Tenants at No 51
THE TENANTS OF NO. 51
CHARLES AND MARY HOPKINS
Charles and Mary Ann Hopkins lived at No. 51 in the 1930's.. Theirs is a tragic story. They had two lovely children. Edith was born first. Charles Henry came a year later, but little Charles was taken ill and died at the age of 6. Edith was left and her parents watched her grow up into a lovely young girl. Then, at the age of 19, she caught pneumonia and died. The couple were left on their own for another 25 years, grieving for the little family they had lost. Charles died in 1935; Mary Ann in 1938, and there is a lovely gravestone erected to their memory by the Churchyard wall, and two identical pathetic little gravestones side by side, recording the deaths of their only son and their only daughter.
MR & MRS NEVILLE SMITH
When I arrived in the village, the couple living there Mr. & Mrs Neville Smith (with their son Paul living and working in Spain), were an interesting couple. Neville was a brilliant photographer, painter and illustrator of books. But it was his wife Halina and the story she had to tell, that showed another life to how the rest of us had lived. It was full of tragedy, fear, and grief. When she told me her story, she pleaded with me not to print it out until after her death. And I have kept my word. Here it is:-
LIVING IN EASE IN RUSSIA
Halina Smith was born Halina Dine in the village of Ertill in the Ukraine. Tzar Nicholas II and Tzarine Alexandra were on the throne and from their royal majesties downwards, was corruption. There was even corruption in the Church, and right down the bottom of the scale were the peasants, illiterate, hungry with little hope of improvement. They had been given their freedom in 1862 but they were still regarded as serfs.
Halina's grandfather had come from England to work in the Ukraine as an Engineer, and when his son, Halina's father, was born, he made sure that he was registered as a British Citizen. Halina's father kept this precaution all through his life in Russia, visiting the British Consul every year to renew his passport.
He was Manager of a sugar factory at Ertill, married to a German lass and living on the estate run by the owner of the sugar factory. Everywhere in Russia, company owners had vast acres of land on which they built estates for their educated workers, hiring the peasants to do the manual work. Every estate had farms, theatres, concert halls and the equivalent of our grammar schools. The farms provided all the necessary food for the houses on the estate. Every house had its own servants who brought the food in from the farms, cooked, house-cleaned, gardened.
Halina's mother however, liked to cook, and although she had servants to do the main cooking, she often spent time in the kitchen making her own recipes. There was no need for any of the family to go out of the front door shopping. Everything was brought to them. A dressmaker came from time to time and spent many weeks in the house sewing and making clothes for all the family. A shoemaker called once or twice a year, and spent many days at the house making beautiful stout shoes for all the family.
It was a happy existence, but all the way through her childhood, Halina was aware of injustice and cruelty going on around her. She was also surrounded by languages. Her father spoke Polish and Russian. Her mother spoke fluently Russian, French, German, and Polish, and little Halina grew up being able to speak these languages also.
Photo:Village Family:Smith Family: Halina Smith and mother
Life was vastly different to Clifford Chambers. Summer transport was with horse and carriage, but in the winter, it was horse and sledge with sleigh bells.
Father was transferred to Mazevo. Halina, by this time, was being taught by a governess. No schools existed at all for primary school age, through there were plenty of grammar schools and universities for the privileged. It was in Mazevo that Halina became aware of the intelligence of some of the peasant class.
“Can you read and write?” she asked, skipping into the kitchen one day where a peasant girl had just started work as a maid.
“No,” came the reply. “I can't read or write.”
“I shall teach you the alphabet,” announced Halina who was several years younger than the maid. So, during the next few weeks, Halina as 'teacher' taught the maid during the maid's spare time, the letters of the alphabet and how they were pronounced. Within a few months, the maid was reading. Thirsty for knowledge, she read anything she could lay her hands on. Halina remembers her, with her foot on the pram in which Halina's little brother was sleeping, rocking it too and fro absorbed in a book.
