William & Joseph Young’s Wartime Adventures (1939-1943)

Joseph Young (left) and William Young (right) pictured in 1940

The War Ministry had already recognised the potential disruption and loss of life for those living in our cities even before the country had declared war. In the very same week that Britain eventually declared war in early September 1939 they implemented Operation Pied Piper that saw children being evacuated out to safer country residences.

Birmingham saw 30,000 children evacuated in that first month of war but even more children stayed put. Many families couldn’t identify with the threat yet. For them, war was nothing more than a few skirmishes in lands far away and posed no threat to their homeland and certainly not enough to send their children away and break up their families.

The Youngs were among those who stayed put at the family home at 9 Metropolitan Road which was a “tied” home owned and rented out by the adjacent Metropolitan Cammell Carriage Works factory (known locally as “The Met”) where Arthur Young worked.

The house itself was a typical Birmingham “back to back” property that sat in a row of three pairs of houses which, in turn, faced three more pairs across a shared communal yard or “court” that provided shared facilities like washrooms and toilets.

A typical back-to-back yard or “court”

As 1939 rolled into 1940, home life was relatively normal with 7 year old William and 5 year old Joseph attending Anthony Road Primary School just off the top end of Alum Rock but the reality of war was soon to arrive in the city. On 25th June 1940 the first air raid sirens sounded across the city and although it proved to be a false alarm, it changed the mood very quickly and after several more false alarms, the first bombs were dropped in early August with the first casualties reported in the Birmingham Mail.

Now there is never a good place to live in a major city during wartime but if there was, it would certainly be nowhere near 9 Metropolitan Road which was surrounded by a huge factory that was now making tanks for the war effort, two major gas works and a major railway sidings, all of which would be prime targets for German bombing raids.

There are no known photos of Metropolitan Road but this shows the area of 9 Metropolitan Road, looking back towards Saltley High Street and surrounded by “The Met”
Map showing 9 Metropolitan Road surrounded by factories and gas works

After the first bombs fell on the area in August 1940, the Young family adopted the basic rule that if the evening skies were cloudy then they’d be okay but if the evening skies were clear, it was probably not a good time to be sitting at home. Of course it didn’t always work out to plan and if the sirens did sound when the family were at home, it was a case of crawling under the bed and keeping fingers crossed until the “all clear” siren sounded.

The family did have an air-raid shelter option which sat in the yard for all to use but it was a crude brick built affair with a heavy concrete roof and locals had already heard stories about these collapsing very easily and killing all inside so they were never a favoured option.

If the Youngs called it right, they would make haste away from Metropolitan Road and take a fifteen minute walk along the Washwood Heath Road to 50 Warren Road and the house of mother Elsie’s younger brother Joseph Boulton and his wife Dorothy who did have a decent shelter in their back garden.

The early weeks of November 1940 were miserable and wet weather wise but at least that kept the German bombers at bay but that all changed later in the month. A large “Azores High” pressure system moved north east across the country bringing clear blue skies but sinister clear nights and the Luftwaffe wasted no time in taking advantage.

A week of devastating bombing raids hit the city culminating in the worst night of the year on Saturday 23rd November 1940 when nearly 350 people lost their lives across the city. The Youngs had spent the night at “Uncle Joe’s” on Warren Road but on returning to Metropolitan Road the following morning, they were met by a scene of carnage with houses flattened or badly damaged and the yard at 9 Metropolitan Road a sea of debris.

As father Arthur checked out the damaged house, young William was handed a broom and given the task of “tidying the yard”, more to keep him occupied than to make any serious impact on the mess.

Among the debris was a hand with a ring on it ….. nothing else, just a hand.

At the far end of the row of back-to-backs was the house of the Smallwood family, father Thomas, wife Annie and teenage daughters Hilda, Edith and Gladys. They took the fateful decision to stay at home that night, their house took a direct hit and all five were killed instantly ….. as was 77 year old Annie Hinton who lived in the house across the yard, although her husband and son both survived.

Official records showing casualties in the area

Remarkably, it was to be the only week during the war that anybody died on either Metropolitan Road or the adjacent Gate Street but it was enough for the Youngs to say goodbye to the area which was no longer habitable anyway.

A 1945 aerial photo showing the site of 9 Metropolitan Road which has clearly been bulldozed along with all of the properties in the area

Father Arthur moved base to live with brother George and his wife Lily at 16 Raymond Road, just around the corner from what was later to be the family home on Hartopp Road. Mother Elsie with kids William and Joseph headed away from the city to stay with Elsie’s cousin John Boulton and his wife Mary at Clarence Road, Tewkesbury which survived relatively unscathed during the war years.

The idyllic country surrounds made little sense to the Youngs. Life was completely different, schools were unfamiliar, walks to school involved traversing fields of winter floodwaters ….. and Vera, the eldest daughter of cousin John, delighted in crushing the young boys festive spirits with revelations that actually Father Christmas wasn’t real !

The self imposed wartime evacuation saw them through Christmas 1940 but, by Spring 1941, they had returned “home” or at least a temporary home courtesy of Gwen and Isaac Griffiths who were Aunty Lil’s neighbours at 14 Raymond Road.

Despite having moved away from the industrial area surrounding Metropolitan Road, Raymond Road was no safe haven. The nearby junction of Raymond Road and Hartopp Road was badly damaged by a high explosive bomb and the family were grateful for the combined air-raid shelter used by the two families at #14 and #16.

Bomb damage on Hartopp Road with the junction of Raymond Road on the left

In late 1941, mother Elsie left the family to return to Worcestershire as an “expectant mother refugee” for the birth of her third child, David who was born at Lickhill Manor between Bewdley and Stourport, a mansion house that had been volunteered by its owner as a wartime maternity hospital for expectant mothers from the Birmingham area.

During her six week absence, William and Joseph were looked after by “Aunt Jinnie” who was Elsie’s sister Jane Boulton and who lived on Inland Road just off the Tyburn Road in Erdington. It was quite some effort from “Aunt Jinnie” who was already caring for her own four children aged between 1 and 7 !

The raids on Birmingham continued into the early summer of 1942 before diminishing and finally ending when the final bomb was dropped on the city in April 1943 by which time the Youngs, complete with baby David and with Patricia soon to arrive, were settled in what was to become their family home for more than 30 years at 64 Hartopp Road.

The Young family safe and complete at Hartopp Road, ten years after leaving Metropolitan Road