Sunday, 18 April 2010

Memories of Ladywood and the Vesper Bell Public House

A photo of Ledsam Street taken by the Birmingham Post and Mail as Winston Churchill drives past the Vesper Bell. The photo was given to me by Uncle Harry Robinson. Trevor has spotted himself in the crowd as a 12 year old lad standing outside his father's shop.

If you click on the image to enlarge it, you might just make out the word Vesper about half way up the street on the left hand side. Uncle Harry once pointed out to me that his own father, Ted or Edwin, can be seen on the opposite side of the street to the pub standing close to the front door of their house (look on right hand side of street close to where the third car is approaching to see a lone figure standing back from the crowd).   

Thank you to Trevor Mabbett who sent me these memories of Ladywood and of my Uncle Harry's family pub, the Vesper Bell (see post below for more details).

My father George Gerald Mabbett was born 1887 at 17 Blythe Street, which was seven doors from the Vesper Bell, the pub situated on the corner of Blythe Street and Ledsam Street. My mother, Elsie Elizabeth Mabbett (nee. White) was born in Cregoe Street, Edgbaston in 1898 and eventually worked at Kunzle's, the chocolate and cake makers at Five Ways. Her best friend there was Gertie Mabbett, my father's sister and Mom used to visit her at 17 Blythe Street. There she met my father who was home from the war and they were married on 6 September 1919 at St Margarets Church in Ledsam Street. They had a joint wedding ceremony as dad's sister Gertie married James Ray at the same service. Sadly, like most of the old Ladywood, St Margarets is no more.

After their marriage, my parents eventually rented a shop and house at 23 Ledsam Street and my mother opened a Dry Cleaning and Laundry Agency. Three sons were born there, Kenneth George in 1923, Stanley Harold in 1929 and Trevor John in 1933. Except for his regular service in the Royal Artillery, my father spent the first 70 years of his life at the above two addresses, which were seven and five doors from the Vesper Bell, respectively. He always referred to the pub as the Wrexham, as in it's early days I believe it was owned by The Wrexham Brewery. The Vesper Bell was in the care of the Lee and Robinson families during all of my life in Ladywood and all of my family knew all of their family and they all called my brothers and I by our Christian names.

My own recollections of Mr and Mrs Lee were of a Victorian couple; she dressed always in black except for a spotless white pinnafore and he with a pure white goatee beard and a spotless white apron. They were assisted in the running of the pub by their daughter Emily and her husband Ted (Edwin Robinson). Later on, the Robinson's daughter, also Emily, but known to us as Pem or Pemmie, joined them in the serving. I lived with my parents in Ledsam Street until our shop was demolished in 1958. Until Blythe Street was demolished, a lot of the Mabbett family lived there. My father's brothers and sisters lived at number 17, my brother and his family lived at number 24, another of dad's brothers lived with his family at number 46, another brother and family at 50 something and a sister with her family at rear of 75.

There were many public houses in Ladywood and at week-ends there was often trouble outside one or more of them, sometimes needing the police to calm things down. In all of the time I lived in Ladywood however, some 25 years, I cannot recall ever seeing any kind of trouble, either inside or outside The Vesper Bell. It was a comfortable little pub, quiet, well run and well kept.

One of the things I can remember about the pub was how regularly it seemed to be painted. The workmen used to arrive and would start by stripping off all of the old paint, using blowlamps and scrapers. Then came the sanding down, then all of the woodwork would be painted with pink primer. When all of that was dry, all would then be painted yellow. Again there was the wait for the drying and then all of the yellow was covered with a thick brown varnish. While this was still wet, the painter would use a stippling comb to make patterns all over the woodwork. Finally, a coat of clear varnish was applied to complete the job and very smart it looked too, unlike the bizarre colours of some pubs these days.

Another memory I have, perhaps a strange thing to recall, but this I saw only at the Vesper Bell. The gent's toilet was just inside the pub door, so as youngsters we had access to it if needed. It was covered in white tiles, with just one row of black ones near to the ceiling . This was in the days when cards were put into cigarette packets. Well someone started putting one of the sets on the black tiles, in order 1 to 50 and they were kept in sequence, so that any missing cards could be affixed once they appeared in the packets.

Another memory is a picture in a frame in the bar. Customers would dip their penny or halfpenny coins, from their change, in beer and stick them on the glass in the picture frame. When it was full the coins would be removed and used for either some charity or the local street party.

