Historians’ impeccable look at Birmingham suburb impresses Chris Upton.
In just two years’ time we will be celebrating the centenary of Greater Birmingham.
It was in May 1911 that Parliament approved the Bill which turned the city of Birmingham into today’s sprawling metropolis. Overnight – when the Act came into force in the following year – people who had spent their lives in Worcestershire and Staffordshire woke up in Birmingham. Some deemed it annexation; others called it progress.
The centenary will, with any luck, be an opportunity to re-evaluate the changes brought on those outlying towns and villages – Handsworth, Moseley, Yardley and Northfield – and to see how far they have come.
One has already undergone such a reassessment. Kings Norton: A History, by George Demidowicz and Stephen Price, Phillimore & Co, £20, is probably the best history of a Birmingham suburb yet to appear.
And so it should be. Demidowicz and Price are something of a dream team, when it comes to local history – George is head of conservation and archaeology at Coventry, and Stephen’s CV includes heading up the local history galleries at BMAG and, more recently, Bristol Museums. They are, therefore, comfortable in the presence of archaeology, documentary history, surveying illustrations and the built environment. The research on Kings Norton, then, is thorough and impeccable.
It is also – and this is sadly rare in local history – lavish with its maps and references, and the way the book tackles the competing claims of chronology and theme is imaginative. The themes help when, at times, the index doesn’t.
Stephen and George had already been working on the history of Kings Norton for years, and came together to research the history of St Nicolas’ Place. With the restoration of the Saracen’s Head and Old Grammar School now complete, we can now, with the help of the book, place them in the wider context of the surrounding parish and manor.
As the new book highlights, the Saracen’s Head was far from unique, and a number of other timber-framed buildings from the Tudor or Stuart periods survive. Indeed, there’s an interesting timbered trail to be undertaken between the buildings on The Green, Bell’s Farm, Lifford Hall and Mill, Holytree Farm in Hollywood, Primrose Hill Farm and Malthouse Farm on the Alcester Road. Sadly Moundsley Hall, which would have added to the list, was knocked down in 1945. Price and Demidowicz tell the story of the battles to save some or all of these buildings, as it were, from the inside. Today, these houses are like pockets of ancient history amid the giant housing estates – the co-called “Three Estates” – which have swallowed up much of Kings Norton’s former farmland. If overspill was not the primary reason behind the incorporation of Kings Norton into the city, it very quickly became an added benefit. Given that Birmingham had been creeping ever closer to Worcestershire for many years before – via Balsall Heath and Cotteridge – it was probably inevitable anyway.
What becomes clear from George and Stephen’s research is that it could have been the other way round. Even by the 16th century, Kings Norton had many of the aspects, not of a country village, but of a town. Official recognition of that fact came only with the granting of a market charter and two fairs by James I in 1616. The market was not very successful, but the fairs – especially the Mop – has survived into the 21st century.
Yet even in the Middle Ages, Kings Norton had a thriving wool and cloth industry, with fullers, dyers and weavers, and water-power to drive the industry forward. And Kings Norton’s merchant families – Rowley, Grevis and others – had contacts with suppliers as far afield as Bristol.
When the Victorian industrialists arrived in Kings Norton, then, they came not as complete strangers, but as old friends. The area’s mills were among the first to feel the heat. Wychall Mill, where they had once fulled cloth, was in 1808 turned over to wire drawing, and, a few years later, to metal rolling. Other mills in the area followed suit.
That change was also reflected in land-ownership, one of the running themes that Demidowixz and Price pursue throughout the book. What had once been a royal manor, reflected in its name, was by the 19th century in the hands of John Taylor II, whose father had made his fortune in button-making. The growing influence of Birmingham and of manufacturing was obvious.
Mightiest of the new arrivals was surely the firm of Nettlefold & Chamberlain who took over the works of James & Son on the Pershore Road in 1865, and turned it into the country’s largest manufactory of wood screws. Kings Norton’s transport links – canal, rail and road – made it the perfect place to expand.
Kings Norton emerges from this book as it should, unique and individual, but part of the complex jigsaw that is Greater Birmingham. One of those pieces feels all the more secure for Stephen and George’s work.