This narrative was very kindly submitted to us by Sue Reeves
This is the story of Jessie Chapman daughter of Edward Chapman, a coal miner who moved to the Brownhills area from Shropshire in about 1868 when he was about 23 years old. He worked in the mines all of his working life as a ‘Coal Hewer Underground’ and died at the age of 89 in 1935. For most of his life he also ran a small holding/farm on a piece of land adjacent to Norton Pool on Hednesford Road Brownhills.
My Father Eric Evans has written this from stories told by his mum. His next project is his father Harry’s life as a coal miner in Chase Terrace and his own childhood and time down the pit during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
JESSIE’S STORY 1887---1959
Sometimes as I sit and think about the times when I was a child growing up in the 1930s and how the world has changed during the last 75 years, I think about my Mothers childhood, the stories that she told me about when she was a young girl and the changes that she lived through in her lifetime.
My mother was already 40 years old when I was born and although I had all the love and care that anyone could wish for, I think that our relationship was special and that in some ways she was more like a Grandmother. She confided in me memories of her own life as a girl, perhaps with the hope that they would not be forgotten and that someday they might be passed on to her Grandchildren. It was later in my life that I learned more about her family and how they came to be living in Brownhills.
My Grandfather Edward Chapman was born in 1845 and worked as a coal miner in the village of Pontesbury in Shropshire. In about 1868 he moved to Brownhills in Staffordshire with his wife Martha, her parents and eldest daughter Alice to find work in the mines in the Cannock area where the coalfields were just being developed. Here there were more opportunities to find employment with better conditions and many other families were also moving here from Shropshire at that time to find work.
Jessie was born at Hednesford Rd, Brownhills West on November 6th 1886 and this was where she spent her childhood. The family had prospered and Edward had now bought some land which he and his family worked as a small farm. He also kept his job at Norton Green Colliery and started a small business transporting the miners to work at the coal mine. This was a success and it was this job that Jessie did during her teenage years, driving the wagon loaded with men to and from work. Later this business was extended to meeting commercial travelers from the railway station and ferrying them out to the shops in the local villages in a pony and trap to collect orders for their goods. My mother told me many stories about her own experiences as a girl living in the late 1800’s, when many of the things which we now take for granted were not even thought about by ordinary people. Things like telephones, electric lights and power and motor cars were all things of the future and the pace of life was slower but in many respects harder, as much of the work was done by hand and was more time consuming.
Jessie was the youngest but three of an average sized family for the time. There were five girls and three boys at home with ages ranging over twenty six years, the eldest child being born in Shropshire and the other seven at Brownhills. Jessie was born in 1887 and having three elder brothers probably gave her a more liberated outlook on life than most young women at that time. She attended the local school at the side of the Watling Street, the Roman Road which runs from London to Holyhead now the A5. It was along this road, coming home from school one day, that she encountered her first motor car. She had heard about them but seeing one for the first time was something that she never ever forgot. She was so scared that she backed away from it and fell into a ditch by the roadside.
She used to tell me about how they baked bread twice a week and brewed beer every fortnight, with a lighter brew for the children to drink.
The washing of the clothes was done in the outhouse at the back of the house where there was a large copper boiler. The water was heated by a fire underneath it. This had to be lit early in the morning to get the water hot enough to use. The brewing of the beer was also carried out in this outhouse. Each day all the oil lamps had to be filled and the wicks trimmed ready for use in the evening. The cooking was done on an open fire with a small oven at the side and the kettles and pots hung from hooks over the fire or sat on the hot coals.
They kept pigs and cured their own bacon. They also kept a cow for milking and along with chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and horses to be looked after there was plenty of work for everyone to do. There was a large garden which provided them with most of the vegetables that they needed throughout the year. Shopping was done in Brownhills and the shopping list would include candles, lamp oil, corn for the animals and yeast for the bread. Flour was bought by the stone in linen sacks. Salt came in large blocks and had to be crushed before it could be used.
In the Autumn, canal boats from the Vale of Evesham would arrive in the canal basin at Anglesey Wharf, loaded with plums, damsons, apples, pears and other fruit and vegetables. Housewives would arrive with their baskets, stocking up with fruit for preserving and jam making and storing for the winter. It was here that Jessie saw the first tomatoes. She said that people called them new fruit. I don’t suppose that many of the elder people had seen them before either.
Edward and his elder sons would go out shooting in the fields and bring home pigeons and rabbits for the pot and everyone ate well. When Jessie was old enough, she also had a gun and would join the boys when they went out shooting. She described how they searched for ducks and other water birds in the reeds along the edge of what is now called Chase Water, but was then known as Norton Pool. One interesting thing that she talked about was how they used to fill their own cartridges for the guns. This was done on the kitchen table and small brass scales were used for weighing powder and shot, as different amounts were used depending on what they were going out to shoot. For rabbits you needed heavier shot than when shooting pigeons or partridge and the amount of powder required depended on what size shot was used. First the cap was put into the cartridge case, then the powder was poured in, then wadding was put in and packed down tight. Next the shot was put in and then more wadding packed tight and finally the waxed cardboard end cap was put in and the end of the case was crimped all round to secure the contents. How she remembered all this I don’t know, but she did and she could even remember where they bought the powder and shot from.
