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Saturday, 22 August 2015


There’s very little documentary evidence for my Merseyside great great uncle Eyre’s life: records of his baptism, marriage and death, and an incomplete set of ten-yearly census returns. Where was he, and what was he doing, between those of 1871 and 1901?

His brother Richard Ralph Sadleir is similarly absent from the National Archives, reappearing only in 1911 when he describes himself as a “retired prospector.” Perhaps the brothers went off adventuring together. Eyre turns up just once during those thirty years, on a passenger list – he is in steerage when the SS Lake Superior leaves Liverpool on 2ndApril 1898, bound for St John’s in Newfoundland. Was he rejoining his brother in the Canadian gold fields?

Eyre is described in the Lake Superior’s list as a steam fitter, the same trade by which he defines himself in the UK censuses of 1901 and 1911. He seems to have gone where the work was. Presumably Newfoundland didn’t work out, because three years later in April 1901 he was back in Britain, in Walsall; and only a few months after that, in Belfast.

Walsall Station’s ornate canopy – Station Street in the foreground, and the large railways yard beyond. The canopy and the grand booking hall behind it were demolished in the 1990s to make way for a new Marks & Spencer store.

We know he was only passing through Walsall, because he was staying in digs at 27 Station Street right opposite the London & North Western Railway’s station yard. Digs is perhaps the wrong word. It conjures up images of fussy landladies and theatrical acts in chintzy lounges. 27 Station Street was one of two beer houses on the road, which also had three hotels (one of them a temperance establishment).

Beer houses were the lowest form of drinking den, the product of an 1830 licensing law designed to steer poor people away from mother’s ruin, gin. It was so successful that in 1869 they passed another act prohibiting the opening of any new beer houses. They were the original spit-and-sawdust bare-boarded establishments, no more than the front parlours of family homes, barred from selling gin and other spirits. The last of them disappeared in the early twentieth century, all either closed down or upgraded to public houses.

William Hogarth’s satirical 1751 images of the evils of gin and the merits of beer were part of an earlier attempt to reduce public consumption of the ruinous spirit

Because no new beer houses could be opened, they became assets and changed hands frequently. In the three Kelly’s Directories which I’ve seen, for 1904, 1912 and 1914, 27 Station Street is owned by three different families. In 1901 when Eyre Sadleir was staying there it was run by a family of … saddlers, the Hills. Into that typical small railway terrace home was crammed a family of ten – father Charles Hill (“saddle- and harness-maker, publican”), his wife, his widowed mother-in-law, two daughters, five sons (four of whom were old enough to join their father as harness-makers in the leather industry for which Walsall was famous). Of nearly forty houses in Station Street nearly half were connected with the leather trade. Also in the Hill household were three itinerant tradesmen: another leather worker, a plasterer, and steamfitter Eyre.

Most beer houses, including the two in Station Street, didn’t even have names until they sought the respectability of being a Public House. I don’t know for certain what 27 Station Street became. By the time the Great War broke out, the street was the (un-numbered) address of the long-established Queen’s Hotel, the Railway Inn, the Commercial Inn, the Star and Garter and … the Saddlers’ Arms.

I’d love to think that the house Eyre Sadleir stayed in, the house Charles Hill the saddle-maker sold beer in, became the Saddlers’ Arms. The building is, I'm delighted to discover, still in use as licensed premises, now also selling wines and spirits, in its present guise as Smokey’s American Diner.

STOP PRESS! I've just heard from the good people at Smokey's that their premises are indeed the former Saddler's Arms. So a Sadleir DID stay with a saddler at the Saddler's!

Smokey’s Diner, 26-27 Station Street, Walsall


  1. Col, I think I mentioned to you that we used to visit a Beer House called The Eagle in a tiny village called Hendon in Oxfordshire back in the 1970's. No bar just a back room and you ordered just beer (or in my case Blackcurrant Cresta - I was only 16 and well-behaved) from the hatch through to the kitchen. It is a majorly refurbished proper pub now...


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