Memories of Acocks Green, by Arthur Cundall
When Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany, at 11am on the 3rd of September, I was confined to bed, with a minor infection, in the smallest of our three bedrooms. The significance of the event meant nothing to me, on that sunny autumn morning, at the age of 10 years and a few weeks. Nothing happened immediately to greatly affect the way we lived, or indeed as far as I was concerned, for some time afterwards. My mother's fear that my father, who had served in the previous war, would be required to join the army were unfounded and I continued with school.
We lived at 48 Fenton Road, a three-bedroomed semi-detached council house, built in the mid-1920s, in the Birmingham suburb of Acocks Green. It had a kitchen and bathroom adjacent to each other downstairs and a single living room at the front of the house, with a single toilet outside, adjacent to the back door, which opened straight into the kitchen. This lav, as it was always called, terms such as loo and toilet being unknown, had a high level cistern activated by a chain pull; a feature which my father is said to have highlighted when he answered a question on a National Census form, which asked for details of facilities in the property, by writing ”One, with chain”. The house was a little below street level, rendered with grey stucco and fronted by a small garden with a larger garden at the back. The living room was heated by a coal fire, the fuel for which was stored in a wooden bunker that Dad had made outside. A simple gas cooker stood on the quarry-tiled kitchen floor, next to the small pantry, which “geographically” was situated behind the outside lav. A wash tub with a wooden dolly was used for laundry, though where and how the water for this was heated I cannot recall. To remove excess water from the washing there was a large mangle, such as now is found only in museums and stately houses which are opened to the public, and this occupied a place in the kitchen. Basic though it seems, it was the norm for its time.
The back garden, longer than it was wide, had a paved path near the left side, running alongside the “back grass” to the bottom of the garden, where the air raid shelter had been built in the months prior to the declaration of war. For since the September of 1938, when Chamberlain had obtained a year of peace, there had been preparations for war with the anticipation that if it came, air attacks on Britain could be expected. The shelter, known as an Anderson shelter, after the Home Secretary of the time, who had authorised its manufacture, was widely distributed to households which, presumably, had expressed a wish to have one. However they were allocated, the components from which to construct one were delivered to us early in 1939. Doubtless my father's experiences in the trench warfare of 1916 influenced him in ensuring we had one and also the care with which he built it. The parts were fabricated from corrugated, galvanised iron, which bolted together to form an inverted U, rectangular in plan, approximately 10ft x 8ft, perhaps a little less. Angle iron sections at the base held the structure in shape, and the whole was partially sunk into the ground by 2 to 3ft. It was a big rectangular hole that we dug, as I think I helped, reminiscent of a grave: which it nearly became.
The soil from the excavation was banked over the outside of the shelter as additional protection from the effects of blast. Inside Dad fitted slatted duck boards to the floor, another piece of experience from his time in France, and at the furthest end from the entrance he constructed a low platform as the basis of a bunk in which I would lie and hopefully sleep if it became necessary to stay in the shelter for any length of time. Deck chairs, three in number were fitted in along the one side, while a length of hessian sacking was hung across the entrance, at the end, to prevent the light from a small candle lantern from showing. Realising that the air in the enclosed shelter would soon become stuffy, or worse, when occupied, Dad somehow fitted a ventilator pipe at the far end of the structure, that allowed a through current of air, the pipe having a triangular cowl at the top to stop any light showing to aircraft above. I believe the idea was submitted to “Authority” for their consideration and it was said to have met with approval. Our neighbour on the left was a single lady, by the name of Miss Smith, and the intention was for her to take shelter with us if the necessity arose. So the shelter was in place in September 1939, but it would be a year or so before it would be needed. As a place to play in, it was off limits.
The country was at war, but the effect on our lives was gradual, rather than dramatic. We were issued with gas masks that we were expected to carry at all times - a habit that was soon dropped - and told what to do when the air raid siren sounded, which in that first autumn was either as a false alarm or practice. Gas masks smelt of rubber and when an intake of breath was taken the air was drawn through the filters and the rubber fabric closed round the cheeks, releasing when the breath was exhaled. They were slightly claustrophobic and fortunately never required in earnest. In areas nearer the south coast children were evacuated to safer parts of the country, but few left from where we lived. As a precaution against injury from glass that was shattered by bombing, windows were covered with strips of sticky brown paper in diamond patterns but as weeks went by without enemy aircraft being seen, these precautions seemed unnecessary.
