New Street was once dominated by the Gothic stylings of Barry and Pugin. Chris Upton looks at one of the finest buildings we ever had.
The history of Birmingham is littered with lost buildings. Even the most cursory of lists would encompass the Church of the Messiah, the Old Reference Library, the Exchange and the original New Street Station.
But one building stands head and shoulders above them all, if not in height, then in the reputation of its architect and beauty of its interior. The former King Edward’s School building dominated the lower part of New Street for 100 years, and still lives in the memory of Old Edwardians even today.
A new exhibition currently running at King Edward’s in Edgbaston draws on all those fond memories, together with photographs and documents from the rich archives of the school, to present the story of the New Street premises and the move out to the leafy suburbs in the 1930s.
Although the exhibition is temporary, the school hopes to keep many of the elements of it for the longer term.
King Edward’s had been a fixture on New Street from the time the school was first founded in the middle of the 16th century, changing its overcoat from a Tudor hall to an early 18th-century one as the years passed.
By the 1820s, however, even that most recent rebuilding was showing its age, and the ravages of Birmingham’s industrial air. A local architect declared its life expectancy to be about seven years. It was time to rebuild yet again.
The governors of King Edward’s had rather more to spend on school building than the councillors of Sandwell. They considered even a move to a new site, but resistance from the town put a stop to that idea, at least in the 19th century. The Birmingham Free Grammar School Act, squeezed through Parliament, sanctioned borrowing and expenditure of £30,000 on a new school on the ancient site, and so the planning began in 1833.
The architect selected for the new building was Charles Barry, who had recently competed for, and lost, the commission for Birmingham Town Hall. At one end of New Street, then, Barry was able to demonstrate what the town had turned down at the other end. It was to be, not the tried-and-trusted classical temple, but a building in the new Neo-Gothic style.
And in choosing something in the late Gothic idiom, Barry was cleverly pointing backwards to the school’s Tudor origins, when Perpendicular Gothic ruled the roost.
Barry’s design organised King Edward’s around two inner courtyards. At one end of the frontage stood the headmaster’s house, and at the other the house of the second master, their bay windows affording lofty views over New Street. Between the two, on the first floor, lay the schoolroom itself (known as Big School) and the library, linked by a traceried “upper corridor”.
If Charles Barry’s contribution was great, so was that of the man Barry appointed to design the fixtures and fittings. Augustus Welby Pugin shared Barry’s enthusiasm for the High Gothic, and only added to the church-like atmosphere of the interior. Pugin designed the chief master’s chair – more like an archbishop’s throne than a chair – which stood at one end of Big School. In great Gothic letters the chair spoke the word “Sapientia”, both an invocation to learning on the part of the pupils and an endorsement of any message the headmaster chose to expound from its heights.
And thus, on the opening of the new school in 1838, King Edward’s had at last a building to match its time-honoured history and reputation. For Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin it was the first step of a partnership that would lead to an even weightier collaboration, the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after the great fire of 1834.
If there was one snag in Barry’s building, it was its position. Hallowed cloisters and reverential quiet were luxuries Victorian Birmingham afforded it for long. To a degree this was self-inflicted, for when the governors leased King Edward’s land at the rear of the school to the London & Birmingham Railway Company they were signing the building’s death warrant. Smoke and steam would soon be enveloping its walls, and Latin verbs drowned out by the 9.15 from Euston.
A century later – almost exactly a century after Barry’s school opened – it was coming down, and King Edward’s was moving out to a greener and more tranquil location on Edgbaston Park Road.
The current exhibition recalls those momentous years – the 1830s and 1930s – when, in many ways, King Edward’s came of age.
There is one further remarkable connection between the two eras and the two schools. The exhibition is being held in what is called the school chapel, though it could hardly contain half of today’s pupils. And the chapel itself is none other than the upper corridor of Barry’s magnificent building. Pulled down in 1936, the upper corridor was carefully dismantled and labelled, and, once the war was over, reassembled on the new site in the early 1950s.
There, at the far end of the chapel, stands “Sapientia” too, as exalted and dramatic as when it was first deployed in Big School.
So one of greatest of Birmingham’s lost buildings turns out to be not entirely lost after all.