The Hedges Family of Quay Lane
1. Frederick Hedges with his wife Edith and children (from left) Percy, Florence and Mary at 37 Quay Lane, the Hedges’ family home, demolished in the 1950s
2. At the age of 19 Percy Hedges left Hanley Castle to join the Police Force in Birmingham
3. Percy & Kathleen Hedges on their wedding day, flanked by his sisters Florence and Mary
An account of life in Hanley Castle between the wars based on the memoirs of Percy Hedges (1915-1983), who lived at 37 Quay Lane, Hanley Castle, until 1934:
Percy was the son of Frederick Ernest Hedges (1880-1917), a builder on the Lechmere estate, and Edith Wright (1883-1950) of Croome Park. In 1916 Sir Edmund Lechmere’s agent, Charles Hay, wrote to the army recommending Frederick for a post in the Engineers, since he had worked in the building trade for 20 years, saying: “He is a hardworking, strictly sober, honest man and I consider him more suited for the Engineers than for any other branch of the Service”. But to no avail; he was posted to the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment and, on 17 August 1917, he was killed by a sniper at Westhoek Ridge, Ypres.
His widow was left to bring up three children on a pension of £1.15s a week. Sir Edmund Lechmere allowed her to stay in a small cottage in Quay Lane for a monthly rent of 9 shillings. She was duly grateful, remembering a similar situation as a child when her father, who worked on the Croome Park estate, was killed in an accident and her mother, with eight children, was evicted from their tied cottage and had to rely on the generosity of the cook at Croome Court.
In the autumn, a popular walk was to the castle grounds to collect hazelnuts. From St Mary’s churchyard, they would cross the ‘Park’, through a kissing gate and into the grounds. Sometimes they would turn right alongside the moat and into the field in front of Lodge Farm before making their way along the footpath to Gilberts End. Alternatively, they would turn left by the moat with its wild irises and bulrushes, the home of moorhens, wild ducks and the occasional swan and cygnets. “Then we stopped and listened to the roar of the mighty wheel that ground the corn in the mill”, Florence remembered. The local farmers took their grain to this mill to be ground into flour.
When he was five years old, Percy Hedges went to St Mary’s Primary School and remembered his first day vividly. “It was 11 o’clock playtime and I was hanging onto the water pump in the playground sobbing my eyes out. My teacher, Mrs Nellie Creese, came to me and – I can remember her exact words – said, ‘Never mind, you can come and help me to make some butter’. We went into the teachers’ private room and she poured cream into a container with a handle on the top, and for the next 10 minutes or so I was busy turning the handle, making the butter, which I had a sample of on a piece of bread. I did not cry again.”
Edith Hedges always fattened up a pig during the year and it was Percy’s job to clean out the sty twice a week. Once a week he had to give it a shovelful of coal slack to eat, which his mother said was good for the liver. By November, when it was killed, it weighed 16 stone. The pig killer was Bert Allen from Hanley Swan and the evening before he was due Percy would be sent to the Three Kings for 2 quarts of beer for him. As he walked through the churchyard in the dark, he would see the twinkling lights from thousands of glowworms. After the war they were never seen again and rumour had it that US servicemen at Blackmore Camp collected them to send home.
Allen would arrive at 6 am on a large tricycle with his dog Spider and his tools in a leather bag. Before starting work he would drink one of the quart bottles of beer. When he had finished and the pig was hanging up in the shed, he would drink the second bottle and move on to his next appointment, perhaps 100 yards away, where he would down another quart and start again. Every part of the pig was eaten. Faggots were made from minced liver and lights (lungs) spiced with onion and sage, rosemary lard was made from the leaf (fat round the kidneys), brawn came from the head, the feet and the tail were boiled, the liver was cooked with onions and the heart was stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs and herbs. Edith would hang the two sides of salted bacon and hams in white muslin cloth from large nails in the wall of the staircase. She would not allow Percy’s two elder sisters, Florence and Mary, to touch them because it was believed that a menstruating female would taint the meat. When Percy was eight, he was considered old enough to perform the first cutting of the ham – usually when the broad beans were ready to be picked.
His mother cooked on a coal and wood fire range with an oven on either side and a spit in the middle on which to hang the kettle. At night she would mix the ashes with coal slack and throw them up the chimney to act as a blanket for the fire, which would continue to glow faintly until morning when it would be revived. Occasionally she would buy bloaters (dried herring), wrap them in newspaper and make a parcel of two or three sheets of paper, which she placed on the hot cinders. When the paper was blackened, the fish were ready to eat.
Before the days of electricity, the living room was illuminated by paraffin lamp. At 9 o’clock they would go to bed carrying a lighted candle. There was no bathroom. In winter a large galvanised bath would be placed on the rug in front of the kitchen fire, hot water being carried to it from the boiler in a lean-to outside. In warmer weather the children would take a bath in the open air in the yard at the rear of the cottage.
