Between the Wars in Birmingham – part 1

My nan’s notes offer a fascinating glimpse of Birmingham during the period just after the First World War. I am grateful to my uncle Joe who took her 7000 handwritten words, typed them up and sent them to me knowing just how much I would appreciate them. This is the first of several posts that cover her story. I have made some small editorial changes to her original work and added some extra details and photos, all of which was possible because of the modern technology that was never available to her. I hope she would approve of the way I’ve presented her work. 

Emily Louise Robinson begins her story at 3 Back of 256 Icknield Port Road in the Ladywood district of the city where she was born in 1911.

Some memories of an 87 year old.

My earliest recollection is of sitting on the step of my mother’s house, with my little friend Nellie. It was getting dark and we were fascinated by over crossing beams of light across the reservoir. They were searchlights and seemed to stretch out and up to very great heights and then fall and taper away. As the night closed in, one house stood out, its lights shining and reflecting on the water. We children imagined spies were over there as it was during the 1914 war and many people of German origin were caught and [sent to internment camps]¹. My father was killed at Neuve Chapelle in France, he was only [28]² years of age.

Poverty was rife in England, people lived in tiny back to back houses with no inside toilet, water or gas. The water had to be carried in from the brewhouse – also called the washhouse – which was down the backyard. The toilets and misken [local slang for dustbins]³ were also at the bottom of the yard and two families shared a toilet and the washhouse. Each tenant had her day for her washing, my mom’s friend Pem had Monday. Pem was a large woman who wore a large hessian apron around her ample stomach and a man’s cap rested on top of her black bun, secured by a large hatpin.

The boiler was lit at about 6am and Pem would be pounding away with the dolly. It was a long and laborious business. The linen was dollied three times and then the whites were boiled, coloured, sorted and finished. The tubs were large and heavy, and bought from the brewery. The tops were sliced a third of the way down to make a flat tub used to rinse the washing or bath the babies in. The bottom half was used to bump the clothes in. A large iron framed mangle stood in the corner, it had large wooden rollers with geared teeth at the side, a large wheel was turned by a handle and as the gears connected the washing would be led through the rollers. They were very hard to handle. Women would work until midday and then get the family’s meal before returning to the washhouse to rinse, blue and starch. The tub and boiler would then be washed and the floor swilled for the next day. In winter it was terrible as the washhouse had no windows and the wind and rain blew through as they stood at the large brown sinks. The next day would be for drying and ironing. Washing hung everywhere in the winter and the smell of the soap suds made me feel sick.

The photo below was taken many years later and probably at a different address, but it provides a good illustration of the layout of the yard that Nan describes, with the Brewhouse on the right nearest the houses and the toilets on the right nearest the camera. 

Icknield Port Road Court Yard with Children 15-10-1965. Photo provided courtesy of BirminghamLives Archive

The house where we lived had only one step but the one next door had six and on nice days we could sit out there reading our comics, knitting or drawing. I tried to knit a tie for Cecil Parker, one of the twins down the road. I wanted it for a Christmas present, but Nellie my friend kept bumping my arm when turning the page of her comic and my knitting had several holes in it. Nellie said it looked nice and made it look like a pattern. I didn’t like it much but I liked Cecil.

We children saved all our pennies for fireworks when it was getting near bonfire night, we put our money in a fireworks club at the little lamp oil shop on the corner by the reservoir. The shop smelled of spilt paraffin and firelighters, it was so exciting. The older children went plundering, a term used by them when begging for old boxes, beds, furniture or anything that we could burn. Trees were given that had been chopped down and were tied and triumphantly dragged along the horse road past a smiling policeman at Five Ways. There were hardly any cars, the first one I saw was driven by the local bookie and also one that was driven by Pem’s daughter for the boss of Wiggins Steel Works. Pem was very proud of her with her smart uniform, cap and gauntlet gloves. Lil’s wages helped Pem and she was the first in the street to have gas put in. When they opened the door, it lit up half the street. At night we kids were able to play in the street for a couple of hours after tea. The lamplighter would come and light the street lamps with a long pole he pushed through the side of the lamp to light it. We used to play shadows, posing and seeing who made the best shadows on the big factory gate opposite. The games we played were simple ones. Swings on the lamp, tip cat, duck, coppers on the bridge, kick the can, hopscotch, sheep sheep come over, stealing the match, whip and top. The boys would skim cards and roll marbles and glarnies. Weather permitting, the big girls would turn a long rope for the smaller ones to skip in tune to songs like All In Together Girls. It was great fun and good exercise.

When bonfire night came around, plunder was piled high down the old back yard that was called the Baths Entry. We kids all queued outside the paraffin shop to get our fireworks.  Boxes of all kinds filled the little shop, sparklers, Chinese crackers or jumping jacks as they were called, Thunder Flashes, Golden rod squibs and Bengal matches of numerous colours. Bonfire night was a family affair, mums and dads, grans and grandads enjoyed themselves as much as the kids. The steps at the back of the houses provided a nice view and the youngsters sat on them. The jug was filled from the old Why Not Inn [public house] across the way. Soon the fire would be blazing, potatoes and chestnuts were baked in the old wire chip baskets. The night air was filled with the shrieks of laughter as they watched parents fastening the Catherine wheels on the walls, when lit showering them with hundreds of starlike particles as they spun round in beautiful colours of the rainbow. My gran brought her old gramophone with a big horn on it and her old records. Gran’s favourite, the Laughing Policeman, had everyone screaming with laughter, holding their sides in pain. On a more serious note, everyone joined in the wonderful song The Old Rugged Cross and many tears were shed as they sang, by which time the jug had been filled many times.

Thunder flashes were fastened in bottles and dads or older boys lit the fuses. The rockets shot into the night sky exploding into myriads of falling stars to the delight of the gazing children. Chinese crackers sent the children jumping all over the ground trying to escape the jumping jacks as they were nicknamed. The festivity carried on with various forms of music. Mrs Trapp did a yodeling song and another a tune on the mouth organ, old Mr Watts played the bones or clappers, everyone clapping and stamping in accompaniment. The fire would by this time be only red embers as parents collected their offspring amid shouts of good night and God bless, some a little worse for wear but all in very good spirits in more ways than one after a wonderful night.

Additional Notes:

© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Between the Wars in Birmingham – part 1

    1. Chris Robinson Post author

      Hi Jean, thank you for reading and for making such a nice and encouraging comment, I find these descriptions of what life was like all those years ago to be very interesting.


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