I think most of us are well acquainted with the story of the Tipton Slasher, William Perry, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of Great Britain in the 1850s, and commemorated by a statue in Tipton’s Coronation Gardens. So I’m not going to tell it again. Instead, how about the story of another local man who fought (not as successfully as William Perry though) for the Heavyweight title, who seems much less well known. Surprisingly, much of this story can be put together from the correspondence and order books of Matthew Boulton’s and James Watt’s Soho manufactury, birthplace of mass production and the efficient steam engine.
The Boulton and Watt archives at Birmingham library give a wonderful insight into the professional and personal lives of Boulton, Watt and many of their workers, including how they managed their business and their relationships with their customers. I was particularly taken by a few references to Isaac Perrins – in fact to two Isaac Perrins, father and son, who both worked for Boulton and Watt in the late 1700s.
Isaac Perrins senior was not, I think, a local man, but his son was born in Smethwick. The father, a skilled steam engine erector, died in 1781 and his son was working for Boulton and Watt by the next year. By 1787 Isaac junior was travelling the country, installing, maintaining and repairing steam engines as far afield as Manchester, Cornwall and Glasgow. In 1793 Isaac bought a pub in Manchester, but continued to work around the North West for Boulton and Watt.
Those of you who know the William Perry story might recall that when he retired from boxing, his fans took up a collection and bought him a pub (not as a lot of people think, the Fountain in Tipton, but the Bricklayer’s Arms in Wolverhampton). This was often the case for retired boxers, and indeed was the case for Isaac Perrins as well, who as well as repairing steam engines, had failed in his attempt to win the British Heavyweight Boxing Crown (or more properly belt!) in 1789.
Isaac is one of the few employees of Boulton and Watt of whom we have a portrait. There is a famous print of the start of his title bout against the reigning champion, Tom Johnson, in 1798, and Boullton and Watt issued a pair of commemorative medals, commemorating the fight, with portraits of the two boxers on them.
Isaac Perrins first came to the boxing fans’ attention in October 1782, when he knocked Jemmy Sergeant down 12 times in 6 minutes. Sergeant didn’t get up to be knocked down a 13th! In fact Perrins was so skilful and so strong (winning most of his boughts inside 5 minutes when the typical fight could last an hour or more) that he increasingly struggled to find local opponents.
His championship fight took place against Londoner Tom Johnson on 22nd October 1789 at Banbury. Johnson , 5″ shorter than Perrins and nearly a stone lighter, adopted novel tactics and danced around the arena trying to avoid being hit and hoping to tire Perrins out. Not one blow was struck for the first 5 minutes of the contest, with Perrins swinging widely in increasing desperation, and Johnson adroitly dodging out of the way.
One hour and 15 minutes later, with his nose broken and with a face that “had scarcely the traces left of a human being” Perrins retired and Johnson retained the championship.
Perrins continued to fight for another 3 years, but retired in 1792, his supporters helping him buy a city-centre public house. Perrins had set up his own engineering company in the city and was frequently contracted by Matthew Boulton to repair Boulton and Watt engines in the North West, as well as to check to ensure that no engines manufactured by other companies were infringing on Boulton and Watt’s patents. The correspondence books make it clear that Perrins was known to write to Matthew Boulton with information on novel innovations he saw on other manufacturer’s engines!
In 1799 Isaac Perrins was appointed conductor of firemen and inspector of engines by the Manchester Improvement Commissioners, who were able by virtue of the 1785 Act for Cleansing and Lighting the Streets, Lanes and Passages, within the Towns of Manchester and Salford, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, and for Providing Fire Engines and Fire Men to set up one of the first municipal fire brigades. Perrins renamed his pub ‘The Fire Engine’ shortly after this appointment. It seems likely that much of the pumping and valve gear on the Manchester engines was designed and manufactured by Perrins. I have looked to see if Boulton and Watt had any involvement but I’ve yet to come across any reference to them building fire engines!
Isaac Perrins died on January 6th, 1801, having been seriously injured whilst fighting a major fire in Manchester on December 10th the previous year.
The recent appearance in the mainstream media of a story about David Lean’s 1957 movie, the bridge on the River Kwai, should have reminded us that Saturday is VJ, or Victory over Japan, day (August 15, 1945, in Japan, and because of time zone differences, August 14, 1945 in Britain). This year we will be commemorating 75 years since the Japanese imperial Armies surrendered to the allied armies, over three months after the German surrender in Europe. They won’t commemorate it in the US though until 9th September, the day the Japanese actually signed the surrender documents!
David Lean’s film told the (highly fictionalised) story of British prisoners of war who were forced to work on the railway the Japenese were building from Singapore to Rangoon, through some of the thickest jungles and steepest ravines in the world, in order to provide support for their proposed attack on India in 1943. The film was based on a book by French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Planet of the Apes, a book which has been filmed numerous times. Boulle had first-hand experience of the war in the Malayan jungle, having been recruited by British special forces (the SOE) in 1941.
I’ve managed to track down some men from Sandwell’s towns who fought in the Far East, and I thought I’d remember three of them in particular today who were forced to work on the railway, and who never made it home. I know there were many more Sandwell men who fought, and died, in the Malayan and Burmese (now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) jungle.
The British base at Singapore had fallen to the Imperial Japanese army after a two month campaign in the Malayan Jungle and a 7-day seige, on February 15th 1942. 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers surrendered, to add to the 40,000 who had been captured during the fighting in the jungles north of Singapore. All were initially imprisoned in make-do camps (often initially no more than barbed wire cages) at Changi on Singapore Island, which is today the location of Singapore’s massive international airport. Visitors to Singapore passing through the airport however will struggle to find any reference there to the Prisoner of War camp.
The camps at Changi were notorious for poor food, lack of medicine, appalling sanitation and the brutal behaviour of the Japanese guards. Disease was everywhere, with outbreaks of Cholera, diphtheria, beriberi and dysentery ever present. From July 1942 the Japanese began to move groups out of the camps, to work on the railway project and support infrastructure (ports, roads, airfields) all over Japanese held territory. But most men from Changi went, initially at least, to work on the railway in the Burmese and Malayan jungle, cutting and moving lumber, cutting tunnels, digging cuttings, building embankments – and of course building bridges.
In April 1943, a group of 7,000 Australian and British POWs, all rated as too ill to be part of working parties, were moved from Changi camp. They made up what the Japanese called ‘Force F’ and were told they were being moved to an area with better food supplies. After a 600 mile rail journey and a 200 mile march through the jungle, they arrived at Sonkrai, a transit camp from where work parties of the fittest men were sent to where they were needed.
Gerry Tipton from Cradley Heath
This was as far as Private Gerry Tipton, an army reservist who had lived in Cradley Heath before the war with his wife Dinah, got. Jerry had transferred to the 4th Batallion Suffolk Regiment early in the war, and arrived in Singapore on 29th January 1942, during a Japanese air raid, following a rather circuitous journey from England via Nova Scotia, Trinidad, Cape Town and Bombay. His unit was marched off the transport ship and straight into the jungle, where they fought hand to hand against the Japanese until the surrender two weeks later. Jerry died on June 17th 1942 and was one of hundreds of men from Force F buried at Sonkrai. He was 24 years old.
