Pleasure label came under the umbrella of EMI Records and was used to re-release their back catalogue at a budget price. As a result I could pick up some really good 1960s recordings at affordable prices. Chapman's would also stock compilations from the Trojan catalogue. Priced at just 99p, I bought all the Tighten Up series from this store.
A little further on from Chapman's, past the schools, was an art and craft supplies shop. Selling Rowney products and a range of toys, this shop traded as M.S.A. Stationery. I would buy paper for watercolours, brushes, ink and pens, some for school but some for a little artwork that I would attempt at home. My mother did keep some of my early efforts, though their artistic merit was questionable. Possibly just about above the minimum standard to be displayed in the gallery for "Vision On." These art treasures will never crop up on the Antiques Roadshow as, along with all our photographs as children, my mother burnt the lot in a fit of pique. The school photographs on this page are the only visual record of my childhood. What sort of woman burns the photographs of her children?
This photograph by David Attwood was taken in 1987 and in the foreground shows Nos.81-85 Reddal Hill Road. Further along it can be seen that our old shop, along with the house next door are well on their way to being demolished. It took quite a few years for the council to get around to this work. My mother had received a compulsory purchase order in the late 1970s and, along with my younger sisters, she moved to Sutherland Road. Always one to hold her cards close to her chest, she never did tell me how much the council paid for the property. She did state that it was a derisory sum for such a lot of land and several buildings. I assume that part of the compensation was the house at 21 Sutherland Road, right next to the flattened Bearmore Bank.
Another favourite shop of mine was here on this row. Not many people seem to remember Seven Inch Sounds that traded for a brief spell a few doors up from our place. A pair of young blokes opened this shop in the early 1970s. It was within the shop by the lamp-post seen here in blue. However, I seem to remember that these guys painted the shop a sort of purple colour. They stocked lots of what would become very rare northern soul singles which they sold from just 50p. Although I had not heard of many of the artists, I used to enjoy flicking through these 1960s singles, some of which were a whopping 75p or £1.
The shop must have hit a sticky patch and one of them took a box of records for my mother to buy. We used to sell a few records, largely from house clearances. I came home from school one day and spotted this box, quickly taking them upstairs to have a listen to them all on my record player. I ended up paying my mother for about 20 singles which I quite liked, discs such as "Looky Looky," an early single on the Neptune label by The O'Jays. In case you are wondering this sells for about a tenner in good condition. However, I know that some of that shop's stock now sells for very high prices. They moved to a shop opposite the Wood Shop near the corner of Claremont Street where they made huge speakers, the size of which could only have been lifted by four blokes. They must have been used in early Reggae Soundsystems. They only lasted a few years but these guys certainly livened up Reddal Hill.
This is how I remember the former Bridge Inn. The building was converted into shops in the late 1950s. Indeed, it was one of my favourite shops as the corner section was a mixed shop of sweets, fags and toys. I bought lots of toy soldiers and models from here plus all those football cards that came with chewing gum. It was run by a nice lady. My sister bought a chess set from here and gave it to me for my 11th birthday. I still have the set - and in remarkably good condition given that it has been well used over the years. A few doors away to the right was the butcher's shop of H. Downs Ltd. A load of us Reddal Hill lot would jump on the bus here at 08.20 to be carted up the hill to Rowley Regis Grammar School.
Down towards The Ways, a key shop for young teenagers was Page's Sports Shop next to the Royal Cinema. Most of my Subbuteo stuff was purchased from this shop where the proprietor puffed on a cigar most of the time. I had to add birthday money to my wages from Lander's newsagent's to acquire the most desirable football boots on the planet. Most boys in the locality wanted a pair of Puma Pelés rather than the Winit boots produced at Hill Street in Netherton. Unfortunately, these did not work their magic like those old faithfuls worn by Billy Dane in The Tiger comic. I was rather hoping that some of the wizardry of Edson Arantes do Nascimento would be imparted through the boots in the same way that Billy Dane benefited from the magical properties of Charles "Dead Shot" Keen. However, they tended to replicate the howling miss at Guadalajara by the man whose name would be daubed on the canal bridge at Primrose Hill.
Down towards the railway station was Dunn's, every boy's dream emporium selling models, toys, model railways and my childhood favourite - Scalextric. I only had to buy extras such as the pits for my track layout because I was far luckier than most boys of my age. People would come into the shop to sell their old Scalextric boxed sets and some of it came my way. Well, quite a bit of it actually. We would repair or refurbish the items to form boxes that could be sold in the shop. These would be placed in the bay window displays to tempt the local children. These sets were sold at prices that many people could afford as new sets were beyond some pockets in our community. Odd bits of track, cars, transformers and accessories went upstairs to my racetrack which grew to make a four-lane circuit on which my friends could compete for fame and glory and be the equal of Skid Solo. The bedroom would eventually house my Scalextric track, a Subutteo pitch and a mini-snooker table that came our way via the shop. So, yes, I was very lucky to have my own games room next to my bed. This was a happy period at No.95 Reddal Hill Road - shop trade was pretty good, the old man had cleared off and, through a bit of work on the paper rounds, I had many luxury goods and my own bike. What more could a boy want?
