Blog

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesBirmingham's HeritageLatest

All Saint's (formerly St Aidan's) Church, Small Heath, Birmingham

The Anglican parishes around the Birmingham Small Arms factory in Small Heath were carved out of the ancient parish of Aston between 1846 and the end of the nineteenth century, and became part of the Anglo-Catholic “biretta belt” of South Birmingham. 

One of the last of these was St Aidan's Church, begun in 1893, designed in red brick with buff terracotta by Thomas Frederick Proud (d 1901), with a clergy house, intended for a team of single curates, by the Birmingham metalworker and architect Arthur Stansfield Dixon (1856-1929).

The eastern end of the church – chancel, guild chapel and two bays of the nave – was completed in 1894 and consecrated two years later;  the western end including the baptistery and bellcote was finished by the end of 1898.

Once the shell of the church was complete, Arts & Crafts designers supplied much of the decoration:  Bertram Lamplugh of the Birmingham School of Art designed the Good Shepherd window in the Guild Chapel in 1907, and Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) and W E Ellery Anderson (1888-1942) collaborated with the incumbent, Canon Newell Long, to begin an ambitious decorative scheme, some of which remained unexecuted because of the intervention of the Great War.  The last decorative addition during Canon Long’s incumbency was the free-standing reredos for the Sanctuary by Ellery Anderson, executed by Mowbray & Sons of Oxford and dedicated in 1921.

The grandiose celebrations of Anglo-Catholic worship created continuing problems within the politics of the Birmingham diocese.  Bishop Ernest W Barnes (1874-1953;  bishop 1924-1953) took against the figures on the Rood Screen, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and the use of incense, and at one stage refused to take confirmations within the parish.

St Aidan’s was valued highly by the early aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian art and architecture, such as John Betjeman – “[a] successful Perpendicular design in red brick and terra cotta”, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – “a striking and successful example of the local red brick and terracotta school...with an atmosphere much encouraged by the splendid Rood and Screens”.  The Victorian Society identified it as “one of the six or seven finest Victorian churches in Birmingham”.

Housing clearance and the collapse of the BSA company in 1973 encouraged the flight of the local population.  By 1991, only nine of St Aidan’s communicants lived within the parish boundary.  Meanwhile an influx of Asian families meant that by 1997 at least 65% of the population within the parish was Muslim, and most of the local schools had at least 90% Muslim pupils on roll.

From 1994 the diocese of Birmingham closed and disposed of surplus buildings in the parishes of St Gregory and St Oswald, and concentrated activity on the St Aidan’s site, while renaming the parish All Saints to commemorate the dedication of the original early Victorian parish.

The St Aidan’s building was radically reordered, reversing the direction of worship to use the apsidal baptistery as a sanctuary, enlarging the Lady Chapel to provide an intimate worship space and forging an entrance directly on to the street with a meeting-hall above where the High Altar had formerly stood.

The Victorian Society vigorously opposed this attack on the historical integrity of the building, and in 1998 forced the issue to a Consistory Court where the Chancellor found against them, accusing the Society of acting “arrogantly, unreasonably and without common sense”.

This fine church, the “Cathedral of the Back Streets”, continues to serve its purpose under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet in an environment vastly different to that for which it was built.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesBirmingham's Heritage

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Town Hall was the centre of its musical life from its opening in 1834 until 1991, and the home base for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from its inauguration in 1920.

When Sir Simon Rattle became Principal Conductor & Artistic Adviser in 1980, and Music Director from 1990, he made it his business not only to develop the orchestra further but to provide it with a better home.

He had told Russell Johnson, head of the acoustic consultants Artec of New York, that “If I am ever involved in a new concert hall, you will design it...”

And they did.

Symphony Hall is primarily a concert hall which can be adapted for conference use, with 2,200 seats, 63m long, 31m wide and 22m high.  The seating is tiered, with 877 on the main floor, 347 on the first gallery-tier, 291 on the second and 485 on the third.  At the rear of the platform there is seating for a choir of up to two hundred.