LIVING IN RUSSIA TOWARDS THE END OF 1ST WORLD WAR It was at Mazevo where Halina saw more injustice. The owner of the sugar factory was cruel and heartless to the peasants. To him, they were animals to be treated as animals. Halina remembers seeing an elderly peasant approaching the owner to ask a favour, bent over, his hat in his hand, and falling on his knees before the owner, to plead his request.
The 1914/18 war was in progress, and prisoners of war were appearing, even in the estate in which they lived. Indeed, they had two Austrian prisoners of war billeted at their house. One of them turned out to be a musician, and father instructed him, not only to take charge of the musical concerts in the concert hall, but also to teach his daughter the piano.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
The unrest of the peasants stirred into a terrible revolt which rocked the whole country. It was 1917, and German officers were stationed everywhere, keeping law and order. Mother, speaking fluent German had two German officers staying with them. Halina remembers one of them going on leave and returning with a beautiful doll for her little sister.
However, the family were warned of the danger they would be in when the Germans left. There would be no law and order. Already they were seeing signs of this. By this time, they were in Elinze, sixty miles away from Kiev. There was a Jewish settlement there where terrible persecution occurred. People just disappeared. Her brother witnessed a crowd hanging a Jew in the street. Everywhere was fear. Even the children guarded their tongues for fear of being overheard by spies. Death threatened the family. Halina, by this time, was attending a grammar school at Elinze but she had to leave with her family. Life was too dangerous.
The two German officers went with them on the sledge to the railway station and waved goodbye to then as they journeyed in the train to Kiev. They found out later, that the day after leaving, a mob broke into their house and looted everything, tearing up family photographs and paintings. The Dine family had lost everything.
In Kiev, they lived in a large flat with mother's brother and his wife. Uncle, after a University degree, became a banker, married a Jewish lady and settled down in Kiev with his wife and son, and they gladly welcomed the Dine family.
ALIVE BUT WITH NO FATHER
Father was told it was too dangerous to live in Russia. He must escape to England. He was told to go to the coastal town of Odessa where he was helped by the British Consul there to find a place on a boat taking him to Constantinople and then on to England.
On the boat journey, he made friends with a Mr. Abbe who had a sister living in Birmingham. Mr. Abbe was also escaping the Revolution and planned to join his sister. “You come with me,” he told father who speak no English. “My sister will help you.”
In the meantime, mother felt it best to join her grandparents in Babino. There was great difficulty in doing that. They had to queue for two days to get a permit to travel there.
HAVING TO LIVE AS POOR RUSSIAN PEASANTS
However, in Babino, they were no longer a family with a good and steady job. They now had to live as peasants and the contrast was terrible. They managed to find one room in a peasant's cottage where mother and the three children lived. Mother, never having been employed in her life, now had to find work in order to live. A forestry office offered her employment. The pay was wood, so at least they could keep warm. She worked there until six each day. Then she went to the sugar factory near to her grandparents and worked there until midnight making sacks – her payment, sugar! She insisted however, that Helena continue her education.
There was a grammar school on the sugar factory estate and Halina attended there during the day. Once school was over, she went to the sugar factory and worked in the laboratory – her payment - salt and sugar. They were desperately hungry. Potatoes were their main diet. The sugar beet harvest lasted only during the winter. In the summer after school, Halina worked in the fields with the peasants digging up potatoes. The owner of the potato crop had a daughter who would stand on the edge of the field watching the starving people work with food in her hand. Halina, ravenous for food, one day no longer could stand it. “If you don't want that bread.” she pleaded, “could you spare some for me?”
It was the custom in the country, when a person died, to dress them in their Sunday best and lay them on the table in the house, surrounded by candles. If a family could afford it, a priest would come to pray. After a few days, the body would be placed in a coffin and taken to the local Church. The family would make a round loaf of bread and place it on the coffin with some salt, and there it would stay until burial. Then the bread and salt would be given to the poor. Halina's family were thrilled on the occasion the Priest brought them the bread. They weren't bothered by the fact that the bread had been previously resting on a coffin They were so hungry, they would eat anything.