It may not be appreciated but No.95 Reddal Hill Road played an important role in the local economy. The early 1970s was a period when many people moved into new social housing or were in a fortunate position to secure a mortgage on a new home. Despite the looming coal strikes and power cuts there was a lot of micro-movement or activity in the local economy. Many folks wanted contemporary household goods in their new homes so would sell off the traditional furniture that had perhaps been handed down from the previous generations. In reality, many were swapping real wood furniture for flat-pack MDF or woodchip goods covered in a laminate. Still, sell they did, and cash was paid by my mother for their unwanted items.
Our shop stocked some lovely 'brown' furnishings from the art nouveau or art deco periods. Many of the real gems were scooped up by antiques dealers, some of the better items no doubt found their way to the United States. My mother was fairly pragmatic when it came to selling to other dealers. If she had bought an item for, say, £15, she could have put a price tag of £75 on it awaiting a customer in search of such a piece. However, she was happy to sell to a dealer for around £35 and move it on. These dealers were the early equivalent of those who appear in modern antique auction programmes on the telly. The supply of good furniture was plentiful so the approach was to pocket a profit and move it on. Like the name of a pub down the road at Spinner's End, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.
The real bread-and-butter shop trade was selling utility goods and practical furniture to many of the immigrants that were moving into the area. Once settled in jobs, people from India and Pakistan tended to buy old houses rather than rent property. Naturally, they wanted a place that they could call their own and be an asset for the future. The houses would be furnished with cheap or affordable items, many of which were bought from our shop. I am not sure if my mother ever came to terms with the haggling that would inevitably ensue. However, this was simply the culture of these new customers. A price would be asked, a counter-offer would be made and after some tense bargaining a sale would be agreed. It would then be our job to deliver the furniture in the evenings. So, after my paper round I would help load up the van and we would set off to what was a completely new cultural experience. The reception we received at many of these houses was truly wonderful. After carrying furniture into the house the women would offer us delicious treats from the kitchen. Another bonus was that, in some houses, there would be new music for me to hear!
My time at Rowley Regis Grammar School was very white. During my time I cannot recall any pupils from ethnic minorities coming through the school gates. Of course, during the early 1970s it was still quite early in terms of demographics. It took a while for the children of the early wave of immigrants who arrived from India and Pakistan in the 1960s to reach the 11-16 cohort. I was lucky in that I met lots of families from Asia through the shop. One family from Pakistan were so proud of their heritage they painted the bricks of their house green with the cement being finished in white. They completed the job by painting the flag or their nation between the windows of the upper floor. Sadly, and a sign of the sad times in which we live, such a paint job these days would lead to the property being attacked. However, back then it was novel and brought a bit of colour to the drab surroundings. The house was down Newtown near the Holly Bush pub and right next to Mousesweet Brook. I wish I had a colour photograph of the house as it would be a great bit of social history in relation to the first generation of Asian immigrants that settled in the area. A very nice family lived here. One of the sons was named Racki and would later run Pack Horse Inn at Netherton.
I would walk past that green-and-white house many times as I made my way to the Dudley Wood Stadium to watch and support Cradley Heathens as they battled with the best of the nation on the oval dirt track. I would walk down Newtown Street, along Bannister Street and down the bank [no fancy steps in those days], across Mousesweet Brook and then up the path known as Dicky's Rough to the speedway stadium. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the big names were Ivor Brown, Roy Trigg and Bernt Persson. My period of spectating coincided with the stadium's halcyon days. The atmosphere was terrific. Even though the team's league position was fairly low, there would be great anticipation amongst the crowd. I would walk along the edge of the stadium hearing the sounds of engines being tuned up and the greyhound dogs howling. The path emerged near the Victoria Inn where there would be a hot dog van, blokes selling rosettes and badges, somebody yelling "get your programme." They even sold goggles for those who wanted to protect their eyes whilst they stood on the bend where, during races, the gravel would spray into the crowd. As a youngster you soaked it all up. A home win would be celebrated on the way home with a bag of chips at the Spinner's End chippy.
A visit to the cinema was always a great experience as a youngster - and Cradley Heath had two of them. For some reason, I tended to favour the Royal Cinema, the foundations of which lie beneath the giant Tesco supermarket. My first visit was in 1965 when my elder sister Karen took me to see "Mary Poppins." My father, as was the case with most things we did, took no interest, but on our return home my mother asked me what I thought of the film. As a boy who had only seen small black-and-white images, my reply was "Mum, you wouldn't believe the size of their colour telly!" Ah, the innocence of childhood.
I loved going to the pictures, as we called it. In those days the Royal would be packed. There would be a thick haze of cigarette smoke seen in the light rays of the projector. We were only given enough money to buy a ticket for the first few rows. A silver line across the carpet in the aisle acted as a demarcation line. Even if the rows behind were half-empty one did not dare sit a bit further back from the screen as the deranged usher would come and shine a torch in your face and herd you back into the cheap seats. The usher at the Royal was Leslie, a very short man in a suit, with slicked-back hair chocker with Brylcreem. The East German Ministry for State Security probably tried to sign him up as a Stasi officer for he never missed a trick and acted with extreme severity.