The design combines traditional materials and sophisticated technology to provide flexible acoustics for every musical genre from chamber music to the most ambitious orchestral and choral works.  It has sliding acoustic control banners to reduce reverberance, an adjustable reverberation chamber above and behind the stage fitted with twenty concrete swing-doors each weighing approximately eight tons to vary the volume of the auditorium by up to 30% and a 42-tonne acoustic canopy.

Its reverse fan shape is based on traditional opera houses and concert halls, with the audience stacked in tiers in a narrow chamber.

Russell Johnson advocates using wood “...similar to that of a violin”.  The perimeter walls of the Hall are one foot thick, and much of the acoustic quality comes from this sheer weight of materials.

Ironically, this masterpiece of modern acoustic design stands only 35m from the busiest rail tunnel in Britain, running under Monument Lane to the southern approach to New Street Station.  In fact the Hall is located as far away as possible from the railway line.  (A proposal to create further space by moving the Crown public house across the canal was rejected.)  The railway tracks were relaid with rubber-lined sleepers, and the silence of the Hall is protected by noise-insulating piles and mountings designed by Ove Arup & Partners.

Like its predecessor, the Town Hall, it was incomplete when it was opened.  The front pipes and casework for the Klais organ were installed in time for the opening by HM Queen Elizabeth II on June 12th 1991;  the organ itself – the largest mechanical-action instrument in the United Kingdom – was inaugurated in 2001.

Now the two halls run in tandem, providing the city of Birmingham with an unrivalled diet of musical experiences.

Take a look at what’s on – the variety is astonishing:  https://www.thsh.co.uk.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

The Red Palace, Birmingham

Birmingham’s answer to New York’s Flatiron Building is commonly known as the Red Palace, standing at the sharp angle between Constitution Hill and Hampton Street.

Originally it was the factory-workshop of H B Sale, die-sinkers.

Designed by William Doubleday & James R Shaw in 1895-6, it demonstrates the value of terra-cotta as a material that was relative cheap to manufacture and produced rich architectural effects – in this case, according to Andy Foster’s Pevsner Architectural Guide, Birmingham (2005), “eclectic Gothic with Spanish touches”.

This adaptable material had obvious benefits for a commercial organisation that wished to make an impact without extravagant expense.

Its unusual layout was put to practical use.  Each floor was a triangular open-plan workshop with an office at the apex.

The modern fifth storey is unfortunate.

For years now its lower storeys have been occupied by a succession of restaurants.  The elaborate cupola is sprouting vegetation.

This fine ornament to Birmingham’s streetscape is clearly underused.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 27, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

Soho Foundry, Smethwick

Soho Foundry, Smethwick

At the very start of the partnership between Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819) in 1776 Boulton told James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

Boulton and Watt made their fortunes but realised that when their patent expired in 1800 they must build complete engines, rather than fabricate engine-parts and draw royalties on the invention.

Boulton’s Soho Manufactory was unsuitable for full-scale engine construction, so they established the Soho Foundry, about a mile away alongside the Birmingham Canal in Smethwick in 1796.

Their eventual third partner, William Murdoch (1754-1839), developed the manufacture of gas-lighting equipment at the Foundry.

The original partners passed on the business, Boulton, Watt & Co, to their respective sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842) and James Watt Jnr (1769-1848).  After James Watt Jnr’s death the company became James Watt & Co and continued to build steam engines almost to the end of the nineteenth century.

The Soho Foundry built the screw engines for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern (1859), and the ornate pumping-engines that are preserved at the Papplewick Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire (1884).

In 1895 the site was taken over by the weighing-machine maker, W & T Avery, whose successor, Avery Weight-Tronix, continues to innovate and manufacture on the site.

Though actual casting ended in 1954, the site has remained a key location for the development of digital weighing equipment of many kinds.

The ground is rich in archaeology, much of which remains to be uncovered.  The gatehouse block houses the fascinating Avery Historical Museum.

And high on a gable in the surviving Forge buildings is the name ‘James Watt & Co’, linking back to the dour Scotsman whose genius transformed the world.

