WERE you a member of the 3rd Tipton Guides, based at Princes End Baptist Church? If you were, you're bound to remember Hilda Francis, the company's captain.
Hilda was born in 1915 and was a pupil at Dudley Girls' High School before embarking on a lifelong career with the Inland Revenue, first at Dudley and later at Wolverhampton. In 1938 she started the company and ran it until dwindling numbers forced her to wind it up in 1974. In that time she had four assistants, Brenda Greensill 1938-43, Edyth Phillips, née Ellis, 1944-46, her sister Kath Francis 1947-60, and Wyn Jones, née Rhodes 1960-74.
When the group finished Hilda wrote an account of the 3rd Tipton Guides, Memories of a Tipton Girl Guide Company, a copy of which has been loaned to the Bugle by her cousin Bernard Francis of Walsall. This extract tells how she started the company, the difficulties the girls had with uniforms and how, towards the end of its time, the group was plagued by vandals and thieves.
"Form a Guide Company? What, me? They must be crazy. I'd never been a guide, or even a brownie. What did I know about it? Why did I open my mouth (though all I'd said, jokingly, when the girls said they wanted guides, was 'Good, I'll be a Patrol Leader')? No! I couldn't run a Guide Company. I knew nothing about it. 'Well you could try' they cajoled, 'say for a month or two'. I squirmed, but didn't manage to wriggle out. So it began. That was 1938. Little did I know that 'month or two' would become 36 years!
"After all the formalities of contacting Guide Headquarters, and after being referred to the wrong Commissioner (as my address was Coseley and our HQ was Tipton), we eventually became 3rd Tipton Company, with the late Miss Dorothy Jeffery as our District Commissioner. She was always referred to by the guides as 'Madam Jeffery', but was a good sort and a great help to me.
"She could tell some good tales of her early days in Guiding, the one I remember best being about an occasion when she was camping. The campers had been out walking when it rained heavily and they were all soaked. The rather severe Camp Commandant, walking round the camp some time later, was horrified to find Dorothy Jeffery's corsets suspended from a guy rope!
"She was headmistress of a school in Great Bridge at that time, and will long be remembered for her hats – real creations. At a guiders' meeting at her home in Sedgley Road West, just after she had been notified that in view of her activities in connection with the National Savings Movement during the war she was invited to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, I have never seen anyone more excited. She told us in detail what she intended to wear, and demonstrated the gloves which would go right up her arms!
"Brenda Greensill became 'Acting' Lieutenant to my 'Acting' Captain. One had to be warranted to be the real thing, and that took a long time in those days. It was May 1942 before I was officially warranted.
"We started with about 12 girls, but had to be sure we were always a jump ahead of them in our guiding knowledge, which at the beginning was the same as theirs – nil. Eventually we both passed the guide tenderfoot and second-class badges on a teaching basis, and were then enrolled as real guides by Miss Jeffery, and allowed to wear uniform. Two of the items of our uniform as officers were black stockings and brown leather gauntlet gloves! The next step was to get some girls through the Tenderfoot test so that they could be enrolled and become Patrol Leaders, and then in due course the others could follow.
"To begin with we didn't have any money and nobody offered us any. Our one asset was the use of the Baptist schoolroom for our meetings and the use of gas heaters in the winter, provided we put coins in the meter! We had to have a weekly subscription of 3d to cover necessary expenses.
"Uniform was the next problem. Most of our youngsters couldn't afford full new uniforms. Some scrounged second-hand ones from girls they knew at school who had left other Companies. Some paid small sums per week until perhaps they had saved enough to buy a hat, then later a tie, then a belt, and so on. On one occasion we had walked up White's Lane, Hurst Hill, into Turl's Hill Road, Sedgley, en route for Baggeridge, when a woman came running up behind us calling 'Do you want a guide uniform?' She gave us an almost new complete one, saying that her daughter had had a fad to join Guides and after a short time dropped out. On another occasion I cycled to Codsall to collect one advertised in the Express and Star. New uniforms were obtained from the elderly, humorous Mr Harold Moult, whose shop was in Great Bridge Market Place. He kept the guide hats on a top shelf, one on top of the other, and to get one he had to reach the whole pile down with a long pole. They were broad-brimmed felt hats, which came off that pole with fluted crowns and corrugated brims! Handing you one he would say 'It'll be all right if you iron the brim.' Sometimes it was!
