It does you good sometimes to read the stories of folk who grew up during a time of war and austerity to realise just how well life treats us today.
Everyone can paint a picture of their own formative years, portraying both fond or foul memories, before adulthood brought an end to halcyon days of innocence and just recently former Blackheath lad Alan Goddard has been doing his own fair share of reminiscing.
He has written up a series of anecdotes that cover three decades, the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
He told us, “There were some happy times mixed with the sad, but I like to remember everything about those far off years, warts and all, and not look at life through a pair of rose tinted glasses. Life will always have its ups and downs, no matter what era or generation you were born in, and these are my memories before I fled my Black Country nest to join the Royal Navy at the age of 16.
“I now live in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, but still have a great affection for the Black Country and Blackheath in particular.” Alan’s story begins just before the Second World War, and over the next few weeks we will plot a course that takes us through the first 16 years of his life.
Alan writes, “I was the third child to Nellie and Wilfred, with a three year old sister, Rita, and a two year old elder brother, Tony. Younger brother Terry came three years later.
“We all lived at 49 Beeches Road, Blackheath, a two-uptwo- down terrace house that would have been an affront to anyone. The ground floor was a couple of inches below pavement level which meant the parlour always flooded when it rained; the roof, which had seen better days, leaked a multitude of drips which slowly filled half a dozen assorted tins and pans; and there was a single entry between the two front doors, allowing the only access to a shared backyard and toilet.
“There was no inside plumbing, the only light bulb in the house was in a downstairs back room, and a wire leading from the socket supplied power to a wooden radio that we rented for a few pennies a week.
“Dad was out of work because of the worldwide depression, and after a poor beginning for yours truly as a member of the Blackheath Goddard family, the quality of life was to improve only marginally during the coming decade and a half.
“With the war approaching, the country’s economy began to pick up and my dad started work. However, with five people to feed and clothe and, unfortunately, two people who drank and smoked, we didn’t seem to notice an improvement in our standard of living.
“But a Black Country childhood during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was a unique experience.
They were lean, hungry times through lack of money and rationing, and the streets were forever dark at night except where some street corners had gas lights. Then of course we had the black-out for nearly six years until VE Day in May 1945.
“Factories as far as the eye could see moved into full production, furnaces, forges, and every house used coal or coke as heating fuel which sent the Black Country back into the black with unbelievably thick fog and even worse smog. They were pea-soupers at times, thick and acrid, through which we had to navigate by hand in the day as well as by night.
“The landscape changed as static water tanks and air raid shelters were erected in many streets and on any available waste ground. After the war the shelters became huts and dens for the local gangs, until they were pulled down in the late ’40s.
“Until the start of the war poor people were rationed through lack of money, but then they were rationed because of rationing books full of coupons.
But again, no one in our family noticed a difference.
“Pub crawls became the order of the day when the three pints per drinker limit came into force, and midnight visits to factories that had coal and coke burning furnaces were not considered to be unlawful when these two items became scarce and works were given priority.
“When I first passed through the main gate at Beeches Road Infant School the first thing I noticed were the countersunk trapdoors in the playground.
The second thing I remember noticing was the wide strips of sticky-tape criss-crossing all the windows. At the beginning of every lesson I’d be looking through the patterned windows, and after the air raid sirens sounded, carrying on with lessons beneath the trapdoors.
“Community spirit began to strengthen because we were all in the same boat. They were times of make-do, mend, and lending neighbours whatever one could, such as a bottle of milk, quarter of a loaf of bread, or a cup of sugar. Children had to make do and swapped anything, quickly learning to make something out of almost nothing.
For instance, a few rags and a piece of string became a football, and up to two dozen of us would play a game on the Highfields or the Tump on the level side of Perry Park Road.
“Each of us carried in our pocket a small piece of candle and a few matches, plus a razor in a matchbox. They were the tools of a youngster’s trade. A bat could be made from any piece of wood, and if three short branches were pointed, a game of cricket would ensue, any sort of ball being adequate for our style of play. Hopscotch was also played with a few marks on the ground; marbles, five jacks, and spin. After collecting all the different cigarette packets, they were spun at a wall from the pavement edge. When one landed on top of another the spinner was the winner and picked up all the flattened packets.
“From a double page spread of a newspaper, a piece of cotton, a garden cane split into four, and a mix of flour and water to make paste, a kite could be constructed.
All that was required to get the kite airborne was a piece of string with half a dozen four inch rolls of paper for a weighted tail, and several feet of yarn to fly it from the top of the Highfields, and dozens of parents and children used the highest point above Blackheath railway tunnel to enjoy the delights of a sky filled with home-made kites.
“A whip and top, a skipping rope and catapult made from a car inner tube, a leather tongue from a boot, four pieces of wire and a forked tree branch kept children busy for hours, and there were scrap tanks, army vehicles and aircraft fuselages in the local scrapyards to make ideal toys for children like me in the Second World War.” Alan’s story continues next week.
Do you want to share your memories of wartime childhood in the Black Country? Contact jworkman@black countrybugle.co.uk, 01384 567678, Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath