Willenhall – no longer Humpshire!

Willenhall, a small West Midlands town sandwiched between its relatively well-known neighbours Wolverhampton and Walsall, might not have had a football team to match Walsall, nor the illustrious Wolves (during the period in question) but it did have its own right to fame, even if it wasn’t appreciated as much as it could have been.

Although the first known locks were made thousands of years ago, Willenhall was the birthplace of today’s lock industry.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, moderatesized factories were manufacturing thousands of locks for the home and export market, but there were also many skilled craftsmen with their own little workshops who would be willing to work long hours in order to meet the demand for their specialised products.

Some produced both locks and keys, but there were also those who, with only basic hand tools, could make keys to suit any type of lock. Their skills were phenomenal compared with today’s computerised and automated industry, but there was often a price the lock-maker and key-filer had to pay for their hard-earned independence: many years of stooping over a bench with a file in their hands could give shoulders a permanent stoop. The sight of so many men with this kind of deformity gave Willenhall the derogatory title of humpshire.

There were few affluent people in the town, but the camaraderie that existed within the working class was unique. My earliest memories go back to the 1920s, and I still remember living in a terrace-type house with a back yard that was shared with three other families. Bathrooms were just a futuristic dream: a tin bath placed on a rug in front of a blazing open fire had to suffice – quite comfortable provided you could evade
the odd spark on your bare torso! Luckily we had moved to a new council house before I reached puberty, otherwise it could have become a rather embarrassing operation!

Washdays were also quite primitive, and were certainly strength-sapping occasions. The wash-house was usually situated a short distance from the house, and the coal or coke-fed boiler would have to be filled laboriously from a single cold water tap. A wooden tub was placed near to that intimidating monstrosity of the time, the mangle. Two large wooden rollers were turned with a great deal of effort using a large cast iron wheel with a wooden handle attached to the rim.

Clothes from the boiler were transferred to the tub, then pounded very energetically with a wooden ‘dolly’. They would then be put through the rollers, which would certainly remove most of the soapy water – and crush a few fingers if the operator became careless.

Any woman who was brave enough to take in washing in order to earn a few shillings had to be very hard-pressed for cash!

Lavatories were at the bottom of the yard, and plodding through the snow on a dark winter’s night to answer the call of nature could call for extreme stoicism. The only source of warmth or illumination in this situation could be from a lighted candle placed in a jam jar. It gave a meagre glimmer of light, and was only a token source of heat, but it could give a surprising amount of comfort to a small child, or even a nervous adult.

The lack of amenities never troubled this hardy breed of workmen and their families, and surprisingly there were services available that have long since vanished – the milkman, with his churns of milk carried on a horse-drawn float; the coalman, whose horse-drawn cart was loaded with 1cwt sacks of coal; the baker, with his daily delivery of fresh-baked bread. These all gave a reliable service and often became friends with their customers.

Simple means of transport could also bring a small but welcome source of income for a hard-up youngster. Pulling a home-made wooden box mounted on discarded pram wheels, he could take a shovel and collect enough horse droppings from the maze of back streets to sell to the slightly more affluent inhabitants of the town who were lucky enough to have gardens. The reward would be miserly – perhaps just one old penny – but this would be enough to buy a packet of chips from the nearest fish and chip shop.

It would be advisable to keep off the main road that ran from Wolverhampton, through Willenhall, to
Walsall, for the trams were still in use at that time and the drivers would not take kindly to a small boy standing between the tram lines with his collection or manure.

The Saturday market day was something to be looked forward to, especially by the poorer inhabitants. The various stalls, illuminated in the dark hours with hissing, pressurised storm lamps, would still be there late in the evening. The keen bargain-hunter could purchase such things as a bunch of bananas, with as many as ten or more in the bunch, for as little as sixpence. I loved to visit the book stall, from which second-hand comics such as the Rover, Wizard, Hotspur and Adventure could be bought for half-price or less.

There were plenty of other bargains as the stallholders tried to sell their remaining wares rather than pack them up and take them home with them. It could be ten o’clock before the market place was devoid of stalls.

In those early days of manufactured recreation, the arrival of the Pat Collins Fair at the Willenhall Wake Ground was a truly grand attraction for children and adults. The merry-go-round rides might have been basic compared with today’s nail-biting wonders of high technology, but they were enjoyed by children and adults alike. In addition to the rides there were the coconut shies, the boxing booth, the hoop-la stall and even the flea circus – and who, on a cold wintry evening could resist buying a penn’orth of chips from that mobile chip shop placed strategically near the entrance?

The annual carnival was also an eagerly-awaited
event, enthusiastically supported by participants and spectators. The Grand Parade on the Saturday afternoon would be followed by an evening’s entertainment in the Memorial Park, where the judging of the floats and choosing of the Carnival Queen would take place. Music would be provided by the Willenhall Silver Prize Band, seated in the circular bandstand. Their repertoire would have been very much out of place in today’s disco, but it was a good sound, enjoyed by many music-lovers.

The arrival of the trolleybus saw the demise of the trams – and the tram lines. When the rails were removed, the road had to be resurfaced, and to a young boy this could be a fascinating procedure. The highlight of the operation would be the steam roller. The driver, standing perilously close to a huge spinning flywheel, the smoke and the hiss of the steam as it powered the huge roller over the still-smoking newly-surfaced road was an unforgettable sight.

There were two cinemas in Willenhall in the 1920s – the Coliseum and The Picture House, which was slightly more modern. Seat prices in the 1920s were 5d, 9d and, for the more affluent, 1/. The Coliseum was soon replaced by the Dale cinema, which had the luxury of a balcony. The cowboy films of this era were my favourites, and Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hopalong Cassidy, Tim McCoy and Ken Maynard were my screen idols. The Picture House is no longer there, and the Dale is now a bingo hall.

The wind of change blows ruthlessly on, and the Willenhall of my childhood is no longer there – but, good or bad, the memories.

Bert Turner