(WINTER 1942/43)

by Chris Myers


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This is a memory of New Street, Birmingham, inspired by an image of New Street in Mark Norton's website which contains many wonderful photographs of Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s. The following is about a still earlier time, seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy a couple of years after the scene to the right .......



Winter 1942/43

There is already a small queue at the bus shelter in New Street. My mother and I join the end of it. People hurry by us in both directions, their clothing mainly dark and devoid of colour, their faces pale. The majority are women, carrying shopping bags or tugging children; almost all wear a felt hat of some sort with just the odd one bare-headed or in a head-scarf tied in the form of a turban. Hats, overcoats, gloves, scarves, nothing of what they wear is fresh or new. Just down the street a newspaper seller is offering the two local evening papers, the Despatch and the Mail, with the familiar cry: "Spatchermile......... spatchermile". Above all of our heads in the cold, winter sky the first few starlings are returning to their homes on roofs and ledges after a day of foraging in parks and suburban gardens. Soon there will be thousands of them, wheeling overhead in great dark clouds, their chirping a continuous chorus almost drowning out the noise of the traffic. How strange is their desire to rush into the city centre at this time of the day when I and everyone else are happy to be leaving it.

Earlier we have been in Lewis's, a regular destination for our visits to Birmingham in my school holidays. Afterwards I walk down Corporation Street holding my mother's hand. We make a quick visit into Midland Educational for some minor item connected with my schooling. As usual the contents of the shop do not register much with me - after all, it is not a proper toyshop - and in any case I possess in my mind no standard by which to measure the inadequacy of the wartime stock. Then it is into Pattison's where my mother is due to meet an old office friend of hers, Mrs. Hewitt, an older lady with whom she had worked at the Law Courts at the other end of Corporation Street in 1918 when an earlier war had been raging. There they had both typed for an up-and-coming young Birmingham barrister, Norman Birkett, later Baron Birkett of Ulverston, of of whom great things had been expected which would later be achieved in full as he eventually attained high office in the Judiciary. The three of us are seated at a small round table in the cafe, the ladies nattering. I sit transfixed with boredom, trying not to look at a brimming ashtray in the middle of the table, its pile of butt ends still showing traces of the lipstick or saliva of total strangers and being added to every ten minutes or so by my mother and her friend. It is an image and a feeling of disgust which I shall retain all my life and will ensure that whatever I die of, it will not be smoking-related. I munch my slice of sponge cake, a dry affair with a smear of red, fruitless jam inside it - the finding of any trace of a genuine strawberry on such occasions would be a miracle - and sip my cup of tea. The cup is cracked, like many others. My mother notices it. "Drink from near the handle, dear, and avoid the crack", she whispers to me. It's a familiar refrain.

After saying our goodbyes, accompanied on my part by the obligatory raising of school cap, we walk on down Corporation Street. Beyond the junction with New Street and further in the distance we can see the Victorian edifice of New Street Station, its entrance as usual bustling with activity. Where the two streets intersect we cross diagonally in two stages using the central reservation. This pedestrian refuge prevents the two opposing streams of one-way New Street traffic from colliding and feeds them from each direction either into Stephenson Place towards the station or up along Corporation Street. We turn left and slowly walk the few yards down New Street in the general direction of the Bull Ring to reach our bus shelter and join our fellow passengers, all of us waiting for the No. 113 Midland Red. There is no need to hurry.

Eventually - but not for at least another quarter of an hour - our bus, always a double-decker, will appear and I can antipitate that moment.

It will emerge from High Street to our right in front of a tall, modern building bearing the name "The Times Furnishing Co"; its white façade appears undamaged in contrast to the wrecked buildings beside it. (I can never understand why a Birmingham shop should bear the name of a newspaper - it is just one of life's many mysteries). Then it will pull up in front of us having reached its terminus and stand there, rattling in time with the throb of its engine and emitting a smell of scorched brake or clutch lining. At this stage of the day few people will alight, perhaps a soldier or airman or sailor stepping confidently off the back of the platform in the direction of travel before the bus comes to a stop and then hoisting kit bag onto shoulder and striding purposefully off in the direction of New Street Station or Snow Hill. When all its homeward bound passengers have boarded, the bus will set off, moving diagonally to the right across New Street before rounding the corner and roaring off up Corporation Street past the shops we have recently visited, then turning left into Bull Street and pulling up outside Grey's department store. Here another group of home-going passengers will step off the pavement and clamber aboard. Then off again, turning right in front of Snow Hill Station into Steelhouse Lane and, once past the General Hospital, left into Loveday Street. We shall now have moved away from the central area of the city but the buildings will still be tall, towering over the bus. Every so often there are gaps where the Luftwaffe has done its work. These bomb sites will sometimes have been cleared but more often still contain a great pile of rubble covered by dull, winter vegetation and the remains of last autumn's willow herb. Usually they are bounded by a sheer, blank wall, that of an adjoining building which has somehow survived, and sometimes shorn up by vast timbers. Such walls fascinate me. They are often studded throughout their height by rows of little fireplaces, the colour of the tiles still bright and a small rectangle of the surrounding wall bearing the flowered wallpaper of a living room or bedroom. I find difficulty in reconciling these sights with my own experience. Fireplaces should be on the ground floor, in a lounge or dining room, or perhaps one storey up, in a bedroom. But not stretching up three or four floors, almost up to the sky. And who used to sit around them and where are they now?

