Reminiscences Of A Childhood In Wartime Brum

By Don Owen | 01 December 2005
This reminiscence article was created using Culture24's Storymaker tool, which allowed members of the public to upload personal memories of their local area.

Black and white photograph showing a crossroads with a shop on the left and a factory on the right.

Wellhead Lane, Perry Barr, photographed on July 25 1939 at the junction with Aston Lane.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

Don Owen used our Storymaker programme to tell us about his wartime experiences in Sparkbrook.

Launched in September 2004 as part of our City Heritage Guides, Storymaker is a free and easy-to-use web facility that enables members of the public, working with the support of journalists at the 24 Hour Museum, to get their stories online.

This is something I wrote 10 years ago for the benefit of my grandchildren and perhaps, in the fullness of time, their grandchildren.

Coming across this website for the first time this morning, I offer it virtually unedited for the interest of anyone else.

It doesn't include much about getting bombed on the night of August 27/28 1940. If anyone can offer other memories of that air raid, I'd appreciate it - hospitals, orphanages or finally evacuating after being bombed out again in May 1941.

Maybe next time...

Although my birth certificate shows that I was born in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, the earliest home that I can remember was 1a, Walford Road, Sparkbrook – behind and above Werff’s shop, which specialised in furs, on the corner of Stratford Road.

There was a fairly substantial garden running down and behind the house on the Walford Road side. The Number 8 ‘Inner Circle’ bus stopped immediately on the other side of the garden wall (and still does, long after the wall and the garden have disappeared).

Immediately across the road was the Waldorf Cinema – later to become skating rink, Bingo Hall and who knows what else – where Elsie worked as an usherette.

Black and white photo of the rear of a house that has been bombed.

The back of this house in Hunters Road was reduced to rubble. This photo was taken on August 13 1942.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council.

In those distant days cinema programmes ran continuously. “This is where we came in,” was the point at which patrons rose, annoyingly disrupted their neighbours as they pushed their way along the row en route for the exit.

If it was a particularly good programme or the weather was particularly bad, or the patron was a penurious unemployed workman, it was common to watch the programme again or even to remain in the relative warmth and comfort of the cinema all day long.

Naturally, newcomers whose eyes were still not adjusted to the darkness needed assistance and guidance to locate empty seats. They were assisted in their endeavour by torch-bearing usherettes.

Small boys and other miscreants used to try to sneak in through the exits as paying patrons opened the door on their way out. I’m told that it very frequently worked as there were always more exits than the sole entrance.

The consequence of getting caught in those politically incorrect days were not a great deterrent, consisting as they did of a severe bawling out and generally a ‘box on the ear’.

Behind the house, we kept poultry and one of my earliest memories was of my 18-year-old Uncle Doug coming into the kitchen in a very distressed state because the hen he had just beheaded was still running around the yard – hence the expression ‘running around like a headless chook’.

I could only have been four-years-old at the time because Doug was the beloved youngest son of Grandmother Jennie.

He was killed in July 1938 when, on a ‘dark and stormy night’ he rode his motorbike into the rear of an un-illuminated lorry parked outside The Clock Inn on the Coventry Road.

Black and white photograph of a double-fronted house which is premises of a builders merchants.

JW Jones Builders Premises, 82 Holyhead Road, c.1935-45.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

It was long before the days of crash helmets and, I later gathered, that his head was unrecognisable and brother Bert, who was with him at the time, had the unpleasant task of identifying the body.

Jennie swore to her dying day that when the police knocked on the door some time later, she ‘knew’ what they had come to tell her. She said that she had been taking a bath and suddenly saw Doug who said “I’m all right, mum” or some such and disappeared.

It must have been an appalling disaster for her but I was totally, absolutely protected from it all. I now have no idea what explanation for his sudden absence from my life was given to me and have no recollection of the funeral but I was only four-years-old.

Black and white photo showing two semi-detached houses, the one on the right is severely bomb damaged. There is a group of people standing in front of the house.

Freer Road, 1942. The house on the right, 147, was the home of Mrs Alice M Jacobs. To the left is number 145 - the home of L. Potter.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

Household illumination was by piped gas, oil (paraffin) lamps and candles. This was the second city of the greatest empire on the face of the planet as late as 1940 – and beyond for that matter!

