CROSSROADS OF LIFE
“Will you show me which way I should walk?”
Walrus: “That depends on where you want to go.”
Throughout one’s life there are decisions to be made, and no doubt like me you
have wondered in retrospect, if you had made the right one. Or imagined what
course your life would have followed if the choice had been different. Sometimes
these points stand out like signposts at a crossroads or a fork in the road.
Which way to take? Maybe it was quite clear, or the decision was made for you by
your parents or others. In my case I can see these points in my life quite
sharply but the choices are not always quite so clear.
writing my life history, I have tried to define them and in doing so to make
interesting reading for others.
Varley can be traced back to the French name Verli e.g in 1184 there was a Hugo
de Verli, who maybe came over with William the Conqueror – well it’s nice to
think we have aristocratic connections however remote they may be. The fact is
we were of peasant stock in my time, and proud of it, so I dedicate this book to
all those who have gone before and especially those whose lives were affected by
are they now, the lost?
comrades of my youth
weighing not the cost
defence of humanity.
Uncertain they were
future yet uncharted
of knowing then
their fate to be
Concealing all their fears
faced their destiny
song and a consoling fag
offered a friendly hand
together in pointed jest
small, united band.
ones they left behind
for in lonely thought
and grief they never showed
victory was ne’er in doubt
the end they faced the sea
Disconsolate, and defeated
downcast hearts they scanned the beach
they had retreated
fire, smoke and explosion
hope of their salvation
a multitude of ships
small island nation
I went my destined way
long hard years ahead
Remembering, and praying for
living and the dead.
County Town of Staffordshire, first known as Staetheford, began with a Hermitage
in the marshes of the River Sow to the North, established by a Monk who became
St Bertelin. Because it is surrounded on three sides by the river it was easy to
defend and so a fortified post was built in 913 by Ethelfleda, daughter of King
Alfred, during the campaign against the Danes. I am not going to give the town’s
full history here, but only my own.
born at 16 Bellasis St., just off the Marston Rd in Stafford, on 22nd April
1915. I once read that the street was named after a Brigadier in the British
Army which now seems very appropriate in view of the circumstances of my birth
and what was to come.
life I realised that my birth was only 3 months after the death of my mother’s
first baby at the age of 18 months from pneumonia. What’s more it was just 3
days before her birthday, which coincided with the ANZACS landing at Gallipoli.
I hope I was some consolation for her.
her brothers were already in the Army and the third was just about to depart for
survived but were never physically well again for the remainder of their lives.
It’s worth noting that on the same day the Germans commenced the second battle
of Ypres and used poison gas for the first time. I believe that both of my
uncles were in the battle.
father was called up but failed his Medical at the Staffordshire Regimental
Depot near Lichfield. As a skilled fitter he was on War work at Dorman’s factory
throughout the war, so I was spared
the possibility of becoming another fatherless child. His elder brothers were
too old to be drafted, but his younger brother had gone to America in 1912 and
later joined the Royal Flying Corps, training overseas, and returning to England
just before the Armistice.
earliest memory is being held up at the front window to see a train go by, not
possible now because:
a) the allotments which existed then have
now given way to an Industrial Estate and
branch line to Uttoxeter and Burton-on-Trent has long since been closed,
although the Stafford Common station is still there. More of this later.
Allotments were common around that time and many people grew their own
vegetables and flowers, and my grandfather and his sons very often took off
prizes in the Annual Show. I have fond memories of rides in a barrow to fetch
the vegetables for dinner. So it was no surprise that I was caught sitting on
the front steps with the girl next door, tucking in to a feast of my father’s
peas. (and saving the pods in my apron, which seems to have been the common
dress for kids in those days).
quite familiar with steam engines and trains, which have fascinated me all my
life, and later I lived alongside the GWR main line from Birmingham to London
for nearly 20 years. The area around the Railway station has changed little over
the years, and this includes Stafford Common (dates back to feudal days) where I
played beside a stream and where the local lads (including my Uncles) used to
ride horses bareback, horses which belonged to other people.
there was the Salt works producing salt from brine pumped up from underground,
and my grandparents’ house was within 50 yards of its surrounding wall so that
they heard the constant thump, thump of the pumps every day. Brine had been
found in 1887 when a bore was sunk on the Common in a search for drinking water.