I cannot remember the film classification for "Grand Prix" but my mother accompanied me to watch this film. This must have been around 1967-8, though the film starring James Garner had been released a little earlier. My mother even bought tickets for the balcony, a new experience for me. The back row of the balcony had couples seats, though in my youthful naivety I had no idea of what was going on behind me. Except for this film that is. Halfway through "Grand Prix" my mother and I could suddenly smell cooked food. This was in the days long before cinemas flogged nachos. It was Butterkist Popcorn or an ice cream back in the 1960s. Anyway, in our curiosity we turned around to see where the smell was emanating from. To our amazement and disbelief there was an Indian chap sat in the double "cuddle seats" cooking a curry on a camping gas stove! This was one of many bizarre sights in The Royal. The cinema had a cat, possibly to keep the other living things in the cinema to a minimum. During a film it would be quite normal to see the silhouette of the cat as it walked across the back of the screen. As a pre-pubescent I was probably only concerned about James Garner in "Grand Prix," the allure of Françoise Hardy, a 60s French icon, being lost on a young boy. Most of the adults in the audience were probably wishing they were in the "cuddle seats" with the sexy yé-yé girl.
When The Royal finally closed down I can at least look back and honestly say it was not through my lack of patronage. I used to go once or twice a week as there would generally be something watchable, particularly as two films were screened for the price of one ticket. Now and then the b-movie turned out to be better than the main film. In 1971 I saw Steven Spielberg's "Duel" as a b-movie at The Royal. I also remember going to a James Bond double-bill with a group of friends from Rowley Regis Grammar School when "Goldfinger" was rolled out as a support film to "Diamonds Are Forever."
I lost my fortune at The Royal. Not long before I left school I was walking along Bank Street and noticed a door open to the projection room. I stuck my head in and saw rolls and rolls of film posters. The Dorsett family must have kept them all for some reason. I enquired if any of the posters were for sale and was told that I could have them all at 50p each. I am not going to pretend that I could see into the future and predict the market for these items but I realised that this was a great opportunity. Consequently, I went back home and asked my mother to lend me the money as I would soon be at work and be able to repay the loan. She simply scoffed at 50p a poster and said it was a waste of money. As I type, the above poster for "Diamonds Are Forever" is selling for £1,500. I have seen some very rare posters selling for thousands. And to think The Royal had them all, from the original "King Kong" to "Dracula" and "Metropolis." In 1999 a poster for "King Kong" sold at auction for a cool $244,500.
I guess most people have fond memories of their secondary school. Rowley Regis Grammar School was a rather curious place in that the old headmaster, George Lloyd, spearheaded some form of delusional aspirations for an institution providing a classical education. Latin was on the curriculum F.F.S. Some of the teachers bought into the dream and swirled around the corridors in their old university gowns. Even the odd mortarboard could be seen on occasions. However, the vast majority of the pupils, me included, though possessing some intelligence, were not truly academically gifted. There were a few in possession of phosphorescent grey matter but the alumni is not noted for a superabundance of rich talent. However, the majority benefited or emerged with a decent grounding for life. Oh, in case you are wondering, the motto means "I Lift Up My Eyes," a tough ask when one of the less dynamic teachers was droning on somewhat. Didacticism was the order of the day for some of our learned pedagogues. Some years later when I was teaching A-Level geography myself, I reflected on the outdated instruction we had received from teachers who had not clearly not updated their notes or plans since the day they had qualified. However, there were some good teachers, people who had the gift of maintaining or stimulating interest in their subject.
For the boys at least, there was one teacher at Rowley Regis Grammar School that haunted them for life. This was the complete psychopath that was Bernie Richards, our beloved woodwork teacher. One of my vivid memories of his lessons was him telling somebody to use the bandsaw. We were in the second year and cannot remember the contraption ever being switched on in our presence. The timid response from his pupil was : "I don't know how to use it Sir." This kick-started one of his legendary tirades. He turned to me and told me to show the "chumpy blockhead" [one of his favourite belittling catch-phrases] how to use the bandsaw. I also had to admit to not knowing how to use the equipment. Enraged, he grabbed me and slammed my head on the work-plate with the bandsaw still turning at great speed. He hurled a range of insults before shoving me back towards my work bench. He turned to David Smith [an affable pupil who picked up the unfortunate nickname of "Whiff The Stiff"] and told him to show the entire class of chumps how the use the bandsaw. David's father, who had a cooperage business in Cradley Heath but lived near the school on Hawes Lane, used to supply wood to Bernie Richards at discount prices. Consequently, David was one of his favourite pupils. When David said : "Sir, I don't know how to use it either," our psychopathic pedagogue suddenly had a mood swing and, to our astonishment, said warmly : "don't worry lad, I'll show you." It was classic Bernie, one of many incidents that ensured his legendary status at Rowley Regis Grammar School. Almost every pupil feared entering his workshop. The one thing we did learn was to avoid the flying wood or tools hurled at us when we shaved off 1/16th of an inch too much. He never went metric. And when an error was made in his presence one of his immortal lines was "wood doesn't grow on trees boy."
For some woodwork lessons we used to clamber on board the school coach, perhaps better described as a jalopy - it would take Bernie ages to get it started, and head down to the canal basin to work on the barge. I cannot remember doing anything useful on the boat as we were not trusted to apply our new skills on something as exotic as a boat. We tended to muck about whilst Bernie cracked on with some work. Another classic episode of his temper came about when one of the pupils dropped a screwdriver in the canal. I thought our beloved teacher was going to explode. In his fury, he actually ordered the boy to get in the water and retrieve the screwdriver! On another occasion he was using a drill [no battery tools in those days] and charged a few of us with holding up the cable so that it did not come into contact with the water. Steven Attewell had us in stitches when he deliberately dropped the cable into the canal in a bid to electrocute the madman!