Dad was employed by Silas Hyde Ltd. a sheet metal fabricating company in Evelyn Road, Greet, part way in to Birmingham off the Warwick Road. His job title was Receipt and Despatch Clerk, which in practice, at this time meant that he was in charge of the stores and supervised all out-going goods and materials being delivered; when not so occupied he was also the first aid man and in charge of the ambulance room. His office, for want of a better word, consisted of a tall desk, against which he either stood or perched on a tall stool; doubtless there were also shelves and other places where the paperwork was stored, but of a separate room apart from the stores, there was none. At the end of the day, final security of the factory was also his responsibility, for having locked the premises, he deposited the keys at Sparkhill Police Station where he was familiarly known as “Yorkie”. This procedure quickly became unnecessary as two people were now required to remain in the premises throughout the night on fire watching duty; a precaution in case of incendiary bombs falling. Dad took his turn on this duty and also began working longer hours, as manufacturing for the war effort was stepped up.
Daily life probably changed very little in the first few months. Food rationing was introduced and of course imported items were no longer in the shops. Everyday items were obtained from shops in the “Green” as the nearby village centre was usually referred to; meat from Morgan's, the pork butcher and cakes from Coxhill's, naming only two that I can remember, for shopping did not form part of my world. Milk and bread were delivered daily to the door by more than one roundsman. There were three to choose from for bread; Harding's, whose cart was dark brown in colour; the Co-op and Powell's with a blue cart that like all delivery vehicles then was horse-drawn. It was Powell's who on a never to be forgotten occasion had allowed me to ride next to the driver behind the horse for a short way. Should the goods sold by one vendor fail to please it was simple to switch to a competitor. Coal was also a regular item for delivery, brought to the coal bunker behind the house in hundred-weight bags, carried on the leather pad protected shoulders of the delivery man.
The gas lamp that stood in the street outside the house, like all other street lighting remained unlit, for total night time blackout was the rule. Every household devised its own method of achieving this; for us Dad made light weight wooden frames and a stout material consisting of two sheets of brown paper, between which there was a layer of tar, was tacked on to each of these. The frames were a tight push fit into the window embrasures, inside the curtains that were drawn in front of them. This stopped any light showing outside. There were few cars on the roads in 1939 and fewer still when strict petrol rationing was introduced. The buses, lorries and indeed any vehicle, had shields fitted to the headlamps that allowed a small amount of light to be directed downwards through louvres. I think when an air raid warning did sound non-essential vehicles were expected to keep off the roads. Having no car this did not concern us.
Even before September 1939 the normal working week was five and a half days and this quickly became a six day week plus overtime. We did not have holidays away from home because the only paid time off work was the rest of August Bank Holiday week, if you were fortunate with your employer. A walk into the nearby fields on Sunday and perhaps a Saturday evening visit to the cinema, were the usual forms of relaxation; one such walk being out of town down the Coventry Road, as far as or just beyond the newly constructed airfield. After war began I suspect Dad was too tired or preoccupied with tasks round the house to wish to go walking. For me there was never homework from school and I passed the spare time with local friends of the same age, especially a boy from a few doors distant, Leon Cook by name, whose mother was French, from the town of Lille, and at one time she was under threat of internment as an alien. The French were still our allies but perhaps she had not taken British nationality. The hostilities worried her, the more so in 1940 when Europe was occupied. Sport was not one of our interests, but if it had been, it would have been football in the street or horse-road as we still called it, and cricket of a very simple kind on a small area of grass near to where Leon lived. This semi-circular patch, fronting the houses that were set back in a crescent was called a banjo! There were two banjos, at each of the sharp corners in Fenton Road, that from the point of view of fitting in the houses, had the small crescents built round them.
The school I attended in Yardley Road can only have been a few years old; many, if not all the classrooms were of timber construction and raised above ground level, so that they were entered up steps. That September I went into the top class, which was presided over by two male teachers, who were not taken into the forces in the time that I was there. Both were known to us boys by the appellation Daddy; properly named they were Mr Taylor and Mr Benbow. It was Daddy Taylor who chose the carols we were to learn that Christmas, which included “I saw three ships..” among others, but this I did not understand (still don't) and said as much at home, where I was told to complain to Daddy T., if to anyone. I must have put my thoughts in writing for in a day or so I was summoned before Miss Horesley, the Head, where I was asked to apologise to Mr Taylor for criticising his ideas. Having done so I was called back by Miss Horesley, who confided that she agreed with me, but to say no more. We were taught English as Reading, Composition and Literature, whatever that comprised and in these subjects I did quite well, according to the progress reports that were issued at the end of each year. Arithmetic in a general form and as problems was not so good. Apart from these two subjects the rest of our time was taken up with Art and what was described as Handwork, plus physical exercise, (P.E.), which again was not a favourite of mine and never would be.