There can’t be many industrial sites in Britain that have worked continuously since the late eighteenth century.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 25, 2013

Category:Country HousesBirmingham's Heritage

Soho House, Birmingham

Soho House, Birmingham

The poet Robert Southey declared in 1807, “Probably in no other age or country was there ever such an astonishing display of human ingenuity as may be found in Birmingham.”

If any one location within the city epitomises this display of ingenuity it is three stops up the Metro tram-route from Snow Hill, where stood the Soho Manufactory, an integrated workshop, powered at first by water:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Soho_Manufactory_ca_1800.jpg.

This was the work-base of a manufacturing genius, Matthew Boulton (1728-1908), initially a “toy” manufacturer, producing not playthings but miscellaneous small metal articles ranging from buttons and buckles to high-quality decorative products in steel, ormolu, Sheffield plate and precious metals.

Boulton is best remembered for his partnership with the Scottish inventor, James Watt, because between them they made possible the production and sale of stationary steam-engines for use in mines and mills.  As Boulton explained to James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

The steam engines were eventually prefabricated at the Soho Foundry, opened in 1796, while Boulton developed the Soho Mint (1788) to manufacture coinage resistant to counterfeiting.

He was also primarily responsible for establishing the Birmingham Assay Office (1773), the New Street Theatre (1774) and the town's first hospital and dispensary.

He lived in elegant surroundings at Soho House (Samuel Wyatt 1766), a building full of surprises.

The exterior is not stone, but slate cladding covered with sand-dredged paint.  The glazing bars, some of which survive, were of “Eldorado”, an experimental metal supplied by James Keir, a Lunar Society member.

Boulton installed a practical steam-heated indoor bathroom and was supplied with a Bramah patent water closet in 1787. Evidence of the warm-air circulating central-heating system, installed c1810, can still be seen in the cellars, on the stairs and in one of the upstairs rooms.

Though the parkland surrounding Soho House has long since been built on, the main block of the house survives and is beautifully restored:  http://www.bmag.org.uk/soho-house.

Its interpretation makes it easy to recreate the exciting, welcoming atmosphere of the eighteenth-century equivalent of Silicon Valley.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Town Hall

Birmingham’s Town Hall is the equivalent of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, designed solely as an assembly hall, and intended for the fund-raising concerts that supported the General Hospital.

Based on the Roman Temple of Castor and Pollux and designed in 1831-2 by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (whose name is indelibly linked to the cab he invented), this is the building that ruined Hanson, his partner Welch and the contractors Thomas & Kendall:  they were obliged to complete the contract for no more than £17,000, but the eventual final cost was around £25,000.  “Bankruptcy has been fixed as the price of my adventure,” Hansom declared.

The project took until 1861 to complete under the supervision of Charles Edge.

Hanson’s original design had a gallery round three sides of the interior, and was crowded by other buildings on the north and east sides.  As early as 1837 the decision was taken to rebuild northwards to accommodate the organ in its present position;  a further northward extension of 1849-51 brought the Town Hall to its present size, and only then was the north façade completed to match the south and the west podium refaced to match the east.

Subsequent alterations have not been kind to Hanson’s design.   Modifications to the lobby in 1890-1 reduced the size of the auditorium.  In 1926-7 two rear galleries were designed by Owen Williams to replace the original one and a redecoration scheme by White, Allom & Co completely obliterated Hanson’s ceiling.

The William Hill organ (built in 1834 and successively rebuilt in 1843, 1889-90, 1932-3 and 1984) was until 1922 owned by the Governors of the General Hospital, because it was primarily intended for use in their fund-raising Triennial Festivals which date back to the late eighteenth century.  It was the biggest of its time:   it had the first ever 32-foot pipe and the first part-pneumatic action;  it was the first four-manual pipe-organ (enlarged to five manuals in 1984) and it had the first full pedal-keyboard.

The Town Hall has always been the scene of prestigious musical events.  It was the venue for the premières of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (October 3rd 1900 – “one of British music’s more famous disasters”), The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906).

