The Magic Window By Peter Dykes, Photograph by Mike Clarke
There were three things that baffled me as a kid in Vicarage Road during the mid-1950's. The first was a loud and intense roaring sound, heard usually on Saturday afternoons. The second was the incessant sound of machine-gun fire during the week. The third and most enigmatic, was the 'magic window' on the corner of Sycamore Road. When I asked my dad about these things, he told me the massive roar came from the throats of the 40,000-plus football supporters watching a match at Villa Park, cheering on the likes of Peter McParland and Johnny Dixon, who skippered the 1957 FA Cup winning team. You could hear it all round our bit of Aston, as you could the machine-gun fire. The latter, he explained, was the sound of ammunition being tested at Kynoch's ordinance factory in Witton, but I was almost a teenager before he told me the secret of the magic window.
Even before I started at Upper Thomas Street Infants School, dad would come home from Blackmore's, the factory in Park Road where he made springs for the export market, have his lunch and on most days, take me for a walk. We would cross Victoria Road in to the middle section of Vicarage Road and after a brief visit to one of my uncles who lived along there, we'd walk to the end of the street and turn right down Sycamore Road. As we rounded the corner however, he would pause very briefly to knock on a boarded-up window, which immediately flew up for no more than a couple of seconds, before slamming down again. Then it was down Sycamore Road, right along Pugh Road, right again up Victoria Road and after crossing over, we'd complete the circle by turning left at Stoke's Stores, to return to our house in the shadow of Ansells' brewery.
Occasionally, I'd do the same walk with him when he got home from work, but in reverse. As we came up Sycamore Road and turned left in to Vicarage Road, he would repeat the ritual with the window. Then we would call in at uncle Jim's for a cup of thick brown tea or, if I was lucky, some of my aunt Olive's home-made ginger beer.
I badgered dad about the window many times, but he'd always say the same thing. "It's a magic window our kid," he'd explain. "When you knock on it, it goes up and then it comes down again and it's my job to make sure it always works." I tried knocking on it on several occasions, backed up by my mates of course. I think I was hoping that eventually I would inherit this mystical task from him, but it never went up and down for me. Whenever I broached the subject with him, he'd always hoist a sly smile and say, "Ah, you have to know the secret knock, it don't just go up and down for anybody y' know."
I didn't learn the truth about the window until around 1962. By then we no longer took our daily walks, dad was working at a hotel in town and I was going to a local grammar school. My grandmother had just returned from her daily visit to the betting shop, via the Queen's Arms of course, which stood on the corner of Park Road, opposite Buchans the chemist's. I remember her saying to him, "It still don't feel right y' know, going in to that place to lay a bet." To which he replied, "Yes, but at least it's legal. No more farting about down Sycamore Road eh?"
Then it dawned on me, the magic window was in fact an illegal bookies. In those days prior to 1960, it was illegal to put a bet on a horse unless you were on a racecourse. When I asked him about it, he explained that he'd take bets from his workmates and anyone else he trusted and put them on in Sycamore Road. Having given the secret knock, he would discreetly throw a small bag of betting slips and money through the window in the short time it was open. The evening strolls were, of course, to collect any winnings. He also told me many years later that he and my uncle Walter, who lived in Vicarage Road for a time, had been doing it since the war. He smiled in happy reminisence as he recounted the many times he and his brother-in-law had been chased by the police, only to escape by dodging down alleyways and leaping over garden fences.
There was one mystery about the magic window he never explained to me though and that was why he did it. As far as I'm aware, he never gambled.
Vicarage Rd Aston. I used to live in Vicarage Rd during the war years our house was a two up and two down with a small yard. No modern cons, outside loo with a tin bath that hung on the wall out side. When there was an air raid off we would go into our Anderson shelter but mom had to get her biscuit tin first as that held all the insurance papers and birth certificates etc etc. The lady next door to us a Mrs. Hunter would not go into the shelter she had one of those large iron tables that she would hide under, how on earth they got it into her house I will never no as it weighed a ton.
One day when I was playing in the road with my friend Lillian Roberts a German air craft came over us and started to shoot all up the road, my mom grabbed me and threw me up the entry than got hold of Lillian and did the same with her, then she put her self over the two of us to protect us. The only good thing during the war was every one pulled together and helped out any one that was in trouble, not like to day when people just look after number one. One day that I will never forget is the day we had the street party when the war was over. What a day that was.
Then next came all the service people coming home to their familys, seeing a note on this site from Mel Gun about her grandparents the Baileys. I remember them well as the family made a large sign with the words Welcome Home Bill Bailey and they struck it to the wall so every one could see it. I have an old photo of Mel's uncle Ron it was taken when he was in the R.A.F. in Germany.
Vicarage road 1945 celebrations courtesy of June Moorby nee Genge
By Peter Dykes from 2 back 13 Vicarage road
I guess this is really a tale about Hockley, but a few Aston kids had an after-school job in the jewellery quarter, it was one of the things you did, if you were lucky enough to know the right people. I must have been around 13 years old when I worked at Geoff Hitchman’s grocery shop on the Lichfield Road right next to the bridge at Aston Station. Although I enjoyed my Friday evenings and Saturdays working for this colourful character, when the offer of an easier job with a bit more money came along, I was quick to follow it up.
A schoolmate had been working in the jewellery quarter but had decided to move on for some reason and so offered to put a word in for me with the chap he’d been working for. I went to meet his employer, a really nice bloke by the name of Ronnie who had a one-room workshop in an old Victorian terrace half way along Northampton Street. He shared the building with half a dozen or so other jobbing jewellers, all of whom had similar workshops and who specialised in various aspects of the trade, although they all did other bits and pieces to keep the money coming in. Ron’s expertise lay in mounting stones according to plans made up by jewellery designers. He could do all sorts of mounts, mostly on rings and very intricate brooches and usually consisting of lots of small diamonds and some bigger stones such as emeralds, rubies and sapphires. I was totally in awe of this quiet, unassuming man who had these amazing skills.
