It was a bitterly cold December morning in the 1920s in the city of Birmingham, a few days before Christmas. I cursed the fact that I had to break the ice in the deep enamel bowl in the brewhouse in my backyard before I could get to the water beneath to have a quick shave and a wash. -But all the same, I knew I was one of the lucky ones in our street. At least I still had a job to go to.
I don’t know why I always used to put the water into the old enamel bowl, last thing at night ready for my morning wash. But my Father had always done it and his Father before him.
Over the years I have concluded that we Brummies like tradition. It helps us to establish who we are and where we are in relation to the world beyond Smethwick, I suppose!
It was just after five am by the watch on my Albert, as I tucked it back into the watch pocket on my waistcoat. I pulled my overcoat about me and tightened my muffler around my neck. I had to look after my chest. Ever since my three years in the trenches I 'd had a bad chest. I hadn’t been caught up in a gas attack like a lot of the other fellows, but three years up to your knees in mud, filthy water and the blood of your mates does something to a man.
It had snowed in the night. Not much, just a couple of inches or so. Certainly not as much as we used to get in the olden days!
The snow was crisp and it sparkled in the yellow glow of the gas mantles in the street. Not so long ago at this time of day the whole street would already have been criss-crossed with the tramp of many pairs of feet going to and from work. But now mine were the only footprints as I crunched through the fresh snow.
I was only halfway down our street when I almost stumbled over the body. It had obviously lain on the pavement since before the snow had started, as it was completely covered in a white blanket of snow.
I knew it would cost me -perhaps even a day’s pay, or more- but there are some things a man must do.
When I looked down, I noticed the blood had not so much congealed, but frozen to the pavement and the snow that had touched it had been stained a deep crimson.
I crouched down and touched the body. As I thought, dead. He was stiff and it was not rigor mortis, but the cold that had done it. The police very rarely came down our street, so I knew no bobby on his beat would see the body. The nearest the police ever came -unless there was trouble at the Cross and Bishop- was a small square two streets away. I’d have to find a policeman there, if I could.
I set off as fast as I dared, arriving a few minutes later having nearly slipped over a couple of times.
I had supposed rightly. The policeman was stamping his feet trying to keep warm in the heat that was barely seeping from the doorway of Rogers’ bakery.
“Officer, I was just setting off for work and I found a dead body in Collins Street, just round the corner.”
“Who might you be?”
“David Shakeshaft. I live in Collins Street. I was just on my way to work.”
He followed me without a further word.
He looked at the body before he stooped down and brushed some of the snow from the face of the corpse with a gloved hand. It’s straggly moustache was stiffer than it had ever been in life.
“Been here quite a while, with all this snow on him. Do you recognise him?”
I suppose it was a sort of a shock at first, when I saw the face. But I quickly recovered.
“Yes, it’s a neighbour. Not a near neighbour, but a neighbour all the same. His name’s Bill Sampson. Lives four or five doors up from here, almost opposite the opening of Merry Court. He's got a wife and a couple of kiddies. -At least, he did have.”
The officer took my details and asked me questions about Sampson.
I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, not even of people like Sampson, but I had to tell him as much as I could.
“Looks like he’s been beaten” opined the policeman. “Quite badly too.”
I dug my hands deeper into my pockets to keep the cold out.
The policeman took out his whistle and gave two sharp, piercing blasts that must have woken everyone for several streets around. I was asked to go to the police station to make a statement. I left before anyone else turned up in our usually quiet street.
After I made my statement several times over, they let me leave the station and in the early afternoon I got to my place of work.
The works owner, Mr Tweedy, was angry with me, until I told him what had happened. Mr Tweedy was of the old school. Besides which, like me, he had served in the Warwicks in the Great War and he understood things like duty and honour. But he had been an officer and I had been a lowly corporal.
“Well done, Shakeshaft” he had said. “Of course, I could dock you a whole day’s pay, but I’ll only dock you half a day, but get on with some work and finish at the regular time.”
I thanked him and did as he had told me, though my mind was not really on it.
