- Contributed by
- charles harbone
- People in story:
- Leslie Harbone Born 1910
- Location of story:
- birmingham 1914-18 1939-45
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 May 2005
This story was written by Leslie Harbone
13-7-97 WARTIME MEMORIES
The above date does not seem very auspicious for success in my efforts to delve into the memories of over nearly 60 years ago, and I hope you will excuse my many slip-ups in presentation for I am now at an advanced age and memory does not come easily. I seemed to have led a rather sheltered existence and like my brothers and sisters we were all surrounded by family love, and when I became eight years of age in 1918, yes, the end of the First World War, 1918, I became aware of a far more sinister side of life.
I remember standing between the spikes on the window ledge of a public house, "The Lord Nelson" situated on the corner of Great Lister Street and Dartmouth Street, Birmingham, for a better view of our troops as they came marching home after the 1914-18 holocaust.
The rejoicing as Tommy came marching home to his loved ones remains a vivid recollection to me, and I remember seeing in the homecoming procession through the streets of Birmingham the old open-screened lorries with their solid tyres that prevailed, and horse-drawn gun limbers, never saw so many horses in my life! I witnessed the scenes of joy, the crowds of people young and old, the wives and sweethearts of returning heroes of this First War to end all wars. Little did I think that approximately in 21 years time that I would be called up for the second World War.
After all of these reminiscences when I became 30 years of age, I can remember that just below Moor Street in Birmingham, there was an office of the "Midland Red" opposite St. Martin's church in the Bull Ring where I directed my steps to apply for a driving test to become a "Mldland Red" driver. Application meant signing the Big Book, wherein the names of all the old drivers of the Company's early days were contained. When searching through the Book I was overjoyed to see my father's name there when motorbuses were in their infancy, of the Tilling-Stevens era, a spin-off from the old horse drawn 'bus days.
The time now came for my driving test, there were six trainees including myself, and the gentleman who tested us in our turns around Birmingham was named Harry Trigg, a real old Black Country character. Many parts of the Black Country have a special appeal for me, it being famous for heavy industry, and its no-nonsense hard working people. Anyway, we all passed eventually for all of the skills necessary for a P.S.V. license, changing gear, snap changing from stationary when starting from the steepest part of the Bull Ring in the centre of Birmingham. Reversing round sharp corners by mirror and other tests I cannot now remember.
Thus did I become a "Midland Red" driver attached to Digbeth Omnibus Depot in Birmingham entering a new world of discipline and friendship? Every driver was issued with a little black leather bag of tools that held various tools, a bright steel tape rule for dipping the petrol tank that turned out to be practically useless for it did not show any dip mark of Petrol level, so they were soon discontinued in favour of a black steel rule. since I was the smallest driver at Digbeth, I found the tool bag a great help when it was placed at my back on the driving seat for I could more easily reach the foot pedals, clutch, throttle and brake.
There was a certain discipline at Digbeth coach and 'bus garage. almost of army standards, in such case of the drivers having to line up in the garage for kit inspection, the tool bags open in front of them and their contents each having to be exact. Further, in front of the foreman's office hung a large tin of metal polish on a swivel, and you had to supply your own rag for polishing the radiators of the S.O.S buses of the times, 52 seaters, if I recall right. Again, I think those initials were short for (Shire's Own Specification> referring to Sir Wyndham Shires, who incorporated many of the best features of 'buses of the times - 1900 onwards.
The upper and lower deck had to be checked in case of any tacks in the upholstery, the fan belt and dynamo belt had to be checked in the garage, any damage to the exterior of the 'bus notified to the office before it was taken on service, and on one occasion when I was in Digbeth garage after returning from my Coventry service, I was called to the office to explain why there was a long scratch extending the whole length of the roof of the 'bus!
It was found out eventually, that the cause was due to the fact that the 'bus was a new double-deck vehicle, it's first time on service, and with the suspension very high. Few passengers were on at the time when it passed under the Alvis Bridge in Coventry, and the roof had caught on a rivet from the bridge. A vigilant cleaner had noticed the scratch from the top of his ladder. There was no apparent mark from inside the vehicle.
