Colin Rammell’s Memories at 18 Shefford Road, Aston
It was a Sunday, Mom was sitting on what seemed to be a great big bed with me beside her waiting for dad to come home with a small bag of sweets. But I had a long wait, for dad was at one of the many local pubs that opened at 11 o’clock every day of the week. Dad never came home until the pub closed at 2.30 in the afternoon. Dad often sought a fight with other men at the local pubs, generally when they fixed their lecherous eyes on Norah, my mother. He invited them outside to settle matters resulting in him sometimes arriving home somewhat bruised. As I grew older, dad would take me down to The Holte pub at the junction of Trinity Rd and Witton Lane where they held professional boxing bouts.
Mom and dad’s upstairs bedroom had a black fireplace; never with a fire in it; on the one wall. Next to the fireplace was a dark brown dressing table with a mirror above it. On the wall facing the bed were the double-sashed windows, which the window cleaner came to clean on the outside each fortnight. Next to the window was the double wardrobe, again dark brown. That’s all I remember apart from a wooden clothes stand.
I slept in the bedroom on the other side of the upstairs landing with Peter my brother. My sister Jeanne slept in the tiny back bedroom. The stairs leading upstairs to the bedrooms creaked with every step, and once made one hell of a noise when my father fell down them in a drunken state. Looking out from our bedroom window over the brick wall (see picture) we could see terraced houses even more primitive than ours - communal loos and boiler houses - everything looked black and dismal there. Their entrance was in Aston Brook St up a wide alley directly opposite the Norton Motor Cycle factory (see building in background of picture).
Recollections of my early years are of being inside the house looking out through the front window at the dancing policemen, as mom called the rain drops, as the rain bucketed down; or feeling the cold early in the day before the fire was lit, usually late in the afternoon. Memories of the outside world began at the age of three when I started going to the local Sunday School held at the Elkington St Junior School, about five minutes walk from home.
(Miss) Dorothy Eggison stood out amongst the teachers there. Dorothy had a beautiful, beaming face and a remarkable piano-playing ability. The Eggisons ran the greengrocers shop in Aston Rd round the corner from Bracebridge St. Sadly, her future husband, Les Bentley, died many years later when he stepped in front of a bus in New Street. School days were different then to those now. We were taught and expected to have respect for our teachers and parents; to not speak until spoken to; to be thankful for small mercies; and to have responsibilities and duties but not rights. Mom always ensured I went every Sunday in my “Sunday Best”: it was the ‘done thing’. Many of the children came in old clothes, but still their best.
On Sundays we could do few things that boys liked. No cards (a sinful pastime on Sundays) or games that made a noise; and no getting dirty or we would spoil our Sunday Best clothes. Even dad agreed with these strictures despite his disinterest in anything religious. Not that our behaviour on Sundays had much relevance to dad except when he came home to sleep after the pub closed at 2.30 and before he returned to the pub round about 6.3O when it re-opened. So I spent my time playing games like ludo, snakes and ladders, dominoes, draughts, etc or just reading. We also played the favourite pub game of the time ‘shuvapeny’ (shove halfpenny) at home on a specially marked slate slab marked with the required ten lines. We spent a lot of time polishing the coins on the slate so they would slide better.
Dinner was at lunchtime on Sundays. The rest of the week we had lunch at mid-day, often bread slices spread with dripping and seasoned with salt and pepper, followed by our so-called tea at night. “What’s for tea, mom” was a common cry. Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest but for mom it seemed to be one of her hardest days as she worked away in the kitchen preparing and dishing up what was usually a roast dinner. The kitchen was very small. As you walked in from the living room there was a black gas stove on the left, a home-made small cupboard where all the cleaning materials were kept, a copper for washing clothes, and a small square white-tiled sink where we cleaned our teeth and washed our faces and the dishes.
There was no hot water on tap. We had a bath once a week in a galvanized iron bath brought in from hanging on the fence outside. The living room floor was covered in lino with a single pegged rug, made from sacking into which were inserted scraps of material, in front of the open fire. Mom made us delicious rice puddings in the oven built into the grate, which was blackened with Zebo every few weeks.
