Out of the mouths of babes …


One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me in all of my life came when I was 5 years old, in the first class of the Infants’ School. A big girl – probably about 7 or 8 – told me that if I was playing in the school yard and someone came up to me and said, “SHIFT!” I should reply stoutly “SHOR!” and stand my ground.

I was fairly ignorant of the Black Country dialect spoken by most of my schoolmates, so I understood neither of these words, but I found that whenever an older child told me to shift, and I retorted “Shor!” it worked. I would smile cheerily, knowing I had used the magic password, the intimidator would look me up and down then either retreat disconsolately or invite me to play. Win-win!

Positive reinforcement worked so well that after a couple of weeks, I was no longer being told to shift or subjected to any other kind of aggression, and was friends with most of the other kids. It took me a long time to discover that “shift!” meant “move!” and “shor!” was Black Country language for “shan’t!” so that in my innocence, my unruffled defiance had been interpreted as assertiveness: “Don’t mess with me!” Whereas I thought I was just giving the correct response to a secret school code.

I don’t know who that big girl was, but her advice has served me well and I’m eternally grateful. First of all, it kept me intact in my earliest school life, where I retained my claim on the square metre or so of playground where I was bouncing my ball, skipping, standing on my head or digging in the mud, and also later in adult life where I was able to avoid being pushed and shoved around by colleagues and superiors. My response then was a more diplomatic form of “shor!” but it still worked.

I think the cheery smile probably also played its part in averting a violent reaction. Had I snorted my “SHOR!” with a frown or a glare it would probably have elicited a thump on the nose. Most of those ordering me to “Shift!” were bigger, older and stronger than me. But my honest body language seems to have defused the situation, and disconcerted my potential aggressors. Maybe now and then I did have to hit back – I don’t remember. The main lesson I learnt was that friendly resistance (and persistence) gets you further than belligerence.



The Pigeon-Loft

This ought to be on my Black Country Page, but that is getting rather unwieldy, so I’m posting it here.

Pigeon fancying was one of the most popular pastimes among working-class men in the Black Country when I was growing up. Many a terraced house had a pigeon-loft in the backyard, and on Saturdays the men would wait eagerly for their prize homing pigeons to return from some far away place, grunting and grumbling under their breath as the pigeon landed, dawdled, and finally stepped into the loft – because only then could it count as having arrived. As council estates sprang up, with clean, modern houses, neighbours started to complain that the pigeons were unhygienic and the lofts an eyesore, so many pigeon-fanciers were obliged to give up their hobby. 

‘Ere, gimme a pint o’ bitter, Joe!
Cuz it’s bitter I’m feeling at the mo’
They say I’ve gorra, but I wo’
            Move me pigeon-loft.

Them faithful bairds ‘ave allus cum
Back to the plairce they know as wum
An’ it’s mekkin me feel bloody glum
              To move me pigeon-loft.

W’eer’ll they goo if the loft ay theer?
Yo cor tell a pigeon it’s gorra steer
A different course as it’s took all year
             Cuz they’ve moved me pigeon-loft.

This tale of woe cast a pall of gloom
On all the blokes in the pub’s back room
For Bob’s prize pigeons met their doom
             When they moved ‘is pigeon-loft.


Schooldays, Schoolmates

Mr Russell's class 1952

Every now and then, I try to go through the thousands of photos on my laptop and get rid of duplicates and any that really are a waste of cyberspace. And thus I came across this old class photo from my primary school, taken in June or July 1952 when we were all about 11 and about to depart from the safety and security of our little junior school, to start “big school”: following the 11+ exam, around half went to the local Secondary Modern, about a dozen to the Secondary Technical School, and nine of us to the Grammar School. That should have been ten, but the parents of one bright little boy said they couldn’t afford the uniform and all the extras that went with a Grammar School education, so he went to the Secondary Modern instead.

Being split like that meant that we generally lost touch with one another, especially once we had reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, when most left school for good.

All the more amazing, then, when I look at this picture and realise I still know everyone’s name! What’s more, in spite of having spent nearly fifty years outside the UK, sixty-five years on I am still in touch with eight of these former classmates and know the whereabouts and something about the present lives of at least another three. One other, for sure, has died; maybe more. We’re getting on a bit now.

But five of them came to my mother’s hundredth birthday party and six to her funeral, and others sent condolences. I suppose that is the key: although we have all moved away from the place where we grew up, even to Cyprus and Australia, my mother stayed put. When I went back to visit my parents, and especially in these latter years when I stayed with her, I would occasionally hear from an old school pal or we would even manage to meet up. They knew where to find me when I didn’t have a clue where they had gone, and the grapevine meant that even if someone had disappeared completely from my radar, someone else might yet be in touch.

