We always got a big hug from Nan as she greeted us at the doorstep in Barrows Road. She had five children, fifteen grandchildren and ample love for us all.
After the warm greeting, we climbed the concrete step that led directly from the roadside pavement into her house, a house which could have told me everything I ever wanted to know about my family history. If only I’d been old enough to listen and understand, to ask questions and take notes, to realise that time spent with your family is so precious…
When Grandad lived at home in Duddeston, near Aston where he was born in 1908, he used almost the entire house as a workshop for making his models. The kitchen hob was his furnace to make his casts, he had a lathe in his bedroom, and the dinning room table was the test bed for his model aeroplanes. I would imagine that his mother Susan must have shown a lot of patience as she watched him secure his large plane to the table with a G-Clamp, stand back as the propeller accelerated, straining and pulling at the table and spraying hot castor oil all over her furniture!
He used to take the plane to a site near Coventry for real flights. This was before the days of remote control, so he had a timer attached to the plane that cut off the fuel supply to the engine, flipped the rudder round and put it into a tail spin that returned it back to down to earth. Unsurprisingly, my uncle thinks his planes were probably lost on several occasions! Whilst this might all sound a bit hit-and-miss for a man of such precision, we have to remember this was probably the 1920s, and his hobby would have been at the cutting edge of modern technology. Grandad sometimes took his children to Elmdon to watch the air displays – this is the site that would eventually become Birmingham Airport – and it is possible that this is also where he flew his model planes.
Later in life, Grandad ran a shop in Saltley where he sold model toys – he must have been in his element in this shop! According to my uncle, he also offered a service where he provided recharged accumulators to customers in exchange for their flat ones. This was probably before the national power grid was completed in 1937 and when perhaps only one in three homes had mains electricity¹. Accumulators – which were large batteries – were needed to power the old valve radios and without mains electric, there was no way to recharge them, which in theory provided the opportunity for Grandad. Nevertheless, my uncle thinks this was not very successful as people usually kept the better ones for themselves leaving Grandad with a large supply of poor quality ones. But this might not have been his main problem. This was a time when the horrors of the first world war were still fresh in people’s minds, and when the threat of another war lurked ominously on the horizon. Britain and the rest of the world was struggling with the economic downturn or Depression; perhaps this is the real reason that businesses such as Grandad’s struggled to survive. Eventually, he became a panel beater and like many people from Birmingham, when war broke out, he stayed behind in England as his skills were much more important to the country than his ability to fight. He worked for Morris Commercial at Adderley Park as well as for Fisher and Ludlow. We are not sure what he worked on during the war as it was a secret – but my uncle thinks he may have helped to make aircraft panels and engine cowlings – and as many spitfires were built in the area, it is possible that he worked on the production of these famous planes.
But back to my childhood and those trips to Barrows Road. The square back room of this cosy two-up two-down terraced house was the hub of the house. Wherever you wanted to go, you had to pass through this room. In one corner was a door to the upstairs, another corner housed a door to the kitchen and a third corner provided the door to Nan’s lovely front lounge through which we would come from the street. There was a dark brown fold away table with two creaky wooden chairs, a couple of wooden armchairs and some shelves that filled the small space between the chimney breast and the outer wall. It was these shelves that housed some of Grandad’s models, including Titch, which was one of the steam engines he built and which stood there with a red rag doll on the footplate. A small window next to the shelves allowed a trickle of warm sunlight into the otherwise dark and chilly room, and through the window you could see the long row of terraced houses from Osborn Road. Occasionally you would hear the sound of the gate latch echo down the brick-lined side entrance that passed through the houses. Sometimes it was a visitor to next door. Sometimes it was more relatives arriving to see Nan and Grandad. Usually though, the room seemed quiet to me, but according to my cousin, it wasn’t always like that. The family would sometimes gather in the house – singing and playing various instruments, including the ukulele, guitar, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, saxophone and banjo – to enjoy what he called raucous evenings with copious amounts of alcohol! According to my aunty, Grandad was good on the saxophone and liked playing I don’t see me in your eyes any more. My other aunty, who was my mom’s younger sister, told me they all played their instruments at Mom and Dad’s engagement party – she remembers it clearly all these years later as a great party and had never seen anything like it before. In deed, she could not stop singing to herself afterwards! I would have enjoyed sharing those special moments with all of them, drinking beer from the large four-pint tins of Brew II or Ansells that I remember resting on the floor by Grandad’s feet.
When I was really young, Nan and Grandad used to venture out in his little blue car to the Warwickshire village of Knowle. Here, Grandad kept a canal boat called Gay Jane, and we spent hot summer afternoons on board or in the nearby pub called The Black Boy. With Grandad’s superb engineering skills, I think he would have regularly carried out maintenance work to keep the boat running. And as Nan loved to look after us all, there must have been a well-used calor gas stove and kettle onboard for the milky cups of tea that she would have delighted in serving up. The boat would have been a proper home from home and a great retreat from inner-city Birmingham.
