Chris Upton looks at the history of the Saracen’s Head, now it has got a new lease of life.
A little over four years ago I wrote an article for the Birmingham Post concerning the buildings around Kings Norton Green, that is, the Saracen’s Head and Old Grammar School. It was the best way I knew to support the Kings Norton campaign to win BBC Restoration 2004.
Unusually, this turned out to be a story with a happy ending. Kings Norton won, as you know, and with that success came £3 million of Heritage Lottery money towards the restoration of the two buildings. This was not the end of the campaign, of course, but the beginning; nor was it all the cash which was needed to do justice to these two venerable and unique structures.
The sale of the parish hall and land in Westhill Road helped to make up the short-fall. But in September 2008 restoration work was complete and what we must now learn to call St Nicolas Place officially opened for business.
The four-year project has not been just about design and build; research and archaeology has contributed to a much greater knowledge of the buildings. It has not answered all the questions and, indeed, has posed some new ones. But we know a lot more than we did when I wrote my piece in 2004. Time, then, to update the story.
Documentary evidence (compiled by Stephen Price and George Demidowicz) has taken the history of the Saracen’s Head site back to the 13th Century. At this point it was held by one Adam Bissemore from the Prior of Worcester. The archaeology undertaken by Birmingham Archaeology in 2006 and 2007 has confirmed 13th-century occupation, and the presence of a substantial ditch, which separated the churchyard from the adjacent properties. This ditch was filled in the 1200s, probably allowing property-owners to creep closer to the church.
By the 15th Century the site was in the hands of two men: John Colmore and Ruchard Mydelton, familiar surnames in the history of Birmingham. In 1433 they sold the land to the Rotsey family, and here the story begins in earnest.
The Rotseys were wealthy wool merchants or wool staplers, farming at Colmers Farm in Rednal, at the far end of Kings Norton parish, and exporting wool or cloth to the Continent. It was a very lucrative business and by the 1490s Humphrey Rotsey was in a position to display his status in the shape of a new house. He chose the most prominent pitch in the village, facing the church and adjoining the Green, which served also as a market-place.
The north range was built in 1492, a date confirmed by dendrochronology. Rotsey’s front door, now happily reinstated, faced the churchyard, with kitchen and service wing on the right, and hall and parlour on the left.
Within 20 years, however, Rotsey was building again, adding an angled range at the north-west, and a long east range, stretching as far as what is now the Bull’s Head. The east range served as Rotsey’s business headquarters, with shopping and storage and a cart entrance. Almost certainly he built behind, too, but these buildings were removed in the 19th Century.
The Rotseys’ house and shops were far from unique in Kings Norton. When John Leland visited the place in about 1540 he described it as “a praty uplandishe towne, and there be some faire howses in it of staplears, that use to by wolle.”
Eventually, however, the market dropped out of wool and the Rotseys drifted away. A succession of owners followed until, in 1771, the property was bought by Richard Lea, and he turned part of the east range into an inn. Lea increased the depth of the bar room facing the Green by adding a wall under the Tudor jetty, giving an additional yard or so of space. By 1796, if not before, the inn was known by the name of the Saracen’s Head.
Quite how successful the pub business was is open to question. There were, after all, two pubs - the Saracen’s Head and the Bull’s Head - almost next door to each other, and another two on the far side of the Green.
At this point I can add a bit of my own research. Poor Law records show that during the 1860s the Kings Norton guardians of the poor were even renting Lea’s cottages to house tramps from the workhouse, and Richard Brettell Lea was paid to look after them as tramp-master - quite a social change, both in the house and in the area. Once the home of the wealthiest man in Kings Norton, the Saracen’s Head was now housing homeless paupers.
Nevertheless, the property was purchased as a business by Atkinson’s brewery in 1887, and they added new toilets, kitchen and store-rooms at the rear. There was also a bowling green at the back. These were the elements taken down during the recent restoration work, along with the false front erected by Richard Lea. What’s left today, then, is the building as it was in Tudor times, with the exception of the back quarters pulled down in the 19th Century.
The property was subsequently taken over by M&B, at a time when quaint, timber-framed pubs were not in fashion. While the Bull’s Head was pulled down and rebuilt in 1901, the Saracen’s Head was considered surplus to requirements. In 1930 the brewery handed the north range and the Saracen’s Head to the parish, retaining the land at the back and the cottages (now gone) which still stood between the two pubs.
Thus the parish inherited a collection of venerable but expensive buildings, and a continuous battle to keep them in good repair. The north range they used to house the verger and family while the east range was put to various parish uses as offices and meeting rooms. As today the building had to pay its way.
But, after four years’ hard work and many years of fund-raising before that, the people of Kings Norton have facilities new and very old to enjoy and make use of.