Ellsye Finnie – WW1 childhood

Throughout the Children of War project we have had our eyes open for any firsthand experiences of children themselves growing up through the tumultuous period of the First World War – but they have proved fairly elusive. One of our volunteers, Rebecca Ball, has looked further afield and has written below about one record of a child growing up just outside Birmingham and her memories of the events that touched her life. 

Looking deep into archives an intrigued reader can access the hidden histories of people from the past. One such archive is the John Burnett Working Class Autobiography Archive. This archive is a collection of autobiographies written by the working class born between 1790 and 1945. These written records of their lives have been stored away for future generations to discover.

One such life story was written by Ellsye Finnie.[1] She was greeted into this world with the response of ‘Another girl? Not very handsome either!’ from her father in 1903. Ellsye was born in Sutton Coldfield but her family moved shortly afterwards to Wood End, between Sutton and Lichfield in Birmingham.

In her captivating account of her life, Ellsye includes her memories of living in this small hamlet during the First World War. She entitled this chapter of her life rather aptly as ‘Bewildering Problems.’ She began by recollection of the dark clouds of war, which ‘drifted over, dark and threatening.’  The streets she recalled soon become full of ‘khaki – clad soldiers’ and the windows were covered with ‘gloomy blackout curtains.’

Ellsye also recalled how ‘rationing became part of life’ and the appearance of ‘queues at the butcher’s shop.’ Before long even the delicacy of ice cream soon became another victim of the war as ‘the luxuries of life disappeared.’The Food Queue
The Food Queue© IWM (Art.IWM ART 840)

She wrote how ‘sadness hung in the air’, however, for children school life continued on but with an added lecture on refusing extra helpings at dinner. Children were also included in patriotic endeavours. Ellsye`s older sister Marjorie, helped the war effort by painting the Union Jack and flags of their allies onto strips of fabric to pin on clothing to encourage patriotic fever.

Although bombing on the home front is often associated with the Second World War, for the young children of Britain, the zeppelin attacks could be terrifying events. Ellsye recalled the ‘ominous noises coming from the sky’ as the Zeppelin passed over. Listening close in fear they heard another noise, ‘the slow solid tread of the night policeman on his beat.’ Her mother called down for advice and Ellsye recalled the reassuring response of  ‘go down and make a cup of tea!’. With that reassuring British sentiment, all fears were stilled and were replaced with a ‘childish excitement of adventure.’

The First World War was experienced in many ways by the children on the home front in Britain. Some of these experiences were scary but some were also exciting. Ellsye recalled how she enjoyed the arrival of billottees in their home, ‘sometimes soldiers in training or girls working in munitions factories.’ Her personal favourite were two young Royal Engineer Corps. She remembered how ‘they bought me my very first box of chocolates’ when she passed the entrance exam into Grammar school. ‘No chocolates have ever tasted sweeter!’

War, however, did not last forever and Ellsye remembered the morning of Armistice day in November 1918. ‘Suddenly the Ack-Ack guns near our home went off, and we knew the war was over, a war that was to leave many scars.’

‘Birmingham clapped her hands with the rest of the word, welcoming the signs of peace and a return to normal living.’

Rebecca Ball

[1] With thanks to the Burnett Working Class Autobiography Archive held at Brunel University – Ellsye Finnie, ‘Touch – Down: Or Sing Towards Evening, 1903 – 1978’, Britain, N.d [c.1978?], p.87. Brunel University – Burnett Archives.

Birmingham Children of War – learning & resource guide

At our public event on 11th March we launched the print version of the Birmingham Children of War – Learning and Resource Guide. This, together with the associated display panels, received much positive feedback, and both enable us to share a summary of our findings together with a selective bibliography with a wider audience. The Guide is now also available as a digital download from the links below.

The large file version is approx 9Mb and is compatible with Acrobat 5.0, but download speeds may be slow. The small file is approx 3 Mb,  compatible with Acrobat 6.0 and above and should provide quicker download speeds

Birmingham Children of War – Learning and Resource Guide (Large File)

Birmingham Children of War – Learning and Resource Guide (Small File)

We are grateful to our designer Brigitte Winsor for bringing her skills to bear on the collaborative content of our team of volunteers.