They had some chickens which lived on grubs as they had no food to give them. So, occasionally there was an egg to eat and occasionally a bit of money when a chicken was sold. Mother noticed one hen walking with a drooped neck and instructed Halina to take it to the market. Halina stood in a line with the other peasants selling their wares, holding onto the chicken's neck to keep it upright. Every time she let go, the neck flopped again. One person showed interest in this plump chicken but hurriedly handed it back once its neck - without the support of Halina's hand - drooped. She eventually sold it, and there was a little money to buy some food.
The village peasants themselves were very friendly. One who worked with Halina's mother in the Forestry office, was particularly friendly. Also they made acquaintance with another lady whose husband was a member of the Imperial Army. Those in the Army had a red braid down the outer side of each trouser leg, making it very distinctive. In fear, the lady brought her husband's trousers to Halina's mother. “Would you hide these for me?” she pleaded. “They will find them in my house. They will search and search until they find them. They they will kill me.” Halina's mother kept them, but was worried about their presence in the room. “I must find a hiding place for them.” she confided to her forestry friend. “There's a hole in this sofa. Help me to stuff the trousers in there. They will never think of looking in there.”
Days went by; a couple of weeks went by. Then, one day, the door was slammed open and in walked two Reds with guns. “Where are those trousers?” they shouted at Halina's mother. “What trousers?” she said faintly. “You know what trousers,” said one holding his gun to her head. “Trousers belonging to the Imperial Army.”
“What's in this sofa,” shouted the other one. “A hole! It's stuffed in there. If we find it, we shall shoot you.”
“Yes,” agreed Halina's mother. “If you find them, I will be shot” - for some instinct had told her a few days before, to take the trousers out of the hidey hole and return them to the lady. The family knew then, that not even their friends were to be trusted.
Mobs were frequently coming into the village looting and killing. Sometimes they carried a red flag; sometimes a white flag, showing which party they belonged to, but more often there was nothing to distinguish them as to whose side they were on.
In the meantime, terrible things were happening to the family. Uncle and Aunt, in their large flat at Kiev were deported to Siberia where they later died. No-one knew what became of their son. Mother's mother and sister (Halina's grandmother and aunt) 'disappeared' and even today no-one knows what happened to them.
Halina's great grandparents lived ten miles away on the sugar factory estate. They had two daughters living with them. One was widowed with two small children, but the other daughter was arrested. Great grandmother, on hearing the news, fell down and broke her leg. There was a heat wave on, and the poor lady lay on her bed hardly able to breathe in the heat. Halina and her mother had travelled the ten miles to help her, and Halina can remember sitting by her bed fanning her to keep her cool. But she died. Her daughter however, managed to escape and got to Poland.
Eventually (jumping a few years) her nephew, the son of the widowed sister joined her in Poland where she paid for his education. Jumping many years, he eventually joined the Polish Army during the Second World War and was one of those officers shot by, what was then thought, the Germans, but which now has been proved, the Russians. Only recently has the burial ground been found in a forest, of the terrible massacre of those your Polish officers.
Then, at last, the great grandparents had a letter. It was from father and the address was Pershore Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. The Dine family were summoned to the house and mother read the letter. At last, she realized now was the time to escape.
Mother had jewellery smuggled away. All through their terrible months of starvation, she had never let go of her jewellery, even though it would have meant food for them. She needed every bit of her jewellery to help in their escape. Selling some pieces, she managed to hire a peasant to drive the family in horse and cart to the Polish border – and the Polish border was 250 miles away!
They were dropped off in a square in a small village about thirty miles away from the border. The heat was intense. The family had no food, no clothes – only those they were wearing – and no shoes or stockings. They sat in the square in that boiling heat with nowhere to go.
A Polish gentleman came up to them and took pity on them. He told them of a family who often crossed the border to buy goods. Poland had more to tempt in the way of goods than Russia did. However, when the family were approached, they would not risk taking the Dine family as there were small children,. Children were considered too much of a risk.