A Grammar School centenary reunion in 2002 was instrumental in a couple of cases, where we really hadn’t seen each other since we were sixteen and were delighted to rekindle old friendships. Another occasion was when four of us who had lived next door to one another and had all been born within the space of two months (three of us in this photo), were reunited for our seventieth birthdays. That was a very joyous occasion, since I hadn’t seen two of my old playmates for over fifty years.

So I look at these innocent young faces, mentally trying to superimpose wrinkles, paunches and grey hair (or, in the case of the boys, bald heads – the good-looking lad standing on the far right is still tall but completely and shiningly bald) and wonder if, during the five years recently when I was more or less resident in my old home, we had unwittingly passed each other in the street or sat next to each other on a bus.

What would we have had to say if we had recognised one another, after all these years? We probably would have little in common, but I know for certain that one topic of conversation would have been the elderly gentleman who was our class teacher, and there is no doubt that someone would have said: “He’d never have got away with that today!”

He was a strict and harsh disciplinarian. Classes were large. Corporal punishment was standard fare in those days so most of us, girls as well as boys, had felt the flat of his hand or been caned. Yet he taught us well, and even if he didn’t manage to make silk purses out of pig’s ears, he produced very serviceable leather pouches, metaphorically speaking.



Here are three of us who were partners in crime together throughout our primary and secondary school days from the age of five, and are still good friends (l-r: P, N and me in 2011). Can you spot us on the school photo?

We’re all on the second row, seated: N is 3rd from the left, I am 3rd from the right and P is last on the right. I think we were deliberately separated!


Red And Black


I’m a Black Country wench
Born where men and women made nails
For their own coffins
And chains to enslave themselves.
Red by day and black by night,
Red and black:
Fire and soot.
Iron ore and coal dust are in my bones and blood.
My great-great-granddad Charlie
Like his blacksmith father before him
Made iron baskets and buckets in Bilston.
Another was down the mine at nine or ten
Hewing coal all his life
Red hair and black lungs.
Though the family moved away
Went north to other mines
The magnet in the blood
Drew my father back to stay
And I was made
In the Black Country.

Five Day Challenge: 2

Over the years, apart from two black-and-white half-timbered mansions, the 13th century moated Manor House and the Tudor Oak House,  very few historical buildings have been preserved in my home town of West Bromwich. There is also a humble brick cottage that was the childhood home of the American Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury. This cottage was scheduled for demolition in the 1950’s but the fact that it was attracting American tourists enabled local Methodists to rescue it. Other places with historical associations have been left to go to rack and ruin, such as the Tudor house that was home to one of Nelson’s captains at the Battle of Trafalgar, and where Charles Dickens stayed while writing The Old Curiosity Shop, or have been completely erased from the landscape. I sometimes wonder about the criteria for listed houses: many that clearly deserved to be preserved weren’t.
Scan 69

This particular building was well over two hundred years old when it was flattened to make way for a couple of modern semi-detached homes in the nineteen-sixties, and although its aesthetic values may be debatable, it certainly held plenty of historical interest locally.

It stood slightly behind and to the left of the house where I was born and grew up. At that time, it was divided into two residences (hence the two front doors) one inhabited by an elderly couple whose family had flown the nest, the other by a family with three daughters who kept a fish and chip shop in their front room.

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I used to play with Kathleen, the youngest of these daughters, so I got to see inside the house, with its lofty moulded ceilings and finely proportioned rooms. Some of the windows had been bricked up, and it was explained to me that this was because of the window tax in the eighteenth century. Another friend of mine was the granddaughter of the elderly couple who lived in the other half, and she spent many happy hours rummaging through the attics.

Kathleen’s parents’ business was called The Academy Fish Shop, in memory of its more auspicious past when it had housed West Bromwich Academy. (An academy in those days was a very different establishment from the modern sense of the word in England.) Dr Witton is commemorated in the name of the lane where his house stood, but he himself is forgotten in the town. I was curious about this man and the history of the old house, and after some online research was able to find out a few basic facts.

The Rev Dr Richard Witton was the Presbyterian minister of the Old Meeting House (later Ebenezer Chapel, now a Hindu temple) from 1722 to 1762, and established one of the first schools in the town in his house around 1725. He was born in 1683, probably in West Bromwich. His second marriage was to Hannah Savage in 1731, and they had 2 sons and a daughter: Matthew, Philip Henry, and Sarah. The names are significant, since Hannah was the granddaughter of Philip Henry and niece of Matthew Henry, both highly distinguished theologians. Her mother, Sarah Savage, was also a noted diarist of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Quite a bit of literary Presbyterian name-dropping there, then, and a lot for the children to live up to!