Of course, by the time I got back everyone was talking about the body which had long since been taken to the city morgue. The snow was now almost entirely gone. The women of the street were standing around in little knots, talking, whilst keeping an eye on their children who were playing in the remains of the snow as the gas lamps were lit by the old man who had done the job ever since I could remember.
The men were waiting for the Cross and Bishop to open, muttering about the murder.
We all met in the snug.
“So, he’s dead is he?”
They looked at me. As if they expected me to do something.
I took a sip of my mild before setting the pot back down on the scarred, round table before me.
“What are we going to do?”
That was said by a small sharp-featured man who I only knew as Billy, who worked as a bookies runner.
I shrugged. “What do you suggest?”
He glanced at me. “Will they know who did it?”
Big Bob growled; “Not if we all keep quiet.”
Tommy Moore looked up with his naturally sad face even more morose than usual. Longer and worse than Livery Street on a wet November morning.
“We only meant to give him a bit of a beating. Teach him a lesson, like. We didn’t mean for him to die,” he whined.
“What are his widow and children going to do?” That was Taffy Ellis, a small, practically-minded Welshman who had come to Birmingham some years before, looking for work. Even though he had only been sporadically successful, somehow he had never managed to return home to his beloved Welsh valleys. Apparently times were even harder, there. God help them, was all I could say to that!
“I think we should hold a collection for them. It’s the least we can do,” I replied.
“Yes, the least we can do, seeing as how we murdered her husband,” moaned Tommy.
“Anyone who talks like that is being stupid! We didn’t murder him. For all we know, the cold might have killed him. Or maybe someone happened along and robbed him.”
Although my mind was in a turmoil, I tried to sound as calm as I could. I didn’t want them panicking. I had seen men crack in the trenches. Any one of these lads could crack and they’d see us all dancing at the end of a rope in Winson Green nick. -I’d have to try and steady them down.
“Keep calm, lads. There’s no point in us getting in a state. and keep your voices down. -We don’t want everyone knowing our business.
“We didn’t do anything wrong. Sampson was a piece of shit who kept beating his wife and his kiddies. –I don’t approve of it myself, I’m not saying if it’s right or wrong, but I bet even someone here might have clipped their missus once or twice.
“But Sampson always went too far. He would have killed his wife and perhaps the two little kiddies, too. He never knew when to stop when he’d a few too many inside of him. and that was most of the time. Though God knows where he got the money. -He never worked even when there were jobs!”
Although none of them laughed, most of them smiled at my little joke. -It certainly seemed to take the heat out of the situation.
We agreed to say nothing to anyone else about what had happened and we arranged to hold a collection for his widow and the two little kiddies.
We didn’t collect much because, well, because we didn’t have much in our street. But I like to think it helped her, a little, coming up to Christmas as it was.
I’d always had a soft spot for Jenny Green, or Jenny Sampson as she became, even when we were kiddies, but the war had intervened and when I had returned in 1918, she had already married Sampson and had settled down to eight years of hell.
Eventually after a couple of years of discrete courting -or as discrete as courting ever can be in Brum!- I married Jenny and took on the two kiddies, as well, of course and they moved into my house, from the house that they rented. I was a bit of a rare 'un, you see. We'd owned our house for donkey's years.
I have heard it said that a man and his wife should keep no secrets from each other.
Normally, I would agree.
Normally. But the fact is, you see, I did keep one secret from her. A fairy big secret, really. The secret I am sharing with you, now.
The fact was, that I had murdered her first husband. Me, by myself.
I’ll have to tell you a bit of the background. In the pub that December night, the evening before his body had been found, Sampson had been boasting about how he had realised he could get out of even having to go through the motions of the pretence of thinking about buying presents for his two children.
“I can’t be bothered to buy the little buggers presents, but that damn fool woman of mine will insist on buying them something every bloody Christmas. -Why should I let that bitch waste my good drinking money on buying presents for them?”
Of course, it hadn’t been his drinking money. It had been money that Jenny had scrimped and scraped all year long to buy their two children a couple of cheap presents. Money she’d grafted for with damned hard collar at a variety of jobs from washing clothes to doing outwork.
