This Web Page is Memory Lane (last amended 4th August 2010; minor alterations, 25th November 2013)
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Harebells on the Common
A Birmingham Childhood Remembered
These pages include some memories of my childhood, dug out of the deepest recesses of my mind, concentrating where possible on episodes which illustrate how life in the 1940s differed from that we know today. I have tried to choose incidents which might amuse, but including topics both serious and saucy: all part of the process of growing up in the post-war era! I hope this account entertains others and ring bells in their own memories. The 1940s were a grey world of coal smoke and gas-lit streets, of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, Spam* and steam trains, mangles and woolly vests. There were no CDs or videos, no televisions or refrigerators, no foreign holidays or central heating, no computers and very few motor cars. But it was the only world I knew as a child and I was well content with it.
(* Spam was tinned meat and had nothing to do with computers!!)
CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOLDAYS
1943 – 1951
Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells
And sights, before the dark of reason grows
Summoned by Bells
Index to Contents
Early Years My first hazy memories – 1943
Wartime Birmingham Air raids; trams and buttered toast; shopping and the cinema
South Wales Holidays Farms, seaside and “The Resurrection”
Domestic Life in the 1940s Clothes, wash day, Christmas and starting School
Worries about Health Tonsils and small boy stuff. Discovery of a chick
A Hard Winter Snow and fog, 1940s style
School Days Lessons and play at Amberley Prep School; a glimpse of stocking tops
Children’s Hour Wireless, and Ladies to tea: I meet the constabulary
A Balanced Diet Meals, rationing and days out
The King Passes by Glimpses of the King and of Russian leaders
Changing Times I am impressed by the news and also by Silvana Mangano
A New School Moving to King Edward’s,
The End of an Era A Festival, a Funeral and a Coronation
With my parents in 1940 and 1942 in the back garden
he occasion when I saw my mother wearing trousers was, for me, so
sensational that it remains imprinted on my brain as almost certainly my
earliest memory. It was a bitterly cold
night early in 1943. I was not yet
three years of age. The air-raid siren
had just gone and my parents and I were in the dining room, the windows
securely covered by the thick blackout curtains made by my mother, who, in an
effort to relieve wartime austerity, had trimmed the hems with decorative tapes
of green and gold. For no particular
reason, I was sitting on the cross-bar beneath the dining table. We were about to go into the cold night to
settle down once again in the air raid shelter. It is a memory inextricably tied up with the
below-ground smell of damp earth and of the methylated
spirit lamp that illuminated our tiny shelter, built into the garden
rockery. The event can be dated
reasonably accurately, because air raids were soon to cease as a regular
occurrence in the
We cling to our early memories as the starting point of our
life’s journey. For me the underlying
theme from those days was war: war
against a society so evil it is now hard to realise that it existed in
I was an only child, born on 23rd June 1940 at 1.35
Castle Bromwich Church, where I was Baptised
Looking towards Castle Bromwich from Hodgehill Common
Like most children, I have many random early memories: a ride in the pram, a harsh word here, a tumble there; of the fun when my father surprised me by hiding in the pantry, and of the panic when I wandered off to explore alone while my mother’s attention was distracted in the local butcher’s shop. But unlike the air raid memories, those cannot be dated. Then there are those wonderful impressions left in the childhood mind by patterns; shadows on a carpet; enchanting designs on curtains or wallpaper. Wallpaper played a significant part in my life at an early age. After lunch each day I was put in my cot for a sleep, but there was a time when sleep would not come. I lay awake and was bored. Through the bars of my cot I could see a small irregularity in the wallpaper. I recall teasing at it with my fingernail. Oh joy! I could peel a little bit off. A bit more effort and off came another inch. This was the most satisfying thing I had ever done. I set to work with gusto and can still remember the sensuous pleasure of peeling off strips of paper. Eventually, my mother arrived to check on her sleeping infant, only to find a joyous child surrounded by shreds of paper. Suffice it to say that I was never put down for another afternoon nap.
Paper of a different sort provided further entertainment when my mother, unable in wartime to obtain the usual brand of toilet roll, bought instead a box of interleaved lavatory paper (always hard and shiny in those days). I was fascinated by the apparently endless supply – pull out a sheet, and, hey presto! – there was another. Anxious to get to the bottom of this (sorry!), I kept on pulling sheets until the lavatory floor was invisible beneath paper and the box was empty. Once more, I was surprised to find that my mother did not share my interest in research into paper production.
It is to my parents’ credit that the nocturnal trips to
the air raid shelter caused me no major worries, other than frustration at my
father’s refusal to let me have a battery in my torch. I suppose he had an understandable
reluctance to let me wave it in friendly greeting to the Luftwaffe flying
overhead. The war was, despite my own
lack of concern, the inevitable background to life and everyone told me how
everything would be “different when the war ended.” News was so dominated by the war that I
believed that when peace came “news” would cease. I now look back, amazed at my good fortune
in being so well insulated from the horrors of those years, and I find myself
more than ever unable to comprehend how, in my own lifetime, men in Europe, a
supposedly civilised continent, could inflict such unimaginable suffering on
one another. My only memories of the
end of the war are of a street party in
1943: Ready to go shopping : my 3rd birthday: on the big red engine
There were always Lupins in the garden on my birthday
Some manifestations of war did cause me alarm. There were sinister gaps in nearby rows of houses where willow herb grew among the rubble. Sometimes an interior wall was left standing, exposed to the elements, leaving the last residents’ taste in wallpaper for all to see. There was also the vast ruin of the sauce factory to be seen from the tram going into Birmingham. One bomb landed less than 100 yards from home, sucking open the French windows: I was too young to recall the incident, but the damage to the window frames remained evident until they were replaced twenty years later. There were baleful barrage balloons moored on Hodgehill Common and, from time to time throughout the war, convoys of tanks would pass our house, driven under their own power, the steel tracks making a deafening racket on the road surface and sending me scuttling indoors in search of quiet. Worst of all were low flying aircraft, which terrified me by day and haunted my dreams at night. In 1940, while only a few months old, I had been in my pram in the garden when a plane came over, flying very low. My mother rushed outside and looked up in time to see a plane with the German cross and (she said) a Nazi pilot peering through the cockpit window. She grabbed me in terror and fled to hide beneath the stairs. (The pilot, probably equally terrified, was apparently soon brought down some miles away). Of course I can have no recollection of that incident, but did my mother’s terror somehow impress itself into my slowly developing mind? Even today, the sound of a jumbo jet climbing overhead can provoke an involuntary shiver.
