Two Remarkable Women from the Birmingham slums
Hockley is an inner city area in Birmingham England, lying north west of the famous Jewellery Quarter. It is known nowadays, it at all, though the books of Kathleen Dyas whose autobiographical reminiscences THE GIRL FROM HOCKLEY were read on Radio 4, and rightly so. It is the remarkable story of a remarkable woman, living in the tough conditions of the inner city slums after the death of Queen Victoria but in the jerry built houses of the Victorian era. In the inner city before and after the First World War, to live as most people did constantly around the poverty line meant the Workhouse was an ever present threat. Most of the people who lived there and whose lives were shaped by these grim Victorian slums have been forgotten, but Kathleen Dyas nee Greenhill, and Julia Maria Fisher, nee Lane, the subjects of this site were memorable and deserve to be celebrated. Kathleen Dyas has become famous through her writing. Julia Fisher’s story, lived in obscurity, deserves to be better known.
As the writing of Kathleen Dyas shows, the life of the white working class in the slums of the early twentieth century could be vibrant and produce remarkable people. Her autobiographical writings show that cruel fate could be overcome with resilience and intelligent effort. She was one very remarkable woman who demonstrates this truth. The other woman who is the subject of this website showing that life in the slums could be more than survival was my mother, Julia Maria Fisher.
Like Kathleen Dyas she was born at the turn of the twentieth century but in Shropshire from a Birmingham mother and Shropshire father. She returned with her mother to live her life in Hockley after the premature death of her father shortly before the Great War. Kathleen Dyas lived a life with significant parallels to that of my mother -and significant differences. Kathleen’s story can be read at length in her own words. Julia’s story is unwritten. This part of the site will recall her story as best I can. It is of course a partisan view. I adored my mother and supported her in her struggles as best I could. These reminiscences will show why she was in her way as remarkable as Kathleen Dyas.
Kathleen Dyas grew up in the area of Hockley nearest to the Jewellery Quarter. She only ever knew Birmingham life. My mother, Julia Maria – lovely names for a lovely woman – was born in Shropshire but lived in the more northerly part of Hockley known as All Saints after coming back with her widowed mother. Her fondest memories were of Brookfields, a small and still occupied section of good housing near the old Brindley canal, but on the whole she loathed living in Birmingham. She knew the ups and downs of working class life, from the Workhouse to the Respectable life of Brookfields, when her family recovered its fortunes in the inter war years, and then back down the social scale to the classic slums of Hockley before being rehoused in a council house with my father and I for the last years of her life. Both women experienced life in Hockley, but in very different ways.
I have written about Victorian Hockley in the section on the Classic Slum. The Hockley of the Victorian period has vanished, as the light industry and canals and railways which created its economy are obsolete and mostly removed long ago. Parts of old Hockley are still standing though most have gone – the school that I and my mother attended was knocked down in August 2015, forty odd years after its closure. It stood next to great gash of the Great Western Railway train cutting, with All Saint’s Church standing between the school and the canals. All Saint’s Church and its parish defined central Hockley, which was known politically as All Saint’s. The church was where my parents were married in 1940 and which they attended till moving to Ladywood after slum clearance. The vicar who married them, Norman Power, wrote an influential book in the 1960s, The Forgotten People, which sums up the conditions in the slums after the Second World War. It contributed to the move to demolish the slums. Kathleen Dyas’ original home had already been swept away – by Hitler’s bombers.
Both Kathleen, and Julia, who never met, had only an elementary education and yet were very literate, a positive note for a schooling which was very much better than the slums they were living in and remained so when they became primary schools after the 1944 Education Act. They attended different elementary schools, left school aged 14 to become badge makers – technically enamellers – in the Jewellery Quarter in the interwar years and enjoyed a measure of financial security. Enamelling was a skilled job, making them artisans, and offering a secure income though recession could and did hit the trade leading to unemployment. For Kathleen her work was to offer her a way to resolve her many problems after her first marriage went sour. Part of the appeal of her writings is the way she overcame the hammer blows of her first husband’s death and the brutal loss of her son, partly by using her skills as an enameller to earn a living. For her, being a working woman was a blessing.
Julia was from the respectable working class, a slightly higher rung in the social ladder. My father, though a decent and honest working man, accepted the orthodox gender roles of their time, by which married respectable women stayed at home and looked after children. My mother bitterly resented this, but could never escape back to work. It is one of the reasons why their stories are very different. Kathleen escaped her fate, Julia never did. The other major difference is ill health. Though Kathleen talks of being malnourished, her long life and healthy family tell its own story – she was not cursed with crippling illnesses, which were inescapable for my mother though she was not incapacitated until into her seventies. My mother had serious health problems including total deafness and she never had genuine personal freedom at any time in her later years which sadly my father made worse by inflexible attitudes. But he could not help her being ill, though his inflexibility probably contributed to her having a nervous breakdown. Not for nothing is there a working class saying, “as long as you’ve got your health”. Lose it, and your ability to function is severely damaged.
