Stonnall eye-witness history
Stonnall in the Old Days
by Alan and Pamela Ramsell
Background - the Ramsell Family
He served in Salonika during the Great War, which he very rarely talked about. He was a member of the Army Service Corps and his job was to remove the dead and injured from the battlefield. His first wife died during labour while he was away on military service. They had three children, Stan, Ada and Mary.
His second wife, my mother Gladys Allsop, was born in 1902. They had seven children altogether: Frederick, Joan, Gerald, Doreen, me, Roy and Robert.
My father told me about an incident that took place during this early period of family history while they were still resident in Shenstone. He had saved 10 shillings (50p in today's money) to buy a new pair of boots. He thought that he had kept the money in a safe place, but a female cleaner had found its hiding place and promptly stole it. Once the theft was discovered, it was not too difficult to identify the thief and she was subsequently convicted of her crime. It is not known whether he got his money back.
At that time, Fighting Cocks Farm was owned by a Mr Yates who, so it was said, did not believe in paying income tax. Eventually, his affairs getting into serious disarray, he was forced to give up the farm - and that is when my father availed himself of the opportunity to take it over in 1931. He and my mother raised a family there and thus I was born on the farm.
Mr Yates was an eccentric character in many ways and we will have a little more to say about him later.
George Ramsell died in 1962 aged 72.
Background - the Lee Family
To provide accommodation for the new family, Grandfather Lee purchased a barrack hut that in all probability had been one of the numerous ex-army huts that had occupied Cannock Chase during the First War. The exterior of the hut was identical in almost every detail to the Village Institute in Stonnall and to the WWII Land Army huts in Lynn. This house was to remain within the family until it was demolished some time in the 1960s.
The Lees raised a family at this house and when my father William Albert (Bert) Lee got married, it in turn became the home of his new family. By this time, my grandparents had moved into Granville House, which was next door to the Wooden House and which was one of the new houses that had been built on Druid Heath Piece during the 1920s.
The War Years
During the war, word got around that we had a reliable supply of eggs from our fowl and people would cycle up from Birmingham to visit the farm. They would try to barter almost anything, including nuts and bolts and spanners to extend their somewhat meagre rations.
One of the consequences of the war was the huge influx of American military personnel, many of whom were stationed nearby at Whittington Barracks. You would see American soldiers in the local pubs and in the Village Institute when there were social occasions such as dances.
One of their favourite places was the Red White and Blue public house on Lichfield/Walsall Road. One day my father left his bicycle outside the pub when he went in for a couple of pints. When he emerged later, he found the bike was gone. He supposed that an American had 'borrowed' it in order to get back to Whittington Barracks in time for roll call.
One day, I was standing outside the farm on Cartersfield Lane while a huge convey of American military vehicles passed by. It seemed to go on forever. As the soldiers passed by, I shouted: "Have you got some gum chum?" and several of them chucked a packet of Wrigley's type chewing gum in my direction.
Pamela: The presence of large numbers of relatively affluent American servicemen inevitably led to their romantic involvement with some of the local girls. My aunt, Kathleen Lee was one such war bride and she married Sgt Wilfred Linn of Minnesota, at St Peter's Church in 1943.
Romantic liaisons were not confined to American servicemen. Several local girls fell in love with and married some of the German POWs who were working in the fields.
Birmingham was very badly damaged during the Blitz and many families became homeless as a result. I can't remember whether it happened voluntarily or otherwise, but one such family - the Griffiths - was billeted at the Wooden House for a period of time in the early 1940s.
There were quite a few other evacuees in Stonnall and most of them seemed to come from Margate.
VE Day in Stonnall
There used to be quite a high bank at that part of Main Street, where the 'new' houses now are. Bert Busby (of whom more later) was sitting on it while playing the accordion for everyone's entertainment.
The village children had a party outside Oakley's builder's yard and the adjacent cottages.
Pamela: When I was at Stonnall School, I would walk from the Wooden House down Gravelly Lane and then up Church Hill and down Church Road. I can remember walking by the old National School in Thornes every day and I can also remember the days before Greenfields was built in the grounds of the Old Vicarage. I think there was an orchard at that place before the house was built.