William Arthur Truman from Cradley Heath
Sapper William Arthur Truman, also from Cradley Heath, had enlisted in the Royal Engineers at the start of the war and arrived in Singapore on January 13th 1941. His unit was engaged alongside the 4th Suffolks, and suffered huge casualties with about a quarter of its 120 men killed before the surrender. Sapper Truman was part of Force F as well, but survived the march into Malaysia, and was one of a working party sent to lay tracks through the ‘Pass of the Pagodas’ on the Burma/ Malaya border. He died here on 9th October 1943, and was buried in the camp at Kami Sonkrai. He was 23 years old.
Leslie Hancox from Smethwick
Leslie Hancox was born and brought up in Smethwick, where he lived with his parents at 117 Raglan Rd. Leslie had volunteered early in the war and was assigned to the 148th field Regiment Royal Artillery. (The Bedfordshire Yeomanry). Gunner Hancox set sail with his regiment from Liverpool in October 1941. Originally destined for North Africa, the Japanese bombed Pearl harbour in December 1941 and the convoy he was on diverted to Singapore. Much of the voyage was then spent changing the camouflage paint on the regiment’s vehicles from dessert khaki to jungle green. Landing in Singapore in January 1942 on the same day that the last FAF units were evacuated to Java, Leslie was part of Force H and died at Sonkrai on August 23rd 1943. he was 25 years old.
After the war, in December 1945, British ‘concentration’ parties scoured the jungle and removed many of the dead to a new cemetery, at Thanbyuzayat. Gerry, Arthur and Leslie were all buried here with full military honours, and their families notified of their fate and their last resting place. Thanbyuzayat is in the remote southern mountains of Myanmar, and I gather very difficult to get to today. But I think we can remember these three, and the thousands of others who never made it home, on Friday. And perhaps once or twice throughout the coming year. I think they’ve earned that.
More information from the Imperial War Museum about life for Prisoners of War in the East – copy and past the link
Going back to March 2020 we were just getting ready to open our doors for the spring season. We had deep cleaned, painted, re-displayed, organised and planned our coming year, when everyone’s world was turned upside down and lockdown began.
Check out our online Easter bonnet parade – click the link below!
Before I say more about how we met this challenging time head on, I’m going to step back a little bit which helps to explain why this close down has affected us and our users so much…
We have small teams, who are permanent staff on site. Roughly our 4 main sites have a full time supervisor and 2 part-time members of staff. These staff are responsible for the day to day management of the site from looking after the buildings, organising and running events and activities, cleaning the sites and ensuring they are maintained, dealing with trades people (who come to check emergency lighting and service lifts and check the water systems or to fix stuff), administration like paying the bills, monitoring budgets and visitor figures, ordering goods and services etc, putting together craft activities, writing scripts or scenarios, putting together exhibitions and displays and anything else you can possibly think of. ..
When we are open it is the same people who are selling you your ice-cream, showing you how to do the craft activity, telling you about the history of the house or objects, running activities and events, possibly serving you a cuppa and dressed as a vampire or elf at seasonal events! There are also several staff who work across the service, such as our collections officer, technician (who builds our exhibitions and undertakes maintenance works) arts and projects officer and museums manager, who will also be found doing their share of the above as well as their own specialisms.
You may not be aware but at other times when our doors aren’t open to the public we have a wide variety of community groups using our buildings: Knitters, painters, gardeners, crafters, English language learners, mindfulness seekers, early years partners, schools and other creative learning sessions, projects and tour groups. So we are very busy providing a HUGE range of community activities and events across a wide variety of users – what we do is about engagement, communication, contact, doing stuff, experiencing stuff, having a go, getting involved, getting creative, activities and getting people together. So therefore Covid 19 put a wrecking ball through what we offer to the community and our 2020 plans!
Back to the point
So by the end of March our sites were closed, our events, activities, school groups, community groups, weddings, school holiday fun etc were on hold and our staff working from home, apart from regular checks to our buildings to ensure that the historic buildings weren’t suffering and our collections were safe and pests were monitored who might want to eat our collection. This was a massive change of direction but we took a deep breath and looked at how we could use this time well and learn how to engage with our users and potential users in new ways and work on ways of improving our visitor experience for when we are able to open once more, now that we had the time to do this and plan for, and undertake new projects. We have looked at improved access for visitors with invisible disabilities like autism and how we can develop our our activities for them and make our buildings more welcoming to these visitors. We have also been working on engaging in new ways with families with very young children, how we can make our sites more welcoming for families with tiny tots and what new adventures and experience we can provide for little children and what partners we could work with in the future to build on what we already do. So we have a variety of projects and activities we are working on to develop in the future.
Talking of projects the annual Sandwell Arts Trail has gone digital this year. In previous years local amateur artists, schools and community groups have submitted their work and there have been exhibition to visit and then vote for your favourite. This year we’ve gone digital and an online exhibition will be available shortly.
Our arts officer has also been able to launch a new project (although it has been delayed due to Covid 19), called ‘what’s in the case’ aiming to collect the stories and memories of the Windrush generation, their experiences and what they brought with them to start their new lives. A bit more info below – so if you or your family made your home in Sandwell at this time then let us know you story!
…look out for other projects too.
What else have we been up to.
Sandwell Museums and Arts has had an active online and social media presence for some years. However normally our social media’s main role is to promote our up and coming activities, whereas now social media has been hosting our activities! We have used facebook for many years as well as twitter and now instagram to share photos, information and promote activities. But in recent months we’ve been using them to share videos, talks, information, blogs, activities to get involved with and learning ideas for home schoolers, craft activities and more. As we can’t provide events and activities in our buildings we’ve been finding new ways of bringing these activities into your home! We had a successful May half term, a very successful V E Day commemorations event with other cultural parts of Sandwell MBC through Discover Sandwell and brilliant knitting in Private event as well as countless other activities. We hope you’ve been enjoying some of the online events and activities and you’ve got involved and had a go. Please keep sharing your pics with us! We are currently in the middle of our school summer holiday activities
We have set up a new facebook group for our 3 community painting groups to keep in touch with them, share arty projects everyone has been doing during lockdown (including some fantastic shed art) and the art group leader/ visitor services assistant has been setting some tasks and ideas for projects or sharing videos or online exhibitions members might be interested in. This has worked really well as the group have been very much missing the social and community side as well as the actual painting. The groups members are really looking forward to returning to Wednesbury Museum when it is appropriate to do so.
On a similar note, many of our volunteers, Friends groups and community groups involve members of a certain age, some who live alone and we realise this has been a difficult time for people not being able to see family and friends so we have been doing our best to keep in touch with them, give them a call, see if we can help, keep them up to date and just have a chat. Coming along to some of our groups is a real boost for many of our group members and they are missing it greatly as we’ve all been missing our hobbies and social interaction.