As the bus passes through Aston along Summer Lane I know that the buildings will become smaller, side-street after side-street of back-to-back terraced houses, sometimes with a gaping hole in their midst or a row of homes damaged and boarded up. Past the Crocodile Works where, despite what my elder sister tells me with a straight face on another occasion, I am well aware that they make something other than large predatory reptiles. Then onward through Perry Barr with its cinema and shops and the junction where the Outer Circle buses cross our path; and onward towards New Oscott and College Arms where our route turns left on to the Chester Road. After Beggar's Bush there is the feeling that we have finally left the city behind as Sutton Park spreads out to our right. Onward past Banner's Gate and the Parson & Clerk. There is much evidence of 1930s building along the road here in Streetly, abruptly brought to a halt in 1939; I shall later learn that this is called "ribbon development". But it is by no means continuous and from the top of the bus I shall be able to look out, here and there, over great swathes of open countryside. At each stop we disgorge another small group of passengers. The last of them leaves at the Hardwick Arms crossroads where the bus will turn and park on the main road near to Cutler's Garage, ready for its return to the city. But that is all to come.

We are still here, in the bustle of New Street, and it is not our turn yet. My mother and I stand there, waiting for the 4.15 to arrive, and look out across the street. It is a year or two after the bombing of 1940 and 1941. As far as I am concerned the street has always looked like this and probably always will. The buildings behind me seem to have emerged unscathed. The Odeon cinema, a few paces down the street, appears to be open, as is a crowded little snack bar near to where we are standing. Of course it is difficult to tell what the state of the upper storeys is and, anyway, that is all part of normal life and not really of any interest to me at all.

On the other side of the street, though, it is a different story. Directly opposite is Horne's, a gentlemen's outfitters housed in an ornate Victorian brick building similar to many further up New Street towards the Town Hall. It is open for business. But I think that it is only part of the ground floor which is available to the owners. Above, the windows seem to be missing or blanked out; behind them one assumes is chaos, scorched debris, fallen timbers, missing roof. I can see some lights on already somewhere within, in the area which is open to customers. The official blackout time is still an hour or two away after which not the faintest glimmer will be visible; but I shall be safely back home by then.

To the left of Horne's is a building which always fascinates me. It is, or rather was, a tall, light-coloured, confident modern building, but it is now grubby and forlorn. My mother tells me that it used to be Marshall and Snelgrove's, a beautiful shop which she visited from time to time and I try to imagine it in its original state, its white façade pristine and crowds of customers going in and out of its doors. I must have seen it then but was too young for the image to have registered. Today it is just a shell, still standing, but above each of its many curved windows, now blank and gaping, a great black smear stretches up the stonework where flames and smoke erupted from within as the interior was being consumed. It is hard to see how it can ever be restored to its former glory but it will be, eventually, in the form of a replacement with a broader façade and in a rough approximation of the original form and texture.

The traffic between me and these buildings is light. It is passing from right to left. Much of it is buses, the red Midland and the dark-blue and yellow Birmingham Corporation on which I very rarely travel. Almost all are double-deckers, seating over 50 people and carrying many more standing but only on the lower deck. It is mainly the Midland Red that I notice, the ones I am most familiar with. Most originate from pre-war; they are solid, substantial vehicles retaining their padded, cloth upholstery, with registration prefixes of HA or AHA. But increasingly they are being supplemented by the newer "utility" buses, gaunt, angular, spindly vehicles with hard suspension and slatted wooden seats. From time to time a single-decker will pass, of pre-war vintage and occasionally very antique, even to my eyes, dating back to the very early 1930s. There are a few cars, almost all of them black in colour, and often a railway mechanical horse, a strange, articulated vehicle consisting of a flat platform or a boxed-in van structure, hauled by a three-wheeled "horse". (My favourite Dinky Toy is a pre-war representation of one of these vehicles, in the chocolate and cream livery of the Great Western Railway Company; one day in the future it will disappear, perhaps liberated by a playmate who finds it attractions irresistible). Occasionally a car will pass with a huge, wallowing rubber bag lashed to its roof, overhanging both bonnet and boot and filled with town gas to fuel its progress in these days of tight petrol rationing. All of these vehicles will have fitted over their headlamps the familiar, round, black, metal masks bearing rows of hooded, horizontal slits through which glimmers of light will emerge to help the vehicle on its way after dark. The edges of mudwings and other extremities on all the public vehicles and many of the private ones are painted white to give pedestrians and other road users a chance of seeing the vehicle looming out of the darkness.