But there are pleasant memories too; of lazy summer
afternoons when I picked harebells for my mother on the nearby grassy common,
and of shopping trips to town. In “Summoned by Bells” John Betjeman
recalled his childhood as “safe in a world of trains and buttered toast”: in my world trams and buttered toast were the features which linger in the
memory. We went shopping by tram and my
mother always concluded the afternoon with a call at “Pets’ Corner” in Lewis’s
department store, to see the monkeys and parrots, followed by hot buttered
toast at the Kardomah café. After I started school the trams in their
attractive dark blue and primrose colours became a vital part of my daily
Transport of Delight:
right: the lower deck of the same tram, showing reversible seats.
October 1950: How the last tram on the No. 10 route was seen by the long-defunct Birmingham Gazette.
I had travelled this route daily on my way to and from school and sorely missed the trams with their fascinating character: a souvenir ticket (“Ha’penny child’s”) reminds one how inexpensive tram travel was in the 1940s.
A special treat in the summer holidays would be the tram ride to the Lickey Hills on the Worcestershire border: a twelve-mile journey across the city, taking over an hour. Tram seats had reversible backs so that one normally sat facing the direction of travel, but one could leave a seat unreversed enabling a party of four to face one another as a group, just as on a train. At the city centre terminus passengers left the tram at the front while new passengers boarded at the rear. This gave small boys the irresistible temptation of treading on the driver’s pedal which mechanically sounded the gong – the tram’s warning equivalent of a motor horn. For the latter part of the journey from the city to the Lickey Hills the trams forsook the streets for their own right of way, bowling merrily along through the sunlit trees at 40 m.p.h. We would lean happily out of the window, taking care to retreat as other trams passed close by in the opposite direction. Once at the Lickey terminus everyone would want to rush off to the hills, but I would try to linger and watch the conductor placing the trolley pole on the overhead wire for the return journey; no easy task if the sun was in his eyes.
Shopping trips to the centre of
Wartime holidays had been confined to annual trips to my
grandparents who farmed in
Paddling in a rock pool at Southerndown, 1949; and by the Morris 8 motor car after changing for the beach, in 1950 (note the old AA badge on the car’s radiator grill).
As a small child I was bored by the
the way to South Wales: floods near
the progress of a gypsies’ vardoe on 3rd October 1958
At Gilfach my grandparents did not occupy the traditional farm house, which was deemed too primitive, but lived in a double fronted Victorian villa (“Oak Cottage”) 200 yards away. This was scarcely any more luxurious. Electricity was confined to the downstairs rooms, so I went up to bed by candlelight (logic decreed that as one only slept upstairs, there was clearly no need for electric lights there!), and I settled down to sleep with an embroidered text above the bed saying “Simply to Thy Cross I cling”. There was no hot water and no cooker: my grandmother used the coal fire with a traditional oven alongside, producing wonderful meals. In the bedrooms there were chamber pots beneath the beds, and marble washstands with china jugs and basins which would now be collectors’ pieces. Of the primitive outside lavatory arrangements at Oak Cottage, the less said the better. But some farmhouse facilities were even more exotic, with a long walk to the privy in the orchard where one might find a commodious building offering accommodation for two patrons seated on a timber bench side-by-side, and (in one memorable location) even a three-seater for that special social occasion!
Staying at Gilfach introduced me to farming routines almost unchanged over the centuries. I would accompany my grandmother to collect eggs warm from the chickens who roamed free on the bracken-covered hillside. I would watch my grandfather with other local farmers as they dipped or marked the sheep. I would play with his sheepdogs, who, when they thought duty called, would abandon me and rush off to attend to the sheep which they found more absorbing than a small boy. On a fine summer’s evening Grandad would put me on Ginger, his old mountain pony, for a ride up to the paddock: I felt like a maharajah.
But one Welsh journey in 1945 was more alarming. We set off to a remote Welsh valley to find the farm which was to be the home of Auntie Maud and Uncle Len, then newly-married. Signposts were still almost non-existent following the war. Cloud and fog clung to the mountainside and the drenching rain drifted across in soaking sheets. As the Morris climbed slowly into the all-engulfing mist, with a sheer drop of 200 feet at the side of the road, we passed whitewashed signs on the bare rock face: “Prepare to meet thy God”. Was this to be our final journey? But when we reached Gelli Farm I found a place which was to me, as a city child, close to heaven in more childlike ways: 3000 acres of freedom.
Gelli farm scenes in the 1950s:
Cousin Eiryl’s pony waits for her outside the farm house. A cow approaches, ready for milking as young riders look on.
In wet weather such farmyards would be a sea of mud and wellington boots the only possible footwear.
At the Gelli I could escape into a carefree world of the imagination with mountains to climb and streams to dam – in the imagination, Everest and the Nile lay before me: who cared if my shoes and socks were soaked through, or if the forgotten chicken’s egg, placed carefully in my trouser pocket, smashed when I went sprawling in the tussocky grass? But in those drab, chill post-war years, the unimaginative adults were more concerned about the lack of electricity, the enormous fireplace with its chimney open to the sky, and with the ivy growing indoors on the damp, peeling, farmhouse walls.