Richard Witton died aged 82 on 28 Dec 1765 and was followed by the Rev Philemon Parkes, also the Presbyterian minister of the Old Meeting House, who took over the school in 1763, and died on 7 November 1786. I haven’t been able to discover who ran the school from 1787 to 1803, but it became known as Marshall’s School when it passed to John Marshall in 1803. He was followed by his son, John William Marshall, who took over the Witton Lane school, probably when his father retired or on the death of his mother, some time between 1836 and 1851.

The 1851 census entry for the household of John William Marshall, “Schoolmaster, Witton Lane” and his wife Sarah née Salt occupies a full page, including 7 children (Ellen, John William, James, Francis, Jane Elizabeth, Sarah Joyce and Thomas) and widowed father (John Marshall, b. ca 1785 in Newport Pagnell, “iron master”) with governess, housemaid, cook, assistant and nurse plus 7 pupils aged 8-12.

In 1852 Marshall’s Academy moved to new premises, and John William Marshall died on 28 May 1877 in Wednesbury. His son Rev Francis Marshall, born in the Witton Lane house in 1845, graduated from St John’s College Cambridge, and had a career as a grammar school headmaster and rugby administrator. He devoted his spare time to producing textbooks on the Bible and mathematics, and also wrote a history of rugby football. Perhaps, with West Bromwich’s links to soccer, this counted against him when it came to amassing points in favour of preserving his birthplace?

Who lived in the house over the next eighty years or so, until the two families I knew moved in? From the census records after 1851 it is very difficult to tell which families might have been tenants, or even how many of them were housed there. It must have been a solidly built house; maintenance work carried out on it was minimal, but there was little structurally wrong with it and it survived the bombing raids of the Second World War unscathed.

However, fifty years ago nobody in authority was interested in wasting good money on restoring ancient dwellings; the survival of Bishop Asbury’s Cottage and the Manor House (also due for demolition!) was pure good luck. The Academy was not so fortunate. The land was sold to a private developer, the house demolished and, as far as I can ascertain, forgotten together with its history.

 Today, I nominate Counting Ducks, who has created a whole world of fascinating characters in his blog posts and novels.

Owd Rowly

Harking back to my post about the May Day horses and ponies triggered plenty of memories of the days when many tradesmen still used horse-drawn vehicles. Prominent among them locally was a well-known character held in general affection in this area, and known to everyone as Owd Rowly. There must have been a number of dairies competing for custom at the time, since everyone in those days had their milk delivered in pint bottles, but Rowly seemed to have a monopoly in our district, which was something like an urban village. He spoke the broad local dialect, and was famous for his malapropisms, such as commenting on “them aeroplanes gooin’ owver in fomentations” at the air show.

milk float

This is similar to Rowly’s milk float. Photo credit: http://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/engine/resource/default.asp?resource=6353

He was a little over 5 feet tall, which meant he could just about see between his horse’s ears from where he stood at the back of his milk float, behind the metal crates, but it didn’t really matter whether he could see the way or not, because the horse knew the route. He was a jolly Pickwickian figure in a light brown cowgown and cardigan, his short sturdy legs clad in leather gaiters, and a woolly hat or flat tweed cap on his head. He wore fingerless knitted gloves when it was cold. His face was round and rosy-cheeked with white side-whiskers, and his default expression was a smile.

As children, during school holidays, we would wait for him coming. We’d hear the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves and the rumbling of the big wheels as the milk float approached the bottom of our cul-de-sac, and we’d dash down to the corner to meet him, begging for a ride. He’d squash as many of us in as he could among the rattling metal crates, sometimes sitting smaller girls on top of the milk bottles. To my knowledge nobody ever got hurt, though I suppose Health and Safety regulations would prosecute anyone who did this nowadays. It was a short uncomfortable ride, but great fun.

Opposite our house was a grassy verge, so Rowly would stop there and leave the horse to crop the grass while he delivered the milk, sometimes helped or hampered by the children. He had infinite patience with us, and presumably the same thing happened in every street and road on his round.

