The Royal Oak, Bullings Heath: The last century

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.

The former Royal Oak from a late 1980s aerial photo. These were all the rage locally in about 1988; a student was flying over the area, taking pics and then selling them door to door. I see a few still surviving – there was one in Mario’s Fish bar and a couple in local pubs. We really ought to see if we can gather these in an article sometime, as a sort of ‘Pre Google Earth mashup’. Image supplied by the Smith family.

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:

Hi Bob

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.

Kind regards

Hilary Little

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.

A re-roofed Royal Oak, as captured by David Evans, 15th June 2012.

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]

Faced at a later date, I’m struck by how much the building resembles others built in Shire Oak. Perhaps the same hand built them all. Image from David Evans, captured 15th June 2012.

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!

Some of the interior woodwork remains. Picture from 15th June 2012, by David Evans.

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

Privy office? Built like a brick outhouse. Those are serious facilities. Image again supplied by David Evans, 15th June 2012.

In the overgrown side garden there had been a urinal, remembered by Ron Smith during one of the conversations.

This is the brickwork on the privy; I’m intrigued that it seems to have been modified. Phot by David Evans, 15th June 2012.

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.

The clay pipe bowl. I think reader Howmuch? has found one similar somewhere. Clay pipes were, of course, the smoking weapon of choice for many of the working class. Image by David Evans, 19th June 2012.

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.

This tub was used to wash glasses in the pub, and was rescued by Tony. Wonder how it was made? Image supplied by David Evans, and taken 16th April 2012.

How Ron Smith remembers Bullings Heath. Click for a larger version. Coppice Woods are at the top, the Black Cock Bridge at the bottom.

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.

David Evans

June 2012

Ron Smith, without whom this valuable piece of local history would have passed unknown. My thanks go out to him. Photo by David Evans, 16th April 2012.

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. 

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22 Responses to The Royal Oak, Bullings Heath: The last century

  1. Pedro says:

    I was sat at the bottom of the garden a week ago, smoking a reflective cheroot, thinking about this and that – mostly that – and I just happened to glance at the night sky, and I marvelled at the millions of stars glistening like little pieces of quicksilver thrown carelessly onto black velvet. In awe, I watched the waxen moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an amber chariot towards the void of infinite space wherein the tethered bolts of Jupiter and Mars hang forever festooned in all their orbital majesty, and as I looked at all this, I thought to myself, ‘I must put a roof on this lavatory.’

    Les Dawson

  2. Caz says:

    Thank you Bob , David and the Smith family for this fascinating article. i’m enjoying every bit of it.
    Can i be cheeky?….I know that Ron’s brother Stan lived at the house in question but did they also have a brother Sid.? My Dad wrote in his ‘life story’ about his very good friend Ron Smith.They went through school together,trips to the pictures / blood tub, and cycled to Walsall each day together where they worked at the same place.They later joined the forces at the same time but Ron joined the airforce and Dad the navy. I’m wondering if this is the same Ron?
    The map i sent you last August , dated 1879, regarding the mortuary near the pub/house covered this area.
    Talk via the area is that the house will be pulled down and houses built on the land. It’s a shame really……i could imagine visiting that House and privy at the Black Country Museum.
    If you do want to gather up these aerial photos from the 80,s then i can fish mine out. i recently had someone knocking the door trying to sell me another one and he couldn’t believe the previous one has been relegated to the loft.Despite the price dropping drastically i wasn’t tempted lol
    Thanks again, Caz

  3. Hilary says:

    My sincere thanks to David and Bob for taking on this huge piece of research and with such tremendous results. The history of the area and the part the house has played, is absolutely fascinating and yes I agree it will be a shame to see it demolished.
    Thank you to everyone who has contributed further information too, I have really enjoyed reading the comments..please keep them coming.
    Sorry Caz, but Ron doesn’t have a brother called Sid…. does that mean its the wrong Ron Smith?
    Thanks again

    • Caz says:

      Thanks Hilary, for contacting Bob and bringing this to the blog. I’m enjoying reading about the history of the house and the area, it’s so interesting. My Dad talks about Rons brother Sid so yes it must be a different Ron.Unless my Dad’s made a mistake and got the names Stan and Sid mixed up lol. My Dads name was Arthur Edwards.
      thanks again, Caz

  4. Clive says:

    Nice one, well done to all involved in the making of this article. another piece of our history recorded instead of being lost forever!

