Four Swal­lows and two ele­phants –

Black Country Bugle - - YOUR LETTERS - Black Coun­try his­to­rian NED WILLIAMS tells the sto­ries of some colour­ful char­ac­ters in his lat­est book

ARE you one of those peo­ple who like to watch Who Do Think You Are? on tele­vi­sion, or do you scour each is­sue of the Black Coun­try Bu­gle for names – in case an­other de­tail can be added to your re­search into your fam­ily his­tory? The tele­vi­sion show of­ten il­lus­trates how lo­cal his­tory and fam­ily his­tory over­lap, and the style of pre­sen­ta­tion com­bines mys­tery and drama with the flavour of a sus­pense­ful de­tec­tive story. My lat­est project has in­volved just such a mix.

Some time ago I be­came fas­ci­nated with peo­ple, usu­ally on the fringes of the en­ter­tain­ment world, who used an as­sumed name – per­haps a pen name or stage name. I won­dered how one might be­gin to re­search some­one’s life story if your start­ing point – their name – was not likely to yield re­sults. They weren’t quite who they said they were. If these char­ac­ters led a life that criss-crossed the Black Coun­try that would make the project even more in­ter­est­ing.


At one stage I was anx­ious to find a cir­cus-based story that had firm Black Coun­try con­nec­tions. I did not have to look far. Liv­ing in Wolver­hamp­ton, I was sur­prised by the number of lo­cal peo­ple who would start to tell a story of Wolver­hamp­ton’s ele­phants whose win­ter quar­ters were in a yard in Gorse­brook Road – al­most un­der the viaduct that car­ries the rail­way from Wolver­hamp­ton to Shrews­bury. The ele­phant’s names were Salt and Sauce, the lat­ter some­times given as “Saucy”, and they lived in Wolver­hamp­ton for about 20 years when not on their trav­els with the cir­cus. When trav­el­ling they would make their way from one venue to the next on foot and thus if the sea­son took them south­wards their first jour­ney would be through the Black Coun­try down to Dudley then on to Hale­sowen or Stour­bridge so it is pos­si­ble that they met many Black Coun­try folk. Oc­ca­sion­ally they left Wolver­hamp­ton by train and be­came firm favourites with the lo­cal rail­way­men they en­coun­tered.

Wild West

I then found out that Salt and Sauce be­longed to Bron­cho Bill. His cir­cus, as his name sug­gests, for many years had a strong “Wild West” el­e­ment. Thus be­gan my re­search into the lives of Salt and Sauce and of Bron­cho Bill. In the end my re­search into the lives of the two ele­phants be­came too dif­fi­cult and I was happy to pass the task on to peo­ple bet­ter qual­i­fied to do it. (Jamie and Jim Clubb sub­se­quently pub­lished their very de­tailed ac­count of the ele­phants’ lives in 2008.)

But what about Bron­cho Bill? That was ob­vi­ously not his real name. It turned out that his ac­tual name was John Swal­low and he was the grand­fa­ther of the John Swal­low many read­ers will re­mem­ber as an ATV “Mid­lands To­day” tele­vi­sion re­porter. Why had John Swal­low Snr. De­cided to make his home, and Salt’s and Sauce’s home in Wolver­hamp­ton? It turned out that he wanted his sons to be ed­u­cated at Wolver­hamp­ton Gram­mar School. His sons grew up to take quite im­por­tant places in the life and times of Wolver­hamp­ton – one be­came a well-known es­tate agent and busi­ness­man, and the other worked for the Ex­press and Star. Some read­ers may re­mem­ber them.

As for Bron­cho Bill him­self, a great deal of new in­for­ma­tion has now be­come ac­ces­si­ble to re­searches with the dig­i­tal­iza­tion of many news­pa­pers held in the Na­tional Col­lec­tion. It has proved pos­si­ble to tell that story now that such in­for­ma­tion is avail­able. Mean­while I was find­ing other peo­ple who had a bi­og­ra­phy wait­ing to be writ­ten but who were hid­ing be­hind an as­sumed name.


Two of them were jour­nal­ists who wrote for The World’s Fair, the weekly news­pa­per of the trav­el­ling en­ter­tain­ment world. One of them wrote un­der the mys­te­ri­ous ini­tials JBT which I even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered stood for Joe Bate of Tip­ton; the other called him­self South­down, which seemed to sug­gest south coast con­nec­tions, but he turned out to come from Can­nock. His real name was Arthur Sell­man.

Both JBT and South­down wrote in a sim­i­lar style. They would re­port on con­tem­po­rary events but then lapse into rem­i­nis­cence and dis­tant mem­o­ries. In this way it is pos­si­ble for us – as 21st cen­tury read­ers – to en­joy a text writ­ten in the 1930s vividly de­scrib­ing scenes from even fur­ther back in time. JBT’S mem­o­ries seem to stretch back to the Tip­ton Wakes of the 1880s when, as a teenager, he worked on a sweet stall. South­down

John Swal­low, also known as Bron­cho Bill, pro­pri­etor of a Wolver­hamp­ton-based cir­cus

Ben Kennedy – a por­trait used in the brochure is­sued at the open­ing of the Dudley Hip­po­drome in De­cem­ber 1938

Bron­cho Bill

Joe Bate of Tip­ton, clutch­ing a copy of The World’s Fair the news­pa­per to which he reg­u­larly con­trib­uted a col­umn called “Black Coun­try Bits”

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