The 14 A2 exhibition panels are now available for display at suitable events. Email us at fobah@outlook.com if you have a WW1 themed event in the Birmingham area if you’d be interested in us attending.

Liz Palmer

The Doings of the George Dixon Girls

Slightly hidden away within the Birmingham Collection are many examples of school magazines (search the Local Studies Index by name of school to find them) which are an often overlooked source. Fiona Tait has trawled through one series to see what they reveal about how girls at one Birmingham secondary school supported the war effort. This complements other information that can be found in items such as school log books and contemporary newspapers. 

Here is some information from The Mag-Pie: The doings of The George Dixon Girls’ Secondary School, Rotton Park, Birmingham, Spring Term, 1916.


These activities of various classes in the school were mentioned on pp. 35-37:

‘During last term and this the School has been busy in various ways in connection with the War. About 500 worn garments – all mended – have so far been despatched by the secretary to the Lady Mayoress’ Depot or to various Council Schools, or to Harborne Hall for the use of Belgian Refugees…..great credit is due to some of the heroic girls who staggered to School under parcels of apparently greater cubical content than themselves….’ [ in all 58 parcels had been received ].

‘The School caught the knitting fever in its severest form. It was hopeless to try to keep pace with the demand, either for wool or pins – otherwise, apparently, we could have fitted up the entire Expeditionary Force. As it is, at least 350 articles have been distributed.’

[The contributions of the different classes and some individuals were mentioned].

‘Chocolates, cigarettes, boracic powder, playing cards and mending wool were enclosed in parcels sent direct to soldiers.’

‘In 1B (20 girls) – every girl has helped, 54 garments being sent in. In this enthusiastic class Mollie Kellaway is perhaps the most enthusiastic. She has contributed to the fund 14/-, which she has gained by the sale of patriotic badges or collected. She has also knitted or begged ten woollen articles including our only jersey, and has brought in addition, wool, pins, and worn garments…..the Class, as a whole, gave 8/- to the fund instead of sending each other Christmas cards.’

‘The energy of 2A takes the breath away….the 22 of them produced at least 70 articles….helmets are their great speciality, and of these they have knitted 43. It can be mathematically demonstrated that they must have knitted in their sleep.’

‘2A have also, we are informed, raised sufficient money by all making toffee, and selling it to each other at a high price, to buy a football and send it to the Front…’

‘…3B…before Christmas raised about 11/- for wool and cigarettes, and this year they held an extremely well organised Bazaar in the dinner-hour, at which they made 30/- in 30 minutes – a very useful rate if one could only keep it up.’

‘4B… the Class is sending a football to the front.’

‘We are now hoping to send to the Lady Mayoress’ depot a good supply of socks, as these are still urgently needed. Will everybody please raise 1/- by some means and then knit a pair of socks with the wool bought with it.’  [850 pairs were the School’s target].

This letter from the Front was also reported on:

Sent to 2A:  Driver A. Cheras, A.S.C.

c/o  Queen Victoria Rifles

British Expeditionary Force.  Feb. 16, 1915.

 Dear Girls

I am writing on behalf of my chums and myself to thank you for the football you so kindly sent us, and which we all appreciate very much. You may be sure that we shall enjoy many games, though we are near the firing lines. Our work is to take supplies up to the trenches by night, and it will be something to do to break the usual monotony of the day by playing ‘footer’…….’

‘As you were so kind as to invite is to sample your ‘weird and wonderful toffee,’ we are only too willing to accept the risk, as the football is sure to help digest it.

I must now conclude, wishing you all, and the ‘Toffee Department’, every success.

Cheras and Fellow Tommies.

Ref: Vols 1-7, 1909-1916. L48.34. [Publication of the Mag-Pie ceased in 1916).

Fiona Tait.


