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I came home from National Service to find a pile of rubble

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 05, 2014

  • Happy times. Sally Harcourt with her nieces and the family dog. Roy Langford's home is at far left in the background

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MY SECOND army posting in late August 1953 took me on a 14 week REME Army Vehicle Training School course at Manor Road Camp in Taunton, in beautiful Somerset.

I was, I might add, still a bit numbed by my eight weeks of basic training experiences, and now I just hoped army lfe wouldn't be so demanding.

Who was I trying to kid? In between classroom lessons there were the usual high profile spit and polish barrack room inspections, parades and guard duties to perform. It was during one such spell of guard duty in late September 1953 that I mentioned to my guard duty officer that I hadn't been home on leave since joining the army in June, and I stressed that in that time my elderly grandparents who I lived with had been forced to vacate their home in early September and must still be in turmoil with all the upheaval.

My plea must have plucked at his heart strings because I soon had a 48 hour leave pass thrust in my hand, enabling me to travel back home to Dudley that coming weekend.

This episode is the real crux of why I've written this story, because on arrival back home to Dudley (smartly attired in my army uniform) my mind was full of trepidation as to what had happened to my dear grandparents' old home in Oakeywell Street.

I wasn't really prepared for what lay before me. It was like a bomb site, because the bulldozers had already torn down my grandparents' early 19th century terraced home (rented at two shillings per week) and half the neighbouring houses with it. At that moment in time, it all felt like one hell of a bad dream, but I had to wake myself up to reality, because the truth was that beyond the facade those houses in Oakeywell Street were in severe disrepair and honestly not fit to live in.

We had no electricity, and for our bodily functions we had to take pot luck so to speak, with a temperamental outside loo which was prone to freezing up in winter. During such spells an old-fashioned commode proved very useful (so I've been told) under dire circumstances.

Another downside to our humble dwelling was that we had no plumbed-in water supply inside the house, and for that matter neither had our next door neighbours Mr and Mrs Smith. So both our everyday water needs had to be drawn externally from a standpipe set in the middle of our two front adjoining garden walls. With the lack of such basic amenities we could have been living in the early 19th century when these buildings were first occupied. But now, as I stood here in my army uniform before a pile of old rubble which was once number 49, I gave a sigh of relief. I realised those demolition men had done my grandparents a big favour. My three months away from home had changed my whole outlook on life, and I now realised how poor the conditions in Oakeywell Street had been. I suppose in the official jargon they were slum dwellings, but I must point out that number 49 was always a very clean slum; my grandmother's endeavours saw to that, God bless her!

Our house a slum? Even now I can just imagine her giving me a clip around the earhole for even daring to think such thoughts. It all brings to mind a saying which goes something like this: You never miss what you haven't got, but when you've got it you wonder how you ever managed to do without it.

My old pal from those days, John Harcourt, recently loaned to me another iconic photograph which is like a nugget of gold to me. It shows a woman, a girl, a baby and a dog; the lovely lady, in the centre of the picture, being John's mother Sally.

The two smiling children are relatives of John's parents (the older girl was named Janet Wood, who lived in Bank Road, Netherton at this time) and that dog sniffing around was the Harcourts' family pet, Lassie.

John knew that the real interest for me in this photograph was the houses in the background, because it shows the run-down back yards of Oakeywell Street. To the extreme left of the photo is my gran's backyard, which shows the back our our old outside toilet, garden shed and fowl pen, which are very distinct in my 1952 pencil drawing, also reproduced here.

Our old street's demolition in 1953 was the start of what became known as the Flood Street Slum Clearance Scheme, which saw a tight-knit community of dear friends and neighbours scattered onto various housing locations around the district. My dear grandparents, Susan and Harry Woodall, had been relocated in early September to a pre-war (1937) house at number 5 Fairfield Road, on the tranquil Buffery Park Estate, roughly half a mile from our old home, so that was now the destination I approached with some apprehension.

My untimely arrival on their front doorstep after three long months away from home brought a welcoming, tearful, beaming smile to their faces, and in no time at all it was plain to see they had settled down well in their new home. And why not? Because for the first time in their lives they had the luxury of hot and cold running water from taps INSIDE the house, electricity and the other added bonus of a bathroom, which also contained the greatest luxury of all, and inside toilet. All these mod cons at their time of life must have been to them like winning the football pools.

That late September weekend of 1953 left me happy in the knowledge that all the upheaval my dear grandparents had gone through had all been worthwhile, and they, likewise, knew I had settled down well into the rigours of army life. It was a much more contented Yours Truly, budding young soldier, that left my home town on that Sunday afternoon to travel back to my army base in Taunton; to see out the remaining 21 months of my National Service.

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