the later 1940s and all through the 1950s my grandfather would stay at the Gelli for a few days from time to time to help out at
shearing or other busy times. Horse and
dogs would be essential once he arrived there and began helping with gathering
the sheep. His generation never took to
motor transport, so when it was time to start he would mount Ginger, call his
dogs and they would all set off from Gilfach across
the bleak mountain tops for the twelve mile journey, following the old drovers’
tracks which had been the traditional routes for farmers for many
centuries. To my grandfather this was
more natural than following the motor road round the valleys which was half as
long again and, even then, busy with motor traffic. But farming methods were soon to change,
even in the Welsh mountains, so Grandad was probably
the last man regularly to use the old drovers’ roads of
Grandad about to set off from Gilfach on Ginger
Other favoured destinations when we stayed in South Wales
included Barry with its wonderfully tawdry funfair and its miles of docks, then
alive with shipping, and Mumbles with its electric railway around the bay from
Swansea. Nor must one forget those
day-long steamer trips when the Glen Usk, the Britannia,
and the splendid new Cardiff Queen
would take us to
In those childhood days central heating was almost unknown and only one room in a house would normally be heated, by a coal fire, although the kitchen might also be warm from cooking. Thus, for much of the year one expected to be cold as soon as one moved away from the fire and going to bed on a winter’s night was an especial ordeal. So instead of wandering about the house (as is now customary) in shirtsleeves, I would as a child wear thick woollen underclothes (knitted by my mother – how did I tolerate wool next to the skin?), a grey shirt of a substantial Viyella-type material, a long-sleeved woollen pull-over (also knitted by my mother) and a heavy school blazer. There were usually two blazers on call: one was new and too large and was worn to school, the other was old and too small and was worn about the house and for play. School caps, scarves and gabardine raincoats were added for out-door excursions in all but the warmest weather (and sometimes even to the beach if there was a chill wind). By contrast, short trousers were de rigeur up to 13 years of age. In consequence, knees, habitually exposed to the elements and to frequent close encounters with the ground, were frequently chapped and scarred.
With a fire in only one room, winter Mondays were especially miserable to a child, because Monday was washday and if the weather was wet the washing would be hung to dry on a clothes-horse in front of the fire. I recall Monday, 23rd December 1946 as the longest and dreariest day of my life. Outside it was cold and damp. There was steaming washing arrayed in front of the fire, the windows were running with condensation and my mother was busy, pre-occupied with ironing and mince-pie manufacture. The rest of the house was chilly and unwelcoming. I was bored and bad-tempered. I wanted Christmas to come quickly, but time seemed to be at a standstill. Eventually, after what seemed more like two weeks than two days, Christmas arrived and brought a rarity: a red clockwork engine: no rails, for the war was but recently over and toy production was limited. Soon after breakfast tragedy struck, for the engine, on a fully wound spring, shot across the floor like the proverbial bat from Hades, and wedged itself underneath the sofa, crushing its tinplate cab in the process. There were tears, but my father was on hand to administer repairs, and the engine returned to service in fair, if not pristine, condition.
Presents at Christmas arrived mysteriously, during the night, in a pillow case at the foot of my bed until I was thirteen years of age, by which time the identity of Father Christmas had long since been established. One wartime Christmas, my main present had been a Golliwog, carefully made by my dear mother, arranged with his head peeping out of the pillowcase. No political correctness in the 1940s!
165 Stechford Road: the frontage and the new pond in 1949
I had started school in May 1945, shortly before my fifth birthday. My parents chose to send me to Amberley Preparatory School, a small private school on Coleshill Road about a quarter of a mile from home, although it was later to move a mile further away to Ward End. I seemed to get on well, but after a few months had some sort of minor breakdown (which I do not remember, and which was never discussed, although I do recall hearing myself described as “highly-strung”!) Thus, for about a year I only went to school in the mornings. I had been attending school for scarcely a year when I was required to take part in an event which would not have been out of place in Dickens. The school was a small affair in a Victorian house, run by two unmarried ladies, Miss Major and Miss Ainsworth. Sadly, quite soon after my arrival, Miss Major was diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness. At her request, as a farewell gesture, the entire school (about fifty children) had to process slowly through her bedroom on the top floor. As children we accepted this strange ritual as just another everyday event, but my mind now gives it the quality of an event in a Dickens novel or, maybe, a sentimental Victorian oil painting, vast and dark, perhaps by Arthur Hughes or R.B. Martineau: “Miss Major’s farewell to her young pupils.”
Many random memories were acquired over those early childhood years, often involving smells: lilac blossom and wellington boots, privet hedges and coke boilers. But when I was five I experienced a recurrent bad throat with associated nasal problems. So, in accordance with the contemporary medical practice of removing all such evidently unnecessary items of anatomy, I went into the Birmingham Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids taken out. This was a major upheaval for one who had so far led a very sheltered existence. It thus became the first event in my life to imprint itself on my mind complete in almost every minor detail, from beginning to end.
For a start, it was unprecedented in those days of petrol
rationing to go into the centre of
But I soon had my revenge. For the first (and, I believe, only) time in my life, I got a girl into trouble. On emerging from the anaesthetic I had a raging sore throat. I uttered those famous childhood words: “I want a drink of water.” The ward was under the control of a Sister who appeared to be related to Wagner’s Valkyries. She told me firmly that I could not have a drink. A few minutes later a pretty young nurse passed by. (Even at five years of age, I could appreciate a pretty girl). I repeated my request and she kindly produced a drink. Ten minutes later the Valkyrie flew past and noticed the empty cup (of a celluloid-type material – ugh!). “WHO gave you that drink?” she demanded. I remember my reply. Precisely. Word by incriminating word: “the NICE nurse gave it to me.” The sharp intake of breath seemed in danger of making the walls implode. The Valkyrie mounted her invisible steed and stormed off on a punishment mission. For the first, but not the last time in my life, I knew I had said the wrong thing.
