A Frank Discussion

I’m a big fan of place names that actually mean something, rather than the pretty but ultimately empty kind that are sometimes embraced by developers. The authors of one of my all time favourite books ‘England in Particular’ have this to say on the subject,

“Names carry resonances and secrets. Respect local names and add new ones with care. It is not good enough to call a new estate Badger’s Mead when the badgers have been destroyed.”

Recently there was a notice in the Lichfield Mercury that the name ‘Halfpenny Lane’ had been assigned to a new development off the Walsall Road (1).  If streets, buildings, etc, are to be name after local people, then I think its important to know who those people were and what contribution they’ve made to that place. The following information was very kindly provided by Colin Halfpenny, son of Frank and Mary Halfpenny.

Frank Halfpenny was born on 11th September 1897 in Goldenhill, Stoke on Trent. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to Marsdon and Sons, a tailor and outfitting firm in Newcastle under Lyme. Between 1916 and 1919 Frank served in the Staffordshire Yeomanry as a signaller, spending time in Egypt and Palestine.

This photograph was sent to me by Ron Myatt of the Great Wyrley Local History Society. Ron and I had a chat about it – we understand that it shows Frank Halfpenny whilst serving in WW1, but the identities of the other men are unknown. If anyone can help, Ron and I would be very grateful!

On his return, Frank was appointed manager of John Key and Sons Tailors and Outfitters  in Market Street , Lichfield and lodged with the Misses Arnold of the Coffee Shop on Church Street (opposite to the vehicle entrance to Wintertons Saleyard). He was a keen sportsman, playing football and cricket for Lichfield teams. In 1923, Frank was appointed theMidland Area Representative for D Gurteen and Sons, clothing manufacturers of Haverhill, Suffolk. On New Year’s Eve 1924 Frank married Mary Emma Tayler.  Both were lifelong Methodists holding active posts both in the Lichfield Church and on the Lichfield and Tamworth Circuit. Eleven years later, Frank purchased Mr B T Sadler`s drapery and ladies outfitting shop opposite the Johnson Statue in Market Square

At the 1935 AGM of the cricket club Sam Brown (the father of Cuthbert Brown who published several books on growing up on Beacon St) the Treasurer told the members that the club finances were very low and that a method of raising them had to be found.  Frank offered the club a cup to be played for with an annual competition, this was agreed to and the competition was started amongst local village clubs in 1936. This has been played for every year since then and is thought to be the oldest 20×20 competition in the country. He was also a member of several bowls clubs, the allotments association and the City Institute where he enjoyed a game of billiards or snooker.

In 1936 he was elected to the City Council and became Sheriff in 1938. At the same time his father in law, Councillor F M Tayler, (later to become Alderman and a Freeman of the city) started his second year as Mayor. Many people will know the photograph of Frank maintaining the tradition of the Sheriff’s Ride in 1939, accompanied by Sam Ashley who at 70 years of age had followed the ride each year from when he was 7 years old.  Sam had walked to Four Oaks and collected the horses then rode to Lichfield , round the city boundary, back to Four Oaks and walked home again. The following year, Frank presented Sam with a copy of this photo. Sam replied that the day had always been a pleasure all his life and he had always enjoyed it, noting that ‘there were not above three people alive who went round when he was a boy and he hoped to go on as long as he could’. During the War Frank was also a prominent member of the ARP and spoke all over the Midlands for the Ministry of Information on national security, instructing Home Guard units on signalling.

Frank was a member of many committees and was Chairman of the Lichfield, Tamworth and Sutton Coldfield Hospital Committee for a long time and was also elected onto Staffordshire County Council. He was a magistrate on the County Justices Bench and Mary his wife was on the City Justices Bench. In 1965/6 Frank was elected Mayor of Lichfield, and after his death on May 12th 1966 , his wife Mary took his place as Deputy Mayor for 1966/7. Mary Halfpenny he was then appointed Sheriff in 1968 (when Ena Millard was Mayor) and became Mayor in 1971.

Mrs Halfpenny is on the front row of the above photograph, fourth from left. Until writing this I have to confess that I had assumed that the lane had been named after Mr Halfpenny, but clearly Mrs Halfpenny was also an active member of the community, and so perhaps the name should commemorate both of them? The photo was very kindly sent to me by David Shaw whose father John Shaw is sitting on the second row (second from left). In a nice bit of synchronicity, John wrote wonderful local history books, one of which is about the street names in Lichfield!

Colin Halfpenny also provided this photograph taken outside Christ Church Boys Club in 1939, when the Duke of Gloucester visited. It shows Cllr Halfpenny (the Sheriff), his father-in-law Cllr Tayler (the Mayor), and the chairman of the Youth club committee (name unknown, possibly a local bank manager?) with the Duke.

