- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Harding, Leslie Harding, Reg Harding
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 August 2005
I arrived back home to Birmingham in August 1940 and the Battle of Britain had just about begun, I remember a lot of the news at the time, was of how many German Aircraft had been shot down and how many of our own planes had been lost. I seem to remember seeing the headlines one day of 183 German planes shot down over Britain. I don't remember much of the summer that year except for the renewing of my friendship with Gordon. I know he had a model aeroplane for his birthday and we used to go all the way to Cannon Hill Park to fly it. It was a whole days outing, and we would make a bottle of lemonade by mixing Calais, which was a flavoured sugar, coloured Yellow Pink or Green, which was sold at all the local sweet shops.
I was now fourteen years old I had to see about getting employed, I was steered towards the Post Office by my father, who was already working there as a sorting Clerk. I applied, and sat the Civil Service examination in the September. Whilst waiting for the result, I applied for, and got, a job in the offices of Bellis and Morcom a large engineering works in Ledsam St. Ladywood, as an apprentice Progress Clerk, with the princely sum of 10 Shillings a week (50p in todays money). I stayed there for about six weeks, I didn't care much for the work but there were fringe benefits, the offices were full of young girls. I started with the Post Office in the October, as a Boy Messenger at the Head Post Office in the centre of Birmingham, delivering telegrams to offices around the city centre. The furthest we had to walk was to the L.M.S. Goods Yard in Curzon St. which was about a 40 minute walk there and back, but I quickly learned via the grape Vine that these telegrams were only confirmation copies of messages, that had already been phoned through, so we used to do what we called "stack them". This meant that we put the telegrams in our pocket and skived for the 40 minutes in a secret hiding place we had behind some lockers in the basement. The telegrams would be delivered later in the day by a friend who had to go that way home. After working for several weeks at head Office, I was moved to Edgbaston Sub Office, where the delivery area was much larger, and we used Bicycles. Life was much easier here, and while waiting our turn to go out with a batch of telegrams we played Table Top Football on the table in our Mess Room which had a white enamelled metal top. The game was played using two pennies a farthing and two combs. The goals were marked in pencil and the idea was to knock your penny with a comb so that it hit the farthing, which acted as a ball, into your opponents goal. All the telegrams that we had to deliver were either very good news, or very bad. Remember that very few people had telephones during this period, so any urgent news was sent by telegram. The good ones were the Greetings telegrams which were usually sent to couples on their wedding day, and quite often we would get a good tip from the addressee, the very bad ones though, were from the War Office, notifying the next of kin about a casualty, usually killed in action. Although there was a war going on these days were quite happy ones for me, I had saved up and bought myself a new sports bike, and Gordon and myself went cycling all over the midlands, usually we would do between 60 and 80 miles each Sunday during the summer months. In the summer of 1942 Gordon's Mother and Father decided to go on Holiday to Blackpool and stay at a small Guest House in Thornton, which is just a few miles inland and on the Railway line between Blackpool and Fleetwood. It was Gordon's idea that we should go and join them there for a fortnight, and instead of going by train, we would cycle the 131 miles. We started off very early on the Saturday morning, the weather was bright and sunny all the way, and we managed the journey quite easily in one day. The holiday proved to be a very good one, and I think what made it even better was the fact that Gordon's cousin Delores came to stay at the same Guest House, for the whole fortnight. She was the same age as me, a Jewess, with very dark hair, and exceptionally good looking, she spent most of the time with us and was very good company. At the end of the two weeks, it was time to start back and once again we started our journey early on the Saturday morning. The weather was still very good and we made the first ten miles or so in good time. But then disaster struck, we were about halfway between Blackpool and Preston when Gordon suddenly got a severe attack of Migraine. He got these attacks now and again and he had found that the only cure was to close his eyes and go to sleep for at least a couple of hours. So there was nothing else for us, but to lie down on the centre reservation of the duel carriageway, while Gordon slept off his headache. It was lunch time before he was well enough to think about continuing the journey but still in no condition to think of cycling some 120 miles . So we decided to abandon the ride at Preston and catch the train back to Birmingham, which we did.
