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Hitting a high note - Black Country singing stars Ashley Pegg and Norah Bennett

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 29, 2014

By Bev Pegg

  • Ashley Pegg in Desert Song

  • Norah in No, No Nannette

  • Ashley Pegg

  • Ashley in Bitter Sweet

  • Norah as Phyllis in Iolanthe

  • Norah and Ashley

  • Norah and Ashley with the Burdford Singers

  • At Cradley Castings Ashley presents a retirement gift to Bill Woodall

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TWO of the most popular singers from the 1930s up to the 1970s in the Black Country were husband and wife Ashley Pegg and Norah Bennett, who used her maiden name throughout her singing career.

Ashley Pegg was born in Cradley in 1908. His parents were both chainmakers, and his father Will had a fine tenor voice. After leaving school, Ashley became an apprentice carpenter for J. M. Tate, the well-known Cradley builders. As a 17-year-old he was signed by Aston Villa and played for their third team and occasionally the reserves.

Ashley had a rich baritone voice. He sang at local concerts, then joined Stourbridge Amateur Operatic Society in 1928. His first of many BBC broadcasts was in 1929. He won first prize at the prestigious Leamington Open Festival in 1929.

From 1931 Ashley took the leading role in the Stourbridge Operatic shows such as The Desert Song, New Moon, The Student Prince, right up until 1950. Ashley studied under the world famous E. Herbert Caesari referred to as "The Greatest Singing Teacher of our time".

Norah Bennett was born in 1911 in Blackheath. She left school and worked as a typist at T. W. Lench Ltd, a company that was originally started by her grandfather's brother, David Bennett. She had a beautiful soprano voice and studied at The Midland Institute in Birmingham.

In the early 1930s she joined both Blackheath Operatic Company and also The Coombs Wood Operatic Society. Her first of many leading roles was in No, No Nannette.

She was also performing at concerts all around the Midlands gaining a first class reputation. In 1938 she won the Carroll Levis Discovery Show at Aston Hippodrome and following this, became the Carroll Levis Discovery of the Year by winning at The Odeon, Leicester Square. She toured as a main performer with The Carroll Levis Show in London, Colchester and Birmingham Hippodrome, where she also appeared alongside comedian Arthur Askey.

However, she did not enjoy touring, and left the Carroll Levis Show to return to the pleasures of local performing.

During November 1938 Ashley went to see Norah in The Student Prince and was very impressed with her talents. They began to sing together, and their courtship commenced. They were married in 1940 at Blackheath, and had their only son Bev in late 1941. Norah continued with regular broadcasts and also appeared alongside stars such as Webster Booth, The Hedley Ward Trio and Frank Titterton.

Besides singing Ashley organised many fund-raising events, particularly in his beloved Cradley. Between 1946 and the mid-1950s he arranged for Bruce Dargavel, one of the greatest bass-baritone singers in the world, to appear frequently in Cradley and also Stourbridge.

For a principal singer at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, this was a big deal for the Black Country.

Other world famous singers appeared for Ashley, such as Vienna State Opera leading tenor Murray Dickie. Both of these great artists duetted with, and were greatly impressed by Norah. Murray Dickie's Misere duet from Il Trovatore, with Norah. It is talked about even today. John Myrddin, the Carl Rosa Opera Company leading tenor, and also The Carmarthen Male Voice Choir appeared in Ashley's fund-raising concerts.

Both Norah and Ashley did various broadcasts for the BBC during the 1940s and 1950s. They took leading roles for Stourbridge Amateur Operatic Society, together with concerts and after dinner entertainment. Norah also sang duets with John Hanson at a Midland Institute concert in 1951.

Norah passed the auditions to join the Royal Opera House Covent Garden during the 1950s. However, she declined, due to not wanting to commit to all of the travelling involved, happy in the knowledge of being recognised by The Royal Opera House that her singing was to their high standards.

Ashley's "day job" of running the family business, Cradley Chain and Castings Limited, was one of great success. The company had grown from employing about half a dozen workers to about 80 employees during the late 1950s.

During 1959 Ashley and Norah decided to form The Burford Singers. This group of lady singers performed songs from the shows, gaining a high reputation at concerts and after dinner events around the Midlands.

They performed alongside stars such as Edmund Hockeridge, Beryl Reid, Hughie Green and Norman Wisdom. They appeared on Opportunity Knocks on ITV in July 1964, and although they didn't win, Hughie Green was so impressed that they were invited by him to appear again on other shows he was running. In 1973 the group evolved into The Ashleys, singing more "trendy" material with great success.

On April 15, 1959, Ashley, Jack Downing, Bert Newbury and Percy Drew decided to form the Stourbridge Gilbert & Sullivan Club borrowing the services of the leading singers from local operatic societies. As a result their shows were of the highest standard, performing to packed houses at Stourbridge Town Hall.

Norah and Ashley, Jack Downing, Herbert Bowen, Harry Millward, Harry Hartland and Eileen Lewis are just a few of the well known names involved. The first production was of The Gondoliers in January 1960, followed by favourites such as The Yeomen of the Guard, Pirates of Penzance, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Patience, Ruddigore, and HMS Pinafore. The club won the prestigious Gilbert and Sullivan Stanwin trophy three times.

While Ashley was playing character parts by now, Norah was still taking the leading lady roles for Stourbridge Amateur Operatic Society, from 1960 for the Stourbridge Gilbert & Sullivan Club right up until April 1967 when she decided that it was time to step down. Her final performance was as Josephine in HMS Pinafore. Ashley's last major role for the G & S Club was as Wilfred Shadbolt in The Yeomen of the Guard in 1969.

In 1976 Ashley and Norah decided to take things a bit easier. They stepped back from the running of The Ashleys, after organising a final charity concert in Cradley during September of that year. Following that Ashley and Norah performed purely for pleasure for local charitable organisations.

On December 23, 1981, at the age of 73, Ashley suffered an unexpected heart attack and died. He was born in Cradley and lived all of his life in Cradley. Norah never sang in public again.

For her the music had died with her beloved husband. She moved from Cradley to Hagley in 1985, keeping in touch with many of her musical friends that she made over the years. She finally passed away at the age of 96 without suffering from any illness.

What were your memories of Ashley and Norah? Email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk, log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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