Notes:
(1) I can’t think whereabouts this is and am a little reluctant to go and look as with my poor sense of direction and the labyrinthine nature of the estate I always struggle to find my way back out again! Does anyone else know?
(2) Thanks so much to Colin, David and Ron for providing the above information and photographs.
(3) Information on presentation of photo to Sam Ashley taken from Lichfield Mercury archive
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Any Old Iron?

When I was a little girl, my great (in all senses of the word!) granddad told me that the railings at the local cemetery in Birmingham had been taken for the war effort.  Ever since then it’s been my understanding that iron and other metals collected from homes, gardens and public places during the Second World War, were transformed into munitions. However, earlier this year a comment on Facebook, suggesting that the recycling of metal for the war effort was a myth, made me question this long held belief.

What is not in doubt is that places up and down the country handed over their railings, including Lichfield.  I understand that to begin with they were offered up on a voluntary basis but in 1941, the Ministry of Supply made the requisition of all ‘unnecessary iron or steel railings’ compulsory, for use in the foundries. The Lichfield Mercury carried an announcement that the Council had been instructed to make a survey and draw up a list of those to be surrendered. Compensation was available but the Ministry hoped that the majority of owners would give their railings freely! I have seen several suggestions that any reluctance was seen as unpatriotic (and perhaps there are hints of this in the discussions that follow below). Guidelines were issued on which type of railings were necessary and therefore exempt including:

1- Railings which should be maintained for safety reasons
2- Railings necessary to prevent cattle from straying
3- Railings of special artistic merit or historic value.

The remains of metal railings at Lichfield Library (the Friary Girls School at the time of WW2).

This perhaps explains why the library (then the Friary Girls School) lost its railings, but the decorative eighteenth century wrought iron gates outside the Angel Croft remained. It’s a little ironic that these listed railings were saved from the scrapheap back in the 1940s only to be left to rust away in-situ in more recent times.

Listed wrought iron gates outside the listed Angel Croft hotel – all appear on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register

For an insight into some of the discussions that took place at the time,  I’ve summarised part of a Council meeting that took place in June 1941, concerning the requisition of the railings that once stood around the gardens at Greenhill. Cllr Tayler argued that their removal should be deferred as they were necessary to prevent trespassing in the garden and to protect the water tank underneath, and asked why such a small amount of railings doing such necessary work should be removed when there was a large amount of ornamental fencing in the city still in place. Cllr.Taylor mentioned the railings around the Friary School in particular, explaining that there were more tonnes of railings there than hundredweights at Greenhill. He acknowledged that they were nice to look through, and that one could almost imagine they were looking at the Garden of Eden at times, but argued that if they wanted to get the serpent Hitler out, the Friary’s railings should be taken as a valuable contribution for the Minister’s appeal.

Whilst Cllr Taylor got his way at the Friary, his point about Greenhill was rejected. The Mayor felt that the council could not expect people to remove their railings if the council was unwilling to surrender their own. He also felt the removal of the Greenhill railings would enhance the beauty of that little park, creating a place where the old people of Lichfield could go for an enjoyable smoke. Cllr. Tayler remained unconvinced by this vision – he thought it was more likely to become a car park for Winterton’s auction. Alderman Deacon agreed – he thought opening up the space would lead to trespassing left, right and centre. He also voiced his frustration regarding the government’s campaign saying, “If the necessity for railings is so urgent as the Ministry of Supply said, why don’t they make a requisition for the whole of it…the Government should adopt a proper attitude and make a requisition for the whole of it”. Cllr. Moseley’s attempts to appease both sides by suggesting the decision be deferred to allow the members to visit the site were met with strong words from Cllr. Wiliams. “It seems pitiful to me. We are at war, and the Prime Minister’s speech not many hours ago gave the excuse of getting out of Crete because we did not have sufficient of this and the other. I take it we should never have attempted to recommend the removal of this scrap metal unless it was wanted, and yet these old historical people get up and say, ‘Don’t take it away as it will spoil the beauty of the city’. We have not in Lichfield felt the war, and it would be a damned good thing if we had a shot at it, and then we should realise what our army, navy and air force have to put up with. I can’t understand this spirit of Cromwell today. If we can help a little bit in Lichfield by scrapping our railings, let us do it with a good heart. Cllr Collins echoed these thoughts by adding, “We called it the ancient and loyal city and I think we can add one word – patriotic. I would certainly support the giving up of these railings on patriotic grounds and also that all other railings in Lichfield should be given up”. With these words, Cllr Tayler’s attempt to save Greenhill’s railings was defeated.