The thrill and knowledge of those days will always be with me, the horse was still with us, not yet ousted by the fancy rattling, banging motor-car, who’s drivers, eventually, like myself! Imagined themselves to be veritable kings of the road! But the dignity and majesty of the horse remained, just think of the might and majesty of the Shire horses who worked for the railways. I cast my mind back to the "Midland Red" of the 'thirties, take for instance, Rea Street, off Bradford Street, Birmingham, where the tramcar once held sway, I recall two Shire horses trying to pull an immense low loader wagon with very small wheels over the slippy tram track and stubborn cobbles outside the "Midland Red" in Rea Street.
The two horses strained, their stomach's almost touching the ground, but the low-loader never budges an inch. One of the men in charge then said to his mate, "Fetch Blackie out, put him on, and he'll shift it on his own."
. After about 30 minutes and the two horses had been removed from the wagon I witnessed an amazing sight, one of the biggest Shire horses I have ever seen was put in the shafts, and he, too, stretched towards the ground, and it seemed, with far less effort than the previous two had used, out and on came the wagon in slow and ponderous movement!
Harking back to my more youthful days, as a child of 12 years of age, I also had two brothers, the eldest was Charles, who was about 15, and my younger brother who was about nine, and we all became steeped from those ages into the mechanical fix it years after the First World War by the hard times and the necessity to know more about the marvels of those times of the World War of 1914-18.
Especially when your father owned six taxis, 2 Unics, 2 Belsises, and a Wolseley and Austin, and certain duties were apportioned to each of us in accordance with our ages in helping to clean and maintain each cab. The eldest son had to go underneath the cab he was working on, use a brush and paraffin around the gearbox and back axle, and engine sump and chassis that had to be clean according to the requirements of the Hackney Carriage Department of Police Headquarters, Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham,
So you see, in those days, there was a strong bond between parents and children, more so, I think, than in the present day through easier living. A strong discipline existed in those days, together with filial respect, the maxim then was that 'children should be seen and not heard, and speak when you are spoken to'. There were very many advantages for the young, then, in the hard school of learning, car insurance was practically nonexistent, through my affinity at an early age with the motor-car I taught myself to drive, through the necessity of moving the vehicle in and out of the garage, eventually to take the vehicle the short distance to my home for my father to take it over.
As I grew older I was able to pass for a P.S.V. to drive a coach, in the beginning I worked in the market area in Bell Street near the Bull Ring and drove an old Guy coach for Mr. and Mrs. Grimsley whose garage was in Bell Street together with a massive stable area where in summer elephants and ponies could be kept before and after their performance in Bingley Hall that was just in Broad Street not too far from the Hall of Memory.
Sadly, the stables and Bell Street and Grimleys together with Bingley Hall no longer exist, but I still remember waiting by the front of the old Guy coach clad in an impeccable white coat and peaked hat with white top, on the corner of Bell Street with a billboard against the radiator of the Guy that proclaimed a 'Mystery Trip for 2/6d' probably around the Cotswolds. or Bourton-on-the-Water. In the winter I used to drive one of Mr. Grimsleys furniture vans with a mate to help. all over the place, Summer Lane seemed to be ablaze from end to end, bomb debris everywhere, I ran over one incendiary with the offside rear wheel, and it was extinguished eventually after performing like a giant Catherine wheel, it may have been fatal to stop. However, it burnt itself out through contact with the road. Dispersal was the watchword, and I remember when I first tried to park my bus near Digbeth garage I was ordered away by the police. All buses were dispersed as much as possible, I took mine home to where I lived at the time, but had to park it finally outside my sister's house in Rogers Road, Washwood Heath, where owing to the extreme camber of the road the top deck was very near the bed-room window. All of this was necessary because of delayed action bombs.
Many parts of the city had to be cordoned off because of delayed action bombs and when I had to pack up owing to the conditions, was put up at my sister's house. Another time I had to park the 'bus as near Handsworth in the safest part of the city as near as I could, and walked about five miles to my home in the centre of Soho Road in the middle of the highway because the shop windows all around the city had been blown to fragments, and very few vehicles could get through.
