Michael Byrne

Good morning, my name’s Deborah Norrey and I’m working on the History at Hobsmoor Project. Today’s date is Tuesday…
… the twenty-fourth of October 2017 and I’m here with Michael Byrne. Mike, can you please tell me your name, date of birth and where you were born?
Ah, name’s Mike Byrne, I was born in Nottingham, on the eighth of November 1950.
So can you tell me, did you grow up in Nottingham?
Er, yeah. Erm, I left there to come to university in Birmingham and I’ve been here nearly half a century.
[Chuckling]. So when you moved to Birmingham, Mike, where did you, where did you live?
Well, initially, in, in student accommodation and then I went on a year abroad, ‘cause I was studying languages. And then I went into a house with some friends, er, in my final year.
And when you finished your, your degree, where did you move on to then?
Well, erm, I went to do a, a post-grad in Essex and then came back to Birmingham to find a job. Erm, all my friends were here, I couldn’t see the point in, you know, going somewhere like London or whatever. So I came back here, erm, got a room in a house with friends and started looking for something to do.
And did you find anything?
Er, yeah. In those days, it was possible, like I did, to, go into the central library and say, ‘Got any jobs?’ er, get an interview and get, and be started in a job in less than a… few weeks. Which is exactly what happened to me, so I suppose I was very lucky. And, er, I started working at Hall Green Library… in 1974… and er, that was the beginning of a… career which lasted nearly forty years.
So you eventually moved, I believe, to South Yardley Library?
Yes, I did.
Can you tell me how you got to South Yardley Library?
Well, they were having one of these re-organisations in the late 1980s, erm, prompted by, reduced money and also different ideas on how, er, people… how the service should be managed and developed. And, erm, I got the job of librarian at South Yardley Library in 1989. [Draws breath] I’d worked before that, er, for eight years, at, at Hall Green Library, and er, well, I’d have been quite happy to carry on there, erm, you know, familiarity and all that. Erm… they tended to feel it was, it was good for you to have a new challenge and, uh, it certainly was a challenge and a very interesting one, as well, to go and work there.
So can you tell me what, what it was like when you started at the library? How it was different to working at Hall Green?
Oh, yeah. Well, Hall Green, at that time, it was very sort of homogeneous, erm, clientele, erm… very educated, very demanding… erm, you knew how to serve them. But South Yardley… was very different. There was such a range of people there, erm, and… it, it was so interesting, working with, uh, uh, [ph] the people that came in. They… were interested in working as volunteers, erm, they were interested in developing community activities in the room. And they were such nice people. And, er, you know, we did manage to get a few things going, er, in the library, during the four years that I w, was there. And I found it incredibly rewarding, working with the population, o, of Yardley.
Can you describe what the library looked like when you started working there?
Well, it’s had some money spent on it, [lets out breath] er, since then, you know, it’s been carpeted and so on. It, it was one of these very traditional, wooden libraries, wooden floors, high wooden presses, er, with the emphasis on… erm, making available books. I remember there was, erm, quite a large area devoted to, erm… music scores. Uh, uh, all the libraries had specialised in… particular areas and South Yardley specialised in art history and in also, also in music. And so there were all these fantastic scores that, er, you could borrow and you could play Mozart piano concertos, transcribed for the piano and this sort of thing. Erm… there were really good collections of art books as well. But it was… it, it, it was a beautifully-designed library, you know, the, the, the bookshelves were on this, sort of, radial design [draws breath] but they took up most of the space. [Swallows] And when you think what it looks like now, some of these long runs of, shelving have been taken out to provide, different kinds of things to do – sit at comfortable tables, sit in comfortable chairs, reading newspapers. It wasn’t like that, when I started there, it was much more, traditional. And there were… two rooms as well. Erm, you used to have a magazine room and a newspaper room in the times when the library, first opened. But, er, one of these was occupied by an Asian languages service for, for the whole city and the other one, had just been converted into a community room. Well, that was, er, exactly what I wanted, for that room. And there were events in there, like the local history society and one of the early coffee mornings, as well, which is still going and, and so’s the l, local history society. And in fact you, Debbie, erm, played a fantastic role in, erm, developing that while you were at the library.
