Wartime and the Last Carriage Man in Solihull

Janus sits on the wobbly, precarious plinth of our dangerous present time. One face looks back serenely to the accomplished past, his other, forward facing, scans future hopes and perils.
An object or a document from history can conjure the Roman god to a previous era. A particular day in the past is shown as present time. When this occurs, we have the benefit of foresight to judge the accuracy of formerly future visions.
A copy of the October 14th, 1944 News – no mention of its then Solihull village circulation – gives an insight into the lost, hardly remembered time of my early childhood.
Articles and advertisements give a clear picture of life when the second World War was drawing to a close.
An obituary to a local, well loved character was set against this background.
Austerity and the war effort were dominant themes. Food and drinks were in short supply, strictly rationed and price controlled.
The advertisement for Shredded Wheat apologised for its unavailability. Dainty Dinah Toffee and Margon’s sausages – brands long extinct – were brought in small quantities with cash, plus points from ration books.
Biscuits, a rare treat, also costing points, were weighed out from a large container and carried away in brown paper bags.
A ministry of Food official table table showed the maximum prices to be charged for soft drinks. They ranged from two and a half old pence for baby minerals to expensive two shillings and six pence for bottles of cordial with fruit juice. The old half crown’s value is twelve pence in today’s currency.
Probably of more concern to the male population was the shortage of beer. This was explained by the publicity from Whitbread Ales. “Where has all the beer gone?” The slogan was answered by showing a map of France and Belgium, with somewhat Dad’s Army style arrows indicating thirst quenched troop activities.
A culinary highlight was a short household hint on the best method for cooking cabbage. Boil for a maximum of 10 minutes in very little water. Yum! This could lead to tough, undercooked leaves on top of a lower, cremated layer, plus a difficult burnt saucepan rescue.
‘Make Do And Mend’, a necessary policy in the times of universal shortages, as illustrated in the advertisement space for Lux soap, which had no products to promote. Their area was used to instruct on the makeover of an old, worn cardigan. The wool was to be unravelled and all the re-usable yarn to be re-knitted with narrower front panels. Chamois leather strips should be sewn on, with the buttons also re-used. This, it was claimed, would make a smart warm jacket. A bonus could be that the window cleaning chamois leather had been appropriated, so polishing could no longer be done.
An escape from the mundane to the world of entertainment was advertised. Films at the Odeon, Shirley or dancing at Sparkbrook’s Masque ballroom provided the nearest venues.
For the venturesome, the Theatre Royal in Birmingham staged Terrance Rattigan’s ‘War Family’. At the Alexandra Theatre was another war time play, ‘The Mulberry Trees’.
The News that day also showed the forward looking face of Janus. ‘Victory is within our grasp’ and ‘Civil defence is being reduced’, were hopeful items of war news.
‘In the future, central government plans to take more power from locally elected councils, when re-building takes place’, proved to be an accurate forecast.
Manufacturing companies looked ahead, hoping to resume their peacetime roles when released from duties to aid the war effort. Hoover gave advice on caring for pre-war vacuum cleaners, but also asked customers for suggestions about developing new models when the company was able to do so.
Eko, who made pre-war television sets, looked forward to an era when they could resume manufacture and greatly increase their client base.
These hopeful signs were to come too late to be appreciated by Albert Edward Williams, whose obituary was published in this issue of the News. He was the last horse carriage man in Solihull. He died in his seventy-third year in October 1944. A portrait photograph and a written description picture a pleasant, rosy cheeked gentleman with a large handlebar moustache. He wore a top hat and a frock coat and stood in front of an immaculately groomed horse.
Janus, in tribute could now only look backwards at this man’s life.
A. E. Williams had lived for fifty years in the village. He catered for the horse-drawn carriage trade, insisting with some vehemence, “I’m not a cabbie.”
His well-cared for horse was constantly seen on local roads and at the railway station. Among his clients were some of the best known residents, including Mr B. J. West of Elmdom Hall.
When the horse-drawn carriage business thrived, he took on a partner, A. J. Bayliss, who eventually left to become proprietor of a local garage. The horse trade was receding into the vocabulary of the past, though not yet extinct.
In wartime, with petroleum supplies low and strictly rationed, it must have been a triumph for A. E. Williams to continue using his horses until 1942, when he retired. For many years he lived in his family home, a cottage at fifty-six Drury Lane. He had a wife and five daughters. His home was later demolished to become part of Mell Square.
He died two years before his Golden Wedding anniversary. It was eight months before peace was restored and a decade before the ‘You never had it so good’, fifties. This was an era of rebuilding, returning prosperity and the Festival of Britain.
Solihull, no longer a village, thrived, expanded and prospered. It continues to do so. Would the folk song ‘The times they are a-changing’ have been the constant coachman’s favourite? Janus would know how to answer that question, as we do.

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