IN THE BEGINNING

By Martyn Round

(This article first appeared in the 150th issue of The Blackcountryman, in March 2005 - editor)

As we reach an important milestone in the form of the 150th edition of The Blackcountryman, I thought it interesting to look back some 38 to the earliest days of both Society and magazine, as seen through the eyes of its contributors. A glance through the pages of the first four editions stirs both imagination and memories, none more so than in the ‘Society News’ section of Vol.1. No.1. It is here that John Brimble informs us, that on the ‘31st December 1966, Dr J. M. Fletcher and Mr J. Brimble announced in the local press that they intended to form a Black Country Society in order to promote interest in the past present and future of this great and interesting region’. It continues to say that ‘there was an immediate response from the public and a membership of 50 was quickly achieved.’ One year later, at the time of his writing, the Society boasted of over 150 members, ‘mostly Black Country born and bred, but including a number of ‘outsiders’.’ The Society’s inaugural meeting had been held on Wednesday, March 1st 1967, at the ‘Noah’s Ark’ public house, Tipton, with the attendance ‘by far exceeding expectation’. Once the die had been cast there was no holding back on the many imaginative ventures that further helped to bond members together. Today, one can only admire the enthusiasm and sheer hard work of our predecessors in endeavouring to establish the Society on a firm footing.

Regular monthly meetings with an average attendance of sixty were, held in public houses, ‘as the social life of the Black Country revolved around its local pubs’. In this congenial atmosphere, ‘members have been able to meet new and interesting people and many new friendships have been born’. The November meeting took the form of a ‘Groaty Puddin’ supper’, held at the Pear Tree Inn, Mincing Lane, Blackheath. Several sub-committees were also formed during the first year, each working on differing aspects of Black Country life. These included a Photographic Section, Drama Section, and Tape Recording Section; also one to study the history of transport in the Black Country. There’s also mention of trips to places of historic and industrial interest, the first being a Saturday evening trip through the Dudley Canal Tunnel, also an unusual one made by some twenty-five members who ‘were able to tour some of the industrial relics of Shropshire in a 1929 ‘bus’.

The announcement in 1967 of the impending closure of Baggeridge Colliery, meant virtually an end to coal mining in the Black Country. The Society marked this historic event by producing its first commemorative bronze medallion. In this issue are articles about both colliery and medallion. During the year the Society had published two controversial Christmas cards, which ‘created such interest that within a short time the whole stock was sold out’; also preliminary work had been carried out towards the publication of three books, The Tipton Slasher, Aynuck’s Bible, and book of poems and monologues. It is interesting that although there are letters of support for the magazine from the world of politics, industry and the church, there is little mention of The Blackcountryman’s origins. One is therefore left wondering as to whose idea it was, and how it came into fruition? There are stirring words from its editor, Harold Parsons, and I have no doubt he played the major role in its concept.

I first met Harold Parsons in the late summer or autumn of 1967 and can clearly remember the discussions between him and my employer, W. Howard Taylor, concerning the printing a new Black Country magazine (a meeting documented in greater detail in the 100th edition). Even in those days, a passing glance would have told anyone that Harold was not in the best of physical health and never would be. However, knowledgeable and strong-willed, and knew exactly what he wanted regarding The Blackcountryman. He appeared to have full control, not only for content but also production and would not tolerate interference from anyone. This single-minded approach benefited us, the printers; in that we dealt with one person for everything. In producing the magazine this way, Harold fully demonstrated also a wealth of experience both as an editor and journalist. He could however, be stubborn and very difficult to please, in the years that followed there were disputes between us over the simplest of things. Spurning advice at times, he insisted on having his own way in everything, including the type selection and layout of each and every page; and woe betides us if the proofs were late. He more than anyone knew the quality of publication needed to stand at the forefront of the Society, it would be its flagship for everything else to follow. The Committee could not have chosen a finer person than Harold Parsons for its Editor; the foundations he laid down in 1968 still remain today. The Blackcountryman became his masterpiece; through it he served the Society well.

