Avoiding the Red Caps with the permission of Captain Palmer

It’s always a joy to feature articles here by the wonderful Anslow brothers; over the years John and Paul have contributed so much to our local history knowledge, from everyday but special weddings, to sneaking into fetes and even recalling lost Pelsallian ice ream vendors.

Well, the lads have been busy again, and I have this article and a followup to share with you in the coming days. When I asked for memories of air raids and  the like (I’m still interested in anything you have, by the way) I never expected something like this; this is a wonderful, beautifully written, all-encompassing ramble through wartime Pelsall and Brownhills, and I think it’s rather brilliant.

Thanks to John and Paul, and if you have anything to add, please do comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

John Onslow wrote:

NORTON JUNCTION-31-12-1966002

Norton Junction, the sidings just off the Pelsall Road at Highbridges, was busy during the war. Image from the South Staffordshire Rail Group.

Hello again Bob.

You recently asked for wartime memories of the local area. Paul and I were born after the war but used to play in and around the air-raid shelters and the like; we also heard stories from parents and grandparents.

What follows is something of a ramble, but I hope there will be bits that are of use.

At the outbreak of the War, Dad was living with his widowed mother and brother at 122 Walsall Road, Walsall Wood, more or less where Select Windows and Doors stands today. His brother, who had served pre-war in what he called ‘The Militia’, was posted abroad, while Dad was conscripted into the REME.

Dad took every opportunity to get back to look after his mother, who did not enjoy the best of health. When stationed at Whittington, near Lichfield, troops were forbidden to travel beyond Muckley Corner, where Red Caps were positioned as sentries; Dad used to avoid them by walking along the canal towpath and across fields. When he was posted further afield, he used passes from a book he had somehow obtained, signing them himself as ‘Captain Palmer’.

At home one night, he heard a stick of five German bombs fall without exploding. Paul remembers one of these being discovered in the working marl hole behind what is now Baron’s Court in 1968. The book ‘Memories of Old Walsall Wood’ by Bill Mayo and John Sale records that the unexploded bomb caused the closure of the road on 9th April 1968, also noting that one other bomb had been found previously. If Dad was right, and no others have been found since 1968, there are still three awaiting discovery!


I bet that made the driver’s eyes bulge a bit. And in the world of local journalism, all bombs tick, obviously. Brilliant stuff from Memories of Old Brownhills by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

Once when Dad was home without permission he was told by a neighbour that the Red Caps had been out looking for a deserter; mistakenly thinking they were after Dad, the neighbour had sent them on a wild-goose chase over the Jockey Fields away from Dad’s house.

Bombs fell around High Bridge in Pelsall: whether the enemy was aiming for the shunting yards or just getting rid of bombs following a raid on Birmingham I don’t know, but a house was destroyed and my mother, then a teenager, recalled walking from Brownhills with other people to have a nosey at the damage the following morning. The house was never rebuilt, and High Bridge Row had a gap in the terrace until it was finally demolished.

I recall that as children we used to play in the tunnel-like air-raid shelters that were dug at the southern end of the shunting yards. They wound into the bank and back out, presumably to enable railwaymen to run in during a raid but to deflect the shock waves from the blast. It was always a dare to navigate through these tunnels without a torch.

In the fields between York’s Foundry Bridge and the railway line was a huge crater that was not the result of enemy action, though I recall that some children called it ‘the bomb hole’. It was, in fact, the result of a mining collapse in the 1870s or thereabouts. A few yards from that hole there was what appeared to be a genuine bomb crater: circular, about 12 feet across and 3 feet deep.

Paul was talking recently to a gentleman who had been at school in Pelsall during the War. He described air–raid drills in which all the children with their gas masks were marched to the shelters that had been dug between Church Road and Slate Row, north of the Labour Club. These had been bricked up by the time Paul and I were old enough to play out, but they remained as hillocks until they were finally cleared for a public garden in the 1970s.

I remember two other air-raid shelters, one in the back garden of the Stokes’s house on Hall Lane opposite the church, and the other that must have been somewhere between what is now Braeside Way and Hall Lane, dug into a steep bank. (Hence Braeside?)

Paul recalls public shelters in Shelfield, possibly on that triangle of land between Four Crosses Road and Lichfield Road, and another set in Pelsall between the “Senior School” (now Pelsall Village School) playing fields and Wolverhampton Road.


High bridge Row, as remembered by John and Paul Onslow. Image from ‘A Picture Tour of Pelsall, Russell and Shelfield’ by John Sale and Bill Mayo.

Now for a final couple of oddments.

First, I once heard a tale of a Pelsall man who at the time of conscription had recently bought himself a top-of-the-range motorcycle, something like an Ariel Square Four. When he received his call up papers, he did not want the machine to be used by irresponsible relatives so he dismantled it, packed it with grease, wrapped it in tarred paper and buried it in the garden of a house in Mount Road, or thereabouts. Whether he ever returned to dig up his treasure I do not know, though the storyteller seemed to imply that he did not.

Secondly, Paul recalls that a Mr Archer, who worked for Aldridge Brick and Tile, had received special training in 1935 or 36 for the new process of manufacturing Utopia bricks. This process was German, and so technicians came to Walsall Wood from Germany to train the workforce. Paul speculates that these technicians might at that time have been gathering information on the location of possible targets.

My father and his brother survived the war, but my mother lost a brother. I think I have mentioned him to you before, Bob: he was Sidney Walter Newbould, a professional soldier in the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards. Born at Dairy Farm, Walsall Wood in 1918, he served in Palestine during the Arab Revolt, escaped capture at Tobruk, returned to play his part in the defeat of the enemy in Tunisia and Italy but was killed in London on Sunday 18th June 1944 when a V1 flying bomb destroyed the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks. He is buried in Aldridge Cemetery and his name appears on the war memorials in Aldridge and Walsall Town Hall.

Well, Bob; it’s been a bit of a car-boot-sale of a piece, but I hope some of the junk might be usable. Thank you for organizing what, if I may say so, is the very valuable exercise of collecting these memories together before they disappears forever.

All the very best,

John Anslow

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1 Response to Avoiding the Red Caps with the permission of Captain Palmer

  1. Jill Walters says:

    My gran and grandad lived in Highbridge Row. We had to cross the main Lichfield Rd, to get to their front garden!!! My grandad grew
    turnips and gilly flowers in there, besides other veg and flowers. All the young lads used to rush to the canal at the back of the sheds at the back of the houses when they heard a coal barge coming. Then they’d sing a rude song at the men in the barge, so that they’d throw coal at them, which they’d collect for their Moms. I’ll tell you the song if you insist hahaha.

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