Chapter 11

The 1930s & Beyond

John, eldest son of Ernest Edward, ("Ted") and father of the author of this history, was educated at Redditch Secondary School, and his photograph appears in Alan Foxall's book Redditch Remembered (the school group on page 107 is dated 1927, and John is seated on the right hand side). A year later he was sent off to boarding school at Wolverley, joining his Adams cousins. He later related that Sebright School was excellent preparation for life in the army, and he seemed to have enjoyed his time there. His younger brother Peter was also a pupil there, but Gordon preferred to stay in Redditch.
All three boys enjoyed the freedom of the land around Easemore, and were very familiar with the nearby Bordesley Abbey meadows. In later years they would be interested in the history of the stones which lay there, taking part in the excavations and offering a room at the farmhouse for the archaelogists (the student helpers camped out in the barns!).

John left Sebright in 1934, and early in 1935, as preparation for his future role in the family business, was sent as an apprentice to Harris and Matthews, Corn and Seed Merchants of Abingdon, with instructions to "keep your eyes open and your ears skinned". He was to learn all about poultry and pig feeds and mashes, also new seed packaging techniques, and to report back. His father was keen to know how Webbs compared with a similar firm in a different area. Ernest Edward ("Ted") was a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society (see pass card) and at one time president of the Worcester and District Association of Master Bakers, Confectioners and Millers.


An article in Town and County News of August 25th 1933 gives a good overview of the family business where John was to make his mark. In outlining some of the history of Webbs of Redditch the article states that the firm was established in 1837 by William Webb, a view which was firmly held by the family over many years. Research has failed to find any basis for this - as already stated, William Webb was a fish hook maker, beer seller, baker and flour dealer, but there is no evidence of a milling business around that date. It is possible that Webbs was, even in the 1830s, associated with the business run by Ben Sarsons, miller and maltster at at 20 Church Green East, but this is pure speculation. What is good to know is that in 1933, when the article was written, Webbs was the oldest firm of its kind in the district to combine both milling and baking :(Ref 1)

20 Church Green East in the 1930s
The article does not deal with the seed trade, but it was this aspect which John was destined to develop during his working life.
It must have been quite daunting for a shy 17-year old to be boarded out in "digs" with a couple of "old dears" and to be apprenticed to an unknown firm, although it is interesting that he was returning to the general area from which his ancestor William Webb had set out all those years before. He seems to have coped quite well and we have a wonderful "snapshot" of life for a teenager in those pre-war years in the form of letters written to John by members of his family and former school friends during 1935. The colloquialisms are fascinating to anyone interested in the English language, as are the references to everyday life. Although many of the topics would seem familiar today, it is striking that the hobbies are of a very practical nature.
Of course he was fortunate to have had plenty of space at Easemore, which had orchards, rough land and outbuildings, and this was the era of the popularisation of radio and photography, which had previously been the preserve of the well-to-do.
There is much talk in the letters of chemistry and Meccano sets; of the building of a "shack" at Easemore, and of problems with the new dog. It is clear that John had a passion for radio and photography, and was prepared to invest time, money and effort into his hobbies, which he continued throughout his life.

Both his parents offered the usual advice to a son living away from home - "Keep your pecker up and never mind if you don't quite like it. Things will plan out alright when you do your best" says his mother Lillie, who hopes he is eating well, reminds him to eat fresh fruit, worries that his room may not be warm enough and enquires about the bathroom arrangements. She also advises -
"If you don't want to play cards with them (the Old Dears) every night, don't do so; you are not obliged to."

His father's comments are more robust and mainly concern business matters (Ref 2)

His brother Gordon is interested in practical matters, such as the construction of a shack at Easemore, and other hobbies which the brothers share (Ref 3)





The whole family love listening to the wireless, and think of John in the evenings, wondering if he is listening to the same programme - "Radio Normandie is on wavelength 269 metres and 1113 K.C."
Entertainment is mentioned - the films "House of Rothshild" and "Death at Broadcasting House" were shown in Redditch, and as for pop music - "How do you like "Lullaby on Broadway", a new song hit, also Algemin (sic) Augustus Wifflesnook John, and the skit of it, exactly the same tune but different words".