Alan: Getting to school was a relatively short walk along Cartersfield Lane every day.
Life at the school was somewhat frugal in my days there, but I remember everyone's delight when a hundredweight sack of drinking chocolate arrived there during the war years.
I was still at the school when Harry Hastilow's petrol station was built. From the playground, I could see it under construction. I was in my last year at the school and so this event would taken place a little before July 1946.
After primary school, I went to Walsall Wood Secondary School, despite the fact that I had actually passed the examination to enter the grammar school in Lichfield. My father was determined that I was going to be a farmworker and that the lure of an academic career was not to be.
In the early days of secondary school, I used to be taken to school by coach. I would be picked up at the corner of Main Street and Wall Heath Lane by Leigh Cottage. The coach would then travel via Cranebrook Lane and Pouke Lane to Lichfield Road where some more kids from Hammerwich and Muckley Corner would be picked up. Later on, I cycled to school every day.
Pamela: When I became of secondary school age in the early 1950s, we had the choice of whether to go to Walsall Wood or to Lichfield. My parents decided on the latter and I attended Central School in Lichfield for four years. The school was located where the police station now is on Frog Lane and only a few yards from the bus station.
Every day, I would walk along Chester Road to the bus stop near the Manor House. There I would catch the Harper's bus, which would then go on via Main Street and Lynn Lane to Shenstone and pick up some more kids at the cenotaph. The bus would then go back along Lynn Lane and then turn right into Ashcroft Lane to Chesterfield and Wall. The return fare cost 4½d daily - about 2p in today's money. There were no free bus passes in those days.
While at Central School. I passed an aptitude test for its Commercial Group and I then learned typing and shorthand and other office skills in which I gained certification. Before we married, I was Ramsell Snr's bookkeeper.
I also had an interest in First Aid and I attended lessons at the St John's Ambulance Brigade where the police station now is in Brownhills. Unfortunately, I had to stop going to these evening classes in 1956. During the Suez Crisis, the government banned all evening buses due to fuel shortages and it was impossible for me to travel.
In 1959, my parents left to run a guest house in Blackpool and I went to live in Hammerwich with the Bott family, my other set of grandparents. From there, I travelled by train to Walsall every day to go to work.
Schoolteachers, Caretakers and Dinner Ladies
The dinner ladies were Violet Ogden and Betty Hinsley (Hopley). The dinners were never cooked at the school. They were brought in by van every day and prepared in the back room which doubled up as a kitchen and office.
The caretakers were Mr and Mrs Simkins who lived in Cartersfield Lane. The school attendance office was Mr Craddock who would arrive from Stafford in his car occasionally. Another person who would make occasional visits was the Nit Nurse.
Stonnall in the 1940s and 50s
The Village Institute was the centre of the village's social life, with regular whist drives, dances, youth club meetings, weddding receptions and church events.
The post office, with its telephone box, was as much a general store as anything else and so a person might be as likely to buy a few slices of bacon while picking up the family allowance or buying stamps. In the early days, this shop was run by the Adcocks who, it seems, may have descended from a local land-owning family that was prominent in the 19th century.
The church was the third focal point. Rev Freer was the vicar in our early years. He and his wife would be seen regularly cycling down Cartersfield Lane to the bus stop on Lichfield Road, where they would leave their bikes and catch the bus to Walsall. The Freers never owned a car.
Coronation Sports Day, 1953
After a couple of spells at Deep Cut Barracks, interspersed with jungle training, I was dispatched on the Empire Fowey on March 8, 1954 to Singapore. The journey took 21 days. On arrival, I was stationed near the Alexandra British Military Hospital. From there, I went to the driving school to become a lorry driver. After that I was stationed at Kranji for a while near the pineapple processing plant. It was there that I learned that pineapples grow in the ground and not on trees as I had always assumed!. My job was to drive military personnel and stores to the jungle with the Mobile Field Ordnance unit attached to the 1st 6th Gurkha Rifles.
