Life as a Wolverhampton railway youngster during the dark days of war

One day, when he was six years old, Malcolm Walford came out of school to find his mother in a state of deep distress.

Wednesfield railway station
Wednesfield railway station

"When my mum picked me up from school, she was crying, and so were the women porters at the station," recalls Malcolm, who is 88.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just declared war on Hitler's Germany, and now the nation was waiting nervously to find what this would mean for everyone.

"I could not understand what was going on, but a few months later I would understand why everyone was upset."

Up until that time, young Malcolm had enjoyed a carefree, idyllic life at Wednesfield railway station, where his father Len worked as a signalman. He would while the hours away watching the railway horses being brushed down by the draymen, the steel-rimmed wheels of the delivery trucks clattering on the cobbles.

Passenger services at Wednesfield had ceased a few years earlier, but the station had continued to operate as a goods depot, and would become increasingly busy as the war got going.

Malcolm's first memory of the war was that of his father assembling an Anderson shelter.

"My dad and a couple of other men helped him dig a large hole opposite the house we lived in on platform two, then the shelter was bolted together once in the hole, then the whole thing was covered with soil, just leaving a small entrance to get in the shelter," he says.

"My dad then made some wooden bunk beds and some steps down into the shelter. Little did I think we were going to live in this shelter for some years to come."

Malcolm Walford

A number of important factories were located around the station, including Weldless Steel Tube, Wolverhampton Metal Company, Brockhouse Castings, Jenks & Cattell, and Wednesfield Radiator Company. Mander's paint store was also nearby, although this soon moved to a safer location, allowing the Auxiliary Fire Service to take over the site which was more convenient should any fires break out.

"When I was ill with asthma, I used to go and sit with the signalman in Wednesfield signal box, and I was allowed to pull the levers," he says.

"I remember one railway van being shunted and it was full of old alarm clocks and they all started going off. The driver and the firemen were quite amused. the clocks were going to be melted down for the war effort."

One day Malcolm's curiosity landed him in some hot water, though, when he came close to putting the family at risk of losing their home.

"One day a special goods train arrived at the station with quite a few wagons and vans attached," he remembers.

"My brother Norman and I were told it was an old warship HMS Warspite which was going for scrap.

"Well, one Sunday when it was quiet, my brother and I went and had a look in one of the vans and it was full of brass gauges and brass wheels. The temptation was too much for us and we took a gauge and a wheel."

Wednesfield railway station before it was demolished

The pair quickly regretted their actions when their father found out.

"We were both told off in plain English," says Malcolm.

"Dad was working for the LMS Railway and he could have got the sack, which also meant we could have been kicked out of the station house.

"Midnight came, and dad put both items into a bag, took them over to platform two, and buried them.

"We never got into trouble after this, dad and mum were very strict with us, we should have known better. Mind you, the brass wheel and gauge would be worth a fortune now."

Nights in the air-raid shelter were a regular occurrence.

"My mum would make sandwiches about 6pm, ready to take them to the shelter, generally by 7pm, once the air-raid siren sounded," says Malcolm.

"There were quite a few bombs that fell on Wednesfield, Willenhall and Walsall. The air-raid shelter was lit by candles and a sack was hung over the entrance to stop the lights from being seen."

One of the perils the youngsters faced was crossing the line to reach the shelter, as during the war years trains were only allowed to show small oil lamps.

"One night we had a very lucky escape we had just got to the shelter when a goods train came roaring through the station," he says.

A Spitfire crashed into part of a house in Lichfield Road, Wednesfield in 1942

But while Malcolm, his brother and mother were allowed to shelter during the raids, his father Len had no such luxury. As a railwayman he was required to carry on working, in order to keep the railways running.

"My dad never missed going to work at Bushbury or Heath Town signal boxes during an air raid. The signalmen were not allowed to leave their posts, neither were train drivers, firemen or guards, they had to stay at their posts," says Malcolm.

"Once, when dad was biking along the canal towpath to work to get his post at Heath Town signal box, he heard a bomb coming down and he dived for cover.

"Then he heard a dull thud, the bomb had fallen into the canal, but had not exploded. Dad got up, found his pushbike and reported it to the police at Heath Town police station. He then reported for duty at the signal box."

Looking back, Malcolm says he is full of admiration for the courage of the railwaymen, many who gave their lives during the war.

"Hitler started dropping parachute mines, these came floating down, no noise, until they hit the ground or buildings," he says.

"One of dad's best mates, who was also a signalman, was killed when a landmine hit his signal box. I was told that his body was never found, still my dad went to work.

"We have a lot to thank all those people for, for keeping the railways running, all the coal which had to go to factories to keep the furnaces burning."

Malcolm also remembers the infamous Lancaster bomber crash, which came down on a nearby farm during the dying days of the war. Seven airmen were killed in the crash, off Lichfield Road, on May 17, 1945. The scene of the crash was close to that of another accident in which a Spitfire on a test flight flew into a house in 1942.

"Dad and I were out on the station yard and we saw the Lancaster on fire, then no more," he says. "My dad got on his bike to go to the crash site to help the fire service. My dad was a trained first-aider and had been in the St John's Ambulance for a long while."

Malcolm, who now lives in Pershore, says that he and his brother had a good life at the station house, although the war years were tough, particularly for their parents.

Today Wednesfield is but a memory, a new road running through the site of where the house and the platforms were.

But there is one detail Malcolm is still curious about.

"I wonder if during the excavations for the new road, anyone uncovered those brass items my dad buried on platform two?"

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