Recollections of growing up in Withington 100 years ago

Shropshire Ways and Shropshire Days 60 years ago: The dark church by the water at Withington

This article was written by Charles Wilkes, who grew up in Withington in the early years of the 20th century. It was published in the Shropshire Magazine in April 1980.
Photos selected from this website's Image Archive and Gallery.
IT WAS ONE of those typical hump-back canal bridges [photo, right]. It had one of the nowadays collector’s pieces - a metal notice on weight restrictions: "Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Co. This bridge is insufficient to carry any weight other than the ordinary traffic of the district."
What was the ordinary traffic when the bridge was erected — horse drawn vehicles? But this bridge was stronger than the counter-balance drawbridges that lined the old canal in this district. A visitor looking westwards from the bridge would be attracted by the dark red sandstone church with its tall spire pointing skywards.
Over the bridge was Owen's coal wharf where once a month a barge delivered some 30 tons of coal brought from the Littleton Colliery, near Cannock, by a light railway and loaded on to barges at Penkridge (where I now live). The canal, in those days, played a great part in the commodity transport of this rural area.
Over the bridge to the hub of the village, the cross roads. Directly facing on the left were the village stores and the village hostelry, the Hare and Hounds [photo, left]. What a part the Stores played in the life of the community. lt supplied all its wants from patent medicines to grocery. lt was the Post Office. It had a coal-wharf and paraffin stores.
Running this minor emporium was a fiercely moustachioed Mr. William Owen, and Miss Owen. "Billy" Owen was quite a character. As Churchwarden he knew how to keep unruly choir boys in order. At village concerts he played the "villain" in rendering certain rumbustious songs of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. 
Next door was the Hare and Hounds presided over by Mrs. Cartwright. It was one of those old fashioned country pubs. As a child one never sought admission. I first went inside 30 years later where I met only one person I had known as a boy. 
Opposite the stores ran the road to Barker`s Square and Rodington. On one corner was the cottage of white bearded Reuben Breeze [photo, right], the village boot maker. Although he did footwear repairs Reuben also made bespoke boots. With their four pounds corn harvest bonus many farm workers came to Reuben to have their heavy boots specially made.
To a young boy it was fascinating to watch this old craftsman construct a boot. What strange instruments he used. No shoddy I work here; the boots were expensive but lasted for years. I still recall the smell of smouldering leather in his fire grate. Poor Reuben lived alone, his wife having been drowned in the River Roden when Bob’s Bridge collapsed while on her rounds delivering repairs.
On the opposite corner was the village smithy, where another two craftsmen — the brothers Thomas, applied their age old skills. I still recall the pungent odour of burning hoof when horses were being shod.
Farm implements and machinery were skilfully repaired. Those were not the days of ready-made spare parts. Today the smithy and the adjoining cottage have gone be replaced by a row of modern maisonettes.
Just beyond the Hare and Hounds a small road leads to the church and the canal. At its entrance was a small field. Here ever Rogation Sunday an open air service was held to implore divine help for good crops. A farm wagon provided a pulpit for the Vicar to lead the service.
Then past the Vicarage was the dark sandstone church, in which I spent six years a choir boy. The interior was very plain just two memorials to past vicars. The church had only two bells. How boys used to admire the dexterity of Luther, sexton, on being able to ring both at the same time. Five minutes before service he had to go to blow the organ for the Voluntary, and there was always competition among us for the privilege of tolling the slow bell. The church tower lacked a clock till 1921 when one was provided by public subscription to memory of a previous vicar.
I served under two vicars. The first was the Rev. W.H. B. Gipps who ran Sunday School at 10 a.m. before Matins and was also choirmaster. Mrs. Gipps was the organist and what a taskmistress she was. Choir practice was compulsory and she was certainly a perfectionist. ln summer it was not so bad for after practice the Vicar, who had a boat on the canal, used to try to teach us how to row. I am afraid none of us showed any promise being in the boat race crew.
