A Backstreet Christmas

Our image of the traditional Christmas is infused with notions of goodwill and good cheer, with food aplenty amidst pleasant and warm surroundings. It is decked with holly and ivy Christmas trees and Christmas cards, yule logs and mistletoe; it is lit up by lanterns and bright moons that make the snow glistened; it is heart-warmed by the singing of carols and the giving of presents; and it is filed with tables laden with plum pudding, mulled wine and mouth-watering fare.

But for many decades, such material things remained well out of the reach of the poor of Birmingham. Despite the wealth of England, the hardships of poor children improved little between the publication of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ in December 1843 and the early years of the twentieth century, as Kathleen Dayus recalled in her penetrating life story ‘Her People’.

Kathleen really knew what it was to rough it. One of the youngest in a large and poor family, she grew up in a yard of back-to-backs in Camden Street on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter. Here in one of the most prosperous cities of one of the wealthiest counties in the world, the local folk had to collar and scrat for everything and anything they had

Like Kathleen’s dad, many of the chaps were out of work and were on the parish, but what they received was insufficient to feed growing children, let alone their parents as well. Poverty was a life of hard knocks. Kathleen and her pals knew what it was to be clammed and to stand outside the factory gates begging for a piece off the workers when they knocked off. And they knew what it was like to live in tiny houses that were badly built and to have to share insanitary dry-pan closets.

But the life that Kathleen and her pals lived wasn’t one of unremitting unhappiness. They had their laughs, they played their games, they whistled and they sang and they made the best of the bed that they lay on – especially at Christmas. She remembered the preparations for one Christmas in particular, that of 1911.


The table was strewn with coloured papers which Mom had left to make our paper trimmings that night. We cut them all into loops and Liza made the paste with flour and water. If this failed, Frankie said he would get a tin of condensed milk to mix it. Frankie took a little, not enough for Mom to notice, and this did the trick, and it was nice to lick our fingers each time we stuck one loop inside another and so we made the decorations for the walls and pictures.


The Dayus family did not have a real Christmas tree. Instead ‘we had to beg two wooden hoops off a cheese tub from the grocer's. We fitted these one inside the other and covered them with different-coloured tissue and crepe paper.”

When their Dad came home, he said his children had done a good job and helped them hang the streamers across the room, high up above the clothes line. And to let people see that they had some sort of tree, the paper Christmas tree was hung in the window from a nail.

Kathleen emphasised how “every time we had a farthing or a halfpenny given us for running errands we bought white sugar mice and little chocolate Father Christmases and shiny, coloured balls and tinsel or any little thing we could afford. After we'd trimmed up the room, Dad gave us a penny each to buy extra gifts for the tree.

After drinking our cocoa, Kathleen and her siblings went off to bed, happy and contented, knowing they had some money to spend and that they were going carol-singing again to earn some more.

When it got dark the next night they got ready to go out to continue their carolling. Their Mom watched us with keen eyes as they donned their coats and scarves.

 ‘And where do yer think you three are gooin' this time of night?' she asked, sternly.

 'We're going carol-singing,' Frankie replied, defiantly.

 'That's all right,' Dad said, 'but be back in bed before we get home.'

 'Yes, Dad,' we replied in unison.

The youngsters ran out and turned up the street towards the ‘George and Dragon’. Kathleen was glad Mom and Dad hadn't asked what part we were going to because this street was forbidden territory. When we arrived, Liza and I started “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” again, but we only got as far as “Hark” when I felt a hard thump on my back.

“Don't sing that one,” Frankie said. “Let's sing Noel"

‘Halfpennies and pennies came flying through the door and when I picked them up I counted tenpence ha'penny in all. We showed our gratitude by singing it again, only louder.’

Helen Butcher, nee Smith, grew up in tye inter-war years, but she experienced the same hardships as Kathleen. In ‘The Treacle Stick’, her searing account of growing up poor, Helen recounted how she was born in 1917 at 3 back of 5 Sheepcote Street near the junction with Broad Street. Known locally as the Big Yard, its back-to-backs were 'attic high', with a single ground floor room, a bedroom and an attic

Outside in the shared yard was a single water tap which supplied the Smiths and eight other families. Here were also the communal toilets; the miskins (dustbins); and the 'brew house' (washhouse). Helen recalled that when ‘the suff (drain) in the yard was blocked the water would seep into our cellar. Soon the damp would rise up the walls and the snails would follow with the “black bats” (beetles), so food was kept in a cupboard which hung in the living room.’


