Read CHAPTER X of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

The city fringe.

It is my constant habit to take little runs into the outskirts of our city, and when doing so I often stare with all my eyes as I note what has taken place in a limited number of years. Districts hardly more than a mile or so from the centre of the city, which in my boyhood were fields and meadows, are now laid out into streets and covered with houses and shops. Indeed, I sometimes feel very aged when I look upon places where as a boy I went fishing for small fry, and now find the river that afforded me such juvenile sport is, owing to the enhanced value of laud, compressed into the dimensions of a fair-sized gutter, with houses and small factories closely packed on its margin covering every foot of ground.

I go in another direction, and scarcely farther than the distance just named, and I come to a spot where once stood the fine large park (Aston) which I remember was enclosed by a brick wall on every side. Scarcely a trace of this extensive old wall can I now see, and the site of the old park, or nearly the whole of it, is now covered with streets and buildings. Aston Hall, the grand old Elizabethan house built by the Holtes in the time of Charles I., still stands in a state of good preservation, and is fortunately now the property of the city, together with some forty acres of surrounding land, which is, as is well known, used as a public recreation ground.

To speak a little more in detail, I am not the only person living who remembers “Pudding Brook” and “Vaughton’s Hole.” The name of “Padding Brook” was, in my boyish days, given to a swampy area of fields now covered by Gooch Street and surrounding thoroughfares. Pudding Brook proper was, however, a little muddy stream that flowed or oozed along the district named and finally emptied itself into the old moat not far from St. Martin’s Church. Vaughton’s Hole, to my juvenile mind, was represented by a deep pool in the River Rea, where something direful took place, in which a Mr. Vaughton was tragically concerned. The real facts are at least, so I read that there was a clay pit, sixty feet deep of water, situated near the Rea, and in this pit at least one man was drowned. The place was named after an old local family named Vaughton, who owned considerable property in the neighbourhood of the present Gooch Street.

Where Gooch Street now crosses the Rea, I remember there was a footbridge, and beyond that the river was a pretty, purling, sylvan stream, with bushes and rushes growing on its green banks. A field walk past an old farm house led on to Moseley Hall, which was looked upon as being quite away in the country. As for Moseley itself, it was a pretty little village in those days. The old village green, the rustic country inns (of which the “Fighting Cocks” was the chief), and some low-roofed, old-fashioned houses, backed by the parish church tower, made up a picture which still remains in my mind’s eye. The railway tunnel which is now looked upon as only a long bridge, was then regarded as something large in its way, and, perhaps, slightly dangerous, almost justifying a little something strong to sustain courage when travelling through it.

Beyond Moseley Church was a pretty road to Moseley Wake Green, in which were, if I remember rightly, one or two timbered houses and some old-fashioned residences, surrounded by high trees. Many of these have now disappeared. In another direction from the church was a country road running to Sparkbrook, and near which were an important house and lands belonging to the wealthy Misses Anderton, whose possessions have been heard of in more recent days.

I now often visit Moseley, and change, but not decay, in all around I see. The prevailing colour of the old village green is now red brick, and the modern colour does not agree so well with my vision as the more rustic tones of a bygone day; whilst the noise and bustle of tram cars, the swarms of suburban residents that emerge from the railway station (especially at certain times in the day), are fast wiping out the peaceful, pretty Moseley of my youthful days.

These new old villages often present some curious anachronisms. A grey old church, partly buried by a hoary fat churchyard, is surrounded by the most modern of shops and stores; and a primitive little bow-windowed cottage, with a few flower pots in the window, has, perchance, a glaring gin shop next door. This is more or less the case at Moseley, and it is pretty much the same at Handsworth.

I remember when old Handsworth Church stood surrounded by fields, and now it is built up to with villas on nearly every side, and has a neighbouring liquor vault instead of the old-fashioned inn such as often keeps old parish churches in countenance and affords a place of refuge and refreshment for rustic churchwardens, bell-ringers, parish clerks, and the like.

Old Handsworth how well I remember it also Soho, and the remains of the old mint, associated with the honoured names of Boulton and Watt. Then there was that long straight stretch of road from the old pike at the top of Soho Hill, along which were some large and important residences, occupied by business men of Birmingham, who doubtless regarded this Handsworth and Soho district as being quite out in the country. The stretch of road to which I have just referred is now one long street, or soon will be, reaching from the once Soho toll-gate to the New Inns, and farther on, indeed, to the park wall of Sandwell.

Sandwell Park ah, yes, I have a pretty distinct recollection of what that was, also the Hall, in my boyhood days. The park, or portions of it, still shews some signs of its past picturesque glories; at any rate, it is not built over after the manner of Aston. The Hall, however, scarcely now conveys an idea of the place it once was. I remember its interior when it was the residence of its noble owner and his family, and I recall the splendidly furnished rooms, the riding school, and the gardens. I remember, too, that the Lord Dartmouth of the time of which I speak was, like Mr. Gladstone, an amateur woodman. He used to like to go about with axe and saw, and do a little tree felling and branch lopping to please his fancy, and exercise his limbs and muscles. Sandwell Park, as most people know, has now been deserted for many years by its titled owner, and Sandwell Park Colliery, Limited, reigns in its stead.

But recollections of the past are making me “talky,” and, I fear, tedious. I could scribble and chatter about bygone Birmingham from now till about the end of the century, which, however, as I write, is not very far off. But, my gentle reader, you shall be spared. Most people know that Birmingham is swallowing up its immediate suburbs, and the process of deglutition is still going on. The city has had its rise, and will have its decline some day probably, but not while people want pins, pens, electro-plate, guns, dear and cheap jewellery, and while Birmingham can make these things better or sell them cheaper than other folks.

As for the centre of the city, I have already made some references to the transformations that have recently taken place. A few words may, however, be said about our modern street and shop architecture. In the important new thoroughfare, Corporation Street the outcome of Mr. Chamberlain’s great improvement scheme there is a curious series of shops and public buildings. Some are of one style, some of another, and many of no style at all. The architecture in this thoroughfare certainly presents plenty of variety more variety perhaps than beauty. There are the new Assize Courts the foundation-stone of which was laid by the Queen in 1887; they are built of brick and terra-cotta, redundant with detailed ornament, some of it perhaps of a too florid character. Near to our local Palace of Justice is the County Court, which is severe in its simplicity, quasi-classic in style, and decidedly plain in design. There are shops that have a certain suggestion and imitation of old-fashioned quaintness, and there are other buildings that have a tinge of the Scotch baronial hall style of architecture. Then there is the coffee-house Gothic, the pie-shop Perpendicular, the commercial Classic, the fender and fire-grate Transitional, the milk and cream Decorated, and various hybrid architectural styles.

The buildings in this street have, as I have said, the charm of diversity, and that, I suppose, is something to the good. Regent Street, London, is a fine thoroughfare, but it will probably be admitted that it is anything but unmonotonous in appearance or lovely to look upon from an architectural point of view. The buildings in our grand new street may not be beyond criticism, but there are no long lines of buildings of the same heavy dull pattern from end to end. This arises from the fact that the land has not been let in big patches to capitalists or builders who might have erected a series of shops of one uniform pattern, but has been leased to tradesmen and others who have taken a few yards of land, on which they have built premises suited to their requirements, and in accordance with their aim, tastes, or the bent and ability of their architects. Hence the variety, charming or otherwise according to the taste and eye of the spectator. Anyway, we have in Birmingham a fine broad street which will, perhaps, compare favourably with any thoroughfare in any other British city, with the exception of Princes Street, Edinburgh. In the way of splendid streets the Scotch capital must be allowed to take the plum.