Snow Hill and Sterra by David Humphries
Parents today would be horrified! While they wrap their offspring up in cotton wool & drive them everywhere in people carriers, they may want to spend a few minutes pondering on one of my after school activities.
My father, Archie, had a bookbinding business in Snow Hill. The little factory was on the second floor of what was believed to be once an 18th century coaching house at the foot of Snow Hill, no 99 in fact, which was next to the Clydesdale radio shop on the corner of Great Charles Street. Almost next door down Snow Hill were the premises of Stephens Belting – suppliers of the belts that drove thousands of machines across the city from the overhead shafting. 99 Snow Hill was shown on the 1888 map as a “Button & Stud Works”, a fact testified by Archie, who said that if he lifted a floor board the space underneath would be filled with buttons that had dropped though the gaps. My mother, whilst I was at school, would go to the factory in the afternoon to help with the processes that went on there, and after school this is what I did.
From my junior school in York Road, Hall Green in 1956 I would walk as usual to the junction with Stratford Road, where a policeman, who had arrived on a Vellocette “Noddy” Bike (made just along from the school in York Road), would see us across the road. No lollipop men for us – the junction with Stratford Road was a serious junction that at school times was commanded by the local constabulary.
From the junction I would walk in front of the Rialto cinema and the block of shops where I could have gazed at a sweet shop, or Kilminster’s for hardware and especially Willmots for toys & sports goods. Willmots was a mecca for my dreams – not the sports goods, but the Hornby & Triang trains & Dinky cars. But my mind on these evenings was focused on my journey.
Catching the bus! Now as a nine year old this is where the story gets interesting. I had a choice of three bus routes. The 29, the 32 & the 37. The 29 started its northward journey at Yardley Wood station and joined the Stratford Road to travel into Brum through Digbeth, the Bull Ring and Bull Street, waiting a while outside Greys, then setting off down Snow Hill on its way to Kingstanding. The 32 was different altogether. It had joined Stratford Road at School Road and after Camp Hill set off to the left down Bradford Street. It took a route that included Hill Street and Ethel Street before heading back out of “town”. No good for anyone like me wanting Greys. The 37 has started at the city boundary on the Stratford Road and seemed to follow the same route as the 29 to Greys. So it had to be the 29 or 37. BUT if a 32 came first did one take it and face a long walk across town, in case there was a long wait for the others. Intensive planning was the order of the day for your nine year old Brummie bus passenger.
Once the bus had pulled up at Greys (it was compulsory to leap off the platform before the bus came to a standstill – Dad taught me how to do it without falling over) I had to negotiate the junction between Bull Street, Colmore Row, Snow Hill and Steelhouse Lane. There were traffic lights, but pedestrians took pot luck amongst the buses and cars all taking different turns through the junction.
Then – the best part of the journey. Walking down Snow Hill I passed the side passenger entrance to the station, and soon reached a cobbled roadway that ran to beneath the station concourse from an archway on Snow Hill. From here I could stand on a low brick wall, clutching onto railings to see what was standing at platform 11. The ex Great Western locomotives at the head of express trains all looked very much the same head on – as I was now directly facing the track, which turned to my left immediately in front of me before plunging down the tunnel to the south. But by now I was getting to know the difference. Usually it was a “Hall” or maybe a “Castle” and I could “cop” the number from the plate on the smokebox. And OOH! The smell!!
I had to drag myself away. I set off down Snow Hill alongside the station reaching the railings that separated the footpath from the subterranean parcels depot. I crossed the cobbled entrance to the depot, making sure no delinquent British Railways van drivers were around, intent on mowing me down, then passing the four shop units that seemed to sell bearings and the suchlike.
Following that came the junction with Great Charles Street. Cars are coming towards me from the left emerging from the gloomy bridge under the station. My regret now is that I don’t recall looking at the shops and other premises across the road – I can’t find many photos although Kelly’s tell me who was running businesses in Snow Hill at that time. There were also eleven pubs in Snow Hill, but to a nine year old none of this was as interesting as a glimpse of the Great Western Railways finest.
I’d cross over the road to take a quick look at the TV sets & record players in Clydesdale’s window (we didn’t have a TV at that time!). A few more paces and I’m at the huge archway that led to the courtyard of 99 Snow Hill. At the end of the courtyard was a firm making tiled 1950s fireplaces and the there was the smell from SH plastics. They made door knobs and handles from Bakelite and the fumes from the moulding process were filling the air.
I’d turn to the left and started the climb up the rickety staircase to the second floor – a long climb after my bus journey & walk down Snow Hill. Once at the top I’d say hello to the men and girls in the bookbinding factory and find Mum and Dad. There’d be a biscuit and a cup of tea (made with STERRA ! YUK!!), before I set off with Mum on a return journey, Dad would come home later on his Lambretta. On the way back up Snow Hill I had to forgo my diversion to look at platform 11 – Mum wanted to get home. We crossed Colmore Row and went to wait for a suitable bus at Greys. By now a little blue van was parked at the end of the bus stops serving tea for the bus drivers and conductors.
So back off to home and tea. Dinner has been eaten at what we now call lunch time.
I survived – I learnt how to make my way around in the world. I never got attacked. I never got lost. I never got abused. And my parents trusted me at nine years old to make a journey into and across the centre of the second city. And I’m still here to tell the tale.
Looking across at the start of my walk down Snow Hill in 1956, I would have seen at no 3, Preedy’s the tobacconists, Perry’s – jewelers, Howard’s Bar & Restaurant and to the left of the photo is Samuel Thornley Limited – drysalters (suppliers of chemicals for businesses).
Like the rest of Birmingham, Snow Hill has re-invented itself.
About the contributor
In 1945 Archie was demobbed from the Royal Artillery after serving in North Africa and then Italy at the end of WWII. He returned to the little semi detached house in Sarehole Road where he was able to join Eileen who he’d married just two months before the outbreak of war. As many returning servicemen did, he joined in contributing to, what became known as the baby boomers.
The child came into the world kicking and screaming in October 1947.
The little boy spent the first 21 years in the little house, disliking history, and totally unaware of the rich heritage associated with the mill that bore the same name as the road he lived in.
The child loved taking things apart and putting them back together, so working with his hands would be his destiny. He spent the last five years of his education at Bournville Technical School – within chocolate sniffing distance of Cadburys. He went on to work in telecommunications, retiring after selling his own telecoms company.
Then at the start of 2011 he realised that the date of the 11th of November was to be 11-11-11, a recurring sequence of the number of the bus route that had featured so prominently in his formative years. So what else could he do but hire an old Birmingham bus and take a group of passengers round the Outer Circle entertaining them with historical facts about the outer reaches of the Second City. (Local) history had been discovered.
Four years later the ageing juvenile now occupies his time conducting guided tours of the Birmingham Back-to-Backs and is about to embark on a similar role at the Newman Brothers Coffin Works in Fleet Street.
I know this is true – I am that child.