  5. Brilliant, and fascinating…thank you for getting hold of and preserving evidence which is fading before our eyes.

  6. David Evans says:

    HI Pedro
    love your Les Dawson lines..Barry Cryer, Barry Took , Eddie Braben and Marty Feldman …masters at their craft !

  7. Hilary says:

    Hi Caz,
    My Mum has spoken to Ron and he reckons that the Ron and Sid your Dad knew “lived in the old row of houses next to the park, as it was then, in Lichfield Road”
    Hope that helps

    • Caz says:

      Thank you Hilary, my Dad lived in the cottages by the entrance of Walsall Wood school but then moved, when he was about 4,to a house in Lichfield Road by , Ebenezer Church. He described the row of houses as being similar to the ones he’d lived in by the school, and wrote that he ‘called’ for Ron each morning to walk to school with, so your Uncle Ron is probably correct. Thanks again, Caz

  8. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    and the Pepper Alley ?….. many years ago Val’s mother had told her that it was the driveway down to the Royal Oak..and can just be made out on Google Earth image, by the new houses..from the lane ….
    52..37..51..23N 1..56..13..98
    the locality had been named after an interesting local feature, indeed!

  9. Caz says:

    A friend tells me she thinks a Mrs Beddows lived in the one half of the house prior to the Smith family buying it. Mrs Bott, listed on Ron’s sketch moved out early 1980’s and the next door neighbour at that time was a Mrs Jones.

  10. Hilary says:

    Hi again Caz…you are right about Mr and Mrs Beddows living in the other half of the house, they lived there with their children, Joyce, Cynthia and David..if memory serves me right. When Nan and Grandad moved in with their four elder children, Ron, Stan, Joan and Valerie, they rented the house for a number of years before buying it outright from George Powell in 1950. The Beddows family then became their tenants. Grandad went on to buy the houses next door later on too….they would have been to the right of the house as you stand looking at the front of it.
    Incidentally, George Powell bought the house from Lichfield Brewery on 13. 10.1936.
    I believe that when Mr and Mrs Beddows left the house they were quite elderly and needed the comforts of a modern home… an indoor lavatory and bathroom! When I was a child neither home had either. I remember Mrs Bott well, she was a good friend of Nan’s.

  11. Hilary says:

    Oops….forgot Doreen and Minnie Beddows……thanks Mum

  12. David Evans says:

    HI Caz
    just noticed your comment of August 28. I believe that the house by Ebenezer Methodist Chapel in Lichfield Road, Walsall Wood,was the one Joseph Wright’s son in law Noah Creswell bought and lived in after the Royal Oak passed in to other hands, following the demise of the old shoemaker!

    • Caz says:

      Thanks David, the way Dad described it, it was similar to those at the Black Country museum, with the black leaded grate and an outside privy as most houses were back then. I’m finding this so interesting so thank you for all the time and effort you’ve put into it, best wishes Caz.

  13. David Evans says:

    HI Caz,
    I think there may be a loose connection between Noah Creswell the builder ( Royal Oak) and Beech Tree House in the 1880s. (Noah Creswell lived in Beech Tree House before he moved in to the Royal Oak when Mr Wright was very old and was married to Mr Wright’s daughter )The same Beech Tree House later became our own local Dr Robert’s home in 1940-to1960/70s. Dr Roberts retired and moved to Shenstone Lodge, seemingly previously owned by a certain Mr Negus..younger relative of James Negus, the ironmonger turned bank manager from Wednesbury who was linked to Royal Oak’s finances in its early days. Enjoy!

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  18. Tony Dibble says:

    Been trying for ages to comment but email kept being regected I was born next to travellers rest it was walsall rd not lichfield rd nellie and tom fenn kept it photo is in blue book of walsall wood I put names of people who lived going up to bridge I lent it to someone they lost it any idea if it is to be reprinted there was a chip shop about 2o yards from put on opposite side of rd called cashmores think 3d portion plus 3 grocers mrs addis corner hall lane mrs jones 3 doors from pub mrs selvey opposite little farther down

  19. Brian Edwards says:

    On the drawing created by Ron Smith there is mention of a family named Jackson living next door to Bott’s. I went to Shelfield Senior school with John Bott and infant and junior school with a Gillian Jackson; the infants and juniors being back in the late 50’s / early 60’s. Would anyone know if this is the same Jackson family. I thank you for your time.

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