The following was written for Halloween 2009’s ‘Bloxwich – Believe it or Not!’ feature in The Bloxidge Tallygraph. Much of it is true, the rest is fiction, a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously. I leave it up to you to work out which is which!
Bloxwich Wakes are often mentioned in the village, and get confused with Bloxwich Carnival, but the two events were very different animals, the Wakes having a much earlier, and bloodier, origin.
Wakes, or fairs, have always been associated with merrymaking and licence, drinking, lechery and song, cussedness, gluttony and sinfulness. Much like a Saturday night in Walsall, in fact. Saxons and Normans indulged in such ‘wakings’ long before they converted to Christianity and the early Churchmen took over those customs with the injunction that beasts might no longer be slaughtered by way of sacrifice to the devil, but for their own eating and the glory of God. Today, we just have hamburger vans.
The Wakes day in many Midland parishes is the day on which the parish church was dedicated, usually the Saint’s day after whom the church is named. In the case of Bloxwich the original saint was St. Thomas the Martyr, better-known as Thomas à Becket, who was canonised in 1173. His festival was celebrated in medieval times on 29 December, presumably the date of the original Bloxwich Wakes.
Later, perhaps after the Reformation, the day may have been changed to All Saints’ Day, 1 November; whatever, this became the day of Bloxwich Wakes by local tradition and the acclaim of the people of Bloxwich, Harden, Blakenall Heath and Wallington Heath, and the date was adhered to for more than 200 years.
Apart from general drunkenness and debauchery, fighting and frivolity, not to mention cock-fighting and foot, pony and whippet racing, the Wakes also became associated with the then-popular ‘blood sports’ of dog-fighting and, especially in Bloxwich, bull-baiting, about which there is a strange story which is told separately.
Today both bull baiting and dog-fighting have long been illegal, since 1825 in fact, though one sometimes hears of convictions for dog fighting even today, but not, as far as I know, in Bloxwich!
Bloxwich Wakes in the 1870s is described vividly in the original Bloxidge Tallygraph, in genuine Black Country dialect. At that time it was still held on The Green (now Bloxwich Park), but by then it was held on the third Monday in August. The Tallygraph of the day says nothing of bull-baiting or dog-fighting, nor should it, but it is known that the latter still went on, albeit on the quiet.
One dark, bloody tale rarely heard in public these days, though, does involve Bloxwich dog-fighting, and the foolish behaviour of one young ‘bittie’ who, it is reputed, took on the devil in a dog-fight and paid the price…
In the late 1870s one John Holden of the Red Lion Inn, Park Street, in Walsall, bred a fighting dog of the Staffordshire variety, by the name of ‘Pilot’. He was a powerful beast, savage, proud and undefeated. In fact, so successful was he that there was even superstitious talk of his master being in league with the devil, or having sold his soul in return for success.
One day John Holden and Pilot attended Bloxwich Wakes, the one hoping for some drunken debauchery and easy money, the other a few good fights – to the death… It was evening-tide before they found both, in the moonlit yard at the back of the Blue Pig alehouse on Chapel Green, and late into the night Pilot battled, defeating all-comers with little effort, and much blood. In fact, so successful was he that gradually the betters and dog-owners drifted away, losing the last of their hard-earned pennies and returning home without even one final drink to console them.
It was getting on for midnight when a young lad by name of Jim Cooper, an apprentice bit-maker of Sot’s Hole, down Beech Dale way, rolled up at the Blue Pig, already full of drink after a day of revelry, and, apparently either oblivious of Pilot’s reputation or being so full of bravado and ‘Dutch courage’ that he cared nothing for it, laid down a wager on his dog ‘Nelson’ to win in a straight fight against Holden’s dog.
Holden told him to keep his money, for Jim’s dog, he said, would have no chance, and would certainly end up dead. Cooper flew into a blind rage at this, insisting that the fight take place and, smiling softly, Holden accepted his bet. Those few revellers still there egged them on knowingly and, laughing under a full Moon, Cooper, ale in one hand and dog leash in the other, led Nelson round to the yard at the back of the Blue Pig, where the fight began.
