We had a few emergencies occur while we were still very young. My sister Betty broke her leg and for some time afterwards had to sit for most of the day in the pram by the garden wall. She enjoyed all the little treats people gave her when passing by, and I am sure we all benefited indirectly. At about that time, workmen were digging up the Coventry Road, they were in fact digging up the tram rails after the trams had been taken out of service. Brian, who was about 3 years old, decided he wanted a bit of the action, so joined the workmen. I remember he went missing from the crew one day and he could not be found. We immediately went to the Police Station to report it and there we discovered him sitting behind a big typewriter playing with the keys; he had been given a cup of tea and a big currant bun. So here was one little boy who enjoyed his experience as a road digger and a visit to the station.
Returning to the subject of the builders digging the Coventry Road, there was an additional benefit to us from this local upheaval—the road surface was made from tar blocks, the size of house bricks. Being out of coal, my mother asked the navvies if the bricks were suitable for burning. She was advised they were, so loads were put over the wall and these kept our fire going for quite some time.
The smell given off by the burning bricks was not ideal and the heat produced was quite severe. Although it was possible to douse the heat by putting damp coal-slack on the back of the fire, this was necessary to prevent the chimney catching fire, this it did quite often. The slack was obtained from the cellar of our house, it being the residue left over from the coal. My mother would make her own coal bricks from the slack. I seem to remember she formed this into briquettes and placed them in the oven to set. All these little things kept us warm throughout the winter. Eventually, when all the coal merchants in the district who would deliver to us had become exhausted, I was given the task of making the long journey to the coke yards.
I set off early on Saturday morning, accompanied by my young brother Kevin. We stood in a long queue early in the morning; it was a dirty and heavy job. Mother was not able to do it, father was not happy with her leaving the house and certainly not to belittle herself by standing in a queue and pushing a pram full of coke. The coke yard was many miles away, but it was necessary to keep us warm throughout the winter; this routine was followed every Saturday morning. We did not have the luxury of gloves, as I remember, we made do with a pair of odd socks on our hands. The coke would be weighed and shovelled straight into the pram; by the time we arrived home Kevin and I were very dirty and cold. There were two coke yards which we used and both were about five miles away. One was located in Saltley and the other was in Bordesley, near Digbeth. The journey to both yards involved pushing the coke-laden pram up several hills. On arriving back home the pram was emptied of its contents and in order that the young ones should not take-on a dusky complexion, the pram was thoroughly cleaned out, and made ready for whoever needed transporting next.
We were constantly in need of warm winter clothes. On Saturday afternoons my mother would go to the Rag Market. By that time of the day my father had returned from the pub and it was the only time he made himself available for looking after the children. After he had finished his dinner, he would fall asleep in the chair. Mother would buy whatever cheap clothes she could afford from the stalls in the Rag Market. Our other source of clothing was provided thanks to the benevolence of the Birmingham Mail fund, on a voucher scheme which was administered by the school we attended. We would be required to present these vouchers at Digbeth Police Station, where the distribution was set up; there you would be given items of clothing.
The allocation included a strong pair of shoes and thick grey socks. In addition boys were given a pair of short trousers and a jumper with long sleeves, all were grey in colour. The girls had similar clothing, strong shoes, long grey socks, a gymslip, a jumper and a pair of thick black knickers. I assume the grey colour was chosen so that they could not be sold on by the hard up parents and if they were they would be easily recognisable. I do not remember the clothes being provided on a yearly basis but I do recall being given the shoes every year. There was no embarrassment in receiving this charity, the garments were always welcome and kept us warm and tidy throughout the winter.
During these years, Christmas was a very lean period. Although thanks to dear Aunty Lily, we did have a Christmas dinner, in the form of a fat goose and an assortment of sweets which she sent over from Dublin. As for toys, I’m afraid they were very few. I can remember being sent to the rag market, late one Christmas Eve, with instructions to buy toys for the younger ones.
I was to buy cowboy hats with toy guns and holsters for the boys, and funny looking dolls for the two girls; the dolls were made with a cloth body and each had a pointed hat. How I knew how much money I should hand-over for those simple toys, or why I was sent so late in the day, I shall never know. I assume mother must have been hoping the things on the stalls would have been a little cheaper at that late hour in the day. We were all given a book each and an old sock was filled with a tangerine, a chocolate bar, and some nuts. I really have no recollection of a really special Christmas other than the weather seemed always to be cold and snowy.