The Pals by Matt Weston
Today has been nice, a chance to catch up with my oldest friends on a yearly tradition known simply to us as ‘The Jolly Boys Outing’.
Every year all three of us try to find the time to take a stroll around the city visiting some of the excellent ale houses Birmingham has to offer. From ‘The Old Joint Stock’ on Temple Row West to ‘The Wellington’ on Bennetts Hill, I now find myself in a public house that holds something of a deeper interest to myself and a place where the past speaks to those willing to listen…
Nestled on the corner of Edmund Street, lying close to Snow Hill station, sits a public house with an interesting and poignant past. Many who have taken refreshment within its walls over the years will have little knowledge of it’s history or the significance of the 1914 sign that hangs over it’s door.
‘The Old Contemptibles’ as it is named now, rests on the site of the Adelphi Wine Vaults, which was built in the later part of the 18th Century. In around 1880, William Hale redeveloped the entire site as ‘The Albion Hotel’.
The 1914 Star (Or ‘Mons Star’ as it is often referred to) is a bronze campaign medal awarded to those servicemen who entered world war one with service in either France or Belgium between 5th August and 23rd November 1914. It is a representation of the Mons Star that hangs outside the Old Contemptibles bearing the pubs name; this being a phrase used by Kaiser Wilhelm to describe Britain’s relatively small military force at that time.
Of course, in Birmingham’s case, a large number of its population who volunteered in answer to General Kitchener’s call to arms were drafted into The Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It is estimated that in the region of 150,000 Birmingham men enlisted during the conflict, with some 12,422 losing their lives. Further more, over 36,000 returned home disabled in some capacity.
At the end of WW1, it appears that local ex-servicemen set up a branch of the ‘Old Contemptibles Association’ and chose the public house (Then The Albion Hotel) as their meeting place. The association was founded in June 25th 1925 and it’s height, consisted of 178 branches within the UK and 13 overseas.
The brewers’ Mitchells and Butlers’ finally renamed the Albion Hotel to ‘The Old Contemptibles’ as a tribute to their bravery in 1953.
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment consisted of many battalions, but in the case of Birmingham, the 14th, 15th & 16th (Service) battalions were often referred to as ‘Pals’ or ‘Chums’ battalions; recruited from local factories, foundries, offices and shops with co-workers enlisting together.
Recruiting offices opened up all over the city, from Curzon Hall in Suffolk Street, Birmingham Municipal Technical School, to the Birmingham Museum in Chamberlain Square, with local employers such as Mitchells and Butlers and Dunlop promising to both keep jobs open and make up the difference in wages to army pay to those employees who enlisted under the kings colours. Acts like this certainly helped the military machine to reach the target of 500,000 that had been requested by General Kitchener.
Being close to Snow Hill station, the Old Contemptibles would have been one of the last ale houses that Birmingham men could have taken the opportunity to visit before boarding trains for their journey to the front.
As I sit here, looking into the bottom of my glass, I wonder if my own family members would have passed through here, sharing one last drink with their fellow soldiers before departing on a journey, that for most, would be worse than Hell. My own Great Uncles on my Father’s side, brothers William Henry and Richard Hiram enlisted in The Royal Warwickshire regiment at the outbreak of world war 1 and were amongst the first to see enemy action in 1914 – both brothers serving together in the same battalion.
William Henry Weston was born on the 4th March 1885 in Tipton Road, Rowley Regis. On the 1911 census he is shown as being from a family of iron galvanizing workers, typical of the area. His brother, Richard Hiram, born later on the 7th June 1894 in Dudley Port, Tipton, were both sons of Thomas Weston and Louisa Deakin.
William Henry enlisted in Birmingham with The Warwicks, 1st Battalion and was assigned the regimental number 9798. His brother Richard, also 1st battalion, serving under number 1897. Both brothers’ war ended on the same day, 26th August 1914. Richard Hiram, whilst attacking German positions, saw his brother fall and when trying to get to him (an offence often punishable by firing squad) was shot down through the shoulder and invalided. His military index card states he was issued silver wound badge number L\868. Sadly William Henry’s remains were never found.
William Henry is now commemorated on the ‘La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre’ memorial in France, along with over 3700 British and Irish soldiers who fell in battle in this area during August, September and early October 1914. The memorial is often referred to as the memorial to the ‘Missing of the Marne’
So, if you ever find yourself walking down Edmund Street, or as you walk along the gangway off Snow Hill Station, take time to stop and take in the look of this beautiful old building. Adorned in the summer months with a collection of hanging baskets that burst with colour, to the characteristic charm of the wooden bar and interior fitments. Now a Nicholson’s free house, a large selection of real ales are on offer, along with bar meals – a popular lunchtime destination for many city workers from the nearby offices. I’m sure if it’s walls could talk, there would be many intriguing tales it could tell to those enjoying it’s surroundings. Try above all, to give a thought to all those local men that left from here, some never to return to their beloved Birmingham…