Written in January 2016.
Recollections from yet another Berk(s) from Whittington.
On a recent visit to the UK my brother Peter and I were enjoying a pint in the Bell with three generations of the Pass Family; Sid, Andrew and Robert. Sid and Olive and sons John, Andrew and Kevin were our neighbours over the back fence when the Yates family lived at 35 Back Lane.
The meeting was a real trip down memory lane with the most frequent question being, “Do you remember...”? It was amazing how a relaxed conversation stirred up memories long forgotten. After a while Robert, who is involved with the Whittington History Society suggested that I ought to commit some of my recollections to paper. Initially I was quite reluctant, who on earth wants to hear about my memories of growing up in Whittington? After all, I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “famous son” and I haven’t achieved notoriety, at least not so far at any rate. I’m just an ordinary village kid who kicked a football around on the croft, learnt to swim in the canal and got up to all sorts of mischief without falling under the watchful gaze of either Sergeant Baines or Constable Turnock.
But several things now cause me to rethink this position. Firstly, having passed my “best before date” (i.e. three score years and ten) if I don’t jot something down now it might never get done. Secondly, being interested in genealogy, I realise that whilst births, deaths and marriage information is on the public record and therefore readily available to all and sundry it is the anecdotal information that brings that record to life. And thirdly, Robert explained that the WDHS was gathering a collection of memories from people who grew up in the village and my recollections of village life in the late 1940’s- early 1950’s would form part of a much larger tapestry.
So it is in this wider context that I write.
My name is Raymond Arthur Yates and I was born on the 3rd of December 1944.
I was born in a big old house that used to stand on the corner of Main Street and the lane that lead into Rock Farm, which we knew as Mann’s Farm.
We used to refer to it as the Rock Corner because of the large lump of sandstone on which our house and the farm barn on the other side of the entry lane stood, but others have referred to it as Berks Corner. There is a photo of an old painting of the house in the Gallery. I will say more about this old house later.
The Berks family came to Whittington from Burntwood in the late 1870’s. I don’t know the exact date but my grandad was born in Burntwood in October 1877 and the Kelly’s Directory of Whittington businesses has the family listed as operating a shop and bakery at the Main St. premises in 1881.
At that time the family comprised of Hannah Berks (1807 – 1882) Son Henry (1837 – 1893) a pastry cook and his wife Mary (1845 - 1919) and their three children, John Charles (1874 - 1932) Mary A.E. (1875 - 1952) and Henry William (1877 - 1959), my grandad.
After arrival in Whittington two more children were born to Henry and Mary, George E (1879 – 1953) and Maud Hannah (1880 – 1950).
Both Henry and George became bakers and joined their father in the family business. In 1905 George also became verger at St Giles church, a position he held until his death in 1953. After his death the role was taken over by George’s two sons Jack and Bill and to this day much of the churchyard at St Giles is cared for by two of George’s grandsons Barry and Mark Horton.
Grandad met my grandmother, May Kimber (1880 – 1923), while delivering bread. May was in service to a Capt. Falls who was serving at Whittington Barracks but living at Whittington Lodge. It is not clear when May joined the Fall household but it is known that she was in service when Capt. Fall was transferred from Hereford to Whittington in the late 1800’s. Capt. Fall originally came from London and given that May was born in Kensington it is reasonable to assume that she went into service there.
Henry William and May married in St Giles on 2nd August 1909 and over the course of the next seven years had four children Harry, Evelyn, Muriel and, my mother, Rose.
Sadly May died in 1923 in the influenza epidemic of 1918 - 1923 and Grandads sister, Mary A.E (aunt Ciss), who was by then a widow without any dependents, took on the mother role in the young family.
It is not known when the Berks bakery closed but my guess is that it was shortly after the marriage of Henry William and May because there is no record of the business in the 1910/11 Kelly’s Directory. Why it closed is also a mystery. A cousin told me that she recalls her mother telling her that the business went bankrupt but I can find no record of that in bankruptcy records of that time. It is more likely, however, that given the opening of the Arnolds Bakery and with the father of Grandad and George now deceased the business could not support two families and compete with the new competition leaving a strategic withdrawal the best option.