One thing that has been quite a steep learning curve for us is creating videos. We have created a number of different types of films and audio recording, from our gardens, kitchen tables and occasionally from our sites when we have been on site undertaking check and maintenance anyway. We’ve done character videos, craft activities, activities to join in vids, story telling and more. Many of us hadn’t edited videos before or uploaded them and we hope this is a new skill we will continue to develop even when we are open again. These are a great way of showcasing our activities, buildings and telling our stories moving forward.
Researching our families
Working from home has allowed some of us to get to grips with some really interesting research around the families who lived in our historic houses in the past or important or interesting Sandwell stories from the past for other projects. We have been particularly fascinated by the Turton family who lived at Oak House in the 1600s. A story of a family network is emerging and we are getting a much clearer view of how the family worked, lived and gained their wealth in the local area and beyond. We are also getting a clearer and fascinating story emerging of the family activities during the English Civil War of the 1640s. We have been able to make progress on picking apart the family tree; it becomes rather complicated as most Turtons were called William or John, but this has thrown up a whole new perceptive on the Turtons, the local area and we have some fascinating stuff to tell you- but that is a different story! However this has made the job of re-writing the information on display at Oak House much more difficult as there is something new to consider all the time!
We have been revisiting and re-writing the information boards and family trails at all three of our main historic house sites and a talented arty member of staff has been doing the design and artwork for these. So we should have some exciting new information boards soon and a clean fresh look too! We had re-displayed the paintings from our collection after an absence of a year and put up a fantastic display from Tameside Primary Academy at Wednesbury Museum, in the early part of the year, before lockdown, which visitors won’t have seen yet either. we had installed a fantastic new temporary exhibition around the history of the circus and fairground which we are hoping to extend into next year and run the planned projects around it then.
A new approach
It is clear that even when we do open once again it will be a while before we can offer our full range of activities and develop some of the new activities we are planning. It will be a while before we can offer our usual larger family and community event and activities due to the need for social distancing. So we have been looking at ways in which we can enhance the visitor experience to our sites in new and innovative ways with apps, smells and soundscapes – watch out for the smell of tallow candles! We have been exploring new technologies and ways we can provide our stories and activities and trails in innovative and interesting ways.
Plans for the future.
Of course we are also planning for the future. Because our core business isn’t to sit with the doors open and wait for people to come in and walk around out sites, our core business is getting the community involved- our community groups, school holiday activities, schools activities, project and community events as we discussed at the beginning of this blog then we have had to look carefully at how and when we might be able to offer some of these services safely in the future or offer them differently and how we might be able to enable our community groups to return on a phased basis.
Like many of you we are anxious to get going again, but we have to do it in the right way and ensure the safety of our users, staff and volunteers, but rest assured your museums and arts team are working hard organising new things, looking at new ways of working and doing things, planning and running projects, planning for the future, finding innovative solutions, developing our services and visitor experience, researching and planning how we can begin to welcome our visitors, users and learners back again when we are able.
In the meantime head over to our facebook page or twitter page and enjoy our online events and activities, information, exhibitions, blogs, photos, videos, craft and arty ideas, learning activities and more.
“Storm clouds gathered over the Irish sea, a small boat tossed on the restless waves; and among the passengers, one man looked back towards Ireland, and the home he had left to escape political unrest. The storm overtook the boat, and off the coast of England it was wrecked. Only two men survived. One of them, John Collins, found his way to Chester and joined the world of horse-dealing, a trade that was already known to him.”
Pat Collins account given by Pat Collins himself to C.H.Lea, the Birmingham Correspondent of World’s Fair in 1936.
Collins then went on to describe how his mother Norah, left him and his two brothers in search of their father. She had chased him around the country to finally catch up with him in Kidderminster. Having decided on their future together she returned to Ireland to pick up her children, so that they could settle in Cheshire. “By the age of nine one of the sons, Patrick, was managing a roundabout for his father, and by the time he was 21 he had helped his father earn up to £20,000. Patrick was eager to start on his own, but his father, John, was not in favour and objected to his family splitting up. Pat had to borrow the money to go his own way.”
The showman Pat Collins was born in Chester on 12 May 1859 and enjoyed telling a good a tale and bending the truth. Most of this story is fiction. Pat seemed to enjoy embellishing the facts, particularly concerning his mother leaving him and his brothers in Ireland, when the truth be told they were all born on this side of the Irish Channel.
He was born in a small house at Boughton Heath, his father was John Collins who married Norah McDermott.
John and Norah Collins had 5 children: John, Patrick, Michael (who died young after being kicked by a horse), Margaret and Johanna. Pat’s earlier life often suggests that he came from nothing and started with nothing. Pat did nothing to contradict it, however he did have a humble background. He was educated and attended St. Wedburgh’s school and his mother encouraged him to learn to write and read, however this was difficult with the family travelling around the country.
At the age of 10 years old, Pat left school and was travelling the fairs of Cheshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, and North Staffordshire with his father and brother. His father’s yacht ride was big enough to hold twenty people at a time, and had to be hauled from town to town by two horses. Accompanying this was a new children’s hand-turned roundabout. When the yacht was built it was swung by Pat and his brother, John, by pulling ropes alternately.
<<Insert video link>>
Pat married Flora MacDonald Ross on the 20 July 1880, when he turned 21 years of age, in the Parish Church of Liverpool and they moved to Walsall in 1882.
During Pat’s first decade in Walsall, he leased land at Shaw’s Leasow (or Shaw’s Leisure) where he ‘rested’ his van, his horse and the children’s roundabout, in these first couple of years he established himself as an accomplished Showman and by 7th March 1886, had earned the right to attend the Walsall and Bloxwich Wake simply by turning up and letting his reputation do the rest.
However, this was all to change in 1890 when the Walsall Corporation Act gave new powers to the local council, including one which concerned the licensing of “fairs”. The new act empowered magistrates to close a fair if “Great rowdiness and immorality was taking place.” Which was often a common sight at the earlier fairs, as hard-working individuals were on days off from work to “let off some steam on a religious or Bank holidays”. Pat now had to apply to the local council for a licence. The individual who won the licence to run the fair was called the “Lessee”. The Lessee would then display their own rides and amusements and rent out pitches to other showman for a small price, allowing them to set up their attractions.
Walsall Corporation put the lease for the September Fair (one which Pat always attended and ran) up for tender. Pat tendered £10 for the lease, but was outbid by a Mr Williams of Putney, who was expected to hold the fair on land at Midland Road. This didn’t stop Pat, he had been running the fair for several years and decided to proceed without the licence and hold his fair on the ground of Shaw’s Leisure. He provided his own attractions and persuaded others to join, offering rent free pitches for his unofficial fair, and leaving Mr Williams with no tenants, as they had a free pitch with Collins. When the fair finally came to a close, Pat Collins was charged with ‘unlawfully holding a fair, and violating clause 126 of the Walsall Corporation Act 1890’.
John Cooper the Town Clerk, asked two policemen to go to the “unofficial” fair and collect evidence of what was going on, as well as attending himself. They found the largest fair they had ever seen in Walsall, with crowds of people turning up to enjoy the festivities.