Volume 1 therefore comprised of four quarterly issues, each consisting of seventy-two pages plus the cover and were printed letterpress in black only. A two-colour cover didn’t appear until Vol. 2. The inaugural edition must have been printed either in the December of 1967, or possibly early January, 1968. Even today, just by flicking through its pages one can tell that a great deal of thought had been given regarding its presentation. Harold’s stamp of originality is written all over it. A clever mixture of single and double columns for pages of text matter, along with the title headings presented in an unconventional but eye-catching way, highlights the imaginative layout. Poetry, photographs and advertising are interspersed with the articles to give life and sparkle to the magazine. The amount of material available must have been limited and I would imagine many of the twenty or so contributions came from the committee and friends. In this inaugural issue, Dr Fletcher writes of ‘Wednesbury Spots and Boxes’ and ‘What is the Black Country’, and Harry Harrison of ‘Coseley Crusaders Cricket Association’. There’s a well-researched piece on the history of Sandwell Priory, also John Brimble gives us a descriptive round-up of patrons at ‘The White Swan’, Tipton. Harold Parsons also takes up the pen to give us an informative interview with Black Country comedian, Billy Russell. A series of articles on ‘Coats of Arms in the Black Country’ and ‘Black Country Mysteries and Oddities’, first saw light of day. Book reviews, jokes and two quizzes completed this first issue. The annual subscription for the magazine was 14/- post free or 3/6 if bought singly. As today, it was free with a full membership of the Society; the individual membership being £1, family membership 30/-, and ‘bona-fide students, apprentices and old age pensioners’, 15/-.

Interestingly enough, my copy of issue 1 is marked ‘reprinted in February 1968’, therefore I have to look to issue No. 2 for the reason. In ‘Society News’ we are informed that ‘2,000 copies were quickly sold and a reprint became necessary to cope with demand’. The optimism expressed in the first magazine hadn’t diminished either. Harold’s editorial urges the cavalry on with, ‘Success has greater impact than any amount of editorial spiel, and anyway victory is yours…’. He later says, ‘Meanwhile – no complacency. Rather, consolidation and a steady build up to a really large circulation.’

January of that year had bought two important events; Billy Russell being made Honorary Vice-President on the 7th, and on the 17th the Annual Dinner to mark the first Anniversary of the Society. John Brimble in his ‘Society News’ tells that ‘Over 60 people turned up to enjoy an excellent meal and the entertainment afterwards provided by folk singer Jon Raven’. In February, a small party from the Society had made a final visit to Baggeridge Colliery, and ‘although covered with coal dust on their return to the surface, members thoroughly enjoyed their journey into the bowels of the earth’. Included in this issue are articles by The Rt. Hon. Lord George Wigg, P.C., former M.P. for Dudley, Frank Pepworth and John Wylde. James H. Ruston writes of ‘William Shenstone’ and W. Homer of ‘Francis Brett Young’. Jim William Jones contributes a poem and Harold Parsons a short story entitled ‘The Cog’, plus a delightful interview with Dorothy Round. The first romance within the ranks of the Black Country Society is also recorded, with the engagement of Committee members, Miss Linda Payton, of Ocker Hill, Tipton, to Mr A. W. Hughes, of Bescot Road, Walsall. The first ‘Correspondence’ page appears in this issue and contains some interesting and lively material. Mrs G. R. Harris, mentions memories from her past and complains about the recent change in postal addresses. H. D. Poole writes of ‘Baggeridge Shafts’, and Jon Raven takes issue with a reviewer of his work from the previous magazine. A letter from R. A. Guest contains the statement that ‘Walsall was omitted from the Domesday Book because it was of no importance’. The overall appearance of the magazine gives an impression that for this second edition, Harold Parsons had a far greater selection of material to choose from.

This is borne out in his Editorial for the July issue No.3, where he says, ‘we are receiving a gratifying amount of material (articles, stories, poems) eminently suitable for publication in the magazine, and would be horrified if it were for one moment assumed that we wished the flow to lessen’. He goes on to say that what is ideally required are some twenty-five to thirty items per issue, giving a variety of content ‘to sustain the interest of all sections and classes of Black Country society’. ‘Society News’ informs us sales of April issue No. 2 were, as with the first issue, ‘very brisk’. It also goes on to report a steady increase in membership and the ‘very welcome problem of finding larger rooms in which to hold meetings’.

There is a report on the first Annual General Meeting held at the Black Cock Inn, Tipton, on the 20th March. The President, Dr J. M. Fletcher, stated in his address that ‘the Black Country Society had carved for itself a special place in Black Country life. “It is pleasing.” he said, “that students studying the social industrial and economic life in the area, also its folk-lore and dialect, are looking to the Society as an authority from which to receive information”. He further emphasised that whist the Society had a deep interest in the past, it was concerned also with future development. Dr Fletcher was re-elected as President, John Brimble as Secretary, and Michael Watson as Treasurer. A further twelve people made up the Committee with an additional five being co-opted at a later date.

