Updated: Jun 11
In these days of airport chaos what could be better than a staycation in the Black Country? This was certainly the case in the 1920s when the destination of choice for the children of one family was Great Bridge!
This article was selected from the extensive Blackcountryman magazine archive which is free to all members
Great Bridge (from The Annals of Tipton)
Although not exactly the Costa Brava, my holidays at Great Bridge in the early 20s gave me as much pleasure as any seaside holiday, then or now.
We lived at Stafford, but my mother was a 'Smith' (an appropriate name for the daughter of a chainmaker!). She was born at New Street, Great Bridge, Grandfather, whom I never knew, was Bayley Taylor Smith, and there was always an air of mystery regarding his surname-sounding Christian names. I understand from cousins that the Bayley had distant origins with illegitimate connections, with no less a person than William Pitt The Younger! I have never been quite sure whether this family skeleton should be let out of the cupboard, but I suspect that if we all delve into our roots, some slip ups will be revealed.
To return to holidays, it was general custom in my childhood days that for economic reasons, children of large families should spend their summer holidays with relatives having children of the same age. I have happy recollections of playing on the slag heaps, walking along the canal banks and swimming in the marl holes (very dangerous and strictly forbidden); it was sheer enjoyment on days when the sun always seemed to shine.
There was rain of course and as the memories return, adult reasonings explain some of the curious circumstances which, as a child, I accepted at their face value. Uncle Tom (Smith) imagined and behaved as if he was a cut above his contemporaries. He was a rent collector, not an envious job in any age, and I suppose he was feared and often despised by many when the vast majority of people were tenants.
However, through influence in high places I suspect, he was able to design and have built his own house. When it came to siting this house he chose a spot which, when you think about it, is almost the only place in Great Bridge where the outlook was trees and greenery—opposite the cemetery gates on Horseley Road! Indeed the address of Uncle Tom's house was—"The Laurels," Opposite Cemetery Gates, Horseley Road, Great Bridge.
So on rainy days one could take the pick of either front room, and watch the continuous procession of hearses and coaches pulled by teams of black horses with plumes to match on their tossing heads, or the rear, which to me, an impressionable, modern lad, offered a most exciting prospect—the Horseley Bridge Works with its giant travelling crane, the smell of hot steam and the frightening noise of steam hammers. If the wind was in the right direction the unmistakable smell of mond gas drifted over in orange coloured clouds. This sulphurous stench was inextricably associated in my mind with The Devil and all his works.
Sundays at Great Bridge were dull, sombre, silent days when everything stopped and workers really had their well earned rest.
Uncle Tom was the proverbial pillar of Golds Hill Church— Sunday School superintendent—the lot! I am not sure if Golds Hill Church still stands; if it is you will find a stained glass window in memory of Uncle Tom. The unfortunate point about this window is that when he died he left this request for a memorial window in his will and there was not enough money in his estate at the time to pay for it!
Sundays then meant putting on you best clothes and walking, twice a day, to Golds Hill Church. We walked along the canal, past Cash-more's scrap metal yard. Uncle Tom was resplendent in frock coat and top hat and we always walked a respectable distance behind him. I have never forgotten his habit of making a bridge with his fingers and blowing his nose in the canal; his handkerchief was of quite secondary importance.
In church, Uncle's booming voice could be heard above all others, particularly in the psalms: "God is gone up in a merry noise"! I suppose these religious rituals and incantations, boring as they seemed at the time, did have a lasting effect. I often find myself quoting from the psalms, if often quite irreverently! My own faith however, has not faltered over the years, despite the blatant hypocrisy which existed. For instance, children, including myself, were more or less directed to go to Band of Hope meetings whilst fathers (and sometimes mothers) were down at the local, knocking 'em back! Uncle Tom, let it be said, was tee-total as far as I could make out. Anyway, this was a bone of contention with my father (his brother-in-law). Dad liked his Sunday pint, but when visiting Great Bridge there was many a subterfuge perpetrated to enable him to get one in.
My Aunt Emma, Uncle Tom's wife, died when I was quite young and my recollections are of my other aunt, Florrie, who was my mother's sister-in-law. She took over at Uncle Tom's, and it was her son and daughters who were my holiday playmates. Aunt Florrie (Smith) was very kind to me. She lives still with her younger daughter, Mary, in West Bromwich and celebrated her 96th birthday on the 17th November, 1978.
I have two further recollections of Great Bridge. Mother's sister, Sophia, married a widower (Mr. Will Thomas), and kept a mixed hardware, sweets, toys and wool shop. The shop was situated next door to the doctor's house on the corner of Horseley Road and Ocker Hill Road. Quite a character was Aunt Sophia, her firegrate was black-leaded and polished to a mirror finish and should you dare to go into the shop for anything whilst this chore was being done, you could certainly expect some delay in being served.
From her sanctum at the back aunt's greeting would float through: "What is it, please?" Whatever your answer, aunt would reply, "I'm coming" and this would be repeated from time to time!
Sometimes Aunt Sophia would let us help, weighing sweets, winding wool, etc. What bliss! Her storeroom was a veritable Aladdin's cave to us children. Aunt Sophia was a regular attender at the "Pepper-Pot" Church at Tipton.
Another two aunts lived together further down Ocker Hill Road and their house bore the most unlikely name of "Dovedale". Dad's favourite pub, The Golden Cup, was opposite.
How true the saying is "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". My Great Bridge holidays were pure magic.
Great Bridge Market Place (from The Annals of Tipton) somewhat later than the 1920s.