Following ‘exceptionally heavy rainstorms’ that swept across Birmingham on the 12th August 1920, ‘serious floods occurred in Hockley Brook, Aston and Lozells’. Tragically, two boys lost their lives as flood water from the culvert under Villa Street swept them away together with an adjoining wall and part of the road. A local man, Mr Victor Cox aged twenty-three, who had also been thrown into the water managed to scramble to safety but Leslie Billingsley Neale aged fourteen of Wills Street and George Hubbard aged twelve years of Albert Place, Villa Street, Hockley, were lost. Their bodies were found by contractors the next morning, some two miles away at Thimble Mill Lane.
George Hubbard’s father had witnessed the crash of the overflowing wave and had seen the wall collapse, but at that time he was unaware that his only son had been tragically overwhelmed. The flood waters rose rapidly, demolishing walls, sweeping across gardens and entering houses, taking occupants by surprise. One woman is said to have waded through water with ‘several terrified children clinging to her skirt’. The water, having wrenched doors from their hinges, remained to a height of several feet in which heavy furniture, including a piano, was seen floating.
Between forty and fifty families were rendered homeless that day, with some buildings being so undermined that ground floors had collapsed into water-filled cellars, and some families were forced to live in their upstairs bedrooms.
An inquest held on Tuesday 17th August 1920 heard that ordinarily the depth of Hockley brook could have been measured in a few inches and the greatest height to which it rose during the preceding twenty years was 6 ft. However, on the evening of the disaster, the brook reached 11ft. 7 ½ in.
Leonard Maisey, a fourteen year old boy of Wills Street, was with a group of people at the fateful Villa Street bridge near to Hunters Vale when water overflowed the culvert. He told the inquest that he saw Neale and Hubbard standing on dustbins looking over the wall and heard a policemen shouting for them to get off. He and some of the boys got down and went into the street, but Neale and Hubbard remained there. Suddenly, a great wave washed away part of the wall and pavement, taking the two boys into the torrential flow. Mr Cox, who had also been washed into the water, later told how he managed to initially hold onto one of the boys, but the rush of the water was too great and he was swept away.
Police Constable William Bell C187 was the officer who had rushed towards the boys in an attempt to save them on that ill-fated evening. He told the inquests that he saw some thirty people on the bridge and shouted for them to come off as he foresaw the wall giving way. At the top of his voice he shouted:
‘Come away, you people! That wall will give way at any moment’. The majority of the people moved as instructed, save for three or four. PC Bell went towards the wall with the intention of pulling them down but the wall fell away and the ground sank under his feet.
There is no knowing how many lives PC Bell saved that evening. Disregarding his own safety, he rushed towards two boys in obvious danger. Coroner Isaac Bradley stated:
‘I wish to publically commend his [PC Bell’s] conduct’. He added that PC Bell acted with remarkable judgement and discretion, commending his actions and trusting that he would come to the notice of his superiors.
PC Bell’s officer record notes that on 6th September 1920, he was;
‘Awarded the 1st and 2nd stripes of merit and a gratuity of five guineas for his promptness and discretion in saving a number of people from being drowned on the 12th August 1920, when after a heavy storm, the Hockley Brook rose to the level of the carriageway and carried away a wall in Villa Street, two boys being drowned.’
After joining the Birmingham City Police in 1912, PC Bell had seen service in the Armed Forces overseas during the First World War, before making it home safely to Birmingham. He remained in the force until after the end of the Second World War in 1946, after an incredible 34 years' service - a rare occurrence at the time.