Sheila James

SNAPSHOT OF HEATH HAYES IN THE 1950’S

A personal recollection by Sheila James

My memories of childhood in the Fifties is a rather unique snapshot view, because it has a limited viewpoint but is no less intense and varied nevertheless.  My family and I were always outsiders from Birmingham: my parents (Alan & Clare James) built their house at 288 Cannock Road and moved there in the late Thirties but my father never worked in the village.  Before being called up he taught at Rawnsley School and after the war at West Chadsmoor Junior School. My mother worked as a clerk for the Cannock Fire Service during the war.  When I was due to start school in 1950, the Heath Hayes school was in the process of being rebuilt and classrooms were temporary (as I was always told), so to give me stability my father enrolled me at West Hill School in Hednesford.  So my only contact with kids of my age group was a) playing with neighbours kids – of which there were few: Barbara Corbett (#278), Alan Edgar, three of the Broadbent boys (Tony, Philip and John) and Philip Mills who later took over the village chemist shop; and b) Sunday School twice every Sunday at Bourne Methodist on Chapel Street.

This church proved a formidable influence on my later life, not from religion but because this was where I learnt a love of singing which later took me into the professional field.  My particular friends there were Jean Holt and Dawn Ellis but I vividly remember Frank Beniston and his brother (William?) the Superintendant who ran the Sunday School and organised the annual anniversary concert for the children every March.  For me, it was eagerly anticipated every year: the two months of rehearsals where we had to learn all our special hymns and words off by heart.  On “the day” we would all be dressed in our thin party outfits shivering against the cold March winds.

My area of Cannock Road was filled with interesting characters.  Only now does it sink in how much sadness and tragedy lay behind some of those doors in this microcosm of society.  Many childless couples and several who had lost an only child:  the Garbetts whose only child Keith had succumbed to a heart attack at Rugeley Grammar School as a child aged about 12; May Wright (at #274) whose son died in an auto accident; the frail little old widow (whose name I cannot remember) living alone (a neighbour of Sam Barber) who had also lost her only son as a child;  Mr. Hulse (at #268) was postmaster at Cannock Post Office, a genial man who was killed tragically when the passenger door opened and he fell out of his son Tom’s car into the path of another car; the three (Hulme?) sisters who lived happily together until two were killed in their car by a jack-knifing lorry.  My friend Barbara Corbett at age 12 lost her father Harry (a local builder) to cancer.

Barbara had a wealth of warm-hearted family members living nearby who welcomed me into their homes and made up for my own lack of extended local family.  Barbara’s mother Eva, (who I remember as always wearing hair-curlers and who later remarried), had been a Lymer and with Barbara I was a frequent visitor in the home of old Mr and Mrs Lymer and their son (Eva’s unmarried brother) Freddie.  Living next door was Mrs Lymer’s brother Mr. Rowley and his wife and son Eli who later moved to live next to Barbara at #276. Barbara also took me by the back path as a regular visitor to her other grandparents Mr & Mrs Corbett who lived almost directly behind us on Gorsemoor Road. Barbara married young and moved away in the Sixties – does anyone know what became of her?

With my boy neighbours I had to become a tomboy. We went for country walks to catch tadpoles and newts.  We were especially fond of the swamp which lay in the hollow at the bottom of our hill.  Eventually this too was targeted for housing development.  I often wonder what happened to all that swampwater and soggy ground.  Do those swamp-built houses have rising damp?

Coal-begrimed miners walking home from their shift were a normal sight in those days.  The pit had its influence on our very homes because the underground workings caused constant subsidence.  In the still of night one could hear the creaking and moaning of the building resettling.  Was there a single home in the area untouched by this, I wonder?  It was normal to see cracks in walls and ceilings.  My father tried to beat this phenomenon when he built our house.  He built it on a huge concrete raft – this resulted in no cracks, but instead we developed a tilt.  The house resettled safely at an angle somewhat less than 90 degrees vertical.

