The 21st November 1974
I wasn’t alive in 1974. I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes. But as a born and bred Brummie, I’ve always known the Birmingham Pub Bombings hold a unique place in the city’s history. 40 years on, it’s still Birmingham’s darkest day.
I’ve spent a few weeks scouring social media for people who were in town on the night of November 21st 1974, as part of a special documentary for BBC WM. I was amazed by the response.
I had messages from people who were in the Mulberry Bush or the Tavern in the Town when the bombs went off. I heard from police and firefighters who examined the wreckage and recovered the bodies. I spoke to friends and family of some of the 21 mainly young people who died that night.
It was clear that many of them had never spoken of their experiences that night and I got a sense that by writing to me, they were somehow letting go of something that had affected them deeply. Dozens more people got in touch with stories of near misses, of deciding not to go out at the last minute, of merciful fate.
My parents fall in to the latter category; both 19 at the time, they decided to go straight home rather than have a quick drink in town. For me, knowing that they could have been in one of those pubs that night has given this project a far greater emotional resonance; a twist of fate that could have ended so differently.
With all that in mind, it’s been an honour as well as a sobering experience to strip away the near mythical status the bombings now hold in our consciousness and delve in to the lives of people who witnessed first-hand the horror that unfolded 40 years ago.
One of the first people to email me was Pat Bentley. Pat’s best friend Jane Davis was 17 when she died in the Tavern in the Town.
Fighting back the tears, she told me: “She was lovely, a really special girl, and anybody that knew her would say that. In her short life she probably achieved more than a lot of people have achieved in their lifetime.”
Pat was supposed to meet Jane that night to look at photos of a recent grape picking trip to France. She pulled out at the last minute: “The Tavern was a Thursday night thing. We’d been to school and Jane had said we’re going to go to the Tavern. I said I’m not sure if I want to go, I don’t think I can face it. And that was it, I didn’t go.”
Sat at home, she had a phone call that would change everything: “It was this lad asking if Jane was with me. I told him she’s at The Tavern. He told me some bombs had gone off in town. He had a car, so he drove over to my house, we picked up Jane’s Dad Arthur, and we just thought we’d drive in to town to see if we can see her. It was a needle in a haystack but we couldn’t just sit and do nothing.”
They drove around until 3am. Jane never came home. “We sat on the Coventry Road waiting to see if she’d walk out, in whatever state. And of course she never came out. So we went home and I think I knew then she wasn’t going to come out.”
40 years on it’s clear Pat is still deeply affected by what happened. She told me she’s sad she let her friend down, but another death wouldn’t have achieved anything. Clearly emotional, she told me: “It wasn’t my turn. I always feel like she’s with me anyway. So for me she didn’t die”.
Les Robinson was probably yards away from Jane Davis in the Tavern in the Town. He’d just lost a game of Pong to his friend Steve when he felt the blast. “To say it was a bang doesn’t do it justice. It was a noise that filled everything. I remember doing a half somersault and hitting the wall”.
Unaware it was a bomb, Les tried to crawl out of the wreckage: “All my hair had been burned off, I had shrapnel under my arm pits, my sweater had melted to my shoulder. I had big bags of fluid all across my hand, I looked a bit like E.T. with the glowing fingers”.
“I always remember my father saying to me, ‘If you’re ever in trouble, tell me’. I always remember clearly the thought came in to my head ‘Dad I’m in trouble’, so I thought I’ve got to go and tell him”.
He managed to get out of the pub where, with no ambulances left, he started to walk home to Nechells. “No one helped me. I’d go 10 yards then fall over. I can remember using parking meters for balance. I saw my friend come running towards me; he was going to town because his girlfriend’s sister was also in the Tavern. He looked at me and just carried on. He later described me as looking like a monster”.
Les was injured but he recovered. He’d broken up with his girlfriend Roz the week before, and she was in The Tavern that night as well. It brought them back together: “If not for the Tavern, I wouldn’t have had the wonderful life I’ve had. We built on from the worries and concerns we had for each other. 18 months later we were engaged and on August 6th 1977 we were married. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The bombings pushed the emergency services to breaking point. More than 1,000 police officers were at Birmingham Airport where the body of IRA sympathiser James McDade was due to be flown back to Belfast, after blowing himself up in Coventry the week before. Officers dashed back to the city centre when news of the bombs spread.
Eric Noble was sent from the airport to the Mulberry Bush. “It was dark, it was eerie, it was quiet, like a war scene. Glass was everywhere on the ground. All the injured had been taken away, it was basically dead bodies and body parts remaining.”
It was gruesome, grizzly work. But it had to be done. “For the next couple of hours, we ferried the body parts and bodies and took them to the mortuary at Newton Street. I just got on with it.”
At the end of his shift, Eric and his colleagues went for a drink at an Irish pub in Digbeth, where the landlord was devastated by what had happened. “It’s the way we used to deal with things, by having a drink”, he told me. “I remember going home afterwards and crying. My wife would say years later it was the only time she’d ever seen me cry.”
Alan Hill was the first fireman on the scene of the Tavern in the Town bombing. He’d heard the blast as his fire engine rounded the corner of New Street, going the wrong way down Corporation Street to save time. He was responsible for rounding up local taxi drivers to take the injured to nearby hospitals.
He summed up to me the impact the bombings had on the city: “They’d blown the heart out of the city. And you could just sense that things were not going to be the same again for many many years.”
It’s clear that, 40 years on, the pub bombings still has a profound impact on Brummies who remember it. There were months, perhaps years, of anti-Irish sentiment. Young people didn’t go in to town for fear it would happen again. And in the last few years, some of the victims’ families have started to push for answers, to find out why their loved ones were murdered and why no one has been brought to justice. Some believe there’s been a police cover up, a conspiracy. Others just want to move on with their lives. Either way, the spectre of that night, 40 years ago, still lives on in the hearts and minds of those ordinary Brummies whose lives were changed forever.
Feature image © The Birmingham Mail
James Bovill is a producer and reporter for BBC WM 95.6. He’s produced “The Birmingham Pub Bombings: 40 Years On”, which is being broadcast at 8pm on BBC WM 95.6, online at bbc.co.uk/wm and will be available via listen again.