“How did you do that, then?” Taffy had asked him. Although Sampson was too drunk to notice, the normally easygoing Taffy had a hard edge to his voice that I had never heard before. Taffy's bluey-green eyes seemed to flash.
“Easy! I just told the little buggers that I had found Father Christmas in the back yard and I’d murdered him and buried him under the Miskin!”
The way he said it, he had expected a laugh from his audience. He had misjudged it. The surly, heavy silence unsettled him.
At closing time we followed him from the pub. I can’t remember who threw the first punch, but we all joined in, giving him a good, solid Brummagem beating.
When he staggered off down the street, we didn’t follow, but ran the other way, laughing and whooping like a gang of little schoolboys.
When I reached my door, I cursed myself, realising that I had left my pipe and tobacco at the Cross and Bishop.
I turned and walked back to the pub. Fortunately the Landlord, Jack something-or-other, I can’t recall his other name, had not locked up yet, so he let me in to pick up my pipe and pouch of tobacco.
He gave me an old fashioned look, but said nothing.
As I left the pub which was at the top of our street, I heard Jack sliding the bolts of the outer door into place.
I had barely walked twenty yards when I came across Sampson, leaning against the wall of a small workshop in our street that had closed down many months before.
“You and your mates think you’re so bloody clever, don’t you? Well, let me tell you that I’m going to have the last laugh. When I feel steadier, I am going to go home and I’m going to wake that useless slut of a wife of mine and I’m going to make her watch me beat those damn brats of hers and then I am going to make them watch me as I beat her and do her in, in front of them!”
He sneered; “and you aren’t going to be there to stop me, are you?”
He so was busy telling me what he intended to do that he didn’t see me aim the kick at his crotch. It connected so well that all he did as he collapsed to the pavement, was give a bleat of air. I kicked him -as hard as I could- in the head a few times with my hobnailed boots, as he lay there.
And then -I walked home, leaving him lying very still, on the pavement, bleeding from his head.
I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I hoped he was dead. Frankly, I didn’t care much either way. As I say, three years up to your knees in mud, filthy water and the blood of your mates does something to a man.
Of course, the snow had really put me on the spot. I was one of the few men in our street with a job and certainly the first person out of a morning.
How would it have looked to the police if the only footprints in the snow had been mine and I had ignored the body and not reported it to the police? -And I couldn’t risk not going into work by pretending to be off work sick, what with the number of people who were already on the parish or the box as we called it back then.
The police are not stupid. If I hadn’t have reported finding the body, they’d have soon realised that I had something to do with the murder. -and there was only one way for me to walk to work, which took me past where the body was.
And I would have ended up doing a dance at Winson Green nick. -Perhaps along with me muckers who really did have nothing to do with the killing.
So, I had to find a policeman and report finding a body that I had already had a shrewd idea was there, waiting for me to discover it, and no one else. As I said, I was one of the lucky ones with a job. I would be the only person walking down our street at that time of the morning, so I knew what I had to do.
The incident was a seven day wonder in the local papers. Someone even suggested that it was the Peaky Blinders back again, up to their tricks of old.
But I knew who it was.
I always did my level best to ensure those two kiddies had the best Christmas I could afford to give them.
I never really managed to decide if this was me being kind to them and making up for Sampson’s evil -I truly loved them as if they had been my own- or if it was my way of sticking two fingers up at Sampson on every anniversary of his death, every Christmas week.
Glossary of genuine Birmingham terms and words
Brummie: A citizen of Birmingham, England.
Brummagem: Original name of Birmingham
Collar: Work. Hard Collar, hard work
Peaky Blinder: Birmingham street gang. Alleged to wear peaked caps with razor blades in the peak, which they would hit other gangs with, trying to blind them.
Livery Street: A very long street in Birmingham. "A face as long as Livery Street" said of anyone who looked depressed.
Albert: Fob watch on a chain
Nick: Prison (Winson Green Prison is otherwise known as HM Prison, Birmingham, was built in 1849 and is still in full vigour)