I remember Ron’s work table very clearly. It filled half the small, dingy room that was his workshop. The bench was semi-circular with the flat edge up against the window. Around the circular edge were three large, regularly-spaced, semi-circular cut-outs, big enough for a man to sit in with his feet well under the work table and have his tools around him in a 180 degree arc. One of the cut-outs had a gas jet a bit like a Bunsen burner only horizontal. Ron used this when he was welding gold rings which he had either made smaller or larger by removing or adding pieces of the precious metal. Re-sizing rings was a bread and butter activity that filled in between the more complex jobs.
In another of the recesses was a complicated clamp which he used to hold rings in place while he constructed the intricate claws that would hold in some cases many thousands of pounds worth of precious stones. In the middle of this work table was an enormous glass globe which was actually a bottle. It was filled with a blue liquid which I’m guessing was copper sulphate. Although Ron had electric lights in the workshop, on sunny days I think he worked by the light of the sun refracting through the globe. Apparently it was standard practise before electricity was commonplace. Thinking back, I’m not surprised he worked that way when he could because it had probably been no more than five years previously that we had had our gas lamps replaced by electricity in Vicarage Road where I was born and brought up and I’m guessing that Hockley wasn’t far behind.
My duties were pretty straight forward; my job was to run errands and sweep the workshop floor on a regular basis in return for which I got two or three quid – I can’t remember how much it was but it gave me a little independence and meant that at the end of the week I could buy five Park Drive tipped cigarettes without raising my parent’s suspicions. Among the errands I ran for Ron in the first week I worked for him was the inevitable trip to the local newsagent for a copy of ‘The Burglar’s Outlook’ and a visit to the hardware shop for a pair of sky hooks. I dutifully went in search of these mythical items and returned to the workshop feeling like a failure on both occasions. 14-year-olds were far more innocent in those days than they are now. Ron and his mates just laughed but in a very friendly way. It was my initiation I guess. He was also very protective towards me.
At school and at play, me and my mates would eff and blind along with the best of them, but never in front of our elders, so of course, I never swore in front of Ron. One evening however, one of his mates came into the workshop upset about something and began mouthing off. Immediately Ron said something like ‘pack it in, not in front of the kid.’ This lead to a peculiar situation so far as I was concerned because I knew Ron and his mates all swore but they didn’t think I did. I think Ron thought I was this naïve little 13-year-old who would probably blush if he heard bad language, but I just wanted to be one of the lads. The situation was never resolved and as far as I can remember, we never swore in each other’s company for the two years I worked for him.
As I said though, my duties were fairly straightforward but by today’s standards they were quite remarkable, particularly in terms of the levels of trust involved. Indeed, the nature of the errands I used to run for Ron and sometimes for his fellow jewellers I still find amazing. Those errands embodied the spirit, the tradition and the daily practise of the real Birmingham jewellery quarter as it had existed for probably a century or more. It was a back-street industry that produced some of the finest jewellery in the world and which depended not only on trust between people like Ron and his customers and suppliers, but also on trusting 13-yerar old kids like me. It’s not something you can enshrine in a museum, other than as some form of recorded testimony. It’s not something you can put in a glass case. It’s not even something we thought about at the time, it was just how it was.
When he got an order for a new ring or brooch design, Ron would write out a note and tell me to take it to a stone merchant a street or two away, and off I would go. On arriving at some dingy little office with a counter top-to ceiling wire mesh grille broken only by a metal hatch, the elderly lady sat behind it would take the note I had pushed through a small space in the grille and would proceed to fulfil Ron’s order. She would intone something along the lines of, “Twenty four bright cut half-carat diamonds, half a dozen assorted emeralds, five sapphires and a couple rubies,” according to whatever Ron had written, as she took them out of a safe.
She would then proceed to wrap the stones in several pieces of torn up newspaper, put them in a brown paper bag and pass them to me through the hatch. She would usually finish the transaction with something like, “Tell Ron these are on appro (approval) and we’ll sort out payment when he sends back what he don’t want.” I would then go back to Ron’s workshop a couple of streets away with the little brown paper bag, he would select the stones he wanted and a day or two later I’d take the remainders, wrapped in newspaper, back to the stone merchant. That was the way of it. I couldn’t see that happening now, but like I said earlier, that’s how it was then.
Sweeping up the workshop floor was also an important job. Most of the work Ron did involved filing or otherwise sculpting gold in some way, which meant small quantities of gold dust inevitably ended up on the floor. Over a working week, these small quantities, though largely invisible to the naked eye, could become significant and so the floor sweepings were valuable. Every Friday evening I would scrupulously sweep the floor of the workshop and put the contents into a paper sack. It was mainly dust and dirt but it had a value. I would take the sack to a local smelting company who would burn off the dust and dirt and credit Ron’s account with the remaining gold content, minus a fee I guess, but it was obviously worth his while.
As far as I can remember, my time in the jewellery quarter finished when the flatted factory was being built just off Holloway Circus. A lot of jewellers either moved there or went out of business due to the planned redevelopment of Hockley. In retrospect, I think I was very lucky to have glimpsed the end of an era in one of the thousand trades that Birmingham is renowned for. The current preservation of the jewellery quarter is laudable, however there are some aspects of the life of that industry that do not have a physical manifestation, like the trust that existed between a jobbing jeweller and a 13-year-old kid, so I hope that this modest account of my experiences working on the edge of the Birmingham jewellery trade in some small way gives an insight into the way that once vibrant industry operated.
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