The Plastic Hippo

June 30, 2013

Biggles of the Butts

Filed under: History,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 6:43 pm
Supermarine S5

Supermarine S5

In an increasingly cynical and often nasty world, a chance encounter with a total stranger can sometimes result in unexpected delight. Meeting Bill, a retired teacher who it must be said is not exactly in the first flush of youth, proved that you do actually learn something new every day.

After some polite small talk, we discovered that we both had links to a primary school in Walsall. Bill taught there and my children are proud to be alumni, although their education took place long after Bill had retired. With a memory as bright as a button, my new friend related the story of that school`s most illustrious graduate. I had never heard of Flight Lieutenant Sidney Norman Webster AFC and bar which, given a boyhood obsessed with all things aviation and saving up pocket money for Airfix model aircraft kits, came as something of a surprise. “Pebbler” Webster, who it seems was born in Borneo Street, was something of a national hero and after an education in Chuckery and the Butts, would not be out of place in the Biggles books of W E Johns.

At first, I thought Bill`s story was a tall tale that was a result of missed medication but recalling a happy Saturday morning many years ago, spent assembling a model of the Supermarine S5, confirmed that Bill knew his facts. The Schneider Trophy air race held in Venice in 1927 was won by an S5 piloted, according to Bill, by a bloke from the Butts. The S5 was developed into the S6 which was then developed into an aircraft called the Spitfire. I knew all that, but did not know the name of the pilot. After a very pleasant cup of tea, I thanked Bill for the information and decided to see if it was true.

Bill was right and his assertion that school children in Walsall were allowed the day off to witness the hero returning to his home town for a civic reception was also correct. Searching for details about Flight Lieutenant Webster led to a feeling of profound disappointment that Walsall, once so proud of a local hero, has now almost forgotten him. Mercifully one local historian, the splendid Stuart Williams, produced an impeccably researched article in 2011 describing Webster`s career and how Walsall celebrated his achievements. I recommend that anyone interested in Walsall and its history should take a look at Stuart`s excellent work.

The link to the article can be found here.

With thousands lining the streets to see Webster and hear him speak, it seems a shame that few people now remember his dashing exploits. Walsall is rightly proud of its famous sons and daughters and we must never forget that Jerome K Jerome left as soon as he could afford the train fare and never mentioned the place again. It is difficult to know what “Pebbler” Webster would have made of building aircraft carriers that will not be equipped with aircraft. One can only imagine what is behind the unseeing eyes of Sister Dora`s statue as the NHS is dismantled in the name of political dogma and a government decrees that chronic illness is the fault of scroungers making warped lifestyle choices. Perhaps there is a tear on the silent face of John Carless VC as a government rewards service men and women with redundancy and removes support from those wounded and maimed in illegal wars.

Excluding Walsall residents who are described as “living legends” by simply appearing on the X-factor, heroics are not confined to statues and lost commemorative plaques. Consider Ellie Simmonds; a gold medallist at 13, an MBE at 14, more gold medals and an OBE at 18 and not just one but two post boxes painted gold in her honour. It seems a shame that local dignitaries in their scramble to be photographed with this inspirational young woman have forgotten that her family needed to move away from Aldridge to Swansea in order for her to train adequately. Forgotten too is the closure of Willenhall Leisure Centre, the shameful closure of Aldridge Youth Centre and the softening up process to close the Gala Baths. Amazingly, the excuse made for closing activity centres in Walsall is that they are unviable because it will cost too much money to make them accessible for people with disabilities.

“Pebbler” Webster died at the grand old age of 84 back in 1984. We can only hope that he was aware of the consequences of his contribution to defeating evil and I hope that my new friend Bill realises how grateful I am for making history come alive.

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1 Comment »

  1. Super piece and beautifully written. Highly enjoyable.

    Comment by Keith Povall (@soxer99) — July 3, 2013 @ 6:01 pm | Reply


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