Mr Roland Griffiths in formal mode

Mr Roland Griffiths in formal mode

He was one of those people who had to keep physically active, so once he had delivered the milk his form of relaxation was visiting markets and auctions, and he was often found in nearby Kidderminster where he would buy second-hand furniture from the auction rooms there. He did a steady trade passing them on among his milk-round customers. It wasn’t unusual to see a dining table and chairs being delivered from the milk float, which was fortunately designed to take heavy loads. I know we had a sideboard and a wardrobe from him at one time in the early ‘fifties. The sideboard was later sold on to a woman in the next street, she and my mother carrying it between them although it weighed a ton, and the wardrobe came complete with woodworm so that didn’t last too long either.

“The West Bromwich Horse Show Challenge Cup presented by R & W Belcher for the best trade turnout belonging to a West Bromwich tradesman”

During the 1930’s there were annual horse shows in our town, and one of the categories was “trade turnout”, a posh term for a tradesman’s horse and cart. Rowly won the silver challenge cup presented to “the best trade turnout belonging to a West Bromwich tradesman” in 1932 and 1933, and when he once again came first in 1934 he was told he might as well keep the cup. This has been preserved, well polished, by his granddaughter and will no doubt be passed on as a family heirloom to one of his great-grandsons and hopefully will also be appreciated by his great-great-grandchildren.

Sadly, although he looked pretty ancient and was always called “Owd” Rowly, he didn’t actually live to a ripe old age, and died in his sixties. He was found in bed, his woolly hat on his head and a broad smile on his face, fulfilling his last wish: to die happy in his own bed. His granddaughter, who has been a good friend of mine since infant school, kindly provided these photos. I wish I had one of him with his “turnout” because that is how he will always be remembered, but it seems he saw no point in being photographed in his working gear.

All of these memories inspired me to add a doggerel tribute to Owd Rowly in Black Country dialect. It can be found as the last item on my Black Country page.

May Day Traditions

“Do you remember the May Day horses and ponies?” asked our neighbour, Stan, who likes to reminisce about the old days. I did, vaguely, but not as clearly as Stan, who is a few years older than me. As a boy, he lived within view of the canal which was still used in those days by bargees to transport goods all around the country. Big strong horses plodded along the towpath pulling the barges, where entire families lived in very cramped conditions. On 1 May these horses would be decked out in their horse brasses and bright gaudy ribbons, a feast for the eyes. In the towns, where many tradesmen had horses and carts, there was often a parade with the wagons cleaned and repainted, the horses scrubbed and brushed with their hoofs oiled, and once again wearing coloured ribbons. Sometimes a silver cup was awarded to the best horse and wagon.

By the mid nineteen-fifties, freight was transported by road and rail rather than canal so the barges were abandoned. In towns, with petrol no longer rationed, most tradesmen swapped their horse and cart for a van or lorry, so those parades also stopped. In just a few areas, May Day parades and fairs continued as a kind of carnival but the flavour had changed.

Happily, we found this local TV report from 1 May 1974, featuring a typical Black Country ‘oss mon’ speaking his native tongue. Perhaps it should have subtitles. (Sorry, this doesn’t seem to work by clicking – but well worth cutting and pasting.)


And then I found this, which is a Bavarian flashmob singing about May day fun in yet another delightful dialect!  

Doughty By Name, Doughty By Nature

Some time ago, I wrote about my great-grandmother Mary Ann Doughty and some of the twists and turns of fortune in her life. In the meantime, I have made contact with a distant relative in Canada who has done an enormous amount of research on that branch of the family, and was happy to share some of her findings. These included two newspaper reports.

The first concerns a fatal accident in what is now part of a council estate near to a small nature reserve, but at that time was a rutted cart track linking the expanding industrial villages of Tividale and Tipton. old crown tipton

There were a couple of public houses in Sheepwash Lane, one of which is still standing. Had the victim visited one of these on his way home?

05 August 1841 – Staffordshire Gazette and County Standard – Stafford, Staffordshire, England BILSTON. “On Saturday last, Mr. Benjamin Doughty, of Wolverhampton-street, iron basket maker, went out with a cart laden with goods to Tividale, and as he was returning by the Sheep Wash Lane, it is supposed that he fell out of the cart, for he was found quite dead with the cart upon him. An inquest was held on the body on Monday, when a verdict of “accidental death” was returned, and the body was removed to this town for interment. “

This unfortunate man, “quite dead” when discovered underneath a cartload of iron baskets and buckets, was my third great-grandfather, born in Bilston in 1797, and probably in his prime at the time of this accident. His first wife had died in May 1833, leaving him with a sixteen-year-old son, Charles; just one month later, in June, Benjamin had married a neighbouring widow.