Lighting in our house was very poor at first as we only had gas. We were all excited when electricity was finally connected in about 1939. When dad was at home the lights went on only when he said so. The same applied to the wireless (radio) because of the “electricity it used up”. Mom paid for the electricity and gas by feeding coins into meters that were in the front room downstairs beside the bay window. Heating was provided in the winter by the usual open fire. Horse and cart delivered coal to us in hundred weight sacks. The sacks were carried up our entry on the back of the coalman before being dumped in our coalhouse alongside the outside toilet. Mom usually bought ten bags (half a ton) at a time. My, how those coalmen must have toiled as winter drew near and everyone stocked up.
Beer also was delivered to the local off-licences by horse drawn vehicles. With all the horses, there was plenty of manure round and about. Peter and I had to collect it for dad’s dahlias which he cultivated with some pride. Unbeknown to dad, Peter developed an entrepreneurial spirit early in life and sold buckets of manure to willing buyers for tuppence a bucketful which didn’t leave so much for dad!
Mom was often short of money and used next door Mrs Penny or Gertrude Fall who ran the pawnshop in Bracebridge Street to tide her over.
The outbreak of war left no impression on my mind, the earliest recollection being the arrival of the corrugated iron sheets for the Andersen shelter to protect us from the bombs. I was excited when our family constructed the shelter (see picture) although I was not allowed to help in other than a minor way. The strongest memories of the shelter are of using it as a place to play in with my friends George Lloyd and Raymond Hodgetts from across the road. Surprisingly, the neighbours on either side of us never installed a shelter. Public air raid shelters were built underground on the Elkington Street recreation ground, along with the installation of a couple of anti-aircraft balloons. The underground shelters were probably largely used by courting couples. The nearest I came to this was one evening when Peter got me to turn my bike upside down and pedal madly to produce the light so he could make a drawing of one of the girls in our circle of friends, Maureen Hall who lived in Elkington Street!
The war was an exciting time as so much happened during those six years. According to the records, Birmingham experienced its first bombing raid on 8 August 1940, the longest air raid occurring on 11 December 1940 when 200 German bombers pounded Birmingham for 13 hours. King George VI inspected the damage the following day but I don’t recall this. About 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped in 27 separate air raids on Birmingham during the war. Over 2,000 people were killed, but none in Shefford Road. Bombing raids reportedly stopped in 1943.
Although most of the bombing raids were at night the air-raid siren occasionally sounded during the day. The siren was quite frightening with its wailing sound. There was a rush by mom to get Peter and me into the shelter if we weren’t already there. For some time, Peter and I went down into the shelter as soon as it was dark and slept there all night. I don’t recall dad ever being in the shelter. The exciting part was listening for the drone of an airplane once the siren had gone, and then arguing as to whether it was one of ours or one of theirs. Everyone became an instant expert, or so we thought, in identifying planes either by their sound or their shape. I spent many an hour looking at pictures of the British and German planes, and then drawing them. Not that this helped much as I saw only one German plane during daytime while the British planes were too high up for me to recognise. As the drone of the planes got louder and louder we waited for the whine of the falling bombs. Rarely did I hear the bombs exploding except in the distance. Most times the drone continued overhead and then gradually faded away with mom’s comforting words that they were our planes. The planes in fact were always ours according to mom even when the bomb fell shortly afterwards! I don’t remember any of the Shefford Road houses being bombed except when an incendiary bomb fell on the roof of Jeanne’s back bedroom and burned the bed and floor boards. Apart from this, the closest a bomb came to us was when the Norton motorbike factory round the corner in Aston Brooke Street caught fire following a bombing raid. Peter recalls that Millers Cycle factory round the corner in Miller St was destroyed, as was Dobson & Crowthers paper factory at the end of Aston Brook St in Aston Rd. A house round the corner in Miller Street was also bombed.