Two articles looking at the opposite ends of the seventy-plus-year life of Baggeridge Colliery feature. The first tells of its demise, with four Society members being there at 5.30 a.m. on 2nd March, ‘to receive and photograph the men of the last shift’; the second by Jos. W. Stainton, recalls its earlier days. We are doubly fortunate in having two excellent Harold Parsons interviews, one with the actor Chris Gittins, (Walter Gabriel of ‘The Archers’), the other with Jesse Pennington, whose name will always be mentioned in the same breath as West Bromwich Albion. Indeed, the club logo appears on the magazine cover in celebration of Albion winning the F.A. Cup in April. Still on the sporting scene, Tom Langley talks about the days of bareknuckle boxing with, ‘Tom Hickman – Champion’. Frank Pepworth looks to the future in his ‘Motorways across the Black Country’, and on a similar vein there’s reference in ‘Society News’ to the ever increasing donations of items and photographs that ‘will eventually be exhibited in a Black Country Museum’. However, what really caught my eye was a humorous short sketch entitled ‘But of Course!’, – about the Black Country being seen as a Mecca for tourists! The ‘Correspondence’ section shows tremendous growth with a total of ten letters being published; some arguing or answering points arising from previous articles and letters, others requesting information. Edmund H. Bissell, as a postscript to his article ‘Craftsmen at Work’, wished to hear of craftsmen ‘whose work is likely to suffer serious modification or disappearance because of advance in industrial technology’.

An interesting advertisement for Black Country Stories appears on the front cover of this issue, promising ‘over 500 laughs in one volume’ and announcing its sale in September, price 5/-. Based on stories originally published by T. H. Gough between 1934-42, it was ‘revised, pruned and streamlined’ by Harold Parsons, ‘with many new ones added’. (One of Harold’s sidelines was to write ‘gags’ for Charlie Chester and other top comedians of the day.) There have been many reprints since 1968 and the book remains a best seller for the Society. This was almost certainly the first of its many book publications.

The 4th and last of Vol. 1’s issues was published in the September. An inside cover Society advert asks us if we are ‘Worried about Christmas presents’. Books and L.P. records are suggested, also the Baggeridge Colliery commemorative medallion at 25/-, enamel brooches ‘made in the traditional manner’ also for 25/-, and two ‘Special Black Country Christmas Cards’ for 9d. each with envelopes. In his editorial, Harold still pushes magazine sales by telling us, ‘Vol. 1 exists. Vol. 2 can be even better’ and ‘Larger readership can bring so much: colour, more pages, reduction in price’. John Brimble also informs us ‘membership is increasing at a steady rate’. John’s ‘Society Notes’ talks of one the Society’s aims being ‘to preserve and maintain old local traditions’. He mentions in particular the Tipton Wakes, and that on Saturday, 6th July, 1968, at the Ward Arms Hotel, Dudley, ‘a commemoration dinner of duck and peas, followed by a dance was held in its memory’.

By now the reader becomes aware of the more regular contributors to the magazine. Dr Fletcher, John Brimble, H. D. Poole and Frank Pepworth had all published more than one article; and Jean Marsh her third item under the banner of ‘Black Country Mysteries and Oddities’; also R. E. Boffey had followed his excellent piece on ‘Sandwell Priory,’ with a second on ‘Dudley Priory’. It’s disappointing not to find a Harold Parsons interview in this issue but he does tell us about T. H. Gough, the original collector of Black Country Stories. Peter Barnsley writes of ‘A 19th Century Curate’, the first of his many contributions. In previous magazines there had been only one or two items written in a Black Country dialect; however, in this issue we suddenly have four, plus two sizeable extracts in other articles. I recall our typesetter saying something about this, he (a ‘Brummie’), describing it as being ‘worse than a foreign language to set’. The Blackcountryman was finding its way around the world, as shown with effect in the ‘Correspondence’ section where Harold prints his ‘Star letter from Canada’. Written by a Mr Bartley of Calgary, he says, ‘The more I travel and the longer I’m away from the Black Country, the more I come to realise what a fascinating part of the world it is.’ A. J. Yorke writes of The Blackcountryman, finding it ‘a most interesting and absorbing publication’. There is no doubt that this section is fast gaining in popularity as a voice-box for readers to air their views.

Returning to the advertising, it’s interesting to note how the magazine moved forward from the limited number in the first issue. By No. 4, we not only have the local advertising such as one for ‘Chapman’s of Old Hill’ (still supporting the magazine today), but also Hudsons Bookshops Ltd. of Birmingham, Pelham Books Ltd. of London, and ‘David and Charles’ of Newton Abbot.

By the end of 1968, with a membership of almost 500, both magazine and Society were, as they remain today, a powerful voice and firmly established part of Black Country life. Following his original meeting with Harold Parsons, I recall my employer, W. Howard Taylor, coming to me and saying of The Blackcountryman, “Of course, it will never last”: if only he could see it now. Long may both Society and magazine continue.