Finally I had an aunt (or rather a half-aunt, as my Grandpa had married a widow
with two daughters ) who lived within a stone’s throw of the station in an area
which was slowly sinking,due to constant brine pumping, and where in later years
I saw a house with its front window at ground level. During school holidays I
was put on the train from “Brum” (travelling in the guards van for safety, he
accepted a tip (sixpence of course) and stayed at my aunt’s place. Thus I came
to play with the neighbours kids who took me fishing in a local stream, which
was a waste of time because it was the outflow from the salt works, as I found
out when I fell into it. I came out soaked and stinking, ran all the way “home”
to finish up dressed in my Aunts vest in front the fire. And what a fire that
was, for there was always a plentiful supply of firewood, brought home by my
uncle who made packing boxes for the salt works.
say more about the houses we lived in. They were usually built side by side and
only the width of the front room (called the parlour) plus the entrance passage
way therefore only about 5-10 metres frontage. Also on the ground floor were the
living room and the kitchen, which had the one tap in the house providing only
cold water. Upstairs you would find 2 bedrooms, or 3, which would rate you as
well-off. As most families had five to ten children, it was almost impossible to
find any privacy. Which reminds me, the loo was outside, not conducive to a
visit in the winter with snow on the ground, and very often the flush – tank was
frozen up. We didn’t have this problem in Stafford because the seat was over a
running sewer and this caused a disaster when I managed to drop my trousers in
it. In Brum we became more modern with a flushing loo although still with a
wooden seat. With a family of twelve, it was not uncommon to have to queue up,
and there was a regular job for someone tearing up newspapers into appropriate
years I have re-visited the old home and on one occasion was invited in to find
it was being renovated by someone moving up from the Black Country. In case you
don’t know this was the name given to the area surrounding Wolverhampton, and
not as you may think the dwelling- place of coloured peoples, BUT it does aptly
describe it today. Originally it was named for its dirt and squalor, tall
chimneys belching smoke, and criss-crossed by canals, being one of the centres
of the Industrial Revolution, I was once an Acting- Line Inspector for the PMG
Dept there. To return to the old home, I was astonished to find that it had a
cellar, I suppose the door was kept closed for my safety but how I would have
enjoyed exploring it, in the kitchen there had been an indoor well (shared with
the next house) but that must have been filled in before my time.
the house didn’t have a midden as my Grandparent’s did. This was an open area
with surrounding brick walls, about three feet in height, into which all the
household garbage was thrown, except that which was fed to the pigs. Every week
the Dustmen (garbos) collected it all by shovelling it into the back of a lorry.
bad in winter, but in summer it smelled to high heaven and the back door was
kept closed for it was only a couple of yards away. This resulted in the sound
of bird song rising about 6 db above normal, for Grandad bred canaries, had some
thirty cages in the loft above the back kitchen. In later years I was able to
climb the vertical ladder and help him feed them.
mother’s family were nearly all employed in the Boot and Shoe trade, mainly at
Lotus and Delta, now completely demolished and replaced by a very large
up-market housing estate. Stafford was one of the centres of the trade in
England, the other being Nottingham. Grandad was by trade a Cordwainer, which
mainly involved the making of saddles and harness, and his spare time was taken
up in his garden and in keeping the family’s footwear in good repair. That’s
when he wasn’t otherwise occupied at “The Rifleman’s Arms” opposite the Common
gates together with his sons and my father. I must say though that none of them
was a heavy drinker. The two oldest sons, Thomas and Ben, like their dad were
leather workers and my mother was a “clicker” i.e. a machine operator, either
punching out inner soles or stitching soles. I’m not sure what my aunt Ethel
did, but it was in the same trade. The youngest, Len, was employed by the Salt
works which in later years was taken over by ICI. It’s no wonder that I
considered them the salt of the earth, and I grew up ensconced in a very loving
and closely knit family. In researching my ancestors I have put together a
family tree which goes back some 250 years, starting in the Lake District. It
hasn’t been easy because Staffordshire is swamped with Shelleys, even into
Cannock Chase, with an equal amount of farm labourers and leather workers, the
odd pauper, and even “1807 Age 41. John Shelley. Perpetual Curate of Bradeley.”
