The Royal Oak Photo
In the early 20th century, a photo was taken outside the Royal Oak public house in Upper Stonnall, in which a number of adults and children are depicted (see below).
A copy of it was handed down through the Broadhurst family and then the Blakemore family until it ended up in the hands of Pauline Blakemore. Two names are written on the back of the photo: George Broadhurst and Harriet Broadhurst.
The photo has been purported to record a celebration of the conclusion of the First World War in November 1918. However, we can now prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the month could not have been November and that the year could not have been 1918.
Thus, in this paper, we will attempt to:-
- determine the month and the year in which the photo was taken
- determine the exact date on which the photo was taken
- identify as many of the people as possible
- determine the special occasion, if any, for which the photo was taken
The photo shows a total of 34 individuals, including 16 adult males, 3 adult females, 7 young girls, 6 young boys, 1 teenage girl and 1 infant.
These individuals are divided into two groups: on the left, there are 3 boys who seem to have been onlookers and who do not appear to have been intended as part of the subject matter, but who were included in the shot nevertheless. We will return to these boys later.
Everybody else appears to have posed formally and deliberately together. Clearly, the photo-shoot was pre-arranged and everyone in the main group prepared for it, as they all appear to be dressed in their Sunday best.
These people are further divided into sets of one or more individuals, such as the three girls and one boy dressed mainly in white at the front-right and, next to them, the two girls dressed in grey dresses and white hats. We will go through each set one by one.
The photo was quite clearly and recognisably taken outside the Royal Oak in Main Street, Upper Stonnall, the scene having changed but little in the hundred years or so since it was captured in this shot.
The photo is of excellent quality and extremely well-focused at quite high resolution, such that blow-ups of details produce little in the way of blurring or pixellation. This is quite remarkable, considering that the size of the photo is only about 6" x 4".
Depth of field is also excellent, with objects in the background shown very clearly, including the Lower Farm barn and, in the distance, the blacksmith's workshop (demolished about 1954).
This shows that the camera, the film stock, the back-room processing and the printing process that were deployed were absolutely first-rate in every way.
These factors indicate that the work was done by a professional outfit, which was almost certainly a news organisation. This might give us a clue as to what was really going on, pointing to our next item of interest.
The main subject matter
The centrepiece of the photo is the Royal Oak with a newspaper vendor holding up a paper so as to be shown very close to the front door of the pub. This explains the incidental inclusion of the 3 non-participating boys to the left: to arrange for the pub, the vendor and the paper to be centre-shot, with the sun more-or-less behind the camera, the cameraman was obliged to choose an oblique angle which included the boys in the field of view. We will have more to say about these boys later.
The legend on the vendor's bag is LLOYD NEWS or LLOYDS NEWS and we know that this company was a firm of newsagents operating in the early 20th century.
Clearly, the photo was intended to publicise in some way the Royal Oak, the newspaper and Lloyds News, but this raises several questions. If the event was intended as a publicity shot for the pub, why was the newspaper included? Did the newspaper contain something that was relevant to the pub? Did the newspaper contain something that was relevant to Stonnall and indeed to everyone? Why was the Royal Oak in Stonnall selected as a location for the photo-shoot?
We will try to pin down the event and its surrounding circumstances at the conclusion of this paper.
The title of the newspaper, its headlines and its front page graphic are visible in the photo but, unfortunately, they cannot be read, the resolution not being quite up to it. All we can say with certainty about it is that it was a broadsheet, but almost all newspapers were of that size in those days.
It might have been a local newspaper such as the Lichfield Mercury or the Walsall Observer, but it could just as easily have been a regional or a national newspaper.
We can be fairly certain that a copy of this particular edition exists in an archive. If so, finding it would go a long way to confirming the conclusions set out below and solving this mystery once and for all.
The Royal Oak's history in brief
The Royal Oak began commercial life as a public house and grocery shop at an unknown date, possibly over 200 years ago. It is known that the house was owned by Lichfield Breweries for a very long period of time.
Thus, listed in the 1911 census as publican and grocer, Thomas Jones was the tenant and licensee of the business for a period leading up to 1913. He married Anne in about 1862 and they had four boys and two girls. Their daughter, Susannah, married William Hopley, a brick maker, of Walsall Wood and, when his in-laws ceased operating the business in 1913, he took over the licence.