Whilst I have photos of me at the boat, my main memories are of Barrows Road where Grandad would amble out into the yard, up past the outside toilet towards his shed. On his way up, he would be greeted by the sound of next door’s alsatian that barked just the other side of the lush green hedge. There was no grass to absorb the sound of the dog’s deep loud bark which reverberated throughout the neighbourhood. I never allowed my fear of this dog to deter me from visiting Grandad in his shed. His three steam engines were the pinnacle of his achievements, but ships, planes and all sorts emerged from that corner of the small yard.
I was too young and it was too long ago for me to remember all of the details of his work in the shed. But a mixture of my memory and my imagination tells me his actions were deliberate, careful, precise and meticulous. His pace of work constant. I doubt he ever cursed, lost his temper, threw his tools down in anger or quickened the pace of work through boredom or frustration. He used his lathe to drill and shape tiny pieces of metal that all formed part of his vision of the model that would be ready at some time in the distant future. Time was not important; quality and perfection were paramount. Grandad built most of Titch from scratch, although some of the casts were from A.J. Reeves, Holy Lane, Marston Green, and the design was based on plans from LBSC. He had a barrel-shaped hearth – some might call it a furnace – where small pieces of coke were heated by a gas-powered flame until they were white-hot. He used this to melt the brass needed to seal the joints on the engine boiler. All this in a wooden shed next to the house!
For me, the greatest celebration of his achievements occurred on a warm spring afternoon when Grandad fired up his steam engines – which I think included both Titch and the larger and more impressive Sparkhill locomotive. The track ran the length of yard and was raised on stilts to allow our feet to dangle over the sides as we were tugged along. The engine pulled a flatbed carriage on which Grandad would sit closest to the engine and its controls with us kids sat behind watching his every move.
When we were out and about visiting Birmingham, my Dad sometimes took me to a small country station near the Lickey incline, called Barnt Green. There was a long section of railway line without a single bend. Trains would leave Birmingham, and head south along this stretch at tremendous speeds. In the middle of this section of track was a small run-down railway station with a creaky old footbridge with wooden planks on which you would walk to the platforms on the other side. Dad and I would stand on this open bridge listening to the birds singing in the trees, and watching nervously as the formidable train silently approached us, growing bigger and more threatening every second. Suddenly, the peace was shattered and the noise blasted up into our faces along with hot diesel fumes, bouncing the bridge up and down like a boat navigating choppy waters. I know I am exaggerating slightly, but in the absence of theme parks, this was the biggest thrill I’d ever experienced.
So I guess the answer to my title question is fairly obvious. Or is it? Grandad and Dad took me on my first ever trip to the Severn Valley Railway in 1970 and sometimes when we were at Barrows Road, Dad and I occasionally stood on the bridge near Small Heath Station and watched the trains. But I don’t think either of them were railway enthusiasts – and perhaps neither am I. In writing this post, and meandering my way through this part of my family history, I have realised that Grandad had a lot of interests. He enjoyed his motorbike and sidecar, his boat, his fishing, playing the accordion and saxophone, making things and flying model aeroplanes. He took risks and set up his own business. He was a skilled craftsman. During the war, he worked part-time for the ARP (Air Raid Protection) and could have told harrowing tales of incendiary bombs and city fires. He loved his family and helped them through the most difficult times imaginable. His children were twice evacuated to the countryside and twice they returned to him in the city. They then had to move to a requisitioned home in Cadbury Road when their home in Claverdon Street was condemned after a bombing raid which killed their neighbour. I look back at him now as someone who was strong, pursued many interests and served his family, city and country. Dad was similar. He battled with serious illness for at least 15 years during which time he was regularly in and out of hospital. Despite this, he still found time to earn a living, throw parties and build and invent all sorts of things. He was self-employed for most of his later working life. He took some very risky holidays far from the doctors that were so often called upon to help him in emergency situations. He was one of the bravest people I knew. When I think about it, there are several people in our family, past and present, who have shown these qualities. I hope that I have inherited much more than just a love of trains. I feel quite inspired.
One day, I would like to get Titch fully restored and working again. You can see from the photo below, taken some forty or fifty years after it was built, that it must have been very well made to last so long without any maintenance. When I get it working again, I will buy in some large tins of Birmingham ale and invite the family round to enjoy it – Grandad and Dad would have liked that!
I would like to express my sincere thanks to my aunties and uncles who have provided me with the photographs and so much information about my family history. Please forgive me for any inaccuracies in what I have written.
All photos are the property of the Robinson family. Please do not copy without permission.
© Chris Robinson 2014. All rights reserved.
¹History Time (no date) The Fusebox (Northern Power Grid). Available at: http://thefusebox.northernpowergrid.com/page/electricity/history.cfm#item_11 (Accessed: 18 July 2014).