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U3A Writing: The House In Brewery Street

…At then end of the court were several privies. I can see now the square of newspaper hanging from a string which was on a nail. Again, I don’t think that they had any water supply. A hole was cut into the wooden seat which had been bleached by repeated scrubbings…

John Ricketts describes a working-class home in Birmingham in the 1930s.

My mother’s eldest sister was called Frances but was always known a Fan. Their parents lived in a house next to the brewery where their father worked. He had been a soldier who had met his wife while he was serving in Ireland. They had married and eventually he brought his mother-in-law to live with them in Birmingham.

When he died, Aunt Fan moved with her family into the house in Brewery Street. It seems possible that this was necessary because the two widows would have been able to pay the rent without a man to support them and in those days the workhouse was still a threat. Though the house was the biggest in the court I do not know how they all managed to fit in when the children were growing up.

There were the two widows, Aunt Fan and uncle Jim and cousins Sam, Arthur, Nel and John. Living in a different age one wonders how they coped with births and deaths in such a crowded environment. Both must have been much closer than they are today.

The house was next to the brewery at the entrance to a court, Brewery Court. In the court were a dozen or so small cottages owned by the brewery and let to the workers. In the middle of the court was an open space shared by all the tenants. In the centre was a pump which certainly worked. I cannot remember whether there was water piped into the houses. I do know that in similar courtyards there wasn’t because on my way home from school every day I used to fetch two buckets of water for an old woman friend of my parents who only had one leg and couldn’t get her own. At then end of the court were several privies. I can see now the square of newspaper hanging from a string which was on a nail. Again, I don’t think that they had any water supply. A hole was cut into the wooden seat which had been bleached by repeated scrubbings.

Next to Aunt Fan’s house at the entrance to the court was a wash house which contained a primitive washing machine, a mangle and a bricked-in boiler. This was kept locked but could be used on payment of a fee to my aunt. I remember the washing machine as a big open box with kind of paddles on it. By turning a handle you could agitate the water and washing so cleaning it. Sometimes on my visits I was allowed to do this and also to turn the handle on the mangle to squeeze the water out of the washing when it was finished.

Across the court were ropes on which the washing was dried. I remember wondering how the sheets came out white when the water in the box was so blue.

The house itself had not been changed for years. There were two rooms downstairs, a living room and a front room. It was a great honour to be allowed into the front room which was there only for show. There were heavy armchairs with antimacassars, a round table covered with a red velvety cloth, a book case and a display cabinet with glass fronts. I doubt if the books were ever read and the cabinet was securely locked. In the middle of the table was a glass dome under which was a display of exotic birds. Every surface appeared covered with glass ornaments and animal carvings. (Uncle Jim had been a marine and some of the things may have been mementoes). I was allowed in to look, standing very still, but not to touch. By my time the two widows were both dead but it still must have been a crush for six to live in that small house.

The living room was just that. It was where the family spent its whole life when it was not sleeping. There was black leaded fire place on one side on which much of the cooking was done, though there was a small pantry with a tiny gas cooker in it. In front of the fireplace was a large rag rug (others were scattered around the room). It was mostly navy blue but it had a red patter in the middle.

I can remember Aunt Fan sitting in front of the fire with a piece of sacking over her knees sewing in the strips of serge. I helped once by cutting up the cloth into pieces which were about three inched long and an inch wide. The floor was covered with lino. A welsh dresser stood against one wall while at right angles to it was a table covered with oil cloth. There were some hard chairs and a bench. They had gas lights downstairs. The mantle glowed with a yellow light when it was lit with a taper.

In about 1936 the brewery closed down and the whole district was scheduled for slum clearance. Uncle Jim, Aunt Fan and their family were moved from the middle of Birmingham to the outskirts into a new estate of terraced or semi detached houses, each with a garden. The planners were sensible in that they arranged for neighbours to live near each other so that the move should not have been too disturbing. The new houses had indoor toilets, bathrooms and proper cooking facilities and electricity. The only grumbles seemed to have been the distances to the shops. (Distances meant that we did not visit as often as we had done before. On the last occasion I went, I was shocked to see Aunt Fan crippled with arthritis and confined to bed.)

That move was much more successful than the later ones in which people were put into high-rise blocks. Now, sixty some years on, the houses have been modernised and are mostly privately owned.


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