The year and the month of the photo
The plate above the front door of the pub is legible in the photo and reads line for line:-
LICENSED RETAILER OF
ALE PORTER & WINES
TO BE CONSUMED ON THE PREMISES
DEALER IN TOBACCO
This informs us that William Hopley was already installed as the licensee by the time the photo was taken and thus the year could not have been any earlier than 1913.
All the figures are fairly lightly dressed and a tree in the background is in leaf. These factors would rule out the month of November and indicate a summer month.
As the men are not at work and the children are not at school, we would suggest that the photo was taken on a Saturday or a Sunday or possibly a bank holiday.
We will try to pin down the exact date of the event at the conclusion of this paper.
We will now identify as many of the figures as possible and expand briefly on the history of the identified families. Many of the identifiable people are still within living memory. However, for obvious reasons, none of the children in the photo were known as children by any person living in the present day.
This creates a few difficulties that we will try to unentangle as we go along, using as guidance information about the extended Hopley family, information about the Royal Oak's neighbours and information about dates of birth, much of which we can glean from the 1911 census.
Starting from the left of the main group of people:-
Elizabeth 'Bessie' White
Beyond any doubt, Bessie White (b 1901) is the girl dressed, appropriately enough, in white by the window of the pub.
She was Gordon Mycock's aunt and she was known in her middle and old age to various other Old Stonnall people such as Pauline Blakemore. Also, we have several other photos of her from different times of her life.
Bessie appears to be about 12 or 13 years of age in the photo and this would seem to place the year as 1913 or 1914. The Whites were near neighbours to the pub.
Bessie would go on to marry Bert Wright and they lived in the so-called Mural House (demolished in the 1960s) in Main Street.
John William White
We believe that the man standing to Bessie's left is her father, John William White. This is based on some other photographic evidence from Mr White's later life. We believe this identification exceeds the beyond reasonable doubt threshold.
The White family lived at 95 Main Street, a few doors away from the Oak, a residency that continued into the 1950s.
George Broadhurst and Harriet Broadhurst
Broadhurst family tradition informs us that George Broadhurst is the young man sitting on the pavement clutching the little girl who was, in fact, his sister Harriet Broadhurst (b 1911).
Harriet appears to be about 2 or 3 years old in the photo, likely placing the year as 1913 or 1914. The Broadhursts were next-door neighbours to the pub and their house is shown in the main photo above.
George had two brothers: Jim Broadhurst joined the Royal Field Artillery in April 1916 and was killed in action on March 21, 1918, at St Quentin. He is commemorated on the war memorial in St Peter's Church; also, William Broadhurst.
The Stonnall branch of the Broadhurst family seems to have originated in Mill Green, Chester Road, in the early 19th century. By the middle of that century, several family members had moved to the previously-mentioned house in Stonnall, probably as a result of the availabilty of work at Lower Farm, a very short distance away (its main barn is visible in the main photo). Another branch ended up in the Aldridge and Walsall Wood areas.
A member of the Stonnall branch, William 'Billy' Broadhurst (b 1837), was the great-uncle of the Broadhurst siblings, George, Jim, William and Harriet. He became a notorious drunkard, poacher and repeat offender in a career that spanned the mid to late 19th century. His story is told in this article.
Alfred 'Alf' Hopley
Based on other photographic evidence that has recently come into our possession, we are certain that Alf Hopley (b 1896) is the young man in the cloth cap standing to the left the newspaper.
He worked in the pub for a time and also helped to run a haulage business, no doubt in association with his uncles, the Jones brothers (see below). He is noted as having been a sidesman at the church in the 1930s.
Alf is standing near to his brother...
William Henry Hopley Jnr
We are certain that, based on other photographic evidence at our disposal, William Henry Hopley Jnr (b 1892) is the young man standing immediately behind the newspaper.
William joined the Royal Navy in June 1917 and was based at Cromarty, Scotland. He served as an able seaman on board HMS Theresa Boyle which was, in fact, a requisitioned trawler engaged in mine-sweeping operations in the Murray Firth. Later in life, he returned to Stonnall living in the council house next to the school. This proved to be very convenient because he worked as the school caretaker for a period until his retirement.
William is standing near to his father...
