In Park Lane Unitarian church there is a simple grave marked only "In memory of Joe, the Childrens' Friend."
Here is the story of a much loved Cradley character.
This man's final resting place is marked with a mere seven words; no dates are shown, nor even his surname.
And yet, he left a marvellous legacy in the hearts and memories of the people of Cradley.
Clifford Willetts1 wrote of Joey in his book, "When I was a boy" :
From each local community there emerges an outstanding personality. Such men have no monuments erected to their memory, but their names deserve an immortal shrine and are remembered for their outstanding qualities and for the memories they leave to those who knew them. Such a one was Joe Stevens.
Quite a remarkable tribute to the humble Joseph Stevens - we shall call him Joey, for that is how he was best known.
Joey's grandfather was Richard (Dick) Stevens, born in 1834, who married Emily Roper in 1857. Both the Stevens and Roper families have long associations with running public houses in Cradley.
In 1982, at the age of 85, Wilfred Williams wrote an article ("Old Cradley", Bugle Annual 1982, p. 6) which featured the Stevens family prominently. He wrote:
... we find a Richard Stevens as Landlord of the Windmill Inn, Colley Gate. Apart from being mine host, Richard was a well sinker and he sank many pitshafts in the district. Before the coming of the water mains the only water supply was from wells and local springs. The Windmill Inn was situated near an old windmill which stood high on a hill near Two Gates Lane and faced part of the Birmingham and Stourbridge main road. Hence the name Windmill Hill. From what I have been told it would appear that Richard was a fine old English character, he was known locally as 'Old Dick'. It was he who gave the name to Dick's Hill, an old pathway that runs from near the bus stop in Windmill Hill to Two Gates Lane. Even today the old pathway is still used and is still called 'Dick's Hill'.
In Kelly's directory for 1876 we see a listing for Richard Stevens at The Windmill pub, a few lines under the entry for his wife's brother, Emanuel Roper, at the White Lion. The White Lion has even older connections to Emanuel's father, William Roper.
The Windmill Inn was demolished in the late 1870s, and the licence was transferred to the Talbot Hotel built by William Oliver, with its own brewery to the rear.
Richard Stevens moved to the Fatherless Barn farm, where he took up farming.
The origin of the name Fatherless Barn has a grim history; in 1759 Joseph Darby and his two sons were hanged for the murder of John Walker, Bailiff at Witley Barn. Their children became fatherless, and according to one story, Witley Barn therefore became Fatherless Barn. Today the name lives on as the name of a housing estate in Cradley, built after the second world war.
Joey's parents were William and Mary Stevens. They lived in Tanhouse Lane, where Joey was born, lived and died. William was a farmer, and one of the fields he farmed is where the Tanhouse Lane flats once stood.
To jump ahead in our story - that area later came to be known as known as Joey's Field. Nigel Brown recalls fishing for tadpoles and sticklebacks in "Joey's Pool" as a boy in the 1950s, near where Tanhouse Lane and Chapel House Lane meet. In the 1930s houses were built on Tanhouse Lane, and the one next to Joey's Pool was named Pool House. It was lived in by the Taylor family, who also rented the fields behind it from King & Co., the fire brick making and coal mining company. They were known as "Taylor's Fields" and were used for growing and grazing in connection with their wholesale fruit and vegetable business, based in a warehouse in Maple Tree Lane next to Mole's chain works.
Wilfred Williams wrote of Joey's father William:
"William ... was well known and respected. He farmed the Park Farm for many years and lived in the quaint old cottage which was once the residence of the keeper of the old Cradley Park, when it belonged to Lords of the Manor centuries ago [...]
It is striking that the accounts which Clifford Willetts and Wilfred Williams left us both record the story of the hymn with which they remembered William Stevens.
Wilfred Williams wrote:
William farmed in the old fashioned way, in the Spring he could be seen sowing his seed by hand and when he was scattering the seed he was merrily singing, "We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land".
And Clifford Willetts wrote:
One of my memories of Joey's father was to see him with a basket of seed, which he scattered by hand. He was not what one would call a deeply religious man, but as he scattered the seed he sang the harvest hymn, "We plough the fields and scatter". He knew every word and when he finished the hymn, he started again until the whole field was planted. Perhaps it was his way of asking God's blessing on his crops.
When the Tanhouse Lane area came to be subdivided, it was intended that the roads be named after rivers in Worcestershire. The farsighted Clifford Willetts intervened; in his own words:
The exception is a road which the Council proposed to name Salwarpe, after another Worcestershire river. I was able to persuade the Council to name it 'Stevens' road, thus perpetuating the memory of the family who farmed it for a hundred years.
But what of Joey himself? Clifford Willetts gives us this moving account:
Joey helped with the farm work and looked after the two horses, Flower and Merriman. When his father died, he went to work at Harper and Moores, transporting coal with Merriman from Beech Tree Colliery. His dog, Peter, was his constant companion. Joey's journeys through Colley Gate, Toys Lane and Two Gates were witnessed by people who always acknowledged Joey. He deliberately made his time coincide with the children leaving school. If he was early he waited for them. "Come on children", he would say, "jump in', and as many as 20 children would fill his cart. Soon he had them all singing the hymns they learned in Sunday School. He would put his reins down and beat time, for Merriman needed no guiding. The children responded and as they went along the road. people stopped to listen to those angelic voices and Joey would proudly acknowledge the applause. This was not an isolated affair, but went on day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year.
When he died the whole district went into mourning for Joey. Those children loved him, as he loved them. Memorial services were held in Netherend Unitarian Church and Two Gates Ragged School and large congregations assembled to pay their final homage. Such was the affection for Joey, that Merriman and Peter were not forgotten. Merriman was getting old and destined for the knacker's yard. The people of Netherend arranged for him to be cared for until he lived his natural span. Peter too, went into honourable retirement. Joey was, in every sense of the word, a Good Shepherd. When honour is done, to whom honour is due, those of whom the poets have sung their praises, will divide like the waves of the Red Sea and passing the great and noble of the land will be Joey, stepping forward before them all and receiving the special praise of Him who said,
"In as much as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me".
Those were simpler times; when, in the midst of grimness and hardship, a ride in Joey's cart, with Merriman leading the way and Peter running alongside, was a treat to be savoured and remembered by the children of Cradley.
Joey Stevens lies today under the seven simple words which his friends and neighbours chose for him. No man ever had a finer epitaph:
"In memory of Joe, the Childrens' Friend."
1 Clifford Willetts OBE (1896-1981) was born at Two Gates, Cradley on 20th October 1896. He was first elected to Halesowen District Council in 1935 and was a member of Halesowen Borough Council from 1936. He became mayor in 1950-51, deputy mayor 1951-52 and Alderman from 1956-62. In 1963 he was granted the freedom of the Borough and from 1955-74 was a member of Worcestershire County Council. In 1974 he was elected to the new Dudley Metropolitan Council where he served until his death. He was awarded the OBE in 1980.
2 from Cradley Then & Now p. 36