Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Vesper Bell

A number of years ago I had a letter published in Carl Chinn's Old Brum Magazine about a pub in Ledsam Street in Ladywood called the Vesper Bell. The pub was where my uncle, Harry Robinson, was born in 1920 and his family ran the pub from 1901 to the early 1960s when it was demolished as part of the housing clearance in Ladywood.

I have in my possession somewhere two photos of Ledsam Street which Harry gave me before his death. Both were taken of the street scene by the Birmingham Post, one shows the empty street decorated with Union Jack bunting and the other shows a cavalcade of black cars driving past the Vesper Bell which Uncle Harry told me were carrying the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When I eventually find the photos again (they are quite large so I've obviously put them flat in a box somewhere!) I will add them to this website post.

The letter and photos were published in Old Brum and a month or so later I was contacted by a gentleman named Trevor Mabbett from Great Barr who had grown up on Ledsam Street and recalled the Robinson family, the Vesper Bell and the occasion on which Winston Churchill drove along their inner city street.

Here is my original letter published in Old Brum Magazine:

Dear Carl,

Do any of your readers remember a public house called the Vesper Bell, which stood for many years on the corner of Ledsam Street and Blythe Street in Ladywood? Whilst Ledsam Street still exists today, sadly Blythe Street is gone and the Vesper Bell was demolished a long time ago.

The Vesper Bell was where my uncle, Harry Robinson, was born in 1920. His grandfather, Albert Lee, was licensee of the pub from 1901 until his death in 1961 at the age of 81, after which Harry's father, Edwin Robinson took over the license and ran it right up to the day it closed.

The Vesper Bell was so named because it was situated wthin hearing distance of the vesper bells of the Oratory church on Hagley Road. It was a fine old Victorian pub with 2 smoke rooms, 2 bars and an outdoor. Harry recalls it being a Peter Walker pub selling Burton Ales, before being taken over by Atkinsons and finally by M&B.

Throughout the long period that Albert Lee and later his son-in-law were in charge of the Vesper Bell, it wasn't just the license that sayed in the family. In fact, Harry believes that nobody outside of family was ever employed behind the bar. Like many pubs of the old days, the Vesper Bell had sawdust on the floor of the bar and spitoons under the tables - even so, when she wasn't enjoying a game of darts, Harry's grandmother Emily Lee, along with cousin Nell, worked hard to keep a well polished and clean establishment. Respectability was the name of the game for Victorian ladies like Emily Lee.

During the 1940s Harry courted my dad's big sister Kath, who came from Monument Road. The couple are both in their seventies now but still have many happy memories of the good old days in Ladywood. During the war Ladywood was often a target for German bombers, aiming for the Bullpits factory which was being used to make munitions. The big cellar under the Vesper Bell made an ideal air raid shelter for the whole family, along with pub customers and the giant cockroaches and beetles who normally lived down there.

My aunt remembers copping it from her mom and dad one morning, having spent a whole night in the cellar of the Vesper Bell. To this day she is still trying to convince us that she spent the night cuddled up beside Harry's grandmother, not to poor uncle H! Incidentally, the couple married at St Peter's RC Church in June 1942.

Harry remembers Ledsam Street as being a busy shopping area with plenty of local character. Bakers owned a factory that made clothes, Harveys ran the fish and chip shop, Rowley was the butcher, Boltons the drapery, Cotterill the bookie and Dainty the greengrocer. The local picture house, or "bug house" as the oldies call it, was the Ledsam, which later became the New Regent.

We'd love to hear any other stories about Ledsam Street, particularly the Vesper Bell, or any of the old streets around Ladywood. Harry has a couple of photgraphs of Ledsam Steeet taken by the Birmingham Post and Mail circa. 1945 and you can just make out the Vesper Bell through the copious bunting - the cavalcade of official cars contains some bloke called Winston Churchill ...anyone remember him?

Yours sincerely

Peter Millington

A faded photo showing Albert Lee (on right) outside the Vesper Bell

The very poignant post script to this letter is that it was published in the same week that Uncle Harry went into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. I took a copy of the magazine into the hospital and showed it to him. Reading it he looked whistfully across the ward and sighed "they've all gone now". Just 2 or 3 days later Harry died and a week after that his wife Kath died in the same hospital.

Harry Robinson (left) with his older sister Emily and brother Edward

Dear Peter,

As promised, I enclose a few of my memories of old Ladywood and in particular, the Vesper Bell Public House. I hope it will be of some help to you in putting together some of the gaps in your knowledge of your late Uncle and aunt's old area.

The folk who patronised the Vesper Bell were a great crowd. In fact, other than the Old Crown in Broad Street, I cannot recall my family going in any other pub in the area. There are two coincidences which I want to tell you about now. Firstly, you will see in my typed notes that my father's family home was at 17 Blythe Street. Well, when the demolition of that street commenced, my relatives moved to a new house at Bartley Green. However, the house which they vacated was still habitable and the council were still not ready to demolish. They re-let it and the family who moved in had an irish father. By coincidence I worked with at the G.P.O. then in Victoria Square. He was known to everyone as 'Paddy' but I always called him Pat. His surname was Millington. A relative? I wonder!

Secondly, there is the coincidence of the Robinson family home at 28 Ledsam Street. My mothers sister was named Winnie White and she married Leslie Gould. When they set up home, they got a house on the opposite side of Ledsam Street to where my mom and dad lived. Although I am not 100% certain, I am pretty sure it was number 28 and they left there to live in Yardley Wood. So there are quite a few cross-overs in family history.

In the Mail last week, there was astory about a new Ladywood newspaper which has been produced and which invited anyone interested to ring. My wife did so on my behalf and they have pormised on in the post. At the same time, the lady on the phone said that Norman Bartlam was the man who was dealing with it and asked if he could ring us sometime to ask if I knew any history of Ladywood. My wife is a Great Barr person and has never lived in Ladywood. I agreed he could phone me and when he does I may let him have some of the notes I'm sending you, as he writes books on Ladywood.

Thank you for sending me your Aunty and Uncle's Memorial which you did for their funeral, it was a lovely trbute and very touching.

Very best wishes to you and yours.

Yours sincerely

Trevor Mabbett

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