Mr. Gipps was an energetic type, and had little scope for his talents except for a short period as an Army chaplain. He always complained there were only "150 souls" in the parish to be cared for. ln 1922 he exchanged livings with the Rev. W. Howarth, Vicar of Ettingshall it the Black Country, with a population of 15,000. l met Mr. Gipps again in 1928 at his wife's funeral when he was Rural Dean of Blandford in Dorset.
Mr. Howarth was a very sick man when he came to the village, but he and his wife with their two daughters soon became popular with all. Then tragedy struck. While on his way to catch a train at Upton Magna Mr. Howarth collapsed and died on the hill leading out of the village.
We youngsters always looked forward two annual events, the Sunday School Outing and the Choir Trip. For the former, scholars and refreshments were loaded on horse drawn wagons and taken along the lanes to Haughmond Hill.
While tea was being prepared at the Abbey ruins by the ladies, we walked along the ridge of the hill to the old tower that crowned its crest. After a period of games and exploration we returned to the Abbey for a picnic meal. Then we returned on the wagons through the sandy lanes in the dusk, disturbing the rural peace with our singing.
For the choir trip we entrained at Upton Magna for Shrewsbury. After lunch at Plimmers Restaurant (shades of Palin and Shrewsbury cakes so celebrated in the lngoldsby Legends) we went to the theatre for a pantomime. After tea we adjourned to the cinema near the station, catching the 8p.m. train with a long walk home thereafter. Such simple pleasures then were ours.
ln such a small community the church perforce was the centre of social life. Whist drives, dances, concerts and parties were held in the minute parish hall. For concerts there were no imported artistes. Mr. Billy Owen not only performed himself but pressed members of the audience to sing or recite.
I well remember a pantomime written and produced by a mysterious "gentleman of the road" who had made his home in the Vicarage stables. It was "'The Babes in the Wood" — the highlight being the sword fight between the villains, Billy Owen and the producer. What blood-curdling songs they sang. Sad to say our producer disappeared as mysteriously as he came.
Children’s parties and performances were organised by the Lady Bountiful of the village - Mrs. Ainger, who, I remember, produced on her lawn a magnificent tableau representing missionary work in "Dear Dark Africa". Each young person represented a letter of the alphabet relating to Africa. I was “Z” for Zanzibar. [It is indicated on a sketch map that Mrs Ainger lived at Withington Hall, now Withington House, see photo on right.]
Mrs Ainger had two young sons. Both naval midshipmen, who showed their qualities of leadership in organising social functions. How we youngsters envied them not only for their smart uniform but that they, at their age, could participate in the war. What became of them I know not.
Another character who must be mentioned was Old Bryan, the parish roadman. The way he kept the verges would have done credit to a public park. The roads of those days were not tarmacadamed and most of the traffic was horse-drawn. At intervals along the road were piles of stones. Old Bryan would mix these stones with mud and fill in the ruts, leaving traffic to roll the mixture in. He was a great philosopher who read the outcome of events with a greater accuracy than the newspaper pundits of the day.
The village had no school. Children walked two or three miles to Upton Magna or Rodington. No public transport existed. People walked two miles to Walcot or Upton Magna Stations, both now closed. Some were lucky if they possessed cycles. Better off were those who could borrow horses and floats.
It was in Wellington we always had errands to perform. The most peculiar was to collect a can of barm (yeast) from the Wrekin Brewery for a neighbour who brewed his own beer. Billy Owen supplied most of the provisions to the area, making deliveries on early closing days. The two Misses Sylvesters of Wellington came round on Mondays and Fridays with their horse drawn bread van. Mr. Gallear of Allscott did a meat round each Friday in his horse drawn trap.
The parish consisted mainly of four large farms. At the end of World War I the County Council acquired one of the larger farms. Soon there appeared the familiar white council farm holdings.
Visiting Withington 30 years later I found it unchanged, but not so on a recent visit. Old cottages had gone. There were new houses. Many hedgerows, trees and copses had gone. The greatest change was the closed canal and the disappearance of its picturesque draw bridges.