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Birmingham In November/december 1940


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Staff member
I have been re-reading a book, published in 1942, which has buried within it a description of a visit to Birmingham in November/December 1940. I won't identify it publicly but some members may also be familiar with it. I have transcribed a few passages.

The author has arrived at his hotel, almost certainly the Queen's. The war has been going on for three months, nothing much is happening militarily but life in the city has changed completely. The blackout is rigidly enforced (although the need for it won't be obvious for another eight months or so).......


Super Moderator
Staff member
I came one afternoon to a city famous in the industrial history of Britain. Like most of our cities, it was suffering from a distressing attack of mumps: unsightly sandbag swellings were bulging everywhere, and some of the worst statues in the country had been expensively protected against "blast".

I found a way into my hotel between a right-angle rampart of sandbags, but, once inside, there was an extravagant blaze of electric light. My old friend, the lift man, who had lost an arm at Villers Brettoneaux, greeted me with :
"Well, I never thought we'd live to see another one, did you ? You can't make head or tail of it, can you ? The only thing that's the same is Jerry, still the same old dirty dog with his mines and his submarines and his 'Gott strafe England.' "
"Good heavens, you mustn't say things like that," I told him. "You must remember that we have no quarrel with the German people!"
"That's what the politicians say, but what I should like to know is who's to blame for Hitler if it isn't the German people?"
He shot open the lift doors to let me out.
"There's many who say they don't know what this war's about' he whispered with the air of a minor oracle. "But take it from me, they'll be shouting, 'God bless you, Tommy Atkins!' before very long! Just you wait and see. ..."
He banged the doors upon himself and shot upward, standing angrily to attention, like a prophet caught up to heaven.

The black-out in this city was indescribably black. The darkness was something thicker and blacker than anything I had experienced in the country where darkness is natural on moonless nights. The tall buildings, which I could sense but could not see, intensified the blackness. They were the sides of an immense pit in which I groped helplessly. How the omnibuses managed to keep to the road, or to any time schedule, I do not know. They were perceived by the sound of their engines, then, as they crawled past, I saw a faint blueness in the black-out, and a driver bent tensely forward in a glowworm light, trying to keep his eye on the kerb.

By shining the light of an electric torch downward, I managed to find my way along the main street of the almost deserted city—although it was only six o'clock in the evening—and in several adventurous and unforgettable movements I even managed to cross the road.

I came to a small stretch of green luminosity, rather like a badly lit aquarium. It was a cinema, and it was open. I groped my way into the phosphorescence and stood in the foyer. A man came up to me.
" Where's your gas mask? " he asked.
" In the hotel,"! replied.
" Sorry, you can't come in without it."
" Are you expecting a gas attack? " I asked.
" The police are strict," he said curtly.

So I stumbled into the black-out again, where I heard what an inhabitant of this city can say to a public telephone box: when he takes it in his stride. As a door was opened and closed I saw a faint light. I thought it was a restaurant. I pushed the door open and found myself in a church. It was empty save for an old woman who was vaguely busy with a broom. I sat alone in a pew in this church, looking at the unlit altar. I may have sat there for twenty minutes. At length the old woman came to me and touched me on the shoulder.
" I very nearly locked you in," she whispered.

So out again into the black-out and the uncertain, wandering ghosts of the main streets. For one unhappy moment I feared that I was lost, but I got my bearings and was soon blinking triumphantly in the harsh light of the hotel.

It was still not seven o'clock and only five groups occupied the dining-room, all of them business men, Government contractors and officials, each one with a portfolio of papers, estimates, blue prints and such like.

Hotel life was once extremely vigorous in the provinces. The expensive railway hotels were a reflection of the Metropolis, and to dine there was a mark of wealth and social distinction. To be asked to dine at the Queens in Birmingham, at the Midland in Manchester, or in the French Restaurant of the Adelphi in Liverpool, was a big event in the life of the average provincial; and the standards and prices of these hotels were modelled on those of the Savoy and the Ritz, a fact which delighted clients and impressed guests. Even in times of industrial depression, they were scenes of extraordinary display and gaiety; but the black-out has killed them stone dead. It may be that when the country has become accustomed to the black-out, as long as it has not been bombed, the social gaieties of the provinces will be resumed, but at the moment there is not the slightest sign of this. There is an unanimous rush home to suburbs at about four o'clock in the evening, or even slightly earlier, and by six or seven o'clock the city is abandoned to the police, the night staffs of newpapers, the fire brigade, and a few visitors who sit dotted about the empty hotels......

After dinner, I went up to bed. Red hand-pumps stood at intervals along the corridors, and beside each pump was a coil of hose, a spade, a pick, and a long-handled rake for incendiary bombs. I undressed in a dim light, adding to my collection the wording of a notice which is to be read in most hotel bedrooms nowadays. This one said:

In the event of an air raid, staff have been detailed to advise guests as to the facilities available for their protection.

I thought this was a masterpiece. No one could invent a notice like that: it had to spring straight from the managerial heart. The word "advise" calls up a picture of a maitre d'hotel bending forward from the waist with a menu of shelters. Amid the crash of falling masonry and the roar of escaping water and gas, one can imagine him saying:
"Possibly the basement shelter is not dry enough for your taste, sir. Might I recommend Number 426, a fine, dry, and, if I might say so, full-bodied shelter. . . ."


Super Moderator
Staff member
Interesting Chris. Presumably he is in the city centre. In which case he goes from a cinema and soon after a church. so must have been St chads or St Phillips ?