Place to Place: Stan Cullis and Wulfrunians on The Wirral

I don’t often talk sport on this blog, but I can make an exception today. While researching my book Forging Ahead, on the Black Country in the post-war decades, it quickly became obvious that alongside the economic and industrial vigour that helped the region hold its head high, its sporting success also cemented the Black Country in people’s minds. I studiously avoid picking a side between West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers (and no doubt will have to make this up to Baggies fans) but today is about probably the nation’s greatest coach in the 40s and 50s, Stan Cullis. To quote the legendary Bill Shankly: “Stan was 100 per cent Wolverhampton. His blood must have been of old gold. He would have died for Wolverhampton.”

Cullis as a young player (Spartacus Educational)

Cullis joined Wolves as a teenager in 1934, and rapidly made his way into the first team, and then to be captain. Leading up to World War Two, he helped Wolves become one of the country’s top teams, coming close to both Leagues and Cups. His England career was cut short by war, but he does hold the distinction of being the only player in the 1937 side facing Germany to refuse to give the Nazi salute to Hitler, which definitely seals him as alright in my book. In 1948, Cullis became Wolves’ manager aged just 31, and took them to unprecedented success: three league titles, two FA Cups, and victory over the finest European teams leading Cullis to give Wolves the honorific “Champions of the World.” Only one thing stands in the way of his being the quintessential Wolverhampton man: he was born on the Wirral.

Migration is often said to rely on two factors: push factors, by which people feel they must leave an area; and pull factors, by which people are drawn to another area. One of the key pull factors is work: a new factory or place of work that needs people to work there. This was the driver behind Chance Bros requiring skilled glassmakers from France, and Royston Colliery requiring experienced miners from the Black Country. It also explains why someone who grew up in Cheshire developed such a deep, personal connection to Wolverhampton.

When he’s good enough, he will join Wolves

Stan Cullis was born on 25 October 1916 to William Cullis and his wife Elizabeth (nee Walters), in the Wirral town of Ellesmere Port. The 1911 census shows the family there at 58 Oldfield Road. They already had plenty of children in 1911: William Jr (16), Florrie (15), Howard (13), Ethel (12), Arthur (9), Edith (4) and Evelyn (1). After that came Sydney in 1912, and Jessie in 1914. Both parents and all children up to Arthur were born in Wolverhampton; Edith and Evelyn were born in Ellesmere Port, suggesting that their move had been between 1902 and 1907. Lots of kids grow up with some sort of connection to their father’s favoured team (my dad’s was Manchester Utd, though I couldn’t admit liking them when they were winning everything in the 1990s, and had to stick to the more local, and substantially less successful Southampton). Stan picked up his father’s obsession with Wolves, and when scouts came to watch his childhood team, Ellesmere Port Wednesday, his father wouldn’t let them sign him: “When I consider my boy is good enough,” Cullis quoted his father as saying “he will join Wolverhampton Wanderers.”

So why was a Wolves-mad family stuck out in Ellesmere Port? The clues are again in the census returns. William Cullis senior was born in Wolverhampton (or maybe Bilston) in 1873 to Thomas and Sarah Cullis, He married Elizabeth Walters and moved close by to Granville Street. By 1911, though, the family was in Ellesmere Port. This census asked for employer’s name, and we can see that William Cullis and his eldest son both worked for the same firm: the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Co.

Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Co.

Emu brand corrugated iron (source: Facebook)

Long before the days of government industrial strategies, firms did sometimes choose to relocate or expand into new geographical territory off their own bat. Major Black Country firms such as Rubery Owen, Chance Bros and others did exactly this, opening new factories in suitable locations around the country and, later, the Empire. One of the key factors was access to docks: while the Black Country canals and railways had served well, they added time and expense to export and shipment. This was important at the turn of the twentieth century: Britain was a global exporter, not only to the Empire but to all over the world. It’s constructional engineering and metalworking supplied construction the world over, and Black Country firms were at its heart.

The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company was founded in 1857 by John and Joseph Jones, in Church Street, Wolverhampton. It was specifically founded with export in mind, and manufactured sheet steel under it’s “Emu” brand. By 1905, the factory was bursting at the seams, and the business took the big step of opening a new factory, the Mersey Ironworks, on the banks of the River Mersey in Ellesmere Port. Situated on the massive new Manchester Ship Canal and the LNWR/GWR joint Birkenhead Railway, this would be a much more sophisticated, capacious and well-connected site.

The WCIC’s Mersey Works seen in 1937 (Britain From Above). You can see the Ellesmere Canal on the right, crossed by the Birkenhead Railway.

