Last weekend I introduced readers to one of my longstanding passions – the 1930s gazetteer series that is Arther Mee’s ‘The King’s England’. Back then, I broached the subject with Arthur’s florid, but charming take on Wall, the little local village with the big Roman history.
Arthur didn’t consider Brownhills or Walsall Wood to be worthy of inclusion, and I can see why, really; neither are particularly historic and would have been quite down at heel when he came calling in the early 1930s. He did, however record neighbouring villages, and I’ll get to some of those in future.
This week, I include his take on Walsall, which many may find surprising. Arthur is impressed. His roll-call of the noteworthy townsfolk is illuminating and I find his devotional take on Sister Dora to be lovely. He also notes the town’s dedication to greenspace, a historic predilection our current burghers would do well to note.
Any comments, please feel free to add or mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.
WALSALL. An ancient town on the edge of the Black Country, it looks north and east to scenes of unspoilt beauty, proud of its roll of fame and proud of its achievements. Bringing the country into the town, it is rich in open spaces and recreation grounds (it has hundreds of acres), chief among them being the Arboretum of nearly 90 acres beautiful with trees, shrubs, flowers, and lakes. Reedswood Park is an example for all time of what can be done to make an ugly country beautiful, for its 64 acres are a paradise won from the dumps of disused mines, one of the county’s created wonderlands. It has also the county’s first King George Playing-Field; it is at Bloxwich, and has fine heraldic gates.
Long the capital of the saddlery trade, where horses were bitted and buckled and harnessed in all the trappings of utility and splendour, it found its main industry menaced by the mechanical transport of our time and turned its leather-work to account in equipping cars, and its bit and buckle foundries into factories for steel structures of all kinds. With coal and iron at its door, and canals and railways to fetch and carry, we found it busy and thriving in spite of depressions. There is honest pride in the wide main thoroughfares in the chief buildings of Walsall and in memorials to men and women who have served it or distinguished it. Twentieth-century Walsall seeks to better its streets as 18th-century Walsall bettered its manners. John Wesley recorded that he had an unhandsome reception here in 1743, but 20 years later found the town changed, for ‘God hath tamed the wild beasts, or chained them up!’ A brass tablet reminds us that a hundred years later General Booth lived here with his saintly wife and his son Bramwell (at 5 Hatherton Street).
A missioner of a different type, Jerome K. Jerome, has a tablet at Belsize House in Bradford Street, where in 1859 he was born into the family of a preacher who was also a mine-owner, and a Nonconformist mother who remembered being pelted with mud and stones for going to chapel in Wales. Floods ruined Father Jerome’s mine, and the boy suffered from miserable poverty, but he educated himself and made the English-speaking world laugh with his delightful story of Three Men in a Boat; and in his prime he thrilled it with a beautiful play, the Passing of the Third Floor Back. So it was with his autobiography, which is full of laughter and tears, and ends with the solemn testament of a Christian who has fought the good fight and is assured of his goal. He died in 1927, Walsall’s most gifted literary son and one of England’s merry gentlemen.
It was a younger son of the town, Lieutenant S. N. Webster, who won the distinction of being the first man to travel at more than four miles a minute. He won the Schneider Trophy for England by flying at 4.69 miles a minute, the greatest speed attained by a human being at that time. Walsall’s proudest monument to warlike valour is the fine bronze bust (outside the library in Lichfield Street) of Seaman Carless, who won the VC in a naval engagement in the war while serving as a gunner. In spite of a fatal wound he helped to remove stricken men to safety and to lift a shell for his gun; then, falling, he struggled to his feet again, cheered on the men, sank down, and died. He looks here what he was, the happy warrior:
This is he.
That every man in arms should wish to be.
The peace memorial is a white stone cenotaph in Bradford Place, but thought for the living has been blended with memories of the dead, and three playing-fields, an addition of 500 acres to the town’s open spaces, arc part of the gift of remembrance. In the fine town hall, with handsome pillars, beautiful gables, and a remarkable tower with a lantern and crown 150 feet high, are the records of the 2000 men who served, their names inscribed on eight panels, their story told in stately vellum volumes.
