KINGS HEATH & DISTRICT
MEMORIES OF KINGS HEATH
Childhood in Mossfield Road, King’s Heath from 1939
By GWYNETH FOOKES, née Jones
Only weeks before the Second World War began, we moved house to 49 Mossfield Road, King's Heath, to what seemed then a very modern semi-detached house with garage space for my Dad's car. The Austin 7 (registration COP 347) had been the only car in Station Road, King’s Norton, and was a very proud possession. The decision to move had been made with the impending war in mind. Station Road was only a mile away from the Cadbury factory at Bournville and my parents were convinced that the factory would be a target for the enemy, so they moved. They, unfortunately, had no way of knowing that the Cadbury factory would be carefully camouflaged and there were no bombs at all in Bournville. Wheeler's Lane school was near our new house. It was a brand new school with a flat concrete roof, and that attracted the bombers time and time again, so we suffered far more in King's Heath than we would have done if we had stayed put.
Mossfield Road was a quiet residential road, with houses of mixed age. No. 49 was unpretentious and I do not think Mum and Dad liked it very much. There was a big field next to the house where we used to play. It became allotments during the war. We only stayed there until I was about 11. It had lounge, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and bathroom, the only unusual thing about it was that the fireplaces were diagonally across the corner of the rooms. Mum hated that and thought it made arranging the furniture impossible. The upstairs bathroom was a luxury. In Station Road we had no indoor facilities at all – we had to go down the yard to the toilet. Oh, how cold that was in the winter when it was dark so very early. No. 49 had a long narrow garden, backing onto the houses in Addison Road. Immediately outside the French window, there were two rockeries, made of white quartz with swathes of such plants as mountain snow, saxifrage and London pride. I remember a phyladelphia, mock orange, and lilac that they were always trying to keep under control without success. We had kittens there and many happy hours were spent playing with them on the lawn. During the war, we kept chickens at the bottom of the garden, but I seem to remember they were more trouble than they were worth. It was fun for me having a batch of day old chicks once, tiny balls of yellow peeping away non stop.
I started school in 1940. I went to Wheeler's Lane, the lovely brand new school, built in 1938, with the concrete roof! In the reception class it had a huge doll's house that we could play in and a sandpit. Such things are taken for granted now, but then they were very exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Miss Harris was our headmistress in the Infants. The school still looks the same on the outside.
In 1940 we children were offered the chance of evacuation because the War was getting frightening. I begged to go as I even then wanted to live on a farm and we had been told we would be sent to the country. Mum and Dad decided that if Trevor, my brother, and I could be together it would probably be the best for us. Unfortunately for my dreams, we landed in a place called Teversal, near Mansfield, Notts. I can almost remember the train journey, but perhaps my memories are coloured by films I have since seen. We only stayed for a week at the first house Trevor and I went to in Belbeck Square. The old lady was very kind, but she could not cope with two lively youngsters and we were moved to a miner's cottage.
Mum and Dad came to visit us every now and then. They managed to save up enough petrol from their ration and find their way despite the lack of road signs – they had all been taken down so that the enemy would not have any help finding their way around! I cried every time they came and begged to go home again, but the blitz was getting worse so they decided we were safer where we were. After a year Mum and Dad brought us home as they decided I really was miserable. Entering Birmingham on the journey home was like driving into another world. All the shops were boarded up and the place was dark and there were no people around. Cars had to have shielded headlights, which added to the gloom. It was not a happy sight. Our grandfather was very ill when we arrived home, having made himself ill building an air raid shelter. I was not allowed to see him because he was so ill. He died a few days later and I was not allowed to go to the funeral. That was just after Christmas in the first days of January 1941.
The War at this stage did not bother me a great deal. I do not think so anyway. It became a way of life. I could not remember anything different before it began, so did not feel deprived. There were no new toys, but I did not know a time when there were toys (I was only four when hositilities started), so again did not feel deprived I did have a stuffed sailor doll made by Mrs Ottley who lived across the road. Sweets were rationed and each week I would take my ration book down to Whites, the sweet shop, on the main road and get my ration. Fruits like oranges and bananas had disappeared, but I had been too young to remember them, so did not miss them.
It was later as the war dragged on that doubts developed as to what all this was about and what humanity was getting up to. Was life all just blasting men off the face of the earth and being terrified that the Germans were coming? It was a common threat to children that the Germans would get you if you misbehaved.