Birmingham Children of War go public

On 11th March the project went public with an afternoon event at the Library of Birmingham.  Over 200 people participated in one or more of the activities on offer which included a pop-up exhibition, a Children’s Trail and Children’s Craft activities, a choir singing popular WW1 songs and scouts performing semaphore.

The event also saw the launch of the Birmingham Children of War Learning and Resource Guide and an associated display.  The Guide will be made available via pdf download very shortly.

We are grateful to the support given to the event by the staff of the Library of Birmingham especially Archives and Collections and the  Children’s Library;  the wardrobe department of the Birmingham Rep for the loan of the costume; the Midland Hospitals Choir and Phoenix Singers, the Cole Valley South 220th Scout Troop and Iris of Knit and Natter. And of course to our funders: the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The selection of photos below include contributions by official event photographer Vik Chandla, and volunteers Maggie Brownlie and Keith Clenton.

Liz Palmer

A First World War Childhood

Throughout the project we have been hopeful to find material in children’s own words telling of their experiences during the first world war.  Sadly this has not materialised to any great extent but we have gradually uncovered a number of later reminiscences or memoirs of older people looking back to their childhood during the War.  Some are referred to in the Learning and Resource Guide which will be published at our Birmingham Children of War event on Saturday afternoon at the Library of Birmingham.  This is another one that has recently been uncovered by Alison Smith- and like others we have seen the Zeppelin loomed large in the memories.

The memories of Florence were recorded in 1989 as part of a Stirchley Local History Workshop.

Florence was born in May 1908 and attended the nearby Stirchley School on the Pershore Road.  The 1911 census return records Florence and her family living in Bull’s Buildings (also known as Rose Cottages), several houses set behind a row of shops, also on the Pershore Road in Stirchley.  In 1914 when Florence’s father, Jimmy, joined the army, there were five children living at home and a sixth was born to her mother, Rebecca, during the war years.

An oral history interview records several aspects of Florence’s experiences as a young child in the First World War.  When asked about her memories of the war, she said:

‘I was about six when the war broke out.  My Dad had to go to war.  I can remember the blackouts at night. Everyone had to put up blackouts.  I can remember the Zeppelins coming over.  There were searchlights in the sky.  When they heard the Zeppelins a man would yell “all lights out, all lights out” and the searchlights would go from the sky.  You never forgot the noise of the Zeppelins.  When they came over they would shine lights all round.  The Zeppelins would circle slowly and they would drop bombs.  Quite a few houses were damaged I think, and some children were buried in the rubble in the crater of their house’.


Zeppelin Raid over Black Country
Picture World’s coverage of Zeppelin damage in the Black Country, February 1915. No casualties were incurred in Birmingham but Flo may have heard the Zeppelins flying overhead.

Florence recalled the end of the war:


‘The soldiers used to get off the train at New Street Station and they used to march up the Pershore Road to Stirchley.  Each soldier that came to his destination where he lived, used to drop out and there used to be singing and a band playing …. I remember when my dad came home and they said “here they are, they’re coming”.  Some crippled, some on sticks and some that could hardly walk.  My Dad was a very tall man and when he dropped out they said, “See you in the next war Jimmy”.

Florence also tells some interesting stories of her schoolteachers, friends and school life in general.  These can be read in full in the ‘Memories of Stirchley’, copies of which are available at Stirchley Library, Bournville Lane, Stirchley and in the Heritage Research Area of the Library of Birmingham.

Alison Smith

Children’s Library Display

Anne and Liz putting finishing touches to the Birmingham Children of War display in the Children’s Library. This will be the starting point of the Children’s Trail which forms part of the WW1 event on Saturday 11th March. Trail leaflets can be collected in the Children’s Library from 1pm on Saturday. The trail finishes on Level 4 where children, with their accompanying adults, can do a number of related craft activities.

Also on Level 4 will be a pop-up display of archive documents and local history books used in researching childrens lives in WW1, mini-talks by project volunteers and an exhibition featuring content from the project’s newly published learning guide. Look out for Scouts performing semaphore signalling. And listen out for the Midlands Hospital Choir singing patriotic WW1 songs.