After the business closed both grandad and George went to work for Arnolds with grandad later moving on to Garrets in Lichfield.
The four children of Henry William and May were all educated at Whittington Village School which was then on the corner of Main St. and Church St. My mother, Rose, is in one of the school photo’s in the Gallery.
It is evident that the “Boys Club Room”, and old wooden planked building that stood where the Spencer Hall now stands, was a significant place in the social life of Whittington during the first half of the 20th Century because all of the Berks children met their future spouses at Dances there.
Harry met Beatrice Jacobs from Sheerness in Kent when she travelled up with her friend Margaret, later to become Margaret Clark, to attend a dance. Margaret’s future husband Horace Clark was a friend and fellow Special Constable with Harry Barks. Evelyn and Muriel met Walter Lathbury and Arthur Bywater respectively when the two men came across to Whittington from Tamworth for a dance. And my mother, Rose, met her husband to be Richard Arthur Yates at a dance there.
Richard Arthur Yates, my dad, was born at Home Farm Freeford to George and Mary-Jane Yates. George had started at Freeford Manor as a Waggoner but by the time dad was born, 1910, he had become Farm Bailiff.
The Yates family were coalminers originally from the Rugeley area but had moved to Fradley and farm work in the mid 1800’s. Many of my descendants are buried in St Stephens’s churchyard in Fradley.
Dad became a painter and decorator by trade and after working at Bannisters in Alrewas he got a job at Pearce’s in Whittington and lodged with the Carter family opposite the Bell. It was during this time that he met mum at a dance. Mum was working as a house/dairy maid at Baxter’s. Mum and Dad were a well matched couple; both were keen dancers, both were accomplished piano players and, strangely now-a-days, both were very good knitters. They married in July 1938 and had three children, Elizabeth (Betty) 1939, Raymond (me) in 1944 and Peter in 1953. Mum died in 1968 and dad died in 1975.
The old house on the Rock Corner where I was born (by Nurse Darby of course) was a rambling old place in a poor state of repair in parts. To date I haven’t been able to find out who owned it at that time but I am sure it was rented and not owned by the Berks family.’
There is a gradient on that part of Main St. from the corner where Cooper’s shop stood up to Mr Ball’s farm this meant that whilst the house was strictly speaking only two storeys there were in fact five inner levels due to the gradient and the rock on which the house stood.
At the lowest level and fronting on to Main St. was the shop. In my day this was used as a store for garden tools and produce from grandad’s allotment which was down the Bit. The next level up was the old bakery which had been converted into a washhouse and bathroom and toilet. With no hot running water, water for bath-night was boiled up in an old coal fired copper in the washhouse and carried by bucket into the bathroom next door.
The washhouse opened onto a covered yard, which in turn lead into the old stable. In the days when the premises were a working bakery this is where the horse and bakers cart were kept. In my day, the old stable was just about derelict with the big double doors nailed up and we kept chickens in a part of the yard. Keeping chickens and growing vegetables was a must in the years during and just after World War Two when food rationing was still in place.
Up some steps from the yard and you entered the house proper. First came the scullery where much of the cooking was done on a gas stove. The gas stove was a later addition of course because in the days when mum was a child and before all the cooking was done on a large “black-lead” range. I guess this was the pre-curser to the modern Aga, but without the ability to heat water for the house.
The range was in a large living room off the scullery and which opened on to a small front yard, which in turn opened on to the lane that lead in to Rock Farm. In my time this room was grandad’s and aunt Ciss’s living room.
One very distinct memory is the old “Railway” style clock that hung on the wall. To stop the works drying out due to the heat from the Black-lead stove a rag soaked in paraffin was kept in its base.
