This is the first of a multi-part epic. Researched painstakingly by David Evans, top bloke and stalwart of this blog, he wrote this up some weeks ago, and I’ve been working on bringing the information out in the best way possible.
This whole story came about way back in March of this year, when I was contacted by Hilary Little. Hillary sent me the following email on the 11th of that month:
The end of an era is about to happen. The house in Green Lane, Walsall Wood that was many years ago the Royal Oak at Bullings Heath, is now empty with the passing of its last occupant. The family would love someone to be aware of the history of this place before it disappears into the mists.
It has been owned by the Smith family for the last 71 years, and my Mum, who grew up there, has lots of information about old cottages that used to be in this area… And their old residents. My Grandmother always said the drive way was called ‘Pepper alley’.
It would be great if my mum and her brother could talk to someone about the house and its history.
Please let me know if you or David Evans might be interested.
I immediately knew this was a job for David. He loves the local history, talks well, and like a dog with a bone, won’t let go. I put the task to him, and David jumped at the chance. Over the subsequent months, he has met with Hillary and the family, and documented everything beautifully.
The Royal Oak, and it’s location, have been mentioned here before, several times. It’s fitting that we can finally nail the history of this lost alehouse.
In the exploration, this history has turned out to be very complex. David has approached, and interpreted, what has become somewhat of a mystery. Pepper Alley is listed on census records and newspaper reports, but emerges and disappears from the historical record. We know it was in the Bullings Heath – Hall Lane area, but conflicting oral and official records have muddied the water.
Another great local history wonk – [Howmuch?] – has done his own study of Pepper Alley which I shall visit as part of this series. It’ll be interesting to see what readers make of this issue.
I’d like to thank everyone everyone involved – and especially Hillary, for thinking of this blog with the initial approach. David has worked incredibly hard, and it shows just what can be done when members of a community collaborate together on our historical commonwealth. Of course, full credit and thanks must be given to Hillary and family, who’ve shared their history with us in such a frank and candid way.
Right, on with the show. This appears to break abruptly, but there’s no easy place to edit it. My apologies, but a 3,000 word post has to be cut into manageable chunks.
The series begins with an analysis of the census and other official records.
An e-mail arrived from Bob. It contained an incredible piece of local history… a documentary reference to a largely unknown inn, the Royal Oak, in the lost area of Bullings Heath in Walsall Wood, asking for help to unwravel the history. The quest began!
Other sources were scarce, but one site, British History Online, with the pages detailing Walsall Wood, its economic history, local government and public service proved to be invaluable, as it quoted its sources. Walsall Wood in History, Walsall Councils own site for the area, seems to have taken its information from this site.
A lengthy and complicated census search ensued. This trawl was to cover eight census years, from 1841 to 1911, but from this labyrinth of information a spreadsheet slowly emerged, and with it a glimpse into the development of this part of Walsall Wood, and also a fascinating view of how the census evolved over these years, too.
In 1841 this part of Walsall Wood, between the Black Cock Bridge and Mob Lane, was largely rural. Some cottages (four dwellings) are listed at Goblins Pit, near what is now known as Coppice Woods. The next entry is for Walsall Woo, but luckily, mentions an Edmond Arblaster, farmer (his farm is later known as the sewage farm), and intriguingly mentions a David Birch, shoemaker, and a George Birch, an awl blade maker
In 1851 the names Bullings Heath and Pepper Alley appear, as places. A Joseph Lea, nail maker aged 47 is shown living at Bullings Heath, and a family of 6 blacksmiths are living at Bullings Heath… the first mention of blacksmiths here. In Pepper Alley John Harrison, aged 51, nail maker is living in Pepper Alley, with his family, including Samuel Harrison aged 18, a blacksmith. He is recorded as being the last horse-nail maker and in 1891 was living in Coppice Road. Also in Bullings heath a John Critch and 6 people were living. They were blacksmiths.
It was a small blacksmith/farrier and stabling community, with a shoe-maker, Mr Birch, and Mr Joseph Lea, another awl-blade maker. I am very glad that Mr. Lea did not move from this home. It helped to locate other dwellings in subsequent censuses.
One of the names that mysteriously appears and disappears here is Pepper Alley, often in relation to Hall Lane. In order to try and define this, I looked to the internet. A town museum near London, has one answer in that it has its own Pepper Alley. It was a place where people would settle their differences… and appears to come from similarly named medieval alley in London. So how did such a name come to be used in Walsall Wood? I think we need to remember the three, possibly four main external influences which may reveal an answer. The canal was built and opened in around 1798/1800 including the Catshill to Aldridge section, the Daw End Branch, which passed Bullings Heath. A term brought by navvies? There was great development in the canal traffic with the new brickworks and coal mines in nearby Aldridge. Perhaps cosmopolitan bargees brought the term? The new South Staffordshire Railway was built in 1850 through the nearby communities of Brownhills and Pelsall, which also caused an influx of migration from outside.