School showers. Two words that will send a shudder through some pupils. Of course, I have no idea what went on in the girl's half of the gymnasium, but in the boy's changing room we had our own version of the famous scene in "Kes." Half the time the boiler would be broke and the water was cold. It was a few metres walk from the changing area to the actual showers behind a wall. Some would hide or attempt to avoid the showers. Billy Bedford, our P.E. teacher, was pretty slack but Ken Reynard, the physics teacher/football coach, ensured everyone got in there - rather like the style of Mr. Sugden, the teacher played by Brian Glover. Of course, we all clocked one another's bits as we were going through adolescence. And being boys, there was some teasing. Bob Mears was amazed at the size of my belly button. In my defence, I was born at home and the midwife, who had to be dragged out of the pub late at night, was petty sozzled. At some point a table tennis table was installed in part of our shower facility. This was great and we would spend ages playing on this, particularly if our P.E. session was the last lesson of the afternoon.
In 1972 Rowley Regis Grammar School signed up to a school cruise on the SS Nevasa. I saved up my spending money and to buy the extras I would need and my mother paid for the ticket. This was a sign of how well the shop and "doss house" was doing as very few pupils were able to embark on such an adventure. Tickets cost around £70 and fewer than six pupils from my year joined the cruise. So, despite my mother never giving me a kiss or a cuddle, or telling me she loved me, she made extraordinary gestures such as paying for my ticket. And what fun it was. The long days at sea were full of fun and laughter, the ports we visited were Cadiz, Tangier, Palma and Porto. My memories of Morocco were of headmaster George Lloyd dividing us into groups of four, handing us a packed lunch at the top of the gangplank and telling us to be back for dinner. No supervision or chaperones as we headed into the Kasbah. Imagine that nowadays! Today, whenever I see a group of school children walking down the road, there are as many adults with them, and all in high-vis jackets. In the market at Tangier I was grabbed by an Arab trader who demonstrated a flick-knife by holding it to my throat and asking if I would like to buy! As you can see from the photograph I bought a Fez instead.
Back in Cradley Heath in 1972 I was enjoying some tremendous bike action. Although my first bike was a road racer, some of my fondest memories of cycling as a teenager was the evening scratch racing we staged at the foot of Bearmore Bank. The track was on the Corngreaves side of the former coal spoil heap, close to the old Corona pop factory. The gravel oval track was laid out by fellow pupils of Rowley Regis Grammar School, though other teenagers would come and use the facility. Along with his older brother, the project was managed by Petford Street resident Alan Grove. He had a dedicated off-road racing bike with what I think he called Australian Benz Handlebars. Well, something like that. They were wide and upturned and facilitated good elbow action, a key part of track racing as it was a free-for-all, particularly going into the first bend after the start. Robert Mears also had a decent bike but most of us turned up with anything that could withstand the rigours of toughing it out. I even turned up with a gold-coloured Moulton Midi. Steven Attewell and Paul Harris were some of the others to enter the fray. Having a famous speedway team at Dudley Wood was perhaps the inspiration behind the whole thing. We would generally race in fours. It was quite an advantage to be drawn on the inside because getting your wheel in front on the first bend was crucial if you wanted to secure a victory. After that it was pedal like mad for four laps using your bike and elbows as though you were filming "Ben Hur" - it could be quite physical. Of course, there would be a number of spills but you just dusted yourself off and got back on the bike for the next race. There would be some lost skin but I cannot recall any fractures despite some heavy falls. Great times.
Back in the day, one's early teens seemed to be the best years at school. For some bizarre reason, when we all reached the age of 15 or 16 we just seemed to hang out, eschewing all the fun we used to have in earlier years when we played games or undertook activities of all sorts. In 1972-3 we were all a bit obsessed with playing Colditz, the board game. The Second World War seemed to endure in popular culture, in film, comic books and board games. This was launched in response to the popularity of the BBC drama series set in Colditz Castle, in which the Kommandant, played by Bernard Hepton, engaged in a war of mind games with the allied prisoners who were determined to escape captivity. Although there was an element of the luck of the dice, the board game was really good fun, except for the person designated as the German. We would spend hours in the back room at the Mears household trying to break out of the castle. Mrs. Mears was in charge of the prisoner rations and tea.
Next door to Robert Mears was another of our grammar grub gang. Dave Mallen, along with his younger brother Kevin, had a table tennis table in what was an extraordinarily large garage. In there we would ping-pong 'til we dropped. Feats of endurance were also part of our games of football on Bearmore Bank where we would play until it was dark. Even if the scoreline was 14-9 it would be next goal the winner when it was finally time to call it a day. Saturday mornings were often spent at Halesowen swimming pool and we walked there from Reddal Hill. There were no issues of obesity in those days - we burned off everything we consumed.
Another popular game at school was a legacy of a 1957 film screened on BBC2 a couple of times in the early 1970s. Essentially, one did not want to be holding that slip of paper with a message in hieroglyphics when the "Night Of The Demon" came around. We made our own version of that little piece of paper and spent most of the school days trying to avoid receiving this by it being slipped into a pocket, pencil case, a dinner tray, whatever. Whoever was in possession of the paper when the school bell rang at the end of the day was in for some punishment from all those in the game.