There are still horse-drawn vehicles about, usually brewers' drays bearing the name of their owners, Ansells or Mitchell & Butlers, or carts belonging to the LMS or GWR. One of these vehicles draws up alongside the pavement to my right, as they sometimes do. The driver in muffler and cloth cap gets down off his cart, comes to the head of the horse and ties on its nosebag. As he completes this operation the horse starts to eat and simultaneously decides to empty its bladder, to my delight. What amazes me is the volume that the animal produces. It spreads out for several feet around over the surface of the street, and lingers there on the cobbles, steaming in the cold air. The driver pays not the slightest attention and moves down the flank to adjust the harness in some way. In fascination I watch his small, hob-nailed boots splash through the pool with a muffled clatter. He doesn't even glance down. And here's me, I ponder, who gets ticked off for even thinking of walking through a puddle of rainwater.

Buses arrive although still not yet ours. The bus-stops along this part of New Street serve mainly the routes out of Birmingham to the north of the city. The 118 goes to Walsall and there is a series of numbers denoting routes via the middle of Sutton Coldfield. The 101 goes to Streetly, as ours does, but travels via Sutton and terminates in Streetly village; the 102 to Mere Green, the 103 to Canwell. The 104, a more infrequent service, is always operated by a single-decker and pursues a circuitous route from New Street through Sutton and Streetly before disappearing off down the Chester Road towards Brownhills and finally ending up somewhere over the horizon in a distant place called Cannock. Another service which picks up here in New Street is one which is always identified by the conductor bellowing "Beeches" as he is doing today, meaning, as I find out much later, the Perry Beeches Estate at Great Barr.

As our queue lengthens a flower seller approaches us. She is offering small bunches of lavender. She has a dreadful deformity in one of her arms which appals me and I try not to look at it. She is either ignored or dismissed with a slight shake of the head by our fellow passengers. She accepts these rejections resignedly and approaches us. My mother (right, in 1906/7) is a gentle soul who once told me about a lavender seller of her Edwardian childhood who had a pitch in Station Street, the sight being so pathetic that it used to make her cry and beg her grandmother to hand over a few coppers. In character, she uses a few kindly and gentle words as she declines the offer. She is rewarded by a torrent of abuse before the seller moves on to the next group of potential customers.

As my mother recovers from the hurt my eye moves back to the other side of the street. To the right of Horne's there is nothing. A vast expanse of flat ground, not a trace of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings which once towered there. Nothing. The rubble which spilled out over New Street the morning after the bombing has all gone and with it every vestige of this part of the earlier Birmingham. One can see right across to High Street where the row of buses probably includes our own. The flat area acquires the name of Big Top when a vast marquee is erected on it for the purpose of circus or other entertainment. I shall be there in a few weeks, as a birthday treat, to see the circus. We will go on a day of strong wind and be surrounded by the noise of slapping canvas and creaking structure as we laugh at the clowns and watch the parading horses. It will be a relief to my mother to emerge unscathed. A day or so later, after a further increase in the strength of the winds, we will read in the Evening Mail that the tent has blown down.

But that is in the future and back here in the present our bus has arrived. We shuffle on board and at my insistence climb the stairs to the top deck which is less crowded and where the view is far better. The fug of cigarette smoke starts to grow as more passengers light up but that is just about tolerable, as is the thought which always lurks in the back of the mind: whether the driver of this unwieldy and top-heavy vehicle will exercise due caution when negotiating the tighter bends on the journey. The conductor squeezes down the central aisle in order to collect our fares, holding a clipboard containing a row of different coloured paper tickets, starting with a white one for a fare of one penny. My mother offers the correct fare and two tickets are extracted, punched in a little machine which dangles around the conductor's neck and handed over. Then she - for more often than not these days the conductors are more accurately conductresses - moves on down the aisle to the next passenger.

I sit there and gaze out of the window at a Birmingham whole areas of which will disappear within a couple of decades, a concept quite beyond my wildest dreams or comprehension. My thoughts are shorter term, just as far ahead as this coming evening. Tonight is ITMA and Tommy Handley on the wireless. I shall listen and laugh, and later will probably lie on the soft hearth rug in front of the open fire while the faithful wireless continues to mutter in the background, bringing the latest news from Russia or of last night's bombing raid on the Ruhr. I shall stretch out there on my front, chin resting on my hands, and gaze deep into the glowing coals. There I shall see frightening caverns and passageways opening up, with flames of red and orange and purple within, spitting and sizzling, flaring and fading; for me they will be images of a burning city.

And then I shall try to imagine what peace will be like, if it ever comes. But that is an unnatural state and one I never succeed in visualising, this or any other evening.

© CM 2007

N.B. All of the above recollections are as honest and accurate as the author can make them, subject to distortions of the memory over many decades. But any correction, and in particular comment on any anachronism which might have crept in, will be welcomed. Please use the website Feedback function on the Home Page; or post in the thread in the Local History group/Forum if that has been your route to this page.









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