William 'Bill' Hopley
We are 100% certain that Bill Hopley (b 1869) is the figure with the moustache standing next to the newspaper vendor and in front of one of the pub's windows.
It is clear that he is, as it were, highlighted in this photo.
The two girls with white hats
Based on their apparent ages, we are certain that these two girls are sisters Agnes 'Aggie' Hopley (b 1902) and Esther 'Tet' Hopley (b 1901), but we are not sure which is which.
Tet married William Broadhurst (George Broadhurst's brother) and Agnes married Joe Ensor. The Ensors went on to occupy one of the 1938 council houses in Cartersfield Lane, where Aggie lived into old age.
We have no doubt that Susannah Hopley (née Jones, b 1872), Bill Hopley's wife, is the woman in the white top standing between two other ladies. Once again, fortunately we have another photo for the purpose of comparison.
Susannah played a full part in the running of the pub and, using a horse and cart, would often travel to a brewery in Lichfield to collect barrels of beer. On one such occasion the horse became unhitched suddenly, the cart fell forward and she was thrown to the ground, hitting her head in the process. By all accounts, she was badly concussed and, unfortunately, never fully recovered from her injuries.
Based on age, small stature, resemblance and his identification by several Old Stonnall people, including Jim Mycock (Bessie White's nephew) and George Clarke, we are now very certain that this is John Furmston, the village blacksmith, who lived nearby, who might have been a regular customer of the pub and whose workshop can be seen in the distant background. He is noted as having been a sidesman at the church in the 1930s.
As at least three of the Jones brothers were carters, their horses would have needed to be re-shod periodically. It is inconceivable that they were not among Mr Furmston's regular clients.
John Furmston took an interest in community affairs and he he is noted in various newspaper reports as a member of Shenstone Parish Council in the 1920s and 30s.
The Furmston family appears to have been somewhat ill-fated. Mr Furmston was hospitalised when a vehicle collided with him while he was out cycling near Cannock Chase on Friday 20th July, 1934. Eventually, a similar incident on 17th January, 1956 killed him while he was crossing Chester Road from Castle Hill Road. The family had to suffer the tragedy of the passing of Mrs Furmston on Christmas Day in 1928.
The four children in white and the boy standing behind them
The key to this set of figures is the girl standing second from the left. We are certain that she is Florence 'Flossie' Hopley. This is because Flossie's face was unfortunately disfigured when her petticoat became enflamed while she was warming herself in front of a coal fire. The girl in this photo appears to have facial damage and so we are confident that she is Flossie.
If this is correct, then the boy to her left is her brother George Hopley (b 1908) and the girl to her right is her sister Minnie Hopley (b 1899). We believe that the girl on the right-hand side is another sister, Hilda Hopley (b 1910).
George would go on to get involved in road haulage, no doubt under the influence of his uncles, the Jones brothers. He is remembered for operating a Sentinel steam lorry from the Royal Oak.
Hilda would go on to become a long-serving barmaid in the Royal Oak, working alongside her sister, Emily 'Pem' Hopley (b 1897), who became the licensee following on from Bill Hopley after he retired. Pem is absent from this photo, unfortunately.
We have now identified the boy standing at the rear of this group. He looks like he was about 9 or 10 at the time. Some other photographic evidence that we have and the 1911 census suggest that he is John White (b 1904). He was Bessie White's brother and Gordon Mycock's uncle. His apparent age strongly indicates that the year of the photo was 1913 or 1914.
In summary so far
We can now establish the thematic basis of the photograph: everyone so far identified is either a member of the Hopley family or a near-neighbour to the Royal Oak. This enables us to make the following educated guesses as to the identities of some of the remaining people, particularly with reference to the 1901 and 1911 censuses.
The four men standing behind Susannah Hopley
Susannah had four brothers. They were Edwin Jones, William Jones (b 1880), Samuel Jones (b 1883) and Thomas Jones (b 1886), all of whom having been resident at the Royal Oak, at least for a period during their parents' tenure of the pub and probably on into that of the Hopleys.
Were they, as seems likely, standing behind their sister, Susannah? If so, we have only one, rather poor, photographic image with which to make a comparison: that of Edwin Jones. Was he the person with the moustache standing behind Susannah to the right?
Other than that, as far as the remaining Jones brothers are concerned, it is impossible to put names to faces, unfortunately.