In the years following the hospital visit, health matters gave me several worried moments. I suffered the usual childhood ailments in turn – Whooping Cough, and Chicken Pox one year, Measles and Mumps the next. But my most serious health problem in childhood occurred at about seven years of age, when I developed Ulcerative Colitis, which was dubiously blamed on the bland wartime diet. It meant that for several years I was not allowed to eat any fruit unless all the skin and pips had been removed. A far more serious worry in the 1940s was tuberculosis, then widespread and often fatal. Our neighbour’s daughter and the brother of a school friend had both contracted the disease in their late teens and had been in sanatoriums for many months. Happily, they both recovered, but the fear of being carted away from my home in such circumstances did not bear thinking about. Then there was an absurd worry, typical of the fears teasing a small boy’s mind in a sheltered and solitary childhood. This began when I noticed a minor personal difference from the other boys who contributed to the hospital’s communal chamber pot. Despite being a subject of immense fascination to growing lads, it was not the kind of thing discussed in the best circles in the 1940s. Thus, fixed in my mind as a strange abnormality, it caused me much anxiety for several years until communal school showers revealed that the difference schoolboys knew as “Cavaliers and Roundheads” was not uncommon. It was one of my mother’s sisters who, over fifty years after the event, told me that in those pre-N.H.S. days the required surgery had been performed not in hospital, but one afternoon on our kitchen table by Dr Lillie: there was no anaesthetic for the infant patient, but the genial Scots doctor had (as my mother had tartly observed to her sister at the time) clearly first fortified himself with rather more whisky than seemed advisable for one about to wield a surgical knife! Such operations were then doubtless a welcome supplementary source of income for a G.P. I might add here that in accordance with the prim standards of modesty of the day, I was even longer to remain ignorant of the far more interesting structural differences between males and females. My parents had a small female nude statue on the mantelpiece, but I attributed its lack of masculinity to good taste and decency on the part of the manufacturer. Once, when I was about eight, a girl who was a playmate persuaded me to strip off for her edification, but, alas, reciprocal facilities were not on offer, so in an era when nudity was never seen in public my innocence long remained intact!
But in 1946 there was another event
of much greater amusement to a five-year-old than health or bodily
matters. The week before I went into
hospital my mother and I had found a day old chick. It was squatting, fluffed up against the
cold March wind, on the pavement of an otherwise deserted suburban
No recollection of the 1940s is complete
without mention of the heavy snowfalls early in 1947, arguably the hardest
winter of the twentieth century. Even
An old-fashioned winter: Stechford Road, looking towards Hodgehill Common
An old-fashioned winter: Dad clears the drive with Mom’s encouragement and I get ready to build a snowman
Sadly, we have no photographs from the 1947 winter when snow depths made those shown above quite trivial!
Fog was another winter evil in the 1940s and 1950s. All factories, offices, shops and private houses burnt copious amounts of coal for heating. In still winter weather the pall of smoke hung in the air and drifted downwards, merging with any slight mist, to cause an impenetrable fog with visibility cut to ten or fifteen feet. It would penetrate indoors. Outside, it would paralyse traffic and even make it difficult to find one’s way on foot. Most traffic would cease and my father even had to walk ten miles home from work on one occasion. We would be led from school in a crocodile on foot, although occasionally a tram would run through the streets, preceded by a man on foot carrying a flare to illuminate the way. A side effect of the fog was that the brick and stone of city buildings became blackened, and it did not do to inspect one’s handkerchief after blowing one’s nose!
During the hard winter
of 1946-7 my school moved to larger premises, permitting a modest expansion in
numbers. The buildings were surrounded
by extensive grounds with shrubberies and winding paths, ideal for childish
games of hide-and-seek. Five to eight
year olds were taught in an imposing Victorian house but nine and ten year olds
were housed in a Nissen-type hut built in the grounds
for the Auxiliary Fire Service during the war.
The two classes within the hut were separated only by a pair of large hessian
curtains, drawn back at play-time and for lunch. A large coke boiler provided the communal
heat: a low railing prevented us from
coming into contact with its scalding sides and served as a clothes horse for
damp coats on wet days, thus ensuring that the hut was filled with the
objectionable smell of damp wool mingled with coke fumes. My school life in those days generally
mile-stones included the early, tentative, steps in writing and
the daily recitation of multiplication tables.
Writing at first involved using chalk on miniature slates, but later one
graduated to dip-in pens with which to practice “pot-hooks”.
This tranquil existence suffered one brief interruption when a girl in the class complained that another girl, called Yvonne, had stolen her fountain pen. The Principal, Miss Inshaw, made enquiries and the pen was duly found secreted in the top of one of Yvonne’s black woollen stockings. The poor silly girl was expelled, causing a frisson of excitement through the class. I had not previously encountered the world of theft and expulsion, nor come to that, the world of stocking-tops: sensations all, to an eight-year-old. (For more about Amberley Prep School go to web page Amberley.)
Amberley Preparatory School: Fancy Dress competition at Victory Hall, Castle Bromwich
probably Christmas 1949:
Manners were an essential part of one’s education in the highly structured society of those post-war years. One did not speak until spoken to. As boys, it was impressed on us that we must treat ladies with respect at all times, a practice still faithfully kept by some of my generation: a gentleman should raise his hat on meeting a lady, should hold the door open for her, allowing her to go first, and should always stand when a lady entered a room. On crowded ‘buses one should always offer one’s seat to a lady. Conversely, real ladies did not go into pubs without a male escort, nor did they smoke cigarettes in public. Elocution lessons ensured that we spoke correctly and avoided colloquialisms, especially “O.K.”. Swearing in company was almost a capital offence. One might just hear “damn” or “blast” used under serious provocation but the words were not permitted in a child’s vocabulary. “Bloody” was used by men only in the most extreme situations and would certainly never have been allowed on the wireless. Stronger language still, nowadays common-place, was largely confined to the working man in his own environment and would never be heard in public. Just once, a boy called Gilbert used such a word to me. I asked my mother what it meant, but she didn’t tell me. I was, however, forbidden henceforth to go to Gilbert’s house, which was a pity as he had a very good train set.
Although I had a small circle of
friends at Amberley, much of my leisure time was spent alone, contentedly
reading or playing with my Hornby Dublo
electric train set, or happily riding my blue Hercules bicycle around
the quiet suburban pavements. I am told
I learnt to read when I was three by finding Music While you Work in the Radio Times! After Rupert Annuals and Enid Blyton, I graduated to Arthur Ransome
books, ‘Bunkle’ adventures and the ‘
The view from 165 Stechford Road:
view looking into Hodgehill Road dates from the early
1950, soon after the introduction of the 55 ‘bus service in October 1950, but
before replacement of the 1930s-style lamp posts by tall modern lighting. When my parents bought the house in 1932 it
faced open fields with a view to
The view of the back garden shows the lawn around which I rode my Hercules bicycle, with the rockery beyond (into which the air raid shelter had been built for the duration of the war) and behind which there was a small vegetable garden.
