Madges Story

I was born at home, 141 Wellington Street, Winson Green on 1st February, 1930. The house was one in a row of five owned by the LMS Railway Company, and all the men were employed by the railway company.

My father, John Henry Holmes was a platelayer – one actually helping to lay the rails.

My mother’s name was Jessica Grace. I always thought that was the prettiest name I’d ever heard.

I was the third child and the first girl.

Our house was a “two-up-two-down” with a coal cellar. There was a washhouse across the yard – one cold tap was shared by three families – and a shared toilet.

Washing was done on a rota system in the washhouse, which many Birmingham people called the Brewhouse. There was a boiler, which had to be stoked up with small lumps of coal called “slack“. There was a maiding tub and a large brown sink.

Hot water was precious and whichever neighbour was washing would ask the others if they would like a bucket of suds to clean the living room floor or the front steps – front steps were very important!

Things took a huge leap forward when I was about seven – each house was provided with an individual toilet and sink with a cold water tap in the living room. It seemed like a miracle.

They were happy days before the war. My parents worked hard and we four children (a sister was born in 1932) had no sense of being poor. We looked on other children as being poor but, on looking back, I realise that some had more money going into their homes than us. However, my mother was an intelligent, capable person who gave us a sense of security.

Another exciting thing happened just before the war: The house at the other end of the yard became empty, so we moved to No. 149, which had a scullery, an attic bedroom and ELECTRICITY! I thought it was magic to switch on the light at the bottom of the stairs and off at the top.

Going back a few years I remember the Silver Jubilee in 1935 and the coronation of a new king in 1937 – great street parties!
I remember my mother and women neighbours being very distressed at the abdication of Edward VIII. He was well loved by the working class. At this time only one neighbour owned a wireless and the adults would gather to listen to such events as the king at the launching of the Queen Mary. Also the sad news that the king’s life was drawing to an end.

At Foundry Road Infants’ School the headmistress explained the abdication and told us that the king was not prepared for the job. We said a prayer and sang the national anthem.

At Wellington Street coronation party some of the banners said, “God Bless the King & Queen” with the addition of , “and the Duke of Windsor.”

Looking back I am amazed at my political awareness at a very early age. We children were well versed about the miners strike when Dad was called back to the army (he was a reservist) and although he was an Old Contemptible, he had his first steel helmet in this emergency. My dad’s little joke was that he led the Mons retreat.

We also knew about the General Strike of 1926. My mother was very bitter about how the railway workers’ leader let them down.

My mother was much more serious about politics than Dad. I recall when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with “Peace in Our Time” – she was very cynical.

It seemed a very short time later when plans for evacuation were laid out at Foundry Road Infants’ School.

Evacuation was of course voluntary, but my patriotic little heart told me we must go; otherwise, who would be alive to fight the next war.

On 1st September 1939 it happened – my brother, Edwin, who was at senior school, was allowed to join my little sister, Laurel, and myself on the journey to an unknown destination – I can still see Mother’s stricken face.

In fact we only went as far as Worcestershire – Oldbury Farm was where we three siblings were billeted. It was a flourishing farm, I believe.

The dairy herd’s output was contracted to the Co-Op. There were sheep, pigs and chickens but my favourites were four horses. Everything that made a “proper” farm was there – a rick-yard, orchard and arable fields. The farm workers were friendly. The farmer and his wife took very little notice of us. The local school allowed us to use their classrooms etc. for half days. We enjoyed some things in this new lifestyle but home sickness and worry about the safety of our parents made us very depressed.

Our parents came to see us when they could and we wrote to each other. My mother believed we had been told what to say as “well” and “happy” were repetitious in our letters. We did this to stop her from worrying but I believe Mother went to her grave believing we were brain washed.

Our fears were not helped by the fact that our new headmaster had told us that after an air raid we would have to be “shovelled up”.

I can’t remember how long we were at the farm but we were home long before Christmas. Mom had discovered that things were far from perfect and came to collect us together with our belongings, including our towels, which had not been washed since we left Birmingham.

The next few months passed away quickly. Schooling was sketchy – some teachers and children were still away in the country and it was considered too dangerous too many children in school at any one time because of the possibility of a bomb hitting the school.

