Anyone who ever lived in a house like ours will recall the associated unpleasantness, particularly during winter.
I was born at 145 Corngreaves Road, Cradley Heath, in July 1943. It was a terraced property equidistant from the Baptist Chapel and the Chainmakers Arms. A spade sat outside the back door so that paths could be dug whenever there had been a heavy fall of snow. We would rush out to gather cold water from the tap in the shared washhouse, but if someone had arrived before you, you had to wait.
One consolation, in our case, was that coal was stored in the cellar, so an outdoor journey was not required to fetch fuel. The downside was after a delivery, the coal had to be transported from the footpath along the entry and tipped through the cellar opening, having first tried to block gaps around doors to limit the spread of dust within the house.
Our house, rented from Lottie Willetts who lived at number 146, faced the ‘Quarry Hole,’ an unmade private road that led to St Luke’s churchyard. The cemetery was my playground for the first ten years of my life. Alongside the gateless entrance was the driveway to Harvey Cole’s Ice Plant. This was before fridges and many business people would visit, sometimes on a motor bike with a sidecar, to purchase blocks of ice, usually wrapped in jute sacks.
There were houses on both sides of the roadway as well as a terrace at ninety degrees, whose windows looked over the cemetery wall. Half of one side constituted the Baptist Sunday School. We had a celebratory bonfire on November 5th each year, an event enjoyed by young and old, particularly when Mrs Prudham, who was originally from Yorkshire, handed out portions of parkin. Fireworks were bought from Mr Page, who operated a Sports Shop in the High Street. His glass-fronted counter quickly filled with bangers, sparklers, jack jumpers, rockets and roman candles, as soon as we returned to school after the summer holidays. I bought fireworks on a Saturday as soon as pocket money had been handed out. I kept my mounting collection in a shoe box, which because of regular viewing, by the time Bonfire Night arrived, contained more powder than the casings. The best show of the night was when the ‘empty box’ was flung onto the fire.
Corngreaves Road was long and convoluted: our end was near to the Four Ways. As well as dwellings there were one or two pubs and shops, and factories, either accessed from the road or one of its side streets. My father was a welder who worked at Fellows Brothers. There were a number of chain shops in the area, in particular Woodhouses, with a factory in Cokeland Place. The Test was situated opposite. Its main structure was a trench with fastenings at each end. Chains were fixed and pulled until either the load-bearing was confirmed or a link would break. A small structure nearby housed the testing and measuring equipment, kept records and dealt with visitors. In a sense it was the equivalent of a weigh-bridge. Locals would be aware of the days during which testing was carried out, but not so visitors who, when they heard the crack, believed the end of the world was nigh.
Most men either walked to work or rode cycles. Motorised transport was in transition. When I was a boy, milk was delivered by horse and cart. Mr White had a dairy near where Corngreaves Road meets Grainger’s Lane. He would visit each day except Sunday and ladle from churn to jug. Eventually he retired when Midland Counties began to deliver bottled milk. They, of course, used electric floats. Our bread was delivered from Collins Bakery by van, and the coal would come on a lorry. There were occasionally itinerant traders on foot, although door-to-door selling was rare in Cradley Heath because of its market.
Being handy for the High Street had advantages. Some of our neighbours worked in shops, in particular Moyle and Adams and Marsh and Baxter, so that was grocers and butchers covered; useful in the days of rationing to know what was arriving when and where. My father always kept fowl so we had eggs. In addition, my mother was a trained dressmaker and tailoress, so anyone who could lay their hands on a remnant of material could be supplied with a garment. Bartering was common in those days.
Cradley Heath was a thriving centre. There were two markets; grocers, tailors, butchers, haberdashers, coal merchants, gas and electric showrooms and novelties such as the music shop operated by the Misses Foley, with one of whom I suffered piano lessons. As the fifties came, so did shops dealing electrical goods.
The early part of the decade saw the grand scale emergence of television. Our house was one to receive a 10-inch Ultra black and white set, but to accommodate it we had to have electricity installed for the first time. The owner refused to pay towards the cost. It was a great addition to Radio Relay which was already cabled into our house when I was born. My father’s mother refused to watch TV, in fact although she lived for another twenty years and had seen the arrival of steam locomotives, she never saw men walk on the Moon.
By the late 60s I had established myself as the District Public Health Inspector for Lye and Wollescote. The two Wards contained, in just a few streets, a wealth of opportunity for a young, keen officer. A considerable slum clearance scheme had just been completed in the area, but there were many more remaining dwellings that suffered from disrepair, dampness, instability and lack of amenity.
My district was a fifty-fifty mix of residential and commercial/industrial premises, all intertwined. For many years the principal industry had been hollow ware; pots and pans, buckets and baths. Constructed from iron, they were preserved by enamel, electro-plating or galvanising, all processes which gave rise to danger and risks to health, though later techniques were much less hazardous.