The family carried on walking towards the border. They reached a small village where there was a large farm. It was Corpus Christi and the family had gone to mass but the maid told the family to wait. Eventually the farmer and his wife returned and offered the family their barn, and put down some straw for them to sleep on.
During conversation, they found out that the farmer and his daughter regularly went across the border to buy goods. They agreed to take the family across, but only on conditions – strict conditions. They were to do absolutely everything they were told. If the instructions were to lie down, then they were to lie down. If it was to run, then they were to run.
They started walking the next day and in the forest, near the border, they came across a group of women also trying to cross the border. Twelve year old Halina was carrying her five year old sister on her back. In bright moonlight they stepped into a clearing. They were very near the border and had to be so quiet they couldn't even cough.
While they waited for daylight, the women suggested they creep round the back way to the frontier. However, the farmer and his daughter offered to do this to attract the soldiers' attention while the refugees went through the legal barrier.
Then a soldier came out of the bushes carrying a gun. “Where are you going?” he said pointing the gun at mother. “I am going across the border.” mother said falteringly, “to buy my little boy some shoes.” The soldier looked at the group and had pity on them. “Our soldiers,” he said, “are sleeping on the edge of the grass. Run quickly and run quietly.”
They ran! Halina clutched her little sister and ran with her, almost falling over a soldier sleeping in the grass propped up against his rifle. The little five year old, jogged up and down by her sister and gripped by fear, was sick over Halina, but still they ran
They were through! Mother had her British Passport safely tied to her knee and showed it at the Frontier Control office. At last they felt safe. A Jewish family took pity on them and put them up for the night, but the house wasn't clean and the bed crawled with lice.
Mother knew of a Polish Priest who had escaped from Russia earlier. He lived at Wagner but when they arrived at the Presbytery, they were told he had moved on to the next village. That meant more walking but when they arrived, at last they had a refuge and a home.
Eventually, the Priest's cousin arrived and told them of the British Refugee Aid Mission run, it was believed by Quakers. This was back in Wagner so, leaving the two younger children with the Priest, mother and Halina walked back to Wagner.
Halina was very impressed by one of the kindest ladies she had ever met, Miss Williams. The thing that Halina remembers most about her, were her shoes – brogue shoes – English shoes! In her shoeless state, Halina felt this was such luxury. Father's address was shown to her and then things began moving quickly. He was contacted and the British government paid for the family's transport by train to Warsaw where they were put into barracks. Before being housed into the barracks, they all had to strip, be de-loused and have a shower.
Eventually, father arrived in Warsaw from England. When he walked in, the family rushed to him and embraced him in tears. Almost three years had passed since they had last seen each other. One of the first things Father did, was to take them to the shops in Warsaw and buy them some clothes and shoes. He also paid for them to live for a while, in a boarding house, until he had arranged for transport for them to England.
They arrived in Birmingham, mother with her four languages and speaking no English. The children also could not speak a word of English. The two youngest were placed in a local school. Halina then aged fourteen was considered old enough for a job, but not speaking the language was felt too much of a disadvantage. She, too, attended the school, but was mostly ignored. It was through father's friendship with a headmistress that she was transferred to a school in a poorer area. There she was given tremendous help. The pupils were instructed to take her around and teach her English.
In fifteen months, she had conquered the language difficulty and was able to get a job.
MR NEVILLE SMITH
Neville William Smith started off life in 1910 at Bourneville. His father was a printer with a firm and when his son showed no success at school, encouraged him in the art of developing prints and illustrations.
Neville's life became wrapped up in photography when his Aunt gave him a Brownie camera. It wasn't a new one. In fact it had survived a day at the seaside when Auntie's children had mischievously filled it with sand. On coming home, Aunt had shaken the sand out of it, and given it to her small nephew. Neville was so fascinated by photography that his family, soon after, gave him for a Christmas present, a cardboard box containing all the necessary chemicals for developing. Neville knew nothing about the art, but by trial and error began developing his own prints.
On leaving school, father got him a job developing prints with a firm, Siviter Smith Blockmakers. Modelling was done by illustration, not photography in those days. One of the lads Neville worked with, was named Emmet. He rose to fame during the 1951 Exhibition and finished up as an artist on Punch with Malcolm Muggeridge as Editor.
