My dad told me that when he was at work pegging out building plots for the new estates that were springing up north of Birmingham in the post-war years, he would marvel at how inconveniently small the allotted spaces for sitting room, dining room, and kitchen appeared to be on the barren site. As the level strings edged upwards, closely followed by courses of bricks, the rooms would proceed to settle themselves in his visual perception as of perfectly adequate proportions for happy families to conduct life in during the following decades.
And so, pondering this small area of open grass and trees at the junction of Green Lane and Old Birchills, my mother can’t quite believe that when she trod this ground during her childhood, there were scores of miniature dwellings converging just here around the yards behind Forge Street and Little Street, with nearly as many more facing them across the narrow cobbled thoroughfares, all in the shadow of the still-thriving foundries – but not, by that time, the furnaces – for which “The” Birchills, just north-east of Walsall, was widely famous. My grandmother’s sisters both married into Birchills families, families of foundry workers, furnacemen, and boatmen.
In those days, Mother would be stepping from Forge Street into the tiny parlour of her Aunt Maud’s house, after a short walk from St Patrick’s in Blue Lane East, or from home in Bentley. Until its demolition in the 1950s, the little dwelling had no running water supply, and possessed only one other downstairs room in which Maud and her husband Billy – along with their two children – could bide their waking hours indoors, and yet the unused space, the sacrosanct parlour, had to be afforded: a defiant statement about the extent of the family’s accommodation. That they had enough. That there was – of space, if nothing else – a surplus.
In the back room, the lino on the floor always showed a high polish; spotless, my mother emphasises. A white enamel bowl sat on a stool near the door. It was filled, ready, with water drawn from a communal stand pipe in a tidy yard paved with durable blue bricks. The Ford family’s comforts were meagre, and the conditions of their life were unmercifully spartan, but not necessarily squalid, given the co-operation of a group of neighbouring housewives who shared clean and orderly habits.
Billy Ford was blind. An industrial accident some years earlier had robbed him permanently of his sight, but Mom remembers a cheerful Uncle Bill, smiling and immaculately dressed, cared for with kindness by his wife, their laundry willingly taken in by her sister Emma in nearby Dalkeith Street, to save the indignity of the shared “brewhouse”, and returned in a crisply ironed pile.
How did the family manage to support themselves? Maud regularly “walked” Billy to the premises of the society for the blind in Hatherton Road. Perhaps some small income derived from his pastimes there. What a hard, hard life.
My grandmother, Elsie-May Day, at the age of 15, and already at work as a “Sorter, Iron Foundry Worker” according to the 1911 census, had found herself, on her own mother’s untimely death that year, a surrogate parent to her two surviving sisters: Emma, two years younger than her, and “ower poor little Maudie,” as she was forever to be called, just 8 years old.
My mother tells me that her dear little Aunt Maud received my swaddled infant self into enthusiastic arms when we were introduced, and twittered sweet nothings into my baby face with a child-like delight. Although I remember nothing of this meeting, I am very glad to know about it.
By the time that I was born in 1961, Forge Street had been demolished, and the family had been moved into a new council house in Leckie Road. Maudie died, and Billy ended his days in a home for the blind.