The Royal Oak-based Jones brothers were listed as carters in the 1911 census, thus starting a tradition of a haulage business at the Royal Oak that would last at least another 50 years after this photo was taken.
The boy shading his eyes
Among the boys to the left, we see this lad shading his eyes. Based on resemblance (look at the nose, the chubby face and particularly the mouth) we can say no more than he is quite likely a younger version of the young man on the right, below, in military uniform.
This soldier was George Langley, who was living in Main Street when the photo was taken. He joined the 7th Middlesex Regiment in March 1918 and was killed in action the following August, tragically only 23 days after arriving in France and very near to the end of the war. George is commemorated on the memorial in St Peter's Church.
Inset, left: Bill Langley; right: Fred Nutting.
From a 1930s Lynn Cricket Club photo.
Based on this deduction and some other photographic evidence, we believe that there is a very strong possibility that the boy standing next to George is his younger brother William 'Bill' Langley and the boy on the right is Fred Nutting.
Bill was too young for the duration of the war to serve in it and he would go on to have his own family, living in one of the 1938 council houses in Cartersfield Lane.
Fred was called up to the Army Service Corps in 1916 with the rank of Driver. Later he was transferred to the newly-formed Royal Air Force in 1918. The Nutting family lived only a few doors away from he Oak.
Fred and Bill were lifelong friends and both played for Lynn Cricket Club in the 1930s.
The event - what it was not
As we have seen, this event did not occur in 1918. That was impossible.
The event was not a celebration of any kind. We can see that from the demeanour of the crowd.
What was really going on - the clues
There are four big clues that point to what was really going on:-
The mood of the crowd
The mood is sombre and there is not a smile to be seen. This was certainly something to do with...
The presence of the newspaper
The newspaper was carrying a news story that was very, very serious in character.
We have seen, based on circumstantial evidence, that the year of the photo was almost certainly 1914.
The time of year
When we look at the shadows of the people, we can see that they were quite short, indicating that this event took place at around the middle of the year. The summer solstice occurs at around June 21/22.
Thus, we can say that the event took place at a point within a period about 6 weeks either side of the longest day of the year, in other words, probably on a day between May 4 and August 17.
The only major event that would induce the kind of mood we see in the photo took place on August 4, 1914 - and that was Britain's declaration of war - in effect, the beginning of the First World War, which is undoubtedly what the headline of the newspaper was marking in some way.
That is what this photo is all about.
We could now attempt to determine the exact date of the event.
If the edition of the newspaper followed on in the first week after the declaration of war, the next weekend consisted of Saturday, August 8 and Sunday, August 9, 1914. This is within our projected time slot of a date between May 4 and August 17.
Everyone appears to be dressed in their Sunday best and, while they could have made the necessary effort on a Saturday, we would tend to believe that the people who organised this photo session would have opted for a Sunday as the safest option, as it were.
It is believed, therefore, that this photo was taken on Sunday, August 9, 1914. This date is tentative and could be out by a week or so.
I am deeply grateful to Pauline Blakemore (a Hopley descendant) for the brainstorming sessions needed to help identify these people. I am further indebted to Pauline for additional biographical information regarding the Hopleys and Furmstons.
Since this article was published four years ago, the online newspaper archives have been trawled in an attempt to discover a newspaper front page that resembles what we can see in the main photo above. Local newspapers, such as the Walsall Observer and the Lichfield Mercury were quickly eliminated from the enquiry because they did not feature photographs on their front pages at that time.
However, a search of the Birmingham regional newspapers did yield a result. It is shown below.
Comparing a relatively high resolution image of a newspaper front page with a blurred image that is, after all, the merest detail of a photograph is going to be almost impossible in any circumstances. The best that could be said is that there does at least appear to be a superficial resemblance. Moreover, the graphic above shows the only regional newspaper edition produced between July and September 1914 that displays a single, large photo in a central, upper position on its front page.
If this comparison were to stand up, we might not be surprised to discover that this edition of the Birmingham Gazette is dated 15 August, 1914, which was printed just 6 days after our projected date of the photo session. In other words, our original estimate of the date of the event, which is Sunday, 9 August, could be out by a week, with Sunday, 16 August now a strong - and perfectly legitimate - possibility.
© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons 2014
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