Boy, I hope he’s on my side when I finally get to see him.
Shelley’s maiden name was Waugh, her family again can be traced back to its
origin in around 1750 in Lancashire, and she was a real, no nonsense, Lancashire
grand parents lived in Broad St and there is a record of them manufacturing
surgical boots for cripples. My mother was born in Cooperative St, the next
street off Marston Rd running parallel to Bellasis St and her half sister Sarah,
then about 13 yrs of age, became her minder, which accounts for the great love
they showed for each other. This street is so named because there is a
Co-operative Store in it, which was very convenient for us, but we also walked
into town regularly, in fact we walked wherever we needed to go. A very good
thing for me, as I’ve realised since; there was plenty for a child to take in.
For the first large building we passed was the Workhouse, and through its open
gates the inmates could be seen tending the gardens.
the morning the tramps were moving on to the next resting place where food and a
bed for the night could be found. We also passed the Ranger’s Ground, football
was my father’s game, (he never
heard of Soccer ) he played for Stone St Michaels amongst other teams,which is
surprising as he never went to church Except, as he told me, one evening a week
at St Mary’s Cathedral for Choir
practice.(if you knew him this would surprise you because he was tone-deaf, he
could have competed with Edith in ‘Allo ‘Allo, what a pity he never lived to see
her.) But you need to know that he had found out that after practice the
choir-boys were given a cup of tea and a bun and he wasn’t going to miss that.
As long as he could he kept out of the Choir-master’s view but eventually he was
discovered and banished.
Varley and Madeley families had lived quite close together in the Hyde Lea and
Coppenhall villages a few miles to the West of Stafford and no doubt George, a
stone-mason had worked for Maria’s father who was a farmer and builder. The
Varleys go back through Oakengates, close to the Welsh border, then up into
Lancashire and the Lake District. The Madeleys had lived in the area since
around 1600 and always there was a John which was the name of my great
grandfather who died in 1904 aged 91.
and Maria had 11 children at 11 Tenterbanks, a street close to the town centre
in a house very similar to ours, near the Old Mill which is still there, but the
houses have long been demolished and replaced by more modern buildings. On my
last visit the Mill was being renovated for use as a museum, and adjacent was a
Fish ‘n Chip shop. It is believed that the Old Mill was built with stones taken
from the ruins of the original Castle which was nearby in the vicinity of Gaol
Square. That castle dates from 1070 and the Doomsday Book records it as being in
ruins by 1086. The present Castle is on a hill top to the West of the town, and
well known to me, being visible from my cousin’s bedroom where I stay when I
visit. Of the Varley children, ten survived including five girls and five
of my father’s brothers were in engineering trades, the oldest John more usually
known as Jack Varley was born in 1874 and was apprenticed as a boiler- maker at
Bagnalls Locomotive Works where my father, born 1889, followed him at the age of
13. His first task was to crawl inside boilers and scrape out the soot. I was
always fascinated by my Uncle Jack and the Factory he started in Brum and he
will appear later in my story. My five aunts mostly became servants at some of
the grand mansions of the time. One worked for Lord Stafford at Shugborough
Hall, and one, Ellen known as Nell, married an Irishman and finished up, first
in New York, and finally in Hollywood. The Siemens factory which was closed
during the First World War was taken over by GEC/English Electric where a cousin
was private secretary to Lord Nelson for many years.
time of my birth my father was employed by Dorman and Co., who started out
producing cutting knives for the boot and shoe trade, but had commenced the
production of IC engines in 1903. I know that their main output was for the
Western Front and was used by the Army in light locomotives on narrow gauge
railways serving the front lines. Later they produced some of the aircraft
engines. Before 1913 Dad had worked in Brum with his brothers and had returned
to marry my mother. That must have been worth watching as she described it to
me, the whole Wedding procession walked from the Common to Little Marston
Church, some three or four miles. I have visited the Church but never found it
open, it’s only a tiny building and wouldn’t have room for many wedding guests.
