Here's a great conversation amongst older people from West Bromwich talking about their childhood days during the war years. The conversation was recorded by Ray Gormley and Pete Millington in around 2009 with local West Bromwich historian Anne Wilkins.
Pete is now editing a book of local memories on behalf of Age Concern Birmingham with funding from The Lottery Fund. If you would like to contribute your memories to the project, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to Alice Millington for transcribing the interview.
West Bromwich Voices
Our stomping ground, or playground, whatever, was the rec’. Because you’ve got all the football pitches that you wanted on there. Play cricket, or in the summer, do whatever you wanted. And of course, they had got, over by the canal basin, they had got swings and slides and whatever. I know a few times people, like myself, have ended up in the canal basin, especially in the winter when we thought the ice was thick enough to stand your weight, and of course it wasn’t, it just collapsed.
And I know, the one time, I was at school when it happened and we’d gone over there one lunchtime and, of course, I came back and my trousers was all wringing wet. And of course there was no parents at home then because they were both at work and you just had to just dry off at the school. They didn’t give you anything else to help you or anything like that.
I mean, we used to get bean cans, knock holes in and get burnin’ hot coke. Fire cans – whizz them round and had a competition to see who could make theirs glow the best. Oh, and then leapfrog. We used to play leapfrog, didn’t we?
I’m trying to think…what was the name of that?
With the broom handle under your arm to give you balance.
Diablo, as well. And whip and top.
Oh, yes! Whip and top! These shops nowadays, they sell all these old games, don’t they?
The National Trust Shops.
But nobody knows how to play.
Well, I bought a whip and top because I used to be quite a dab-hand at that. And I bought it, I’m going back perhaps four or five years, and d’ya know I couldn’t even get it to spin!
And of course, you had the Boys’ Scouts if your parents would give you the money to join then. There was the one up the back of Westley and Churchill.
And the Boys’ Brigade. There was a Church Hall where West Bromwich Building Society main office is standing now.
That was a Baptist Church.
The Boys’ Brigade were a Baptist organisation. I think you’ll find that the Scouts were a Church of England sort of act, and I suppose the Baptists thought they’d got to have something (so they) started the Boys’ Brigade.
We used to have a lad in our street and he used to…he’d always got a ruler about that long.
And he’d go on, flicking them, and he’d flick them and they’d go over the houses. These bottle tops.
It was another street game, you see.
That’s right, yeah.
Nobody seemed to bother us, then, in those days. Your parents just said “Well, where have you been ‘til now?” and it’s “Ah, we’ve been playing, mom.”
The area called the Mill, near Albion gas works, which mainly got its name from the mill pond which was still there but was surrounded by slag heaps. The most prominent thing about those banks were, underground, it was just one massive fire, and you had to be careful. You could see the flames coming through and the smoke. You had to be careful that you didn’t step on those because you sank in. And people used to collect horse manure for the gardens. The ponies which were tied up there and roamed around never seemed to get burned, which was a miracle. But I remember two children from the area were sent over to collect horse manure, and the girl sank in up to her waist and her brother endeavored to get her out and he was burned.
To the side of the canal there, opposite The Boat pub which has been demolished now, there was some waste ground and we went over there one day, me and a couple more. And we found this little parcel tucked in this long grass. We opened it up, and it was rashers of bacon! “What are we gonna do with this”, you know?
Talking about the police, we knew it was illegal, we’d got all these rashers of bacon. What was we gonna do with it? Well, somebody from the canteen of the Nelson Smelting Works had put it there to pick up at night when they come out. Right, so what did we do? We was afraid to take it home in case we had a good hiding off our parents. We threw it in the cut. So, I says, I says to my mother and dad, “hey, mom” I says “we found this parcel of bacon”. My dad says “what?” I says “yeah, somebody had wrapped it up” I says “by the side of the Nelson factory, and hid it.” He says, “well where is it?” I says “we throwed it in the cut!”
And I bet you got a good hiding for saying that?
He says “you what?” I mean, rashers of bacon which he never saw. I mean, I think you was entitled to one rasher a month, per person, and that was about as big as that envelope and that was about your rations for a month. And we was afraid of the police having us, stopping us with this parcel of bacon and we go into a remand home, you see. And that’s what we thought of. We never give it a thought to stuck it down our trousers and took it home to eat.
They were very strict.
If you did get caught and people did round by us. In our road, in Stour Street, it branched off into a little road called Collins Street and there, that was the same sort of houses. But, this chap’s mother died and there was five of them and in the war, his father was a special constable and he married this woman who’d got 7 children as well. So, in a little three-bedroomed house there were fourteen of them. Joey, he ran away from home and he lived rough in a derelict house for a week ‘til they found him. But I think they did have him for what today is called shoplifting, but would be called thieving then. And you went to court and he had…I forget how many lashes of the birch rod he had. He certainly had ten, I think. And he was sent away to the North East on a, what they used to call, a remand home, but this was on a ship, it was on a remand ship and he would be about ten at the time. We never saw him again. He remained on this ship until he was eighteen, and they released him then to go in the army. When he came home on leave from the army, he did come home to see his parents. But that’s how strict they were at the time.
And what year would that be then?
That was in the war time… that was in the war years. It would be about ’43 I think.
You were afraid of the police. Stories like I’ve just told you were always quoted by your parents to make you afraid.
But your parents knew the local bobby, didn’t they? I lived on the ‘rec on the Avenue. The family’s home I spoke of, was on Oak Road, they lived in that house from 1908 or something like that so it was…up to, well it’s still standing actually, but 1970 that last one came out of there. But I always used to go up there and the local bobby round there was Mr Bullus and I went to school with his son. He always used to see me, he would be on his pushbike. You’d not done anything wrong or you’d not been playing up and they’d happen to see you coming up. You used to creak in your own shoes, like you know, because you were frightened in case your mother and father were gonna say anything to him anyway…even though they might just say “Alright, Bill?”
You stood there as though you had done something wrong.
The same really with the betting. Why they never actually collared anybody, they all knew it went on. I always used to take bets when I was staying in Oak Road, to Mason’s in Bowater Street. And yet the local Bobby, I mean, I say he knew what he was doing. I don’t think I ever knew Mason being had up for doing illegal betting and yet he must have been doing it for years. All the family knew him, and what have you, and you know?
I think, mainly, they had the runners.
Well, they did, yes. But, I say, I mean even they never got collared unless perhaps it was the local bobby which they were in with in them days, they’d say, just keep an eye on it, you know, cut it down a bit. They used to just do it like ‘I’ll keep out of the limelight for a bit’, and then they’d carry on. It was the same if you’d got caught, wasn’t it? If you’d done any scrumping…if the police was ever brought round to your house, it was just a warning. No over the top or anything like that about it. “Look, we’re warning you. Cut it out.” And, of course, you did.
In other words, they used common sense then, which has gone out of the window.