As we slipped into the mid-1970s welcome breaks in the hanging-out phase came in the form of discos in local venues. There would be such an event at Lomey Town School on Thursday evenings and a regular Sunday night session at Old Hill Youth Club in the building on the corner of Lawrence Lane and Church Street. The same DJ played more or less the same records every week, a bit of Motown, some reggae and the awful "Hi Ho Silver Lining."
Meanwhile back at Reddal Hill Road, my mother rented out the flat to an African guy who had not long come to the UK and was working for a car sales showroom near Burnt Tree Island at Dudley Port. I remember that he was dating a really exotic-looking black woman at the time. They were a wonderful addition to our humble abode. I helped him move his stuff up the stairs and put up some shelves for his separates hi-fi equipment. Separates I ask you. Nobody I knew had such an exotic sound system in those days. I then checked out his collection of vinyl records and was amazed at all this stuff I had never heard. This was the beginning of a rich period of musical enlightenment in which I learned that music did not revolve around the USA and UK. Through this cool dude, I was introduced to the likes of The Hygrades and Haruna Ishola.
My older sister married a bloke of Jamaican descent so the reggae music was ramped up somewhat, though he was also a soul fan. Going to his family parties was good fun as they had some early sound systems. I remember one party in the function room of the Horse Shoe Hotel at Brierley Hill, with a combination of curried goat and dub music. My mother got romantically involved with one of the lodgers around this time. He was a mix of West Country and Scotland, Jock they called him. From this relationship came another sister called Edwina. She was born at the start of 1973 so there was quite an age gap between us. She loved most of the children's telly of the 1970s which is how I sort of kept up with the likes of "Mary, Mungo and Midge," "The Mr. Men," through to "The Muppet Show." But who didn't like "The Muppets?" They shook up the Sunday afternoon telly slot.
I imagine that many people who grew up in a stable nuclear family, reared by relatively straight-laced parents, may think of our diverse, multicultural and rather wild household, as some form of imagined scenario in a novel. But this is how it was ... my early teenage years were rather unconventional, perhaps one of the reasons I did not apply myself at Rowley Regis.
Beer became an extra-curricular activity for some pupils of Rowley Regis Grammar School. We were 16 years of age and in our final year at the school when we patronised The Hawthorns on The Ross in Blackheath. The publican must have been desperate for custom so turned a blind eye to delinquents like me asking to be served. So teaming up with Pip Oldaker, Terry Parkes, Steve Attewell and other mates from the school, we were able to use the bar frequented by the town's old lags. They used to enjoy seeing us suffer by offering us their Capston cigarettes and watching us coughing and spluttering between sips of our Ansell's Mild. Another haunt of our misspent schooldays was the Foxhunt in Old Hill's Garretts Lane where we would drink Banks's Mild in the back room.
One of the regrets of my teen years was the fact I did not have a mentor who could steer me towards places selling Batham's and Simpkiss. I would have to wait a few years to experience the delights of these smaller breweries. It is no good having regrets in life. I mean, fancy not going into every pub in Cradley Heath and Old Hill in order to take photographs of the interiors. I would love to have such pictorial records of the places long gone, the taverns we took for granted and thought they would be there forever. But when you are a teenager you are too busy living your life to worry about documenting and recording everything.
I went into retail after school, my first job being at Paddy's Superstore in Old Hill. Later converted into a market hall, the building is still there. Paddy's Superstore had around 30 branches in the Midlands region. I think they were based in the Telford area. The manager of the Old Hill branch in 1975 was a Mr. Harrington. That was about as familiar as it got and we all called him Mr. Harrington. A woman called Mo was head of the tills and did a bit of the office work, a workplace little more than an elevated platform overlooking the small row of checkouts. The firm was a bit like Kwik Save but before the Kwikkie came to Cradley Heath. They were a stack them high, flog it cheap retail operation. There was a butchery department at the back of the store with two older blokes who seemingly spent their whole day engaging in double entendres with the middle-aged sales assistant. I cannot remember their names it was all so long ago. Two more older women kept the fresh veg section near the entrance. Another woman working on the deli counter had a husband working out in the Middle East. Apparently his wages were so good a fork-lift was required to bring out the pay cheques. Mr. Harrington seemed to spend much of his time upstairs in the warehouse where he hand-painted all the large luminous-coloured bills that covered almost all of the glass at the front of the store. The prices were something like 12p for a box of Kellogg's cornflakes, and a bottle of HP sauce for 9p. Then one day he did not show up. Nobody knew where he had gone - it was a bit like a Reginald Perrin vanishing job. Mo had gone to run the company's smaller shop at West Hagley [now a Co-op] so I ended up doing more and more hours, having the keys to open up and lock up at night, getting woken by the police when the alarm went off in the middle of the night, and doing all the cashing-up for banking. I would walk alone up to Barclay's with a bag full of dosh to deposit. I was 17 and had somehow become the de facto manager. It was all very bizarre, but it was that sort of firm.
I jumped ship to work for Fine Fare, a company with a supermarket in the High Street at Cradley Heath. Perhaps I thought it better to work for a bigger company with a more structured approach to retailing and career prospects. The firm had a few hundred shops and were third in the retail pecking order behind Sainsbury's and Tesco.