Some leisure time souvenirs:
Clockwise from the top:
An excerpt from Radio Times: programmes for 24th February 1951, including Jennings at School;
the cover of Enid Blyton’s weekly Sunny Stories for November 1948;
one of Arthur Ransome’s decorations from the pages of Swallows and Amazons;
a page from Bunkle Butts In, by M. Pardoe (1943), with illustration by Julie Nield [The ‘Noises in the Night’ were intruders in the secret passage!]
Extracts from an early edition of Eagle, showing Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.
Art work, by Frank Hampson, was always of a high standard; the stories often contained a discreet didactic element and schoolboys enjoyed the humorous side as evidenced by the bluff Lancastrian approach of Digby, Dan Dare’s batman.
School days (continued)
My form at school was quite small, no more than twenty pupils, of
whom most were girls. One young friend
was J’Ann Page, who moved to Somerset about 1960, but
with whom I re-established contact in 1985 through a neighbour of my parents
who had remained in touch. J’Ann was a lively girl and we often enjoyed a threepenny ice cream as we walked home from the tram on the
journey back from school. But the world
is not yet ready for the curious tale of how her socks came once to be lodged
high in one of Stechford Road’s sycamore trees. In the years 1949 – 1951 two boys in
particular were my firm friends: Derek
Silk and David Yates. We tried to pass
ourselves off as a “gang”, modelled partly on Richmal
Crompton’s Just William stories and partly on
Sport scarcely featured in the school curriculum and, although a few boys liked to kick a ball about, football was not the obsessive interest it became in later decades. As an only child I grew up happily uninterested in games and other competitive activities. Dad did once take me to see Aston Villa play when I was about seven, but I was hit painfully in the face by the muddy ball when it strayed into the crowd. This incurred maternal displeasure, so the trip was not repeated. P.T. exercises at school took place out of doors in fine weather only: my main memory is that when the class was bending to touch toes I could look up to see the row of girls in front revealing their navy blue knickers as they bent forward. There were also swimming lessons once each week, involving the tram ride to Woodcock Street baths. By the time one had changed – always two boys to a cubicle! – there was time for only about twenty minutes in the water. But afterwards came the best bit, a cup of hot chocolate and a tiny slice of swiss roll in the café.
At ten years of age I suffered the first pangs of interest in the opposite sex. For a while I took to eating my sandwiches with one of the girls and we would wander around the school grounds at break and lunchtime having earnest discussions. I endured some taunting from “Silko” and “Yatesy” who clearly did not understand affairs of the heart. Then, at the end of term, she broke the news that she would be leaving and so the school “gang” member-ship went back up to three.
Meanwhile, childish fun went on as before. Birthday parties continued until I was eleven. Organised by my mother, there were games, always including “pass the parcel”, then there was tea (actually Corona “pop” and birthday cake), and then some wild running about in the garden until it was time to finish. Parties were always mixed, but activities usually seemed to divide into boys v girls. The girls always wore party frocks and had ribbons in their hair, looking as pretty as a picture: whatever happened to Myrtle Pridmore? (Late News!! Myrtle is alive and well and living in County Durham, but Stella is elusive!)
Birthday party 1951: back left: Derek Silk, RHD, David Yates,(“the gang”)
back right: Norma Page, Stella Richardson, Myrtle Pridmore
front: Keith Hickinbottom, J’Ann Page
“ Children’s Hour ”
Out of school, music was my most lasting
discovery of those early post-war years.
Ours was not a musical household and I am told that my favourite piece
of music during the war was called “Pistol Packing Momma”, long since erased
from my memory. But, like most
contemporary middle-class children, I was an avid listener to “Children’s Hour”
on the BBC Home Service (no television in those days!). Many of the items were introduced by tuneful
extracts from classical music, some of which etched themselves
permanently into the mind. Said the Cat to the Dog opened with an
extract from Walton’s Façade and
“Music at Random” by Helen Henschel began with the
main theme from the last movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. One serial used Sibelius’s En Saga. Another drew briefly on the music of
Shostakovich, and, with the help of Radio
Times, sent me on my first voyage of discovery to the newly-developed Third
Programme. (I remember, however, being
seriously bewildered by the music encountered there – not for the last
time!) At Christmas 1948 I first heard
John Masefield’s Box of Delights with
music from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s delightful Carol Symphony. Box of Delights was to be repeated in
1955, before being transferred to television in 1984, each time with the same
music. Coincidentally, Hely-Hutchinson was also in
There was, of course, other, more light-hearted, entertainment to be had from the wireless (as it was then called). A favourite was Much Binding in the Marsh with Kenneth Horne, Richard Murdoch, Sam Costa and Maurice Denham. Lying in bed on Sunday evenings, I would hear the voice of Frankie Howerd in Variety Bandbox drifting upstairs, accompanied by my parents’ laughter. The most discussed show was probably ITMA with Tommy Handley who died so suddenly aged 57 in 1949. During and immediately after the war ITMA had been a major factor in uniting the nation: at a time when there was no television, and wireless programmes were confined to the BBC Light Programme and Home Service, choice was restricted and the majority of the population would be enjoying the activities of Handley and his crew.
had started in
An extract from Radio Times showing television programmes for Tuesday, February 20th 1951
After The Railway Children the service closed down until 8.0 pm when there was a half-hour programme about Treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum, followed by a French film about Montmartre. Following the News (sound only) television closed down at 10.15 pm.