On through this room, and this time down a couple of steps, was another smaller living room where the Yates family lived until around 1949/50 when we moved up to one of the new Airy Houses at 35 Back lane, but more about this later. After we moved out mums cousin, Edie Berks lived with her husband Arthur Horton and their first child Leonard for a short while before they moved up to 32 Church St.
All of the bedrooms were accessed through our living room. Again due to the many level the bedrooms (three) were up and down steps. Mum and dads bedroom, however, had a door that opened into the old loft above the stable. Because the loft floor had rotted through and there was a drop of some 8 or 10 feet into the stable below I was forbidden entry to the loft.
There was no internal plumbing, other than cold water to the scullery. We had electricity but no telephone. No TV either in those days but I do remember going up to Uncle Harrys some years later to watch Andy Pandy on a very small Bush TV.
There were four houses in the lane that led up to Rock Farm. Next to our corner house was Mr White. I don’t remember anything about him other than his name. Next to Mr White was the Russel family and next to them were the Beckets (George, Stella, Anne and Barry). The Becket family moved up to the Airy House next to us on Back Lane (37).
I have so many memories of time at the old house that it is hard to put them into any chronological order.
Riding on a wheelbarrow full of potatoes being brought back to store from grandad’s allotment.
Bonfires on his allotment and baking potatoes in the hot ash.
Dad making a sledge one winter and having sledge rides on the open ground outside the cow sheds on Rock Farm.
Fishing in the canal up near the Swan Cottages with grandad with a rod made from an old bamboo cane, some light string as a line, a bent pin as a hook and bread paste for bait. Much to grandads surprise we caught a small fish. I wasn’t a bit surprised; after all we went to catch a fish which is what we did!
Nearly being run over by a car on Main Street outside the old house when I ran over the road to be with Betty without first looking. Cars were very few and far between in those days but nevertheless, it got me a smacked bum!
I also remember listening to the wireless with mum, all on the BBC light program, Workers Playtime? in the morning and children’s hour in the afternoon? It was at times like this that mum explained that during the War if the air-raid siren sounded we would all get under the dinner table in the corner of the living room. Apparently this was just as safe as walking down to the air-raid shelter on the Green. But thankfully, no bombs fell on Whittington despite its proximity to the Barracks and Fradley aerodrome. As I understand, the nearest bomb to the village fell in a field on Tamhorn Park Farm.
I started school at Whittington Infants School in September 1949 and we were still living at the Rock at the time so all of the above occurred before I was five. School for me was not pleasant, in fact, I hated it. Not that I disliked the teachers or anything bad happened or that I was particularly dumb, it just seemed to interfere with the idyllic lifestyle I had enjoyed previously.
Whittington School at that time was a combined infants, junior and secondary school all on the corner of Main St. and Church St. The infants and junior school occupied two large classrooms at the top end of Main Street and the secondary school occupied the two classrooms at the end of Church Street. Mrs Pashley was the head teacher of the infants and junior school and Mr. Nichols was the headmaster of the secondary school.
However, in the early 1950’s as I was getting to the end of the infants classes the Staffordshire Education Authority deemed that the junior aged children, ages 8 to 11, should go to the school at the Barracks. And around the same time children of secondary age from Weeford and Shenstone were brought across to Whittington by bus.
These moves were fought by the parents of the Whittington children and for a while there was something of a boycott with the Whittington children being taught by a retired teacher (Mr Walliss??) in the Boys Club Rooms. This didn’t last and in the end and all changes went ahead as planned.
The School Inspector for our area was a Mr Craddock, a dapper little man with a shiny bald head. He was a man to be feared if you were caught wagging a day off school. I was never caught but I had developed wagging school into an art form! I had a range of mysterious illnesses that could be invoked just before I was due to head off to school and which would miraculously disappeared very soon after 9am!
One bright spot on a school day, however, was buying sweets at Carry Wrickwards shop window. Even when rationing was still in place there always seemed to be enough to get a stick of liquorice.
