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Village History

Martha’s village life

Posted on April 22 2014 at 12:16:15 0 comments


One of the main characters in The Odd Boy community play was Martha Harber, who lived in the same cottage in Swan Street from her birth in 1817 to her death in 1904.

Shortly after she died, her friends put together The Story of Martha, a small booklet detailing her life – copies were sold for sixpence, and today you can buy one from Alvechurch Museum for a more modern £1!

The introduction gives a fascinating glimpse of Alvechurch during Martha’s early childhood, which to the booklet’s author seems as distant as 1904 does to us today. . .

This cannot be a long story, for it is about a very humble, quiet soul. Yet I am sure that it is worth telling, for everyone who knew Martha felt that her life, simple and unambitious as it was, had yet a fullness and spiritual meaning out of all proportion to its worldly importance.

And so, while her memory is still fresh amongst us, I want to recall some of her ways and sayings, and the little events (happy in being so few) which went to make up her life.

Martha lived the whole of her long life in one place, and even her thoughts seldom wandered far.

Shall we, first, take just a glimpse of our village as it remained most clearly in her mind to the end – the home where she was a little girl? What was Alvechurch like in those days?

It was a queer, old-fashioned little place, with a self-contained life of its own which must have shut it off from outsiders more than we can quite realise nowadays. From morning till night the village was haunted by the panting bellows and the soft, melodious jingle of nail making.

Men, women and children all worked in the nail-shops; a steady man could turn out a thousand nails a day. Here and there you would see one with the “nailer’s hump” on his back, the result of working too much as a boy before his bones were firm.

Another lost industry was to be seen in The Square, where the butcher’s shop now stands; they used to spin the flax grown in the parish. Gone, too, happily, is the “kennel” or open sewer that ran down Swan Street in the direction of the brook.

The ancient dignity of Alvechurch was upheld by a bailiff (or “Mayor”, as he was called) and jury, and there were lively doings once a year at the end of October when they were elected. The Mayor was dressed in a red cloak and carried in a chair round the borough.

Two “sidemen” bore a mace, painted and lettered, and a tall pole topped with a crown. In front marched the twelve jurymen, each holding a lighted candle.

When the procession was over, they all adjourned to the Crown for a good feast, paid for by the retiring Mayor. They also elected the Constable, Ale-Taster, and Bread-Weigher.

The Constable and Third-borough kept order in the village. Some of their old rules and fines are amusing enough.

There were fines (never enforced, I think) for not sending one’s children and apprentices to church; for not removing dunghills out of the street; for listening under anybody’s window; and for backbiting or stirring up quarrels between neighbours!

Petty offenders were put in the stocks, which stood on a little patch of grass just where the Birmingham Road joins “Hopping Bob Street”. Old Billy Brown was the last person to sit in the stocks, about the year 1830.

Martha could remember how she went, with other children, to pelt him with clods and rubbish, and how, also, some friend brought him a “dobbin o’ drink” to keep his spirits up.

For more serious crimes, before being taken off to prison, persons were kept for a night or so in the parish lock-up - the very house in Swan Street (parish property still) where Martha lived as a little girl, and where she died.

Workhouse Bill

The back kitchen of this cottage was all the gaol there was, which looks as if Alvechurch evildoers were neither many nor desperate!

On the other side of the street, up on the bank, was the village Workhouse – merely two or three cottages. How many of us can remember “Big Will o’ the Work’us” (pictured left) with his skill in mending church clocks, and the old rusty sword that he kept for chasing imaginary “Rooshians” round the churchyard by night?

“Where does the wind come from?” was one of his odd sayings, often repeated.

In Swan Street lived also Collins, the “Wise Man”, who (for a trifle) would find lost articles, give charms against witches, reverse the bewitching of cattle, and so on.

Stage-coaches, bringing a breath of the larger world with them, rattled through the Square every day, and changed horses at the Crown.

As the months went by, Alvechurch children would look forward to the Mop fair in October, and another Fair, with ox-roasting, on the Feast of St Laurence (August 10), besides Christmas mummers and carol-singing, and the now-vanished custom of “Cattan and Clemen” on St Clement’s Day (November 26), when boys went round in companies, singing at people’s doors for apples.

Oak-Apple Day was observed by sticking oak boughs over the doors and windows of most of the houses. “Big Will” used to set a large bough on the top of the church tower, his favourite haunt.

“Heaving”, or “lifting”, was the custom at Easter. Martha said that on Easter Monday the men lifted the women, and on Tuesday the women lifted the men.

The church was, of course, in its unrestored days, with the high, pen-like pews and a three-decker pulpit. Parson Tonyn lived down at the old Rectory, doing pretty much as he liked – or, rather, as much as his shrewd old manservant would let him.

He was called upon sometimes to exercise his spiritual gifts in ways that seem to us rather queer, such as when he was sent for to lay a ghost at Beoley… and he went!

With all due solemnity he bound the ghost not to rise again for as many years as there were ears of corn in the next field, or drops of rain in the next shower; and so far as one knows, that ghost has never troubled Beoley since.

Such was our easy-going little Alvechurch when Martha Harber was born on August 10, 1817, the youngest of a family of large children.

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