Years later when I had that after-school job as delivery boy at Ward’s Ironmonger shop – 357 Stratford Road, Sparkbrook – by far the vast bulk of my deliveries still consisted of kerosene or paraffin lamp and heater oil.

Heating was by coal fire in the kitchen-living room and virtually non-existent elsewhere in the house.

Bathing and laundry were major enterprises as all water had to be heated in kettles on the lone fire. Several large, blackened kettles rested permanently on the cast-iron fireplace that incorporated ovens on either side with hotplates above.

As always, Jennie supplemented the family income by taking in lodgers. One such was a wizened old lady called Mrs Rogers.

I remember being very offended when I was expelled from playing darts when one of mine hit a wire – as, of course, they sometimes do – and ricocheted into the old lady’s cheek as she sat dangerously close to the dartboard in that small, crowded room.

I can also remember a couple of childish pranks indicative of the adult to come. Between the kitchen-living room and the scullery there was a short narrow passage way and I concocted a merry little game of lying on my back on the floor so that the adults had to straddle me as they went back and forth.

It was viewed as a harmless little game until Nell realised that the purpose of it was to enable me to have a look up her knickers whereupon, I was firmly picked up, stood up and the ‘game’ terminated!

I had no luck. It must have been about the same time that Elsie stopped sharing the bath with me.

Black and white photograph showing a terrace of small brick cottages

Foundry Road, Soho, 1941. The cottages were lived in by workmen from the nearby Soho Foundry.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

While completely flat-chested (she actually used to boast proudly that she’d never had to wear a bra), she had very large, dark nipples and one long black, wiry hair growing out of one of them. The day I noticed this interesting fact was the last day we bathed together. Damn!

It was also around this time that I acquired two very considerable injuries the scars of which I bear to this day. I don’t remember the order in which they came.

One was due to a tin-plate Japanese model of a trolley bus. This was long before the days of Japanese hi-tech miniaturisation. They then had a reputation for cheap and very shoddy goods.

The poles on the trolley bus were just folded tip-plate and, we discovered too late, VERY sharp. I must have tripped and fell on it and deeply gashed my left forearm. The scar’s still there.

In 1937(?) Doug and I don’t know who else went camping about 10-12 miles down the road to Stratford-on-Avon. They pitched in a field by a stream just behind a pub called The Bird in Hand at the bottom of Livery Hill.

Birmingham actually stands on a sort of plateau about 500ft above sea level so that it is approached by a ‘steep’ hill no matter whence one cometh.

Black and white photograph of two men standing talking in front of a building that has been completely demolished

Farm Street, Handsworth, August 13 1942. German air-raids targetted the industrial premises of Handsworth during the blitz.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

Livery Hill, that now seems nothing more than a ‘pimple on a babby’s bum’ had a certain notoriety in the days of horse-drawn carts and there were still hundreds, if not thousands, of horses still employed for cartage in the 1930s, throughout and even after, the war.

As a teenage cyclist it was a serious obstacle on my way home from Stratford. As a 60-year-old cyclist, world-traveller, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah, I barely noticed it.

Anyway, at three-years-old, I was happily fishing for tadpoles, sticklebacks or something when I saw a water vole.

Excitedly, I ran back to report the sighting to the family and fell, either onto broken glass or, more likely now I come to reflect on it, the jar in which I was stored my ‘catch’, and did very serious damage to the butt of my left hand.

That is still a very conspicuous scar, one that appears on my passport as an ‘identifying feature’.

‘Livery’ Hill might be ‘Liverage’ Hill – 67 years later and 12,000 miles away, I’m not absolutely sure.

The garden down the side of the house was used to grow veg and flowers. I vaguely remember that Doug was the main gardener.

We seemed to have a succession of short-lived tortoise and ‘pet’ rabbits – also short lived but probably for a different reason. I have no recollection of eating tortoise stew but retain a fondness for rabbit meat.

Early on, I was privileged to have a red pedal-car and remember how reluctant I was to forfeit it early in 1940 when it became scrap metal to help the war effort, specifically, we were led to believe, to built Spitfires.

