It Seems Like Yesterday.

Reg Humphries

 

In common with many Wedgbury folk I was saddened on the day which I learned that the Wednesbury Market, which had survived since its Queen Anne Charter in 1709, was to be moved to a new location somewhere in Camp Street. My personal memories flood back when I read other people's reminiscences and see pictures of the "old trading centre" as it used to be. For instance, in the centre of the half dome on the top of the clock tower, in the Market Place, one can see a slim tapering finial, surmounted by a ball. In our youth we knew a relative of the Jellyman family, who were, in part, responsible for the building of the tower, and he told us that the architects originally intended that the finial should be clad in copper. However as the date of the dedication service drew near, it was evident that the finial would not be ready in time. The builders, therefore, they made it out of wood and painted it. Whether this was ever rectified at a later date, we never learned!

I was "educated" at St. John's School in Russell Street. I lived in Loxdale Street. Both were very short distances from the town, and I soon found that running errands and doing odd jobs for the stall holders was a very lucrative means of supplementing one's pocket money, which in the period around 1933/4 was negligible.

Not only was Wednesbury market a good place to shop for almost anything one could need, it was an excellent source of entertainment, particularly on a Saturday afternoon. Quack doctors were frequent visitors, and well patronised. One charlatan prepared his "body cleansing" pills in a pub near the High Bullen. (The pub is now a restaurant). The pills consisted of very small bits of Sunlight soap which were rolled into ball shape, in flour, on newspaper, on the pub table. The medicine must have been a very moving experience!

Another bearer of good-tidings for the sick people of the Black Country was a descendent of an American Indian chief. At least he said he was and had a picture of an Indian brave painted on the back of his leather coat to prove it. He sold Rattlesnake Oil - yes, Rattlesnake Oil. In the centre of the small circle provided by the onlookers, he had placed a piece of old crumpled tarpaulin. Whilst he walked round this - extolling the remarkable healing properties of the extract - he would occasionally bend down and lift up the corner of the tarpaulin, presumably to ensure that his future supplier of the medicine had not somehow managed to escape. After a great deal of convincing patter, on how to take the oil by mouth, or how to rub it in - depending on the particular affliction - he would offer small quantities of his forebear's rare medicine for sale. Regretfully. He would explain that due to the difficulty of its extraction his supply was very limited. People actually fell for all this and he was soon sold out and he was away, probably to somewhere like Walsall, or Bilston, for his next demonstration.

Mandrake root is described in the dictionary as being "Of the potato family, poisonous, having narcotic, emetic and mystical properties, with its root thought to resemble the human form" (hopefully not mine!). Nevertheless extracts reputed to be from this particular vegetable were sold in the market, again by a coloured gentleman. From the description of its curative powers given by the vendor one could be forgiven for thinking that it was far superior to any other medicine - even Rattlesnake oil or soap pills. The roots, presented for display on the market stall, looked exactly like washed parsnips, about a yard long with tapering tails. Smaller tails grew from the main body of the root and I suppose the there was some resemblance to a human body. This quack had his own method of securing the audience's sympathy and attention. In the crowd a heckler would appear and proceed to mumble disparagingly about the medicine, about the colour of the skin person selling it and any other comments - which had been agreed upon, by the quack and the heckler - which would arouse sympathy for the vendor. After a while there would be a resigned gesture from the Quack, a shake of his head and an appealing look on his face. A pause, followed by the inevitable response, which they had manoeuvred and would be expected from any Black Country crowd under the circumstances: "Leave him alone, ee aye 'urtin yow. Come on " let's have a bit of aysum and jaysum. Goo on mister, I'll have bottle". At a later date the gullible sympathisers would have time to wonder what had happened to its mystical properties. Why did they still have their aches and pains, and why were their tender emotional advances to their partners still being rejected? After all, the mandrake root had promised the return of youth with all its vigour!

For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the term "aysum & jaysum" - I don't know the usual spelling - it is an old Black Country phrase to indicate fairness all round and being reasonable.