Pat was summoned to attend court and hear the charges made against him and the unofficial fair. A great amount of time was spent arguing over the definition of the word “fair”. Pat Collins’ defence argued that a “fair”, according to the act, was about trading and not providing amusement or pleasure. The prosecution argued that it did relate to pleasure fairs and that no trading had taken place, hence why it was an illegal fair. Collins’ defence then asked the two policemen to come forward to give evidence. The police had indeed bought items from the fair (one ice cream and one ginger snap) so trade did happen and therefore the fair was perfectly legal.
The prosecution then argued that Pat Collins had collected rent from the tenants, and when the tenants were called to give evidence, they stated that Pat Collins hadn’t charged or accepted any money from them for being there. Nevertheless, Pat Collins was found guilty and fined £5 plus expenses. An appeal was lodged, and the case was reviewed by the Queen’s Bench.
Pat established himself remarkably quickly and within a decade was the leading showman in the Midlands, owning several steam-driven fairground rides. In 1889 he was one of a group of showmen who met at Manchester to form what became known as the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain.
In 1908 he was elected the president of the Showmen’s Guild and, in partnership with its first general secretary, the Reverend Thomas Horne, he played an important role in developing the organisation into an influential national body. By this time, it was generally acknowledged that he had few equals, if any, in the travelling funfair business. He ran fairs across the whole of the Midlands and occupied positions at the most important fairs, such as Nottingham Goose Fair. His travels were not limited to the Midlands, however and he made annual appearances at fairs in Lancashire and Yorkshire
Due to the attention of his court case in April 1918, he decided to run for local councillor of Birchill’s Ward after the previous councillor, William Halford, moved to the position of alderman. Pat won his seat and was councillor for 5 years. Pat’s personality played a great deal in his political years. He was a well-known local celebrity, and commended for being hard working, and for his generosity and concern for the under-privileged.
After his time as a Liberal Councillor in 1930, Pat was still attending many council committee meetings, and eventually asked to become chairman due to his experience, dedication and knowledge. On June 16 Pat became Alderman of the borough of Walsall. 3 years later pat’s wife Flora was taken ill and died on April 8 1933. 6 years later, Pat finally retired from his council duties and being Alderman at the age of 80 – just before world War II began. Pat felt he hadn’t the energy to “ride out the storm” and returned to managing his fairs.
Keep the Flag Flying
Pat Collins died just before the end of 1943. Many people wondered about the size of the Pat Collin’s estate and what was to become of it now that he passed away. The estate was left to several people who became trustees. Clara Collins (Pat’s second wife and business secretary whom he married in 1934), John Cotterell, Harry Coad and James Cooper. Cotterell and Coad were solicitors that that had worked for Pat for many years. Clara found herself managing the travelling fun fairs for the trustees, and ‘keeping the flag flying’ until she died in 1962.
Elias Harris (the original rider of the Wall Of Death attraction at Pat Collins Funfairs) married Pats granddaughter Margaret. In 1934, Margaret sadly died, and Elias decided to leave the Collin’s Fairs. Some years later, just as the war finished, he met and married Evelyn Baker and returned back to show land with his Wall Of Death, and back to Pat Collin’s Funfairs.
Anthony Harris the son of the late Elias and Evelyn Harris, was born 22nd April 1940. While living with his parents, at a young age Anthony Harris learned what it took to be a showman from his father. By trying his skills as a Wall of Death rider, Anthony amazed all by picking up the art so easily.
Anthony took control of the Lightning Skid, the Octopus and Jets (all rides owned by his parents). Anthony showed all the traits of a fine showman. With his father and mother as mentors Anthony and his family were sure to go far. From 1976 – 1983 Anthony Harris jointly owned Collin’s Funfairs with Pat’s grandson Patrick Collins. Anthony’s rides included a second Lighting Skid, Twist, Supreme Waltzer and Para-Glider rides. In the summer of 1983, at Rowley Regis, Anthony took full control and sole ownership of Pat Collins Funfairs. Along with his sons, he has kept the flag flying to this day.
Pat Collins Black Country Fairs
There were three fairs in Tipton, one at the beginning of the season and one at the end. These were the Tipton Wakes. The third happened when the Tipton Carnival happened, and John Collins (Pat’s Brother) provided the fair.
A wake was held here almost at the end of the season, usually at the beginning of November. The equipment and amusements would stand at West Bromwich before moving to Tipton and then “home” to the yard at Bloxwich.
Pat Collin’s fair was usually held on the ground by Mounts Road and was on at the start of May. It included a lion show, and boxing booth.
The Bloxwich wake was held on the “Third Monday in August”. By 1898 the Bloxwich Wake was fighting for its life, with opposition to the wake stronger than ever and was finally abolished. However, in commemoration of Bloxwich Wakes, Pat created the “Collins Grand fete and Gala”. It hosted a fair, menageries, a circus and several other performances and acts. It was held in the middle of August every year.
Fairs in Walsall have a history dating back to the charters in 1220 and were established as trading fairs in June and September. In 1627, by Royal Charter, the dates changed to February and an Onion Fair in September. With a third appearing at Easter.
Wolverhampton had three major fairs a year. Christmas/New Year, Easter and Whitsun. Pat was the lessee of these fairs by the 1890s and was joint lessee with his brother john for the Easter Fair.
Pat acquired his own ground in Willenhall alongside the Walsall Road overlooked by St Giles Church. There were two annual fairs here, the Wake itself in September and a spring fair before Easter.
Blackheath celebrated its annual fair in September and was number 2 on the circuit after Brierley Hill. It took up residency in the Market Place.
The autumn fair in Dudley often coincided with Blackheath, but the town also enjoyed a spring fair.
The fairground took resident in Porters Field and appeared just after the Dudley fair in the autumn.
The Darlaston Wakes took pace directly after the Bloxwich wakes and occupied the August Bank Holiday weekend, with many attractions just moving directly to Darlaston from Bloxwich.
Oldbury Wake was at the end of August/early September and the fairground was in-between Cuxson Gerrard Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and the foundry and engineering works of hunt brothers Ltd.
Our new circus and funfair exhibition at Wednesbury Museum with smaller displays at our other sites will be ready for you to visit when we are open again!
Here’s a tricky one: it’s been taken apart and laid in pieces on the floor. But what is it and what was it used for?
Most people in West Bromwich know of Providence Place, the new office and hotel development next to the old Cronehills colliery site and close to the new Tescos. But not many people, including many who work there now, know the origin of the name.
In 1810 a Baptist chapel was built on the site, which opened in 1812 and was know as Providence Chapel. In the early 19th century West Bromwich had no corporation cemetery (it didn’t yet have a corporation!) and so all burials were done in churchyards. Anglican churches would not normally accept non-conformists, so alongside the chapel a burial ground was established. Although the 19th and early 20th street layout has disappeared, there’s a small quiet green space behind the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on High St, which is of course the burial ground for this chapel, which was built in 1835 (and demolished and a new chapel built, the one that you can see today, in 1974). The Baptists left Providence Chapel in 1850, but the chapel remained in use, used by a succession of non-conformists and independent churches until the 1940s. It was demolished in the 1950s. I’ve never seen any photographs of it.
