The land upon which we live and work is subject to the natural ravages of time and our altering landscapes a consequence none of us are rarely capable of abating.
However, those changes that are a result of human hands and human intentions can pose a more serious threat to our collective memories and heritage and it is these we must observe with a guarding eye.
Many parts of our region are experiencing what appears to be an accelerated period of redevelopment; buildings once places of work levelled to the ground, factories unceremoniously reduced to a pathetic collection of broken metal, bricks and dust and streets where our ancestors lived out their diverse lives now utterly unrecognisable.
The very heart of the Black Country seems to be beating just that little bit slower - and like many towns, West Bromwich is not immune from this 21st century phenomena, its core being slowly decimated and its panorama relentlessly changing.
This would not all be bad, and this is a purely personal expression, but when our heritage is simply replaced by unimaginative housing stock, soulless industrial estates and similar constructions, I cannot do other than shake my head and perform a sharp intake of breath.
In the centre of the town, Bull Street has stood since at least the 1830s and has been home to a thriving number of shops, businesses and a myriad of stories, some tragic, others uplifting; in all, a street that reflects the true history of the town in which it stands. The Bull Street of today is a poor reminder of what would have stood, some of it now gone forever, other parts waiting for the crane, wrecking ball and demolition crew to assign its final fate.
In those days when the street was known for its business prowess, men and women across the region would flock to its doors seeking work and buying its products and the records bear this out conclusively; the same archival material is also witness to the varied enterprises advertising its wares and from some of its earliest times.
For example, on July 9, 1864, Two Wheelwrights were wanted, Apply to S. Mountford, Bull St, West Bromwich. Some years later, the sweet tooth of many a Black Country child had been tempted, as on June 19, 1889, a Wholesale & Retail Confectionery, Sweet and Tobacco Business was to be disposed of. The address to apply for information was 16, Bull Street.
Archival anecdotes such as these clearly indicate how both the industrial and physical landscape has dramatically altered over the last century and a half and essentially it is this very point that I wish to elucidate.
Changing scenes are expected in the natural world. The removal of slum housing is to be universally welcomed. The building of schools to improve the future lives of impoverished and disadvantaged children is of equal merit.
It is, however, when our collective heritage is compromised by the substitution of profit driven ‘regeneration zones’ or the ubiquitous shopping centres, both casting their limp and lifeless shadows over our historic region, that I succumb to the pangs of despair and pessimism.
I am conscious of the delicate balance that needs to be attained between change and preservation but it appears that the bias towards gratuitous change holds the upper hand and is the worse as a result. Shortly before the last war it appeared that the street’s business activity was less than static. For example in 1936 and for your grocery requirements, Francis Adie would oblige at his premises at numbers 8 & 10. Next door at number 11 all your tailoring needs could be catered for courtesy of Benjamin Bates. The confectionery business too was apparently still thriving with Samuel Allen at 22 Bull St. A few doors down at number 30, you could satisfy your entertainment needs with Albert Arnold’s ‘wireless accessories business’.
In more recent times, and certainly my mother and aunts fondly recall it, was Trow’s Ice Cream Shop, where many an adult, let alone child, would enjoy one of the shop’s sumptuous sundaes.
I am told the ice cream would be taken into the shop in shining buckets and served with a drizzle of assorted syrups. The business was owned by Edward Trow and situated at 26, Bull Street, the same address in 1911 being utilised as an accountants and managed by an Edward Hainsworth Trow, presumably the father of our ‘ice cream’ Edward.
Unfortunately like most of these now iconic landmarks which serve as nostalgic anchors in our collective minds, all traces of their former glory have been eradicated and eternally so.
Continuing the theme of food, the comforting smell of baking bread would have permeated the street’s air thanks to the efforts and hard work of those employed at Stevens & Sons Bakery Shop.
Another Black Country entrepreneur was Bert Shinton who had premises in both the High St and Bull Street, the latter premises for those who wished to purchase their first gramophone (younger readers may wish to enquire of their grandparents as to both the nature and purpose of this now archaic object!).
Also at number 62, Charles Horobin would have tempted you to open that stubbornly closed wallet and purchase one of his many watches or maybe buy some jewellery for your doting fiancée and should any repairs need to be undertaken, he too would accommodate your wishes. Another early jeweller was Cradley Heath-born John Henn who along with his wife Flora had opened his doors to the Bull Street public in 1901.
Time moves inexorably on and no amount of human endeavour will diminish its progress. Shops, houses, factories, pubs, cake shops and schools of our youth will disappear; the streets and roads upon which they were constructed will change their route, their physical footprints becoming more and more indistinct.
Our community’s heritage where possible and where necessary can be saved.
As I write, the efforts and trials of the good people of Dudley and their neighbours have successfully halted the horrendous plans to demolish that historic town’s Hippodrome which has proudly stood since the 1930s. Its future may still to some extent be uncertain but when the resolve of the people is set and focused, we can all share in the preservation of our respective towns’ treasures and even if we fail at that juncture we can rest assured and be confident that our memories can never be stolen away.