What the present day health and safety inspectors would think about this practice I don’t know, but I don’t think that they would approve.
Throughout the year there would be special events to look forward to. Easter was always special, attending services at the chapel and having friends and relatives to stay. Harvest festival was another happy time when people got together, filling the chapel with flowers and the seasons produce and after the service there would be a harvest supper to finish off the celebration. There were also the Sunday school picnics during the summer to look forward to. The children, all dressed up in their best clothes, would be taken to some local beauty spot for a days outing. These outings were looked forward to with great excitement by the children and although everyone rode in open carts, seated on hard wooden benches, they all enjoyed the trips.
Jessie told me once of an exciting incident on one such outing. They were returning from one of these picnics when they met a coach coming towards them. It had four horses and people were riding on the top as well as inside. It was a narrow lane with high banks on each side and not enough room for two vehicles to pass and neither driver would give way for the other one, the driver of the cart, because there was a second cart following behind and the coach driver, because he had four horses to back up. After some argument, the coach driver climbed down off the driving seat and walked away back up the lane leaving the coach, the horses and the passengers. Finally some men off the coach uncoupled the horses and pushed the coach back along the lane until it was wide enough to pass. They then led the horses off the road to allow the carts to proceed, amid much waving and shouting from the jubilant children, who sang all the way home. Jessie said that as they went along the way they looked for the driver of the coach, but could not see him anywhere.
The happiest times that she could recall were those that she spent visiting relatives in Pontesbury and she stayed with her Grandmother at her cottage which stood on the side of Pontesford Hill. These visits were the highlights in her childhood memories The excitement of getting ready and traveling along the road towards Shrewsbury was to be an experience which she never would forget. She could recite to me the names of every hill or village along the way and she knew the names of the Inns where they rested the horses and where they stayed each night along the way.
The cottage was built beside a little track which ran round the base of the Hill on the east side, then climbed up until it almost reached the top of the lower end of the ridge. The view was splendid and looked out over woods and fields, scattered farms and cottages with smoke rising from the chimneys. Early in the morning when she first looked out, it was magical, just like a fairy tale, she would say. The water came from a spring which came out on the side of the hill behind the cottage and flowed into a little stream that ran out across the track and off down the hill. The garden was filled with gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes, vegetables and wild flowers. There was a donkey in the paddock at the back of the cottage which was used to carry supplies up from the village. Jessie would ride in a basket on the side of the donkey whenever they went down to the shop.
The upstairs of the cottage was reached by a stone staircase on the outside of the building and having to go outside to go to bed was something which always amused Jessie. The inside of the cottage was lit with oil lamps and candles. The cooking was done on an open fire, but there was a small bread oven in the room at the back where the baking was done. All the goods which were needed from the village were brought up on the back of the donkey. The donkey was kept in a field near the cottage and the children used to feed it and play with it whenever they could. It was well known in the village and when it was loaded up with shopping it would find its own way back up the hill to the cottage.
As time went by and the children grew older and the elder members of the family were too busy and found other interests, the visits to Pontesbury became less frequent and the length of time between the visits longer and longer. The last official record of Grandmother Elizabeth Chapman living at the cottage was in the 1891 census. She was then 83 years old and was living with William Parry her widowed son in law and various Grandchildren. Jessie at this time would have been about 4 years old and so Grandma must have lived for quite a number of years after that for Jessie to have remembered so much about the happy times that she spent there. In the 1901 census it was reported that the cottage was unoccupied, although it is thought that other members of the Parry family may have lived there for a while at some later date.
Jessie and her sisters were growing up into young women and were more involved in the running of the house and the work about the smallholding. They were now interested in sewing and fashion and she often talked about the dresses and coats which she wore. One of the places where they could meet their friends, both girls and young men was at the annual fair which was held at Chasetown, a village which lay on the other side of Norton Pool. This fair was known as The Chase Wakes. It was the biggest event in the area and people came to it from all the surrounding villages. There was a flower show, sports, pony trotting races, brass band competitions and a fair with sideshows, swings and roundabouts. It was at The Chase Wakes, that Jessie first met the young man who was later to become my father.
The young mans name was Harry Evans. He came from Chase Terrace, a village about three miles away and that weekend he was celebrating his 21st birthday. He lived there with his mother and younger sister. His mother Ada was a teacher at the local school at Chase Terrace and he worked at one of the mines in the area.
My father never spoke much about his early life or about his family and all I ever knew about them was from what Jessie had told me. Ada's family were fairly well off and lived in a large house at Tettenhall,
Wolverhampton. She was quite young when she married Harry’s father William and they parted after the birth of their third child and she moved with her children to Chase Terrace to take up her teaching career, which she had given up when she married.
After the meeting at The Chase Wakes, Jessie and Harry agreed to meet again and so began their life together. In the spring of 1909 they were married at Chasetown ‘ in a church decorated with daffodils’. After the wedding they moved into their new home. It was at Jacobs Hall Lane, Great Wyrley and it was one of a number of houses which had been specially built for employees of the new mine which had been opened at Wyrley (Wyrley Sinking). Harry, who now worked at the new mine, had recently obtained his shot firing certificate, which was the first step on the ladder of promotion and he had a steady job with good prospects.