I wish I had kept a journal or diary when I was younger, mainly because my memory for names has always been a bit sketchy. Sadly, despite there being some nice folks making the Cradley Heath branch of Fine Fare tick over, I have forgotten most of their names. The manager was in a relationship with the woman running the Bell Inn on St. Anne's Road, probably the reason that the pub became our early doors drinking den in the mid-1970s. I became quite a regular of the place and even played darts and crib for the pub, visiting other taverns in the locality for away fixtures. For these pub adventures we would clamber in a Ford Granada owned by an Old Hill fireman, also a regular patron at the Bell. We probably looked like some London robbers as the Granada was a favoured vehicle in "The Sweeney," the popular crime drama that had not long launched on the telly.
After a short period on the Fine Fare shop floor, I was placed in charge of the provisions department so was supposedly managing a small group of young women, though I am sure it was them running rings around me. I would spend a good deal of time in the butchery room as a key task was the preparation of bacon and other piggy products. This is all a bit much for my memory bank as I have been a vegetarian for most of my life. But I wasn't back then so I would take deliveries of cured half-pigs and, via my steel knives and butcher's block, would convert these into bacon, hock, and gammon for sale on the delicatessen counter. The butchery section was run by bloke called Ron, helped by a younger chap and two women who cling-filmed all the cuts in polystyrene trays. One of the women was called Rita who hailed from Quarry Bank. Again, all meat was prepared on the premises, all animals being delivered as a carcass from the slaughter house.
Pay day was a weekly affair and I would spend some of my wages in the local record emporiums. The Band Box on Lower High Street did not carry a great range of stock but would order stuff in for me. I remembered this shop as a very young lad when they had listening booths along the one wall. For a brief period there was another record shop roughly opposite where Wetherspoon's is now located. I bought a number of interested albums from there. And then punk happened. It had been brewing for a while but even in Cradley Heath it exploded in 1976-7. What a terrific time it was to be a music fan. Our poor neighbours would have to endure the sounds of bands who could hardly string a few chords together. If I am honest I much preferred post-punk, but the energy of the early stuff was a real kick up the arse for a staid music industry.
With my playlist of 1977 I am not sure I needed top-end audio equipment, but my strong work ethic saw me save enough pennies to look beyond the BSR plant up Garratts Lane. It would have been great if the local factory produced anything half decent but their decks were utter shite. So, my vinyl was spun on a Goldring deck, the result of many hours working in my spare time during the last years at school. Indeed, it was as early as 1973 that I took a Saturday job at Round's saw mill and crate manufactory, located at the top of Plant Street, overlooked by Bearmore Bank. One of the worst jobs was emptying the hopper of sawdust that had been collected all week. Essentially, it acted like a vacuum cleaner for all the waste produced at the various circular saws in the works. I can still recall undertaking this task, spending several hours in the freezing cold of winter, shovelling sawdust into sacks for resale. The hooter for the tea break could not come quick enough in order to thaw out in the canteen for 15 minutes. I spent my entire summer holidays of 1974 working full-time in this factory. The foreman had no humour whatsoever and seemed to monitor everybody in the style of Blakey, the bus inspector on the telly. I realise these cultural references are completely outdated but they are contemporary.
Further funding for records and stereo equipment was achieved by working in the evenings for Charlie Stanford, proprietor of the petrol station and garage next door to the Moot Meet pub on Halesowen Road. I undertook a few general duties, along with cleaning cars, but my main job was to fuel the cars that triggered the bell as patrons drove onto the forecourt. A garage with old traditions, an oil and water check was also offered to customers. In addition to fuelling cars, I would also flog fags, sweets and general goods to customers. On Saturdays I would often walk from the saw mill to the garage to do an evening shift. I would also work on Sundays, Charlie's wife sharing a portion of their traditional Sunday lunch. It is little wonder that I did not have time for school homework.
In terms of remuneration, youth exploitation was certainly the norm in those days. The pay at Round's was £5 for a Saturday morning shift from 8am until the hooter at 12.30pm. This was a better hourly rate than that offered by Charlie Stanford who forked out a mere 25p an hour running his forecourt and shop. I can still sense his disappointment when I told him I was leaving to go to another garage where the pay was a whopping extra 5p an hour. He said he was sorry to see me leave, citing the Sunday lunch as a bonus I would not benefit from elsewhere. However, he refused to increase his hourly rate so I went to work for the garage at Corngreaves, on the corner of Barrs Road. One thing I did miss was the canopy over the forecourt and I would get soaked when fuelling cars during downpours. It was a fairly busy garage and there would be two of us on shift in the evenings. The other bloke, much older than me but probably still in his late teens, spent much of the shift in the workshop practising his Northern Soul moves on a piece of cardboard he used to avoid the oil spillages. Whenever I tried to watch him in action he would suddenly stop, as if his footwork was classified top secret. He and another chap who worked at the garage would drive up to Wigan for the Saturday all-nighters. at the famous Casino.
The opening of the new leisure centre at the other end of Barrs Road was the scene of a culture clash between punk and northern soul. I was there for the first of the regular Monday night discos during which the DJ would alternative his soul 45s with punk records. This would cause a mass movement of teenagers who cleared the floor for the other lot whilst waiting for their turn in another three minutes. This was a most amusing to witness. I was perhaps the only person who liked the music of both camps. In reality, the DJ was forcibly made to play records brought to the leisure centre by a few of the Timbertree ruffians. At the fag end of my school days I would hang out with some of the notorious youths of the estate, largely because they had two wheels. Terry Wielding had a bright green Fantic moped whilst I whizzed around on a Yamaha FS-1E. Well, whizzed is an exaggeration. I could have travelled faster on my sister's hairdryer.