At the same meeting, Cllr. Halfpenny suggested that the railings in the Museum Grounds be salvaged and replaced by wire and fencing. The previous summer, the Council had decided to sell the old guns from the Crimean and First World Wars which were on display in the grounds. Again, this decision was reached following a fascinating and, at times, seemingly heated discussion. Cllr. Collins opposed the sale of these old war relics believing that they had been given to Lichfield as a token of the courage, bravery and endurance of the men of the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment (the First World War gun had apparently been captured by them on 3 August 1918). It did not cost anything to keep them, not even a rag or a drop of oil, and he believed that there may be many South Staffordshire soldiers who passed by that gun and had a chat about days gone by. The Russian gun from the Crimea put Cllr. Collins in mind of his school days and some of the battles that had been fought. In his opinion, the guns should stay where they were and wait for the next one to come and keep them company. Alderman Bridgeman agreed, as did Cllr. Williams, Alderman Hall and Cllr. Moseley, who thought that they made the grounds more interesting.  However, Cllr. Tayler was firmly in favour of the sale. He believed that the ‘morbid sentimentality’ that they had heard that evening had led the nation into the deplorable condition it now found itself in. Too much consideration had been given to German relics and Germans since 1918. The nation needed iron and what better to have than that sort of scrap iron. He acknowledged that the guns were of interest but felt that they could not afford simply to allow them to lie about for people to look at when they were the very thing the nation and the army wanted. Cllr. Nevill added that the old first world war gun had been lying around for the last twenty years, used only as a plaything for the children. Cllr. Bather reminded the meeting that the country was having to import iron from the States at exorbitant prices and believed, ‘If that gun was turned into a new one to use against the Germans, it would be the finest thing that could happen to it’. The decision was taken to sell the guns to a local metal merchant who had been granted a license by the Ministry of Supply to purchase scrap of all descriptions. However, what became of the guns after that?

The old war guns are taken away after being sold to a local scrap metal firm. Photograph taken from Lichfield Mercury Archive

There are numerous blogs and discussion boards on the subject of Britain’s war effort. On some you’ll find tales of railings being dumped in the Thames and the North Sea and of piles of metal rusting away in fields and depots. Perhaps somewhere amongst the propaganda and the myth, is the real story of what happened to the ‘scrap’ metal collected here in Lichfield and elsewhere.

Notes: There’s a great Pathe film clip called ‘Park Railings for Munitions’, which you can watch here.

Source: Lichfield Mercury Archives

Blue Sunday

My second ‘starting off at pub, and exploring the surrounding area’ type walk of the week, but this time with real life swans with just the one neck.

The sunny beer garden at the Red Lion was busy and I couldn’t help but feel that those who chose to remain inside the pub were missing out.  They were, and it wasn’t just the just the sun but also the wonderful sight of a pair of swans gliding down the canal with their eight cygnets. At one point the young ones were startled by a barking dog on one of the moored boats and darted back to huddle around one of their parents.

We began our walk by crossing the Lichfield Road Bridge (aka the Tummy Bridge in my house) to get to the towpath on the opposite side of the canal to the Red Lion. The next bridge along is the Hopwas School Bridge. As the name suggests it is near to the village school, named after founder Thomas Barnes. A lovely example of the local lad made good story, Thomas is said to have been abandoned as a baby, and discovered in a barn by villagers who gave him a surname to represent his humble beginnings. Educated and cared for by the villagers, Thomas became a successful London merchant. Had I walked a little to the right of the school, I would have seen the original schoolmaster’s house with a plaque reading ‘This house was built at the charge of Mr Thomas Barnes native of this place and a citizen of London in the year of our Lord 1717 for the dwelling of a person to teach the children of this village to read English’.

Instead, we kept on walking under the bridge and along the tow path. Something I did wonder about but couldn’t think of any explanation for at the time was the small door in the bridge itself. After doing a bit of post-walk googling it seems it might be a storage place for stop planks, used to block off part of the canal when maintenance work needs to be carried out. I think.

There was also some machinery on the other side of the tow path that looked interesting but again, I’m not quite sure of its purpose.

This, however, I did recognise to be one of the well documented pillboxes that stand in this area, defences against an invasion that thankfully never came.

Growing alongside the pillbox was a hint of what was to come in those infamous and ancient woods about which I’ve heard so much but seen so little, only ever passing by in the car. I’m pleased to say that Hopwas Woods lived up to my expectations, with a display of bluebells that put even my beloved Leomansley Wood in the shade. I attempted to capture it in photos, although they could never do it justice.

From then on I saw blue everywhere – the boats, the sky over the distant towers of Tamworth, a piece of pottery by the side of the canal and, after a big lunch and this short walk, a hammock at the water’s edge that looked very inviting indeed….