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How a wartime romance led to an American pilot becoming an Ironbridge landlord

By Toby Neal | Ironbridge | Nostalgia | Published:

They came from worlds an ocean apart.

Wayne Byer and his wife Fay at the Black Swan, Jackfield.

He was an American serviceman, brought to Shropshire by the war. She was a one-time magician's assistant, the widowed daughter of a licensee in the Ironbridge Gorge.

Wayne Byer and his war bride Fay Bates-Maddison married in Blackpool in 1944 and after the conflict left to build a new life and start a family in his native America.

And there they might have lived happily ever after, except Wayne rather liked England, and during his time there had found two loves. One was Fay, and the other was English pubs.

Fay Byer

"I was about three and a half when we came back, and that was because my dad wanted to come back. I think my mother quite liked being in the States," said their daughter Mrs Cynthia France, of Madeley, who was born in Kearney, Nebraska, in 1947.

They sailed back on the Queen Mary in September 1950. Wayne went to an aeronautic college in London, and they lived in the London area, but he was harbouring a particular ambition.

"My dad wanted to run an English pub. He loved English pubs," said Cynthia.

He got his chance when the Black Swan at Jackfield came up for auction in 1956. He and Fay were to keep the riverside pub until 1971, the American landlord in his element, although he had trouble getting to grips with the pre-decimal currency.

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"The money confused him totally," said Cynthia's husband Paul.

"Watney's Red Barrel started at 2/4d a pint. When it got to half a crown (i.e. 2/6d – roughly 12p today) he was made up, because there were eight to the pound. And then it went up to 2/7d. When we went over to decimal currency he was delighted."

Wayne and Fay hold court as customers enjoy a Christmas drink at the Black Swan in the early 1960s. From left: John Hurdley, Wayne Byer, Fay Byer, Gordon Rickards, Norman Miles, and unknown.

Wayne also had a day job, working at A T & E Ltd in Low Town, Bridgnorth.

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Cynthia and Paul have a host of memorabilia and photographs charting Wayne's life and his service in England, where he was for a time with his unit at the American airfield at Atcham, near Shrewsbury, before going on to the fighting in Europe.

Wayne, a tall man at 6ft 1ins who was nicknamed "Tiny" by his colleagues, was a Staff Sergeant and in March 1945 was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service.

His unit was the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group of the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.

Crew chief Wayne with a Lieutenant Rakow who is climbing into a Mustang fighter called Fay's Falcon Mk II – possibly named after Wayne's Shropshire bride.
Staff Sergeant Wayne Byer, centre, lives it up with Lieutenant Colonel Ben Lyon and Hollywood actress and singer Bebe Daniels.

A crew chief, his job was to maintain and keep flying P-51 Mustang fighters in all operational conditions. Many of the photos show the aircraft and their pilots.

Some others, marked "not for children," show the severely emaciated figures of prisoners liberated from work camps, and piles of bodies.

Cynthia and Paul simply don't know if Wayne was personally at the liberation of the camps.

Cynthia said: "My mother had these two wonderful lives, totally different lives. Can you imagine anybody less like my mother being a magician’s assistant? My father was her second husband."

Wayne Byer was brought to Shropshire by the war.
Was Fay's Falcon named after the Shropshire bride of Wayne (right)?

Fay's parents, John and Josephine Bruce, kept the Meadow Inn in Buildwas Road, Ironbridge, but John was destined to die, with another man, in an accident at a Buildwas sand quarry in 1940.

Fay, whose full name was Frances Josephine Bruce, had first married Gerald Bates-Maddison. The Bates-Maddisons were a notable Shrewsbury family, who owned the George Hotel in the county town and also the theatre, and the father had been Mayor.

"My mother went to work there selling chocolates in the box office of the theatre. The son was a magician in the theatre and she 'did a Debbie McGee' and became his magician's assistant, and learned to tie the silks used in the tricks. My mother was very glamorous.

"They married, and then had a son, Bobby."

Wayne and Fay on a transatlantic journey on the Queen Elizabeth. They are second row, just right of centre
Wayne Byer is presented with a medal or a badge.

Tragedy was around the corner. Gerald died in a Harrogate nursing home on August 29, 1941, just a few weeks after his 40th birthday, and Bobby – John Robert Maddison – died in Normandy on August 9, 1944, at the age of 19 while serving as a Private in the Durham Light Infantry.

Cynthia said: "After my mother was widowed she went back to live with her mother at the Meadow. My father was stationed at Atcham and, being Americans, they had transport. They used to come out to the Meadow. That’s where he met my mother.

"In Ironbridge they used to have dances at the drill hall. The Americans used to come out to dance.

"My mother was the eldest of six children, three boys and three girls. The youngest girl was still at the Meadow, Celia. He used to go to the Meadow and invite them dancing. It was my mother who he ended up with."

Cynthia was the only child of Wayne and Fay and, because Fay didn't think a pub was the right place for her to be brought up, she was sent away to convent college at Acton Burnell, which she loved, although she sometimes betrayed her semi-American background.

"I used to say things like gee whizz. It was not a thing you said in convents."

Running the Black Swan became more difficult for Wayne after he had a leg amputated below the knee following a failed arterial graft.

He died in 1971, and Fay died in 1977. They are buried at Castle Green cemetery in Madeley.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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