Harpers, hairbrushes and sucky fish

Another great piece arrives from top reader and contributor David Evans. Grab a cuppa and tune in… thanks, as ever, to David for his efforts. Without further ado…


I hope it was this type of bus David recalls, but this may be too late. This cracking restoration captured at Chasewater Transport Show by Chsewaterstuff (John Daft) and posted on Flikr.

The end of the second world war brought the time of retirement for one of the Coppy Pit’s long-serving miners. Ike, as he was known, had been born in Hedgeford, as he always called it, where he, like his brothers, had started his working life down the pit there as soon as was old enough. He was one of a large number of children in that family. His mother died when he was a young child, and his father then moved to the Wood to find regular work. He needed every penny to help support his family. The Coppy Pit was offering good wages and the opportunity to settle and make a new start was taken. The family settled in to their new home in Walsall Wood and lived near to the Coppy Pit.

Ike married his sweetheart, a young girl from Newcastle under Lyme who was working ‘in service’ in Leciestershire, in the Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Church where they had met. They set up home in the village and lived the rest of their lives in the same simple cottage not far from the Coal Mine.

The hardships of the first world war years, the long hours working 1600 feet below in the twisted, bending coal seams, where he hewed coal day after day, the Strikes of the twenties and the shock and dread that each miner and his family felt, then the economic depression of the thirties, all were felt by him. He had been seriously injured at least twice in the pit. He had returned to work again after his physical scars had healed, despite the permanence of some of his injuries. He was known never to complain, or moan, or cuss.

Ike’s eldest son had been called up to fight in the Second World War. He had to leave his grocers’ business in Caldmore Green and become a ‘Desert Rat’, leaving his wife and daughter in Walsall Wood, and he went off to fight in the deserts of North Africa, and throughout the landings and campaign in Italy.

Peace in 1945 brought Ike the safe return of his son, and his own welcome, hard-earned retirement and rest from the coalface. It gave him a time to tend his garden and to see the sunshine and seasons as he had never been able to before. His landlord had put a small window in the side wall of Ike’s cottage and now sunlight shone into his back kitchen, and he could gaze out to see the sunset  and the stark, bare pit mound.

A view Ike would have been very familiar with, and one which bears repeating. This is what The Wood looked like 50 odd years ago. A remarkable composite panorama featured as separate images in David F. Vodden’s book ‘Around Pelsall and Brownhills in Old Photographs’, which I scanned and reassembled. Worth clicking on to see the large version.

Sometimes, on Mondays he enjoyed taking me, his wayward grandson, with him on the Harpers bus to Lichfield. It would give somebody some respite. I was honoured to oblige! A bus-ride on the single-decker, boneshaker of a bus. A handful of bus tickets to hold, each one snapped by the conductor from the spring clipboard, “dinged” in the ticket punch, and handed to be held very tight. The balletic pas de deux was then performed by this ungainly conductor, his six-penny round spectacles every inch the model on which Benny Hill based his comic character. The orthopedic wooden slat benches that were the bus seats, the long leather thong that rang the bell. The rough roads through Stonnall, then in and out of Shenstone, along the twisting narrow lanes to Lichfield. An altogether unforgettable experience which made an invisible yet indelible impression on every passenger.

Mondays and Lichfield offered the delight of a gentle stroll from the bus station and on past the railway station with its hissing, steaming locomotives and clanking carriages, on up Green Hill to the weekly Smithfield livestock market, and its big beasts, its farmers in crooked hats, tweed jackets with patched elbows, worn waistcoats with gold chains and pocket watches, corduroy trousers, leather riding boots or hobnail boots. There was the noisy, rapid chatter and strange language from the man up in the middle of the arena, of rapid spectacle of beasts being brought in to the arena, quickly, not a minute to lose, and then taken out just as quickly.

Just by the alleyway down to the Smithfield market was a little shop. The shop is now a private house, but its still there even though the Smithfield cattle market has been demolished and replaced by a huge Tescos superstore. Not much cnage; same haste, same noise, same strange language, different smell. This little shop sold two things of great importance to a young toddler; sucky fish. Big ones which cost a penny, and smaller ones which cost a ha’penny. I was promised a big sucky fish after the market, if I had been good. I always got a ha’penny fish. Good was animpossibility for me, then. I did get to carry the new churchwarden clay pipe , that Granddad Ike often bought in that shop though. It was my sole responsibility to ensure that this instrument, this treasure, this most valuable object arrived back in the cottage in Walsall Wood in safety and in one piece .

Ah… who remembers Trugel and styptic pencils, eh?

I was often allowed to brush Granddad Ike’s hair. For me this was a token of trust and, seemingly, an indication of a fairly thick skull on his part. Brushing someone’s hair without “pailing” them or scraping each thinning strand from a person’s scalp was a rapidly- acquired skill for any toddler who wished to see his next birthday. A small measure of trembling persistence, and lashings of Brilliantine made the job slightly easier. Brilliantine must have been both a gents’ hairdressing and local anaesthetic. The oval hairbrushes, and the shaving cup, new-fangled safety razor and beaver shaving brush had their own specific place in the wall cupboard by the back-leaded range.

The little shop in Lichfield closed down many years ago. The Harper’s single decker stagecoach cum cattle truck is no more. The Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Church building was demolished over twenty years ago. Ike lived long enough to witness the Coppy Pit being closed down in 1964, though. He died a few months later.