His second wife was Eleanor Wallett, whose husband had died in January 1831. Forty-year-old Eleanor had six children, ranging in age from 5 to 20, so this second marriage was very likely also a matter of convenience for the couple: she would have been glad of a man to bring home a wage, and Benjamin would have wanted a wife to keep house for him and Charles. Eleanor’s eldest boy and girl had disappeared (died or left home, I’m not sure), and two of her teenage sons had gone to live with their elderly grandparents, also in Wolverhampton Street, so that would have made the household less cramped.

However, Eleanor’s other two daughters came along with her when she became Mrs Benjamin Doughty, and not surprisingly teenagers Sarah Wallett and Charles Doughty fell in love. They were married, aged 18, in June 1835, and remained in the parental home to begin with. This must have led to some sparks and fireworks among the iron baskets, and having the same person as stepmother and mother-in-law does sound rather alarming. Young Charles features in my next newspaper cutting, in trouble for domestic violence:

“27 February 1836 – Staffordshire Advertiser – Stafford, Staffordshire, England: Wolverhampton Public Office Wednesday Feb. 24th (Before the Rev. J. Clare) Charles Doughty, son and apprentice of Benjamin Doughty, of Bilston, was brought up in custody, charged with beating his mother-in-law and neglecting his father’s service. Forgiven on promising to behave better. The warrant, in the mean time, to stand over. “

I like the wording of this: I can’t imagine a modern magistrate saying to a strapping eighteen-year-old apprentice blacksmith that he is “forgiven” for beating his mother-in-law up if he promises to behave himself. All the same, I have a feeling that Eleanor would not have been a weak and helpless woman. She must have been doughty in nature as well as in name, since she appears to have continued the family business for many years after Benjamin’s death. In the 1851 census, aged 55, she is living with her unmarried son Nathaniel and two lodgers, her occupation: iron bucket maker. How long she did this I don’t know. She appears in the 1861 census, aged 65, without an occupation but boarding with a boot maker and his wife, apparently not related to her. This makes me wonder why she hadn’t moved in with one of her children. Perhaps she really was an awful mother-in-law? She died in the spring of 1869 aged 73. Charles Doughty continued working as an iron bucket maker as long as his father was alive, but he and Sarah moved out after the fight with their parents in 1836, and by the time of Benjamin’s demise were living around the corner with the first three of their eight children, who all but one survived to adulthood. Most of their children stayed in the area, except for my great-grandmother, Mary Ann.

The feud with his mother-in-law appears to have continued: on all the censuses right up to 1881, we find Charles working as a blacksmith, sheet metal worker or air pipe maker, but never involved in the bucket-making trade. The 1891 census shows Sarah as a 73-year-old widow in receipt of parish relief, living in one room, so Charles must have died in the 1880’s. A young family occupied 4 rooms at the same address: her grandchildren?

I have no information about the deaths of Charles and Sarah Doughty. These are common names in Bilston, and identifying the correct person can be difficult. I can’t find Sarah in the 1901 census, so she must have died before then. I’m disappointed to have lost track of her at this point in her life, and find myself hoping that she didn’t end up in misery and alone.

An interesting little twist to this tale is that after Mary Ann married my great-grandfather and went to live in Yorkshire, her daughter (another Sarah) married a man called Tom Lockwood and lived in a house just a few doors up from Sarah’s parents in Chapel Street. The 1901 census includes a housemaid at Mary Ann’s home, her 17-year-old niece Edith Doughty.

In 1902, Edith married John Lockwood, the brother of her cousin’s husband, and they also lived in Chapel Street. A Yorkshire mining village was probably a pleasant change from the Black Country. Bilston was not a salubrious place to live and bring up children. There were devastating cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1849, so serious that the town ran out of coffins and burial plots.

Mike Harbach says:
“Bilston suffered 2 major cholera epidemics, in 1832 and 1849. The 1832 epidemic started in Newcastle-on-Tyne and Sunderland at the start of the year and reached South Staffs in June. Bilston’s main period started on August 3rd, in the latter part of wakes week. Between August 3rd and Sept 29th (when the last case occurred) there were 3,568 cases and 742 deaths in Bilston. As a comparison, the death count for Wolverhampton was 193, Tipton 404, Dudley 277, and Sedgley 290. About 400 of the Bilston victims were buried in St Mary’s churchyard and 300 in the Wesleyan Chapel yard. Coffins couldn’t be made fast enough in the town and were imported by the cartload from Birmingham. The sum of £8,536 was raised by appeal for relief in the town from all over the country, and was used to help the 131 widows and 450 orphans under 12 that were left behind by the epidemic.