When development of the area around the old chapel was proposed in the 2010s, research quickly identified the location of the burial ground, and it was agreed that a major archaeological excavation should take place, to identify and remove any human remains that could be disturbed by the proposed building works, as well as to record the archaeology of the chapel remains (if there were any!). It was during these excavations that we found the object. Any ideas yet?
We need to take a quick trip into Birmingham to continue the mystery object story. Medical schools had been established in Birmingham in the 1760s (only the third place in Britain after Edinburgh and London) and the teaching of anatomy required a regular supply of fresh corpses (remember this is before the era of refrigeration). The legal supply of corpses for ‘dissection’ was limited to bodies of those executed for capital crimes – and the number of bodies available fell far short of the number required in the anatomy schools. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurial individuals now normally referred to as ‘body-snatchers’ but in the West Midlands more usually referred to as ‘digger-uppers’) to realise that they could dig up the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them, no questions asked, to the Birmingham anatomy schools. It became very clear that burials in the Providence Place burial ground had been carried out with a variety of preventative methods being used to make the removal of the body from the grave much more difficult.
The object in question is a mort safe. This is a generic term for a metal frame or box which was placed over or around a coffin to stop the ‘digger-upper’ digging up the body. It is the only one we found in the Providence Place burial ground, although there was also a brick-built coffin, a burial under a coffin rather than in it, and frequent occurrences of planks of timber and piles of brushwood being placed in the grave on top of the coffin. It was also interesting that we discovered a number of coffins filled with waste iron – presumably these corpses had been sold prior to the burial and the iron used to fake the weight of an occupied coffin.
In all the remains of over 100 people were removed and reburied in Health Lane Cemetery. We carried out a pathological examination of the body protected by the mort safe, and found it was that of a young woman, perhaps 20 years old, who had suffered from a disfiguring skin disease that resulted in lesions and infections over much of her body. We know that the anatomists paid a premium for young people’s bodies and for those of people who died from ‘interesting’ illnesses. We’ve surmised that her family and perhaps the local community clubbed together to buy the mort safe, knowing that her age and illness would have made her a tempting target for the ‘digger-uppers’.
Body snatching had ceased by the 1830s, as national legislation made available to the medical schools the bodies of all who died in a workhouse or were unable to afford a burial. This was seen even at the time as a massively discriminatory against the poorest and most vulnerable, when taboos about disturbing the dead, and a common religious belief that a physical resurrection at the end of days would be impacted by post-mortem dissection, were very widely held. But that is another story.
To say it has been a strange year so far is clearly a massive understatement. By the end of March we had seen fire, flood and pestilence, so it will be interesting to see what history says about this period in future. On a more personal level we’ve all seen our lives disrupted and restricted (for our own good) and we’ve just not been able to take part in all the activities or go to the places we would normally enjoy.
For us in museums we haven’t been able to offer our usual mix of community painting groups, gardening and knitting groups, family activities, arts, crafts and cultural projects, creative learning sessions for schools and other educational groups, larger community events, theatre performances and live music and of course access to our building, grounds and collections.
We have been keeping in touch with our users and visitors as much as possible through social media platforms such as facebook, twitter, instagram and of course this blog. We’ve been providing activities for all ages to get involved with including the annual arts trail and Monday challenges, (what would have been) school holidays fun and some home schooling activities, we’ve been doing little mini-vids and longer vids about all sorts of subjects, as well as writing blogs and information about the things we do, our objects and interesting historical information about our sites and life in the past. For our volunteer groups such as our Friends and gardeners and our community painting groups we’ve been phoning up members for a chat and to ensure they’re safe and well and the painting groups have their own private facebook page and whatsapp to keep in touch.
This has been a rather steep learning curve too as we’ve learned to create and edit videos and provide new activities online and think of new ways of engaging with all of you out there. I hope you’ve been enjoying what we’ve been doing and I hope we can continue some of this once our sites are open again. We are still developing some of these ideas and so we’ll be bringing you new things in the future too – it is very exciting! It has made us look at the ways we can communicate with people differently and in new ways.
However this no substitute for the social interaction and the hands on activities which taking part together involves. By talking to our visitors and users (in more normal times) and by undertaking lots of surveying and by trying things out, you have told us that what you like to do is to get involved, to have a go, to create things and enjoy new experiences, and events and activities of all different types. We know people most visit our sites when we put something on rather than just to look around and all of this we are currently missing and you’ve told us you are missing it too. Black Country people, it seems, are naturally ‘hands on’ and like to have a go themselves and create – it must be the centuries of making stuff, it is just in the blood!
We have had all this in mind as we plan for the recovery and re-opening of our services and how we might develop and transform our services going into the future, while at the same time ensuring that safety and social distancing is paramount in the short and medium term. We’ve been working on new ideas for how we might develop and enhance the visitor experience when you can come along once again and look around our buildings and so we’re getting to grips with some new technologies in order to tell our stories in new, exciting ways.
I think that one thing this period in isolation and lockdown has shown is how much we as humans need ‘other stuff’ to be healthy and happy, and not just our basic needs met.
Of course for some out there they don’t have enough food and a home and their basic needs aren’t met and of course this is the biggest priority. Also it was essential to ensure people did not catch and spread this terrible virus for us all to retreat to our homes and experience life through screens for a while and of course there are those that have had a really difficult time in all sorts of ways and I wouldn’t want to detract from the importance of these.
However in the long-term for most of us we need more than food and shelter, and the last few months have shown us that we need a change of scenery and green spaces, we need experiences and social and cultural interaction (I realise culture is a difficult word but I mean everything from live music to craft activities with the children at one of our museums to story time at the library, craft groups, enjoying an exhibition, painting, large community events and everything in between an beyond) – essentially we need to do stuff to ensure our wellbeing!
Our community group members have told us how much they miss, not just coming along to to get involved and create, to paint, knit or garden but the environment and surroundings of our buildings and their grounds and most importantly they have missed the interaction with others, the working together that these activities bring. Other people have told us they have missed our school holiday activities and larger events and even miss just visiting and looking around.
I think what I’m trying to say is that a lot of the stuff we’ve missed including what goes on in our museums, libraries, parks and at park farm, as well as activities delivered by other organisations is not an add on to life but it is the stuff of life, it is what makes us feel good, boosts our self esteem, gives us experiences and memories and develops us as humans and we look forward to welcoming you all back to our sites soon, although things will look different for a while at least.
We are currently planning and assessing how we can begin to provide our services again, so look out for more information soon. In the meantime enjoy our online activities and information on facebook, twitter and instagram @sandwellmuseums and follow #discoversandwell to keep up to date with all our colleagues across cultural services including libraries, archives, Lightwoods House, Sandwell Valley and Park Farm and our parks and follow Discover Sandwell on facebook, twitter and instagram for online events and activities and lots of information.
Over two weeks of almost constant sunshine is not usual for May – what is expected after so much sunshine is the lobster impressions delivered by so many of the great British public who every year forget just how hot and intense the spring sunshine can be.
Today’s sunscreens work either by absorbing the damaging ultra-violet light and converting it into heat, or by reflecting this light and scattering it away from the body. Of course there is always the option of a wide brimmed hat, long sleeves and leaving the shorts in the cupboard. With today’s sun protection reliant on modern chemical understanding, I wondered for example how the 17th century occupants of Oak House might have coped with prolonged periods of sunshine in the 1600s.