It was around this time of my life that I became friendly with Joe Brown, I met him first when we were both working at Edgbaston Sub office. My earliest recollection of Joe, was him making Welsh Rarebit for his lunch, on the gas stove in the mess room. It was a special recipe he used, because I know it was a mixture of Cheese, Milk and Onions. Joe didn't stay long working for the Post Office, he was enticed away by the offer of more money, working for the Great Western Railway as a Goods Porter. His mother was already working on the Railway as her war effort, and that's where he got the idea from. It was part of his duties to take his turn at Fire watching over the weekend at Handsworth Goods depot. This depot was only open during normal working hours, so someone had to be on the premises outside of these hours, in case of any incendiary bombs falling on the place and causing a lot of damage. When it was Joe's turn to Fire watch, we used to go down to the depot and keep him company. It was quite a spacious yard and there were several lorries parked there belonging to the Railway. They were quite ancient vehicles built around 1930, there was no such thing as ignition keys in those days, so we were able to get in them and start them up with ease. We then drove them around the yard and sidings, practising reverse, emergency stops and generally improving our driving techniques.
Most of the time it would be the three of us together, but I remember on one occasion, I went with Joe, cycling down to Wales, to spend the weekend at the farm where he had been evacuated to in 1939. It was very early in the year and quite cold, but we made reasonable progress, and I remember that when we were about ten miles or so from the farm, and in the middle of desolate countryside we stopped at the roadside for a rest. I had eaten all my sandwiches, such as they were , because remember I had no mother to pack sandwiches and things for me, and I was absolutely starving, I was so hungry that I felt as though I could not continue, when Joe quite casually mentioned that he had got a whole home-made cake in his saddle-bag that he hadn't started on. We shared the cake and I was able to carry on with the journey, I don't think that I have ever been so hungry as I was that day, and I hope that I never will. Being as it was so cold, we decided to spend the first night sleeping in the barn, which was full of hay, rather than the tent that we had brought with us. I didn't have a very good nights sleep though, for one thing I could hear what seemed like rats moving about in the hay, which wasn't very pleasant, and secondly, when hay is stored in a barn it is usual to tramp in down so that the largest quantity of hay can be stored. This must of happened, but as the level of hay got up to where the roof space started, there were large wooden purloins every so often, and it wasn't possible to tramp the hay immediately underneath these. Consequently the hay wasn't packed solid at these points, and it was on one of these places that I had decided to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, I discovered that I had sunk down two or three feet in the hay and hadn't a clue where I was at all. Because of this, we decided to spend the other nights in the tent, which we did. This had it's problems though, because the nights were so cold (There was actually white frost on the outside of the tent] we kept waking up feeling cold. The first time we woke, we brewed a pot of tea to warm us up, and discovered that boiling a kettle on the primus stove inside the tent actually warmed the tent up considerably, so from then on it was the same procedure each time we woke up.
