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Published: September 2nd 2014
They all have links to the West Midlands towns of Bloxwich and Waslall - the former of which is home to family and the reason for my fourth visit in 30 years (the first as an eight year old on his first overseas trip some time back!)
Bloxwich was a sleepy village until the industrial revolution saw demand for the local coal, ironstone and limestone explode. It has been a village for at least 1000 years, as is recorded as such in the Domesday Book (the survey of English counties ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086 - don't mix that date up with 1066 - Google it! - to ensure he was getting all the taxes due to him). Once the canals (and much later the railways) arrived in the West Midlands to allow the raw material to be transported to Birmingham and further afield, the town grew rapidly from the early 1700s. It become known for its metalwork - stirrups, bits and braces for horses and locks (the type used to secure things, not the type used on canals).
Bloxwich is part of the larger Walsall council area, which has a similar history
of development and is 15 mins down the road. Like Bloxwich, Walsall was known for its (at the time) advanced manufacturing industries and became known as the 'town of a 100 trades'. It particular, it's the home of leather. A museum charts the rise and fall of this industry, which at one time employed thousand of workers and produced the bulk of the world's saddlery and gloves. It's very hands on and wouled be a good stop for kids - plus it's free.
Walsall also has a small museum attached to the town library which focuses on the town's favourite sons and daughters. It includes a board which lists the town's most notable citizens. Somewhat improbably, Boy George (remember him?) is on the list, but I can find no other evidence to support this. Maybe he played a gig there once, pre-Culture Club. It would be unduly harsh to judge the town by that, given the significant achievements made by others.
One of the perhaps not unexpected stories of the UK - given the enormously long history and population density compared with Oz - is that almost every town and city can legitimately claim
to be the home to someone, or a something, that has made a significant contribution to not only the national life but more broadly as well. While Boy George can arguably be recognised for services to music (depending on your taste), out of the front of the museum and library is a statue to a perhaps more noteworthy local, VC awardee John Henry Carless, with the replica in the museum itself. Carless earned his VC for naval service in WWI, when he "stuck to his gun" even after being mortally wounded and saved his ship.
Walsall's most famous daughter (and perhaps most celebrated local personage) is the city's own answer to Florence Nightingale, 'Sister Dora' (And no kids, she was not the original 'Explorer'). A Church of England sister, she was one of the first to realise basic cleanliness would keep people alive in hospitals. According to the plaque on her memorial, during a smallpox outbreak she personally treated 12,000 patients in a year. (Somewhat bizarrely, the hospital/clinic was in "Deadman's Lane". What on earth were they thinking?)
That aside, think about the number of patients she treated for a second - twelve thousand
people! She developed a particular affinity for railway workers, who were doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the 'industrial revolution'. When breast cancer eventually claimed her (on Christmas Eve 1848 to complete the tragedy) she was just 46 and railway staff formed a guard of honour at her funeral. According to the plaque in the town square (which is probably where Wikipedia got it from) her epitaph read, 'Quietly I came among you and quietly let me go'.
A statue of Sr Dora was erected by public subscription and stands in the town market square. Another statue of note can be found outside a local funeral director's parlour, if you know where to look - and it comes with an interesting story. Sculpted at full size by a local mason as a memorial to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, it was offered to the local council as gift to the city to be a memorial to the people's princess. The local story goes the local council did not appreciate the statue being cast in a dark stone (granite or marble by the look of it), and declined to accept it. So it now sits
outside the monumental mason's shop, in the parking lot. Granted, it's a bit strange, but I don't mind it.
But Walsall's major attraction by far (and again free) is its new art gallery, housed in a modern edifice in the city centre overlooking a canal basin (which looks historic but isn't - it was put in when the museum was built, expanding what was a dead-end arm of nearby canal). The gallery was purpose-built in 2000 to house a collection you certainly don't expect to find in a regional town. The Garman Ryan collection includes works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet, to name a few. It was gathered by Kathleen Garman, the wife of noted UK sculptor Jacob Epstein, and Kathleen's friend, the American sculptor Sally Ryan. The gallery hints as a controversy here, mentioning a partnership between the two women "that went beyond building an art collection". It also details how an executor of the Garman estate "removed virtually all references of Sally" from the collection's very extensive archives after Kathleen's death before the material was handed over to curators. A tantalising mystery.
Kathleen herself lived a complicated life - as Jacob's muse and model she also become his mistress, a role she filled for 30 years during his first marriage. Kathleen and Jacob had several kids in this period, two of whom died in the same year in their 20s And were subjects for artworks. Kathleen later married Jacob when his first wife died in the 60s, but they had less than four years together before he also died. A complicated personal and artistic partnership - but an amazing collection of art the result. Worth a visit.
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