When I did arrive home it was to be surrounded by Home Guard and have a gun stuck in my ribs. My language was sulphurous, "I live here, you ...... idiots," I said. On this particular day I was on Coventry service, and you know that Coventry had suffered a great deal. I remember that the Coventry service terminated by a public house that I think was called the Hollyhead, the Cathedral and the centre had been devastated and the horrors of total war was much in evidence, but without the artificial smoke nightmare that I had experienced in Castle Bromwich and Water Orton.
It was only a short break, however, and I was back again on the Coleshill route again without mishap this time, free to breathe huge sighs of relief, but can you believe it, and it's all perfectly true, my bus was dropping off passengers at a place called the Gate at Saltley and on the tram track when I heard the loud dinging of a tramcar bell.
Then there was a terrific crash to the offside rear of my 'bus which was pushed about a couple of yards towards the corner of the Alum Rock Road.
On the opposite side of the road towards which the 'bus was facing, was Gate Inn, and the 'bus and tram were both due to turn right at this very sharp turn into the High Street.
What had happened was that the tram was skidding on greasy track, and the driver knew that an impact was inevitable, and had thrown open the door behind him, so that he could be thrown into the passenger gangway of the tram. Fortunately no one was hurt, and the tram was towed away. Maybe it was fortunate that the 'bus was there for this turn was so sharp that the overhead power conductor pole was frequently thrown off as the trams turned the very sharp corner, and the upper windows of a shop on the far corner just as frequently smashed in.
Fortunately no one was hurt, although there was quite a bit of shock, and I often think that if the 'bus had not diminished the impact, that it could have been a more serious accident. The shop concerned was on the far left of the High Street, and the sharper curve of the track passed only a few feet from the frontage of the shop....I was on Coventry service again a few days later and no tramcars were running then because I think that the flashing from the overhead wires gave the game away to Jerry who was. Again overhead and still wreaking his wicked will on many parts of the city.
The 'buses and other traffic were still running, and perforce had to be ushered around shell holes and destroyed tram track at Sheldon, (well named!) The repair gangs were holding up the overhead tram wires with hooks well away from the traffic. Land mines were being dropped by the enemy, and I heard that one was hanging from the church at Coleshill.
Every or nearly every single deck 'bus in the country had been called up for military and other services, and double Decker 'buses from all parts of the country were in evidence in Birmingham for general service, and I noticed in Digbeth a London 'bus with an advert on the top deck that incorporated a huge eye on each side of the top deck, in Dlgbeth as if it had only come for a look around.
I recall how, with fellow busmen in front of DigBeth garage, how we all were looking towards the top of the Bull Ring when the Market Hall was being bombed, and the brave firemen were struggling with hoses at the top of their ladders, and Jerry dropped an oil bomb on the market Hall, and the terrific "whoosh" and pressure from it seemed to knock us all back into the garage, and the market Hall must have been some 200 yards away.
However, all good and bad things must come to an end, as the saying is, and I reported to the garage for duty one day, and the garage Forman said to me and others, and it was Friday, pay day as well, "Go outside your 'bus is there, and join that convoy." So, willy-nilly I was in the Forces. I don't think I am betraying any secrets after all of these years, but our first stop with the convoy was in the centre of newbury.
A vast force of vehicles and men were there, and I can only say that we went where we had to go, in many and diverse ways, and I finished up in Aldershot, where I, with others, was left until required, so that all we could do was to have a look around the place. As I strolled along, left like others to my own devices, I noticed a huge open-fronted shed that was half-filled with a mountain of boots, mainly army boots that were obviously second-hand, but many much better than mine, so with no-one to say me nay, I climbed up the stack and exchanged my boots for a much better pair.
I was comforted by the old adage; When in Rome do as Rome does!
Somehow or other a feeling of peace came over me, it was just as if all of the travails and upsets of yesterday had never been, although I knew that after we had all endured during the 'phoney war,' and this was the time of Dunkirk, I knew that nothing would ever be the same again, our to-morrows were yet to come.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.