In the 1849 outbreak, Bilston was again the cholera ‘capital’ of the area with around 730 deaths in just 7 weeks. The lack of proper water supplies, drainage and sewage systems and general overcrowding was the main cause of the rapid spread in the town. George Lawley, in his ‘History of Bilston’, written in 1893, is particularly scathing about the habits and morals of the inhabitants contributing to the problems. To quote a paragraph:

‘Let us return to the causes which produced this high rate of mortality. The sanitary condition of the town was deplorable. Foulness and filth were seen in the old fashioned streets, the low courts and everywhere. Stagnant pools sent up their deadly vapours, sink-holes their effluvia, and wretched hovels their thrice-breathed atmosphere. Undoubtedly the chief cause of this state of things arose from the character of the people, who, brought together in great numbers by the demand for labour in the vast mines and forges of the town, were composed of the worst characters, morally and socially, that could possibly be conceived; similar to the hordes of animated life that stream into some newly found gold region. Being of degraded habits, and the houses numerically inadequate for the people’s accommodation, they herded together like swine, the filth of their tenements and their persons thus giving strength to the venom of the avenger’.”

I think my ancestors must have been very tough to come through all that, in spite of their “degraded habits” and the pigsty tenements they lived in. I feel quite proud of them. Doughty is as doughty does!

And Still They Serve

My mention of the milkman recently surprised a friend who says she hasn’t seen a milkman or milk float for about 30 years.

“And you get milk in bottles?” she asked incredulously: “Proper glass milk bottles?”

Well, yes. Having been out of the country for forty years, I had been unaware of the decline of the milk delivery service in the UK. The father of our present milkman used to bring milk to my parents; this one has been delivering for about twenty years, and his son is also now involved in the business (and the physical resemblance in the generations is startling). I simply hadn’t realised how rare this is nowadays – and how fortunate we are. Apparently, less than 10% of British households now have milk delivered.


Empty milk bottles waiting to go out for collection.

I understand that now that the dairies have gone online and you can order virtually anything, from pet food to garden compost as well as milk and associated products, the milkman is set to be making a comeback. Hurrah for that – it’s easy enough to pick up a litre-sized plastic bottle from the supermarket, but there’s something infinitely more delightful in finding a pint glass bottle or two on the doorstep at breakfast time. And the foil tops go into the collection for guide dogs for the blind.

“How do you pay him?” my friend asked. I replied that I left the money in the empty bottle overnight. Horror! “And it doesn’t get stolen?”

We must live in a very law-abiding neighbourhood, because no, neither the milk nor the milk money gets stolen. Though I have now opened an online account with the dairy, so my bill will be automatically paid through my bank from now on.

“You’re living in the past!” cried my friend. Then: “What’s that noise?”

The sound of a discordant trumpet and a raucous voice wafted in.

“That’s the scrap-iron man,” I said. We have several of those, scrap metal being a profitable business. Here they are known as tatters. Until recently, one of them would walk up the road blowing three notes on his trumpet and shouting, “Any scrap EYERN!” but now they use a recording with a megaphone on top of the van or lorry cab. They are very obliging, and will take almost anything, including an old wooden bedstead we no longer needed: “Tek it off yer ‘onds, luv!”

My friend shook her head. “Who else comes up and down your road, buying and selling things?” she asked.

“Well, we have the ice-cream man.”

This is a genial middle-aged Indian gentleman who regularly stops his van outside our house, as I got into the habit of buying a 99 from him most days last summer. We would hear his chimes playing Girls and boys come out to play as he did his rounds, and I always had the change for my ice-cream ready on the windowsill by the door. “Here you are, darling,” he would say, having already prepared my cornet as soon as he saw the door start to open. For obvious reasons he hasn’t been around since November, but I have no doubt he will be back with the spring. He probably does a reasonable trade, as we have a fairly large Indian population in this part of town, and Indians are known to love ice cream.

“And we also have the Kleeneze and Betterwear people,” I added. They leave little catalogues with all kinds of household gadgets that you didn’t realise you lacked until you saw them pictured, as well as other useful stuff. Since our local hardware shop (that’s in the sense of ironmonger’s) closed down, there’s nowhere local to buy pots, pans, brooms and kitchen electrical goods. You place your order and it’s brought to your door about a week later. A boon for those who are housebound or have no transport – just try carrying a mop and bucket back home from a shop on the bus, plus all your other shopping. And where else would you have found a singing-dancing Christmas tree?

