Sunday, 3 January 2016

Ernie Mush Callaghan - the war hero who played for the Villa and lived at Villa Park

Ernie Mush Callaghan
The hero who lived at Villa Park

Another article from my monthly feature The Gathering in The Harp, this one from the November 2015 edition which tells the story of a Brummie hero, Ernie “Mush” Callaghan who played for the Villa, lived at the Villa and won a gallantry award for bravery in the WW2:  
Ernie "Mush" Callaghan was a Birmingham football player who played for Aston Villa from 1930 until 1947. The much-loved defender played 125 league games for the Villa and held the record for having been their oldest player - he was 39 years and 257 days old when he played his last game in the claret and blue shirt in April 1947. The record stood for 64 years until a new record was set by American goalkeeper Brad Friedel who was 39 years and 259 days old when he played against Manchester United in 2011.

Ernie was born on 29 July 1907 in Newtown. In the 1911 census he was recorded with his parents, in-laws and his sister Hilda living at 6 Sun Street West which was in the Lee Bank area near Holloway Head. His father, Ernest Edward Callaghan, was a lamplighter from Birmingham.
We have to go back two further generations to discover the Irish origins of the family name Callaghan. Ernie’s great grandfather, James Callaghan, was a tailor in Bordesley Street in the 1851 census, he came from Navan in County Meath probably during the period of the Irish famine. It’s not clear how much the family remained within Birmingham’s Irish community, though certainly their subsequent addresses in Newtown (near St Chad’s) and Sun Street West (near St Catherine’s) might suggest the connections continued in to the 20th century.

Ernie started his football career as a youngster playing for Dartmouth Street ouncil School before progressing to the prestigious city pub leagues with spells playing for The Barton Arms and The Rose Villa. He also played for Walmer Athletic, Hinckley Athletic, Atherstone Town and Cradley Heath. Ernie had trials for both the Baggies and the Blues, but it was finally Villa who signed him up and he repaid them with his lifelong service, including 17 years as a first team player followed by many years working as the head grounds man. Ernie may also be one of a select few people who have actually lived at Villa Park, as in the 1955    polling register his address was The Cottage, Villa Park which was located near Trinity Road on the club’s grounds.
Ernie’s long playing career at Villa Park was only interrupted by the Second World War, during which period the Football Association League was suspended. There is evidence that Ernie, now in his mid-thirties, continued to play for Villa in the regional league and also guested for Solihull Town, but these games do not count in players’ official records and the regional leagues themselves were heavily disrupted by the war.

But not content to sit out the war whilst younger players were being signed up for army duty, Ernie became a probationary police officer for the duration of WW2. On the night of 28th July 1942 (the day before his 35th birthday) Police Constable Ernest Callaghan of 50 Nelson Road, Aston (the road linking Trinity Road with Witton Road at the rear of Villa Park), took part in a courageous rescue of trapped workers at a factory in Birmingham. The rescue was so dangerous that the small rescue party, including police officers and civilians were all recommended for bravery medals.
The full description of the rescue at Gabriel’s Ltd on Coleshill Street in Birmingham, which had been bombed by German planes, is contained in witness statements under files for WWII Defence Gallantry Awards 1940-1949, but briefly, Callaghan and a police officer named  Sergeant Harold Wood arrived at the scene of the bombed building to learn that some workers were trapped in a shelter under the factory. Attempting to reach the shelter through the  burning building with  water escaping from pipes onto live electrical cables all around them, the pair assisted two people but could not reach the door to the shelter as the ceiling collapsed in front of them.

As they battled to clear debris, four storeys of heavy industrial machinery, some hanging precariously on steel frames and smashed masonry above their heads were burning out of control and in danger of total collapse. Unable to get to the workers through the           factory because of the burning debris, Callaghan and Wood retreated outside and managed to clear a grate in the pavement to reach the basement shelter.         
Smashing in the cast iron exit, Callaghan and Wood then climbed down into the shelter and, assisted by a civilian named James Hughes, between them passed injured people up to waiting firewatchers. All the injured were removed to the First Aid Post at Woodcock Street Baths. In the report on the rescue Sergeant John Champkin said:

“I have visited this scene and find there was very grave danger of the remaining portions of building collapsing on top of the rescuers and I respectfully submit that the action of the two Police Officers and James Hughes, by totally disregarding their personal safety, set to work, with the danger of being trapped by falling masonry, also with the knowledge that there was a danger of flooding and contact with live wires in the shelter, and after a great deal of hard work, were responsible at this great personal risk, for the rescue of three living and one dead casualty. Only by their prompt action and determined efforts were the lives of these three persons saved.”
Ernie “Mush” Callaghan received the British Empire Medal for his part in the rescue at the Gabriel’s factory in July 1942. He went on to finish his playing career defending the Villa box before becoming the club’s head grounds man, residing in his cottage at Villa Park. Ernie died in Castle Vale on 8 March 1972 aged 64. A Holte End hero for more than one reason.

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