The display in the Children’s Library will stay in situ for 6 weeks. We are grateful to the staff for their support.

Birmingham Children of War Event

The research phase of the Birmingham Children of War project is now over – although we could have continued for many more months. For the last few weeks, we’ve been concentrating on putting together a guide to future researchers looking at children’s lives during the First World War and this will be launched at our event on 11th March (1.30-4.30) at the Library of Birmingham.  Volunteers will be speaking about their findings on aspects of children’s lives such as education, nursery provision, children in care, and Belgian refugees. There will be a chance to see some of the original archive materials we have used and some film footage too.

And as children have been the focus of our project they’ve not been forgotten in our event planning. There will be a children’s trail starting from the Children’s Library up to Level Four and First World War themed craft activities on offer.  We even have a choir who will be serenading Library visitors with some popular tunes of the time.

Admission is free and there will be a timetable of activities available on the day giving full details of times and locations.


Semaphore Signalling with the Scouts

Some of the Birmingham Children of War volunteers have just spent a couple of evenings working with the Cole Valley South 220th Scout Troop based in Moseley.  In the first session we shared our knowledge of the types of activities that Birmingham Scouts were engaged with during the First World War. Today’s scouts were impressed with the range of tasks and how much responsibility young people were given.  As a practical activity, we then made semaphore flags and made an attempt at starting to learn the semaphore alphabet. On the second evening, the activities gave the scouts the opportunity to re-visit the semaphore alphabet, to practise a couple of message sends/receives and perform a final relay of messages.  The evening ended with a true/false quiz based on the information about scouting in Birmingham from the first week. Those young, receptive minds did well!


Uniformed organisations on the Home Front

Alongside women, children in Birmingham made an important contribution to war work on the home front.  Much of this activity was channelled through schools but older children, in particular, participated as members of uniformed organisations providing practical assistance to the British war effort.  

Following the publication of ‘Scouting for Boys’ in 1907, the Birmingham Association of Scouts was formed in 1908 with a membership of 1000, and by the end of 1916 there were more than 7000 Scouts in the Birmingham District.

Boy Scouts carried messages for local government offices and guarded important places, such as railway bridges, and telephone and telegraph lines.

Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)
Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)

They learnt to send semaphore messages using small flags and by 1917 Scouts were also watching the skies for Zeppelin attacks and sounding their bugles to signal when an air raid was over.  Birmingham Boy Scouts undertook ‘valuable work as Sea Scouts on coast-watching duties’; they were sent to vulnerable coastal locations on the East and South coasts with Whitby being the largest station manned by a Birmingham contingent.  A Sea Scout writes to his old scout master and this is printed in the monthly newsletter of St Paul’s Birmingham describing his experiences:

‘serving my country by guarding telegraph wires … also stop anyone sketching or taking photographs around the coast. We haven’t seen any Zeppelins yet, but we heard them a few nights back.  We are in a house (20 are Birmingham chaps) it is our own and we do our own cooking, and we scrub it from top to bottom twice a week: we also named it ourselves’.

Sea Scout Arthur Walters, Birmingham House, Windsor Terrace, Whitby, Yorks.  

Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop
Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop

Many scouts went on to join the armed forces and a list of scouts compiled in 1910 by the 1st Edwardian (Aston) troop is annotated in a final column headed ‘killed or decorated’; a poignant record indeed.

1910 saw the establishment of the Girl Guide Association in the UK under the leadership of Agnes Baden-Powell, sister of Robert, the Scouting founder. Girl Guides took on many roles:  they packaged up clothing and foodstuffs to send to British soldiers at the front and provided assistance at hospitals, canteens and in munition factories. ‘An ounce of help is worth a pound of pity’; a philosophy expressed in a newspaper when describing the practical help provided by Girl Guides at a local hospital.

