“Burleigh in Wartime” was the title written in February 1940 by Clara Milburn on the first page of a soft-backed exercise book. After five months of war she had decided to write a day-to-day account of how she and her small part of the English countryside faced the trials and tribulations of a country at war. Extracts from what turned out to be 15 such exercise books were published in 1979 as Mrs Milburn’s Diaries: an Englishwoman’s day-to-day reflections 1939-45.
The Burleigh of the title was a four-bedroomed detached house on Station Road, Balsall Common, into which she and her husband, John (known as Jack), had moved with their 17-year-old son, Alan, on 5th November 1931. The couple had previously lived in a house built for them in 1914 at Canley Corner, Coventry but, finding it too large for them and their only child, decided to move to somewhere smaller. Burleigh had been advertised for sale at £1,850 in July 1931 and, despite at least two decisions to leave, Mr & Mrs Milburn remained at the house from 1931 until 1955.
Alan Milburn completed a four-year engineering course at Birmingham University, during which time he was an Officer Cadet with the university’s contingent of the Officer Training Corps (O.T.C.). He joined the Territorial Army and was gazetted Second Lieutenant with the 7th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in February 1937. Being a Territorial meant that he was called up immediately on the outbreak of war, barely a week after he had returned from a training camp.
After undertaking a month-long course at the Small Arms School in Hythe, he proceeded to the ‘concentration area’ in Swindon. He managed to spend Christmas with his parents at Burleigh, before departing for France with his regiment on 6th January 1940.
He was wounded and captured during the evacuation of Dunkirk between 26th May and 4th June 1940. Alan received a gunshot wound to his right leg, although it took several months for this news to reach his parents.
On 9th June 1940, the Milburns received reports of a man in Meriden who had been evacuated from Dunkirk and was in their son’s regiment. Racing over to see the man, they were told that Alan was a Prisoner of War. A telegram from the War Office on 10th June confirmed him as missing. The following day, a letter arrived from Alan’s Commanding Officer describing the action in which Alan and another officer, together with 40 other ranks, were taken prisoner. Mrs Milburn wrote:
One’s mind seems numbed, and the last day or two I go on, keeping on the surface of things as it were, lest I go down and be drowned. Every moment Alan is in my thoughts, every hour I send out my love to him – and wonder and wonder.
On 16th July 1940 a telegram arrived from the War Office confirming that Alan was a Prisoner of War, but a paperwork error meant that the family was given the wrong address for him – a PoW camp address instead of a hospital in Antwerp. It wasn’t until Christmas Day that they heard from him via a telegram from the British Legion saying that he was well and in an officers’ prison camp, Oflag 1XA (9A).
Mrs Milburn’s diaries, as well as being full of worry about her son, also document daily life in Balsall Common, with the sorts of detail that rarely makes it into official records. In addition to problems keeping on top of the garden, the scarcity of food and considerable price increases on some items, she mentions journeys as part of her role as a Volunteer Car Pool driver, activities with the Berkswell Girls Club. the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Institute and the Mothers’ Union. She helped to make triangular bandages at Berkswell Rectory, and also billeted for short stays at Burleigh a range of people including teachers of evacuated children, Belgian Army officers and land girls.
Reading her diary entries in the run up to to V. E. Day, it’s almost impossible not to feel the tension and anticipation of her son’s homecoming after more than five years away. With no word from him on V. E. Day itself, it was the following day, also a public holiday – V.E. plus 1 – when a phone call at 9.15 a.m. announced a telegram from Alan.
The telegram was followed up by a long-distance phone call from Alan himself at 11:15 a.m. saying that he would arrive later that night or early the following morning. On tenterhooks all evening, Mrs Milburn was told when she went out to take the dog for a walk that the last train from London arrived at 21:20. With no further word from Alan, the household retired to bed.
Shortly before midnight, they were woken by the telephone – Alan was at Leamington Station. Although the roads were deserted, crowds were thronging the Parade, Leamington Spa, and Mrs Milburn struggled to clear a passage for the car. As she neared the closed gates of the station, a figure in khaki approached her and said: “Is it Ma?” She flung herself at him, and then they sped home, where Alan disposed of two boiled eggs with bread and butter, whilst his parents and Kate (Caroline Kate Taylor, their live-in servant for 47 years who was a close and valued friend) sat with him, talking and drinking chocolate until 2:30am.
The following days involved lots of telephone calls, visits to Balsall Common, Berkswell and Leamington, with a return to some normality in tinkering with his beloved M. G. car. The Diaries end on 12th May 1945, but the family’s story continued.
With a further six months before he was demobbed, Alan was posted to a battalion in Leamington Spa and billeted at The Oaks, a Leamington hotel run by Mrs Margaret Pickard. In December 1945, Alan became engaged to Mrs Pickard’s daughter, Judith, and they married at St Nicholas’s Church, Warwick in September 1946. After a honeymoon in Shropshire, the newlyweds set up home in Kenilworth and Alan returned to his former employer, Alfred Herbert Ltd, in Coventry, where he had worked as a draughtsman before the war. The couple had two children – a daughter and a son.
Alan’s father, John Milburn, died in January 1955, aged 78. In July 1955, the faithful Kate, who had gone to live with her sister at Rugby, died a month before her 75th birthday. Clara Milburn did not like the idea of living in a house on her own so decided to move to Kenilworth to be closer to her son and his family.
Burleigh, which was described in the newspaper as “a medium-sized country house” and “an attractive and extremely well-designed charming freehold country residence” was sold at auction on 27th April 1955 for the sum of £6,000. The sale included the house and approximately 1.25 acres of land. The purchaser was Harry Cleaver, a former secretary and director of Griff Colliery Co. Ltd and Griff Coal Supplies Ltd of Nuneaton.
Alan subsequently left Alfred Herbert Ltd to take up employment with the Rover company in Solihull. On 18th November 1959, he accepted a lift to work from a friend, John Herbert Whitby, but was fatally injured in a road accident in Kenilworth Road, Balsall Common. A learner driver who was attempting to overtake a lorry, braked and skidded, colliding head-on with the car in which Alan was a passenger. Alan was taken to the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital where he died of a brain injury two days later. He was 45 years old.
His widow received a letter from a university friend of Alan’s saying what a tragic waste it was after all he had been through during the war. His mother felt the loss of her son very deeply and became seriously ill a year later, dying 18 months after Alan, on 29th May 1961, aged 77.
At Burleigh, Edith Lucy Cleaver died in February 1968, aged 84. After the death of her husband, Harry, in April 1969, Burleigh was offered for sale in July 1969 for the sum of £17,500. Still described as a country residence, overlooking open countryside to the rear, the advertisement in the Birmingham Daily Post 9th July 1969 also noted that it was “set in approximately 1.5 acres of magnificent grounds and offering future residential prospects.”
There has been some development in the grounds of the house. Burleigh Close, described as a new cul-de-sac in 1970, had seen five houses built in the close c.1969/70 but an application to build a further two houses was rejected on appeal in August 1970. Meriden Rural District Council successfully argued that the district’s sewage disposal works was grossly overloaded and, as a result, it had put a temporary ban on new developments. As part of its case, the council stated that the five houses recently built in Burleigh Close had only been allowed because they were replacements for five obsolete cottages.
In 2011, Balsall Common Writers’ Group was created and, rather fittingly, holds monthly meetings in the Village Hall, just opposite Burleigh where Mrs Milburn sat writing her wartime diaries.
If you have any further information on Burleigh, or the families mentioned, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
© Solihull Council, 2020.
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