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    Cradley Links

    Old Cradley - Peter Barnsley

    "Times and places have to change" writes Peter Barnsley in this 1977 article, but "one thing you cannot do in a block of flats is sit on the doorstep of an evening and gossip with the neighbours."


    by Peter Barnsley

    First published in The Circular October 1977

    What I used to consider the old centre of Cradley has by now been obliterated. The streets below High Town - a jumble of small terraced houses, shops and pubs - were not really old. They all must have been built during the closing years of the nineteenth century - and that made them old by Cradley standards.

    The roofs and chimney pots of old Cradley

    From High Town, Cradley High Street wound steeply down towards the Stour in a long, lazy 'S' bend. Clinging to the slope to the east of High Street (and connected with it) were the cramped and insanitary buildings of Little Hill, New Street and Victoria Street. They were cheap Victorian working class houses, and they always looked to me as if one good shove would have put them in the river at the bottom of the hill. They outlived their time, and when they were swept away in the early 1970's, their names vanished along with them. Even the High Street (whose buildings incongruously remain on one side like survivors from a blitz) has been humiliatingly transformed into a mere extension of Colley Lane. So the area has lost not only most of its buildings, but most of its identity as well. Only a picturesque memory remains.


    The late Mr. Harold Cox knew this area well. "You could stand on High Town at nine or ten o'clock at night," he once told me, "and you could look over the houses, and see the sky all of a lightshine with the sparks from the chainshops at the back".

    By the nineteen fifties the chainshops were long gone. For me, High Street and Little Hill were merely the short road to Cradley Heath, particularly when working on the post at Christmas. "Old" Cradley was one of the rounds for postmen from Cradley Heath, and had its disadvantages. The doors in those benighted streets were not equipped with letter boxes; when they were built, it was probably presumed that their inhabitants would be illiterate, and therefore would not be receiving any mail. Delivering mail there in more literate times, you had to resort to hammering on the front doors (most of which looked as if they hadn't been opened since Mafeking Night) or going round and hammering on the back doors (which didn't have letter boxes either but which were at least opened more frequently).

    My friend and fellow postman, Dirk Cox, was a firm believer in going around the back. For one thing, it was invariably quicker. Back doors were often ajar, which meant that you could dispense with knocking altogether: you merely leaned in through the doorway and lobbed the mail onto the kitchen table. (On at least one occasion, a washing day, Dirk missed his aim and landed a bundle of Christmas cards in the boiler. He was in even riskier circumstances on another occasion: for some reason he stepped inside the kitchen but soon retreated flinging the mail over his shoulder when a carving knife embedded itself in the door beside him. It may have been a friendly warning not to drop any more post in the boiler. He didn't wait to see.

    Part of the jumble of houses that made up High Street, Little Hill, New Street & Victoria Street. The tower of St. Peter's church in the background (c.1960's)

    Little Hill's electoral roll for 1890 read as follows: Edward Bayliss, Abel Bloomer, William Boxley, Charles Bridgwater, James Buffery, William Buffery, George Cookson, Albert Dillard, Joseph Dillard, Felix Dunn, Levi Dunn, Josiah Edmunds, Thomas Edmonds, William Edwards, Harry Forrest, Joseph Forrest, William Hadlington, John Harbach, David Harris, Edward Harris, Joseph Harris, Joseph Harrison, Iram Hill, Neri Homer, John Jeff, William Morgan and Frederick Reece. Most if not all of those names could be found in or near Cradley today. (I am indebted to Mr. V.H. Pitt for the names).


    Nothing like that ever happened to me in that area. My experiences were less dangerous. I was once walking by the junction of New Street and High Street, when I was astonished to hear the sound of tambourines and rhythmic handclapping coming from a building on the corner. It was like hearing a jam session in a crypt. Not that Old Cradley was a s dead as that but - well - it was not the sort of place in which you expect to hear sounds more reminiscent of a Deep South Revival Meeting.

    Intrigued, I went inside. It was one of those gospel halls, sparsely furnished with rows of benches, that are a feature of the outer fringes of non-conformism. The service that evening certainly had some of what I fondly believe to be the features of Revival meetings: an emotional sermon, loud and frequent shouts of 'Hallelujah!' and fervent singing of rousing hymns (with a reprise after the last verse if anyone took up the tune again before the last note had died away - and someone always did).

    It was all intense and deeply felt. A small congregation in a tiny room enjoyed what was for them undoubtedly an uplifting experience. At the end, the preacher stood by the door to bid us each 'Good night' as we filed out. The top of his head was about level with my breast-pocket but he was in no way intimidated. "I haven't seen you here before", he observed - in tones of enquiry rather than accusation. I told him that I was really a member of the Church of England. "Ah", he sighed, "I was in the Church of England myself - until I was saved". There was no trace of irony in his voice.


    Victoria Street (1959)

    There was no shortage of that other, more popular, meeting place - the pub - in that little network of streets. There were several in quite close proximity to each other, and they were all fairly primitive places by modern standards. Bare floors and unvarnished wooden-topped tables were the standard furnishings, and if any of them had more than one bar, they were more likely to be labelled 'Men' and 'Women' than 'Bar' and 'Lounge'. At any rate, this segregation of the sexes was observed in 'The Blue Ball', where most nights the same row of old ladies could be seen clutching their bottles of stout in the back room, while the men drank and played dominoes in the front room.

    The Blue Ball stood closely opposite to the Baptist Chapel, as if seeking respectability from its walls, and despite its poverty (it was the smallest and most spartan of all the neighbourhood pubs) it had an atmosphere of its own that was not entirely squalid. In the 'Blue Ball's' front room, with its black-leaded firegrate, its old wooden tables with curved iron legs; and the still-visible fittings where the gas-lamps had been, you could believe that the past that was so often remembered in the conversation was not really very long ago.

    The old-fashioned atmosphere was coloured with a pleasantly raffish tinge by the commendable disregard for the licensing laws shown by a succession of Blue Ball licensees in the 1950's and 1960's. In no other pub have I ever seen a customer at the bar asking the landlord, at 10.45 p.m. (and this was in the days of 10 p.m. closing time): 'What time do you shut?'

    Nor were the people who took advantage of the elastic time-scale at the Blue Ball exclusively those disreputable members of society with whom you would not like your daughter to associate. The choristers and bellringers - nay, the very officials of the Parochial Church Council - from St. Peter's Church frequently resorted to the 'Blue Ball' after practices. It was not unknown (or so I heard) for the Vicar himself to step inside and take refreshment.

    One of the 'Blue Ball' regulars was old Steve, who used to sit by the fire reading his paper and taking snuff. Occasionally, he would emerge from the bar and survey the pillars of the Church who usually took their beer at a little table in the red-tiled corridor. His glance would take in the whole row. "If the Devil were to cast his net now..." was his only and invariable remark.


    One thing you cannot do in a block of flats is sit on the doorstep of an evening and gossip with the neighbours.

    Times and places have to change. And I never had to live in any of the cold and tatty buildings that now seem to have been so full of character.

    But I can't believe that in the barrack-like block that has replaced New Street, Victoria Street, Little Hill and one side of the old High Street, there is a community as varied and yet as homogenous as the one that has been displaced.

    I bet the inhabitants of what is now called Huntingdon Gardens (Gardens! They haven't even got window boxes) can't get an after-hours pint with choristers, churchwardens and chain makers.

    And I am absolutely sure that they never hear the sound of tambourines wafting up the lift shaft.

    This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.

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