This is the second of a multi-part epic. Researched painstakingly by David Evans, top bloke and stalwart of this blog, he wrote this up some months ago, and I’ve been working on bringing the information out in the best way possible.
If you haven’t already, it’s worth reading the first instalment of this story, the later discovery of the licensing record by [Howmuch?], as well as more general stuff about the Bullings Heath area of Walsall Wood.
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.
The story continues…
In 1911 A Mr William Turner aged 49 was the licensee of the Royal Oak where a total of nine people were living at that time.
From deed documents we can see more of the history of the premises, and of the business arrangements which Joseph Wright and his fellow shoe-maker Charles Cliff Ashmore embarked on in 1857; the procession of indentures and counter indentures indicating serious financial problems, which resulted in the property being divided in to two sections, effectively separating the Royal Oak house from the surrounding Messuages and tenement, which consisted of six dwellings with sitting tenants.
At a later stage the Royal Oak seems to have finally ceased to be a beer or ale house, probably in the 1930s, and the house was subdivided into two dwellings. One of these was occupied as a home until the 1970s, and the other half of the building was occupied until very very recently.
[Note from Bob – from a contribution by reader and history wonk [Howmuch?] we later identified the date of closure recorded as December, 1927 – at least, that’s when the license expired]
The building today shows the modifications that were made after 1893, likely by Mr Noah Creswell, where a large barn-workshop at the rear of the original hose was demolished and a large lounge and kitchen was built on. In 1941 Mr and Mrs Smith moved into one half of the house and later bought the whole property in 1950.
The former Royal Oak retains little of its original character, as over the years windows and windowframes have been replaced, the front face has been rendered, a complete new roof was fitted some years ago, but I have been able to visit the building recently, and Mrs Smith’s son in law showed me around the house. There is a huge cellar, sadly now flooded up to two feet below the ground level, some original cupbards are still to be seen, brickwork shows where the blackleaded kitchen range once stood, the ceilings are very high, and I was shown some original wallpaper, saw the deep skirting boards, climbed the one set of stairs (the house now has two sets – each home had its own stairs!) and then climbed the second set of stairs up to the floor-boarded, plastered loft!
Perhaps of greatest historical interest is the surviving outside privy, the one part of the building that seems to have escaped from renovations, modernisation, repointing, etc. This is a two-roomed facility, the one surviving door is boarded, the Staffordshire Blue bricks are crooked but not worn even though the mortar (made from lime from Goblins Pit, perhaps?) is well-worn. The well in the front garden has been covered over, the stables, barn and pigsty were demolished some years ago, but post 1950. The outhouses and workshops were demolished in pre-war years and were not mentioned by anyone during conversations and discussions
In the overgrown side garden there had been a urinal, remembered by Ron Smith during one of the conversations.
I was given a souvenir of my wonderful visit there. A clay pipe bowl, with the pattern of an oak leaf on it, found with many others, in the ash tip by the old building , by Tony.
But there is one remaining artefact from the glorious days of the Royal Oak, and that is the galvanised tub used for washing the glasses, which Ron rescued from the cellar of the pub when the water level began to rise, and he and Tony lost one of their subterranean playgrounds for ever.
Ron drew a plan of the Bullings Heath/Pepper Alley community of his childhood and recalled some of the events which stood out in his memory. A night-time air-raid which saw three bombs land in the field behind Grange farm, and which show a shadows in the 1945 AirForce photo in Google Earth; the mare in the fields, its injuries sustained in the bombing. He mentioned where he believed Goblins Pit had been. Ron had been a farm lad at the Grange farm during the war years, and knew the pit as a depression which often flooded, and was linked by a deep ditch or channel running parallel to the lane, in the Coppy Woods.
Ron said that he had seen the tanks training in the distance at Shire Oak during the war. His opinion was that they were ‘Matilda’ tanks. Both he and his sister Val remembered well the Saturday and Sunday night fisticuffs outside the Black Cock pub, Ron saying that they were really ‘bravado, taking a punch for a dare, or for half a crown’ (toeing the line?). They had often collected coins that had fallen from pockets the next morning. Both had been told by their mother, that the community had had an Irish element ‘in the old days’.
I would like to express my sincere personal and abiding thanks to Hilary Little who sent the initial e-mail to Bob, to her mother Val Francis and her husband Tony, and to Val’s brother Ron Smith, retired headmaster, for their kindness and generosity of spirit. Val, Tony and Ron still live in Walsall Wood, by the way. And, perhaps most of all, to that cyclist, Brownhills Bob, for his backstage work and effort in this unique blog.
A final footnote from Bob:
I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to David, Ron, Val and the Smith family for taking the time and effort to share something very precious with us, that might otherwise have been lost forever. David Evans in particular has put body and soul into this and I remain in his debt.
I’d also like to thank everyone for their patience, too; these articles are a mare to edit and put together, but very enjoyable, too. They take so much time that sometimes, it’s difficult to fit them in. Cheers all for waiting while I got my backside into gear.