To get to school every body walked; there were no cars for such journeys, no car parks and no buses other than the Route 11, the Outer Circle which passed the school on its way round the outer suburbs of the city, The area generally was still being built on; Cottesbrook Road next to the school was very recent as was Kilmorie Road. To walk home from school I could either turn right along Yardley Road, until Ireland's the greengrocer's was reached, and then up Douglas Road, or turn left and go by Augusta Road, a slightly longer way, though not so far as its variation up Alexander Road. They all came eventually into Dalston Road, the two latter routes passing a shop, at which we called in periodically to see if they had any empty boxes, that in those days were made of tin. What we did with them I do not know! Between Yardley Road and Dalston Road there were the grounds of a large house, abandoned and awaiting development. At times we would go in and work our way through them; they seemed extensive, more so than they actually were, with overgrown bushes and rank grass. We did not, I think, enter the house, with its boarded up windows, though the whole place held a fascination for us. With the advent of war it was taken over either for a gun site or a barrage balloon. (This was the former Sunnymount, later used by the Midland Counties Dairy. Ed.)
The historically momentous events of 1940 passed us by. We were not under the skies of the Battle for Britain, or near enough to be troubled by Dunkirk. At least I wasn't. I expect they were noted, but for us a certain normality existed; food rationing, blackouts and the occasional daylight siren, which came to nothing, were accepted during the fine summer of that year. True I have a recollection of seeing a German aircraft, flying very low towards the city one lunch time, as I wandered along Dalston Road. I was interested and probably excited at the time and took it for granted that it crashed near the BSA factory.
At school there was a response to the “Dig for Victory” campaign whereby part of a field at the rear of the school was dug over to create a vegetable plot. We were asked to bring implements from home, which might have been a reason for me being away from school at lunch time and seeing the plane. I am not certain that the cultivation was very successful, as I left to attend a senior school in the July, and all I recall is growing beetroot; that and the sight of grassland freshly turned over by our juvenile spades. There is another memory of newly turned over soil, which must date from this time, though when or even where, I have no idea. An autumn day of sunshine, when a number of us were sent potato picking, a plough has turned the row over and brought the potatoes to the surface where we can walk along and gather them up into.....what? Only a snapshot of them on the soil is in the memory.
There is another recollection of a sunny, warm afternoon, in August this time on the Clent Hills. Opportunities to go out were few, with Dad working long hours and weekends. So for my Grandmother to organise a trip to Clent for a day out must have been something special. Was it earlier than August? I think not, for the sirens went that evening for the first of the air raids. The smell of the grass that warm afternoon remains as an association of the day. Until then there had been no bombing and I do not think that this first time we used the shelter there was any attack in our area. A state of affairs that did not last long as the Luftwaffe began night time bombing of civilian targets; not with regularity at first, but short, sometimes uneventful visits to the air raid shelter started to occur. I would be woken and taken to the bunk bed in the shelter in my night clothes, there to lie awake most of the time until the All-Clear sounded.
The school I now attended was Acocks Green Senior School, situated on the right hand side of Warwick Road where it entered the wide expanse of “The Green” (It seems wide in memory and was certainly an area large enough to contain a tram/bus terminus at its centre, with shops set back around. Warwick Road, where it continued towards Olton, narrowed, but the newer roads that came in to the “Green” were more open) The school was not new, unlike the nearby public library and probably dated from post 1900. The walk down Warwick Road to school in the morning was enlivened during October 1940 by collecting fragments of shrapnel from the gutters and pavements, fallout from anti-aircraft shells that had been fired during the previous night. Some pieces were quite large, up to 4 inches in length and on one occasion I collected a nose cone from within the shell. There was little if any bomb damage in our area, the enemy aircraft heading for targets nearer the city centre, or elsewhere, and daylight raids did not occur. In early November a bomb rendered the school unusable and classes were transferred to Hartfield Crescent School, which was further to walk. The occasional day when part of the return journey was made by bus, at the cost of a penny, which took me as far as the “Green”, remain as the only memory of the short time I attended that school.
High Explosive bombs fell singly and more frequently in sticks of three or four, so that a number exploded at the same time in a small area. Occasionally, a land mine would be dropped, falling slowly under a parachute and exploding on contact with the ground to generate a shock wave of air capable of demolishing property. Some of the bombs might fail to explode on impact, either due to a fault or by design, remaining buried below ground, with only a small hole to show where they penetrated. Holes that appeared overnight were barricaded off until disposal squads had investigated and after locating the bomb, had defused it. Incendiary bomb clusters, consisting of a number of small cylindrical canisters filled with magnesium that burnt fiercely and could only be extinguished with an inert material such as sand, were not infrequent. Long handled shovels and buckets of sand to cope with these devices were available at strategic points in the streets.