Not all the "entertainers" in the market were con men. Some earned the few coppers that were thrown in the ring or put in their caps at the end of a performance. One conjurer in particular was good, very good indeed! He did all his tricks and sleight of hand surrounded on all sides by his audience. A challenge in itself! In one particular trick he had a piece of rubber tubing , outside diameter about 3/8 of an inch. It was about 2 feet long. At one end was attached a bracket and a gas mantle of the type used at that time for lighting houses. He would put the one end of the tubing in his mouth and blow, whilst he held a lighted match under the gas mantle at the other end. The mantle would light with the brilliance which one would have expected from a supply from a local gas company. I didn't know how he did it then, and I still don't know!

On the odd occasion a man and a girl presented themselves. The girl dressed in what pre-war we would have called a boiler suit and would later be described as a siren suit. The man attracted the attention of all and sundry to the obvious slender form, and the apparent limited physical ability, of the maiden. He would then invite any two persons to tie this defenceless creature in chains, which he had at hand. He would then guarantee that she would free herself from any complexity of knots which any of her audience could devise or use in under ten minutes. Here it may be appreciated that this era was not long after the first World War and there could have been a lot of people in the audience who would have served in the navy and would fancy their chance in tying knots. Volunteers were many and willing. Having assured the crowd that she was securely bound, she was then pushed roughly to the ground by her partner, where she would commence to thresh about, backwards and forwards, over and over, in an attempt to free herself from the shackles and knotted chains. Almost invariably she would be successful. But in the event that the end of the allotted time was approaching and that her efforts were going to be in vain, he would call for more exertion and encourage her to find it, by continuing to whip her with a horse whip. If she did fail to get free, he would have to undo her and, in this event, it could be seen that he did so with obvious displeasure. He realised, of course, the while he was doing so, the crowd were dispersing in disappointment and the opportunity for a post performance collection had been lost.

One day we had the thought transference act visit us. It followed the expected presentation. She was blind-fold and a man went about asking her questions: "What am I holding?", "What is the colour of this ladies hand bag" and so on.  She knew the answer to all of the questions that he would ask of her, of course - he'd already told her in the phrasing of his question. Once I found a particular response amusing. This too, I suppose, was rehearsed. His question: "Where is my hand?"  Answer: "It is on a boy's head". Question: "How many hairs are there on this boy's head?" Answer: " I don't know, but have I the time to count them?" Answer: " No! But tell me this: what does this boy need?" Answer: "That boy needs a good wash" Comment: "Run along sonny and get one!!"

Not all interesting characters in Wednesbury Market were visitors. We had our own Charlie for instance. He sold meat in the Shambles or, rather, he auctioned it off. Talking about Charlie in my later years, I had it suggested to me that somewhere along the line horses could have been involved in the product that he offered for sale. He sold his meat in the open air, protected from contact with the filthy boards of the market stall only by white wrapping paper. Late on a Saturday there would be a confrontation between the desperation to sell the last remaining bit of meat and the limited purchasing power of the remaining buyers. It would end with the final agreement and acceptance: "Wrap it up, Charlie". And another satisfied customer would leave the market with enough meat for Sunday dinner for the equivalent of less than 5 new pence in today's money.

A family in Wednesbury, named O'Connel, were fruiterers. A couple of years ago they celebrated celebrated their 100 years of trading in the town. I think that I can claim to have played a minuscule part in that history. I knew a particular Maggie O'Connell. She was quite a character and had a voice which was so loud that, when she offered her wares for sale in the Market place, the golfers on the golf course, at the bottom of Ridding Lane, complained that it put them off their stroke! On market days, as the selling of fruit and veg progressed, Maggie, as to be expected, would acquire quite a few ten bob and pound notes. The security of these she would ensure by lifting up her voluminous arrangements of skirts and pinafores and tuck the notes in the top of her stockings. Occasionally she would allow us to help her, not, I hasten to declare, in concealing the money - but by running errands for her or, as I remember, helping her to sell oranges. Today, I think, the shine on an orange is achieved by some waxing process. But Maggie had her own her own ideas. Oranges were taken out of their boxes and put into open woven onion bags and a few pence worth of olive oil, purchased from the local chemist, was poured over them. With vigorous agitation, the desired sheen was produced and we would offer them for sale at three for a penny.

Just imagine - 3 oranges for a penny! Today that would mean one new penny would buy eight or nine oranges. When I try to make that comparison to my family I am told that I should move with the times and they point out to me that whilst I claim that I could buy a suit of clothes from the Fifty Bob tailors in Wednesbury market place for 2.50. that amount was a week's wages for a lot of people.

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