Sunday, December 16, 2018

Colourful Characters

Characters abounded in Old Brum. Noisy, colourful, distinctive, charismatic and passionate their kind are few and far between today. We live in a world that is sanitised, homogenised and refined, when anyone out of the ordinary is eschewed and frowned upon. It is a world that does not value those who dare to speak up and to challenge, that shies away from those who are radical, free-thinking, daring and spirited. Unhappily the characters of Brummagem would not find a place in the new Birmingham, especially in the new Bull Ring, with its swanky shops and swish shoppers. They belonged to the Bull Ring of Memory, the Bull Ring that was rough and ready yet always familiar and embracing to working-class Brummies.

Just bring them to mind. Percy Shurmer, the Miskin King, who strove with might and main for the rights of the poor. He and his supporters forced the Council to replace the overflowing miskins of the back-to-back courtyards with proper dustbins and to put in gas stoves in each home; he had his own band; and he collected money form whomsoever he could to pay for parties for parties for his Sparrows, the poor kids of Brum. A councillor and later MP, Shurmer's resolve to do something good for those in need was matched by Ernie McCulloch, the Prince of Beggars. He was another who did whatever he could to raise funds for kids from the back streets, so that he might take them on a day trip to Sutton Park and buy them clothes.

Then there was Jimmy Jesus, supposedly the son of wealthy parents, who called out for all that would listen to help him 'Feed my lambs'; the escapologist, the man in chains, who would have himself tied and wait for his cap to be filled with coppers and silver before he resealed himself; and, of course, the Andy Carrier Lady. Small and with eyes that did not see, she stood on the steps by the old Market Hall, almost chirrupping out, 'andy carriers, andy carriers', and selling her brown paper bags to anyone that would spare a copper or two to buy one.

Her urgings to buy were often overwhelmed by the calls from the barrow boys and market traders, people like Percy Moseley, Winnie Harte, Johnny 'The Count Kennedy' and so many more. These Brummies of character were joined by Sal the Salt Lady who traipsed the street flogging blocks of salt and by that great scion of working-class Brummagem, Holy Joe. Devoutly religious and desirous of helping those in need, especially children, this supposedly ordinary working chap collared tirelessly for the well being of working-class youngsters. A railwayman, he was well known in and around Duddeston, Bordesley, Small Heath and Saltley and also, of course, in the Bull Ring.

A few years back Sheila Guy wrote to me with her memories of Holy Joe. Back in her childhood years she lived in Gopsal Street, which was off Cardigan Street and Curzon Street. She said, My mother told me of Holy Joe's good works with the children of the area but I never went to his meetings. I remember Joe best of all as a chimney sweep! When my mother decided it was time for the chimney to have its annual clean, I was sent to Holy Joe`s house with a written message of when to come. He lived down Lawley Street, by Wright's Ropes and off I would go with the note. Then the operation chimney sweep would begin - pictures down, peg rug up, anything that could not be moved was covered with cloths, ornaments out of sight to be washed ready to be put back on the mantle.

Mom was up very early that morning preparing all this and I would go to school, only to find when I got home at dinner-time that he hadn't been!! As he worked for the railway, it was probably a change of shift that caused him to let us down, but it invariably happened and then off I would go again with another note and another date was made. Regarding the lady who sang 'Count your blessings' does anyone remember another small lady who used to come around the back streets of Brum singing 'Glory for me, Glory for me, I shall look on His face. There will be glory, yes glory for me'.


Holy Joe. Lawley Street



This photo of Holy Joe (on the left) was sent to me by Dorothy Lakin. Holy Joe was the grandfather of a friend of mine, Edie Greenhouse, now Mrs Coomes. We lived in Belmont Row, up the mission yard. Holy Joe lived at a yard called Portland Place in Lawley Street. Edie's mother, Mary nee Waite left behind these family photos, which Edie kindly lent me to copy and hand them over to you.

The photo brought back memories for Mr T. W. Allen because the famed preacher and raiser of funds for the poor was his mother's brother: her name was Emily Waite before she got married. Holy Joe used to visit us at Speedwell Road, Hay Mills. I was only a young lad at the time, but I can still remember him, his chimney sweeping, his railway and his home in Lawley Street and his preaching  hence his name Holy Joe. I'm glad other people remember him.

Emma Bygrave also recalls Holy Joe and she has a wonderful recollection of other Brummagem characters such as the strong man in the Bull Ring and the woman who sang the Glory song. She used to come up Witton Road most Saturdays. Where she came from or where she was going I never knew. She used to sing, 'Oh that will be Glowery for me', not Glory. She certainly was a poor soul. There was also an organ grinder who always stopped outside our shop on Witton Road. I think he had a monkey on top, but I'm not sure. It was a barrel organ.

There was another man who came up Witton Road, he turned gambols outside Bird's greengrocers and Mr Bird would give him fruit. There was a little woman who pushed a basket carriage around selling blocks of salt. She supplied our shop and it was cut into brick sizes to sell. I remember the handy carrier woman too. There was a very respectable man, well dressed, who was blind. He played the concertina and stood under the bridge at Witton by Kynoch's as it was then. Another man I remember came up Witton Road, and he had a knife and scissors sharpener. He treadled it and the wheel went round. What a blessing we do not see these things now.

Rope tying Trick



A street entertainer about to perform 'the rope tying trick' on wasteland in Corporation Street in 1890.

Like many other people, Maureen Perks has lots of memories of the Bull Ring, the cobbled streets the hill to climb when entering the bottom of the Bull Ring passing the Smithfield Market, the variation of smells some very unpleasant some pleasant from cooking smells to scented from the fresh flowers.

One of my most memorable was at the age of about five years old running along side my father marching up the Bull Ring in the Band of Territorial Army or the Royal Artillery. I am not sure which as my father was in both. He was at the front as he was a drummer and on occasions he would play solo. It was such a tremendous site with all the Bandsmen dressed in Red Uniforms with gold buttons and braids. The drum ropes gleaming white which my father had spent hours cleaning. I only wish I had a photograph of this. Perhaps with luck someone may send you one. I hope so.

My mother used to take my brothers and I most Saturdays to shop for vegetables off the Barrow Boys. Our special treat was a bag of baked potatoes off the Black Carts and we used to love helping ourselves to the salt from the lift up lid the containers attached to the side of the casts. In the cold weather it was great to keep our hands warm.

My brothers used to love watching the Escape Artist and I got my joy from watching my brothers faces as their expressions changed from concern to amazement. The little lady who was blind and stood near the market hall selling Brown Handy Carriers her squeaky voice and she was always dressed in black.

I also remember a very glamorous lady on one of the barrows selling vegetables she had lots of Blonde Hair which she wore up on top and lots of make up and long Red Nails. How she managed to keep them so long I don't know.

The hustle and bustle of the people trying to get the best buys and holding on to my mother's hand in case I got lost. I think it is sad that our Bull Ring has changed so much over the years. I also remember the policeman on horseback and having to dodge into the road to sometimes get passed the pavements too crowded, making sure not tread in anything the horses may have left behind.

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