Mom returned home and tried hard to sort things out. First she applied to the courts, but they would not reverse the eviction order.
Someone advised my mother to go into a council hostel, with the six children, from where the family could hopefully be re-housed. By then we had reached rock bottom and we made our way to a hostel in Burbury Street, Lozells. I remember we did not get there until late in the evening and were shown into a dormitory. I remember the lighting was all very dim and through the gloom I could see beds, which were sub-dividing by curtains. The large room was quiet; I assumed the other occupants, mothers and their families were fast asleep. I have never experienced prison conditions, but I should think the atmosphere must have been very similar. The woman who showed us where we were to sleep had the manner of a prison officer, very severe, with not a vestige of sympathy or kindness. The Burbury Street experience was a terrible chapter in our lives, but more so for my dear mother, she had grown-up in a comfortable, affluent home in Dublin. I am sure it was totally degrading for her to have exposed herself and her children to this terrible experience.
She was left completely on her own to deal with the situation, Dad had found refuge in a lodging house with his Irish friends. Looking back over the years, I’m sure we children only thought of this period as an unpleasant episode. Seemingly our mother was prepared to test every crumb of charity, reasoning that if the family was shown to be homeless, there was a chance of being re-housed, but unfortunately this was a false premise. The only possibility of re-housing was to clear the rent arrears with the Housing Department and this possibility was a long way off. Before our family finally left the hostel, I was still attending school at Oakley Road, Small Heath.
I think Kevin and I went without breakfast, simply because there was no time to eat what little amount there was. During that morning, a teacher at the school passed a packet to me. I assumed it was food but I had not realised my mother had brought it to the school; I remember thinking, I did not want charity and dropped the packet into the waste bin. It was not the time to be proud, or to refuse the charity, which I had mistakenly thought it to be.
Mother vowed never to expose us to that situation again. In spite of our circumstances, the experience had been totally humiliating and degrading. We were glad to leave the hostel behind and in no time we found another friend who took pity on Mom and the children. The lady, a Mrs. O’Toole, was glad of the extra income provided by my father, mother did work in the house and took on the responsibility for all the cooking, but at least it kept a roof over our heads. There was not enough sleeping accommodation in the O’Toole house, so Brian and I were shipped off every night to sleep elsewhere. This involved a bus journey late in the evening. We would leave at about 8pm, and would travel on the bus to Digbeth. There we stayed with a friend of my father, who lived in a back-to-back house in Oxford Street. The living conditions were filthy, but the family showed kindness.
I assume the man and Dad were drinking partners since their regular watering hole, the Little Bull, was just around the corner, I think that dad paid him a small sum for our bed. I refer to it as a bed, in fact it comprised two armchairs pushed together, little Brian and I would cuddle up together and eventually fall to sleep. Thankfully we would awaken early next morning, the family needed use of the kitchen and before we attended school it was necessary for Brian and myself to travel back to mother. Looking back over the years, I often wonder why it was necessary to send the two of us to Digbeth, for the sole purpose of our sleeping accommodation and why it had not been possible to push two chairs together at Mrs O’Toole’s house. I was glad to return to Mrs. O’Toole’s, where we were given a filling breakfast.
This unsettled arrangement did not last for very long, Dad found Brian and myself yet another temporary abode, this time it was with the Barker family, who lived in Washwood Heath, again it involved a long distance to travel. It was a very long way to go for a night’s sleep, but at least we had a bedroom with a bed and everything was kept lovely and clean. This time our benefactors were a very nice family; they had four children of their own. Although we had a proper clean bed, it was not expected of us that we should appear until late in the evening, as otherwise this would have been an added intrusion on their own family. There was no fear of reaching our destination too early, as the journey from Small Heath to Washwood Heath was quite long, and involved two bus journeys. Poor little Brian must have wondered what on earth was happening in his little life, with the disordered sleeping arrangements, rather than simply climbing the stairs to bed.
Sadly while we were with them, the Barker family experienced their own tragedy. Their youngest child, who was about nine months old died suddenly; he was a beautiful baby. I know that all babies are considered beautiful, but little Terence resembled a little angel. We saw him laid in his coffin and even at my early age I remember thinking he really did look like an angel. After the tragedy, we did not remain at the house, I do not think they would have coped with someone else’s intrusion and sadly we left them to their own grief.
After this sad experience Brian and myself re-joined mother and the other children who had been staying with the O’Tooles for a few months. With no possible means of clearing the rent arrears and obtaining another house, Mother managed to find rented rooms in the Saltley area. We were on the second floor, with sufficient accommodation for us all to be together.
Saltley in the 1950s
Again my mother was alone with all the children, my father was quite happy to remain in his bed-sit at Spark Brook. Once again our new rooms were not in a very nice house, the landlady resided on the ground floor and was very unpleasant. I would describe her as all three wicked witches rolled into one. She would not permit any locks to be on the doors, this enabled her to wander in and out any time she pleased; not that this worried us unduly, as we had nothing of any value to steal or borrow. I remember her as the worst type of bully one could ever meet and sadly I must report, she was Irish. She stood about four feet nine inches in height and she had a foul mouth. There was another Irish family living in the basement of the house and she really set out to make their lives a misery. They were a very gentle and inoffensive family from the West of Ireland, with the family name of Hegarty. While the man was at work, the witch enjoyed nothing better than putting fear into the poor mother. The landlady was really an evil person and I was relieved not to see that woman again after we eventually moved from the house. During this period I still had to meet my father on a Friday night after work, to collect money for my mother. I would hand him over a bag of necessities, such as sugar, tea and whatever other commodities he needed. He was still incapable of catering for his own needs and had not yet found his own way to the shops. During that time, I think he must have found someone to prepare his meals for him.
We endured this situation for eighteen months, when eventually the Will of my mother’s twin brother, Uncle Peter was settled, from then on, things moved very quickly. The very welcome cheque came through and we were at long last able to pay off the arrears in full. This enabled us to move from the unsettling and terrible conditions we had endured at Saltley. I have briefly mentioned the conditions we endured and I do not want to dwell on them further, but at last we were so happy to be moving into our own home.
I believe the house was the only one that we were offered, and although the condition of the property was atrocious, my mother was glad to accept it.