Acocks Green village c. 1944, by Brian Wilkinson
Pretty flower beds and two large lawns greeted Spot and me every time we walked into Acocks Green Village. Set out around the borders are comfortable garden benches enticing the village shoppers to lay down their shopping bags, rest awhile, hopefully to engage in juicy gossip? A bus terminus divides the gardens. The bus drivers and conductors would sit on the garden benches to chat about the journey, family, football, maybe a film they had seen, and they always smoke a cheap cigarette. A bus would arrive at the terminus and discharge its passengers. The conductor would then climb to the upper deck, begin hand- winding the rotating destination roll until the “not in service” sign shows, press the bus bell and off they would go to the big garage in Fox Hollies Road which housed the city’s Corporation buses. Here these monsters would be cleaned, serviced and made ready for duty.
In 1946 after his part in the downfall of a very nasty bloke called Adolf and 6 years service in the army, my exceptional Uncle Harold drove buses for the next 40 years. Several of my aunties also worked on the buses as conductresses. I would time their arrival at the terminus so I could ride for free, that is until the ticket inspector came on board, then I was hastily issued with a ticket.
Standing as a backdrop to the two islands were lots of shops. A cinema, a wonderful library, public house, a junior school, and Acocks Green church. The village was known to us locals as ‘The Green’. It was a very jolly and vigorous place. Thousands of people would pass through every day, people staring out from the bus windows going to work in the factories, youngsters being guided to school, more workers returning home, maybe from a night shift at the huge Lucas factory at Shaftmoor Lane. They helped to build aeroplanes and boasted the largest unsupported roof span in Europe. Here they built Lancaster bombers!
A large white-faced clock, made of ornamental moulded cast iron painted a bright coloured green, stood in the centre of the Green. It was the job of all bus drivers to wind up the clock when they started on their journeys. The clock was important because it showed villagers young or old the time. Watches on the wrists of the local populace were scarce in 1944.
The Warwick cinema was one of about 80 cinemas within the city, bringing a couple of hours of welcome entertainment to the tired people of this vibrant industrial city. The Warwick had an air of mystery for me. Johnny Ogden and me loved looking into the showcases displaying still photographs which showed tantalising snatches of the film showing at that moment, or next week’s film and forthcoming attractions. They enticed you to see the film which was on display.
Walking into the Warwick, the dimly lit auditorium could surprise you. It was tiny. The floor was white tiled and was not inviting if it was raining or snowing. The cashiers waited to greet you from a glass booth. Two wide curved staircases with brass balustrades led to the circle and upper circle. Sanderson wallpaper gave the place a sense of intimacy rather than splendour. The place had an eerie quietness about it; all the staff appeared to speak softly. The Manager often stood in the auditorium. He was middle aged, slightly plump, not much hair, but always in a smart double-breasted suit, and wearing a white shirt which was finished off with a sombre tie. He was polite rather than friendly. Heavy oak doors with brass handles needed to be pulled opened to enter the stalls. The final obstacles were red draped curtains. These had to be drawn aside, then you were at last in this magical place of film, trying to find a seat whilst at the same time staring up at the screen, sit back, lose your self in the films of Fred Astaire, Clark Cable, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Eleanor Powell, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy. The films were mainly American. All the characters were beautiful and handsome and lived in grand houses or hotel apartments and travelled in large beautiful cars. Oh, and the sun was always shining! English-made films portrayed our resilience “We can take it” attitudes. For example, films like “The Day Went Well”, a severe contrast to our normal city lives. There were films called “Good news” and “It happened in Brooklyn”, which were a couple of American films that made us feel good, starring June Alison, Peter Law ford, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durant. Also The Abbott and Costello films, of course. During the interval there was Pathe News or Gaumont News. Wonderful black and white newsreels, dramatically informing us of what was going on in our war-torn world outside the Warwick cinema, Acocks Green village, or Birmingham for that matter.
A large soulless public house stood next to the cinema. Not much time had been taken up with choosing a name for it `The Green! ` It had no distinguishing features. Its sole purpose was to provide refreshment for travellers coming into the village or leaving. The fishmongers would call in hoping to down a pint or two during their lunch hour.