Kathleen’s story is of overcoming poverty and adversity. Julia’s of surviving through poverty and adversity. They were both Girls from Hockley, walking the same streets with different destinations. But whether their lives ran in parallel lines or diverged, they were both remarkable people whose stories deserve to be told.
Trevor Lane Fisher (I do not use my middle name which is not hyphenated) 03 11 15
The Lane Family (saved as The LANE family on writing matters)
The Family revolved around Grandmother Lane, (Grandmother Julia), a formidable and much loved matriarch who my mother hoped to meet again in heaven, one of the reasons why mother was a committed Anglican Christian, worshipping in the Church of her mother. It was not suprising that grandmother was beloved by my mother and my Aunt Betty, who told me wonderful stories about her, because Grandmother brought up her family – four children from two marriages – against formidable odds, because she was widowed twice (and my grandfather was 8 years younger, his premature death being only partly accidental) and her ability to keep her family togther included coming back from Shropshire a widow, to the Hockley slums of Park Road, enduring a period in the workhouse as she and her children were destitute, before taking them to the respectability of Brookfields in the inter war years.
Grandmother Julia – with no second name – was married twice, and her maiden name has yet to appear. Her first marriage was to one George Abbott, deceased, who was a blacksmith – a trade late nineteenth century Hockley needed as transport was overwhelmingly horse drawn. How he died is not yet known, but he left his widow with a daughter, born in 1890. Grandmother Lane is listed in the 1911 census as a button carder, which Jane Hewitt’s Dictionary of Old Occupations has down as sewing buttons onto card for sale. Low paid, sweated work of the kind regulated by the Liberal government of Asquith. An irregular occupation done at home as piecework, it paid little and causes eye strain. But while poorly paid it was an occupation which allowed her to bring up what I was told were three, but now appears to have been four, children by her two marriages.
Grandmother’s oldest child, from her first marriage, Daisy Muriel Abbott was born in 1890 and by the 1901 census when the family was in Cleobury Mortimer, Daisy was eleven with a brother aged one. Grandmother Lane gave her name to my mother as Julia Maria, having married a second time to a Thomas Lane in the late 1890s. By the 1901 census she had given birth to her only son, Thomas Richard Lane, about whom I know nothing, and my cousin Brian is equally baffled. The mystery of an older uncle is yet to be solved. He did not die a child death, so why he was forgotten, unless he was the black sheep of a respectable family is yet to be discovered. Grandmother would have been pregnant with my mother, her third child, when she moved to Shropshire. Moving from dirt and noise of Hockley to a rural town when pregnant must have been a trial, but Grandmother seems to have had no problems over the move.
Grandmother’s second marriage was to a much younger man. In the 1901 census the family is listed as Thomas, aged 26, Julia 34, and Thomas Richard Lane aged 1. Thus grandfather was eight years younger than grandmother Lane.
In the census Grandfather’s occupation is not listed, though he is down as being born in Shropshire. Family tradition was that he was a farm worker in Shropshire who had come to Hockley to work on the Great Western Railway (GWR or Gods Wonderful Railway to my family and many others) as a plate layer in its extensive Hockley goods yard– a hard and dangerous unskilled job replacing worn out track. The plates were the bolted steel slabs which went across the join of two pieces of rail, holding them rigid and allowing a small gap for expansion on hot days. This was heavy work with the threat of being killed by a passing train and it is not suprising that shortly after the mysterious Thomas Richard was born Grandfather Lane took the family back to the tranquil if backward countryside. He had secured a job as a policeman, a much safer and better paid job, and one which conferred respectability.
My Mother Julia Maria – or Marria in the records, strangely – was born in Cleobury Mortimore in 1901 and her sister Beatrice, Aunty Betty to me – in 1903. Whether this was in Farlow, the small country village to the north has yet to be established, Beatrice’s birth certificate has yet to emerge. The tragedy of Grandfather’s death was according to family legend two fold. He was a policeman on duty on Christmas Eve, when he took a drink from a publican. The smell of alcohol on his breath was discovered by the police sergeant and he was sacked. Presumably he went back to working as a farm labourer, perhaps in Farlow north of Cleobury, and there is a hint of a drink problem. He came back from the local pub one midwinter night, fell into the stream crossing the stepping stones, caught pneumonia and died. Grandmother then came back to Birmingham destitute with her four children – Daisy would be 21 by the 1911 census so was earning – and family legend has it that they went to the workhouse having no other way to survive.
