This is a wonderful thing for a Sunday, and I’m very pleased to post this article written by two new contributors to the Brownhills Blog, Gregory and Bill Challis. Bill was formerly a Brownhills Man. I’ll let them explain in their own words.
I came across your website and was fascinated by the programme for the 1950 music festival in which my Grandpa, and namesake, had an advert.
I have been working with my Dad (Bill Challis, born 1930) and formerly of Lichfield Road, Brownhills on writing some memories from before and during the war.
Dad says the advert didn’t include a phone number because they didn’t have one at that time!
I thought that you might be interested in a couple of the stories, perhaps even publishing them on the website. One about the old horse drawn fire brigade before the war and another an account of the bombs that were dropped on the village in 1940-41.
Please let me know if you would like me to send either of them.
Many thanks and keep up the good work, the website is a real treasure trove.
All the best
PS Dad wanted to know if you have had much on the website about the King of Norton Canes?
Well, we’re interested in all local history here, and Norton may be over the water, but it’s all good stuff. I’d heard nothing about royal lineage in the village, either, so naturally, I snapped Greg’s hand off.
I think readers will agree that the result is beautifully written, warm and, above all, highly engaging. I thank Greg and Bill most profusely and welcome any further contributions.
Please, if you remember Bill, or his family, or if you had a brush with royalty, don’t hesitate to comment, or mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.
‘Bill’ Challis, was born William Edmund (after his father’s home town of Bury St Edmunds), in September 1930, at 27 Lichfield Road, Brownhills. The family later moved to 27A, a house which his father had built by dividing the large plot of land on which No.27 stood.
Bill was educated at Ogley Hay Infants and Juniors School, Brownhills and later won a scholarship to King Edward VI’s Grammar School, Lichfield, 1941-46.
His mother, who also hailed from Suffolk, was Marjorie Jane (nee Hyslop), who raised nine children. and his father Greg Challis was a painter and decorator well known in the district.
The King of Norton Canes
On the Cannock Chase coalfield small villages sprang up adjacent to many of the collieries. Some, like Brownhills, grew and flourished, but many remained pit villages where the well being of the whole community was dependent upon employment in the local mine.
It was common practice for mines to have a nickname, one being the ‘Lady’ pit because when it flooded a titled Lady put up the money to pump it out and restore it to production. Saddest to me was The Vigo pit, Walsall Wood. The coal seams here were deep underground and the road to the coalface was long. No coal could be produced until the shaft had been sunk and the wages were always appallingly poor while the miners struggled to sledge, bar and blast their way to get to the coal. As a result, credit ran out at the local shops and families couldn’t even afford bread and lard and were reduced to eating dry bread. The suffering of the men and their families were legendary in the district and hence the name stuck – ’The Dry Bread’ colliery.
Norton Canes was way out in the wilds at the end of the mineral line. This was a single track railway over which coal trucks were hauled to the sidings and marshalled for dispatch across the national rail network.
The only mine was difficult to work and gave low outputs per shift. Since the miners were paid on output, wages were low and the village economy was stunted and poor. The coal seams were at shallow depths and when dug out resulted in extensive subsidence. This had ‘pulled’ the houses and they leant at drunken angles with cracked and distorted walls and gaping windows through which coal dust blew in summer and, in winter, freezing wind and rain against which the miners’ wives slaved to keep their homes clean and raise the children.
Despite everything, Norton Canes did boast its own King. No-one in their right mind, would want to be ruler of a Kingdom with such poverty and, in fact, the King was mad. He was a small, weather-beaten and thin, wiry man who used to roam around and announce loudly, ‘I’m the King of Norton Canes!’ He wore a bent trilby, and his face was beaten red by the weather and his nose shades of purple and blue. Somehow he always seemed to have several days growth of stubble, although I never saw him clean shaven or with a beard. He carried a branch as a walking stick and was bizarrely dressed in any old clothes he could get his hands on.
Local youth thought this was hilarious and he was always known simply as The King.
Deranged as The King might have been, he was not entirely stupid when his own interests were at stake. For instance, he was reputed to have gone into a public house and asked for a pint of beer in exchange for two stamps. In those days an unused postage stamp could be traded in lieu of money. Having got his glass of beer, the King drank it, stamped his foot on the floor twice and walked out.
The youth of the village considered themselves entitled to give him cheek, although I was always rather wary of him.
One fine summer evening, we heard the voice of The King in our back yard declaiming, ‘I’m the King of Norton Canes’. It proved difficult to get him to leave and it was then that Father made a fatal blunder and gave him sixpence to go away. What this did was to ensure that we had to endure repeated audiences with The King. The only respite came when he was caught stealing two cabbages from a farmer’s field and was sent to prison for a short while.
But then came what we thought would be our salvation from his attentions. My parents’ first daughter was a girl, Joan, who very sadly died in infancy from erysipelas. Another daughter, Mary, followed who seemed to me to be specially regarded in my Father’s eye. Despite the sacrifice it entailed, all the children were allowed to sit for a scholarship and could go to the Grammar School if they could win a free place, as it was out of the question for my parents to afford the fees. This we managed; Greg, the eldest boy, got a good School Certificate and went on to pass the civil service exam. As the time came near for Mary to sit for her School Certificate, to encourage her, I remember Father saying: ‘I am not a rich man, but pass that exam and to the limit of my pocket you can name your prize.’
She passed. ‘What’s it to be?’ said father. Mary replied: ‘I want a dog.’ So she went to Lewis’s store in Birmingham. It is etched on my memory, because she had put her handbag down next to the rabbits’ cage and a rabbit nibbled a hole in it, through which she lost sixpence.
I was staggered. How could anyone be so careless to have sixpence in their possession and then lose it? But she did return with Towser, a mongrel puppy.
There were nine children in the family and, with their friends, the dog was spoiled rotten. If you called it, it would come only if it thought there might be some advantage for itself. If not, it simply ignored you and walked away. When unable to make up its mind, it would shuffle around sideways.
One evening, when fooling around one of brothers got a shoe off Mary’s foot and tossed it to Towser who shot off with it at top speed. We chased him for nearly a mile until he tired and we caught up with him. But at some point, he had lost interest in anything but the chase and dropped the shoe. We searched everywhere but never found it.
Ball games were a favourite target for him. Waiting for his chance, he would rush in, seize the ball and make off. Usually that was the last that would be seen of the ball.
Towser was the bane of bona-fide callers at the house; he was not vicious but liked to nip the back of their heels. In consequence, the postman, newsagent, milkman and other tradesmen no longer called at the back door but handed their wares in at the side window.
The King’s visits to us were always in the evening because that was when Father would be in and this was his only chance of getting paid to go away.
Mother’s charity did not extend to The King.
Came the evening when we heard the familiar sound of The King announcing his presence and status and Towser’s chance to show his mettle. We opened the door and out bounded Towser. The King demanded his allegiance and Towser grovelled before him, crawling up to his feet and licking his hand.
The King held court in our back yard, and again we were detained at his Majesty’s pleasure.
Mother cursed Towser as a wretched useless cur. And Father swore and gave The King sixpence to go away.