Friday, November 11, 2016

Hidden City: Birmingham Street Fighting School

The warren of back streets between Bristol Street and Hurst Street in Birmingham city centre hold a hidden past. Nowadays they are in the area known as Southside. Of course you may want to call it the Chinese Quarter, or possibly the Gay Village, or the Gay Chinese Side, or whatever. The present conflicted name indicates a conflicted history, and in fact amongst other things it is home to the famous 'Rentboys' Corner' on Kent Street, where the baths used to stand, which the council did nothing to preserve from demolition despite being locally listed. The fact that there was a washing baths there indicates that the area of Wrentham, (Lower) Essex, Kent, and Gooch Streets were at one time a residential area and sure enough my First World War-era map of the area shows a warren of back-to-back courts and some industrial buildings.
By the time of the Second World War the area was in a parlous state. In true Brum fashion my source for this post (credit below) is unsure whether the inhabitants were emptied out in a 1930s redevelopment scheme which halted, or whether the houses were destroyed by bombing, but the illustrations I have found show windowless houses with no inhabitants, allowing the area to be used for manouevres by the GHQ Town Fighting Wing, which was the Home Guard's Street Fighting School. Far from the bumbling old men suggested by Dads Army, they were middle-aged men, who were trained very seriously to defend the country in case of invasion, and it was here in Birmingham it happened.
The school was based at the disused Unitarian Old Meeting church at 130 Bristol Street, and the students were housed at the Institute for the Blind on Carpenter Road in Edgbaston (the equipment list indicates they had to take their own mirrors). The courses in street fighting in case of invasion continued throughout the Second World War and culminated in a major exercise, the 'Battle of Birmingham' in 1944.
It is of course a matter of Brummie pride that not only was the area used to train the Home Guard, but that nothing is recognisable in the area from the 1940s photos I have found. In fact, Wrentham Street is still waiting for revelopment...
Credit: I am completely indebted to for the information and also the pictures.

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