It is the valour of peace which is expressed in another monument at Walsall, valour which prompted a gentle woman to face death a hundred times. The monument is Mr F. J. Williamson’s delightful statue of Dorothy Pattison, the immortal Sister Dora. She stands at the Bridge in white marble on a red granite pillar, with four panels of scenes from her work. We see her in nursing uniform, holding a roll of surgical bandages, her scissors hanging from her belt, her fine face a blend of courage, humour, and benevolence, looking as Walsall saw her last century, the Florence Nightingale of the town. There are memories here of another brave but tragically mis guided woman, Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles Stuart, who, when on her way in 1643 to join the king, then advancing to Edgehill, stayed at what is now the White Hart Inn, a fine Tudor brick house with a small hart’s head in each of its lower windows.
High above the town, and seen for miles around, rises the lofty spire of St Matthew’s Church on its hilltop, with superb views from its churchyard of the Wrekin, Barr Beacon, Cannock Chase, and of green fields stretching to the horizon. Nothing remains for us to see of the Norman church, for the present building with its many spire like pinnacles was rebuilt in the last two centuries.
The oldest monument, worn and mutilated, is that of Sir Roger Hillary in 14th-century armour, who has come back to the church after being long lost. On an alabaster wall monument is a medallion bust of William Purvis, another of Walsall’s heroes, who served for 24 years in the 17th Lancers, fought in the Crimea and the Mutiny, and returned to his birthplace, to tell of that marvellous ride in 1854 when he charged with the Light Brigade, and was one of that little host which came back through the valley of death.
Slender pillars carry the nave arcades, and there are two striking windows over the chancel arch, in which is a wonderfully carved modern screen, with a Crucifix between a pathetic Madonna and St John, reaching from the rood to the height of the arch. But it is the old woodwork which is most charming. There are eight splendidly carved poppyheads, among them an eagle with three bodies and a demon’s head whose hair is like flames. There are 18 grand old choir-stalls, with richly chiselled armrests and misereres, a splendid series of carvings including an angel, grotesque animals, a jolly little man who might have sat for Lord Tom Noddy, all head and no body, a musician who has been cheerily blowing away for 500 years, a Centaur looking one way and shooting his arrow another, and an athlete who seems for ever seeking to leap over a pole. We noticed that the parish clerk of this fine place was at his post for 54 years; he had the odd name of Hyla Archer.
Most appealing of all in the church is the sanctuary window, with its company of angels in memory of Walsall’s good angel Sister Dora.
The Sacrifice of Sister Dora
THE daughter of a rector of Hauxwell in Yorkshire, Dorothy Pattison wanted to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, although at the time she knew nothing of nursing. But her father disapproved of her ideas, and not until she was nearly 30 did she leave home to teach in a Buckinghamshire village school.
Soon she joined the Sisterhood of the Good Samaritan, taking the name of Sister Dora. The Town Council of Walsall had asked the Sisters to open a hospital for industrial accidents; the Sister in charge fell ill, and Dora, with very little training, had to take over the work. Smallpox broke out. Epidemic followed epidemic, and she was taxed to the limits of her tremendous endurance. She spent her hours of rest nursing in their own homes those who had none to care for them.
The discipline of the Sisterhood could be strict to the point of inhumanity, as Dora found when she was refused permission to visit her dying father. In the end she left the Sisterhood, went on with her nursing, and took charge of the work of a hospital here. She did the work of an army, and always gaily. ‘Make you laugh?’ said one of her patients. ‘She’d make you laugh if you were dying.’ She studied anatomy, and could perform minor operations skilfully. As eye accidents were frequent in Walsall she went to the Ophthalmic Hospital in Birmingham to learn about their treatment. She was deeply religious, and combined her work with prayer.
‘Sister, save my arm. It’s my right arm!’ pleaded a healthy-looking workman hurt by a machine. The doctor shook his head gravely, and said ‘Amputate,’ but suddenly Dora felt strength in her; she did what a nurse is supposed never to do – she opposed the doctor, who was furious. For three weeks she strove; the man’s name was forgotten and to the whole hospital he became Sister’s Arm. He was saved, and on every spare Sunday he had the work man would walk 11 miles to ring the bell and enquire after Sister Dora. ‘Just tell her that her arm rang the bell,’ he would say.
At last she was attacked by cancer. Nothing could be done for her, so she went back to her wards and continued dressing wounds, serving meals, washing up, cracking jokes, so that her patients, seeing her radiance, caught a new enthusiasm for living. To the end she hid her suffering from them.