 As in all back-to-backs:

Everything happened in our ground floor living room: cooking, eating, washing. We had a wooden settle which we called the squab, two chairs, and a wall fitment of two or three shelves over a cupboard which was screened off by a curtain. A rag rug covered some of the floor. These were made from miscellaneous scraps of material sewn onto a sack, so they were very colourful and practically indestructible. They also held an amazing amount of dust, there was plenty from the coal fire, and weighed a ton when you tried to shake them.


 Helen’s mother had eleven children, of whom only three survived. Her father died when she was just seven. After 21 years’ service to his country in the Army, his hard-earned pension died with him and his wife was left without any means. She had three children to feed and clothe and there was not yet a widow’s pension.

Mrs Smith had to apply to the Board of Guardians, ‘well fed, well dressed ladies and gentlemen who lived in Edgbaston, Barnt Green or Harborne’. These Guardians ‘had the power to dictate your destiny. They decided how much it would take to keep you in the poverty you were used to.’

Going on ‘the Parish’, or ‘on the Treacle Stick’ as it was popularly known, was demoralising and degrading. The Guardians ‘were part of the lofty and inaccessible system by which “they” ruled our lives, moralising, capricious and cruel.’

Yet for all their hardships, the Smiths, like all the poor of Sheepcote Street, were not slumped in despondency and despair. It was a vibrant, noisy, and boisterous place. Hawkers called out their wares; coalmen shouted ‘c’Oal! C’Oal!’ rag and bone men blew their trumpets; the newspaper seller cried out‘S’patchamail, S’patchamail!’; and on a Sunday the comic man called ‘Comic Cuts! Funny Wonder! Butterfly! Jester! Chips!’

And Christmas remained a time when even the poorest strive to brighten up their lives. Though still a youngster of eleven, that’s what Helen did one Christmas in the 1920s when she was determined that she, her younger sister and her Mom would have a good time.

One year she joined the Christmas Club run by Odam's, the local general store, and put into it the pennies and half-pennies she was given by the neighbours for running errands. With this she was going to buy Christmas Day tea.


 As Helen recalled:


it must have taken months for me to save enough money, but when the time came there was between 1 shilling and 6 pence and two shillings (7.5p and 10p). I splashed out on a tin of pineapple chunks, some real cream, which I didn't like at all, and some butter, which was a luxury.  Usually we had margarine, or 'maggy-ann', on our bread, and if we had jam then the maggy-ann was left off. I think I had some tea, because you could get small quantities at these shops in areas where people could not afford to buy half pounds. All this was used for one meal between the three of us, Mother, Florrie and me.


Helen also bought a special present to put in Florrie's Christmas stocking, a pillow case which was never more than half full. Playing Father Christmas to her was play acting which Helen enjoyed, ‘sharing a closely guarded secret known only to Father Christmas himself, or in our house, herself. Florrie's present that year of 1928 was a handbag full of sweets. What a treat she had.’

That bag was pouch shaped and hung from a cord, ‘it was not made from some rich material such as velvet or silk and it did not shine or glitter, it was made of tin. But to Florrie it was wonderful and she loved it, a Christmas present to remember. I bought a similar bag for my school friend Lizzie Henley, who died aged about 14.’


As Helen realised, ‘Christmas Day would be bleak for some children and no different from any other day. For them there was no waking up at dawn to empty the pillowslip and shouting, “He's been, Mom, and look what he's brought me.” The usual presents consisted of a blood orange, a russet apple, a new penny and a few mixed nuts. Why a blood orange and a russet apple, I don't know, but they were expected, in season and very welcome.’


By Carl Chinn




John Lewis has sent in these evocative photos that will stir many memories of Christmas in the 1960s and 1970s. He remembers ‘taking some colour slides in 1970 around the Bull Ring area and have found one which might be of interest to you and your readers. The only other night shots that I have are of the Christmas lights in the Minories at Lewis's, again taken in 1970.

 ‘I used to work in the city centre for many years and when I was given an old camera I took an interest in photography. I used to have to walk past Lewis's and the Minories to catch my bus home, and as you say Lewis's was always a special place at Christmas, so I decided to try and take the lights in the Minories using slide film.’