Horses are in the Black Country DNA. Whether it was working with them to tow narrowboats or transport goods, marshalling them down the pit, or riding them for the sheer joy, these noble animals have a secure place in the local heart. The love of horses, and their strong showing in Reg Fullelove’s remarkable Brownhills Carnival film led to top local history ferret The Young David Evans turning up some rather surprising and unexpected history.
Featured in the carnival recording were some show riders from Walsall Wood. The best thing I can do is let David explain.
As ever, I hope you’ll join with me in thanking David, Audrey Proffitt and Sheila Norris for their incredibly hard work and dedication in documenting another bit of the historical patchwork that would otherwise be lost.
Just one question: I remember some Southalls living in Brownhills around the Pelsall Road area in the 70s. I think they had a son called Richard who was a teacher. Is that the same family – are they still there? Lovely people, as I recall.
This article takes the form of some extraordinary materials, which relate the story of the Cossack Riders of Walsall Wood, first brought to light in the remarkable black and white film of Brownhills Carnivals 1934 and 1935.
With the consent of Mrs Sheila Norris we reproduce her blog comments and also add extracts from Mrs Proffitt’s own Childhood memories, plus some photographs.
‘I am the granddaughter of Richard Southall (senior) who won the prize for best turned out horse and niece of Richard Southall (junior) who came second. (My Great Grandfather was Joseph Southall, landlord of the Shire Oak Inn in times long past)
‘The Cossacks’ mentioned in the film included Richard Southall junior and my mother, Cynthia Southall (although probably in later carnivals as she would have been only 9 in 1934). They were trained by their father, Richard Southall senior, who had learnt such skills in the Army where he had been a riding instructor with the Twentieth Hussars. He was a regular soldier for 10 years and served on the Western Front during the Great War.
My mother often told me about the marvellous riding shows they put on for the carnivals and for the gymkhanas in Oak Park, and was particularly proud of her brother (known as Dickie) who could perform many stunts on horseback. They and other teenagers, including possibly Ron Beak, were trained in Cossack riding by Richard Southall in Beak’s field which is where St John’s Junior school stands today. My Aunt, Audrey Proffitt (nee Southall) was the youngest of the family and never learnt to ride but still remembers going to watch them training there.
As both my mother and uncle died some years ago now, I asked her to tell me more about the stunts they performed and she told me how strict her father was with the young riders – ‘no, no, no, start again’.
One stunt they used to do was to ride 3 abreast with others standing on their shoulders to form a pyramid, with one balanced right on top( a total of 6 participants) She remembers the top boy falling off and hurting his shoulder on one occasion but it wasn’t her brother. They used to run and vault onto the horses. They also used to perform the ‘V.C.Race’. This entailed racing in pairs, one on the horse and the other standing on the ground. The rider would gallop towards his partner (Dickie on the horse, my Mum standing on the ground in our family’s case), reach down, sweep up the partner, throw the partner onto the back of the horse bareback, and then gallop over jumps. Richard Southall senior could slip from the saddle while moving, slide underneath the horse’s belly and climb back up the other side. This was the only trick that Dickie could not accomplish. However, he could hang backwards off the horse while galloping to snatch a handkerchief from the ground. He was a marvellous horseman and was a junior show jumping champion at only 16.
My Aunt does not remember the troupe being formally called ‘The Cossacks’ but the type of riding they did for carnivals and shows was known as Cossack riding.
My cousin (another Richard Southall!) son of Dickie, told me recently that his father in later life pointed out a field in a place called Canwell near Sutton Coldfield saying that his father had dropped him there one day to train with a touring Russian Cossack horse riding company. Richard Southall senior gave them some cash and Dickie lived and trained with them in the field for a week or two. Dickie also told his son that once at the circus the audience was asked if anyone could emulate the circus horsemen by riding round the ring standing on the back of a horse. He jumped on and won some prize money.
My Aunt is a little sceptical about the Canwell story as she does not remember this and Dickie had a tendency to tell tall stories but who knows? He was certainly talented.
[Bob’s note: This is a history of circuses pitched up at Canwell – I remember 2 or 3 from my youth, so this is highly probable. I’ve also heard tales before of circuses training outsiders for cash.]
Audrey tells me that the carnivals she remembers from her childhood were always led by her father. I know he used to wear his old dress uniform from the Hussars on such occasions and there is just a glimpse of a Hussar on horseback in the procession in the film, so I suspect this is my grandfather. The person holding the decorated horse’s bridle at the beginning of the film and described as Mr. Seedhouse by Reg looks very like my grandfather, in fact. When my father saw the footage he immediately remarked that it was his father-in-law and my Aunt agrees it is her father, Richard Southall.
My own father is nearly 90 and remembers going to the carnivals (he grew up in Clayhanger). The thing he most remembers is the pig roast! He says a sandwich cost about 6d – very expensive but delicious. He also remembers hearing about the Norton Dandies and mentioned another band known as the Double Sixes, whose emblem was a double six domino.
My grandfather’s brother John Southall (always known as Jack) worked at Craddock’s Farm, Shire Oak, and was the one who dressed up the horses for the carnivals in their fine brasses, ribbons and plaited manes etc. He and his wife Louie lived in the cottage immediately adjacent to the Ivy House Off-Licence. It is shown in the photo of Ivy House, also on the blog. My mother and her siblings were all born next door but one in the end cottage, 101 Lichfield Road.’
Many thanks to Reg for sharing this wonderful film and letting me experience a little piece of my parents’ and grandparents’ world.
Sheila Norris (nee Jones) 13th August 2013.
And, Mrs Proffitt’s memories;-
‘Dad rode horses a lot when he came home from the pit. He had been a riding instructor in the army and used to escort the King and Queen on occasions. Ken beak the butcher down the street had got three horses. He had the stables and slaughter house in the yard behind the sop. Dad used to teach Mr Beak’s children to ride and he took my sister Cynthia and my brother Dickie with him. Dickie turned out to be a wonderful horseman. He won prizes at the horse shows. He was junior champion for open show jumping when he was sixteen.
Dad taught him to do Cossack riding also. This was all thanks to Mr Beak who let them use his horses and his field for practice. During the war they used to have gymkhanas in Oak Park and all the proceeds went to the Red Cross. Dad and Mr Beak used to organise it all and it was a lovely day out. Other people from around who had horses would come and compete. I remember one race called the VC, Dickie and the other competitors each had a partner and would do a full gallop round the park and the come towards the jumps and at a certain point, still at full gallop, grad their partner and more or less throw them onto the horse’s rear behind them and go over every jump. I don’t recall Cynthia ever falling off, but a lot did’.