In 1936 the Harrison family moved to Deykin Avenue, Witton, Birmingham some five hundred yards from the Aston Villa stadium and, at that time, right in the middle of a huge industrial complex employing thousands of workers.
In 1939, the outbreaks of war, decisions were taken to evacuate children from the major cities. My father, a member of the Territorial Army 8th Battalion Royal Warwickshire regiment based at Witton Barracks, now part of the Aston Villa stadium, had already been posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force.
I don’t think the Harrison family’s standard of living was any different from those who lived around us. Times were difficult with many mothers unsure where the next meal would come from. A life of seeking work, or for young men and women escaping from the appalling industrial communities that made up Birmingham, joining the forces or merchant navy was as good a vehicle as any to use.
On some match days, with smogs so thick and the elements playing their part, it was difficult to see from one end of the pitch to the other and indeed it would be equally difficult the see one hand in front of you. The Tame which flowed along the bottom of our road was nothing but a river of oil and toxic waste coming from the multitude of local industries.
My mother, against this background and the onset of war made the very difficult decision to send her four youngest children, Alfie 13, Tony 11, Terry 8 and Eileen 6 to safety.
So it was, in September 1939, several hundred children fell in at Deykin Avenue School clutching a gas mask, a small cardboard case, containing a shirt, a pair of socks and a pack of sandwiches. To the teachers fell the responsibility for the fitting and training in the use of the gas masks. Within one minute of wearing the mask visibility was nil due to the fact that the visor would mist up. Also the heat would be unbearable and we were left gasping for breath. Whilst teacher’s back was turned, most of us would stick our fingers in the side of the mask to seek some relief from asphyxiation. We were also able to blow a whole series of raspberries, pretty daring at that time.
There was great excitement and a sense of adventure, much laughing, humour and very few tears. We were prepared for a journey that might take weeks. America and Canada here we come. I recall walking from the school along Electric Avenue. Tens of thousands of workers were employed in a multitude of different industries that had been tooling up for many months to meet expected war demands. We continued on past GEC, Lucas and Hallidays drop forging etc on to Aston Railway Station. All the children had a label with their name and address I don’t recall destination or that anyone was aware of where we were going. The accompanying teachers might have known but not the evacuees or their parents. Alfie’s instructions, from my mother, as the eldest, were to look after us especially my sister and to write as soon as possible.
Hardly an hour had passed when we arrived at Redditch and were instructed to get our things together and fall in (fall in sounds military but children then were trained in marching, ether at school, scouts, girl guides, clubs or it came naturally). We walked to Bridge Street School where the children were divided into different groups; our group set off by way of Muskets’ Wood and arrived at Webheath Village Hall. The vicar and some ladies were organising accommodation on a very ad hoc basis. Some people arrived and selected children but later, I believe, they had to go around the village for more support. Constable Edwards, who lived on Birchfield Road kept good order and some evacuees would have dealings with him in the future.
If was after dark when Alfie, who had been insisting that all four of us remained together, accepted that this was not possible and Eileen and Alfie went to Mr and Mrs Nicholson at 117 Heathfield Road, Tony and I to a young couple opposite but after two days they found they could not cope, especially with me.
We were moved to Mr and Mrs Corbett at 7 Council Houses, Hill Top Webheath. They were both in their early seventies. Also living in the house was Mrs Fellingham, her son John and Ernie Richards their grandson who played accordion, piano and drums and performed at the village hall dances.
Mr Corbet a retired London policeman was very industrious with a large allotment at the bottom of the garden. By the side of Swimbourns, their next door neighbour, Mr Corbett kept two pigeon lofts which at times proved a great source of food. The Williams, Greens and Blucks families lived below us. Facing, on the other side of the road in a thatched cottage together with an orchard and vegetable garden, lived Mrs Pollard and her son.
On reaching his 14th birthday in October, Alfie returned to Birmingham and commenced work at Hardy & Spicers, a manufacturing firm in Deykin Avenue. Eileen and I attended school at Headless Cross, sometimes in the morning or afternoon but on many occasions not at all. Eileen and I saw very little of one another during the whole period of evacuation. This may have been because I was sent to an establishment in Bromsgrove for treatment of children with a whole range of psychological problems, including bedwetting. I never quite understood how mistreating children could resolve their conditions although I didn’t suffer as much as some of my fellow inmates. I can’t recall the name of the hostel or hospital but it overlooked, in the far distance, what was explained to me, as the biggest incline on the railway requiring two steam engines to pull the goods’ trains to the top.
My father, who had been injured in the face and leg and evacuated from Dunkirk, came along with my mother to visit me. He was in hospital blues, with an army greatcoat, unshaven and looked more terrifying than ever. Mother as usual had a great cross to bear. My father had managed to escape from France; I was still trying to plan my breakout from the hostel.
Tony was still with the Corbets and had started school at Bridge Street walking every day by way of Muskets’ Wood. Schooling was spasmodic and would cause long-term problems since there was a huge difference in the curriculum being taught at that time between Birmingham and Redditch.
