In this essay from the 1970's, Peter Barnsley shares with us the story of Joe Beasley, a Black Country farmer born in Cradley in 1898.
The scattered hamlet of Lutley, outflanked as it is by Cradley on one side and Halesowen on the other, still manages to preserve its own separate and distinct identity. It rests on the side of a shallow valley of a tiny tributary of the River Stour. At the valley's northern end, Lutley Mill and its attendant cottages stand in a quiet circle of trees. At the southern end there are three old farmhouses which have stood there for so long that they seem to be a part of the natural landscape. Add to these a couple of small cottages and you have completed the inventory of Lutley's buildings. Set as it is among hedged fields, it is difficult to regard Lutley as even remotely part of the Black Country. But Lutley Mill is less than a mile and a half from Cradley Heath's bustling Five Ways Road Junction.
Lutley's oldest inhabitant, but still one of its most active, is Joe Beasley, who came to live there when he was seven years old, 66 years ago. He was born at Two Gates Farm, Cradley, on 6 June, 1898. This farm has long since been demolished and its land built upon. When Joe was five, his parents moved to a farm at Careless Green, Wollescote. This farmland, too, has now been built over, though the farmhouse still stands. In 1905 Joe came with his parents to White House Farm, Lutley, where he still lives and farms. His fields stretch northwards to Lutley Mill, and are spread on either side of an unmade narrow track which is reputed to date back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Its dusty surface may even have been powdered by contemporaries of Chaucer's pilgrims; ox-carts may have sunk in its winter mud.
Joe Beasley now drives his cows along it, as his predecessors no doubt did, with the practical eye of the farmer. His interest in its past really starts only from 1911 when he left school at thirteen and immediately went to work on his father's farm. The farm also employed a waggoner, a cowman, and a milkman who helped with the milking and took the milk out twice a day in a horse-drawn cart. The milk was ladled out from a churn in a pint measure; from cow to customer without benefit of the Milk Marketing Board!
Joe married in 1925, and his father moved to nearby Grange Farm, leaving him to run White House Farm, to be assisted in due time by Reg and Ray, his twin sons. He bought the freehold of the land in 1954, and in 1959 he made the farm into a limited company. In addition to his own 62 acres in Lutley, he also farms 68 acres at Wassell Grove and a further nine acres which were once part of the old Lutley Mill Farm. About fifty two acres of this land provide pasture for his seventy cows.
The changes that Joe Beasley has seen in his lifetime of farming are mostly the ones common to farmers all over the country. He has long replaced all the horses on the farm; his first tractor was bought in 1941 after he had obtained the permit necessary in wartime. The permit was a symptom of another great change, most noticeable since 1939; the appearance of the bureaucrat whose forms have had to be completed in ever-increasing numbers, mostly in the matter of farming subsidies.
The use of pesticides has been another development; and the use of herbicides too - "We had to hoe all the weeds out before." The combine harvester and the all electric milking parlour are other novelties abhorrent to the romantic but benevolent to the firmer.
In crop-growing, the main change as far as White House Farm is concerned has been the introduction of barley, grown as cattle food. (Some of Joe's barley is occasionally sold to breweries if the buyer approves after he has rubbed, sniffed and generally cross-examined it). Wheat, oats, potatoes, mangolds and swedes have always been grown. Joe also used to grow one acre of vetch - ". . . with a few oats to keep 'em up. I used to cut 'em with a scythe and feed 'em to the cows."
Joe Beasley's fortunes have varied. In 1929, he was trying to get rid of potatoes at 35/- a ton; the depression years were as bad for farmers as for others. The most prosperous period, ironically, was the second world war when food supplies were as vital as munitions.
Even more ironic is the fact that Joe Beasley's greatest prosperity could come, not from farming the land, but from selling it - the third farm that Joe has lived on might go the way of the other two and be built on. In 1959, one local builder paid him £1,500 for a ten year option on the land should it be re-zoned. The option expired with the land still precariously in the Green Belt, though anyone buying a similar option now might well have a safer bet. White House Farm itself is fairly safe; it is Classified Grade Two on a statutory list of protected buildings (it was probably built in the 16th Century) and cannot be demolished without Ministerial consent.
Joe Beasley's farm forms part of what is known as the Lutley Wedge -a strip of green between the Hasbury Estate in Halesowen and the Fatherless Barn Estate in Cradley. Some land on the borders of the Hasbury Estate has already been re-zoned and will be built on - closing in a pincer movement on Joe Beasley's land. He views the possible disappearance of his farm with equanimity. The presence of so many people so close to it has made farming it more difficult anyway. Heedless of their good fortune in having so much countryside right on their doorsteps, they use the farmland "like a playing field." Fences are broken and crops trampled in discouraging displays of vandalism.
To any tidy-minded planner, armed with a ruler and a pencil, and an urge to straighten out the edges of the conurbation, the temptation to fill in the Lutley Wedge with housing development must be strong indeed. If they succumb to the temptation, the disappearance of this area's previous blend of unlikely contrasts will be complete. It was once possible to start out from Cradley and see, in less than a mile, chainshops, water-mills, mines and farms. The chainshops, mills and mines are already gone. If the farmland goes too, suburbia will have smothered the land completely and Lutley will become just another annexe of just another dormitory suburb. The local worker will have been finally ousted by commuter-man.
Joe Beasley has lived long enough to be fatalistic about the future. He lives from day to day, as all farmers do, in an arduous seven day week, starting work with the dawn (or before it) and stopping work each day only when he has finished or when it is too dark to go on. An active physical existence has kept him fit; his wife and sons are still there to help him, and a trip to Cradley each evening for an hour in the 'Round of Beef' provides convivial relaxation. He has seen little external change in Lutley during his lifetime. If change does come, it will be drastic and final.
Author's footnote: Lutley and Cradley are part of the Borough of Halesowen, and those who collapse in helpless and incredulous laughter at Halesowen's claims to be part of 'rural Worcestershire' might well take a stroll over the 'Lutley Wedge'. That Halesowen is strongly linked with the Black Country is the truth. But not the whole truth.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.