It is actually not all that easy to find recipes for sun screen in the various herbals and commonplace books where I have discovered various plague ‘cures’ and ‘preventatives’ which I’ve written about recently, as well as such delights as a baldness cure made from bee ash (yes – that is ash made from ground up burnt bees), mouse droppings and rose water (well you’d want it to smell nice wouldn’t you!). The idea of a ‘healthy tan’ is a twentieth century invention, emerging from Coco Chanel’s famed comment in 1929, “a girl simply has to be tanned”. Before this a tanned face and arms (everything else was kept covered up as a matter of decency!) were associated with outdoor work. A nice pale face and skin was associated with the leisured middle and upper classes who didn’t have to toil in the fields. So if you had to go out in the sun, and you weren’t working, as well as a high necked dress, parasol and gloves…
Take Deer’s Marrow, put it in a sufficient quantity of water with Wheat-flour, and let them settle; then take some ounces of what subsides to the bottom and mix it well with a sufficient quantity of the whites of eggs. Plaister your face with the said Paiste when you go to bed at Night, and wash yourself the next morning with warm water. This method is excellent to prevent sunburn (Le Camus: The Art of preserving Beauty, 1775).
The paler the skin (contrasting if possible with rose coloured cheeks), was the aim, and all sorts of concoctions and devices were used, from ceruse (a lead-oxide and vinegar paste) as a face paint (it would also act as a rather effective sun-block!) which was usually removed with a mercury facewash, to anti-sun masks referenced by Shakespeare in his ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’:
But since she did neglect her looking-glass
And threw her sun-expressing mask away
The air hath starved the roses in her cheeks
And pinched the lily-tincture of her face . . .
Randle Holme, in his Acadamie of Armourie (1688) described one of these masks:
This is a thing that in former times gentlewomen used to put over their faces when they travel to keep them from sun burning. It covered only the brow nose and eyes, through the holes they saw their way; the rest of the face was covered with a chin-cloth. Of these masks they used them either square with a flat and even top, or else the top cut with an half round; they were generally made of black velvet. The second form of mask is the Visard Mask, which covers the whole face, having holes for the Eyes, a case for the nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside over against the mouth.
But if you did catch the sun, then home made remedies were the norm. These were very often the same of very similar to the cures used for all manner of skin disorders and burns and scalds. I suspect most outdoor workers were well tanned and kept reasonably covered up – this as well as the lack of interest perhaps amongst middle class apothecaries and doctors in treating the poorer classes results in only a limited number of cures compared with more widespread illnesses. If you were sunburned and could afford a visit to the surgeon, the usual response was as with any burn, alongside cooling salves made from mint, aloe vera or tormentil, mixed in butter, oil or egg white, a prolonged session of blood-letting! Burdock leaves in vinegar appear to have been used in colonial America but I’ve not come across any references to this use in England in the 17th century.
It looks like the best of the weather is gone for the moment so I don’t suppose anyone will have need of my ‘advice’. But hang on to it – I’m sure the sun will be back before the autumn!
ps don’t try this at home
Frank- Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage.
Hello everyone and welcome to another Museums Musings blog! Last week was National Volunteering Week and Sandwell Museums has been thanking its wonderful volunteers and Friend’s groups from all our sites. Often behind the scenes, it is important that we take a little look into what our friends and volunteers do for us, and of course thanking them along the way because we couldn’t do it without them!
Meetings and ideas.
As you can imagine over our different sites our friends and volunteers do various jobs and some are unique to each site or each volunteer. From garden maintenance, historical research, dressing as a character (including Santa), helping with reception or crafts, painting and flower arranging to making the perfect cup of tea, there is a job for everyone! Our friends groups meet regularly and discuss any events they would like to run or what support we need for events and anything they feel would benefit the site and just have a general catch up with a cuppa. It is a huge help to staff to have a larger group of local people to bounce ideas off and their input is invaluable!
Dressing the part.
Staff and volunteers alike are no stranger to wearing a costume or two! At all our sites it is a common theme that you will end up dressing up as something, and our friends and volunteer groups are always open to dressing up as whatever we require, whether it be Frankenstein’s bride, Medieval dress or 1940s’ attire, they are always open and willing to participate! Obviously, this is a huge part of creating an authentic and welcoming feel to our museums and we thank them all for their participation no matter how ridiculous it may be; everyone is always willing to give it their best go!
Tea, cake and events.
Personally, I think this is a big factor in being a friend or volunteer! Can you make a good cuppa? Whether at Bromwich Hall, Oak House, Galton Valley or Haden Hill House, this a skill that will be needed! Our amazing volunteers and friends run our tea rooms at events making many a cup of tea for our visitors (and serving cake of course) always with a smile! It can get very busy at times, but they always do a fantastic job! This, to staff members is a huge help because it frees us up to do other jobs on event days and deal with any issues that arise. At Bromwich Hall I have even heard one member of the public say it’s the best cuppa they have ever had which is praise indeed!
At all our sites our friends’ groups run their own events, which are planned and run by them or support and help out at our events . These activities are varied and provide a different experience for our visitors. At Haden Hill House the friends group open Haden Old Hall on event days and open days along with manning the tea room, they also, deliver a Victorian Evening which is offered to local community groups. They have in the past hosted, along with the team from Haden Hill House Museum, a “Victorian afternoon tea” experience for the Employee recognition award scheme that SMBC ran. They have also worked on a joint Black Country Museums project, funded by HLF & The Arts council, to promote joining volunteer groups, what they can offer and how it could help older or retired people come to terms with social isolation, meet new people and get involved.
Bromwich Hall friends also run events organised by them including, paranormal investigations and psychic evenings which always prove very popular! There are also friends who are very interested in the history of Bromwich Hall and help to research the building and the surrounding area. Another interesting fact about our friends is that we have one member who is trained in herbal medicines so can give fantastic talks about herbs used in medicine which is a great addition to Bromwich Hall.
Green fingers and wildlife
As you can imagine our sites take a lot of maintaining, especially our outside spaces! Our most established gardening group is at Oak House who over the past five years, have completely transformed the Oak House grounds. The group have cleared overgrown areas, removed inappropriate planting and created new pathways for the public to enjoy, implemented an herb garden, a knot garden, planted fruit trees and a wild flower area to compliment the 17th century property and its stories. The gardening group have also been nominated for and won several Britain in Bloom awards for the gardens over the past few years and were runners up in the West Midlands Museum Development Volunteer awards last year. The group also plant and garden for wildlife and have fitted bird boxes and bat boxes in the grounds and have planted bee and insect friendly plants in the wildlife area. Quite an achievement and we thank them for all their hard work and support!
Bromwich Hall would also like to thank its gardening maintenance group, having only been a museum for the last ten years, Bromwich Hall has seen a lot of changes, but in the past year our garden maintenance group have worked hard to maintain our site which has involved a lot of weeding and clearing up. We also want to thank them for their input at friends meeting when discussing what we could do next with our green spaces, their ideas as their input is invaluable, and we can’t thank them enough for their help and support.