What else do we have, as relics of a bygone age surviving in our little backwoods? Well, English windows open outwards, making them quite difficult to clean: I would have to perform acrobatics to do our upstairs windows. Thus we have the window-cleaner, or rather a family of window-cleaners. Like the milkman, we have known 3 generations of the same family carrying on this business, which is now shared by 2 brothers and a brother-in-law. We follow their fortunes with great interest – one fell off his ladder and broke his ankle last year, and we rejoiced with him when he resumed normal service (though he now stays off the ladder), another proudly showed us photos of his new baby, the third is a keen gardener and we have exchanged horticultural tips and cuttings throughout the seasons.

In my childhood, we also had a baker nicknamed Leggy who delivered bread and cakes to his customers. He always wore a flat cap, and we children were in awe of his skill in carrying a large tray of cakes balanced on his head. Many of the houses he went to were terraced, and had a narrow passageway – known locally as the entry* – between two adjoining houses leading to the back doors. Leggy’s party trick was to turn round in the entry underneath his tray without spilling anything – the tray would be held against the walls, of course, but it was nevertheless quite a feat.

I grieve the passing of these important characters in so many parts of the country, and am pleased that, however backward and deprived my native town may be, they linger on providing valuable services in the community. Fingers crossed that, with so many people shopping online, some of these little businesses might thrive again.

The Black Country Nativity

I have just come across this, reprinted in the Black Country newspaper Express & Star, and reproduce it here in full, hoping I’m not infringing any copyrights:

The traditional Christmas nativity story has been told for countless generations . . . but not always quite like this! This version of the nativity was written by Londoner Michael Prescott, who came to the Black Country many years ago and discovered the area’s rich dialect while teaching the children at Sunday school. Using the words of the children he taught, he put together this unique Nativity story back in 1968.

Mary, er babby an a bostin tale

There was this girl called Mary and er lived in a place called Nazareth. One day er mum went out an er was left do do the ousewerk.

All of a sudden the room went all bright and when er turned round er sid somebody standin by the winder. Er wor arf surprised and nearly fell off er chair.

“Oom you?” er asked, “yo day arf gie me a tern.”

“Doh be scared,” answered the bloke. “I wo urt ya. Me name’s Gabriel, an arm an angel.”

“Yo ay, am yer?” said Mary.

“I am,” ee replied. “An I’ve cum to tell ya summat.

“What?” said Mary, cause er was thinking what a carry on this was.

Yo’m gooin ter av a babby.”

That shook er, and er looked at im an said: “Doh be saft. I ay marrid.”

“That do mek no difference,” ee answered. “If God says yo’ll av a babby, yo’ll ava a babby, yo will an that’s it. Yo’ve got ter call im Jesus.”

Mary was still a bit shook, so the angel said: “An arl tell yer summat else. Yo ay the only one oos gooin to ave a babby. Yer cousin Elizabeth is gooin ter ave one an all, an er’s an old woman.”

“Well, if you say so, ar suppose that’s it,” said Mary. “Me chap wo arf be surprised.”

When eed gone, Mary med up er mind to goo and see Elizabeth an went off ter Juda.

Elizabeth was waiting at the gate an when er saw Mary er said: “Ar ay arf glad to see yo, but fancy yo cummin to see we in yor state.”

Mary answered: “An angel cum an sid me, an arm gooin to av a babby in December.”

Elizabeth told Mary that er old man, Zacharias, day believe er when er told him about the babby, an ee were speechless.

“Ee cor spake a werd now,” er said.

The chap what Mary was engaged to was called Joseph. When Mary told im about the babby er was having, ee day know what to think.

Ee said: “Yor mum wo arf kick up a chow row.”

Any road, ee day get is air off, an when ee went ter bed that night, an angel cum to im in a dream. “Doh get mad at Mary about the babby,” ee told im.

“It’s God’s son er’s avin, an is name’s Jesus. Sumbody’s got ter av im, or ee wo get born, an yower Mary was picked.

“So just yo marry er, me mate. There ay nuthin ter worry about.”

Soon after they was married, Joseph cum in an told Mary: “Arv ad a letter from the tax mon, and that Ceasar says as we’ve got to goo to wheer we was born to be taxed. So we’ve go to traipse all the way to Bethlehem next wick.”

Mary cut sum sandwiches an packed a few cairkes an opples.

Then er med a bottle a tay, an when they’d ad a daysent breakfast, Joseph got the donkey out, put Mary on, an away they went.

“Cheer up, our kid. It ay far now,” Joseph told er.