Evening programmes were introduced by announcers dressed formally in evening wear: viewers were greeted by Sylvia Peters or Mary Malcolm in elegant dresses and McDonald Hobley or Leslie Mitchell immaculate in dinner jackets. As programmes were broadcast live (even the Thursday repeat of the Sunday night play was a second live performance) it meant that disasters great and small reached the home screen. Not infrequently the screen would go momentarily blank before an elegantly written notice appeared:
will be Resumed
as soon as Possible”
The first time I had ever seen anyone drunk was Dr Glyn Daniel on Animal Vegetable and Mineral – he and his guests had evidently been celebrating before hand, rather too well. My first hint that sex appeal might be of some significance came about 1952 in a live programme with the elderly artist Sir Gerald Kelly talking about (I think) Fragonard's "Girl on a Swing": he suddenly turned to the camera with a wicked twinkle to add a daringly unscripted remark: "Look at that lovely little bottom". My mother laughed, then remembered I was there and said "Well!!" in a certain tone of voice.
The death of radio’s Tommy Handley was an uncomfortable reminder of human mortality. During the 1940s two neighbours died, comparatively young, raising in a child’s mind the question of our ultimate destination. The mother of Juliet, a little girl with whom I sometimes played, died in her 30s from breast cancer, and “Uncle” Bill, our next-door neighbour died from pneumonia in his mid-fifties. These events raised uncomfortable questions, but children look ahead, not back, and the events were soon all but forgotten. The equally great mystery of birth surfaced from time to time: I remember asking my mother where I had come from, but I cannot now recall her reply which was doubtless a masterpiece of dissembling! But I was temporarily satisfied, without the destruction of childish innocence which now seems to be the rule.
Much of my knowledge of life’s caprices came from unintentional eavesdropping on my mother’s conversations with her friends. She led a life ordered by routine: Mondays were for washing (morning) and ironing (afternoon), Tuesday and Friday mornings were for local shopping, Wednesday and Thursday mornings were for cleaning – downstairs and upstairs, respectively. Except on Monday, after an early light lunch she would change into a smart day dress. The afternoon was then available for seeing friends, equally elegantly attired in smart frocks, or for an occasional trip to the centre of Birmingham. There she would shop for clothes (although that was limited because of the need for clothing coupons), or perhaps take me to a matinee at the cinema. When her friends came for tea I would often sit quietly reading in a chair in the bay window while the ladies sat talking by the fire. Perhaps I was invisible, because I would hear remarks about life, husbands and acquaintances which were surely not intended for me! There was probably nothing slanderous, but I do remember being amused by mimicry of a local lady with an affected way of speaking who was quoted as saying “My de-ah, it took me two aahs to arrange the flaahs.” [Two hours to arrange the flowers.] I felt uncomfortable (and still do) on hearing a woman complain about her husband’s alleged domestic inadequacies. I have never heard a man complain about his wife, suggesting that ‘cattiness’ is indeed a female attribute! In the 1940s the two sexes lived quite separate lives: it seemed men went off to kill or be killed fighting wars or, if living at home, set off, trilby-hatted to work from 7.30 am to 6 pm each day; they went flat-capped to football on Saturday afternoons, and spent their spare time caked in mud digging the garden or covered in oil overhauling the car (which probably entailed lifting out the engine). Women shopped occasionally, cleaned from time to time, dead-headed the roses and spent the rest of their time reading to their children or drinking tea with friends: it seemed to me an enviable existence compared with their husbands – but things for me turned out differently and I have no cause for complaint!
with Dad on board the
and with Mom at Tenby
after a boat trip to
Life continued with its usual minor twists
and turns. In the late 1940s I
experienced an encounter with the constabulary which was to make a lasting
change in my life – although happily without any charges being brought! During the course of a visit to the family
When it came to food there was no opportunity to indulge in the whims and caprices of taste. Rationing and shortages continued well into the 1950s and many popular items were simply unobtainable. One had what one was given or went without. Imports of bananas were discontinued throughout the war and oranges were available only in very limited quantities. I recall my first post-war banana as a serious disappointment: I think I was expecting a bigger, sweeter, more luscious orange. Domestic freezers and refrigerators were almost unknown, so frozen foods were simply not available until limited quantities of ice cream began to appear once the war was over: at first in vanilla flavour only; wafers three-pence, cornets fourpence, tubs sixpence!
Dinner menus were limited in range. Beef, mutton and pork were the staples; lamb was seasonal and chicken a luxury for Christmas only. Cod, tripe, hearts and brains appeared occasionally. Meat was accompanied by fresh vegetables according to season – my diet of green vegetables was limited mainly to fresh peas out of the garden in July, runner beans in August and cabbage for the rest of the year, varied only by occasional carrots or cauliflower. Tinned peas were available, but were not especially palatable. In an era of shortages, leftovers were recycled so that yesterday’s meat reappeared as rissoles, vegetables as “bubble-and-squeak”, and an unwanted tea might re-appear as bread-and-butter pudding. Cheese was rationed to two ounces (of non-descript Cheddar) per person per week. Eggs were scarce, but dried egg was available for cooking and could even be made into a sort of omelette, though my mother looked down her nose at such contrived dishes. She baked her own cakes; otherwise we would probably have gone without. The season for locally grown fruits was extended by careful storage of cooking apples, giving the spare bedroom a characteristic smell, and my mother would be busy bottling plums and damsons in Kilner jars at the end of each summer. Imported tinned fruit was unknown and I did not taste any until a rare tin of pineapple chunks, hoarded from before the war, was produced at a family party, held at my father’s old home in Erdington, for Uncle Cyril who was on leave from the Army. Foreign dishes such as pizza, lasagne, or paella were quite unheard of; indeed, in an era when foreign holidays were almost unknown our family would not have recognised the words! By comparison with present-day menus it seems a poverty-stricken up-bringing. But the choice was planned in response to government dietary advice and ensured a generally healthy population. There was no chance of over-indulgence, so my friends were a skinny and active lot, obese children being unknown!