However by the 1911 census the family was living at 176 Park Road, the wrong side of the railway tracks and firmly in the slums, though not I think back to backs – this has to be checked – and Daisy was about to be married to the lodger, William Watkins who was 23. Watkins is down in the census as a Van Guard on GWR, and had been born in Craven Arms – some fifteen miles from Cleobury. While an immigrant from Shropshire, it is unlikely that he knew Thomas Lane before arriving and his marriage to Daisy, which produced three children, seems to have been spent entirely in Birmingham. A train guard had higher pay and higher status work than a plate layer, and more reason to stay around. They were married in All Saint’s church. Where grandmother and grandfather had been married is yet to be established, but it was the only logical place they could have married. This was a Hockley family though for my mother her first decade in the countryside meant she would always mentally be a Shropshire girl.
By the 1911 census the family at 176 Park Road consisted of the matriach, now aged 47, Daisy from the Abbott marriage aged 21 and lodger William Watkins, and the three children of the Lane marriage, the mysterious Thomas Richard aged 12, Mother aged 10 and my aunty Betty aged 8. All three children were at school which has to be All Saint’s elementary school, and my mother was now rooted in the district where she would spend the rest of her life, against her will – the other children escaped I think though Thomas Richard Lane remains mysterious. The other two children we know about and they managed to escape through marriage.
Daisy Muriel Abbott married William Watkins on 25th June 1911 – mother at 11 presumably attended – aged 21, at All Saint’s Church, the brick built commissioners church that would be the family church, a poor church in a poor parish for the respectable poor, a fate the family could not escape. Daisy had four children – William T Watkins in April 1912, Constance L Watkins June 1917 – this may have been the Conny that my mother talked about as a half sister, she was actually a cousin – Ivy J B Watkins in June 1919, and Howard A E Watkins in December 1921. All were born in Birmingham. Constance, who married Henry J Taylor, September 1940 in Birmingham, lived at 60 Park Road All Saints in 1945 and Highfield Terrace All Saints in 1955. The movement of family members from Park Road to Highfield Terrace continued over two generations.
My family’s fortunes declined and mother moved in the other direction, to Goode Street, a collection of gerry built houses facing a bread factory in a cramped street leading off Park Road. Mother thought moving there to have her second child after the war would be a temporary move. It lasted over a quarter of a century, by which time I had escaped to university. Mother finally moved with my father to a new Council house in Ladywood in the early 1970s when the area was slum cleared. By that time she was over 70 and the experience of living in the Hockley slums blighted her married life.
Daisy died in September 1948 aged 59 as Daisy M Watkins so she only had one marriage, though where she lived in Birmingham is not known – bu she was always a Brummy. Beatrice – Aunty Betty, two years younger than mother – met my uncle Jack in Blackpool on holiday and married him, moving to the new council house suburb of Wythenshawe in the 1930s. Jack was a blunt Mancunian supporting Manchester City. For her sister to get a new house was a stark contrast to my mother’s fate, and she felt it bitterly after the second world war when it became clear she was trapped in Goode Street, the wrong side of the tracks, literally, from Highfields Terrace and Brookfields. It was however within a quarter of a mile from All Saints church and the the school where she and I were educated.
During the 1920s the Lane family run by Grandmother rose in the culture of Hockley once the unmarried sisters were out to work, both leaving elementary school at age 14 (mother in 1915) and as they had reasonably well paid jobs, mother a badge maker, Aunty Betty as a secretary, and the family was by 1930 living in 13 Highfield Terrace, able to afford the moderate comfort of the Brookfields area, able to afford the higher rents of the superior housing with small gardens though the Hockley Port canal basin was only yards away. There was of course no question of buying a house, renting was the only option, private renting in the inner city only available as council houses were for the outer suburbs.
Grandmother Lane lived forty years after her husband’s death, and I have photos of myself with my Grandmother, who was in her late seventies at least when I was round two years old. Of two of her children, Daisy and the mysterious Thomas Lane, I know nothing. Aunty Betty remained close to my mother who she called ‘Cis’ and the strong bond between the two of them my mother set down to my aunt being given the job of looking after her when she started school, as her health was even then fragile from illnesses I can only speculate about. Family legend was that Aunty Betty started school at 3 years old to look after mother aged 5 on the way to school, a long walk across countryto the nearest elementary school. Despite illness, mother thought her life in Shropshire was a golden period, the only time she had a male in the family before marrying my father when she was nearly 40 herself. Grandfather Lane remained a golden memory for her and life in the Shropshire countryside with him as head of the family remained core of her view of life in the Shropshire countryside as an idyllic period. Though she never spoke ill of my grandfather, alcohol was never kept in my parents house except at Christmas. Its role in Grandfather Lane’s downfall was too obvious.
As would so often happen, mother never spoke of painful incidents. But she held Grandmother in the highest regard, and for years after her death put flowers on her grave. How the grave was lost and then rediscovered is a story in its own right.
(I am indebted to Elaine Henshaw and Phillip Harker for the brilliant historical research used in this article. Trevor Fisher)
Trevor Fisher 09 11 15