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The Birmingham Belgravia.

Seeing how Birmingham has grown and prospered, it is interesting to consider what might have been the result if the town and its outskirts had not been fairly pleasant for well-to-do people to reside in. Fortunately, there is one extensive west-end suburb Edgbaston which forms a suitable, healthy, and desirable residential locality for the Birmingham upper classes. But for the existence of this well laid out I was going to say genteel, but Heaven forbid neighbourhood, a very large number of its wealthiest manufacturers and professional men would doubtless now reside some distance from the city. An increasing number of those who work in Birmingham now live at least have their houses outside its limits, owing to facilities afforded by the railways; but Edgbaston is still a rich, well-populated suburb within a very easy distance of the centre of the city. Mr. Schnadhorst, when he pulled political strings in Birmingham, regarded Edgbaston as a fine, good piece of vantage ground from an electoral point of view, since it kept so many rich residents within the pale of the town, and added so much to its influential voting power.

Edgbaston is chiefly, I might almost say entirely, the property of the Calthorpes, and the late Lord Calthorpe, also his predecessor, were wise in their day and generation, and they had agents who were shrewd and far-seeing. They saw the importance of reserving Edgbaston and laying it out as an attractive, quiet suburb, and the late lord at least lived to see it covered with leasehold residences, many of them indeed a very large number of them of considerable value and importance. When these leases expire, as some of them will now before many years are over, and the noble ground landlord begins to draw in his net, what a big haul he will make in the way of reversions of the properties that have been built upon his land!

Some of these Edgbaston houses are not only large and commodious, but are architecturally handsome and artistic. Birmingham has been fortunate during the last thirty or forty years in having two or three local architects who have not only possessed professional skill but also taste. The old square, solid, “money box” houses, so much esteemed by our fathers, are rarely erected now, but in their place residences of a more attractive design and artistic type.

The Gothic revival has spread to domestic architecture, and the old, dreadfully-symmetrical brick and stuccoed house, and the hybrid Italian villa, make way for residential structures with gabled roofs, pointed arch windows, red tiles instead of dull-coloured slates, and attractive detail and ornamentation. In looking at such houses, one can hardly fail to be struck by the difference that may be effected by using the simplest materials but using them with discrimination and taste. One architect may plan a house which will be plain to ugliness, the bricks laid in the most severe and commonplace fashion, and the outlines of the design if design it can be called devoid of any grace or variety. No projections to break up the dull flatness and give light and shade; no attempt to relieve the unmitigated square, hut-like appearance of the building. Another puts a pointed roof to his house, pierces it with pretty windows that have form without diminishing the light. He runs some courses of brick work round his building laid in diagonal or otherwise diversified lines. He places a porch at the entrance which has a touch of picturesqueness, and the result is a house that is pleasing to look upon, has at all events a suggestion of form and appearance, and all without any corresponding expense, because he has used his material with skill and taste.

In Birmingham we have seen how much may be done in this direction in various ways, especially in the matter of the Board Schools. When the building of these schools was commenced the firm of Martin and Chamberlain were selected as architects. They had to design comparatively cheap buildings, for anything like extravagance in the way of ornamentation would probably have provoked much hostility. Brick and wood had to be the chief materials employed, but by using these with device and taste good schools were produced from an art point of view, and which, in their way, are a little education to those who attend them.

Possibly there are still not a few among us who think that because there is an element of design and attractiveness in the appearance of these schools money has been needlessly expended. Such persons insist upon it that only ugliness can be really economical, and that the simplest ornamentation or beauty of form must mean superfluous cost. The number of those who take this narrow view is happily limited, and is becoming less owing to the improved and growing taste for art that has been unmistakeably manifest of late years.

I have been led into this trifling digression by speaking of the houses now built in that suburb of Birmingham inhabited by the wealthier classes. These residents are, as I have said, better educated than their fathers, and they have different notions as to how they should live and what sort of houses they should live in. They are not merely people who are beginning to prosper and have only just emerged from the chrysalis state of modern civilization, but are citizens who have been prospering for some time, or are the children of men who have been prosperous, and they “live up” accordingly. They like their residences to be convenient and comfortable inside; but they also feel a little pride if they look attractive from without. Nor are tastefully-designed dwellings confined to Edgbaston. The example of our “Birmingham Belgravia” has spread to other suburbs, and if we go to Moseley, Handsworth, Harborne, and other places in the vicinity of our city we find houses of a very much improved pattern from an ornamental point of view compared with those of a bygone generation. Edgbaston, however, set the example in the way of Gothic house architecture, and the first specimen, I believe, was a house in Carpenter Road, designed by the late Mr. J.H. Chamberlain, and which was built for Mr. Eld, a partner in the firm of Eld and Chamberlain, now Chamberlain, King, and Jones.

I remember that the erection of this Gothic house created quite a little stir. To some eyes it was a very startling innovation. Pointed arch windows for an ordinary dwelling house, who ever heard of such a thing? What next? asked some square-toed, un-compromising, old-fashioned folks. The idea was indeed so novel that it did not take people by storm, and there was no immediate rush for Gothic houses. Gradually, however, people began to like the style, or their architects told them they must like it, and after some time residences of the new order began to be seen in many directions.

There are now a number of large, costly, handsome Gothic houses in Edgbaston, which will be, indeed, a goodly heritage for the ground landlord when the present leases expire a fact that often gives rise to some serious thoughts and reflections. Many people feel very sore upon this matter, and wax strong and vehement upon what is known as the “unearned increment” question. I do not propose to lash this horse, which is every now and then trotted out and properly thrashed by reforming economists and others. “Unearned increment” is one of those accidental incidents of life which can hardly be controlled or reckoned with. Why should some men be sound and healthy and six feet high, and others weak and feeble and only four feet ten? Most unequal and unjust! If I have a field, and a town grows up to it of its own accord, and somebody offers me four times as much as I gave for it, I hardly see why I should be reckoned a thief and a robber if I pocket the proffered cash. To take another illustration. I may have on my house-walls a picture for which I gave twenty pounds. The artist has “gone up” since I made my purchase, and I am now offered a hundred and twenty pounds for my painting. “Unearned increment!”

But away with this question! I find I am getting the whip out, although I promised not to thrash this wretched old economic hack. Only just one little parting crack of the lash. Dealing with “unearned increment” being an impracticability, perhaps it would be well for landlords who benefit immensely by the accident of circumstances to recognise the fact that they do pocket a great “unearned increment,” and be ungrudgingly generous in return for benefits received. If this were done the names of suburban landlords would not be received with such derision and contempt as they are sometimes now, and “unearned increment” would become all but an obsolete phrase.