On Chapel Street next to Bourne Methodist there was a hut doing multiple service as public library, meeting place for womens’ sewing circles and Sunday School.  It was heated adequately by a huge black central stove.

THE TENNANT FAMILY

In the Fifties 288 Cannock Road had fields on three sides so our only neighbour was Vi Tennant who was married to Felix Harper from the Harper Bus Company.  Vi was a daughter of William Tennant and his wife who ran the bakery/ grocer’s on Hednesford Road.  Her brothers Bill and Geoff, and sisters Flo (married to Arnold Tinsley) and Glad (married to Fred Keeling) all worked at the family business but Vi and her youngest sister Gwen (married to John Martin) each had their own hairdressing business – Gwen next to the bakery and Vi in Hednesford.  During the war, with so many men like my father away in the armed services, the Tennant family warmly welcomed my mother into their leisure activities such as bicycle trips, picnics and parties.  When I was born after the war, I also became a regular visitor to the bakery, and the two Tennant homes adjoining it.  Flo and Arnold had a big lush English garden which was like a secluded magical kingdom to me. I remained a visitor from abroad until the Nineties when Flo and Vi died.  Has anyone written a local history of this interesting family I wonder?  Last I heard, Bill’s son Philip Tennant was still running the bakery.  Who has it now?

THE HARPER BUS FAMILY

We all remember the familiar light green and creamy white buses from Harper’s Garage near Five Ways, and the many routes which seemed to take us anywhere we wanted to go.  Harper Brothers comprised Felix, Vic, Albert and sister Mary.  Felix lived next to us in the Fifties at #286 and sister Mary next door at the large house and grounds which took up space for three houses that they built in the Thirties.  Mary had a wicked white Sealyam terrier who bit me and any available local visiting tradesmen.  The house remained largely uninhabited by the Sixties and fell to rack and ruin with overgrown grounds until it was sold and restored to its original grandeur.  Behind our three detached houses (i.e. between Cannock and Gorsemoor Road) lay a large secluded field.  It was hidden away because it was a junkyard for the old Harper buses in a state of dire deterioration.  My friends and I would regularly trespass onto this abandoned and dangerous site to play on the buses.  In the Sixties the field was sold and cleared to make way for a new housing estate.

Other personalities remain fresh in my memory of that time:  Sam Barber the hard-working scout-master dedicated to his troup and the organisation of community activities, such as the Guy Fawkes Bonfire Night; Miss Parkin whose family ran the furniture store – a pillar of Bourne Methodist Chapel; Mr. & Mrs Laurie Beniston with whom my parents and I spent many happy hours out Olde-Tyme Dancing; Nellie Bruce and her Dance Band, dance instructor Vincent Healde and his partner Pat; Lulu Hall and Bob Foster; the Poxon sisters with their contrasting wonderful singing voices – the idols of my youth!  Finally two elderly/ sick ladies who my mother regularly visited and showed me real kindness as a very small child: Elsie Hawkins (wife of Arthur of Cleeton Street) and Miss Bland on Stafford/ Bank Street.

THE MISSING PET POPULATION

The road outside our house was a racetrack especially at night where cars speeded up again after slowing down to drive uphill from “the dip”.  Frequently in the morning we would find the corpse of some dog or cat lying at the bottom of our long driveway. (It was longer n those days before the council cut about 12′ off it to make a pavement).  My father never knew who the animals belonged to, but dutifully placed each in a sack and gave it proper burial in our large back garden.  No wonder his flowers and veggies grew so well with all this extra fertiliser – it was a real pet cemetery back there.

I left Heath Hayes for university back in 1965 and only returned for visits to my parents (who died I the mid-Eighties) and friends until there was no-one left alive there with whom I could correspond.  If Alan Edgar (who married Janet Neal) is still in the village, will someone pass on my regards.  I’ve lived across Canada with my husband (from Nottingham) for the past 35 years and currently live on Vancouver Island on the far west coast.