Dr Mollie Barrow
Dr Mary (always known as Mollie) Barrow from Sparkbrook, Birmingham, was born Mollie was born on 31 January 1908. She married solicitor, George Corbyn Barrow, born in September 1903, and for much of their middle life they lived at 184 Stratford Road, Sparkbrook, where Mollie operated a surgery.
George’s father was Louis Barrow, for three decades from 1900 the Chief Engineer at Cadbury’s Bourneville factory. They were related to John Cadbury through the latter’s 1831 marriage to Candia Barrow, part of one of Birmingham’s famous business families. The Barrow’s store on Corporation Street (High St and Snow Hill in the 1850s) was one of the leading retail firms in Birmingham until 1966.
Louis had also worked for Messrs. J. S. Fry and Sons, Ltd., of Bristol and had served a short apprenticeship at the Soho Works of Messrs. Tangyes, Ltd., in Birmingham. He was a partner in the bicycle firm which made the Ariel cycle, a style that lead to those in general use today and worked as a draughtman at Tangyes. [1949 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries]
After her marriage to George, Mary lived and worked as a GP in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham from 1936 and was deeply involved with the work of the local Communist Party from then on.
In 1940, Mollie, along with Jesse Eden (see separate entry) of the Birmingham Tenants’ Association, Mrs. Wilcocks, of Coventry, and Mrs. Madge Bushall, of Rugby, was one of the leaders of a deputation of 51 women from the Midland District Women’s Bureau of the Communist Party, who were promised better ARP (air raid prevention) by the Earl of Dudley, Midland Regional Commissioner after a “three hour interview”. The area was now “among the most heavily bombed in Britain” and the Commissioner promised to send his technical adviser to inspect areas where “there are now no shelters and to see that the local authorities quickly provide shelters”. The campaign sought electric lighting, first aid equipment, the inadequate arched brick roofs of surface shelters to be replaced by reinforced concrete, and a doubling of the teachers to two for classes of 50 children during air raids. [Daily Worker 23 October 1940]
Her indomitableness was revealed in 1941, when Mollie was fined £2 (about a third of the average wage) for assaulting a police officer, despite pleading not guilty. At the junction of Stratford Road and Farm Road, a man had sustained a broken leg and Mollie was attending to him just after 10 pm one night. Two policemen at the scene were more exercised by a crowd of Irishmen than in aiding the injured party. One man tried to help Mollie stand the man up on his good leg but one of the policemen stopped him. He alleged that Mollie had got a hold of him by the throat from behind, pushing her knee into his back to press him to the ground. Her defence was that she had kept the crowd away from the injured man but the policeman had been obsessed with getting at various men in the crowd, which was restless at the inaction of the authorities to aid the injured man and kept pressing in closer as a result. One member of the crowd had been told to “shut up” when he queried whether the policeman had really called an ambulance.
The only reason for her actions had been to restrain the constable from carrying out violence on members of the public. He had one man by the neck when she rushed up to pull him away. The policeman had asked her if she knew what she had done. She had replied: “Yes, I was defending that man.” (Evening Despatch 9 October 1941; Birmingham Daily Gazette 10 October 1941)
In the November 1945 municipal elections, Mollie polled well as one of the Party’s candidates in Birmingham, winning 1,796 votes in Sparkbrook. She was the author of “You live here! A political guide to Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath” published in 1946 by the Midlands Communist Party. One campaign the pamphlet mentions was that of Sparkbrook YCL for a strip of waste land in Golden Hillock Road to be turned into playing fields. The campaign was not successful but shortly after Mollie donated the £100 cost (probably equivalent to £7,000 today, comparing wages values) of the tents that set up the Birmingham-based Communist (later Community) Camping Club, which held annual camps in North Wales from around 1948, founded by Jim Crump and continued by George Jelf (see separate entries for both). These tents were still in use in the 60s and 70s on the field in Talybont, giving many families from Birmingham and elsewhere the chance of a holiday.
After the war she also had a surgery in Goodrest Croft, Yardley Wood, where she lived in the adjacent house. Molly was a very highly respected doctor but her habit of plain-speaking and forthright manner was not to everyone’s taste. Local patients tended to fall into two categories depending on whether they refused to consult any other doctor or refused to consult Dr Barrow.
Jane Scott recalls:
“I was born in a nursing home in Priory Road, Yardley Wood in 1949. It was apparently a difficult delivery, presided over by the matron and Molly Barrow. Matron Sandground told my mother afterwards that she had never seen an obstetric specialist work as skilfully as Molly did in delivering me. In the months following I had colic and hardly slept and Molly called in every day to give me a feed and check up on my mother. Molly’s wise, common-sense words of advice on baby care, given at that time, became family lore and I still quote them occasionally when asked for advice on matters concerning my grandchildren.
Molly could be quite sharp-tongued but was also very kind. She cut a striking figure to me as a child, with a no-nonsense bobbed haircut which could well have been that way since the 1920s and always a grey suit. During a home visit, when the medical business was done, she would stand with her back to the fire with her hands in the pockets of the jacket and talk politics and current events.”
She left the Party in 1956 and became much involved with Sparkbrook Community Association. This was formed in 1960 as a voluntary, non-party-political and non-sectarian organisation. A registered charity, it aims to promote the ‘well-being’ of the Sparkbrook community.
Dr Barrow is reported to have found children of about 2 or 3 years old unable to walk properly because their only play area in multi-occupied homes was a bed. Lack of space was recognised as having a detrimental effect upon the physical and educational growth of children and the Association succeeded in obtaining grants from the Save the Children Fund to create four play centres.
Mollie Barrow’s community based activities were to bring her a high level of respect among local people. She was first the Vice-Chair and later Chair of the Sparkbrook Community Association, which did so much to alleviate the suffered she saw as a local GP.
Having practiced medicine in the area for nearly four decades, her speech at the opening of Sparkbrook Family Centre on 20th November 1968 is of interest: “We seek to preserve the most important of all social organisations: the family, because we know from experience, that without a secure and sane family life children cannot work effectively in school, men cannot work effectively in their factories and offices and women can neither live nor work in home or workplace as they might. Bad families produce bad citizens. Irresponsible parents produce irresponsible children. Broken homes produce broken lives. But good homes produce good citizens. Good parents produce happy, healthy people.”
It could be that this was a retirement for her, at the age of 60, and she was living at 54 Chantry Road Moseley when, only months before she died on 16 April 1970, in a deed dated 14 January, Mollie signed a will leaving £77,861 to charity. In 2016, this would in monetary terms had been worth over a million pounds; in terms of relative economic power, the bequest would have been worth nearer three.
It would seem Mollie had willed that the funds be invested in a Nat West trust fund for the benefit of the Sparkbrook Association (of 31 Farm road, Birmingham) and/or the Nursery School Association, and/or the National Trust, and/or to “such charities or for such charitable purposes as the trustees may at their uncontrolled and unfettered discretion determine”. Called the Dr Charlotte Mary Helen Grace Barrow Charitable Trust, the charity continues to this day.
At one point, it would seem that there was a plaque in her honour in Braithwaite Street, perhaps on a child care centre, and there is a street names after her, Barrow Walk.
Her husband, George C Barrow, died in 1998 and was Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1965-66.