Balsall Heath has got its first blue plaque in memory of John Bowen, a builder born in the mid-nineteenth century, who started out as a farm labourer and ended-up creating some of Birmingham’s best-known buildings, including the iconic Victoria Law Courts.
Birmingham Civic Society unveiled the plaque to Alderman John Bowen at the Balsall Church Centre in Mary Street. It will be later be put up at The Ark Academy in Tindal Street, as John Bowen built the school and for a time lived in Tindal Street.
The erection of the plaque coincides with the publication of a book on Mr Bowen his great-grandson, retired Birmingham solicitor Anthony Collins.
Mr Bowen born in 1844, was the son of a blacksmith from Rochford near Tenbury Wells and reputedly walked to Birmingham as a young man with a sack of tools on his back to find work.
He formed a building firm in 1875 which built many of Birmingham’s key buildings - many of which are still in use today - the finest being Victoria Law Courts, the foundation stone of which was laid by Queen Victoria in 1887.
Mr Bowen lived in Balsall Heath and later in Moseley (when Moseley was part of Worcestershire) and rose to become a leading member of the community in Birmingham.
He was made High Sheriff of Worcester in 1916 and was both an Alderman and a Justice of the Peace in Worcester.
The plaque’s unveiling was performed by Tim Watts, High Sheriff of The West Midlands, and saw a rare gathering of three high sheriffs to mark the occasion
Michael Hogan, the High Sheriff of Worcester, and Philip Bowen, a great grandson of John Bowen, who is currently High Sheriff of Powys, will also in attendance.
Mr Bowen was a prominent Wesleyan and The Wesleyan Assurance Society are sponsoring the plaque.
Mr Collins said: “John Bowen was my great-grandfather and this year marks the 170th anniversary of his birth.
“Birmingham Civic Society agreed to put this plaque up to recognise the contribution he made to the Victorian buildings of the city.
“He walked to Birmingham with a sack of tools on his back from Tenbury Wells and that is why the High Sheriff of Worcester, who comes from Tenbury Wells, is attending.
“I am absolutely thrilled we can give him some recognition for the contribution he made to Birmingham.
“He was highly involved in his local community and a very generous man.
“Most people can tell you who the architects of some of pour best-known buildings were but very few can tell you who did the building work.”
Mr Collins said the book he has published on his great-grandfather is designed as more of an introduction to his life and he his hoping the erection of the blue plaque will lead to further information being unearthed, so that he can put together a more detailed account.
“I have probably only discovered a third of the buildings he built,” he said.
“Some local historians helped me and the Birmingham newspapers online archive was very useful.
“We also had family stories and obituaries in the Birmingham papers when he died in 1926.
“I’m hoping to flush out more people, either from the extended family or who worked at Victoria Law Courts.
“Unfortunately all the documents and company records of the business, John Bowen & Sons, were destroyed when it went into administration in 1963.”
One of the first buildings known to have been built by John Bowen is the Red Carriage Bridge, which spans the two pools in Cannon Hill Park.
After success building villas, he concentrated on more prestigious buildings and began winning public contracts to build Board Schools, public baths, factories and churches.
Between 1870 and 1902 52 Board Schools were built and Mr Bowen is known to have built at least four and probably many more.
They include Kings Heath School, Tindal Street, an extension to Mary Street in 1883 and Lower Broadway School in Aston.
The majority were designed by the architects Martin and Chamberlain and many of the terracotta buildings are still in use as schools today.
Mr Bowen also built Monument Road Baths, Nechells Baths and probably other public baths too.
Some of his contracts were for factory buildings and included the Mozart Piano works in Ombersley Road, Balsall Heath and the Perfecta Seamless Tube Factory in Plume Street, Aston.
Mr Bowen also built several Wesleyan churches, including the Asbury Memorial Church in Holyhead Road in Handsworth, the Kings Heath Wesleyan Church in Cambridge Road, the Hart Memorial Church in Gravelly Hill and the Wesleyan Church in Hazelwell Road, Kings Heath.
He also built churches for other denominations, including the Grade I St Agnes Church on the Stratford Road and the Moseley and Balsall Heath Institute.
Other buildings included Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Edgbaston Assembly Rooms at Five Ways, the extension to the Art School in Cornwall Street, the Birmingham Meat Market, Cornwall Buildings in Newhall Street and Hockley Post Office.
Corporation Street saw the greatest concentration of his buildings after the then Mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, enabled the Parisian boulevard-styled street to be carved out of the slums.
In addition to Victoria Law Courts, buildings Mr Bowen built along the road included Methodist Central Hall, department stores and two central halls for the Wesleyans.
* Mr Collins’ book ‘Alderman John Bowen JP’ - ‘Honest John’ - ‘Founder of John Bowen & Sons Ltd. Builders of Victorian Birmingham’ can be bought via a special website www.johnbowen.org and people with further information on his life and the buildings he created can contact Mr Collins via the website.