35. Family shop in Snow Hill, Birmingham.



The 1950s. My father became a successful businessman after the Second World War (1939-1945). In partnership with his older brother, Tom, they began to deal in war surplus, mostly on the electrical side. Later, a dispute arose between them (the cause of which remains unknown) and they both went their separate ways. My father eventually began to sell radio and televisions sets, and had this shop at 20, Snow Hill. The date is not known, but the cars suggest the mid- or late 1950s. The ‘Welcome Hotel’ would obviously have catered for travelers from Snow Hill Station, which occupied the other side of Snow Hill for practically all its length, as can be seen below.



The red arrow indicates the general location of the shop. You will notice that what once must have been the gardens of the houses facing onto Snow Hill have been filled with many outbuildings. I understand this was a very common practice: houses tended to become factories, and other workshops were, inevitably, put up in the gardens, so that eventually all possible space was occupied by them. While I was still at school – that is, up to 1960 – I used to work in that shop on Saturdays. By that time, the outbuildings at the back of 20 Snow Hill were ruinous, largely unroofed and were known as ‘The Salt Mines’ by the shop staff. I remember being told that the enclave between Slaney Street and Snow Hill had been one of the last areas in Birmingham that had a D.C. (Direct Current) mains electricity supply. However, the buildings that fronted onto Snow Hill were all on A.C. I suppose that when that warren of little workshops was still in use, there were many machines such as bench grinders, bandsaws, pedestal drills &c. powered with D.C. electric motors, and the tenants were reluctant to replace them with A.C. motors – who knows? Perhaps the whole area was scheduled for re-development – but with no specific time scale? That would account for the reluctance to spend money; that, plus the notorious British Tendency to use obsolescent plant for as long as humanly possible! Over the years, my father had other shops: three different locations in Hurst Street; Stratford Road (below Camp Hill); Pershore Road, Selly Oak; Broad Street (over the canal); and latterly Shirley, and again the Stratford Road, near the Mermaid.


Returning to 20 Snow Hill; the first floor was in good repair, and housed my father’s office, the Radio & TV Service Department, and even a small flat in which various employees sometimes lived. But the second floor was ruinous in the extreme, and no-one was supposed to go up there. The roof leaked, the floorboards were rotten, and some of the joists weren’t very sound either! But I was a kid at the time, and used to creep up there and explore. I even found a small pile of 78 rpm records there. One of them was ‘Down By The Old Front Gate’ by Jack Payne’s BBC Dance Orchestra, Columbia 5118, recorded 19th October 1928. It had a small ‘bite’ out of it, so I could never hear the first 10 seconds or so. I loved it and kept it for years. Many years later I acquired another, whole, copy. This reposed on my shelves for perhaps 30 years, but was finally discarded in 2007 when I moved to my present house & downsized the collection. But ‘Nostalgia’ is a Powerful Force! A few months ago another really good copy was found at a record collectors’ bazaar, and was instantly snapped up. Let us make available an mp3 of it here; then, if you so desire, you can hear the music that so appealed to me circa 1956!


Jack Payne: ‘Down By The Old Front Gate’


The exercise of memory is a remarkable thing; when you recall something, it reminds you of something else. As I type this, I recall that when my father acquired, or rented, 20 Snow Hill, it was occupied by an elderly man – at least he appeared so to me – called Mr. Goddard. Perhaps he really was elderly, like I am imperceptibly becoming now? The shop front, I dimly recall, had been painted out. Possibly as part of the ‘blackout’ during the Second World War, and never removed, even after 10 or 12 years… My father, if I remember correctly, had to persuade Mr. Goddard to move out or at least relinquish the premises. Eventually this occurred, and I recall going there with my father while he began to sort out the confused jumble of stuff inside. I don’t know what Mr. Goddard dealt in, but there was quite a lot of assorted stuff. For example, there were boxes of bottles of a sticky ‘Brilliantine’ hair-dressing – probably very old, even pre-war, stock. I was given a large tobacco tin full of postage stamps! There was also an old glass inkwell, full of a nasty green liquid. My father told me to take it into the street and pour it down the drain. Well, that’s how you got rid of nasty liquids (of whatever colour) in those far-off and unenlightened days! As I up-ended it over the drain, a ring fell out & disappeared, with a clink, through the grating. My dad was not pleased when I related this, because it was probably a gold ring. Goddard had probably put it into acid to see if it dissolved or was etched. If not, it would be gold. Ah well: easy come, easy go. Incidentally, I have always loved the simple test to see if a pearl is genuine or not. Put it in hydrochloric acid. If it dissolves, then it was – or at least used to be – a real pearl. This is the same as ducking a suspected witch: if they float, they are guilty and must then be tortured and killed; if they die by drowning, then they were innocent. I have a suspicion that this horrible and remorselessly ‘Chinese’ way of proving the guilt – or posthumous innocence – of witches was not really based on a definite desire to serve Justice, except incidentally; no: surely it must have been more in the way of a cathartic, vicarious ‘ordeal of experience’ for a community – usually a small and isolated one? But what fundamental effect, or even possibly benefit, it may have had, I really don’t know.


Before leaving Snow Hill (for now at least), another couple of reminiscences have just surfaced.


1. Almost always, my father did his own shop-fitting, as he was a very good carpenter and handyman. Once, he was carrying his (home-made) circular saw-bench out of 20 Snow Hill to put in the car to take it back home. It was covered with saw-dust, and the wind made a big cloud of saw-dust blow about. It blew over a man walking past, who expostulated that it might blind somebody. My father said that surely that was an exaggeration, whereupon the passer-by retorted that he already had only one eye. My father was not a man given much to contrition; but he was very contrite on that occasion.


2. One day – a Saturday, so I was working at the shop – trade was very bad, for no readily discernible reason. I need hardly add that Saturday was, and still is, the critical day for retailing. It was common for Saturday to provide from 50% to 80% of a week’s takings, maybe even more. This day, for whatever reason, nobody bought anything. Perhaps it was Cup Final day? Anyway, my father was taking me home with him after the shop closed, and on the pavement outside the shop, was the proprietor of a nearby shop – I don’t know which one. “What sort of a day have you had, Norman?” asked the proprietor of the other shop. “Absolutely terrible!” replied my dad; “how about you?” The other shopman replied: “This is the worst Saturday I’ve had since the Abdication!” Let me hasten to explain. ‘The Abdication’ referred to the year 1937, when King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in order to marry Mrs. Simpson. Though a kid of maybe 12 or 13, I knew all about the ‘Abdication’. But I thought it was embedded in Ancient History. But here was ‘grown-up’ who casually referred to it as though it occurred yesterday. Even I could understand that after the announcement of ‘The Abdication’ in 1937 there would be a period of great uncertainty for a number of days, and people would be reluctant to spend money. Still, it remains the only time I ever heard such a reference to that now long-past event.






Page written 12th July 2011.