Black and white photo showing a street of large terraced houses set back from the road with bomb damage

Antrobus Road on February 13 1941, the morning after a night-time air raid.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

I was allowed to retain the steering wheel and my driving thereafter was a preview of Virtual Reality. Much, much later we were to discover that it was all a load of PR bulls**t and no use whatsoever was ever made of the saucepans, garden railings and children’s prized toys.

I played with that disembodied steering wheel until the bomb hit the Anderson air-raid shelter embedded in the former veggie-patch and thereafter never saw it again. Bummer!

Funerals were serious business in those days. No matter how poor a family might be, the dead were seen off in style. A family’s local standing rested on the quality of their funerals and impoverished families would go deeper into debt rather than face the public humiliation of a free ‘paupers’ funeral for a family member.

Black and white photo of a group of people clearing up rubble from a bombed building

Clearing up the rubble in Clifford Street on August 13 1942.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

Consequently, insurance premiums to cover potential funeral expenses were very, very high on the ‘fixed expenditure’ obligations of the ‘respectable’ poor.

Shabby old gentlemen in shabby old raincoats, wearing down-at-heel shoes with holes in the soles, would call from house to house dutifully collecting the weekly pence.

Our portly collector always had a bunch of elastic bands around one wrist and could fire them at nominated targets with a deadly accuracy that fascinated me as a small boy. Consequently, upon much youthful practice, I’m still willing to pit myself against all comers in that fine, manly sport.

This was very definitely heart of working class industrial city. We lived less than a mile away from the BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) factory which was better known to the big, wide world for its motor cycles, but whose original and main function in life was proudly displayed by its trade mark of three stacked rifles.

And, of course, it was entirely due to this great good fortune that we shortly thereafter got blown out of the aforementioned Anderson shelter in the veggie garden.

The purpose of this particular set of reminiscences, aimed at any interested descendants, is clearly to give a picture of what life was like at that time and place.

Today’s essay originated with a sudden recollection of sitting in the barber’s shop on Saturday mornings listening to the ‘man talk’ as I waited to get my ‘short back and sides’ and hand over my threepence.

Black and white photo showing a crowd of people on a crossroads looking at a large hole in the road

Birchfield Road, corner of Mansfield Road, November 2 1940. Crowds looking at bomb craters from the air raid the previous night.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

The picture I retain in my memory suggests that the ‘shop’ was no more than the front room of an ordinary house. It had a plain, wooden floor with benches for the waiting customers to sit up.

The air would have been blue with pipe smoke (but unlike today, in the presence of a young boy, not blue with language). Doubtless there would have been copious ashtrays and, I’m now surprised to recall, the ubiquitous spittoons.

When the victim’s turn came, he sat in a high chair, looking at a mirror in which he could see the barber as he prattled endlessly away and enveloped in an enormous bell-tent of a sheet to protect his scruffy clothing from the descending detritus.

Below the mirror was a shelf on which rested cheap pomades, Brylcreem (a patent, greasy, messy substance used to plaster one’s hair down – much favoured by members of the RAF known therefore, without affection, by the other services as ‘Brylcreem boys’), and astringents to stop bleeding in the event of the razor slipping or the inadvertent scissoring off of an ear.

Black and white photo of a deserted street of bombed out houses

Albert Road, Handsworth, on the morning of February 13 1941 after a night-time Luftwaffe raid.
Image courtesy: Digital Handsworth/Birmingham City Council

I don’t remember what these working men in their cloth caps and mufflers actually talked about but I do remember enjoying their company and their favour as a mighty pleasant change from the all-female home in which I spent the rest of my pre-school days.

Because kids only paid half the adult charge, the barber and the men were quite shameless in going ahead of me. Seniority had its privileges even there! I didn’t mind. I’m still readily ‘on’ for a friendly natter.

But Grandmother Jennie wasn’t having it. One day she came stomping in and embarrassed the hell out of me by demanding that I be attended to in my turn and not kept hanging around there all morning. Spoilsport!

Jennie may only have been five-feet-tall in her high heels but, like many another of her gender, not to be messed with when her dander was up.

That’s it for this time. I’m done.

Find out more about the wartime blitz in Birmingham with our VE Day commemorative trail - Birmingham: Bombed But Not Beaten

With thanks to Digital Handsworth for kind permission to the images in this story.

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