Sweets were taken off the ration on 24th April 1949 (remembered as being my play-mate J’Ann’s birthday), but before I could get to the corner shop for a quarter of Barker and Dobson’s Barley Sugar or of Wilkinson’s Liquorice Allsorts panic buying by the public had cleared the shelves nation-wide. This resulted in the government re-imposing rationing for three more years, frustrating the dreams of many children who were strictly limited to one or two sweets a day. But in compensation there was Christian Kunzle’s restaurant in Union Street with its delicious Swiss-style cream cakes rich with cream inside a chocolate ‘boat’: one greedily eyed a plateful but could seldom manage more than one! How strange that such indulgent fare has long since vanished from the shops!
Food rationing continued with full
severity for six or seven years after the war.
The system demanded that one was registered for food with a specific
shop. Making purchases elsewhere was
not permitted. We patronised Ehret’s, a small grocer (with a surprisingly Germanic name
for those days). There, my mother’s
order was taken over a long counter with a chair placed alongside for the
customer to rest her legs. Many items,
such as butter and sugar were parcelled up on the premises and biscuits
(plain; no cream varieties) were sold
loose from large biscuit tins, pre-packed goods being almost unknown. My mother’s purchases would be delivered
later by bicycle. I always wanted her
to call in at the Co-op, despite not being registered there, as the Co-op had a
curious aerial ropeway by which the cash was sent by the shop assistant to the
lady cashier who returned any change by the same means. (The Midland Educational book shop in
An aerial view of the Fox and Goose shopping area, about 1949, from the pages of the Birmingham Weekly Post.
In the left foreground is the Washwood Heath Road with trams on their reserved track. Alum Rock Road merges in the right foreground. The Beaufort Cinema is just above and right of the traffic island. The Outer Circle route crosses from left to right and Coleshill Road continues into the distance toward Hodgehill Common, just visible where Coleshill Road bends left into the trees. The sand quarry is visible right of centre: it was later filled in and became Stechford Hall Park. Rural Castle Bromwich stretches across the top of the photograph: Shard End was still just a planner’s dream.
In the late 1940s our rations were slightly supplemented – unofficially - with the help of Aunty Rene, a cousin of my mother’s who, like her, had left South Wales and settled in Warwickshire. She and her husband ran the village shop at Broadwell, near Southam and about twice a year we visited her, returning laden with contraband packets of Weetabix, bags of sugar, slices of fresh ham and pats of butter. Broadwell was then a tiny isolated village lying in a hollow, populated mainly by agricultural labourers who lived near the poverty line. Most houses were down-at-heel and there was an overwhelming and unpleasant smell which offended the nostrils as soon as we got out of the car. Explained by my mother as “stagnant water”, I later discovered the smell was that of the village’s cesspits. On our visits I often played with Margaret, Aunty Rene’s granddaughter and my second cousin once removed. She was a tall, lively girl, only a little younger than me. But in her twenties she suddenly suffered a brain haemorrhage and died, leaving two tiny children. Aunty Rene herself died in 1960 and thereafter we had no reason to return to Broadwell. But in 1990 I was driving nearby and decided to make the detour to see how the village had changed. In thirty years the down-at-heel cottages had been transformed into “desirable executive commuter homes”, each with a BMW or Mercedes outside. The old shop was no more, but was now the largest and most impressive of all the houses. I might add that the air was sweet and of the smell there was no evidence.
Petrol was still rationed well into
the 1950s, so outings by car were strictly limited. On a couple of occasions, when my mother
evidently wanted an afternoon to herself, she would pack me off on the Outer
Circle ‘bus for the two hour circumnavigation of
Chamberlain Place, Birmingham:
Most stone buildings were then blackened by the smoke in winter fogs. As atmospheric pollution diminished in the 1950s the buildings were cleaned, revealing that the stone had a natural light colour - much to the surprise of my generation!
The King passes by
In the late 1940s and 1950s the British
Industries Fair (“BIF”) was held each year at Castle Bromwich, only a mile from
home. I was taken there on several
occasions, even though the displays of heavy engineering which were the essential
feature of the show were hardly riveting stuff, either for me or for my
mother. But there was usually an
exhibit featuring a small gauge industrial railway, intended for use in
quarries or on building sites and the promoters were generally more than happy
to demonstrate its cargo carrying capacity with a load of small boys instead of
the more usual tonnage of granite. In
1947 the BIF was officially opened by H.M. King George VI, and after the
ceremony he was taken by motorcade to join the Royal Train at Stechford station, so passing our house. This was an occasion when we watched from
our front garden as the King drove past – I was surprised to find that there
were other, lesser, mortals whose front gardens were not thus honoured by His
Majesty. I will add here, although it belongs to a
slightly later stage of my life, that in 1956 the Russian leaders, Khrushchev
and Bulganin likewise were driven past our house when returning to catch their
1950: 10th birthday
For the most part, news in the
1940s passed me by, but from conversations overheard between adults, from
wireless news bulletins and occasional newspaper headlines, I gained some vague
impression of the drift of events. In 1945 I knew from the VE celebrations that
the end of the war with
It now comes as a surprise
(even to those of us who were there at the time) to be reminded how innocent
and ignorant children in the 1940s and 1950s were about matters relating to
sex. Parents and schools shyly dodged
the issue. Newspapers, magazines and
the broadcast media never mentioned the topic.
Nudity was quite unknown, save for discreetly-posed black and white
pictures in a few “pin-up” magazines which were not widely available and
certainly unknown to me. Boys and girls
could thus grow up in a state of blissful ignorance of the change adolescence
would bring: nothing was said. My own innocence was signally disturbed by a
19-year-old Italian film actress, Silvana Mangano who appeared in an Italian film, Bitter Rice, released in
Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, 1949.
She appeared in several more films, of which the best known
was Death in Venice in 1971. She died in 1987.
This was the photograph which caught my eye in the Daily Mail in 1950.
In 1951 I passed the “eleven-plus” examination for King Edward’s School, Aston, but was also entered for the separate examination for the ‘parent’ King Edward’s School in Edgbaston. This was a tougher proposition but I passed and so the lengthy cross-city journey would be part of my life from September. I would notice a change: Amberley was a tiny, informal affair, run by a handful of local ladies, of whom Mrs Bunker and J’Ann’s mother, Mrs Page, were my usual teachers, aided by Mrs Woodwiss who taught History and Geography on Thursdays and Fridays only. For a couple of terms, there was a small sensation when they were joined by a man, Mr Luby.