I was eventually demobbed in 1955. The return journey was via the Suez Canal and Port Said, where we transferred to a ship that was bound for Liverpool.
One of the first things I did on arriving back in Stonnall was to go to the youth club at the Institute. Unknown to me at the time, this is when a certain Pamela Lee decided that she had plans for me.
Romance and Marriage
We paid Grandfather Lee the princely sum of £1 a week in rent. We eventually offered to buy it, but he would not part with it, possibly because of his emotional attachment to the house where several generations of Lees had grown up. We stayed there until 1966 when we bought the bungalow in Cartersfield Lane.
Life on the Farm
Similarly and a little before my time, when potatoes were due to be harvested, gangs of Irish people would turn up at the start of that particular season. These people were paid to dig them up with forks, to bag them ready for sale or to cart them away to create a potato clamp for storing the crop over several months.
All this and similar practices changed with the introduction of innovative agricultural machinery in the 1950s. For example, potato crops were dug up with a tractor that dragged a spinner and arrow through the soil. The spinner would fling the crop out of the ground and the arrow would expose any that remained hidden in the soil. Thus, all the manual workers had to do was pick up the potatoes and bag them. It was altogether easier, quicker and, once the initial investment had been made, a lot cheaper.
The methods of harvesting grain also changed during this period. Traditionally, a field of corn was cut down with scythes and the resulting sheaths were stood up to dry out in a conical shapes called shucks. The shucks were arranged in rows that were a cart-width apart, thus making it easier to gather them in later. These were then carted to a barn where the corn was threshed manually.
Techniques improved substantially when we started to use our first Massey Harris binding machine. All we had to do was scythe only the edges of a field when using this device. Things improved dramatically when we started to use a combine harvester for the first time. This separated the grain from the chaff and stem and baled the straw all in one operation.
All in all, providing that the farmer was prepared to work hard to keep on top of things to ensure as far as possible and weather permitting a good harvest, his returns were somewhat better in those days than they are at the present time. This is especially true as in those days there were no supermarkets attempting to control everything.
We engaged in all the traditional pursuits of a farming family. We would shoot partridges, rabbits and pheasants for the cooking pot. Hares were considered by some people to be a particular delicacy. These would be hung for a long time until they were on the verge of going off - or 'rare' as they put it. They would then be cooked in wine. This was referred to as jugged hare and there is, in fact, a recipe for this dish in Mrs Beaton's Cookbook. Any hares we shot would be given to Billy Swain at Hilton.
Whenever we found any abandoned partridge eggs, we would put them in with a broody hen where, with luck, they would hatch out. When ready, the partridge chicks would simply run off back to nature.
To keep the farm running smoothly, we rose early and the working day was long. Ramsell Snr was a tough and demanding taskmaster who would not tolerate any form of what he considered to be shirking. Well, when working in the vicinity of Chester Road, one of our favourite places for a crafty break was Sam Cohen's transport cafe. Dad got wise to this and would spy on us over the fields with binoculars. Whenever we were found out, we would be given a round ticking off.
Another way that some farmers and landlords were able to supplement their income was by doing land deals, especially for housing. In the late 1950s and 1960s, there was a substantial house-building boom in Stonnall and two of the families that benefited substantially from this were the Burtons and Browns, of whom more later.
We did not benefit directly from this boom, but my father was able to secure a transaction with a sand and gravel company concerning some land between Chester Road and Walsall Wood at Shire Oak. By this time, the ancient buildings at the farm were becoming decrepit and the proceeds from this sale enabled him to build in 1958 the new house in which we currently live. This project was one of the first jobs of the building company Edge and Haynes. We used to cart their materials around for them occasionally. They would go on to build several of the housing estates in Stonnall.
It seems that the Browns had been local landowners for hundreds of years, having received historical notices since the 1600s in the vicinity of Stonnall. They owned various properties in Thornes, including Ormside House, the original Pear Tree Cottage and Thornes Farm. They also owned the blacksmith's house and workshop on Main Street.
The workshop was demolished in about 1955 to make way for housing, or access to it, at least. Pear Tree Cottage was demolished in about 1958 to make way for the new house that was built by the Kendrick family.