The houses in our immediate area were all double-storied terraced brick, and built in 1883 (or was it 1888?) according to a plaque over one of the four entries in Shefford Rd. Houses that looked so secure and solid revealed their frailty when demolished by a bomb. The picture that forms in my mind now is of the dividing wall between two houses in Miller St being blown away with their lath ceilings caved in and hanging down. Broken bricks and bits of glass were scattered everywhere. To reduce the risk of flying broken glass everyone was instructed to criss-cross their windows with sticky strips of brown paper. Night was a very dark time, especially during the winter, as no lights were allowed outside for six years or so. ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens patrolled the streets and seemed to take a sadistic delight in finding even a twinkle of light showing through the curtains or glowing from a hand-held battery torch. “Pull those curtains!” or “Turn out that light!” was commonly screamed out for everyone to hear. The day after a night’s bombing raid was an adventure as I searched the local streets for shrapnel. I didn’t realize until quite recently how efficient shrapnel was at killing people. The shrapnel pieces apparently travelled at over 3,000 mph immediately after the bomb exploded. We became instant experts in identifying the bits of shrapnel. A prize finding was any shrapnel with German markings on it.
We continued playing kid’s games in the road during the war. In those days, cars rarely drove along Shefford Road (none of the residents owned a car) so we rarely bothered about that danger although Peter recalls that a boy was killed by a car when playing in the road. The main danger to us was the wrath of some of the housewives who feared that their front windows would be broken as we played our ball games. The main one to be feared was Mrs Stanley who seemed to spend the whole day looking out of her front window. Games we engaged in outside included the usual soccer, cricket, rounders, and hop-scotch (a game that girls favoured). I had a lot of fun with my bow and arrow. Not so Peter who bore a scar on his nose for life as a result of a misguided arrow. He never knew that I had fired the arrow! I made the bow from a length of ash timber bought from Mr Shaw’s joinery shop nearbye in Aston Road. I was scared to go into Mr Shaw’s shop as he had a very large tumour on the side of his face that later caused his death when it burst. We also became dab hands at knife throwing, a past-time that was frowned on by our parents but seemed to be otherwise acceptable. Handstands against the wall were also a way to pass the time and to show how long we could stay upside down. The gutter played a large part in our activities as we rolled our marbles, floated bits of wood along when it had been raining, or collected fag ends (cigarette butts). We made our own catapults with thick elastic bands and played out mock wars by shooting folded bits of paper at each other.
On Saturday afternoons we went to the Picture House on Newtown Row. It was known as the Newtown flea pit, probably because it was so dirty, smelly and below street level. We also had fun driving our go-carts constructed from a couple of planks mounted on four pram wheels. Unfortunately, on one such occasion, the go-cart came to a sudden stop throwing me headfirst over the top. My nose grazed along the road and became encrusted with grit! Mom’s solution was to remove most of the gravel by bathing and then to cover the whole of my nose with a piece of absorbent lint (which every mother kept in her first aid box or cupboard).
My nose was somewhat famous for its size, much to my chagrin as a self-conscious boy and then teenager. It was colloquially called a ‘conker’ by my schoolmates and later became a cause of ribald insinuations by members of the opposite sex. The following day I attended grammar school for the first time. As if attending a new school wasn’t enough strain I now had to attend wearing a lint patch over my nose! On top of this I had to wear a second hand uniform and, worst of all, a Billy Bunter style cap on top of my head. Around the district that we lived in, you were asking for trouble if you wore such a cap. So I stuffed the cap in my pocket until I was well clear of the local neighborhood and only put it on when I had to.
To get to King Edward’s Grammar school I caught the 3X double-decker tram that travelled backwards and forwards between the centre of the city (Martineau Street) and Witton. The tram stopped nine or ten times on its journey on each leg of its journey. I caught the tram outside the newsagents owned by the father of Betty Neville on Aston Road. Len, my eldest brother, had a crush on Betty that was reciprocated for a long time but nothing eventuated. The trams passed by frequently so you didn’t have to be there at any given time: one soon turned up. When there was a match on at Villa Park, there was a continual stream of 3X trams travelling up and down Aston Road. The trams rocked from side to side as they went along. I generally travelled on the open-air upper level as it seemed more exciting but the tram conductor who issued the tickets would often tell us where to go if the tram was filling up. Only five standing passengers were allowed downstairs, and none upstairs. These conditions seemed to be strictly enforced.