Thank you, [chuckles]. So wh, while you were there… other than like, the, the community groups growing up, what other changes did you see?
Well, we started, erm, a, mu, music, actually, played quite a large role in it. You know, unfortunately, after a while, the use of these, erm, piano transcriptions tailed off because, you know, people weren’t… learning how to do that sort of thing anymore and… mm, we actually sold a few of them off, erm… and then we started on music cassettes. Erm… we then had Birmingham’s ‘year of music’ – 1992, I think it was. And, er, loads of people came to the concerts that were arranged at South Yardley. And the Head of Music then, John Gough [ph], said, ‘Oh, you can’t let this stop now. I’ll help you, start a concert series at the library’, so we did. Erm, we started concerts in 1993… ah, I remember we had, erm, nearly 150 people for one concert and the people were out sitting in the hallway, there were so many of them. The response from the community was brilliant to those sorts of activities. So… gradually the, the library was moving to, if you like, a bit more of a comprehensive role, being somewhere where people could, do things together, erm… improve their lives through culture, in the library building… erm, borrow wider range of materials, like music cassettes. And we had some fun as well because some people decided that they, wanted to keep the music cassettes that we had bought for borrowing and they came up with all sorts of clever wheezes, like… erm, getting some tatty music cassette from somewhere, and, erm, transferring labels, and then returning the duff one and keeping the good one. You know, they couldn’t even be bothered to record them themselves, they just wanted to steal the original. And we had lots of fun with people like that.
[Pause]. Children, erm, came in from schools. Working with kids has always been such an important part. You know, getting them to love books, to be familiar with books. And, you know, for some, erm, parts of the, the catchment area, this wasn’t something that was… engrained in the, i, in the way they’d been brought up. So the library was, some, something that could… work alongside the school in giving people better life chances. [Pause]. You know, er, I found… the area quite thrilling. When I walked up and saw the curvy office block on the other side, and the, er, Swan Centre and the underpass, at first… I thought it was a very, very exciting place. It was only early, uh, well, only after, erm, a year or so that I, became more disillusioned about crossing over the road, going past the smell of piss in the, erm… in the underpass and thinking, ‘Well, this is actually quite a threatening place at certain times’. And I learnt that when the Coventry Road was widened, erm, South Yardley Library lost a third of its business because a barrier had been put in its way. Er, before, you could shop on the other side and just walk across and, it was relatively easy to do so. And, erm… putting that highway, that race track, as it became, through South Yardley, erm, did create a huge barrier. And, when I got there, a couple of local history projects had, erm, just, uh, been undertaken. When they widened Coventry Road, they took out half the shops in Hay Mills. Now, Hay Mills had been in a, a very, very, vibrant shopping centre. I think one woman was interviewed and said, ‘If you can’t buy it in Hay Mills, it’s not worth having’. Something on, something like that. And so people had, erm, been really upset about their heritage disappearing and, erm, a lady called Sheila Fowler, erm, got some money from, er, the Manpower Services Commission, to use unemployed people to do a local history project. And loads of people came forward with postcards and photographs and so on, and memories, erm… the Hay Mills Project turned into quite a good book, erm… written by members of the, erm, project. And there were hundreds of photographs of Hay Mills. Also, couple of years later, they decided to do a Yardley project, a widely, wider Yardley project. I mean, there wasn’t any particular risk of, of Yardley being destroyed, if you see what I mean? But, erm, nevertheless, they did the same thing again and collected hundreds more. So, although the library had an excellent local history, collection when I arrived there, erm, it was a little bit on the dry side. You know, photocopies of documents and so on but all these photographs that, er, er, turned up since then suddenly gave an opportunity to… erm, look at local history in a, you know, in, in a more interesting way. You know what they say, ‘A picture speaks a thousand words’. So, I, I got interested in, erm, making these available to a wider audience. Erm, and at the same time, the previous librarian, Martin Flynn [ph], had started a publishing programme, er, photographic histories of Birmingham suburbs. And he came to me and he said, ‘Well, you know, you’re the librarian… erm, you, you’ve got the photographs downstairs, d’you wanna do one of the books?’ So, I, erm, collected 200 pictures from the project and also from the collection in the Central Library… and I did one of the first group of these, erm, photographic histories of, of Birmingham suburbs. And they were really, really popular and they carried on being published for years afterwards. So yes, it… erm… I was able to… extend the kind of things that were happening at the library, make it seem to be a more exciting place. We did all sorts of daft things, like having a holiday information fair in January. We went to, er, the NEC, brought… haversacks full or rucksacks full of, erm, brochures back and, er, I seem to remember we were photographed in deckchairs, er, on the frontage of the library with knotted handkerchiefs in January, for the local papers. You know, we did sort of silly things like that but it all seemed to make the library more interesting to people, you know, the… the, the people here are not predictable, th, you know, that they, they might be offering us something a bit more interesting. And that’s the, the kind of thing that’s, was starting to happen in lots of libraries in Birmingham at the time so I was lucky to go… er, to South Yardley at a time when, there was this kind of movement to make them more than places where books were stored and books were, were lent out.
And this would’ve been, like the pre-computer era… yes?
Well, we were getting computers for issuing and discharging books. So the, erm… the, the, old card, card-based stuff was on its way out. And they didn’t, the computers didn’t really work, erm, very well for us at that time, it was a bit clunky compared to now. But it was such a different world to… what libraries are like now, where, the, erm… a lot of the space is act, actually taken up with, with PCs and people, er, spending hours, on them, either doing social media and some people are running their own business from, computers in the library. Erm… [draws breath] it, erm, was, er… you didn’t know who you were gonna get there, erm, using the computers. If I may tell, tell you a story about Acocks Green and how we, um…. Some very striking, tall Russian women came into, Acocks Green and, er, a very threatening, very large, erm, tough-looking man was showing them how to use the computers. And I immediately realised that these were prostitutes and he was t, er, telling them how to sort out their bookings on the library computers. Well, this was really quite something. Erm, in fact, it didn’t last very long. I think they went somewhere else, maybe got their own laptops or something after a while. But that was definitely what was going on. So, introducing computers in the library has brought some very big changes. It’s also… [draws breath] meant that the staff have had to know a lot more. You know, when, when you start introducing these, er, community activities… it, it’s a good idea if the staff are somehow involved with them, in the organisation of the groups. It’s important, in some ways, to be involved in those, particularly if the group’s doing something which you can see is part of the library purpose, for example, like local history or s, type, types of artistic, er, or cultural, events. So you’ve gotta have staff who can do that. You’ve gotta have staff who can… erm… talk to people, jolly them along, keep them volunteering, this sort of thing. You, you then needed staff to, erm… be able to show people how to use computers. Erm… we, we’d reached a situation where people coming out of school knew a hell of a lot more than most of the library staff about how to use computers and when they came, with a question, we were stumped. And… i, if you like, that’s just an, another development of this idea of, of having a wider range of skills amongst, erm, library assistants. You know, people used to think that you could go and hide in the corner, er, if you went to work in the library but it was nothing like that. You were actually very busy, you were on your feet most of the time, you could be asked anything by anybody at any time. Erm, you could have disruptive people, aggressive people, erm, vulnerable people coming in an, any time of the day. You might have to stop fights, erm… you might be dealing with people who were trying to steal things, there were safety issues with the presence of children and adults in the library. Erm, you know, it was [lets out breath]… not the sort of job where you could be a shrinking violet. Mm, that wasn’t what you needed. A, I, was, er, phoned up by somebody who wanted a job in the library and they said, ‘Oh, I’m doing, erm, a post-graduate. Can I, er, do some of my res, research during the job?’ And I said, ‘No. While you’re being paid, you do what we want’. But, you know, the attitude that people had towards working in a library, they had no idea, no idea what we had to do.