Neville, in the meantime, was fixed with a blind date. Very apprehensively he went to the appointed house and through the kitchen door walked a charming auburn-haired Halina. Friendship blossomed slowly.
One of Neville's other activities was cycling. He had bought a bike with his earnings and some Sundays, he cycled with the lads (Tom Holte being one of them) around the countryside. “Anything along there?” asked Neville one day, pointing in the direction of a Pub with a road leading off it. “Oh,” said one, “there's a black and white timbered Rectory along there.” Neville showed great interest. “Can we go and see it?” and throughout the next ten years, the village of Clifford Chambers nestled in his mind as a place that would be ideal to live in.
In 1936, Neville had left the Birmingham firm and started up on his own, but, as soon as War began, orders stopped coming in. He enrolled as photographer to the R.A.F. And was drafted to Blackpool where he learnt the techniques of ground photography. He was only there a few months before he was sent to Brize Norton.
He found it very boring there, taking photos of the squadrons. Some of the framed photos we see of Squadrons were taken by Neville. The R.A.F stipulated only one copy was to be made of each photo, but so many of the officers came to him and asked him for copies. With his industrial contacts, Neville was able to get the photographic material to make them copies.
Halina came to visit him on several occasions and at one time, they had difficulty finding lodging for her, eventually finding a place with an elderly lady who lived alone with her daughter. During conversation, Neville mentioned his interest in the Stratford area. “We have a cousin there,” the daughter said. It was Neville's first introduction to John Wigginton the antique dealer in Henry Street.
Then Neville was sent back to Blackpool on a teaching commission. He went to the building he was trained in a few months before – only to find to his amazement, that it had been taken over by women. The horror came when he went to the cloakroom that he remembered of a few months before, and while there, the door to the cloakroom opened and the air was filled with female voices chatting away; opening and shutting toilet doors; talking in front of the mirror while make-up was put on. Neville had to stay where he was until the female voices had gone and there was silence. Then Neville crept out.
Throughout most of the war, he taught the W.A.F.S.at Blackpool in the art of photography. By the time he married in 1940, he had been promoted to Sergeant. Paul, their son was born in 1945.
America was developing new techniques in photography, so Neville wrote to the American firms asking for more details. The knowledge he acquired through the literature received, enabled him to write and illustrate a book with co-writer George Wakefield, on synchronized flashlight photography.
When the War finished, Neville was discharged and went back to Bourneville where his father, wife and son were living, but he hadn't been there for more than a few days when a telegram arrived asking him to report to the War Office. His heart sank, for he thought he was being summoned to Burma, but it turned out the War Office wanted him to develop the aerial photos being taken of Germany. This was to decide the border line between the Soviets and the Allies. Neville was fascinated by this, and still has the photos of a smouldering, roofless Germany.
It was a small advert that brought Neville to Clifford and to Seth Smith. No. 51 was up for sale. Seth had bought it 'over the fence' from the Hopkins family and now wished to sell it. The Smith family moved in, in 1949 when Paul was four-and-a-half years old. It was then that Neville contacted John Wigginton and was introduced into the world of antiques. “Ah,” said John “photography! Could you photograph some antiques for me?” From then on Neville never looked back. He spent the rest of his working life with his camera capturing all the beauty of antiques for advertising, cataloguing and also for insurance purposes. He was also finding he was having to travel to London to help in illustrating children's books and magazines, but he eventually gave that up, to take on photography full time.
Neville spent a lot of his spare time catching a moment of history with his camera in the life of this village. There were many moments he regretted he hadn't captured – Seth Smith working at the forge for one!
When he retired. he was able to capture a lot of our village history, though I was horrified once to enter our village shop where Neville's photos were on display and be confronted with a photo of me showing a lot of leg and my pants! Jubilee Year, the Year of the Child, Open Days, Fetes – they were all captured by Neville's camera – a wonderful historical record that will keep for ever.