I went back to Wheeler's Lane and did very well in the tests to go up to the junior school. I only made one spelling mistake at the age of 6 or 7, which was ans(w)er. I was really cross with myself that I could have made such a silly mistake. So I went into straight into class 2, later jumped to 6, then 9, then 10, missing all in between. I made friends with Mary Flavell, Edith Wetton, Cynthia Cross and Sheila Bentley.
We had to use the air raid shelter at school for practice evacuations sometimes. It was big, damp and dark. I was glad we never had to use it for real. And we also had gas masks, which I hated wearing. Children under 5 were given Mickey Mouse gas masks, which were colourful and I was upset that I was too old to have a special one. Ours were black.
There was a stream through Hollie Lucas and my friend Cynthia Cross and I spent many happy hours wandering aimlessly there. You could get through to Billesley Common where in the war they had anti-aircraft defences and balloons. But we were only interested in the big slide and the play equipment. Sometimes we would walk as far the Dingle towards Hall Green. There was a bigger river there – water was always tempting! On the way back we would often buy a ld. (½ a modern pence) fizzy drink from a tiny shop. We could walk to Swanshurst Park, Uffculme Park, King's Heath Park and Cannon Hill Park, which we did quite often, but even then preferred the wild places.
The nature table at school always had specimens that I had taken in. My obsession with wild flowers had started very early in life. Cynthia and I started a nature club, but I think we were the only members.
When I wanted piano lessons, Mum found me a teacher. She was the kind of lady, often to be found in those days who lived round the corner in Addison Road and taught in her own front room. Gladys Collins never pushed examinations, for which I was grateful, but for a while I made progress in leaps and bounds.
I enjoyed school and learning. Especially I loved maths. I liked the teachers on the whole. I enjoyed sewing and knitting too. In sewing, in class 6 at Wheelers Lane I made a sewing apron in yellow flowery material, stitched with tiny stitches that amazed Miss Dodd (later Mrs. Green). When I was eight, I made a dress completely hand stitched and when I was 9 another to the same design.
From about the age of eight I started to go down with tonsilitis with monotonous regularity. Every time I went down with it, I would have to stay in bed for at least a week and be off school for a fortnight. I would go back to school for a fortnight and then be ill again. It seemed gradually to get worse and each time I would be more ill, until at last the doctor recommended I have my tonsils out. The bouts were becoming quinsies, which were very nasty. I was 10 by then and went into an adult ward at Selly Oak Hospital. I was there for a week, but only felt sorry for myself the first day. After that, I wandered around helping the nurses making beds and handing things round to the other patients. But after the operation, I never looked back. I have not had a day's illness since. No more than a rare cold.
I was bad at sports – I could not see a ball well enough to catch it, so was always left out. Racing was a little better and I did help my team win a relay race once, winning a magnificent prize of a little collection of embroidery threads. I enjoyed playing hopscotch, skipping and handstands. Oh, how I would have enjoyed modern gymnastics. With my friends, I spent many of my break times doing handstands against the school wall. Handstand after handstand. On other occasions we threw balls against the wall in a variety of games for hours (I obviously could see that ball!).
I was also bad at acting and kept a very low profile when parts in school plays came up. We had Gillian Knight in our class, who later became the famous opera singer. At school she always played the lead part and did so very well.
Life in wartime was not easy for the adults, but of course I knew no different. Our house at 49 Mossfield Road, was a semi-detached, three bedroomed home with an upstairs bathroom. My parents barricaded the back room downstairs. They had a wall built outside the window and wooden supports to hold the ceiling up should we receive a direct hit. Then they acquired a Morrison shelter, which looked like an enormous metal dining table with wire mesh all round. We slept in this sometimes and sometimes I slept in two armchairs pushed together in this barricaded room. Before all this work was done, when the airraid siren sounded, we would retire to the kitchen. It was warm in there and we sat on cushions on the floor in the dark - listening. We had a cat, which was very happy to have all this company and it would purr away contentedly. This was infuriating as when the cat purred, we just could not hear the exact aircraft noise. We could tell whether it was a German or English plane overhead - when the cat was not interfering.
Our next door neighbours, the Baches, built an Anderson shelter in the garden, but Mum would have none of that. She felt that the underground shelter would not be much safer and it would most certainly be damp, so we stayed indoors. Dad was in the ARP, was an ambulance driver, and did fire duty in his office block in the town. So at night, when nerves were taut, he was never around. Mum took to smoking at that time and she spent a great deal of time standing on the front doorstep watching the dog fights overhead. In the morning, we children delightedly picked up the shrapnell that had fallen in the garden and nearby, little realising the harm it would have done had it hit us.
© COLIN BAKER 2007