At the end of the war when my brother, an Army Sergeant, was demobbed, he became friends with Norman Dodd who lived at the Robinson family home with his wife Gertie. I think she may have been adopted but I am not certain. Norman too had just been demobbed from the RAF where he had been a Warrant Officer. I know that Norman died some time ago, as I saw his death notice in the Evening Mail, which Gertie had inserted.

Like the Lee and Robinson families, having a shop meant that we were better off than a lot of the Ladywood families, to whom, for many, dire poverty was a way of life. We still had only the outside toilet though and the tin bath hanging on the yard wall, ready to be fetched inside and filled on bath night. Oh the luxury in later years when we were old enough to go to Monument Road Baths and wallow in a bath tub full of hot water.

I can clearly recall the war years; for a few months I was evacuated to Shrewsbury, but couldn't settle and soon returned home. We had some horrific raids on the area but although school was disrupted, we did manage to have at least some lessons each day, albeit in small classes in peoples houses. There were direct hits on Ledsam Street, Friston Street, Broad Street, Bishopsgate Street and Sherbourne Street. We would be with our playmates one day, then never see them again.

There was a dreadful fire in Ledsam Street during the Blitz, at the premises of the Queen's Gravy Salt Co.; when we came up from the Air Road Shelter, after the 'all clear' siren had sounded, we were met by one of the most spectacular fires I had ever seen (or seen since then). The factory produced all manner of sugar products and large quantities were on the premises. The factory was totally ablaze from end to end and top to bottom. Melted sugar was running in the gutters ablaze and it was a frightening thing to see. Another night Docker Brothers Paint Factory, up Icknield Port Road was on fire. When we came out of the shelter, the air was thick with smoke and large pieces of burned material were floating in the street; and this was in Ledsam Street about a mile from the fire.

On yet another occasion, the sirens sounded and we came out of our house, Mom, Dad, Stan and I, to go in to the shelter under the Fish and Chip Shop next door. As we came out of our shop there was a brilliant flash and a passing policeman dropped to the floor, shouting at us to do the same. As we did so the worst explosion ever, rent the air. All of the buildings and all of the ground shook and swayed. We were all terrified and learned next day that the Hanger Motor Co. in Broad Street had received a direct hit.

Uncle Harry's dad, Ted Robinson, back row third from left
1939 Fire Service in Ladywood

I must not give the impression that Ladywood was all doom and gloom. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of family parties and street parties galore. Everyone helped everyone else and friendships lasted a lifetime. I have already mentioned how the Mabbett family lived all around us, well the Bolton and Baker families were the same. Mrs May Bolton who lived next door to us at number 21 Ledsam Street, had a drapers shop; she was known to everyone as Auntie May. She was the twin sister of Mrs Amy Baker who owner the clothing factory at number 30.

Mrs Alice Lloyd at the grocery shop, number 5, was another sister and the mother of Lloyds who had the Ladies Hairdresser's at number 29. After Bromages shold their Fish and Chip shop at numbers 25-27, it was bought by Harveys who were also related to Boltons & Bakers. Cotterill the Bookie, who was mentioned in the article about the Vesper Bell (Old Brum Magazine April 10, 2000) had a daughter Nellie who married Gordon Bolton, the son of 'Aunty May'.

So one can see what a tight knit little community our small area was. Those who were not related were usually friends. We had some great parties, especially towards and at the end of the war, when the lads were returing from fighting. Sadly, it's all gone now, but there are still so many memories. One thing is for sure, as long as there's still some of the old Ladywood folks left, then there will be stories galore still to be told.

Peter, I hope that this has given you an insight into the "Old Area" as I knew it and can substantiate the stories told to you by your Dear Uncle and Aunt. I'm only sorry I didn't contact you early enough to have been able to have reminisced with them.

Very best wishes,

Trevor Mabbett


  1. Have you shared this with Mac Joseph of Old Ladywood? Only the other day he was telling me how rare photos with a political angle are.

  2. Thanks for this comment Dom. I did mention to Mac I had these photos a couple of years back but have not been able to find the originals. I scanned the one above of Churchill's car from a printed copy. Even so it has come out quite well so I will get back in touch with Mac shortly.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this as Mr & Mrs Lee were my great grandparents. Norman and Trudy (Gertie) Dodd were my parents. Mum was actually Emmie and Ted Robinson's niece (Henry Herbert Lee's daughter). She went to live with them when her parents died, her mother when she was only 18 months old and her father when she was 11. Sadly Mum also died in 2007 but I heard many stories about the pub during my childhood.

  4. Thanks for this comment Sue. I have sent you an email. Hope to hear more from you soon.

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