"We were in Wednesbury division, and when we started, Miss Tench, a solicitor practising in Darlaston, was Division Commissioner. She decreed that all Tipton guides should wear pale blue ties. Guide ties were then a square piece of material folded into a triangle, which, in an emergency, could be used as an arm sling. There was a special way of folding this, first like a broad bandage, the middle of which was the tie proper, then a special knot, leaving the two narrow ends to be tied with a reef knot (not a 'granny') under the collar at the back.
"Whether Miss Tench thought this too difficult, I don't know, but she also decreed that our ties should be folded like a broad bandage, and then tied like men's ties, open-ended, which when worn by guides soon looked very untidy. However, when Miss Tench's reign came to an end, we changed to the correct way, and in time each company had its own colour. We craftily chose old gold, because the brownies wore the same type of old gold tie and this meant they didn't have to buy new ones when they became guides.
"In time the hats were changed from the big-brimmed felt hats to navy berets, and later still to the 'glengarry' style which is so much smarter, and the one-piece navy uniform was changed to a bright blue blouse and navy skirt.
"Our first divisional engagement was at St James' Church, Wednesbury, whose Guide Company was celebrating its 21st birthday. We were invited to a thanksgiving service followed by a party. Knowing that St James' was 'high church', and that the service, however simple, would be rather different from Princes End Baptist, I explained carefully, as I thought, the ritual, particularly the incense, so that there would be no giggling. During the service there was a sudden silence, then a loud whisper, which everyone must have heard, came from the far end of my pew – 'Captain, when'm they gooin' ter swing the frankincense?' To that child that must have been the highlight, but was my face red!
"In the early days we had nowhere to store what little equipment we had, but someone gave us a tea chest. After careful examination we decided that the loose lid could be sawn in two to make doors, which could then be put on with small hinges and fastened with a hasp and padlock. Plywood or hardboard shelves could then be fitted. So I marked the halfway line on the lid and proceeded to saw it in two, kneeling on the floor. It was much tougher than I expected, but eventually it was sawn ready for fixing the hinges, hasp and shelves, and to be painted. Next day we had a parade at Christ Church, Coseley. I was OK until I attempted to kneel – and how I stopped myself from screaming I shall never know, my knees were so sore!
"However, that cupboard served us well for a long time, but one day my sister said they were having a lot of new equipment at their office, and a steel cupboard a little bigger than our tea chest one was being thrown out. If we cared to have it the lorry driver would bring it down. I was delighted. It had an inset lock almost like a safe. We used this for years, but eventually the housing in Newhall Street and Regent Street was all demolished to make way for old people's bungalows, so the church and the schoolroom stood out like a sore thumb, and did the vandals have a go. It became so bad that church finances just couldn't cope, and the church building had to be demolished, the schoolroom becoming a multi-purpose building.
"To go back before then, when the vandalism was going on, we usually had a summer break from when the schools closed at the end of July until they started up again in early September. On starting up again this particular year I asked one of the guides to fetch something out of the cupboard. She came back and said 'Captain, it isn't there.' I said 'What isn't there?' She said 'The cupboard.' I, thinking someone had perhaps been moving the furniture around, said 'Don't be silly, of course it's there.' – but it wasn't! Then I remembered going down to the church a few weeks earlier and finding the back door wide open.
"It wasn't funny at the time, but thinking about it afterwards I realised it wouldn't have been easy to get that steel cupboard out, and how I would have loved to have seen the thieves' faces when they opened their 'safe' to find it contained pieces of rope, balls, guide books, string, pencils, bandages, etc. We thought we might find it down the marl-hole which was being filled in at the back of the church, but we didn't."
What are your memories of the 3rd Tipton Girl Guides, or any other Black Country company? Email dshaw@black countrybugle.co.uk or write in to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.