Even though I say that I hated school, as I look back I remember some good times and I got on well with the others in my classes. From the infants/junior school time I remember Martin Dewes, Elaine Eaton, Ruth Peck, Arthur Boards and Terry Williamson. And from the secondary days I remember Lloyd Wardle, Jeff Lucas, Peter Cope, Edward Lees and Roger Lee.
Other mates at that time were Ray Hodson, Jackie Wardle, Mick and Eric Bridgen, John Clark, John Clews and Peter Cork.
After completing junior school at the Barracks all of us who had failed our Eleven Plus Exam went to the secondary school in Whittington. But this was for a very short time because in July 1958 that school closed and in September we all started going to the new Kings Hill Secondary Modern in Lichfield where Mr. J.V. Trickett was the headmaster.
My attitude to school changed during junior school and by the time I got back to Whittington I was quite enjoying it. I guess some would say that I grew up! Mr Nichols had moved on and the Headmistress was Miss Bailey.
Four teachers stick in my mind Mr Osbourne who taught science which included gardening. I remember one day referring to soil as ”dirt” and got a ticking off for doing so; Miss Lawson whose family farmed at the end on the Mile Wall at Fisherwick and Mr Wooton who taught woodwork, I still enjoy doing woodwork to this day, and Mr Des Cook who taught music.
It was meeting up with Mr Cook that changed my life! He managed to get some Brass instruments for the Education Department and started a school band. I took to the trumpet like a duck to water, no doubt I’m sure partly due to the fact that grandad used to play cornet in the Whittington Brass Band that used to practice at the Peel Arms. (There are two photos in the Gallery one of the Whittington Brass Band with Grandad on the far left and one featuring carol singers. Grandad is there with his cornet and mum the small girl in the front) The end result of playing in Mr Cooks band was that two months before my fifteenth birthday in 1959 I auditioned for and got in to the Royal Marines School of Music and spent the next nine years as a military musician. So thank you Des!
Kings Hill seemed enormous compared the Whittington school. Whittington had two classes covering eleven to fifteen whereas at Kings Hill there were eight first year classes alone. As I understand pupils were allocated to a class based on previous school reports, the brighter pupils with the better reports going into the year 8.1 or 8.2. As you can imagine the poor souls that ended up in 8.8 had quite a stigma to overcome. At Kings Hill I followed Lloyd Wardle as Head Boy Prefect (so I guess something must have rubbed off on me on the way) and Lloyd joined the Royal Marines about twelve months after I joined.
Village life in the late 40’s early 50’s was very simple. Lichfield, despite being only three miles away was to some extent a world away. Television was in its infancy and for the most part we village kids entertained ourselves.
We learnt to swim either in the Brook up the Hirst or in the canal, we fished in the canal despite the Birmingham Anglers Association buying the fishing rights, and attempting to keep us off the towpath. We played football and cricket on the croft, built huts (or dugouts) on the croft and went to the Fair on the croft.
It was our belief, obviously mistaken, that the Croft had been given to the Village as a recreation area for village children. So it was with almost consternation that I learned in later years that it is now covered in houses.
The Fair used to visit the village every year and the gypsies used to try and sell pegs and trinkets as they passed through the village on their annual migration to Huddlesford.
The Common was also a popular play area for we lads though you had to take care in the area close to the Barracks because of thunder flashes that had not gone off. I recall one lad getting nasty burns through picking up an unexploded something or other.
To a lesser extent Fisherwick Wood was also a play area. In spring we used to go up there to pick either Bluebells or Daffodils but during summer we would occasionally roam the wood right up to the edge of the River Tame.
October time, however, was potato picking time and many of us kids would clamber aboard the cart behind then tractor to be taken to the field to pick our stretch of potatoes. This was great pocket money in the lead up to Christmas.
Saturday was a bit different. If you had enough pocket money left over it was in to Lichfield and the ABC Minors at the Regal and a bag of chips on the way home reliving the latest Roy Rogers film.