At this time, we children followed every detail of the war’s progress with great interest. Let me state now that never, not for one moment, did we think we would not win, so, I suppose, this was the feeling of the adults around us too. We were constantly on the lookout for spies and parachutists.

I am not sure of the exact time when we were evacuated again. I think that it was around June in 1940.

Aunt Jess, Dad’s sister, ran a funny little boarding house in Conwy, North Wales. Each year we spent one week’s holiday there. We travelled free by train because of Dad’s job, so we were very lucky compared to a lot of children in our area.

Aunt Jess had married late and had no children, but we were made very welcome and always had a lovely time at Maes-y-Porth, as the house was called.

By this time the war was hotting up. Mom was a bus conductress and Aunt Jess offered to take us. She had taken some official evacuees from Liverpool, who had also returned home during the “Phoney War”.

We soon settled in and it was like an active child’s paradise. Mountains to climb, the sea for swimming and a quay on the river just outside the town walls. We spent hour upon hour on the quay watching the boats, fishing for crabs, skimming flat stones and my brother Edwin helped the boatmen.

The schools were very different than in those in Birmingham; for instance for R.I. Lessons church and chapel-goers were separated. Some classes were only separated by a curtain.

The large blot on the enjoyment was being separated from Mom and Dad, and those news broadcasts that mentioned “enemy action over the West Midlands”.

We sent letters home once a week and had letters back from Mom with two shillings or half-crown for our weekly pocket money between us. Our parents came to visit when possible and our big brother, Don came to stay for a week, which was great.

Then a very worrying thing happened – the mother of the original evacuees from Liverpool wrote to ask if they could come to stay as the bombing was so bad.

I remember that Sunday afternoon. We were on our way to The Morfa with Aunt Jess’ dog, Jim, when these strangers from the train station called the dog. We were quite offended. The new arrivals were the two boys who had stayed with Aunt Jess with their mother, two brothers and a sister. After our first hostility towards them, we soon made friends with the Sparkes family.

This was our first contact with the Liverpool accent . We soon learned about “scouse” and “butties”.

The Liverpool children were Joe, John, Alan, Marge and George, aged from 14 years to 6 years. Joe started work as an errand boy, while the other attended a make-shift Roman Catholic school, which was needed due to the influx of Catholics from the Liverpool area.

We spent many happy hours together, and when the Sparkes’ older brother (Tom) came to visit he was good company and funny. I suppose he was about sixteen at the time.

The house became packed with people getting away from the blitz: Mrs O’Hara and small son, friends of the Sparkes family, Mrs Nettles from Birmingham with her son Ian and a single lady from London who was named Rose Lavender. I remember Christmas when the men all came to stay. Mom was already with us and Aunt Jess had been taken ill.

Eventually, for one reason or another, we all returned to Birmingham – the worst of the bombing seemed to be over. Life was fairly exciting and we were never bored. I was now attending the senior school. We resumed old friendships.

My sister Laurel and I were constant companions with two boys called Ronnie, who were neighbours. Ronnie Downing’s dad was a tram driver and Ronnie Plant’s dad was a platelayer. The terminus for the No. 32 tram was just down the road and Ron and I often went down to take a sandwich and a can of tea for his dad.

Sometimes we went for a short free ride on the tram – not too far as I was prone to travel sickness and usually hated the No. 32 tram with its sideways seats.

It was odd being at an all girls’ school but I got on all right – my school days were pleasant, compared with the way other people of my age remember. I was almost made a pet as I was very small.

The war continued and we followed the news, rejoicing in the news when we could and trying to live a normal life.

There were communal air raid shelters in the parks; static water tanks and barrage balloons. There were concrete road blocks to be rolled out if the worst happened. Every family had at least one member in the armed forces. Rationing was very strict but spirits were high.

The wireless was a great help and the comedy shows that the whole country listened to, and the news readers seemed like personal friends. I remember the SOS calls for anyone bringing bananas into the country to give them to the hospitals for sick children. I believe they helped with some illness.

We had some bombing but the worst happened when we were evacuated. Our house was quite near a large gas holder which was hit one night while Mom was visiting us. The story goes that my dad and older brother were just going down to the shelter – Don stood clutching some bedding.
‘Come on, son. What are you waiting for?’ Dad asked.
‘To see which way the house is going to fall,’ replied Don.