The Boys Brigade was founded in 1883 in Glasgow by William Alexander Smith as an interdenominational youth organisation conceived to combine drill and physical activities

10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915
10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915

with Christian values.  Just six years later, in 1889, the brigade had its first company in Birmingham at Camp Hill Presbyterian church.  The Birmingham Daily Post of January 1915 records a Boys Brigade bazaar displaying a patriotic exhibition of the work of the league with 50% of the profits going to the Prince of Wales’s Relief Fund.  In September 1918 the annual conference reports that several members have qualified for the National Service Badge, awarded for not less than 100 hours service to the community.

Newspapers of the period provide tantalising glimpses of the activities of these young people but relatively little detail emerges.  As many troops were associated with churches and chapels in the city then the records of individual religious institutions are likely to provide more specific information. The uniformed organisations themselves hold their own archives.

Alison Smith

Zeppelin Lessons

There was a new lesson on the school curriculum in February 1916 – what to do in the event of a Zeppelin raid. The official advice was to go home, turn out the lights and hide under the stairs or “take to your cellars” in the words of the Chief Constable.

Zeppelins could fly at up to 85 miles an hour and carried incendiary and high explosive bombs but navigation was difficult and the crews were badly affected by cold and lack of armoured-pram-picture-world-5th-feb-1916oxygen at height. Although the raids had no significant military impact the psychological impact on civilians was huge as shown by this image that appeared in Picture World in the same month.


Unlike many other cities Birmingham, realising that the munitions factories made it a prime target, had brought in air-raid precautions before they were attacked. As early in the war as November 1914 the use of external lights for advertising purposes was banned, street lamps were shaded, skylights were covered at night and lighting in trams and buses was dimmed. By February 1915 anti-aircraft guns were in place and the Birmingham Watch Committee banned all public lighting except at street corners and in the event of a raid this would be extinguished too. If Zeppelins were spotted approaching the city the police would tell factories to sound a 5 note “Cock-a-doodle-do” on their sirens or steam whistles, all workplaces and places of entertainments would close and public transport would stop. There were no public air raid shelters and people were urged to return home as the darkness and shrapnel from the shells made the streets a very dangerous place to be.

These precautions were proved effective on the night of January 31st 1916 when one of the heaviest raids of the war left 35 people dead in Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall including at least 8 children. The L21 Zeppelin responsible had got lost in the fog looking zeppelin-raid-over-black-countryfor Liverpool and saw the lights of the Black Country towns through a gap in the clouds. Meanwhile the L19 Zeppelin spent the night searching in vain for Birmingham before finally dropping its bombs in the same area but without any fatalities.

The Library of Birmingham archives contain the memoirs of Norman Hickin who was growing up in Handsworth at the time of the raids and saw a Zeppelin pass overhead. He wrote

“The amazing thing was to watch it cross over the sky lit up by twenty or so searchlights, but it was not possible to do a thing about it……As it passed over Handsworth everyone came out of their houses to see it, watch and comment in awed whispers. Up until that time I had never seen so many people in the road. The fact that it carried a load of bombs and was ready to drop them did not appear to worry anyone. Then it disappeared and we all went indoors and I went back to bed.”

Moseley Road School logbook on February 4 1916 (S273/2/1/3) recorded children absent from school because of the Zeppelin raid and this may have been the case in other schools across the city.  There would have been fears of return visits and children would have seen earlier images of raids on London and coastal towns of the North East.

War reporting was subject to Government issued D-notices and reports of the January 31st raid didn’t appear in Picture World until February 10th and referred only to “devastation in a Midland town”. However the delay gave the advertising team time to drum up some new custom!

Birmingham escaped again on October 19th 1917 when a Zeppelin was unable to find the city centre and a bomb it dropped on the brightly lit Austin works at Longbridge did little damage. On April 12th 1918 two 500-pound bombs were dropped over Hall Green but again little damage was done and there was no loss of life.

Marian Hall


Local History for Great Wyrley and Surrounding Areas

WW1 in the Vale

Working together to uncover Pershore's Home Front history

The Trickster Prince

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Birmingham Children of War

A project exploring the lived experiences of children born or living through the First World War in Birmingham, England

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