But shortly before I left school my Saturday mornings were taken up working at Mrs Leaches shop. She had a wonderful old (very old) push bike with a large metal basket on the front. My job was to deliver groceries in and around the village. For the most part this was OK but riding up the hill to Huddlesford or even getting up over the Peel bridge was an effort. But it paid me eight shillings for a mornings work which I thought was great. It paid for my Saturday afternoon pictures with my girlfriend.
Sundays was a much quieter day. For a good few years it was two services a day in the choir at St Giles. That is until one day the choir master, Mr Middleton, gave Eric Bridgen and myself an ultimatum. Both Eric and I had enjoyed playing in the school band so much that we joined the British Legion Brass Band in Lichfield. The problem was that band practice was on Sunday mornings. So even though we had been to choir practice on Thursday evening we didn’t turn up on Sunday morning because of band practice, hence the ultimatum. Unfortunately not being able to be in two places at once we chose the band and left the choir.
Our family was not particularly religious but church was still important. Rarely would we miss a Christmas or Easter service and St Giles was an important place for us with a maternal great-great grandmother, maternal great grandparents, maternal grandparents all buried in the churchyard.
Whittington was blessed with three grocery shops, a post office and a butches shop when I was a lad, as well as three pubs and a British Legion Club.
The Co-op was the first to offer prepacked items in the village. Up until then if you wanted a couple of ounces of butter, cheese of bacon then it was cut for you while you waited. With all the truly fresh produce around in the shops they had a wonderful smell. Rounds of cheese, sides of bacon, sacks or boxes of vegetables created an atmosphere of connectedness with the earth; Which was exactly what the village was, a farming village.
When we lived at the Rock Corner milk used to be delivered by Mr Mann of Rock Farm. This was in the days before it was illegal to sell unpasteurised milk and it was ladled out of the church into your own jug. But by the time we had moved up to Back Lane our milk was delivered from the Co-op in Lichfield. Before we moved however, I remember grandad coming home from visiting the Co-op at the end of Blacksmiths Lane and being “Nipped” by a horse pulling a bread cart from Lichfield. He had quite a nasty graze on his shoulder.
Milk in one third pint bottles was also delivered to the School at Whittington and someone from each class was designated the Milk Monitor. This was lovely creamy milk which was often frozen solid in winter because it was left at the school gate.
Occasionally, mum and dad would go into Lichfield to shop on a Saturday but that was usually when they wanted something that could not be bought in the village, such as clothes or shoes. But for the most part we shopped in the village.
Talking of clothes, the Vicar used to run a clothing club! Each week people would give a small amount, maybe a shilling or two, to the vicar who would mark up your card and hold on to the money. The accumulated fund would be used to buy things like school clothes before the start of the school year. As I recall we used to go into Mercers in Lichfield for this.
For grandad, visiting Lichfield was a weekly event because having worked at Garrets’ he had to go and collect his company pension. I used to go with him before I stared school and we would often call in and visit Aunt Maud, grandad sister who used to live on John St. up near the grammar school. I used to enjoy these trips and it was on them that I got my liking for sausage rolls and custard tarts. But for mum and dad visiting Lichfield was a rarity. And Tamworth was only visited when we went to visit mums sisters Aunty Eva or Aunty Pop.
Summertime was always holiday time, mostly to Wales. In the early days it was an annual week in Rhyl but in the later years I used to go to Porthcawl with Aunty Eva and Uncle Walter and cousin Christine. On one occasion I remember taking a steam train from Lichfield City station to Weston Super Mare and there was also the occasional day trip to New Brighton.
One summer I went on a camp to Anglesey with the Whittington Scouts. The camp was great until we started to journey home. For some reason the train bringing us back stopped at Stafford leaving us all stranded. The scout master, who’s name I have forgotten, managed to phone through to someone in the village and a fleet of cars, Mr Ball and Uncle Harry among them, drove to Stafford station to pick us up. For we young scouts this was part of the adventure.
I have very fond memories of Christmas. Our family was far from wealthy but we never wanted for anything at Christmas. Somehow, mum and dad must have saved up all year to give the three of us a shower of presents, some very expensive, like a new bike.