A HUGE thank you must also be given to the Friends of Galton Valley Pumping Station, one of our smaller museums. They are a small but very dedicated group of volunteers and as we have no dedicated member of staff at the Pumping Station (we run it from Wednesbury Museum) we just couldn’t open or run the building without them. The group have also adopted the area of the canal around the museum as part of a Canals and Rivers Trust initiative and they litter pick, garden and tidy the area. Like many of our volunteers they are also very knowledgeable about the building they help support and its history.
What our friends and volunteers really mean to us as a service
I would like to finish off this blog by saying what our friends and volunteers really mean to us at all our sites. There aren’t enough words we could say to thank them, we are so fortunate to have such a lovely bunch of people always willing to help us. I think it is important currently to say how much we value everything you do! We usually spend a lot of time with our volunteer and friends’ groups, but due to social distancing we haven’t seen them in a while (although we keep in touch) and we miss them all very much. So, from every member of staff at Sandwell Museums thank you, for every day dressed up, cup of tea made, and event planned, we couldn’t have done it without you and we can’t wait to see you all back in our museums. The cups of teas will be on us this time!
Hello everyone! As this week is all about the objects and artefacts we have here at the museum service we thought a blog about conservation and the threats to the objects in our collection might be an interesting topic for you to read about. So without further ado, here are the threats we face, and how we tackle them:
(measured in ‘Lux’ -used to measure the intensity of light hitting a surface)
I’m sure we have all seen something in our lives that has been bleached by the sun, whether that’s garden furniture or curtains near a window or a wall where a picture has been. This phenomenon, unsurprisingly, can do a tremendous amount of damage to museum artefacts. The best way to combat the effects of light on museum objects is to reduce the amount of natural light directed onto them. At Sandwell Museums we use blinds to block out the sun, use solar control film, which has a tinting effect which filters out the harmful amount of light but leaves enough for people to see. Plus of course, keeping the most light-sensitive objects away from windows. These are some examples of materials most affected by light:
– Costumes and other textiles (which is why we keep the blinds down in the bedrooms at Oak House and Haden Hill House.
– Fur and feathers
– Dyed leather
Here we see how light has bleached a tapestry, reducing how vivid the colours should be. (blog.hrp.org.uk)
(measured in degrees Celsius)
Temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius are what we aim for, as anything less is too cold for visitors, and anything higher is both a bit too warm for staff and visitors and can also speed up the deterioration of some museum objects. Museum stores can be colder than ten degrees as they don’t tend to see many visitors aside from staff. It’s also very important to ensure that temperatures don’t change from hot to cold and back again too quickly. As this can have a freeze-thaw effect on artefacts, whereby the heat makes the material expand, and the cold makes it contract, leading to cracking and shattering. Thermometers are the tried and tested method of measuring temperatures, if an area is discovered to be too cold, heaters (or central heating if applicable) can be used as long as they are set to a low temperature. Fortunately, being in the UK, rooms being too hot are a fairly rare occurrence, however, when this happens ventilation, if possible, is the preferred option though in some cases artificial fans and air coolers can be used.
Here we see the freeze thaw effect on rock, whilst the interior of museums never get cold enough for ice to form, heat and cold causes similar damage. Objects expand in heat and contract in cold. (twinkl.co.uk)
(measured in ‘RH’ – ‘relative humidity’)
Humidity (the amount of moisture in the air) can have a very serious impact on museum artefacts, if there is too little in the air, artefacts can become dry and brittle, which can do permanent damage, even if humidity is returned to acceptable levels within a short time frame. Relative humidity should not drop below 40% or rise above roughly 70%, as too much moisture in the air encourages fungal growth. When that happens, even if the fungus is removed the stains left can be permanent. To measure relative humidity we use devices called hygrometers, which act in a similar way to thermometers. To combat the effects of too much humidity we have a number of dehumidifiers, and in areas with too little humidity we have humidifiers. (Visitors to Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery may have seen a pair in the Richards gallery).
Here we can see evidence of mould staining some wooden furniture. (environix.com)
Pests probably constitute the biggest threat to our collections as they’re rather good at sneaking in and setting up shop without anyone realising. I have included some pictures of the main culprits, which are carpet beetles, clothes moths and woodworm.
Carpet beetles, as their name implies, tend to infest carpets. However, they will also eat any other items composed of wool, fur, felt, silk, feathers, skins, and leather. Such materials contain keratin, a fibrous animal protein which their larvae are able to digest. Cotton and synthetic material like polyester and rayon are rarely attacked unless blended with wool, or contain food stains or other natural materials.
A Varied Carpet Beetle. (inoculandpestcontrol.co.uk)
This is an example of the type of damage they do to carpets. (thesuffolkpestcontrolcompany.co.uk)
Clothes moths, behave in a very similar way to carpet beetles, they destroy fabric and other materials. They feed exclusively on animal fibre, especially wool, fur, silk, feathers, felt, and leather, as these materials contain keratin, a fibrous protein that the worm-like larvae of the clothes moth can digest. In nature, the larvae feed on the nesting materials or carcasses of birds and mammals. Which means that when museums have birds nesting in the roof, or any rodents on site, it is actually a very serious problem! Serious infestations of clothes moths can develop completely undetected until it’s too late, causing permanent damage to vulnerable artefacts.
This picture shows a clothes moth and the damage they can do to textiles. (countryliving.com)
The common furniture beetle or woodworm, is believed to be the main cause of damage to timber in the UK over the last 100 years! During the last 50 years, insecticidal treatments have been widely used to treat timbers in buildings thought to be at risk. The worry of woodworm infestation has become so integral to the culture of property management and building repair in the UK that most buildings which are more than 50 years old have been treated at least once, and many have been treated repeatedly on each change of ownership!
This floorboard showed absolutely no evidence of infestation by woodworm until sanding and polishing revealed tunnelling beneath the surface. (buildingconservation.com)
This is what woodworm actually looks like when munching through wood. (rentokil.co.uk)
To tackle the issue of insect pests all museums will use pest traps to monitor what creepy crawlies are visiting the site, with having 6 of the same type of pest warranting an infestation. Of course not all insects and spiders are a problem, we have to look carefully for the critters we’re concerned about. It is the job of staff on site to periodically check the pest traps and report their findings – this isn’t their favourite task! If an infestation is detected measures must be taken to isolate and remove the infestation. This will sometimes involve literally removing an object from the collection and putting it in isolation, to prevent the infestation spreading. To actually kill the insects, depends on what material is currently suffering from infestation. Some examples of treatments are:
Low temperature treatment, whereby an object is placed inside a specially designed freezer which kills the insects without damaging the object.
High temperature treatment, similar to the above method, however this time the temperature is raised. A short exposure of no more than 55 degrees Celsius.
Controlled Atmosphere Treatment, in this example, an object is placed inside an air-tight container and carbon dioxide is slowly pumped inside. The lack of oxygen leads to increased respiration, which eventually leads to dehydration of pests.
We hope you enjoyed this small glimpse of the monitoring work that goes into ensuring historic artefacts remain in as pristine condition as possible here at Sandwell Museums Service.
