Albert Townsend of Tanner’s Close is well known for his outgoing personality and running the resident choir at the scheme. He spoke to me about his life starting at age fourteen when he began an engineering apprenticeship, later joined the army, owned a business and started a career in singing. Here is the story in his words:

I was born in 1924 and left school at fourteen, it was 1938 at the time, in those days everybody was out of work and people don’t realise that today. I knew families that were absolutely starving, that would be unbelievable today but nobody cared, when you were out of work, that was it, you went on the dole and would get ten shillings or fifty pence a week. Things were cheaper back then but you wouldn’t get very far on that amount of money, potatoes were four pence a pound. Rabbits in those days were a poor man’s chicken, many people couldn’t afford it, so some people caught and ate cooked rabbits, to buy one it’d be six pence.

Everybody was hungry, so you were glad of a job, when I left school I got a job at an engineering company, working forty-nine hours a week for, wait for it… fifty pence or ten shillings. I was lucky to get the job, I didn’t do well in school but I realised there was a lot to learn after leaving and I was a conscientious worker. School was like a sausage machine, getting pushed through lessons and glad to be gotten rid of on Friday. This was an indentured apprenticeship meaning I signed up for five years, wanting to guarantee my employment, my dad and I went to the office of the company and signed my apprenticeship. This was a very important part of my life, since it meant we wouldn’t starve.

The engineering company said to me “If we’re going to teach you this for five years and you pass, we’ll give you a degree”, they were tied up with the universities so after serving the apprenticeship, I had a Bachelors of Science from Aston University. I had to attend night classes during the apprenticeship of course.

When the War started in 1939 everyone had to put their shoulder to the wheel, so as well as going to night school twice a week, the auxiliary fire service which was made up of civilians, basically part-time firemen. I wanted to do “my bit” as people would say, I asked if they could find me a part-time job on evenings or weekends, they asked how old I was and I replied “Eighteen”, while I was actually sixteen. They took me in the yard and said “Can you ride one of these?”, it was a motorbike, I said I could and they replied “right you’re a dispatch rider. They kitted me out with everything”, they said “Take the bike home, you’re going to look after it, keep it clean and have it ready for instant use”. Everybody was doing whatever they could when the war started. I’d never driven a motorbike before, but I pushed it home and over the weekend learnt to drive it, I fell off three times and hit a wall! There was no damage fortunately.

The day after I graduated from my apprenticeship, I went to join the army. So many of my pals that I knew as a boy had joined the forces, either the RAF or Royal Navy. I went to Dale End in the Birmingham city centre where the recruiting office was, got in the queue, ready to sign up and when I got to the desk, the Sergeant asked for my occupation, I said “I just finished an apprenticeship”, he said “That’s a reserved occupation, we can’t take you.” So I went back the next day, got in the queue and he said to me “What’s your occupation?”, I said “A plumber’s mate”, he told me to sign a form and I was in. From there I did twelve weeks training in Northern Ireland and then got posted to India.

Albert in his army days

I found myself on a boat and don’t forget there were German submarines about, we had to take the long way round Africa to get to there and it took a month! Upon arriving I was posted to Bombay (now known as Mumbai), did some more training there and was sent to Sri Lanka, they had just formed a new unit that were combat engineers. When a tank, anti-aircraft gun or anything else was put out of action, they were loaded up on one of our wagons and the nearest base was about thirty miles away. They had the idea of a mobile workshop, everything would go on lorries, lathes, shaping machines, any machinery that could help. Taken just behind the front line, repaired and put back again, that saved days of travelling, it was called “25th Advanced Base Workshop”, I served with that unit in India, Burma, Malaya and even Singapore.

I progressed in that unit, engineering wise and finished up as Sargent Major, but at the same time, I had to learn how to use a rifle, how to march and all the usual things. You’re a soldier first and an engineer second, so I did very well with that unit.

Towards the end of The War, an invasion force was assembled at Madras, Southern India, the force was almost as big as D-Day. I was sent there as part of the force to attack Malaysia, the Japanese were stationed there at the time and we going there to grab it back again. An amazing thing happened, the invasion force had already sailed to attack Malaysia and would take ten days to get there, but the Americans dropped the atom bomb, it was so terrible that they sent a surrender from their headquarters in Tokyo.

After the War I left the army and met my wife, that was in 1947, so we’ve been married for sixty nine years now. I retired at age seventy after owning a business for fifty years which I passed onto my son. After a while I got bored and decided to start singing cabaret, I went to nightclubs, golf clubs and private clubs, I had a singing partner for five years too.

I’m looking forward to my ninety fourth birthday in July, being retired, everyday is a Sunday.

Albert Townsend – Tanner’s Close Residents