The library was a truly delightful building. Its exterior beckoned you to come inside and discover the surprises found in reading books. This was my favourite place. On your first visit a mature kind lady helped you enrol. Suddenly you were let loose among thousands of library books. A buff-coloured membership card was given to me, which entitled me to read three books of my choosing. A friendly aroma of polished wood followed you about the library. The quietness slowed you, surrounding you with a tranquillity, telling you this was a very special place. During the winter months, warmth from the radiators added to this calmness, particularly if there was snow on the ground or it had been raining .Then the library would give off a distinct aroma, a bouquet of clothes drying out, quite a unique pong! Inside the library, wandering around the shelves, titles vying for your attention, the feeling was like pulling a warm blanket around you. My village library enraptured me. So many books to enjoy!
The village shops formed a closed ring around `The Green`: the butchers, the bakers, the greengrocers, the Co-op. Missing from this mix was the candle-maker, however coming to the rescue was Woollies who sold candles (loose), they wrapped them up in a small brown bag . All the shops were busy offering a surprising choice of merchandise, considering the times and rationing. Even small boys found excitement in these establishments. We would gaze, handle, our pennies permitting sometimes buy. Lloyds bank was the exception; they were not keen on small boys wandering around this sombre place looking for mischief!
Burton the Tailor provided a landmark in ‘The Green’. A large glass double plated fronted shop, with four steps led customers up and through an avenue of glass windows displaying tailor’s dummies dressed in Men’s suits, or casual wear. Men’s shirts offering different styles were displayed in glass cabinets, any colour you desired providing it was white! Walking past double doors with Burtons the tailor embossed in the glass, you were greeted by older charming sales assistants willing to cater to your needs. You were always addressed as Sir or Madam during your visit.
Burton’s shops always had a dance studio on the upper floor. I never saw or heard of anyone actually going in there, however, ballroom dancing was extremely popular in those days. Maybe dancers came there at night when I was tucked up in bed.
The Woolworth store was next door. It was known as Woollies, what a contrast. Woollies were the most popular shop in the whole of the Green. A saying frequently heard was “I’m just popping into Woollies”. As a small boy I spent hours meandering through this Aladdin’s cave, always on the look out for imitation cowboy guns and caps of course. The store had a wooden floor, worn down by thousands of customers including me running from one counter to another eager to see what lastest toys were on offer and did I have enough pocket money to buy my desires or did I have to run more errands for Mrs Yates! I actually owned a cowboy gun and holster, successfully shooting many of my mates when we played cowboys and Indians in the fields at the back of our house. Six pence a week did not go far. The sweet counter was the all-time favourite; a penny went a long way at this counter. Christmas time brought wonderful moments. The pre-war Christmas decorations were brought out, helping to give an air of excitement. The displays of toys enticed children to pull at their parents’ coats begging them “Can Father Christmas bring me this, mom?” “I’ll have to speak with your Dad” came back the disappointing reply.
Mothers on the other hand would be looking at cottons, pegs, kitchen utensils, gadgets, which would bring joy to making their labours easier and broke after a few weeks’ use. Of absolutely no interest to small boys. Dads would be looking at the cheap garden tools, screws, nails and pliers brought in from America. England was occupied making things to see off Adolf and his mates. Families spent hours in this wonderful emporium.
All the grocery shops and greengrocers benefited by being close to these giants. Fridays, certainly Saturdays were the big shopping days simply because the local men who worked day and night in the factories had been paid. Saturdays, I would often meet up with my cousins. We would wander off on our own maybe into the library, definitely Woollies , whilst my mom and the other women battled to find food they could afford to feed us for another week . Women, I’m not sure my Mom did, would take a break from their routine shopping to look in the windows of Fellows or Adams where they would have a small display of dresses or coats for sale. During the war and years after I don’t think my mom ever bought anything from these shops. My mom shopped for our clothes from a catalogue, paying a small amount to a man that knocked at our front door every Friday night.
The village was set out in a form of a giant heart, the roads leading in and out like major arteries. Warwick road passed through the Green then took you past the giant railway sheds and repair depot at Tyesley - a train spotter’s paradise. A prime target for Adolf’s Air force! Warwick Road eventually merged with Stratford Road, another shopping paradise. One would see little faces pressed to the buses’ windows going into the centre of Birmingham. If you travelled in the opposite direction, Warwick Road led to Solihull town, another land, where people lived in large detached houses with neatly cut lawns, and had bread and milk delivered to their doors, which was a mystery to a small boy.