Mr. Joseph Wright is listed as one of a pair of buyers purchasing the community at Bullings Heath, from the Earl of Bradford on 31st March 1857. The other purchaser is named in later deeds as being Charles Cliff Ashmore.
The 1861 census shows that Mr Joseph Wright, a shoemaker from Goscote, was living in Bullings Heath with his wife, and the blacksmith and nail making community had dissolved. Mr Joseph Lea, the awl-maker, remained. Interestingly Mr Critch, who had moved just across the road, has his occupation as publican and blacksmith. I think this refers to the Black Cock pub, though it is not named in the 1861 census.
Fortunately there is a photo existing of the original Black Cock Pub. The building seems to have a bricked-up doorway. It is possible that this is where Harrison moved to, before moving to Coppice Road. Four nail-makers were given land by the Earl of Bradford. Was the Coppice Road one such parcel, or even the Black Cock parcel of land?
The name Royal Oak does not yet appear, though Joseph Wright is described as a shoemaker and publican, and is living in a house with 13 other people, whose occupations are listed as shoemakers. I think that this dwelling is the one which became known as the Royal Oak. A look at this particular census entry is well worth the effort!
In 1871 the reference to Goblins Pit is not included in the census, but Pepper Alley now shows as 8 dwellings, plus Mr Joseph Lea the blade maker in his home. The Black Cock Inn is named , with Critch and Washington, licensee and blacksmith. The Royal Oak appears in name, there are 10 people listed as living there, mainly shoemakers, with Joseph Wright, licensee and shoemaker. Again, this particular census page is worth a very close look. I pity the poor enumerator!
There are also several outhouses-cum-workshops, clearly inherited from the blacksmith times, a stable, a barn and a pigsty. Later deed plans show these outbuildings and also reveal that the original Royal Oak building had four downstairs rooms, five bedrooms, and a large attic….
In 1881 Pepper Alley is mentioned as having four dwellings, including one with James Parker, an agricultural worker and his family of eight children, and a man whose job was listed as engine driver. Times were beginning to change, perhaps. Joseph Lea, bless him, is still there, and his nephew, also a Joseph Lea is living with him. The nephew’s job is also listed as engine driver. Two families of coal miners have moved in, and the Beer House – the Royal Oak – has 10 people, mainly shoemakers. The sewage farm gets a first mention with Mr Matthew Webb, the farmer there. The little settlement of Bullings Heath has grown to 20 dwellings now.
In 1891 we see major changes. Mr Joseph Wright, now aged 78, is living in the Royal Oak, with Noah Creswell, son in law, and Joseph’s daughter Emma and their family. There are no shoemakers in the Royal Oak any more. The Black Cock Inn’s licensee is Thomas Squire, and Bullings Heath’s residents are nearly all coal miners. James Ball, a resident, is a brickyard manager. Down Green Lane, Grange Farm’s owner is Mister George Barns, Goblins Pit is listed, and there are four dwellings with Mr William Creswell, retired brickmaker, Thomas Cooper, coal miner, Samson Wattle and Joseph Aldridge, farm labourers, Joseph living there with his wife Phoebe. The Cemetery records for Walsall Wood show a Mrs. Aldridge buried there. The census mentions a Mrs Aldridge being born in Ireland, as were quite a few people in Hall Lane’s canalside cottages where many miners lived in 1881/1891.
Interestingly the census shows that Mr Noah Creswell’s occupation was bricklayer.
A Mr. Amos was still there, recorded as retired shoemaker, and was the last one there. The landlord of the Black Cock Inn was Mr Jackson, who was licensee and also colliery worker.
Deed records show that in 1893 half of the Royal Oak property was sold to Joseph Wright’s other son in law, And that Joseph Wright is referred to as ‘formerly innkeeper but out of business’.
The 1901 census shows that Mr Harry James was the farmer at the sewage farm, that Mr Amos was still living in the small community, Bullings Heath had 13 dwellings under this name, mainly miners, a blacksmith, Mr Harris, the Black Cock’s landlord was still Mr Jackson, but the Royal Oak Inn had Mr Noah Cresswell, aged 42, licensee and builder working on his own account, his wife Emma aged 40, their son Ernest aged 13, and Mary Clamp aged 18, servant, living there. Joseph Wright had died previously. But was Noah Creswell licensee of the former Royal Oak, or of another pub nearby?
To be continued…