This isn’t going to be popular, but I feel there aren’t enough pipe-smokers in the world anymore…

Now his cottage has new owners who have had the subsistence rods removed, had new windows and a new front door installed, and it looks as though the nearby cottages that have stood empty for years are about to be “done up” . The nearby colliery field which housed the brick “charge” building for the colliery many years ago, has been transformed into well-used soccer pitches some years ago and now regularly echo to the shrills blasts of the referee’s whistle, and the semi-audible comments from wrongly-adjudged players. The old primary school near to Streets Corner has had a new roof, is well-painted, and has got the facilities of the Oak Park leisure centre, and a FastFood Drive-through close by. The present-day Methodist Church uses the former Sunday School building, which has been modernised and renovated.

Modern buses storm past along the main roads in this part of Walsall Wood, and all sorts and types of vehicles unimaginable to the generations of miners at the Coppy in its heyday seem to confirm that the modern Walsall Wood has evolved, and that the pace and way of life for the present generation of local people is very different, too.

David Evans December 2011

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16 Responses to Harpers, hairbrushes and sucky fish

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    many thanks for posting this article. My memory! Twas not a beaver shaving brush, twas a badger shaving brush. Oops. The Brilliantine was in a rectangular tin. One such tin is, or was, on display in the chemists shop in the Black Country Museum. You can buy real sucky fish in the sweet shop there! There was a sweet shop in Stafford Street Walsall , which readers may remember. But who owned the shop?.
    I hope readers will enjoy . the article. The bus is a superb photo..not quite like the old bone-shaker, though! Ike appears on one of the blog’s photos, as does his wife.. ..for readers to search through!
    kind regards

  2. Jeepboy says:

    Think the sweet shop in Stafford St belonged to Pelaris icecream

  3. I loved those old green Harper’s buses! As a small child I always thought that Cross Keys and Heath Hayes sounded so exotic until that day when I actually took the bus up that way! My Mom knew all the drivers and conductors, which wasn’t a difficult thing taking into account that there was a garage in Aldridge, now a carpet shop. Lovely memories.

  4. David Oakley says:

    Hi David, Great article which I enjoyed reading and which, once again, gave my own memory another little stir. Great picture of the Harpers coach, but this was one of the posh “charabancs” which were very much in demand for private hire, trips to the seaside, etc and were really the last word in luxury seating. The wooden slatted seats in the old boneshakers were a wartime measure, known as “utility seating” and as you probably remember , well outlasted the war. I too, attended the Monday auction at Lichfield as my father kept chickens and replenished his stock periodically. Mr Winterton would have a raised walkway around some of the smaller encl;osures, which he used when bidding was in progress. When funds allowed, my father would take us to Lichfield on the train from Brownhills which went via Hammerwich, catching Harpers bus from Vigo corner to Brownhills. I well remember the little shop but never sampled the sucky fish from there. I was considering whether I’d had a deprived childhood, for a few moments, until I remembered that when mom visited Walsall market she always brought a bag of sucky fish back to share amongst us kids! I’ll look for Ike in the blogs photos, chances are I will know him
    best wishes,.

  5. mercadeo says:

    Sadly, my memories of New Longton are slight. We left the village when I was three to go to Blackpool. However, I still remember playing in the garden at “The Shieling” although my memory of the house is patently incorrect. I came to New Longton some thirty years ago to take a look, and the house, externally, was unchanged, but I remembered it as a really big house, and was disappointed by it’s size. I can also remember the shops in a parade near the railway level crossing. I often watched the steam trains pass by there, and there was a fabulous Araucaria (Monkey-puzzle tree) on the green in front of the shops. I remember being in Preston at my Dad’s shop, and getting on the bus at the old bus station to come back to New Longton. The cry of the inspector at the bus station indicating that our bus was “Whitestake behind” as the buses stacked up to collect their passengers.

  6. Ian says:

    Sweet Mary mother of Jesus! What the nora’s is a “sucky fish” when it’s at home?

  7. David Evans says:

    Hi Ian
    …..no..I musn’t ! A clue; a bit like a bodge, but different.

  8. Ian says:

    Holy Moly David! What in the Wide World of Sports is a bodge? I thought a bodge was summit yer stuck on yer coot.

  9. Graeme Fisher says:

    Harper Bros sawed the fronts off a couple of these lovely coaches (Burlingham Seagulls) and rebuilt them into some of the ugliest flat fronted buses to ply the Kingstanding to Lichfield route, through Street’s Corner and Stonnall.

    • Phil Burton ( ex Harpers Driver) says:

      Hi Graeme, I agree the three Burlingham Seagulls that were converted into Service Vehicles by Harper’s weren’t the prettiest, but were done as a practical and economical move and were still nice vehicles to drive. All three were middle door vehicles with large coach seats and if you had ever had to conduct one you would see how impractical they were, especially with a standing load. The first to be done was 1032 E No 21, the middle door was removed and a mechanically operated door at the front was fitted along with bus seats, this could only be operated by a two man crew which Harpers preferred. Then the other two were converted 1031 E, No 28 renumbered 22 & XRE 725 No 50 but this time fitted with driver front operated doors to allow for one man operation. All these vehicles had come to an end of their life for the leisure side of the business with demand for the latest in coach travel, but still had years of service life left, so the economical sense was to convert them at their workshop in High Green rather than sell them for a pittance and have to buy new service buses for dwindling non economic routes.

  10. David Evans says:

    Hi Ian
    that will be the greater bodge that you stuck in your airden
    They were a tanner, if you couldn’t whittle your own.

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