Muskets’ Wood, was there ever a more magical wood? Huge broad leaf trees with glades and an undergrowth of ferns. A Mecca for playing cowboys and Indians. A row of five or six silver birch trees overlooking a golf course where you could swing from one to the other, like Tarzan.
Tony was found work at Samuel Hullands & Sons bakery on the Evesham Road (not to be confused with Hollands bake house on Birchfield Road opposite Heathfield Road). He would go after school each day to grease the tins, on Friday he finished at 11 o’clock and would go back at 8 am on Saturday morning for deliveries in a Commer van to Redditch, Crabbs Cross and Hunts End. Tony was paid 1/0d for that first week. After the intervention of Mr Corbet, Tony was paid 7/6d per week and 7/6d for Friday/Saturday. Better still, when Mr Hullands’ nephew, Geoff Harris joined the RAF Tony inherited his bicycle that made travelling from Webheath to Redditch so much easier.
I was released from Bromsgrove and returned to the Corbets. The house was lit by gas mantle and the amount of light received was dependent on the state of repair of the mantle. One winter, maybe 1941, the snow was such that it had been driven under the eaves into the attic. Mr Corbet who was handing down buckets of snow to Tony inadvertently put his foot through the ceiling. The air was a little blue. I pleased Mrs Corbet on many occasions when I went shopping for her at Fox Lydia. To live, she badly needed Craven a cork tipped cigarettes, Fynnons Salts which she took every morning and Carnation evaporated milk which according to Mrs Corbet was the only way to drink tea. The accumulators (batteries to power the radio) however were nearly a challenge too far. They had to go to Fox Lydia for recharging. They were so heavy I had to stop every hundred yards. The journey seemed never ending.
Milk was delivered by Ivor Harris and his mother Dolly. They had a pony and trap containing milk urns with the different measures for the milk hanging on long handles in the urn. Experience was needed to transfer the milk, be it a pint or quart to your jug. This is a memory that has never left me.
In the summer of 1941 I watched the farmer and his labourers cut the bottom field of corn and at the end of the day they erected wigwams with the sheaves of corn 5 to 10 metres apart in lines across the field. It could have been mistaken for a children’s playground especially by the evacuees. As it was we had great fun under the guise of helping. One month later the sheaves were thrown onto the horse and cart and transported to the farm at Hilltop. The corn was separated mechanically by a large machine driven by a traction engine I think it was called. The straw was then taken back to the bottom field and a haystack was formed. These were definitely children friendly. Looking back I realise how hard and demanding this labour must have been yet a sense of purpose and enjoyment seemed to underlie the pure hard labour. The culmination of this was reflected in Harvest Festival, held in the church that was packed. In abundance were apples, pears, plums, a variety of vegetables (much coming from the extensive allotment at Hill Top) and as a centrepiece an enormous loaf in the shape of staves of corn. I think the hymns included “He only is the maker of all things good” sung with gusto by an enlarged congregation for the festival. Tony pumped the organ. I never appreciated why I couldn’t take part in the feast after the service. (You may already discern some elements of Horrid Henry in the writer).
Bentley water splash was another popular activity for the children of Hill Top. The stream which ran across the road was crystal clear. There was a small wooden walkway for pedestrians crossing. The stream, about six inches deep teaming with frog spawn and a plentiful supply of water cress, some of which I would take home for Mrs Corbet. Many happy hours and adventures were spent there. I can only remember seeing perhaps one vehicle cross the ford. The same would be true of Birchfield Road; we played marbles on the verges of the road and encountered very few vehicles on the way home from Headless Cross School.
Redditch boasted three cinemas at the time. The Danilo, Gaumont and Palace. My brother used them on many occasions. I only went to the Saturday matinees on a couple of occasions. I thought I had recollections of Redditch adopting a corvette, HMS Kingfisher and the children at Headless Cross constructing posters and activities in support of the adoption but my brother Tony has no recollection of this.
We returned home to Birmingham in February 1942 and I started school at Deykin Avenue. On my first day I found two bathtubs full of incendiary bombs submerged in water at the school gates. I was never sure if they had been collection by fellow pupils or left by the local ARP whose headquarters were at the school. The contrast between life in Birmingham and Webheath became all too apparent and activities in Witton at that time included collecting shrapnel or viewing damage from air raids. I realise in retrospect that my mother’s decision to evacuate her children spared us from a difficult period in the avenue.
Several years ago Tony and I visited Webheath much had changed. Bently watersplash had gone as had Mrs Pollards smallholding and thatched cottage. The allotments had all +been built on and was that a motorway cutting me off from Muskets’ Wood? There is always a price for progress. For my brothers and sisters our memories of Webheath and that period of our lives are very positive. The village has much to be proud of for what it did during those difficult years.
With fond memories and special thanks to Mr & Mrs Corbet, Mr & Mrs Nicholson and the villagers of Webheath.
I trust I have not romanticized the experience of this period. Hardship of whatever kind was borne then by most children and their parents, privately and with a stiff upper lip. This is set against today’s society’s interminable quest for blame and fault and mourning that never ceases.
Alfie Harrison (86)
Tony Harrison (84)
Terry Harrison (82)
Eileen Harrison (Decd)