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My top ten of West Bromwich's most influential people

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 26, 2014

By Mike Fenton

  • Ian Hill

  • James Keir

  • Madeleine Carroll

  • Brian Walden

  • James Eaton

  • John Johnson Shaw

  • Denise Lewis

  • Major Albert Nichols

  • John Wesley Woodward

  • Anne Aston

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ALL towns have claims to fame and many in the Black Country are no different; West Bromwich is one of those that can proudly boast several.

The town has been the birth, home or workplace of many whose chosen career path has been both varied and in some cases life changing, not just for the individual themselves but for all of us. The following is by no means an exhaustive list but a snapshot which represents the town's inhabitants over not just decades but centuries.

They may not be the mammoth celebrities we expect to see today but are, I believe, more intriguing as a result for they show a more human side with whom we can more easily connect.

We begin with an unassuming character who has been dubbed one of the last craftsmen of the town. Major Albert Nichols was born at No. 5 Reform Street on September 17, 1914, the address and home of his father's cycle shop. His father died in 1947 and Albert found himself taking over the family business. He must have had a craftsman's natural flair as he taught himself how to construct lightweight cycle frames. He was a leading light of the Hill Top Cycling Club and at its 21st anniversary in 1956 Major Nichols presented one of his very early frames to Brian Robinson who was the first Briton to complete the Tour de France. Major Nichols died in August, 2005.

We now move on to an individual who to most outside West Bromwich (and perhaps a sizeable proportion of the town itself) would be unaware of; the words he repeated nonetheless echo loudly across the globe.

James Eaton, who was born in 1783, was a signal midshipman on HMS Temeraire which went on to serve in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.It was during this historic battle that James Eaton relayed Nelson's iconic words to the fleet: "England expects that every man will do his duty." James retired from the navy in 1842 and moved to West Bromwich in 1837. He died in 1857 and his grave is at All Saints Church.

Our third West Bromwich linked luminary is about as far removed from the previous two as perhaps one might imagine but a 'craftsman' of his trade all the same.

Ian Hill was a founder member and bass player of the award-winning heavy metal band Judas Priest. Ian was born in West Bromwich in 1951. The band's first single, Rocka Rolla, appeared in 1974. The group were still undertaking a European tour at the beginning of 2012, nearly 40 years after their debut single. At number four we see another musician and sea faring individual. John Wesley Woodward was born on September 11, 1879, in West Bromwich, one of nine children and the youngest. The family lived in Hawkes Lane in Hill Top. The 1901 census lists John as a professional musician, his instrument of choice the cello. On April 10, 1912, John left Southampton aboard the SS Titanic taking with him his 'best cello'. As the ship collided with the iceberg, John along with his fellow orchestra members famously played on. All the musicians drowned. John's body, like many others, was never recovered.

At the halfway point is John Johnson Shaw who was born in Church Street, Lower Gornal, on December 27, 1873, and was destined to become one of Britain's greatest amateur scientists.

In 1896 John Shaw was living at Hill Top, West Bromwich, and having met the geologist Professor John Milne he was working hard on his new project, turning the cellar of his home into a makeshift laboratory. In a short time he had built his first seismograph, an instrument for measuring earth tremors. Bizarrely, this machine had been constructed from everyday objects found at his home. It was powered by an old clock and another part was an empty treacle tin, an old soap box formed its casing and a bicycle frame provided other parts.

When an earthquake took place in Mexico, it was Shaw who announced it to an astonished world in October 1908. The Milne-Shaw Seismograph, as it became known, was launched in 1913. Shaw died in 1948 and his inventiveness led to the saving of many thousands of lives.

Our sixth 'celebratory' man is James Keir who in 1770 came to Wordsley where he began manufacturing glass at the former Samuel Roger's works. Then Keir began experiments in producing alkali, which were so successful and lucrative that by 1780 he had built a factory at Tipton – the Bloomfield Mill – for its continued manufacture. Some years later the works were also producing soap in huge volumes, a fact somewhat ironic in a region later tainted by pollution. A nearby street was called Soap Factory Road, later identified as today's Factory Road. He finally put down roots at Hill Top in West Bromwich and died on October 11, 1820, and was buried next to his wife at All Saints Church.

Denise Lewis was born in West Bromwich in 1972 and educated at The Regis School in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton. In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney she won gold in the heptathlon and was made a CBE in that year's New Years Honour List. She is married to Steve Finan, a former manager of girl group All Saints. Her father-in-law is comedian Tom O'Connor.

At eighth position is a former Labour MP and TV broadcaster Brian Walden who was born in West Bromwich in 1932 and was educated at West Bromwich Grammar School and later Queen's College, Oxford. In 1964 he became the Labour MP for Birmingham All Saints. In 1966, 1970 and twice in 1974 he was re-elected to Parliament.

After resigning from Parliament in 1977 he was for many years the anchorman of the Sunday afternoon political magazine programmes Weekend World. He now lives on Guernsey.

The penultimate position goes to Anne Lloyd who spent her formative years in West Bromwich attending the town's Technical High School. She was better known to viewers, of course, as Anne Aston, the chirpy host of The Golden Shot in the late 60s and early 1970s. She also appeared on the cult TV show Jason King and the Frankie Howerd comedy, Up the Chastity Belt.

Finally, at No. 10 we meet a woman without whom a list of the West Bromwich 'Greats' would simply be incomplete, although no doubt some younger readers may frown and say 'who?'

Madeleine Carroll was born Edith at 32, Herbert Street (now No. 44), West Bromwich.

In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock cast the actress as Pamela in one of the most iconic British films of all times – The 39 Steps.

In 1944 she worked as a Red Cross nurse in Italy where she tended injured American airmen. During the war she provided refuge for orphans at her chateau outside Paris. After the war France awarded her the Legion d'Honneur for her acts of bravery. In October 1987 she died of pancreatic cancer in Marbella, Spain. A blue plaque at her old grammar school commemorates her humanitarian contributions.

Is Mike Fenton right? Would you put different names in your list? Or what about telling us who you think are the ten most influential people in your town's history. Email your views to editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk. or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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