A month or so ago I had a great enquiry from Nick Pilley about his family history in Walsall Wood, in particular concerning the life of his Grandfather, Alfred Merrick, a deputy at Walsall Wood Colliery.
This fascinating enquiry spawned a great deal of interest from the old hands of the blog – David Evans, Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler and David Oakley, and much debate has been forthcoming, with here on the blog and behind the scenes, with David Evans and Peter engaging in a great deal of research.
Last week I received a fascinating email from noted Walsall Wood historian David Oakley, who tells me he’s been a bit under the weather lately- David, I hope things improve soon and I and everyone here wishes you all the best. Despite this, David has shone a huge light on why Alfred might have faced personal hostility, and just what the Institute was for in Walsall Wood.
I’m hugely grateful to David Oakley for this, not least because it highlights something I’ve been talking about for years: Drink was a real problem in ‘the good old days’ and if one looks in news archives, papers are full of reports of drunken violence, a fact mostly whitewashed out in many histories.
David Oakley wrote:
Very interested in your enquiry about your grandfather. It struck a few memory bells for me.
Talking of ‘The Institute’, Pedro stated that The word ‘Colliery’ seemed to disappear, there was a further abbreviation some time later, and the building was simply known as th’Institute. Its gone, now, but on the picture of the pit at the beginning of the article, th’institute is still there, if you look at the top centre of the photo, there is a building that looks like a fairly large house. It was not within the Colliery grounds, but stood on the corner of Brownhills Road and Coppice Road, in the corner of the field where the ‘gunpowder house’ was located, that was th’Institute, where your grandfather served as a secretary, with such distinction, for a number of years.
I don’t know when it last served the purpose for which it was built, but in my time, it served as the Colliery Manager’s house, Mr Bewick lived there in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s,
Moving to the Oddfellows membership, there were a myriad of Friendly Societies about at the time. In those dark, industrial days, the more thrifty of the populace sought some kind of financial shelter from the common hazards of humanity, sickness and death, the Oddfellows was perhaps the oldest and largest. Drunkenness being rife at the time, most were founded on a temperance basis, with an urge to get members to elevate themselves a little. The initial aim and objects of the Oddfellows was laid down as ‘…To improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, charity and universal justice’.
Many lodges started life in pub meeting rooms, but as funding improved, many moved out, as these locations had too close proximity to the ‘demon drink’, into Temperance Halls and Oddfellows Halls. One Lodge was heard to proclaim, ‘All our meetings were once on licensed premises, now, none are’.
One version of the creation of the Oddfellows Society is that they were an offshoot of the Freemasons, formed by travelling, skilled journeymen of various types, who were looking for more than the static lodges of the Freemasons, these members were issued with travel warrants which enabled them to claim a free nights lodgings at any Oddfellows Hall in the vicinity. This gave rise to impostors and other fraudsters attempting to use these benefits, hence the need for secret signs and passwords given to the bona fide members, on initiation. Whether these are used to this day, I know not, but similar initiations are still carried out by the R.A.O.B. and possibly by the Freemasons.
In the early days there were splits in the membership and new independent Lodges were formed, at both national and international level, but now the Oddfellows do an excellent job, looking after their members interests and raising funds for many charities.
Regarding the ‘missionary’ aspect of Alfred Merrick, I can understand Pedro’s assertion as a researcher, that there is no actual proof of religious discord, because there is none to speak of. The discord, or threats of violence came from a difference source, the deplorable living conditions, the gin–shops and the drunken violence which was commonplace in Victorian times. Perhaps an explanation of the term ‘missionary’, used in those days would better serve:-
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a London gentleman contacted the Temperance Society to complain that amid all the fines and imprisonment imposed be the police courts for misdemeanours relating to excessive drinking, e.g. street fighting, vagrancy, theft, prostitution, wife-beating, there was no one there who had the least interest in the rehabilitation of the offender, the same gentleman offered a modest donation to the Society to ‘get something done about it’. The Society responded by contacting the Courts and getting representatives, chiefly temperance members of a church or chapel, to act as ‘missionaries’ within the courts to advise and council the malefactors, both within the court environment and the domestic environment. These ‘missionaries’ were untrained, but largely enthusiastic in the reclaiming of ‘lost souls’ and pointing them in the right direction to a useful and fulfilling life. These volunteers had no status within the Court, but their courage and their love for their fellow men did lead to contentious situations in the rough domestic environment.
I was very lucky that in my early life I met a ‘court missionary’, he was Courtney Orchard and he served as Court Missionary at Walsall for a number of years, and became Walsall’s first Probation Officer, when the position was regularised in 1907, making ‘missionaries’ court officials. I knew Mr. Orchard in his later days, 70 years of age, or so. But my workmates, who knew him in earlier days, knew him as a fearless man, who could defend himself with his fists, when called upon, when seeking his ‘lost sheep’ amongst the dingy pubs and hostile environment of the day. Those ‘local encounters’ were all too common amongst the populace and would never count as ‘news’.
Courtney Orchard wrote a book entitled ‘The Court Missionary’s Story, published about 1930. Not many copies about, these days. Courtney ran the Town Mission in Walsall at the corner of John Street and Stafford Sreet. Due to the fact that I had signed for the football team, ran by Alan Wakeman, former Villa goalkeeper and Leamore kid, under the gentle persuasion of Courtney Orchard, I attended the Sunday evening services and found Mr. Orchard in his later years to be motivated by the desire that still shaped his life, the love of his fellow men. Alan was later to become team manager at Walsall Wood F.C.
I would rate Alfred Merrick amongst these early torchbearers, and the ‘personal violence’ would not be underrated. One would need a lot of courage to volunteer for such a post. Alfred would need the support of his hard-working colleagues, not enmity, and this seemed to be fulfilled be the long-term appointment of secretary to The Institute and his other interests. I think you can be so proud of your grandfather.
Nick. Best Wishes.
Thanks again to David and all involved with this history – and of course to Nick for the original enquiry which has sparked so much debate.
If you have anything to add, please do: yank me on social media, comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.