It was a short but terrible bout; seemingly equal at first, but before long the tide was turned against brave Nelson, and, weakening from loss of blood, with one final savage bite his throat was torn out and he lay, still and dead upon the hard, cold, bloodstained cobbles. Pilot stood astride the steaming carcase and howled his fury and his pride into the night. If pressed some onlookers would even swear afterward that, as he lifted his great, broad head to the Moon, his eyes flashed red, like smouldering embers in a dark pit.
Distraught and stumbling, Jim Cooper ran, welching on his bet. This was a bad move, for the other dog’s owner was never a good loser, especially when he was a winner… As Cooper sped off into the night across Bloxwich Green, scurrying clouds covered the Moon, and Holden flew into a rage and loosed his dog again. “Fetch him for me Pilot,” he roared, “Fetch him – let him pay his debt in kind if not in cash!” and chuckling low in his throat, he looked on as the powerful beast, jaws still slavering bloody foam, leapt to do his master’s bidding.
Within moments the dog had caught up with young Jim at the edge of the Green and, red eyes flashing in the dark, sank his teeth into the terrified bittie’s rear, receiving wild screams of anguish as his just reward. But this was not enough, and he slashed and slashed until, weak with blood loss, Cooper fainted. About to deliver the fatal bite, with young Jim cowered whimpering at his paws, Pilot paused, hesitating, ears pricked as if hearing a call in the distance, and so it was: “Pilot, come back, come back. He’ll learn his lesson now, that’ll teach him,” called Holden. Obedient, the dog spun and charged back into the darkness.
And as the clouds slowly uncovered the Moon, a truly terrifying sight was revealed… The savaged lad, lying in a pool of his own blood, began to change, shifting shape, becoming smaller, broader, stockier, darker, until at last he was a boy no more, but a black, brutal dog akin to Pilot before him. And pausing briefly to lick at the pool of what had been his blood, the first of the Bloxwich Were-Staffies stood, looked up, howled at the Moon and, eyes blazing, ran off across Bloxwich Green and disappeared into legend…
The next day, it is said, young Jim Cooper returned to his job beating bits and awl-blades in his little workshop at Sot’s Hole, and nothing more was said of that bloody night at the Blue Pig in Bloxwich, at least not where ears could hear. But what was whispered of only in legend, and in the smoke-filled back rooms of Bloxwich pubs for years to come was that, ever since, on the midnight of the Bloxwich Wakes, dogs across the two Bloxwiches, Little and Great, would howl at the Moon, and the next day livestock, and even cats, would be missing, with no evidence of where they had gone apart from deep pools of dark, dried blood.
What of young Jim Cooper? Well, he had no memory of these events, but once a year, on the night of the Bloxwich Wakes, he would disappear again, and next morning find himself naked on the Green, desperate for a pint of ale at the Turf, for which it was truly his curse to wait until opening-time.
Over the years, Bloxwich folk realised that the only way to hold back the Were-Staffie, as it came to be known, was to leave a barrel of beer from the Turf and a tethered pig on the Green on Wakes night after closing time. But the fear remained, and the howling at the Moon…
Which is why, all these years later, there are no more Bloxwich Wakes, and no more dog-fighting in Bloxwich. If they were ever to return, well, who can say what might occur.
We know nothing more of John Holden after this, but we do know that he sold a dog called Pilot around 1880 to one Charlie Lloyd of New York, who took the dog to America, where he became famous for defeating Louis Krieger’s dog Crib on October 19,1881 outside Louisville, Kentucky for $1,000 a side.
Pilot had a long, proud and undefeated career fighting in the Americas, and died at a ripe old age. It is said that 99% of American Pit Bull Terriers are descended from ‘Charlie Lloyd’s Pilot’, so one might reasonably say that today, Pilot has come back to bite us, here in the home town of the man that bred him…