I never think of the trams without remembering the very rare occasions when I was on the tram with dad. He didn’t buy a ticket but relied on the mass of old tickets he kept in his pocket. If the conductor asked to see his ticket he would slowly forage through the mass of tickets in his pocket, hopefully until the conductor gave up waiting and went away! The conductor had no spare time as people were getting on and off the tram all the time. How often he used this subterfuge to support his drinking habits I shall never know.
The 3X tram travelled via Aston Cross where the Astoria picture house was situated. I used to stand outside the Astoria somewhat guiltily in my early teens to see ‘A’ certificate films. To see a film with an A certificate when you were under age you had to find an adult in the queue who was willing to take you in with them. The accepted phrase to use was “Please Mr(or Mrs) can you take me in?” Nine times out of ten you were ignored but with luck a gullible adult with a soft spot for you would agree and in you went. In those early days there were only U films (universal for all ages) and A films (suitable for adults only unless accompanied by an adult). Later, as standards were lowered, an X rated category was introduced to cater for the more outlandish films. Initially these were usually French, Danish or Swedish films that had an explicit sexual content.
The walk along Fredrick Road from the tram stop to the school was a couple of hundred yards, sufficient to get soaking wet on a cold winter’s morning with the rain pelting down. Not a good start to a day’s learning. It was wet on the first day I attended in September 1944. The school frightened me. It was a double-storied stone building, somewhat like a castle, with an inner courtyard. On the left of the entrance archway was the caretaker’s residence (occupied by an old man known as Chad). About six hundred children attended the school, mostly from the more affluent areas of Birmingham compared with the Shefford Road area. My school uniform and books were all second hand which marked me out as coming from the ’lower levels of society’. The quality of the education there was high apart from the Biology and Religious Instruction, the teacher who was obese and often fell asleep; and the French teacher who threw a slipper at boys who weren’t paying attention.
Families that I recall as living in Shefford Road during the 1940’s included the Shakespears who lived at No.4. The Flavells lived at No.12 and I sometimes played with their son Alan although the parents tended to discourage this as they considered themselves somewhat superior. I think Mr Flavell was a painter and decorator but he may have been a builder. Fred Penny and his wife lived next door to us at No. 16. Fred used to cut our hair. Their son Fred married my mother’s sister Dorothy who initially lived with mom at No. 18. Bob and Hilda Jones lived at No. 20. Bob worked at Harris’s the bakers on the corner of Bracebridge St. Bob and Hilda rode around on a tandem which often gave us kids a laugh. He started work at 4 am each day. The Cottons lived at No. 26 but were rarely seen. Unfortunately their sole child, Billy, was intellectually handicapped. On one of the rare occasions that Billy left the house he threw a lump of coke at me for no apparent reason. I still bear the resulting scar on my chin, 70 odd years later. The Stanleys kept to themselves and lived at No. 30. The Davies’s lived at No. 32, and had a beautiful daughter Viloet who married Harold Heslington, an electrician. The Holmes lived at No. 34, their daughter Sylvia, being one of Peter’s girl friends until the relationship came to an end when Sylvia believed that Peter had been flirting with someone else! The Griffin’s lived at No. 36, which was where we were taught for a short time before being evacuated. The Rowbottoms ran the small grocery shop at the bottom of the road on the corner with Aston Brook St. I remember buying broken biscuits and tins of salmon as a special treat from the Rowbottoms. On the other side of the road the Potter’s lived at No. 1-3 on the corner with Miller Street. Peter recounts that Mrs Potter was a tireless worker for the Conservative party at election time and was probably a rent collector. ‘Old’ Mr Lloyd lived at No. 7, and in his eighties was often seen sitting on his doorstep drinking his pint of beer. I once saw him throw a bucket of water over two dogs to de-couple them, a common practice in those days! The Lench’s lived at No. 17, their daughter Doris being somewhat of a tom-boy who often joined us in our games.