The village blacksmith, Charlie Camm, was a huge man, 6 ft 2 in tall and weighing about 18 stone – all muscle. His forge was within 100 yards of the school and, as soon as school was finished, Percy would dash over and ask to work the bellows. He loved the smell of scorched hoof, which arose when red-hot shoes were being fitted. If the shoe fitted correctly, it would be plunged into a tank of water, filling the forge with steam. Percy’s mother always knew when he had been at the forge, because the smell of shoeing horses used to get into his clothes.
Edith would take her children to St Mary’s church twice on Sundays for the 11 am and 6.30 pm services. The vicar was the Rev. Hubert Jones. On warm Sunday afternoons, he used to drive Percy and his friends George Roberts of the Three Kings and Harry Duggen to Clevelode on the river Severn, where he taught them all to swim. It was a safe spot, because a bank of red sand had collapsed some years before, allowing them to wade out to the middle of the river. When the boys could all swim, the vicar would challenge them to a race to the opposite bank, and always won. When Berwick Lechmere came to visit his grandparents at Severn End, Sir Edmund would send for Percy and the other two boys so that they could all play together.
At the age of 11 Percy left the village school and went to Upton. Every morning he would cycle to his aunt and uncle’s bicycle and fishing shop in Old Street, leave his bike there and cut through the back garden to the school. His uncle Joe won many fishing prizes and he particularly liked catching pike. He kept an artificial pool in the garden filled with live bait, like gudgeon and roach. His favourite fishing spot was where Pool Brook enters the Severn on the boundary between Hanley Castle and Upton. Once, when Percy called to collect his bike, his uncle had just beheaded a pike weighing 23 lb and from its stomach came a chub weighing 1 lb. His aunt stuffed the pike with sage and baked it, serving it up with creamed potatoes and a fresh parsley sauce.
Joe bred maggots for his own use and for sale in the shop. In his garden shed he kept an old oil drum with some bran in it and a riddle on top. On this he would put a couple of sheep’s heads, a dead rabbit and some bullocks’ liver. As the maggots grew, they would fall through the riddle into the bran and be ready for sale. Percy never forgot the stink.
His aunt made gallons of homemade wine in two half barrels covered with Hessian sacks. Village policemen from all around would follow up attendance at the Court in Upton by parking their bicycles at the shop and calling in for some refreshment, weaving their way home unsteadily afterwards.
Percy and his cousin Raymond would gather elderberry flowers, elderberries, cowslip blooms, dandelion flowers, May blossom, rose hips, sloes and many other wild plants for her brew. Between Hanley Castle and Upton there were dozens of sloe trees growing on the bank with their roots in the water. While picking sloes, Percy once fell into the Severn and was lucky to get out again, as the river was deep at that point. He received a good hiding from his mother, which he always believed was because he came home safely.
He used to get quite a speed up on his bicycle and once came round a corner near the church dragging his left foot on the ground only to find the giant figure of PC Kibart in front of him. “He gave me one of the biggest tellings off I ever had, threatening that if he ever caught me again he would come and tell my mother”, remembered Percy. He never did it again because he knew his mother would give him a good hiding and send him to bed.
Corporal punishment was commonplace at home and at school. One day a boy made some remark that upset Percy and he lashed out, bursting a boil on the boy’s neck. The boy went crying to the headmaster, who gave each of them a stroke of the cane on the hand.
One day on his way to school in an alleyway opposite the Royal Oak Inn, when he was 13, Percy met “my one and only dearest sweetheart” – Kathleen Payne, the youngest of nine children. They would walk to and from school together, parting company outside the pub without daring to steal a goodbye kiss in case her father, who had been in the military police during the war, caught them. But they used to meet every Wednesday evening for an hour or so – no longer, as Percy had to be home by 9 o’clock. In 1937, both aged 22, they married, a happy union that lasted 40 years.
Percy’s main pastime in the summer was cricket. He joined the village club and turned up for practice every Tuesday and Thursday evening, hoping to be picked for the team. When he was chosen, his sister Florence paid for his kit and he became wicketkeeper. He often came home with purple marks on his stomach from the balls received from their fast bowler, because he could not afford proper gloves. Before a match, Upton’s wicketkeeper, Eric Cowley, would visit his local butcher and buy two thin beef steaks. He would prepare himself by first putting on a pair of thin cotton gloves, adding a steak on each palm followed by a cotton liner and then carefully pull on his wicketkeeper’s gloves. This stopped the palms of his hands from being bruised, but Percy could not afford such a luxury.