My family rarely went into the centre of Birmingham to shop in the large department stores such as Lewis’s and Greys. Christmas time was the exception; we joyfully joined the large crowds to wave and welcome Father Christmas arriving at Lewis’s departmental store.
The Outer Circle bus route also passed through the Green as part of its incredible journey around the outer limits of the City of Birmingham - a tour that would take around 2.5 hours. Jonnie Ogden and I and a package of jam sandwiches did this journey once. We sat on the upper deck, on the front seat of a number 11. What an adventure it was, like going to a foreign country, passing by many large houses with cars parked on the driveway. There were parks with swans in their lakes; our park only had common ducks! Shopping centres looking very much like our Green. Not so smart areas where people were dressed like us. Children playing in the streets next to factories alive with their workers. It was the first time I saw how large my city was and I was a tiny part of it. In our excitement we forgot to eat our jam sandwiches.
In later years I would travel from the Green into the centre of Birmingham, attracted to the city’s grand cinemas, the Odeon or the Gaumont. These colossal monuments to film employed staff in smart uniforms; they wore white gloves and matching hats. The Odeon staff wore red uniforms, the Gaumont wore blue. It was very grand, very expensive, no nine-penny seats here. I once kissed a girl in the Odeon. There was also a cinema called the Cinefone, they showed naughty continental films, so I’m told.
The Green had very wide pavements; this was long before we called them piazzas. I remember seeing a gang of German prisoners being guarded by soldiers repairing the pavements. The Green was a meeting place, find friends, family, admire their children, and then tell the truth later. Most of my family lived near to the Green so it was usual to meet my Mom’s sisters, uncles, cousins, often outside Woollies or Thomson’s the bakers. They would tell each other of any bargains to be had. Or Mr Stokes’ meat appears expensive this weekend but cheaper at Dunn’s and he had a few rabbits in as well. There were many grocery shops, Masons the Maypole, mine was the Co-op. The Co-op used a system of tubes which worked on a vacuum. These sent money from the shop assistants up to a cashier who sat behind a glass window. The change if there was any would be returned to the assistant via this tube and they would hand it back to my mom with a smile and say thank you. I was fascinated by this marvel of wires and tubes.
These shops had a distinct aroma depending on what they sold; there was sawdust on their wooden floors, which was swept up at closing time ready for a fresh lot the next day. The fishmongers were the smelliest. Here assistants would call out the bargains of the day, rubbing their large red hands swollen by ice-cold water and ice. The different types of fish were fascinating.
Wyatt’s radio and bicycle shop smelt of bakelite, acid and oil. To me not an unpleasant smell and quickly forgotten when I was dreaming of owning a brand new racing bike in a few years time made by Raleigh, Hercules or BSA. I was fourteen when I had earned enough money from my paper round to buy the bike. It was a three-speed BSA; blue with drop handlebars. Boy did it go!
Visits to the Green with my mom would be spent looking at the displays in shop windows. Sylvia my sister would sit or sleep peacefully in her pram. I would stand, hands on her pram, looking after her.
My mom would stop to chat with friends or family; I would have my hair ruffled, and then be told how I was growing at an alarming rate, which was not true. I’m only 5’ 7”now. I would shuffle my feet and stare down at the paving slabs. I wore clothes handed down for me by my aunts when my cousins had either grown out of them or they needed repairing - sometime both. My contribution was to grow into these garments.
The Green has not changed too much and can still be recognised by many unchanged landmarks. The church, the Inn on the Green pub and the bus terminus. No longer there to twitch the memory is Dixon’s, a family owned men’s outfitters. I bought my wedding suit here and Mr Dixon gave me a flower because I bought something.
The buses still do battle with modern day traffic, taking people to work or returning them home. You can still ride around the outer ring road. West Midlands Transport now takes you on this adventure. Woollies are no more, it’s a charity shop! Burton still sells suits, and a martial-arts studio has now replaced the dance studio to cater for the young bloods.
The library is still providing books, warmth, quietness, joy and learning for the young and not so young.
Sadly the Warwick cinema is now a bowling alley. The school continues to keep its doors open to the world’s young. Local residents enthusiastically maintain the war memorial. The Green recently won Gold in`Villages in Bloom’.
Brian Wilkinson (March, 2016)