With November, and the longer, darker nights, the German bombing offensive against British cities intensified. The air raid sirens sounded almost nightly, at times varying from as early as 7pm to 10pm, with Coventry and Birmingham principal targets. The deep, ominous wailing of a number of sirens sounding simultaneously is a sound, once heard, never forgotten. The silence that followed was complete at first, until perhaps broken by men's voices, as the street fire watching wardens, unofficially appointed perhaps, gathered to await any action and to speculate where Jerry was heading for tonight. Settled in the shelter we too would strain ears for the first unmistakable sound of approaching bombers (a slow steady thrum-thrum-thrum of engines "out of sync"). That initial tense silence: the occasional voice: rarely the sound of a distant vehicle: these were the forerunners of a raid. Eventually, maybe, someone would comment: “They're over Coventry tonight” and one could be fairly certain that, for us at least, it would be a quiet night. If, instead, the targets were the industrial parts of Birmingham the night was full of noise. Anti-aircraft guns near and far would be firing, their staccato crack followed after several seconds by the dull distant crumps as the shells exploded at altitude, and inevitably the chilling whistle, rapidly growing louder, as bombs fell nearby. (If you could hear the whistle you could know that it would not fall on you: it was said.) There would be shouts as men ran to see if there were casualties from damaged buildings and on one evening Dad and a few others had to enter some nearby houses in order to extinguish incendiary bombs, lodged in the roofs, which were starting to burn.
I do not recall being frightened at this time, or indeed in later months, accepting that life was like this. The walk to school allowed one to see where the previous night’s activity had occurred and there was always more shrapnel to collect. At night, if one went to bed, as usual, it would be with the knowledge that it might be necessary to wake and wrap up in a blanket to spend time in the shelter, but a whole night in my underground bunk was not unusual. I had the best of it there, in a bed with a pillow, while my parents sat in deck chairs, as did Miss Smith, from next door, when she was with us. The sirens sounded just after 7pm on 20th November when Birmingham was a target for most of the night, and that was a night when I went to bed in the shelter and as far as I know slept well until an “All Clear” in the small hours. Two nights later, on Friday 22nd, there was another early alert and again I bedded down in my bunk.
----- ---- ----
I woke with soil in my mouth. A heavy weight on my body prevented movement. Loud voices; muffled. Try to free a hand to wipe my mouth: spit out the soil. Muffled voices, at first, only Dad's, calling for help; then others, as assistance came from men who responded from nearby. A heavier weight on my leg and a clearer voice: “We'll soon have you out” Then being pulled from the enclosing soil and carried away by an unknown man, to have a mug of strong sweet tea placed in my hand with instructions to drink it while hot. The air raid must have been over, as it was quiet and a moon lit the garden. My parents appeared and I was taken in to the undamaged house for the remainder of the night.
Wandering outside in daylight the following morning showed a shelter that was buckled and squeezed lengthways and a crater, from which I was told to keep away, centred a few yards from it at the bottom of the lawn. Had Miss Smith been with us there would have been injuries; fortunately there were none. Only shock, I suppose, which was ignored, and a few scratches occasioned by the rescue from the soil that had covered us.
When Dad was a boy he had been looked after by his older sister, Ada, and it was to her that he turned for help. Not for himself, but for me, who it was thought should be evacuated to a safer part of the country; Leeds. While Mother was no doubt packing clothes for my intended life in a new home, Dad managed to send Aunt Ada a telegram: “Bombed. Bringing Arthur” What the reaction was to that I never learnt; I can only guess that during that Saturday arrangements were being made, not by phone, as this means of communication was not a commonplace feature of the home then, but in all probability by cross town visits, made either by tram or by use of Uncle Harry's meagre petrol ration. We left Fenton Road, which I was never to see again, in the late morning and were able to find a bus service that took us through the damaged streets to New Street Station for a rail journey to the north. Bomb damage to the system required the route to be via Manchester, where it was dark when we arrived, to change there and join a more normally scheduled train to Leeds. On the Sunday my parents returned to Birmingham and I was taken across Leeds to Aunt Lena, with whom it was intended I should live, at Bramley.
Although the house, astonishingly, was totally undamaged by the explosion, Dad must have felt it preferable to leave unhappy memories behind and on 20th April 1941 bought a bungalow in Shirley for £350. This is where I came home to after a five month stay in Leeds with my aunt. A lot more bombing!