Of special note are the Smiths who lived at No. 19. Mr Smith was a dustman whose wife died at a comparatively young age from consumption (TB). Their son was Wal and their daughter, Nellie, who looked after their second son, Ronnie, for many years. Ronnie was a handicapped cripple whose trouble was, according to Nellie’s account to Peter, the result of a difficult birth. The midwife was apparently late arriving with the result that Mr Smith knelt on his wife’s belly to force the baby out! Nellie will always be remembered, as she was the last person to leave Shefford Road.
The Ellis’s lived at No. 21. The son of ‘Old’ Mr Lloyd lived with his family of about ten at No. 25. The son worked at Rudders & Payne, the timber merchants in Chester Road, that later burned down in. The Hodgetts’s lived at No. 29, the younger son, Ray, being a close friend of mine. He was crippled with polio(myelitis) but this never deterred him in any game he played. He was especially gifted as a batsman and even played a good game of soccer in the road with us. He later happily married a girl who lived in Aston Brook Street.
Our family gradually moved away from Shefford Road, myself to New Zealand in 1957, and mom to Kings Heath in 1967 when she was finally allocated a maisonette and could once again watch children playing in the road.
During the week, I attended the Elkington Street Junior School from 1936 to 1945. The walls of each classroom at Elkington Junior School were covered with letters of the alphabet, lists of simple words starting or finishing with the same letters or sounds; and multiplication tables. All in black and white. Outside on the asphalt playground I remember running around, jumping over a rope held at each end by two other boys, and jumping in and out of a skipping rope at the behest of the school teacher. The biggest and strongest boy was known as the cock of the school.
My time at the school was broken in 1940 when Peter and I were evacuated to Donisthorpe, a small village about 30 miles north of Aston. (I note from the Miller Street memoirs that Margaret Padley was also evacuated to Donisthorpe, but I don’t recall Margaret). Our belongings were packed into two small suitcases, one for Peter and one for me. We stayed with Mr and Mrs Shuttleworth in Moira Road, Donisthorpe. They had no internally piped water supply. All water was drawn from a well in the middle of the path leading from the back door to the garden. The (outside) toilet was simply a hole in the centre of a raised wooden seat, presumably with a bucket of some sort underneath, but with no water supply. What a comparison with a modern ensuite! The outside toilet in Shefford Road to which we returned nine months later was primitive but not as primitive as that. At least there was a chain to pull, and the usual cut-up newspaper hanging by string from the nail in the wall that was whitewashed from time to time with lime.
Mom got most of her groceries from Wrenson’s in Aston Road and her vegetables from Sketchley’s just round the corner in Bracebridge Street. I remember buying a sack of King Edwards potatoes, advertised at five lbs for sixpence, from there. Bread was obtained from George Baines close to Goodman’s the chemist just round the corner from Aston Brook Street in Aston Road. I started work at Goodmans when I was eleven years old, sweeping the floors, washing all the returned medicine bottles, and carrying out other menial tasks. I worked from 4.30-6pm five days a week and from 9.30-12.30 on Saturday mornings. For this, I got five shillings a week which increased as I got older and moved up the ladder. I gradually served in the shop and when I was about 15 began dispensing the medicines prescribed largely by the two Dr Leslies (brothers) who operated from their surgery on the opposite corner of Aston Road. It was OK in those days for unqualified people to dispense medicines as long as they did so under the supervision of a registered chemist. Despite this, on one occasion Mr Goodman, bless his soul, left me at the age of 17 in sole control of the shop for a week while he went away on holiday. I dispensed all the medicines but no-one appeared to be any the worse for it! Mr Goodman would have been struck off the register these days.
I learned how to make lipstick and shampoos at Goodman’s. Dad sold them at the local pubs for me – the buyers thought they were better (ie cheaper) than the products they bought from Goodman’s. I also made my own fireworks with chemicals I got from Goodmans or the local drysalters. Once I nearly blew myself up and terrified Hilda Jones, our next-door neighbour, with the noise of the explosion.