Did I mention the lions? Oh yes, there were lions at Corngreaves. Just a few metres from where I was working at the petrol station, Lew Foley had several lions in his back yard. I would walk past the reinforced gates on my way to work and, believe me, during the hot summer of 1976 the smell emanating from the place was horrific. Lew Foley, a man who had allegedly inherited a pile of loot from an ancestor, was one of the characters of the area. And that is understating it somewhat. He was known to take a lion for a walk with a heavy chain for a leash. He even took one into The Boster, a pub on the High Street long since demolished when they built the cathedral of consumption known as Tesco. The council, of course, devoted time and money, along with generating reams of legal documents, to have the lions removed. After one of them had supposedly tried to devour a burglar, the miscreant being saved by Lew Foley waving a side of bacon at the animal, the authorities got their way. But what sort of idiot would try to break into a house protected by a pride of lions? You can click on the above film clip on the Mace Archive to see the lions in his yard. Note the chimneys seen in the film still above. These were a legacy of the brick works that operated at Corngreaves. There also used to be three beehive kilns here until being demolished in the 1980s.
Following Everton in 1976 was a doddle. In the days when you simply just rocked up at the turnstiles and paid a few quid, the Blues played at plenty of local grounds : West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City were in the top flight for much of the time. And it was a short train journey to watch them at Coventry, Leicester and Derby. For the home games I would go into work early on Saturdays, make sure everything was tickety-boo, then run down to Cradley Heath railway station around 11.45am, jump on a train to New Street, connect with a Liverpool train, and hop on the bus from Lime Street to Goodison Park just in time for the kick-off. All this effort would have been justified had we actually been any good. But this was one of many periods of dust gathering in the trophy cabinet. But that is hopeless devotion for you.
I must have had a lightbulb moment during the heatwave in the summer of 1976. A quick fix to my projected dull career path, and pursue one full of excitement and adventure, was to join the army. I was in no hurry to serve on some frontline being shot at. However, there had not been any serious conflict for a couple of decades. I could cope with a cold war couldn't I? Safe enough, I must have thought, for all the fun and no dire consequences. Sounded like a win-win to me.
In those days there was an army recruitment office in the High Street near Dudley top church. I stuck my head in to find a recruiting sergeant and a corporal engaged in a game of chess. After advising the latter on how to win in three moves, I said I had come to sign up. To my surprise I was handed an examination paper and made to sit at the back to complete an answer sheet. Admittedly, the questions were about as rigorous as the easiest Starter For Ten that Bamber Gascoigne could muster up. However, the sergeant was dumbfounded that it was the highest score he had ever seen. I had to remind him that it was Dudley in which he was recruiting. Besides, I had the reputation of Rowley Regis Grammar School to uphold. Even it was through osmosis, five years with teachers like Betty Robinson, Mike Thompson and Don Gallop must have filled some vacant space in the grey matter.
The sergeant sent me down the road for a quick medical in which some wizened old quack looked up my arse and ticked the 'fit for duty' box. I had to attend a larger building in Wolverhampton to undertake the hardest part of the recruitment process. I do not know what the procedure is today but back then one was given the decimal equivalent of the Queen's shilling after declaring an allegiance to the sovereign. The only way around this was to cross my fingers behind my back whilst uttering some statement written on a card. And that was that. On the 15th September 1977, I relinquished my civilian status.
If they had continued with this type of WW1 recruitment poster I might have been attracted at an earlier age. A life of cycling, you bet. Once enlisted one simply went home. A week or so later I received my movement orders telling me to report to Sutton Coldfield. I cannot recall the recruitment posters featuring such an exotic location! The barracks was essentially a sorting base where, despite best efforts, square pegs were shoved into round holes. Among something like 100 new recruits, I entered a large hall where we sat another written exam paper. In addition to measuring intelligence, this exam was seemingly designed to determine whether recruits had any attributes or qualities for specialised areas of the military. I imagine that the lower the score, the less opportunities were afforded to the recruit. For those who scored highly there was a day of film presentations and demonstrations to help recruits choose a career path that seemed suitable for personal goals or achievement. In theory at least. So, when it came to the turn of the film showing the Royal Signals in action, I considered this seriously. The combination of traditional soldiering with an opportunity to learn new skills in electronics and telecommunications seemed to tick my boxes. They even jumped out of aeroplanes. Where do I sign?
This recruitment poster for the Royal Signals dates from 1983, six years after I had joined up. Note the computer-style font used to convey the message that the Corps was bang up to date on the equipment front. There is so much wrong with the poster. If it had been used by a commercial organisation then there would have been a sound case for misrepresentation or mis-selling. At the time of this poster's publication, I operated a crystal radio receiver, the type of which was used in the Second World War. Even the rifle issued to me was manufactured in 1954. The military webbing provided when joining was used by British troops in the First World War. Some of the transport vehicles were first registered in the post-war years. A more accurate recruiting poster could have been procured from the BBC featuring stills from "Dad's Army." The British tax payers are constantly told how the UK has the best armed forces in the world. In terms of equipment this was clearly not the case. But nobody wants to pay more tax for defence expenditure, a sentiment with which I can understand on certain ethical and moral stances.
