Anyone from a coal mining family who has traced their family tree and lives in Hemsworth, South Elmsall, Featherstone or any of the other former pit towns round here, is likely to have found that their ancestors came up here from the Black Country at some point from the 1870s onwards.
When the pits were opening up in this area at that time there was a mass migration north from Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
I found that my mam’s side of the family, the Fletchers, came here to Featherstone in the 1880s from a little industrial town called Netherton near Dudley.
This was John, better known as Jack Fletcher. He was my great great grandfather and my grandad knew him and often told me stories about him when I was a lad.
He was born in King Street, Netherton on a stone kitchen floor in 1867 and walked up to Featherstone to find work at the pit when he was still in his teens.
Like a lot of folk these days, I’m interested in tracing my ancestry. Genealogy seems to be a very big hobby now.
I don’t just want to make a big map of names connected by lines though, I want to know about the lives of my forebears, where they lived, how they made a living and all that abstract good stuff about their motivations, feelings and plans.
With this in mind, I decided to make a trip to Netherton, so I might walk the streets where Jack Fletcher once walked.
Netherton is a really interesting little town. In a foundry there in 1911 they made the anchor and chain for the Titanic.
All the townsfolk turned out one Sunday to wave their hankies and lift their hats when the anchor was towed out by a team of 20 shire horses from the works of Noah Hingley to make its journey to the shipyards of Belfast.
Netherton is also the birthplace of the world’s greatest ‘spring’ jumper, a man called Jumping Joe Darby, who is recorded leaping 14 feet 7 inches from a standing start while clutching a pair of dumbbells. There’s a statue of him about to leap on the Halesowen Road opposite the White Swan pub.
The White Swan pub, better known as Ma Pardoe’s, is as good a reason as any for making a visit to Netherton. Ma Pardoe’s, named after the lady who ran it from the 1930s to the 1980s, is a Black Country jewel, a classic Victorian working man’s boozer that brews its own ale in a cobbled yard at the back and burns coal on a cast iron stove in a Grade II- listed tap room with an enamelled ceiling.
It was here that I started my search for the Fletcher family. I spoke to a bar man who was wiping his hands on a long white apron. I said: “I’ve been longing to come here because my family were Fletchers who originated from this area.” He smiled and said: “Fletcher? A lot of them are still here.”
He sent me up to a shop that sold country and western outfits and line dancing gear, saying the man who ran it was a Fletcher.
I called into the shop and at the sound of a tinkling bell, a tall man who was polishing a belt buckle turned round and asked if he could help. I said: “I was looking for a Mr Fletcher, but I know I’ve already found him.”
He said his name was Fletcher and I said I knew, because he looked like my grandad and every other Fletcher I’d ever seen. He had the jaw line, the broad shoulders and the way of holding his lips together that I’d seen every day I was a boy.
I told him his ancestors were probably the same as mine, but that my part of the family had moved north while his had stayed.
He shrugged in the way that Fletchers do and asked me if I’d like to buy a leather belt. I said I’d think about it.
He then pointed at some dream catchers and said they were genuine native American. I touched the feathers on one and said: “I like to catch my dreams.”
Back in the pub I ordered another pint of the fabulous beer they brew in the backyard of Ma Pardoe’s and was lost in a reverie for a while, wondering what dreams might have caused Jack Fletcher to wave ta-ra to his mother and his hometown to search for work down a pit in a place called Featherstone many miles away. A longer version of this story appears in my new book Song for my Father.
It’s a book about roots and branches and the journeys we all make to try to make sense of where we’re from and where we want to be.