During the first years spent living at Wyrley things in the area were changing. The roads were improving, trams and buses were now starting to run, making traveling easier into the towns and journeys to the nearby towns of Walsall and Cannock for shopping, visiting the theatre or the music halls were now possible. When I was a little boy one of my memories of both of them is the old music hall songs which they used to sing to me and both of my own daughters still remember the words of songs sung to them by their granddad when they were little.
In 1912 my eldest brother was born. He was called Harry after his father and his parents lives appeared to be complete, Jessie had a house and family to look after and Harry was studying for his mine managers certificate. He was doing this by attending night classes at the mining college at Chasetown. When the First World War began Jessie told me about how everyone went to the railway station to wave off the local Territorial Army volunteers and how everyone was smiling and waving and believed that it would be all over by Christmas. Not anyone could have foreseen what was going to happen, or the shock of reading the casualty lists a few weeks later, to find that so many of the men would not be coming back again.
She talked about the food shortages and the soup kitchens set up to feed the children in the towns and cities, about the wounded soldiers coming home on leave and about the casualties and the sadness throughout the country. She also told me about sheltering under the stairs with baby Harry wrapped in a blanket, when the German Zeppelins were going over to bomb Walsall and The Black Country, and about the noise that they made. This was an experience which was repeated again during the Second World War, when she sat under the stairs with me at our house at Rugeley Road, Chase Terrace as the German Bombers were flying overhead and using Norton Pool as a landmark to plot their bombing raids over the cities of Birmingham and Coventry.
Early in 1916 they lost little Harry. He died as a result of a tragic accident. Whilst playing outside, he slipped on some ice and hit his head. He died at home within a few days from a brain haemorrhage. How they lived through the next few months we shall never know, both in deep shock and unable to give comfort to one another. After the funeral, Jessie would not return to the house and Harry burnt all his books and gave up his studies, declaring that he should have spent more time with his son.
Maybe Jessie’s mother was no longer alive (her father lived to the age of 89), but Jessie and Harry didn’t return to her parents home. They went to stay with Harry’s mother at Rugeley Road, Chase Terrace. Whether it was a temporary arrangement at the time I don’t know, but they continued to live first at 80 then at 82 Rugeley Road till the end of their days.
During the next ten years they had three more children, Toby ( Lillian) my sister was born in 1917, followed by my brother Jack in 1922. I was born in 1927. Jessie never ever came to terms with the loss of ‘Little Harry’. As time went by she began to make a new life for herself. She became an active member of the Ladies Guild and made many friends. She loved dancing and She and Dad went to many of the local dances which in those days were held in village halls.
During the 1920’s Dad bought his first motor cycle and sidecar and the family would go out for day’s at weekends. Some of these were to Pontesbury to meet old friends and relatives and Jessie would walk up the hill to see where she used to stay as a child. The cottage by now was deserted and the garden was overgrown. Some of this took place before I can remember, but I can still recall some of the holidays which I spent there staying with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas at their cottage in the village. I remember being taken to the top of the church tower and looking down over the village, and also going to the top of The Hill to see where a Beacon had been lit to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V. I also remember walking to Minsterly to watch pony trotting races and stopping for lemonade on the way back.
Another annual venue was The Shrewsbury Flower Show which Mother and Dad went to every year and this was another chance to meet old friends. The last time that Jessie visited Pontesbury was after the Second World War. They now had a car and petrol was available again. I was married and we had a young daughter. We went to visit Mr. and Mrs. Thomas who had now moved house and lived at the other end of the village. We all went for a walk up the lane to where the cottage had stood but all that remained were a few moss covered stones. Conifer trees had been planted where the garden had once been and the whole area was now overgrown. Jessie gathered some roots of wild gooseberry bushes that were growing in the hedgerow and took them home to plant in her own garden. None of the family has been there since that day.
On the top shelf of the glass cabinet where my wife keeps our china and glassware is an old Welsh Copper Luster jug, about six inches high. The glaze is cracked and the copper luster is faded, but it has a great sentimental value to me and was given to me by my father after my mother died 47 years ago. It had stood throughout my childhood on her sideboard and many times I had listened to the story of how it was given to her by her grandmother as a “keepsake”. Grandma said that it had been given to her when she was young and that she wanted Jessie to have it to remember her by. It is now well over 100 years since it was first given to Jessie and I think that it is a fitting reminder of her.
She lived during the reigns of six different sovereigns from Victoria to Elizabeth. She could remember the end of The Boer War and had lived through two World Wars. She had seen the progress from Horse-Drawn Carts to Jet Aircraft, Candles and Oil Lamps to Electric Light and from Music Halls to Wireless and then Television. She had looked after her family and watched them grow up and marry and she had enjoyed having her grandchildren around her, but to the end of her life she still remained the little girl who rode on the back of a donkey down the side of Pontesford Hill.
Jessie died in 1959 aged 72 years with all her family round her. Harry followed her in 1962 aged 77 years.
Hopefully to be continued (webmaster)