No, no. So while you were at South Yardley, in your four years, did you see, a c, a, a change in the customers, in the borrowers coming in?
Yeah… erm, there were many, very well-educated professional people and these were the ones who tended to come to the, erm… social events or cultural events and also help organise them. But the, the population at Hay Mills was definitely changing. It had been largely white working class but it, a lot of erm… black and Asian people were starting to move into, erm, Hay Mills, and you could see the difference in the, erm, kids that came in with the classes. So, of course, other issues, erm, became apparent… erm… and we had to start thinking in terms of outreach. Not just… people coming into the library to avail themselves of what we could offer them but we also felt we needed to go out and promote the library, and more widely. You couldn’t assume, for example, that people, knew that they could borrow books for free, or knew that they could find things out for free. So, we were very much starting to get more involved. We would, erm, for example, go, erm, to meetings with other professionals, erm, from education, adult education or schools or social services or whatever it was, to find out how the communities were changing and what the particular difficulties were. And although we couldn’t help with some of them, we could certainly, erm, claim to have some sort of role in literacy in, in education and adult education. So yes, we were certainly looking outwards, more.
And the area itself, although you were only there a short time, were there any changes to the area while you were there yourself, that you noticed? Not just the population but…
Well, it was the, it was the aftermath of the, erm… creation of the race track, erm, the Coventry Road race track. Er, uh, th, the, the Yew Tree, was starting to look a bit tired. Incidentally, it’s, erm… nobody knows where the centre of Yardley is. You know, Yardley Village is a backwater and fortunately it always has been and that’s why it’s still there as it is. But the Swan was the big centre, with the Hay Mills, erm… area as well and the employment down by the river, in the wire factory. Erm… but then you’ve got, in between the wars, the, the Yew Tree area changed completely, from being a collection of, houses, erm, to having a school nearby, erm, and, er… lots of shops, so that became the commercial centre of Yardley. But everything started looking tired… while I was there. The underpass was deteriorating, only a few years after it had… well, in the relatively few years after it had, erm… been made, and, erm, Yew Tree was starting to look terrible as well. You know, the… things seemed to be going downhill, it was very difficult for them to rent out the office block at the Swan as well. And the Swan pub itself… erm, was, erm, taken down and replaced by an office block. So that changed the way that, erm, the, the Swan area looked as well. You know, that had boasted the longest bar in the country and it had a whole series of rooms for events. And, erm, then, just, just wasn’t viable anymore and they got rid of it. You know, that was, that was something that… was put there, in that form b, because people felt that it was a great place to go and some of the big rock bands went to the Swan. Erm, but, er… you know, it all evaporated. Not really sure why, erm, these things changed. Erm, I don’t really know. Erm… I mean, Swan Market as well, they had a fire and… er, th, that was a bit of a downmarket place to go. Interesting, you know, you could go in there and, er, I used to go and eat in there, at, at lunchtime, I quite enjoyed that. But it was a bit of a rabbit warren of a place and, erm… you know, it, it, it wasn’t like Tesco, where everything costs, although it’s supposed to be cheap, you know, everything looks up, upmarket, if you see what I mean? It was definitely a very ordinary person’s market to go into. Erm… [pause]
So… do you have any favourite memories of your time at, working at South Yardley?
Well, certainly, erm, starting the concerts was, erm, was very interesting. Erm, one concert, we had ‘round 150 people come to it and they were in the, main community room, the one on the right as you go in, and, and coming out into the hallway ‘cause there were so many people there. And… we had a traditional Irish dancing, concert there, that had one of the biggest audiences. And, erm… ah, I dunno whether I’ll be able to remember his name but I kn, I know who he is. Er, he had won the World Championships for traditional Irish step dancing seven times. We, er, borrowed, er, stage blocks from Hall Green Library for him to do his dancing on, and he was accompanied by music. Er… and not long after that he replaced Michael Flatley. So he was definitely big in, in the, in the idea. And we, we, you know, we had some, we had a brass band from Cockshut Hill School, we had all sorts of interesting… concerts there, classical ones, erm, as well. Erm, we started an association with, erm, the CBSO, they, they got money for outside events and, erm… yeah, it was, it was really good. I think the concerts were the, erm, the main thing and then the, if you like, imaginative events like this holiday fair, we did a few of those, we did a health… one as well, erm. So…
So did you see the usage of the library grow over the time?