Today when you come across the Oak House for the first time it can be quite a shock. It can seem a bit like an alien space ship has landed in amongst the more modern 1900s terrace and 1930s semi-detached urban housing. To see a large, old timber framed building sitting where it does in the landscape, in the middle of West Bromwich is quite a surprise. Of course, you then remember that this fantastic old house was there for around 300 years before any of the other houses appeared. In the 1600s the view from the Oak House would have been very different from what you might see now.
Today Oak House has two acres of grounds which include the gardens where we tell the story of what was going on in the landscape outside Oak House in the 1600s, our barns visitor centre, event space and classroom for our school visits and other visitor facilities like a playground and picnic area. But what would have been here if you had visited Oak House 400 years ago?
When the Turton family bought a large portion of land in West Bromwich including the area where Oak House sits, some time before 1616, it was already a working farm. At this period in history the presence of more and more landowners meant that the old medieval open field system, where each farmer had strips to farm in a variety of fields, was decreasing. The reasonably wealthy ‘middling sort’ like the Turtons were able to buy up land and have their own farm, employing people to work the land for them.
In 1634 Oak House and a considerable amount of land was purchased by John Turton from his father (John Turton Senior). The Turtons had been described as yeoman or wealthy farmers but they were moving up the social scale and were soon to be calling themselves gentlemen.
The land around West Bromwich was not the best farming land so the Turtons, like others in the area were also industrialists. The Turton family owned a number of water mills where they finished blades and made nails. We are also fairly certain the Turtons were involved in brick making and a brick kiln was found in the areas where the playground at Oak House is today. As well as farming, metal working and other industrial activities were a big part of the local economy well before the industrial revolution began in the middle of the 1700s. However, this story is for another blog!
We have two really good sources which give us an insight into the farm at Oak House in the late 1600s and very early 1700s. These documents are inventories (lists of property usually taken when someone died) produced in 1682 and 1705.
The 1682 inventory tell us that there was ‘corne about the Oak Ground. Cattle about the Oak Ground Seaven cowes and heifers. Eight calves. Horses. Three colts. In the Garden belonging to the Oake House One beestand & one garden roll. Poultrey about the house.’
Where the inventory mentions corn, this could mean any grains which were being grown, such as wheat, barley, oats or rye. Many farmers refer to their grain crop as ‘corn’ so it was usually whatever they were growing most of that was called corn. The inventory references wheat and oats so it is possible in this case, corn refers to barley which is being grown by the Turtons. We know that there was a lot of beer being brewed at Oak House, probably in the basement, so growing barley themselves would certainly be useful for keeping the beer flowing!
In the 1600s farms were mixed farms growing crops as well as keeping animals. We can see that the Turtons had a number of cows which would be used primarily for producing milk. This milk would then be processed in the dairy by the dairy maids who would make butter and cheese. The ‘waste’ products from these processes certainly wasn’t thrown away. Buttermilk might be drank by the servants and given to the poor as it was very rich (a bit like condensed milk) and while the curds made the cheese, the whey may also be drank at breakfast by the farm hands or servants or fed to the animals.
Young male calves were not required for dairy farming, apart from the ones chosen to become bulls. The calf meat was eaten and rennet from the stomach was used to separate the curds and whey in the cheese making process.
Chickens were kept mainly for eggs, rather than being eaten; not a huge amount of chicken was eaten in the 1600s. Other poultry may have been kept too such as ducks and geese for eggs and meat. Feathers from poultry would also have been important and would have been useful for making feather mattresses and pillows.
You would also have found bees at the Oak House, which were kept for honey to sweeten food as sugar was very expensive (although I’m sure this is something the Turtons did splash out on) but also for beeswax for better quality candles.
Close to the house you would have found the kitchen gardens full of vegetables and fruit to eat and herbs to flavour food, create medicines and to use in other household activities, like cleaning and keeping away insects.
Horses would have been kept for farm work as well as for transportation to get the Turtons from one place to another. In fact, the old timber framed barn at Oak House was built by John Turton in the 1650s to house his horses. He seems to have been buying fairly expensive horses at this time which certainly weren’t being used to pull ploughs in his Bromwich fields.
In the 1705 inventory pigs are also mentioned, which would have been kept for their meat as there was a growing demand for pork at this time. Pigs and poultry would have been fed on some of the waste products from farming activities as well as scraps and peelings from the kitchen.
Farming implements are listed in the 1705 inventory including two ploughs and two harrows (a harrow is an implement for breaking up and smoothing out the surface of the soil or removing weeds), an iron crow (crowbar), forks, spade, troughs and a wheelbarrow.
Hay is also on the list of goods and would have been kept for feed and bedding for animals. Hay would be made from the grasses and wildflower meadows towards the end of the season and then dried to use over winter.
The smaller scale activity such as raising chickens, cows, pigs and bees and looking after the fruit, vegetables and herb garden would have been generally found close to the house and would have largely been the responsibility of the women of the household.
The ideal farm in the 1600s was self-contained and sustainable. Fields would have been used to graze animals and grow crops with ploughs being pulled by horses or oxen, which were fed with crops which had been grown on the farm. The manure from the animals was spread on the fields and added to the soil to improve it. Farms practised crop rotation which meant that one year out of three a field might be left uncultivated to allow nutrients to regenerate. This meant that a third of all fields were left uncultivated each year.
Farming techniques were, however, developing in the 1600s as ideas were brought to England from Holland, clover and turnips became popular crops to grow. Growing clover or turnips meant you no longer had to leave a field fallow as clover adds nutrients into the soil and turnips have very deep roots which take nutrients from a different level to grain crops. An old technique of liming and marling the soil, which had been popular in medieval times was revived to improve the soil further. Records show that new farming equipment was being developed in the early 1600s such as draining machines in 1628, ploughs in 1623-27 and 1634, and mechanical sewing machines between 1634 and 1639. Unfortunately, we don’t know if any of these new developments or machinery were taken on board by the Turtons at Oak House.
Fuel was cut and collected from hedges, copses and rough pastureland and in Bromwich where there were few trees coal was being used for fuel too as it was in abundance and near the surface in some places.
It seems that amongst those that worked directly with the animals they saw them as an extension of themselves and their family, after all they relied on their animals for their livelihood and food. One late 17th century observer put it: ‘farmers and poor people’ made ‘very little difference between themselves and their beasts’. They went out with them in the fields in the morning, toiled with them all day and returned home with them in the evening. Their very language expressed their sense of affinity between them and their animals, for many descriptive terms applied equally to either. Children were kids, cubs or urchins, a boy apprentice was a colt. A woman expecting a baby was said to have got upon the nest, her husband would address her affectionately as duck or hen, less affectionately as cow, shrew or vixen. When she grew old she would be a crone, that is a ewe who has lost her teeth.’
So next time you’re at Oak House or when you drive or walk along Oak Road, take a moment to travel back 400 years in your mind’s eye and imagine the busy farm at Oak House with cows, pigs, horses, chickens and other poultry being tended to by servants and the vegetables, fruit trees and herbs growing near to the house, and the fields stretching down to Bromford lane filled with animals grazing and crops growing and workers going about their daily tasks.