My recruitment process served to highlight the poor standards of military intelligence during the 1970s. Considering my name and background, I was not asked one single question about my Irish ancestry for almost two years after joining up. It had only been three year since the Birmingham pub bombings and the M62 coach massacre, the latter heading to Catterick, the garrison where I was undertaking my training. It was only towards the end of 18 months of my training programme, the cost of which was estimated at £250,000, that I was called into an office to be interviewed by an intelligence officer. The truth was that I had only joined up to escape a dull career path. However, his questioning - more like an interrogation process - was geared towards determining my feelings on Irish politics. I answered honestly, the result of which was that on no account was I to be sent to Northern Ireland, my loyalties being considered questionable. And that was without me informing the intelligence officer that I wished I had personally used my bayonet to stick in the eye socket of Oliver Cromwell. Within five years I was a vegetarian and listening to Billy Bragg, another former military bloke, so I was probably not fit to be posted anywhere!
The first 12 weeks in the life of a signalman was, like any infantryman, the conversion of a slack civilian into a well-drilled fighting-fit combat soldier. As there was a fireman's strike, our training was extended by a few weeks to ease the backlog in the continuation trade training. This coincided with one of the worst winters in North Yorkshire, the result of which was we spent extra time on freezing cold firing ranges and undertaking our final exercises in whiteout conditions on the moorland around Otterburn in Northumberland. Inevitably, some people are mentally and physically tougher than others. The soldiers who served alongside me would no doubt vouch for my resilient character. Some years later when I returned to the same bleak landscape on a detachment commander's course, I finished in top place and had my name painted in gold-leaf letting on the honours board. So yes, surprising to some who know me now, I was that tough soldier.
The trade training was like going back to school and getting paid for it. There would be a fall-about laughing incident almost on a daily basis. The key difference, however, between school and army life was that the pranks and messing around was completely ramped up. I will probably have to take many of my tales to the grave as, even today, me and some others could be arrested for the stuff that we did for a laugh. Nothing that hurt people I must stress. Between the schemes we cooked up for fun, we received instruction on radio theory, mast erection and installation, electronics, teleprinters and Morse code, along with a whole range of other skills. This was all useful training for those who wanted to pursue a career in telecommunications in civilian life. On my part, I have only found the ability to touch type of real use, though I did re-wire the house myself. The military style of training was possibly unique. For example, we were not allowed to see the keys on the QWERTY keyboard of a teleprinter, the letter to be typed being displayed on a large screen at the front of the classroom. Eventually we would get up to the minimum standard of 36 words per minute, though by the end of the course I was flying. To this day I would struggle to place all the keys in the correct position on a blank sheet of paper, it is all by instinct and allows me to multitask while typing out, well, this blurb for example.
Taken at Vimy Barracks, this is the only photograph I seem to have from my days at Catterick Garrison during 1978. I do remember some photographs being taken during a summer camp break in training during the summer of that year when we were transported to the Lake District. It had been two years since the heatwave but the lakes were still only two thirds full. I had bought this old Daimler, a vehicle armed with a V8 engine that could fly down to the Black Country when on leave. It is the only half-decent car I have owned and, being something of an environmentalist, prefer travelling by bike or train these days. Anyway, I had to give this car up as a new exhaust or radiator would consume my entire month's wages. Army pay back then was pretty dire.
My beer horizons were broadened when I left home for Yorkshire and discovered Theakston's beer when it was something to behold. Punk did not seem to get as far north as Northallerton but The Fleece was a pub with beer to make your hair turn spikey. Other discoveries - and remember I was but a mere novice - were Marston's Pedigree in the Cross Keys at Bellerby and Samuel Smith's in the Oak Tree at Catterick Village.
The transient nature of those serving in the Royal Signals meant that we would lose contact with close friends with whom we had served. After living, working, drinking and laughing with a group of men for 18 months at Catterick, I would only even see two of them again. Training complete, we were sent to all corners of the world. I was keen for further adventure so volunteered for 216 Signal Squadron, an airborne unit based in Aldershot. Believe me, to have survived the pubs and bars of Aldershot for three years I should have received some sort of campaign medal.
I considered myself reasonably fit by the time I arrived at Aldershot. However, I soon learned that fitness levels were somewhat elevated and I found myself in the middle of the pack rather than at the front. So, after volunteering for P Company, a demanding course for those seeking to join the nutters who jump out of aeroplanes, I had to train hard just to make the cut for the pre-para course. This was a full-time four week course aimed to get signallers in top condition for the brutal three week P Company. This was led by a barrel-chested sergeant who completely 'beasted' us non-stop. Weigned down with backpacks filled with stones, we would run along the sandy tracks of Long Valley and Tweseldown Hill for a few hours, return in formation carrying a telegraph pole, go around the assault course several times, and round it all off with a session in the gym. It was the latter than could be the worst. Our pain cave was the Maida Gym, a massive Victorian training facility where the sadistic barrel-chested sergeant, who called us "lovely boys," would ensure we were on the brink of being strecher cases after his gruelling excercise routines. Now a listed building, the old gymnasium still stands as a memorial to those who crawled out of the building on their hands and knees.
These days, sports directors realise the value of rest days within training programmes. This was not the case with the pre-para course where we undertook tough physical challenges every day. Part of the gruelling routine was to expose the weaknesses in individuals or to make them crack. Over the four-week course the numbers slowly dwindled until there were only a dozen or so left at the end of the four weeks. Even then we had to get the sergeant's stamp of approval before being sent down to the barracks of the Parachute Regiment.