Well… yes and no. There’s been a downward trend, this has gone on for, I don’t know what, thirty, forty years, in, the number of books borrowed. Erm… but we increased the use of the library, the number of people coming in and what they did in the library as well. So… you could’ve just sat back and thought, ‘Oh well, you know, we can have an easy life, if not man, not so many people are coming in and creating… work for us’. [Swallows] But no, we had a, erm, bit more of a, er, creative idea and we wanted people to come and, and use the building and make it into, erm, erm, a, a, a cultural community centre, and that’s what we did.
So I want to move on, Mike, because… you then moved on to Acocks Green and then eventually you retired. But since you’ve retired, you’re actually working on a lot of local history projects. One of the areas that you obviously covered is the Yardley area, so was it when you did your photographs, you did that and put that book together, that first made you interested in the history of Yardley, or was it prior to that?
Well, I’d first got involved in local history in the 1980s at Hall Green. Erm, John Morris Jones, who many people will remember as, erm, a local historian, became ill. He asked me to finish off, erm, a book that he was doing about a walk along the River Cole… and, erm, so I did that. And then, after he died, er, I asked for his widow’s permission to amalgamate some of his stuff about Hall Green into one thing and she said, ‘Yes, you know, you have my permission’. So I was already working on local history at, er, Hall Green and when I found this fantastic resource at South Yardley… you know, I was so happy with that and after I’d done the Yardley book, I then did one on Acocks Green and then did one on… well, I did one at Hall Green and then one on Acocks Green. And unfortunately, local history’s one of these diseases that once you’ve caught it, it’s lifelong, it’s incurable. And so I’m… very much involved in, erm, local history of the Yardley area. The wider Yardley area, in fact. Erm, I don’t do Sheldon but… erm, don’t anything south from, erm, from Yardley Village. Don’t do Stechford either but, er… you can always find out something interesting about local history. You know, you, you never finish and, erm, you meet people who have surprising things to say. And some of your best information actually comes from abroad. Because when families left at the beginning of the twentieth century, they often took things with them to remind them of their, where they’d come from, to give them their identity. And those things have been sitting in people’s families in South Africa, New Zealand… United States, anywhere, erm, Canada. Now, when Granny dies now, what the sons will often do is… you know, get the house emptied and they won’t realise the potential value of some of what Granny had, particularly, perhaps some of the local history stuff. And so, some of the gaps in our knowledge have actually been filled by, erm… receiving contacts from people on the other side of the world. And actually, the internet has made that a lot more likely. Erm… I run a local history website and we regularly get, er, erm, stuff offered to us or, erm… information given and some of it’s incredibly useful. One bizarre thing was, erm, that one of the postcards I used in my book on, erm, Yardley, uh, I got from a postcard collector who lived in Hodge Hill. Erm… and, it had been sent to Canada, before the First World War, and, erm… it had come back to him. It, it was, er, of a house, erm, near Yardley Village, which had been knocked down in between the wars, ostensibly for road-widening. And it’d been sent to Canada, it was one of these things where, erm, the photographer came round and said, ‘Would Madam like a few postcards to send to her friends?’ And he’d taken this picture, and, erm, it’d gone off to Canada and it came back to this postcard collector in Hodge Hill who let me use it for, for my book. So, you know, the… local history’s an absolutely fascinating… thing, a never-ending source of, er, of interest.
Do you have some, like, favourite, well, stories or areas of Yardley that… you know, you sort of think, ‘Oh, that’s a great story’, or, ‘That’s a really interesting fact’?