When it became time to leave, we were given a dozen eggs, a large chunk of home cured Bacon, and about a 1lb of Butter each, these items were in very short supply back home of course, so they were very welcome gifts. The next occasion that I remember camping was when we decided to go to Blackpool for a weeks Holiday. We built a small trailer mounted on two pram wheels, and Gordon who was learning to be Toolmaker by trade , made a universal joint that could be attached to the saddle pillar of our Bicycles . It was very hard going towing this trailer so we had to take it in turns just doing a few miles in one stint. Because of this trailer we were able to take much more camping gear with us, which made the stay more enjoyable, it also slowed us down considerably, and we only made the City of Manchester by dusk on the first day. Being a City there were not many places that you could pitch a tent and we ended up sleeping on the floor of a surface type Air Raid Shelter. We were not far from the centre of Manchester so we thought it prudent to make an early start the next morning, we had an alarm clock with us and it was set to go off at 6 o'clock in the morning which it did, but unfortunately a policeman happened to be passing the shelter at the time, and of course he came inside and caught us crawling out of sleeping bags. He must have been a decent sort of copper though because when he realised just what we were doing he told us that there was a Public Swimming Baths just around the corner where they had facilities for renting a cubical containing a nice clean bath full of hot water, with towels and soap to go with it. So we all left Manchester feeling very good and nice and clean. Joe who was making more money as a porter, than either Gordon or myself bought a Motor-cycle as soon as he was sixteen, and all three of us were soon able to ride it [there were no tests in those days , they had been suspended for the duration of the war. It was around this time that Joe and I joined the Fire Service as part time Firemen. The attraction was that at Smethwick Fire Station, which was the Head Quarters for the Blackcountry area, they used Dispatch Riders, and had a good selection of bikes that had been commandeered for the war effort. We straight away volunteered to become Dispatch Riders, and had a great time, the war was now going very well for the Allies, and we were getting very few Air Raids in the Midlands. Most of our duties were to take, and collect documents, from the several Fire Stations that came under the control of Smethwick. We also escorted the Fire Engines that went out to any fire, the idea being that we could report back to the station should any extra equipment be needed. Being war-time you could not rely on the telephone, and Fire Engines were not equipped with radio's yet. We also went on one or two exercises, where hundreds of Fire Tenders were marshalled at one particular point, say halfway between Coventry and Birmingham, so that they could be rushed to whichever city was being attacked that night. The social life at the Fire Station was very good, and Dances were held most Saturday nights, sliding down three stories on the Fireman's pole was also good fun, once you got over the vertigo feeling as you launched yourself off the top floor. Altogether I enjoyed my time as a Fireman and I stayed with the Fire Service until I was called up for National Service on my 18th birthday.
One day we were told that a housewife in Ladywood had got a Motorcyle in a shed at the back of her house that she wanted to get rid of. All three of us went to see her, and the bike that she had turned out to be a very ancient model indeed. It must have been made around 1920, it had running boards on which to put your feet, the back wheel was driven by a leather belt, there was a little pump on the petrol tank that was for feeding oil to the engine, you were supposed to give a couple of strokes of the pump every few miles or so. We pushed it up and down the Road, to get it started and went for a little spin round the district, but we considered that it was far too old to be any good and left it there for the scrap iron man to have. That bike would have been worth a small fortune today, if only we had realised it's true value. Gordon was now the new owner of a 1929 350 c.c. Side Valve Ariel Motor Cycle, Joe Brown's bike was a B.S.A. of about the same vintage. It was what was called a "Sloper " that is, the engine was mounted at an angle in the frame, sloping towards the front. It had a very long stroke, and was a real slogger. I still wasn't able to afford a bike myself yet, so when our next holiday was to be Blackpool again I had to be content by going on the pillion seat of one or the other of the two bikes, although I did drive part of the way. I remember the Ariel broke down when we were about halfway there, with problems to the Magneto, but we were able to get it fixed and carry on to Blackpool. We camped in the back garden of the same Guest House that we had stayed at the previous year, and Gordon's relatives were staying at the House also. Gordon's cousin Leslie, was there and as he was around the same age as us, he spent most of his time in our company. One afternoon towards the end of our stay Joe went down to the village shop to get some provisions and Leslie went with him. Gordon and I expected them back in less than half an hour, so when two hours had passed and there was still no sign of them we began to get a little concerned. After waiting for a while longer with still no news of them, we decided to go and investigate. When we got to the village we quickly discovered that there had been an accident and Joe and Leslie were in Hospital. I never did find out what really happened, or if I did, it has slipped from my memory. But I gather that there were no other vehicles involved, and they must have lost control of the bike negotiating a bend in the road. Joe had suffered a broken ankle which was bad enough, but there were also complications. Leslie was in a much more serious condition, he had a Heart problem, which he had been born with, and was now in Intensive care. He died a few days later, before we had even time to go and visit them. Joe had to stay in Hospital for several weeks and had to have metal pins inserted into his shin bone.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anastasia Travers a volunteer with WM CSV Actiondesk on behalf of John Harding and has been added to the site with his permission. John Harding fully understands the sites terms and conditions.
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