Ellesmere Port

Ellesmere Port itself was a creation of the canal age. The tiny village of Netherpool was chosen as the terminus for a major new waterway, the Ellesmere Canal, which was to link the Mersey with the River Severn at Shrewsbury, via Chester, Wrexham, Chirk and Ellesmere, with branches to towns in Shropshire and Wales. The first section, linking the Mersey with the River Dee at Chester, was opened in 1797. The full grand plan, however, never made it into reality. Only an isolated central section and some of the branches were completed, and they had to wait to be connected to the national network by the Shropshire Union Canal, which took over the bulk of the Ellesmere Canal and linked it to several other canals to create a main line from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port. Netherpool turned into Ellesmere Port, but the confusion meant that it did not grow as substantially as other canal towns like Stourport or Shardlow, and it only became a civil parish in 1911. With the canals in decline in the late 19th century, its major employer was Burnell & Co, another sheet metal company.

Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company’s decision to relocate made a huge impact on the small town. It’s population rose from just over 4,000 (in the wider parishes within which EP sat) in 1911, to 10,253 just in the new Ellesmere Port parish in 1911. Of those, a full 2,479 came from the Black Country, and formed the large majority of the new factory’s workforce. Around half of those were from Wolverhampton, but there were also 272 from Bilston, 209 from West Bromwich, 171 from Tipton, and dozens listing birthplaces like Lye, Walsall, Willenhall, Smethwick, Bradley, Heath Town and Shorth Heath (source). Essentially, it’s all very well to relocate a factory to a new home, but what if the workforce just doesn’t exist? In WCIC’s case, they brought builders from Wolverhampton for its construction, and simply asked metalworkers from the Black Country to come and work there. The firm chartered trains over a single weekend to bring dozens of families up, and community memory even records that those who couldn’t afford the train fare simply walked the sixty-plus miles along the Shropshire Union Canal to their new home. After all, this was a time when the Black Country was suffering: trade had been patchy since the 1870s, unemployment was high, housing was poor and it wouldn’t be long before an unprecedented era of industrial action would shake the region. We don’t know the Cullis’s exact motivations for moving, but they were amongst the thousands of Yam Yams who ended up on the Wirral.

A new home

These workers needed somewhere to live. Housing in the Black Country was poor and pricey, and one way to tempt workers was to provide a decent home. The WCIC built around 300 homes in Ellesmere Port, including the new Wolverham estate (see what they did there?) in the South-east of the town, with its streets named after public schools such as Repton and Rugby. They also built in other areas such as Eastham, where new streets included several named after Black Country places: Dudley Road, Heathfield Road, Penn Gardens, Priestfield Road. Parallel to Dudley Road was Oldfield Road, home to the Cullis family.

Heathfield Road (source: Mike Royden)
Dudley Road (source: Facebook)

Translocality in practice

This translocal community experience was expressed in multiple ways. Cullis was by no means the only football connection: one new worker in 1905 was former Wolves goalkeeper Thomas Llowarch (as reported in the Chester Chronicle); the Liverpool Echo reported several Ellesmere Port youths signed by Wolves in 1936, including Jack Kirkham and Arthur Keeley; it extended into the 1950s, when Cullis signed Dick Calvert from the town. Even Wolves’ famous 1980s manager Graham Turner was born in Ellesmere Port, although I don’t know if the link was still known by that time. A military link was maintained too. One Private Arthur Griffiths, a Wednesfield-born worker at the WCIC’s Mersey Works (and latterly a postman) was killed in France in 1916 while serving with the South Staffordshire Regiment, traditionally the main army recruiter in the Black Country (Chester Chronicle).

There was a translocal expression of worker’s solidarity too. In 1906, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union met in Ellesmere Port. The DWRGLU was a major player in the New Unionism that emerged from the 1880s – despite its name it was a general union and had led in the mass dockers’ strikes in London in 1888; it later merged to become the TGWU, which has eventually become Unite. [Quick reminder here: join your union]. The meeting at the Cooperative Hall featured founder Ben Tillett and founding president Harry Orbell. They had to lament the fact that there was no branch in the town, but that seemed likely to change: “There were… some members of the Wolverhampton branch who had recently moved to work in the district, and they would provide a nucleus for a branch which might easily be formed in the future.” (Birkenhead News). Perhaps it was this recognition of the power of solidarity that gave the blow-ins their local nickname: the “goomers”, because if things weren’t to their liking, they could just “goo um.”

As well as being an interesting story, this is a nice example of translocality in action. Katherine Brickell’s introduction to her edited collection on the subject suggests that translocality can be understood as “‘groundedness'”‘ during movement,” and I think that’s on display here. In some senses, moving from the Midlands to the Wirral must have entailed a cutting-off of ties to familiar places, as moving always does. But moving to an established community, all with the same shared experience of movement and with a conscious connection to home that extended as far as road names and football teams, was a distinctive experience compared to other kinds of movement that you might not describe as translocal.

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