Erm, yeah. In fact, Hay Mills, I think, is probably the most interesting, erm, part of Yardley for me. Er, y, you’ve got Yardley Village and of course, that’s really interesting in itself. Erm… you’ve got Blakesley Hall and a lot of what happens round there is, erm, residential. Erm, b, but in Hay Mills, there’s lots of interesting stuff about the wire works and the other businesses that were there, the shops that were on Coventry Road, particularly [chuckles] the ones which were knocked down, a, ‘round 1983/4. Erm… so, I tend to find more stuff about Hay Mills cropping up than, than about, erm, Yardley itself. But if you come to Yardley Village, well… th, the vicar of Yardley in, in the, th, twenties and thirties, would’ve been quite happy to see Yardley Village taken down and replaced with a new model village. Erm… and, er, he was worried about how all the countryside ‘round, ‘round the village was being consumed, er, by council estates. And, er, he objected to some inter-war houses being built north of the church, erm… and it was pointed out to him that, erm, he knew perfectly well that the land, erm, had been sold for housing. It was very embarrassing for him, to be objecting to housing being built where he’d been a party to the sale of it, for the, exactly that purpose. And what the city did was, they- [interviewer coughs] -said to him, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll only put the best tenants in. They won’t cause you any trouble’. And it’s that sort of story that you come across. Another one was in the 1920s, when the church had got deathwatch beetle or dry rot or something and they had to repair, the roof. So… erm, they decided to have, services outdoors. Now, Yardley used to have a moat, in fact it used to have a double moat because the manor house was next to the church, and bits of this moat were still there at that time. And the story goes that they were unable to have the services outdoors because of the gnats coming from the moat and biting everybody. So, you know, you, you come across these, these, er, interesting stories that make, make the history alive.
And, and where would you get stories and that? Would you, would th, this be people telling you these stories or is it… written down somewhere?
Usually, it’s people telling you. And, of course, you’ve gotta be… [lets out breath] concerned about whether what they say is true… erm, because stories can change as they go, pass from one person to another. And they might’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Erm… usually, you can’t get a confirmation of a story like that. Sometimes the old newspaper articles have something quite amusing in them as well. So, you can, g, get, er, something good from those. But… talking to people, erm, usually gives you… an insight, which when you… tell people about it, say for example if you’re doing a local history talk, that takes them straight into what life was like at the time. Even better than photographs, these personal stories can be so… illuminating about past life.
So, I take it you’re gonna continue doing your local history thing?
Er, yes. Erm, yes, I… certainly am, continuing doing local history and, er… ah… usually people seem to enjoy the, the talks that I give. Erm… I try to… give a flavour, o, of, of the past life. Erm, not too dry, a few anecdotes and, erm… yeah, I’m not one of these local historians who’s really good at documents and can go back to medieval times and work out what places looked like. No, I’m much more superficial than that, a bit more of a sort of… journ, journalist’s view of it. Erm… so… I’m always on the hunt, for… a new photograph, a new story, erm… see something different on a map, erm… get a new insight, yes, all the time.
Well, that’s excellent, Mike, and I’d just like to say that I think you’re an absolute fountain of knowledge when it comes to Yardley and its surrounding areas. When I used to work on the local history group and I used to, at the library, and I used to get… queries come in, if I didn’t know where to find it, I would always come to you. And you would always know [chuckles] the answer. So, so, it’s been really great talking to you. What I’d like to ask you, finally, is… what are your fondest memories of either working in the area or researching the area?
The people. The interesting people. The, people I got to know, who were… kind and generous… full of knowledge… wanting to make a difference themselves in their retirement, usually. Yeah, the people of Yardley, I think, are the fondest memory.
And would you like to have, add anything else, Mike?
Erm, no, I think I’ve given, erm, quite a rounded picture of, erm, how I feel about Yardley and thank you very much for asking me.
Well, thank you very much for your time, Mike. Thank you.
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