Also when he was 13, Percy joined the village bell ringers, taught by the blacksmith Charlie Camm, an expert in the art. To start with he had everyone tolling the bells – ringers following each other and just allowing the hammer to strike on one side only. Percy was keen to control the tenor bell and eventually he took it over, being warned to be careful not to be taken up by the bell. Once, one of the ringers failed to let go of the Sally (the soft woollen part of the rope that is pulled) and was taken up by the number 4 bell, luckily letting go just in time to prevent his head from striking the ceiling. Charlie would shout at the top of his gruff voice if anyone got a fraction in front or behind the ringing schedule.
Percy earned many a half-crown by tolling the ‘death bell’. Everyone in the parish knew when a funeral was due to take place and 5 minutes before the cortege left the house Percy would start ringing the tenor bell – two strokes in the case of a woman (probably with a half-muffled echo on the return pull) followed by a minute’s pause and one stroke for a man – right up to the time the coffin was taken into the church. It was the custom for everyone in the village to stop work as soon as the death bell started to toll, remaining still until the last stroke.
In 1929 Percy watched as the six bells in St Mary’s church tower were taken down and sent to the bell foundry in Loughborough for recasting and tuning. Before being taken to the railway station at Upton, they were placed on gravestones in the churchyard for a few days, a sacrilege that greatly upset some villagers, the row being reported in Berrow’s Journal.
The church organist, Frank Jarrett, worked for an Upton butcher and Percy helped him deliver the orders on a Saturday morning. They would put all the meat into a horse-drawn box with two doors at the back, everything highly varnished, and at most houses Percy would receive a penny or two. Frank would always make the last delivery at the Ewe & Lamb Inn in Hanley Swan, so that he could have a few pints. Percy’s job was to look after the horse, but Frank would always bring him a pint of cider drawn from a large oak barrel.
When there was a meeting of the Croome Hunt, Percy would run after the hounds and huntsmen, perhaps 15 or 20 miles during the day. He always wanted to own a steeplechaser, but could never afford one. The word originates from the 18th century practice of squires from adjoining parishes racing each other from one church steeple to another and back again.
Percy was always looking for ways to help his mother make ends meet. At the rear of his cottage was a narrow coppice leading down to a pool near the river where in April moorhens made their nests in the reeds. When they had laid their clutch of four eggs, he would attach a tablespoon to a long stick and carefully retrieve two from each nest, leaving the others for the following year’s supply.
One year he noticed some bubbles coming up from the centre of the pool. He knew this was a sign of eels, so he collected some lobworms and went back to the pool with his rod and line. After a short time he felt a tremendous bite and landed the biggest eel he had ever seen. He had his father’s knife, but the eel was difficult to kill because it kept twisting itself around his arm and covering his clothes with slime.
His mother skinned it, chopped it up and cooked it in milk and parsley. It was delicious. Usually, when the family wanted eels, he would go fishing at the end of Quay Lane where the sewer emptied into the Severn and eels could always be found feeding on the discharge.
April was also the month that gamekeepers on the Lechmere estate used to shoot up the rookeries to destroy nests and birds, which were considered pests. As soon as he heard the guns, Percy would run to where they were shooting and ask for some rooks. He took home about a dozen, which he had to pluck and then remove just the breasts. They were slowly boiled with sage and chopped onions, placed in a cooking tin with their juices and finally covered with pastry before being served with mashed potatoes and whatever greens were available. “What a meal that used to make”, he remembered.
Come September, he would pick large mushrooms from beneath oak trees where horses used to gather in the summer. The mushrooms were 4-5 inches in diameter and very thick. His mother would peel and boil them with plenty of salt and then bottle the liquid, which she called mushroom sauce; this was delicious with cold meat, cheese or stew. The mushrooms themselves would be heated up the next day and eaten with bacon for breakfast.
Percy learnt from a village poacher how to set wire traps for rabbits and after school he would go down to the coppice, select a run and set the wire, returning in the morning to bring back his catch. The poacher also told him how to catch a hare by discovering its main run and then placing a heavy object, like a roller, in it. Because hares cannot see ahead, only to the sides, they get used to running fast along their established runs and can knock themselves out if they collide with an obstacle. Percy never actually tested this theory.
In 1929 Percy left school on his 14th birthday and two days later started working for the market gardener H N Ellison at Rhydd Gardens for 10 shillings a week. He gave 7/6d to his mother and kept the remaining 2/6d as pocket money. At that time he began to smoke Woodbines, which cost 8d for a packet of 20. He worked from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm, pricking out boxes of bedding plants, taking geranium cuttings and potting them for rooting and wintering in greenhouses. In March, when the cuttings had taken root, he would re-pot them in 3½-inch pots.
When he was 16, he was allowed to join the Three Kings fishing club. Twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – the club would hold a tripe and onion supper. For 6d he had “a whacking plate of tripe, onions and mashed potatoes, and a second helping if you could manage it! All washed down with a pint of draught cider for 3d.”