Sunday, 27 December 2009

Coupons and pawnshops

Every Sunday morning I would be sent to the local newsagent and would buy the News of the World, a packet of Woodbine cigarettes and a box of Swan matches. We were allowed to have two comics every week, my mother encouraged us to read anything and everything, frustratingly I was not permitted to read the comics first because it was said I took too long. I would read them cover to cover, whereas Kevin would follow the story by looking at the pictures. Father would give me a half crown (30 old pennies) to pay the newsagent, from which he would have change. Later I got my first job as papergirl at that same newsagent. Next door to the newsagent stood a shop which sold only biscuits. Mother frequented that shop to have a chat with the owner, that good lady would often provide us with all her broken biscuits. On reflection I think my mother was befriended by some of these people, because she was seen to be doing her very best. We were such a needy family and they provided us with much needed food.

Mother did have an excess of coupons for clothing, furniture and food, which we could never use because we were never able to afford the goods. Yes, you have guessed right, mother was able to barter the coupons on what was known as the black market and at that time the authorities would have frowned upon this. I can remember my schoolteacher at the Holy Family, a young Polish lady, benefiting from this arrangement. I would take the surplus coupons into school and I presume she would give mother something in return. I do not know what was given in exchange or how those arrangements first came about.

There is just one other shop, which was yet another food supplier; In fact, it was the local fish and chip shop. Now as I have said previously, my mother made friends with all the trades people. I can only refer back to the ration coupons as a means of barter, as the local people and my mother had no other common bond. I like to think they respected my mother as ‘a lady’, and I mean a lady who was trying to keep her pride and had fallen on hard times. In those circumstances, who were we to look a gift horse in the mouth? Every Thursday evening I was sent down to the fish and chip shop and collected a big parcel of chips, bits of fish and whatever else had been left over or was sifted from the pans. Thursday was the night for clearing the pans, so it became our regular fish and chip night.

A ration line in a Birmingham store

The opportunity for bartering coupons came to an end in 1954 when rationing was officially ended; it had been in operation since 1940. I was not sorry to see the end of rationing, as I had often been sent to wait in the long queues in order to collect the books of coupons. These were issued from two distribution points on Broad Street, the Civic Centre and on the opposite side of the road, the Masonic Hall. The police were always present to give directions and to keep order in the long queues. The two buildings were very imposing and are still standing today, although in recent times the Civic Centre has been converted into a hotel.

I often reflect on the reason why we had been exposed to this dire poverty. Simply it came down to the sign of the times. Certain working class men of that era considered it was part of their culture to socialize by visiting the pubs and bars and drinking as much beer as they were able to afford. In following this custom they would dispose of a great deal of their weekly wage, leaving little left over to provide food for the family. My father seemed to be oblivious to our basic needs and would still expect a good meal on the table. Unfortunately my father was one of those individuals, at least in our household that was what I grew up to think. No doubt he worked very hard, at that time the working conditions in an iron foundry were very arduous and dirty. To his credit, I cannot remember him ever taking a day off work due to sickness. When he was at home he was always kind to us. He gave us each our Friday penny, which we looked forward to.

A tram in Digbeth in the 1950s

I am sure he was everyone’s best friend at the Little Bull in Digbeth, which was his adopted pub and second home. Regularly on Sunday morning, with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye, he would say, “ Right I’m off to take the collection and give out the hymn books”. One of my father’s gifts, for which he is not generally remembered, was his lovely singing voice, he sounded very much like Bing Crosby. At the time, I can remember suffering from a constant ear infection. He would cuddle me on his lap and sing me to sleep; a favourite ballad was ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’. Another lark he would perform, would be to blow smoke from his cigarette into my ear, he would often do this but I never discovered why, I don’t think it contributed to my earache.

Unfortunately when it came to providing my mother with housekeeping money, that was a different matter. Because of his leisure activities, where money is concerned, he was very mean to my mother. There is no point in me guessing at how much he gave her each week, but it was a lot less than he spent on drink at the Little Bull. In a quiet moment, she would talk to me about it and say, “How does he think I can manage on so little money ”. In order to have food for the table, especially from Monday onwards, we would first pay a visit to the pawnshop. The pledge would be a parcel of my Father’s clothes, since he was the only one with clothing of any value. My poor mother would be praying he would not need his best suit during the week, which thank goodness he never did. He would only dress decently at weekends.

Betty 1956


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