Photo: Five Ways Junction in 1926 (credit: BirminghamLives Archive).
Emily Louise Robinson continued her story at her new house at Victoria Terrace, Osler Street, in Ladywood. As I have mentioned before, I have edited her original notes a little and owe a big thank you to local historian Carl Chinn who provided information and pictures to help me understand the context to this more fully. This is a story of how ordinary people struggled to survive in Britain’s second largest city just after the Great War, but I think it is also a story of a close-knit community where people lived, played, relaxed, traded, or worked together in the local area.
Some memories of an 87 year old.
My mom [Louisa Morgan] married again at the end of the war and we moved into a house which had an inside sink with [running] water and our own toilet up the yard. It was very dark with a wall running beside the window, but it was better.
My gran [Emily Dixon, we think] lived in the same yard. She used to take in washing for the gentry who lived in the posh houses in Hagley Road, Frances Road, Beufort Road and a small jewellery factory in Legge Lane. I used to take the laundry back for my gran to earn a little pocket-money. It was quite a struggle for my mom. She had by now three young children and there were no jobs for the soldiers who came back despite government promises of homes [and a land] fit for heroes. Jobs were for 14 to 16 year olds and no one over 40 need apply. If a child of 14 were to earn to help out it was counted [against the] income-relief [entitlement]. Tickets were handed out very sparingly [and could be used to buy] groceries, [but] it was very humiliating as everyone knew you were on income-relief, sometimes mockingly called the treacle stick. People were [only] allowed [the most basic things to maintain their entitlement to income-reief, such as] a bed, table and chairs [but anything of value such as] lino, carpets, a much-loved sideboard or overmantel would be classed as luxuries and had to be sold. My gran worked at the large Grammar school at Five Ways and sometimes was able to bring we children little articles from the lost property office. [The Birmingham Daily Mail, a local newspaper company, had set up a fund so that] poor [bare-foot] children [could be] issued with [hobnail] boots that were stamped on the side with holes. They were hard like army boots and, with the thick ribbed socks or stockings, rubbed the childrens’ heels and legs until they bled. All the clothes were recognisable and better off children would call after their unfortunate friends jeering “daily mail boots, daily mail boots!” New clothes and bed linen [were rarely seen] and old Khaki overcoats came in useful to throw over the bed [to keep warm]. Mothers gave birth to puny babies who died after a few months. The coach and hearses were drawn by large black horses with beautiful plaited manes and long tossing tails. They were very temperamental and restless, standing up on their hind legs while waiting for the little coffins to be carried to he hearse by girls of between 7 and 10 years old, and put under the seat of the coach driver. The girls wore little white dresses with black sashes and big black bows in their hair. It was a familiar sight and as the little coffin was drawn away, men old and young would take off their caps and stand until it had passed.
My grandfather loved his little garden and divided it into sections for growing onions, carrots, potatoes and mint. All up the path he grew mignonette that smelt lovely with the morning dew. He also had hens and a cockerel that kept us awake. He would sieve all the ashes [from the fire] to put on the floor of a big run [enclosed at] the front with wire netting where the hens could scratch themselves. Grandma used to save all the peelings which she cooked with bran and mixed with corn to make a good meal for the them. I used to go to the end of the hen-house and lift the lid off a box where the eggs were laid on straw. Gran would give me one or two for mom, they were lovely.
Billy the boy next door used to plant a mint bed and this paid for his camping money with the boy scouts. He also had a little barrow and went round with a bucket and shovel and gathered horse muck. It was all horses then [and very few cars]. The manure was very good for the garden and not too bad for Billy’s pocket. On Sunday mornings, the Salvation Army Band sang and played in the road and housewives stood with their white aprons and milk jugs awaiting the yodeling milkman who served milk from his trap that was drawn by a lovely little pony. He sang as he served “Milko Milko! Straight from the cows tits to the babies lips. Milko.” The skimmed milk was cheaper and very welcome as money was scarce.
Children all went to Sunday school on Sunday afternoons. We sang hymns and the teachers read bible stories to us and illustrated them with beautiful coloured pictures of the scriptures that she hung over the blackboard. Before we went home, we were given little texts and pictures of the stories we were reading. We saved them and when we had so many we could exchange them for a large picture.
At the top of our road was the entrance to Edgbaston Reservoir. It was called Birmingham’s Blackpool. As you entered, you paid a one penny entrance fee. Rows of benches stood all along the water in three tiers. Flower beds were profuse with roses and geraniums in lovely colours and people sat on white-painted seats near the bandstand to listen to the military band, with the players in their red or blue and gold uniforms. A long tea room where you could buy pop and ice cream did a roaring trade, rowing boats could be hired and a large motor boat gave rides around the reservoir. Photographers with cameras on a tripod took photographs as you were walking, and then sold them to you on a little badge they washed in a small vessel that hung on the side of the tripod. The children fished for tiddlers with nets and jam jars. It was a lovely day out. Sometimes we did not have a penny to get in, and we would climb over the Bath’s entrance wall, drop on to the canal bank, down into the canal bed, which would be dry in the summer, up onto the opposite bank, up the hill, over the muck heap and we were into the reservoir. It was a dangerous thing to do because the water from the reservoir could have overflowed and washed us away, but we were young and saw no danger.
A familiar sight in those days was the ragman who came around with a horse and cart which had a little roundabout mounted upon it. We had to take him jam jars to get a ride, another one gave goldfish for rags. Another sight was the Barrel Organ with a little monkey which delighted the children. They were usually pushed along by disabled soldiers who would perform and sing to the organ music. One mimicked Charlie Chaplin with a cane and a billycock hat, this amused the little ones no end. People would drop coins into a hat on the floor, these men had families to support and because they had no jobs, took to busking.
- Chinn, C. (2010) ‘Daily Mail Boots’, Birmingham Mail, 20 February.
- Chinn, C. (2011) ‘Sheepcote Street, Ladywood’, Birmingham Mail, 20 August.
- BirminghamLives – The Carl Chinn Archive (no date) Available at: http://lives.bgfl.org/carlchinn/index.cfm (Accessed: 18 April 2015)
- Demobilisation in Britain, 1918-20 (no date) The National Archives. Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/demobilisation.htm (Accessed: 14 April 2015).
© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.