“We’ll soon av a rest. I keep gettin bricks an sond in me sandals.”

When they got into town, Joseph knocked on the door of an inn an asked for a double room.

The bloke what answered said: “I cor elp yer. There’s that mony on em eere they’m avin ter sleep in the passage.”

The next un was like it an all, but Joseph said to the chap: “Ain’t there anywhere we can goo? My missus is out theer on a donkey, an er’s gooin ter av a babby soon.”

The chap scratched his yed and said: “We cleaned the stable out after tay, so it ay mucky. If I shift a couple of osses an a camel, you could kip down theer.”

“We’ll tek it,” said Joseph, straight off.

In the noight, Mary woke Joseph up an said: “The babby’s ere.” So Jesus was born, an they wrapped im up tight an put im in the manger what the osses et out on. Mary an Joseph wor arf proud. The innkeeper cum with is missus an brought Mary sum ot milk.

They thought Jesus was a bostin little lad an the innkeeper said to Joseph: “Yo’d better cum an av a drink to wet is yed.” So he did.

Up in the ills, there was sum shepherds luckin after the sheep. It was cold, so they was sittin by the fire lettin their dogs do the werk while they ad summat to eat an a smoke.

Suddenly the sky lit up loike bonfire noight, an an angel cum. They day know owt about angels and they was that frittened they all fell on the ground.

“Yo’m a silly lot,” said the angel. “I shore urt yer. I got a message for yer.

“There’s a baby bin born in Bethlehem. Is name is Jesus an ees God’s son. Goo an ave a look at im. Ee’s in a stable lyin in a manger.”

Any road up, they cum down the ill into Bethlehem. One said: “It’s or roight im sayin we’ll find the babby in a stable, but they’m all over the plairce. We cud be looking for wicks.” Then they eard their mate’s whistle an they fun em outside a stable built in a cave. Someone whispered: “Doh mek such a clatter. We’m ere.” One knocked on the door and Mary called: “Come in.”

They took off their ats an went in on tip toe.

The chief shepherd said: “Adoo missus. A angel tode we ter cum an see yower babby.”

Mary smiled and beckoned them in. Joseph said: “Eere ee is. Cum an look, but mind you doh breathe on is face.”

The shepherds knelt down round the manger an looked. “Ay ee tiny?” said the youngest. “An ay ee got little onds?”

“Course ee’s tiny, yo saft ayporth,” said the leader, “ee’s new, ay ee?”

“I know that,” said the young un, “but you cor imagine God bein little, can yer?”

Mary smiled an said: “Oil spin sum wool an knit im a jumper, an is dad’ll play the flute ter mek him sleep.”

The shepherds turned to goo, an little Jesus smiled. The leader said after as it wind, an all babbies did it, but ee wor as sure as ee med out.

While all this was a-gooin on, three wise kings was in a country far away lookin at stars.

Suddenly, one on em put down is telescope an called: “Cum eer yo lot. Oi’ve fun a star wot wor theer afore, and it ay arf a big un.”

“Yo’m roight mate,” they said then they looked. “Oil bet it’s that one what’s to tell us a new king was born.” They checked up an it was.

One day, they cum to Jerusalem an went up to the Palace an knocked on the door. A sentry opened it an they asked: “Is the King in?”

The sentry said: “Arf a mo, Oil goo an see.”

The King’s name was Erod, an ee was in.

“There’s three kings to see yo,” the soldier told im. “Oh ar?” said Erod. “Weer?” Ee ad a fit when the soldier told im “Outside.”

“Yo cor leave kings standin on the step,” said Erod. “Get em in.”

So they all come in, an Erod said ow noice to see em an wot cud ee do fer emn. They said they was looking fer a new king, and wondered if ee was theer.

Erod said: “Ee ay ere, but when yo’ve fun im, drop in on the way back so’s Oi can goo anay a look meself.”

They said “Righto,” an off they went.

When they’d gone, Erod said to isself: “Theer’s ony room fer one king ere, an Oi’m it. When Oi know weer the new un is, Oi’ll have im killed.”

The star stopped over the ouse where Jesus was, an the kings day worry cos it wor a Palace. They went in an knelt down by Jesus an gid him their gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Mary looked at the presents an said: “Thank yo, they’m smashin, but Oi’ll keep em till ee’s bigger, if yo doh moind.”

The kings took off their crowns and bowed.

Then they said: “Tarrah abit,” an went all the way back wum.

But they day goo back past Erod’s palace cos a angel ad told em what a awful bloke Erod was, an ow ee wanted to kill the little Jesus.