In those days, a branch of the Kirkham family lived at Ormside House, the Halls lived at Pear Tree Cottage and Mr Firmstone, the blacksmith, was the tenant at the Smithy. Later, he would move to Walsall Wood and cycle to work every day. It was during one of these journeys that he was killed tragically on Chester Road after descending Castle Hill on his bike. After his departure from the Smithy, another branch of the Kirkham family took over the tenancy.
The first of the Browns with whom we had dealings for a short period was Bertha. Her estate then passed to John Brown and his sister Joyce who lived together at Thornhill Road and who, by all accounts, were inseparable. John Brown's character was somewhat complex. On the one hand, relations with some of his tenants could be uneasy for various reasons, mainly to do with alleged unreliability in his business affairs. This was the underlying reason why the Allerton family decided to leave Thornes Farm in about 1958 and why the farm ceased to function as such from that moment. On the other hand, he could engage in acts of quite astonishing generosity. For example, when St Peter's Close was built on one of the fields that had been part of the Thornes Farm estate, he donated one of the houses to the church as its new vicarage.
The Browns died within a few days of each other in 2000 with no children to inherit the estate - and so ended a dynasty of local landowners that had spanned several centuries. We went to the funeral at St Peter's Church. The Browns were interred in the family tomb which, in the gloom, appeared to have several coffins laid on racks within it.
Lynn Cricket Club
The origins of the farm are unknown, but with a name like Fighting Cocks and a location on a road that has been busy traditionally with carter traffic over many centuries, it does seem likely to us that the old house had once functioned as a tavern in addition to its farming activities. The story that highwayman Dick Turpin supposedly hid in the cellar here to avoid capture appears to support this view, although there is no direct evidence of this event, of course.
Although we never knew them, the Brawn family once occupied the farm at the canal wharf at Sandhills. It seems that their extended family once had interests with the steam mill at Mill Lane and with brick-making at the Bosses in Lower Stonnall.
Well, the story we heard was that a cargo of what was purported to be Scottish potatoes was unloaded one day from a barge. This type of potato, so we understand, was once sold at a premium compared to other similar crops. When one of the sacks was opened, it was alleged that the Brawn foreman's penknife was found in it. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
Another story we heard concerned the extended Brown family, which we have previously mentioned. It was said that a certain Mr Brown of a preceding generation had despaired for want of male issue: he had daughters but no sons to inherit his estate. As a result of his mental anguish, he took his own life with a firearm near the footpath at Well Meadow, now the village playing fields.
Out and About
The Stonnall Show was an annual event that was held at the Institute. There were various stalls and sideshows and there were competitions for best fruit and vegetables. For the children, there were competitions for the best collections of wild flowers and grasses and even for the most captured (and dead) cabbage white butterflies in a jar.
A silage pit was located at the top of Church Hill, near the road in the Grove Hill field. It was about 10 feet deep and there were no safety rails or anything like that. Inevitably it was a magnet for some children and one day a boy fell into it on his bicycle and broke his arm.
At the entrance to the footpath just below the silage pit, there was a gate and stile. The gate is still there, covered in overgrowth, but the stile has disappeared.
At the entrance to the footpath in Church Lane opposite the pound, there was another stile, now also lost. There were several steps up to it made out of rocks and the stile itself was a piece of pole about a yard wide and about 10 inches thick. It was polished like glass from years and years of people clambering over it.
The field at the corner of Wall Heath Lane and Mill Lane once had a cow shelter in it, consisting of a simple frame with a corrugated iron roof. This field also had a spring in it and probably fed the brook that once ran alongside the crooked hedge at one side of the field. This brook once ran down as far as the site of the old steam mill.
In the field now occupied by Thornes Croft, there was another brook that ran alongside a hedge as far as Church Lane, where it dropped into a culvert just opposite the school. This field (which we understand, along with several other adjacent fields, used to be called Wallong) was always waterlogged, even to the point where a large pool would form during wet weather. Sometimes this would freeze over in winter and people would skate on it. We drained the field in 1954 by clearing out the brook's channel, making it less likely to overflow before arriving at the culvert. The culvert conducted the brook all the way to the Wall Heath fields where it still flows even in the present day, especially when there is heavy rainfall.