At Amberley I was a big fish in a very small pool, but at King Edward’s I would find myself a very small fish indeed. The culture shock would be significant. Instead of the company of a small number of girls and an even smaller number of boys, there would be 700 pupils, many already grown men over six feet tall. Although girls continued to use their Christian names in secondary education, boys were always known just by their surnames. To call a fellow pupil by his Christian name would be seen as excessive familiarity, so even when visiting a school friend at home, he, his mother and his sisters would all address me as “Darlaston”. Life at King Edward’s would bring testing new subjects including Algebra and Latin to puzzle my mind, and games such as rugger (about which I knew nothing) followed by showers or the muddy communal bath where I would quickly abandon the modesty learnt in my childhood. But this new existence would soon cease to be strange and would itself become second nature.
The early ‘fifties were marked by
three events of national significance:
the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951, the death of H.M. King
George VI in February 1952, and the Coronation of our present Queen in June
1953. These printed themselves on my
memory in different ways. I remember
the Festival firstly for the journey up to
The death of the King was, to a child, quite unexpected, the news reaching my form as we waited to go into the school dining hall. After the colour and fun of the previous year’s festival, the state funeral itself had an overwhelming and numbing sombreness, awe-inspiring even to an eleven-year-old. Monochromes dominated everything, not just on the tiny black and white television, but in the whole of that cold, grey, austere February world.
Gaiety returned the next year in time for the Coronation, even if the weather itself famously failed to co-operate on the day. But with hindsight, I now realise that in watching the splendid spectacle of Coronation Day I was witnessing the sad finale of the British Empire and of the Pax Britannica; the world of my parents and of my grandparents; the world of my own childhood; the world I had been brought up to believe was Great Britain’s gift to all mankind for eternity.
* * * * *
The 1940s was a surprisingly good decade in which to be born. I was too young to be much concerned either by the war or by the privations which continued for some years afterwards. I saw and experienced a world which still depended on horse power and the steam engine, when country life was little changed from that which had obtained centuries earlier. But I was born in time to enjoy the increasing material prosperity of the 1950s and early 1960s, while still having the old-fashioned freedom to explore my surroundings free from the fears of crime and violence which affect today’s children. I was in time to benefit from the general availability of a wider and more attractive diet, and also of improved medicine, especially antibiotics and better anaesthetics.
The full employment of the post-war era meant it was easy to get a well paid and interesting job with security and also with prospects which were duly realised. Those who were born in later decades were not to find employment so easy, and, for many of the rising generation, the outlook for early retirement and a generous pension is much less promising than for my generation.
It is easy and commonplace for my generation to think back to our childhood days and to lament the loss of innocence. We are now immersed in a depressing climate of violence, of aggression and confrontation, of tasteless and sometimes offensive talk, evident in everyday life, in the press and especially on television. There are manifold petty restrictions and the absurdity of “political correctness” which limit once cherished freedoms. But against that one must set the improved living standards, especially health care, and such material benefits as cars and computers, refrigerators and televisions, CDs and DVDs, central heating and air conditioning; plus the travel and holiday opportunities we now accept as commonplace.
I may have enjoyed myself in the 1940s and 1950s, but I would not go back: there is so much in life to enjoy today!
Robert Darlaston, November 2008
Some minor alterations, summer 2010
robertdarlaston@btopenworld . com
(For anti-spam purposes, this is not a link: please retype direct into the address box)
You might also be interested in the following further pages, all with many photographs:
Amberley.htm (More memories and memorabilia of life at Amberley prep School, 1945-51)
KingEdwardsSchool.htm (Life at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, in the 1950s.)
1959Revisited.htm (Colour photographs of scenes in the Midlands, Wales and Scotland in 1959, plus a few from 1957 and 1958).
Birmingham Pictorial.htm (Photographs of
Family Photos.htm (A gallery of photos of family life from the 1940s to date)
FamilyTrees.htm (Family history, including tentative links back to 1373, in the reign of King Edward III !)
If other pages are not listed to the left, the Home Page can be accessed here: www.robertdarlaston.co.uk
Readers who have found my memories
of interest might well enjoy poetry written by my third cousin, Beryl
McMullen, who was born in Birmingham in 1927 and who sadly died in
2010. To access a selection of her
poems and for details of a published collection of her work, go to http://www.poetrydjour.com/book.php
Readers who have found my memories of interest might well enjoy poetry written by my third cousin, Beryl McMullen, who was born in Birmingham in 1927 and who sadly died in 2010. To access a selection of her poems and for details of a published collection of her work, go to http://www.poetrydjour.com/book.php
The pages above describe my life until the early 1950s. The rest of that decade is described separately in my memories of life at King Edward’s School, and the subsequent years of office life are mentioned in my separate account of my time in banking. But there is more to the story:
Barbara through the years
into my life on Monday, 25th January 1965, when she joined the staff
where I worked in Colmore Row,
How quickly those years have passed! One looks back on a kind of internal photograph album as different events spring to mind: our earliest trips to concerts in Birmingham Town Hall, to films at the Scala Cinema and to some strange plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – a melange of Beethoven, Robert Bolt, Shakespeare and Joe Orton served up respectively by Sir Adrian Boult, Paul Schofield, Richard Chamberlain and Mike Gambon. Then there was our membership of the Handsworth Wood Gramophone Society, our two holidays in Cornwall (the first when we were engaged, daringly unchaperoned – but boringly proper!), visits to the family in South Wales and our first trip abroad, to Switzerland, travelling out on the Rheingold Express up the Rhine Valley, trips up the Jungfrau, across to Montreux and down into Northern Italy, eventually returning via Paris and the Night Ferry to Victoria.
Our stay in
Home, Sweet Home! Our houses:
Four Oaks (2nd house from left): June 1972–February 1973; Thurston, Suffolk: February 1973–May 1974; Cheshire: from May 1974
If other pages are not listed to the left, the Home Page can be accessed here: www.robertdarlaston.co.uk