There were numerous small workshops which produced components or tools for the car trade. There were bakeries, slaughterhouses, foundries, forges, galvanisers, woodworkers and as time progressed, plastics moulders and extruders. There were probably few other places in the country where I could leave a premises experimenting with radioactive substances, having signed the Official Secrets Act, and a fifteen minute walk later, enter a factory manufacturing horse shoes and frost cogs, meeting two Royal Canadian Mounted policemen in full uniform.
I was always happiest trying to improve the living circumstances of people in their homes. Probably 80 per cent of the dwellings were rented. As well as favouring tenants, I always tried to be fair to owners. In the mid-sixties many rents (which were controlled by statute,) were less than ten shillings (or fifty pence) per week and the landlord had to pay the Council Rates. Although I had many tenanted properties, there were just a few owners and I sought to build relationships with them. I had extensive powers under the provisions of the Public Health and Housing Acts, but as far as I could I avoided serving notices and instigating legal proceedings. In those days, owners tended to be local, often having been left properties in relatives wills.
More than half my problem dwellings, amounting to about four streets, were owned by one man. His main business was an off licence which was operated from the front room of his own house by his wife. As it happened, he and I shared the same initials, but that was our only connection. We operated a love/hate relationship for fifteen years. I always called him Mister and he referred to me as ‘that young bugger from the Council,’ which I accepted as a compliment. It showed I was doing my job as I should. In fact, my Boss was always pleased when he received complaints about me.
I knew that Mr Norman, let me call him, was always at home from eleven o’ clock onwards. That was the time he opened his first bottle of Nut Brown Ale. If there was some minor problem at one of his houses, I would visit the shop.
‘Hello Mrs Norman, is he in?’
‘Well as I’ve come all this way, I’ll have a look round the shop.’ Within a couple of minutes I would hear a match strike, and a Woodbine cough from the back room. ‘Seems like he’s back, I’ll go through, shall I?’
Neighbours would smile and point as I helped him carry a ladder along the street and hold it while he climbed up and reset a slate or tile. It was me who received the thanks when I held a window sash closed while Mr Norman secured it with a block of wood, after I’d persuaded him to promise to fit new cords during the afternoon.
As the 1960s progressed housing policy changed. Closing and Demotion Orders gave way to Improvement Notices and Schedules. A series of grants was made available to owners. By 1970, when effectively Clearance ceased, I had condemned and got rid of almost 200 unfit properties, whose tenants were rehoused in modern Council accommodation. Such action was only possible because of the construction of high-rise flats, which although later criticised, were the only means by which significant slum clearance could be achieved.
My duties varied. No two days were ever the same and when the phone rang, you never quite knew what the call would be about. The bread and butter work was dealing with nuisances, smells, blocked drains, pest control, dogs running wild, investigating communicable diseases and on occasions helping neighbours sort out disputes. My approach was to try to turn them both against me, thus uniting them. When occupiers shared a yard, a water supply or an entry, it was necessary that they could get along. In one such case, I threatened to serve notice on both parties and only managed to escape down the entry after slamming the gate before a dog caught me.
Dogs were always a problem. I have never forgotten the Jack Russell terrier who, wishing to be friendly, knocked my notebook from my hand and chewed up the pages at my feet. I had to revisit the occupiers of six houses and carry out re-inspections as my notes had found their way into the creature’s stomach. They were able to see the funny side of it, but I didn’t.
A new world arrived in 1974 when Stourbridge Borough Council, with its sixty thousand souls, was incorporated in the newly created Dudley Metropolitan Borough.
I was promoted and became involved in pollution control over the whole area, with a population of more than 300,000. I said goodbye to my two Wards and the many friends (and few enemies) that I had made. My career lasted for another twenty one years, but that time when I was Prince of Lye, was always the best.
Postscript – My parents and I left Corngreaves Road in 1960 when we moved to Cradley. As I was taking my final Diploma examinations, No 145 was demolished as part of an extensive clearance scheme carried out by Rowley Regis Council.
Having spent the best part of thirty five years writing reports on such subjects as ‘Provision of Caravan Sites for Travellers’ and ‘Aspects of Pest Control in the Urban Environment’, Roger began more creative writing in 2006, when he completed a screenplay for a friend, an amateur film maker. The film was made and he has written further scripts. Having become addicted he began to pen short stories and poems. He occasionally produces memoirs and other non-fiction. In 2012, he published ‘An A to Z by RLN’, a volume of 26 short stories. In 2018, 75 examples of his flash fiction were incorporated in Slimline Tales, published by Chapeltown Books of Manchester. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, often with a Black Country bias. He belongs to two Writers’ Groups and tries to write something every day.
Banner image: estate of Harry Cartwright, http://www.stourbridge.com