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A happy bunch of smiling pea pickers from the Black Country

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 02, 2014

By John Workman

  • Walter Williams of 122 Graingers Lane

  • A picture from William's family archive showing a lorry belonging to W. Daniel & Son Ltd Smithfield Market, Birmingham, carrying the biggest asparagus you will ever see

  • William's father, also William Walter Williams, in the Central Market Hall, Cradley Heath

  • Delivery tag for perishable goods

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PHOTOGRAPHS taken of happy events in what we often call the good old days, still manage to produce a smile, even from those who are probably seeing a particular picture for the first time, and that's why we have called this wonderful panorama "A happy bunch of smiling pea pickers from the Black Country."

This charming image was brought to our attention by William Walter Williams , whose family over several generations, have had their roots firmly implanted in the fruit and vegetable trade, and their fortunes dictated to a large extent by the success of Cradley Heath market.

In response to the Bugle's request for market memories and with the future of the market in Cradley Heath very much in doubt, William arrived at Bugle House to show us several interesting items from his family archives, not least the picture of the pea pickers from Cradley Heath and Saltwells getting their hands and aprons dirty in the fields of north Worcestershire near Belbroughton back in the '50s.

Pea picking was an important occupation for many in the Black Country and was an annual event just like hop picking, but perhaps not on the same scale. Depending on how early the peas were sown, harvesting happened between June and September, and therefore there was no need for mothers who took young children with them to the pea fields to disrupt their attendance at school during the autumn term. The people in the picture were picking for the Williams fruit and vegetable family business, and the wording of "Williams, Cradley Heath" can just be made out on the door of one of the lorries.

Picking peas was no mean feat, but the hard working Black Country women and their children probably thought nothing of this and just got on with the job, paying extra attention where needed to handling and delivering a good harvest. In the field the pea picking was done in lines, the pickers working at their own speed. Each picker had to avoid causing wounds or marks on the surface of the pods, and they were collected in buckets without the leaves, stems or bad peas, then loaded onto the Williams lorries for transportation back to the market at Cradley Heath.

It would be terrific if Bugle readers could recognise a face or two from the line-up. Perhaps you were one of the youngsters there at the time? Altogether we have counted sixteen children in the frame, with 4 chaps and 29 women, and the two lorry drivers are William's grandad Walter Williams, who is standing in the lorry cab on the right-hand side, and Walter's brother Frank.

Another item of memorabilia that William brought to our attention dates from 1868 and relates directly to the history of Cradley Heath, which in the middle of the 19th century was still establishing itself as a new town. It was a wonderfully preserved indenture, a legal document that reflected a purchase obligation, and as it was unfolded it immediately exuded a feeling of great age.The purchase concerned a parcel of land 386 sq yd in size that fronted the road from Five Ways to Corngreaves in Cradley Heath.

The information the indenture contained, such as names, etc. deserves a more in-depth study. But for the purpose of this story we have had to skim over the surface, extracting a few details that reflect the characteristics of Cradley Heath at the time, for instance a few of the people associated with the plot of land that was to be sold were chain manufacturers, and 'mines and minerals found thereunder' were excluded from the sale.

This small piece of land was sold to the Williams family, and from 1868 onwards it became the main address of the family firm where two double fronted shops were built. A tag from the days of the family business has also survived the passing of time. "Perishable. Immediate. To Williams, fruit and rabbit salesman, 122, Graingers Lane, & Central Market Hall, Cradley Heath.

William Walter Williams' family has always had a strong connection with Cradley Heath and its market, and has played its part in the town's history. William is hoping that the items from the family archives which he kindly brought in to show us will eventually end up at the archives in Smethwick where future generations will also be able to enjoy these precious fragments of the region's history.

If you can identify a face in the group photograph, perhaps even of yourself, contact us here at Bugle House on 01384 567678.

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