John Petty about 1956

Forgotten Birchills author remembered

John Petty about 1956

A Birchills author little-known in his own home but appreciated nationally has now been remembered once again in death.

John Petty, who was born in Walsall in 1919 and lived in Kent Street for many years, wrote the influential 1950s novel ‘Five Fags A Day: The Last Year of a Scrap Picker,’ but received no recognition in Walsall during his life, which he resented so much that on the dust cover of his autobiography ‘The Face’ he claimed that he came from The Potteries.

Walsall Council has however now joined forces with Walsall Housing Group to set that right by mounting a commemorative blue plaque on the wall of 40 Kent Street, where he lived.

A previous plaque went missing for more than a decade, but a new plaque was created after noted local historian Jack Haddock and others raised the issue and campaigned for its return.  They have now been praised for their role.

John Petty's plaque restored.
John Petty’s plaque restored.

Councillor Anthony Harris, Walsall Council cabinet member for leisure and culture, said: “John’s is quite a sad story. He was a talented writer who was encouraged by a teacher but had a very tough life. He joined the Army, deserted and spent time in prison and made a living for a while picking over scrap heaps.

“A blue plaque to commemorate him was put on his old Kent Street home but taken down in the 1990s for building work. Our Local History Centre became interested in seeing the plaque put back up and WHG have played their part in this as they own the property.”

Petty left Walsall in 1967 after receiving an Arts Council bursary which allowed him to purchase a cottage in Ironbridge, but even then he was out of luck as his new home was condemned within months of his arrival, though the local council eventually provided him with a little cottage in Dawley.

He became a well-known personality and wrote a number of books and newspaper articles before his death, aged 54, in 1973, including ‘The Face’ as well as ‘A Flame In My Heart’ and ‘The Last Refuge.’

John Petty's Books at Walsall Local History Centre.
John Petty’s Books at Walsall Local History Centre.

John Petty is best known for ‘Five Fags A day’ which paints a bleak picture of the Black Country in the late 1940s and received critical acclaim when it was published in 1956.  Many of his books are available for reference in nearby Walsall Local History Centre’s local studies library in Essex Street.

It is to be hoped that now his plaque has been replaced John Petty will at last  assume his rightful place as one of Walsall’s most influential authors.