In a field near Chester Road and the Fishpond, I found a name-stone while out working one day. It was very similar to the one on the barn at Ivy House Farm, which records John Smith 1747.
German POWs: nearby, there used to be an old tumbledown cottage that was part of the Fighting Cocks estate. In the early 1940s, some German POWs, who were working in the fields, demolished it to get firewood for cooking.
The transport cafe on Chester Road, now an Indian restaurant, had a dormitory just outside the main building in which lorry drivers would spend the night. The dormitory was very similar to the Institute and the Wooden House.
Harry Hastilow was a businessman who, most notably, ran a chicken farm and petrol station at the eastern end of Main Street adjacent to the school. He is said to have had a three-legged fowl running around in his yard. He had also been a haulier and milkman and had run a taxi service using a Peugeot and a Ford V8 Pilot. He lived in Leigh Cottage on the corner of Main Street and Wall Heath Lane but, shortly after his first wife died, he built a new bungalow in the grounds and moved into it. Leigh Cottage was then occupied by his son John and his family.
Mr Rigby lived in Cartersfield Lane. Whilst I was at Stonnall School in the 1940s, he passed the entrance dragging a tree branch. He stopped to talk and when we asked him how old he was he replied: "Three score years and ten". It was said that he smoked tea leaves in his pipe.
Gordon Mycock was a Stonnall-based mechanic. We had an old lorry and its tappets were rattling badly, so we asked Gordon to come around and fix them, which he duly did. We asked him how he had done it. He replied: "Sorry, I can't tell you that. It's a trade secret".
Bert Busby was one of the most able and talented men in Stonnall. He could bricklay, tile, plaster, carve, paint, you name it. In addition to his builder's skills, he could paint pictures and murals. When cutting wood, the saw was driven by the rear wheel of a motorcycle with the tyre and inner tube removed. He lived in a cottage on Wall Heath Lane (now lost) and used a motorcycle and sidecar as transport. Bert built the canopy over the pump at Harry Hastilow's filling station.
Jack 'Nobby' Hall was a mate of Bert Busby and a building trade worker, specialising in painting and decorating. He lived with his family in Church Road at Pear Tree Cottage (also known as Rose Cottage). This dwelling was located next to Thornes Farm, both of these properties being part of the Brown estate at that time. The cottage was demolished in about 1958 to make way for the new house that was built by the Kendrick family. The Halls went to live in the new council houses that had recently been completed on Main Street.
Vic Nicholls: his business was newspapers. He cycled daily around the local villages. He was a first-class artist, having had several of his paintings exhibited in notable settings.
Geoff Williams occupied the farm near Fighting Cocks Farm in Cartersfield Lane. His parents had occupied Shepherd's Farm in the very early 20th century. His party piece was to tie a handkerchief to the handle of a 56lb weight and then lift it up with his teeth.
Sam Yates was the previous owner of Fighting Cocks Farm, as previously mentioned. It was rumoured that he was in the habit of going shopping to Shenstone on his bicycle with a biscuit tin full of gold sovereigns strapped to the back of the bike. After he left the farm, he became a recluse living in a cottage in Raikes Lane.
Dr Jim Hofton lived at the Manor House. He and his wife were very sociable and there were always lots of parties and barbeques. He was an accomplished cricketer and played for Lynn Cricket Club. His wife often kept the scorebook for the team.
Harry Mason was the licensee at the Red White and Blue public house on Walsall/Lichfield Road. One day, Brian Adie and I were damming the brook behind the pub. We happened to turn around just as he was about to push us into the water.
Garnet Burton. The Burtons originated from Daw End, Rushall where they were farmers. Over a period of time Garnet established himself as a village patron and benefactor. For example, when the roof of the old school became decrepit, he donated £50 towards its restoration. Not to be outdone, Ramsell Snr donated the same amount and the school was re-roofed accordingly.
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