19-year-old John Alfred Cross was one of four brothers who had been inmates in Marston Green Cottage Homes and went on to serve in the First World War. He joined the Rifle Brigade on 2nd September 1914, being posted to France on 22nd August 1915 after spending two weeks in a military hospital in Purfleet with an abscess on his tongue. He received a gunshot wound to the chest on 5th October 1915, dying of wounds at the Australian Hospital, Wimereux, France on 11th October 1915 according to his service record. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Register of Soldiers’ Effects both give his date of death as the 10th October. His brother Harry was also killed in the war, whilst brothers Francis James and Thomas William were apparently war casualties but survived.
John and Harry are both commemorated locally on a war memorial plaque that was hung outside the chapel on the site, which later became Chelmsley Hospital.
John Alfred was born on 18th March 1896 at Aston and baptised on 5th April 1896 at St Mary’s Church, Aston Brook. He was the second surviving child and eldest of six sons of parents John Alfred (a harness maker) and Florence (née Collinson). His eight known siblings were:
- Florence Ellen, born 23rd February 1895
- Francis James, born 10th February 1897
- Thomas William Bertram, born 27th April 1898
- Harry, born 26th August 1899
- Lily, born about 1903
- Albert Edward, born about 1904
- Sydney, born about 1905
- Dorothy Maud, born 1910
The 1911 census shows John Alfred (senior) and Florence as having had 11 children in 17 years of marriage, with two children already having died, and nine still living. Only three of their children – Florence (aged 16), Sydney (aged 6) and Dorothy (11 months) – were living with them at 4 Victoria Buildings, Bath Row, Birmingham in 1911. The other six children – John Alfred (16), Francis (15), Thomas (12), Harry (11), Lily (8) and Albert (7) were all inmates at Marston Green Cottage Homes.
The children had all been taken to the Homes in 1908, after their parents had been convicted for neglect after a prosecution was brought by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Newspaper reports of the case at Birmingham Police Court on 17th September 1908 indicate that the parents were alcoholics and that when the father, John Alfred, left Birmingham, his wife pushed their six children down a grating into an empty cellar and left them there before disappearing herself. The court heard that the family home was in a wretched condition, and the children had been sent out to beg. Police found the children in the cellar in a shocking condition, and sent them to the Workhouse. The father was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment, the mother for four months.
Marston Green Cottage Homes operated 1879-1933 and were part of Birmingham Poor Law Union. They housed children who would otherwise have gone into the workhouse. The feeling was that children in a workhouse could be adversely affected by the bad influence of the adult inmates around them so cottage homes were often built to provide a more suitable environment. Discipline was still strict, and children were often taught skills or a trade to help them earn a living when they left the Homes.
If you have any further information about the Cross family and the Cottage Homes, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
tel.: 0121 704 6934