Before going to Matins at 11am on Christmas Day dad would cook breakfast with eggs sausages, bacon, mushrooms, etc. And after church he would cook dinner. He had been a cook in the army and new how to put on a spread plus the fact that as a manager at Gills Cables he got given a turkey at Christmas. The size of the turkey depended on how many years you had been a manager so we used to enjoy a very big turkey. He would bring it home on his bike, we never owned a car, and it would hang on a coat peg in the hall for around a week, feathers, feet head and all!! A few days before Christmas we kids would help mum prepare it. Plucking it and cutting the head and feet off was OK but gutting it was too much for me.
I also have very fond memories of birthdays at uncle Georges. Even though he was approaching middle age my cousin Bill always had a birthday party. They were great fun and we took particular delight in buying him something very small, like a tie pin, putting it in a match box, then putting the wrapped match box into a larger box, then wrapping the wrapped larger box into an even larger box. Bill knew what was going on, of course, but the unwrapping of each layer brought giggles all-round.
A more sombre memory was the October/November night that Mr Ball’s Dutch barn went up in flames. The fire was thought to have been caused by fireworks. I was about five or six at the time and whilst Betty and Dad went down to the farm to have a look I was scared stiff and stood at our landing window on Back Lane and watched from there with the safety of Mr Coxes chicken sheds in between.
One very still night the village was stirred by a very loud thud which we hard very clearly in Back Lane. The next day word got around that a rope holding one of the bid weights that drove the church clock had broken and the weight had thudded to the floor. Grandad, Uncle George and I went to have a look and there in the corner of the porch, just inside the front door was this huge weight bulging out of a shattered wooden casing. It was very fortunate that the rope broke at night when the church was empty.
For obvious reasons I’m not about to name names but the village did have its rascals! I guess every small community has its own version of Claud Greengrass and Whittington was no exception and Sgt Baines and Constable Turnock knew which door to knock on if something went amiss.
One of my last memories before leaving the village was going to a ploughing match at Tamhorn Park Farm. This would have been around 1958/59 and a team with two Shire horses took part. As well as ploughing there was also a hedge laying competition where men with bill hooks and slash hooks would cut into Harthorn hedging just enough to bend it and weave it but without cutting it completely through and then to lay the hedge into a nice tight fence. You could always recognise the hedge layers, not only because of their very distinctive tools but because of the thick leather gaiters they wore. These gaiters went from ankle to knee and protected the worker from the thorns. Mr Eli Moore, who live just down Back Lane from us and who was a good friend of grandads was a champion hedge layer.
I know life goes on but so some extent, sadly, the village I knew and loved as a child no longer exists. For a start it is much, much larger. Now it is more like a city suburb that a small farming village. I’m sure however, to those who live there now, and maybe also those who have lived through the changes, it is still a charming place with its characters and beauty.
After my nine years in the Royal Marine Band Service I did return to live in the village for a few months. By this time Carry Wrickward’s sweet shop was now Woodbine Cottage and had hairdressers downstairs and a flat upstairs. My wife and I rented the flat upstairs. I had met my wife to be, Jan, when the ship I was serving on visited Fremantle in Australia. After my sea-time Jan came to live with mum and dad at Back Lane and we married in St Giles on 10th June 1967. We returned to live in Australia in September 1968.
Since returning to Australia we have visited the village about once every ten years. The last visit was this year (2015) and it was lovely to attend a service at St Giles just a month after our 47th wedding anniversary.
After leaving the Royal Marines and moving to Australia I had a career change and started work in an insurance office. Eventually, after going to university and getting an accounting degree, rising to Underwriting Manager.
All that changed in 1987, however, when I left the insurance industry and went back to university to read Theology. In 1990 I was ordained a Priest in the Anglican Church and now, in retirement, still take the occasional service. I like to think the seeds sown at St Giles were responsible for this career change.
If I have offended anyone in these recollections, by either commission or omission then I apologise. If anyone from my dim dark past wants to get in touch please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com
© 2016 Whittington History Society