When I was about 14 yrs old I went to attend my Grandma’s funeral with my mother
and she took me around the Common walk to show me the Twisted Tree (for some
reason it had grown with a twisted trunk) at the spot where they had stood when
As I was
about to take a photograph with my new Kodak Brownie (which I got by saving
coupons from packets of Black Cat cigarettes) a train went rattling by on the
other side of the fence and I realised that exactly opposite on the other side
of the line was 16 Bellasis St. That was when my interest in photography began.
I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge – as witness, there was the day
when I decided to find out what all this schooling was about. So I went
along with all the other kids to the Primary School on the Stone Rd to join in
the fun. I suppose I was a very interested student for quite a while, until the
teacher realised that she had three children in one desk which was made for two.
My mother was told to keep an eye on me in future, she did, and I went to school
at the age of five in Brum. Which reminds me, my mum had only one effective eye
ever since she was a teenager. She was unfastening her lace-up boots by using a
fork to loosen the knot when it either slipped or the lace broke, and she
pierced the pupil of one eye. Although the eye itself was saved she only saw
things dimly with it all her life. Yet she never complained. It never affected
her view of my dad whom she loved dearly, and it was mutual. They had met when
she made her customary walk into town to pay her father’s dues to his union, and
he was with a mate of his, probably with an eye open for the girls, and it was
love at first sight. She was taken by his curly hair, and he wasn’t a bad
looking lad either. She was accompanied by her friend and it was inevitable that
she paired up with his mate. Sadly, nothing came of that match, for he was
killed in France.
my dad’s favourite pastimes was fishing, either in the River Sow or in the canal
which used to carry goods from Stafford and the Potteries; I remember one day he
came home with a large pike. This was a fish capable of inflicting a nasty bite
and he put it in our tin bath in the kitchen. Very exciting to a young lad like
me, I tried to touch it, over balanced and fell in with it. No harm was done
however; I imagine it was already dying. The most famous fisherman was Izaak
Walton who, in 1653, wrote “The Complete Angler”, there is an ancient copy of
this still in my family today. His cottage at Shallowford is a tourist
attraction today but when the LMS railway was built it passed the end of the
garden and when the thatched roof was set afire by sparks from passing expresses
it had to be replaced by tiles.
of Stafford was severely shaken by an earthquake on 14th January 1916; I of
course knew nothing of it, being only 9 months old. Buildings in the town centre
were damaged and it was reportedly felt all over the Black Country, but no-one
was killed. Many people thought that Zeppelins had dropped bombs. As I have
learned since, there was an earthquake about this time which caused extensive
damage all over Eastern England from Yorkshire to Essex. I used to visit a Pub
near Chelmsford, “The Peldon Rose”, in the 60s which had been completely
demolished by it. Yet I never heard it mentioned by either of my parents.
began writing my account, an event has come to light which I have never of heard
from anyone, although there must be people alive today who were there.
happened in war-time and was not made public for 60 yrs. In 1937 the RAF took
over some old worked out gypsum mines in the Stonepit Hills in the Hanbury area,
about 20 kms east of Stafford. There, at a depth of 90 feet, they constructed a
storage facility for bombs. In 1944 this was serving the RAF and US Airforces
with bombs up to 4000 lbs.
27th November 1944 came disaster when the dump exploded; so violent was it, that
it was heard in London and recorded as an earthquake in Geneva. Only a crater
remained, 80 ft deep and covering an area of 12 acres. Upper Castle Hayes farm,
directly above, disappeared together with all its workers, and a nearby dam
nearby village was flattened, the Cock Inn was severely damaged, and the death
toll was about 100. It has come to be known as the Fauld disaster after the name
of the RAF station.
mention this because in April of the same year I was involved in a similar
disaster in the port of Bombay.
for the Varleys had begun by the turn of the century, Jack, George, and Tom had
left for Birmingham, and finally their parents had followed them, in fact they
lived in a house in the same street as Jack, and their house was to be my abode
for over 20 yrs. In 1919 I had come
to my first parting of the ways and it was not my decision to make. The Great
Depression had begun and my father was forced to look for work elsewhere and
what better place than the great Industrial City to the south, the “City of a
Thousand Trades”. So the nucleus had moved away south and its orbiting electrons
were attracted to it or else became free to be captured to some other nucleus.