John is informed that Uncle Bertie is clearing his place out, though whether this is his business at The Gresham Works, or his offices in Church Green, is unclear. It is surprising that The Gresham Works had a wireless department, but John purchased items from his uncle in 1935, while he was away in Abingdon. Did the May issue of Practical Mechanic which is recommended to John, deal with wireless and crystal sets?

John's invoice for goods purchased from his uncle Bertie at The Gresham Works

Gordon knows John will be interested in information on cameras -
"You can now get cameras at Woolworths 1/6d each they use ordinary film but take 16 snaps on a roll instead of 8" (possibly referring to the VP Twin camera by E. Elliott Ltd, taking 16 pictures on a 127 roll film).
"I am enclosing snaps but they are not a great deal of good, the ones ruined were not a fault of the camera, but ours for winding them on when they were not taken".

John has news from former school friends,(Ref 4), and is kept up to date with local and domestic news (Ref 5). 1935 marked the Silver Jubilee of George V, and Gordon is enthusiastic about the holiday from school. He asks John to keep all the Silver Jubilee stamps. The correspondents in both Redditch and Abingdon mention special parades and celebrations. The King died the following year, and there then ensued the Abdication Crisis, which coincided with the ever-growing threat of war.

After about a year, having qualified as a seedsman, John returned to Redditch to take his place in the family firm. As his father had indicated, there was plenty of scope for him to develop his interest in the business. Gordon meanwhile was to take an interest in the bakery side of the business, and was sent to Croydon to gain qualifications at Bakery School.

After the death of grandfather Thomas in 1917, the firm's title was sometimes abbreviated to just Webbs but later it could once again be known as Webb & Sons, now referring to Ernest Edward and his sons John and Gordon (Peter pursued other interests). However, while the boys were still young men, other factors came into play. Only two years after the cheerful exchange of letters, John returned home to Easemore one evening to find his mother Lillie dead at the foot of the stairs. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage shortly before his return. At the age of only 19 he had to give evidence at the inquest into her death, and live with the memory of it ever afterwards.

Just as the family was starting to adjust to life without her, and with two sons now established in the business, war was finally declared in September 1939. John, having just celebrated his 21st birthday, had already received instructions in August of that year that he would be required for military training as from October, and he reported to the camp at Devizes. His younger brothers (see photo) joined the Home Guard until they too were called up.

John's call-up papers   his younger brothers in the Home Guard
He joined the Worcesters and soon found himself kitted out for service in Bermuda, spending time with the Advanced American troops near the Medway. His kit included a pair of enormous khaki shorts which were of great embarrassment to his daughters when, many years later, he intended to wear them on a sea-side holiday! Unfortunately he never saw the island as when the situation in Northern Ireland became critical, his unit was moved to Straban. It was there that he received the news of the death of his aunt Clara, but was refused leave to attend the funeral on the grounds that she was not a "close" relative.

We have in our possession some of the books he was issued for training (Ref 6). As a radio engineer he served on RADAR posts scattered round the UK; for details of his war service (Ref 7).

The war in Europe ended in May 1945, but troop levels had to be maintained until the surrender of Japan in August of that year. Nevertheless, the government had been planning demobilisation for months (Ref 8). John was demobbed from York, having served for a total of 6 years 20 days. He had attained the rank of corporal, and on October 4th he had received a note of recommendation from the captain commanding the 2nd Light Scout Car Field Park (Ref 9).
Of course he did not need to seek employment, but it is interesting to speculate where his experience with radio would have taken him, had he not had the family business awaiting his attention. He was very fortunate to have not only a job waiting for him, but also a family home. Many servicemen struggled to find work initially, and not everyone found the experience of returning home the pleasure they had expected.

For an excellent account of the experiences of demobbed servicemen, see "When Daddy came home" by Barry Turner / Tony Rennell (ISBN 0-7126-7469-1). A sample quote from this book (Ref 10). The references to shortages and lack of support services would have pertained in Redditch as much as anywhere else in Britain (although bomb damage had been minimal) and the following years would be a testing time for all.
The Webb family was fortunate in that all three of the sons came home from the war relatively unscathed. The war memorial outside St Stephen's church reminds us of those who did not return.
For a pictorial account of life in Redditch during the Second World War see Redditch at War by Alan Foxall / Ray Saunders ISBN 1-85983-412-4