The list of eminent conductors who have performed at the Town Hall runs from Mendelssohn, through Elgar, Sibelius, Dvorak, Bruno Walter, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham to Sir Simon Rattle.  The inaugural performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted here by Sir Edward Elgar on November 10th 1920.

When the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra moved to Symphony Hall in 1991 the Town Hall was little used and it closed in 1996.  After a radical restoration, involving the reinstatement of the 1834 single balcony, it reopened as a partner to Symphony Hall in October 2007.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 24, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Back-to-Backs

Though the National Trust is strongly associated with preserving the lifestyles of grand houses, one of its finest restoration projects of recent years brings vividly to life the living conditions of very ordinary Birmingham workers and their families.

The Birmingham Back-to-Backs is a fortunate survival of early nineteenth-century terraced houses dating from 1802-31 on the edge of the city centre, south of New Street Station, on the fringes of Chinatown and the Gay Village.

Here in what was once Court 15 on the corner of Ince Street and Hurst Street, as many of sixty people lived in eleven cramped houses, almost all of them back-to-back or blind-back in layout, with the privies and wash-houses (which in Birmingham are called “brewhouses”) in the yard outside.

Four of the houses are recreated to illustrate specific periods – a watchmaker’s house of the 1840s, a glass-eye-maker’s house of the 1870s, a locksmith’s of the 1930s and (after the buildings had been declared unfit for human habitation) a tailor’s shop of the 1970s which eventually closed when its proprietor, George Saunders, retired in 2002.

There were 43,000 of these dwellings in Birmingham at the end of the First World War, housing 200,000 people.  By 1988, when Court 15 was listed Grade II, it was the only survivor.

After detailed archaeological and historical research and sensitive stabilisation and restoration by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, the Back-to-Backs were handed over to the National Trust.

The Trust has recreated the 1930s sweet shop on the corner, operates three of the houses as short-term rental properties, and opens most of the remaining buildings to the public on strictly timed-ticketed tours.

Here is a living memorial to the cramped, arduous but sociable lives of the millions of Britons and foreign immigrants who poured into the Victorian cities looking for work, and who are the ancestors of most of the current British population.

The Birmingham Back to Backs is not the easiest National Trust property to arrange to visit.  Details are at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birmingham-back-to-backs.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 4, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

 Birmingham Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is where you can still see and feel the buzz of small metalworking trades making money.  It's the most complete remaining sector of the multitude of tiny multi-occupant workshops that once produced the bulk of Birmingham’s prosperity.

Historically, the district is Hockley.  The Jewellery Quarter name is a form of tourist branding that goes with brown signs and drawing in visitors.  Unlike other industrial cities that celebrate their industrial history as heritage when actually the trade is dead, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter still makes and sells quality jewellery.

It survived because the nature of its trades is such that they would not survive transplanting:  only a quarter of the businesses in the Quarter employ more than twenty-five people.

Some clearance took place in the sixties, and the eight-storey Hockley Centre (Peter Hing & Jones 1970-1), now largely occupied by service-enterprises rather than craftsmen, stands as a monument to the period.

In streets such as Vittoria Street, Hylton Street and Frederick Street, the houses, converted in the nineteenth century by adding “shopping” blocks stretching away to the rear, are interspersed with more architecturally ambitious purpose-built workshops and showrooms.

The jewel of the Jewellery Quarter is the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter [http://www.bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter], which opened in March 1992 on the premises of the jewellery-manufacturers, Smith & Pepper, whose works, barely altered since the First World War, had been left virtually intact after final closure in 1980.

The place still feels very much as if the owners had locked the door and left it, though in fact it is meticulously conserved, and inevitable modifications have been made for visitor access.

The greatest attraction of all is to watch a live jewellery-manufacturing demonstration, showing that the old skills still survive and bring the place to life.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 11, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery [http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/about/introduction] in the middle of Brindleyplace was formerly the Oozells Street School (Martin & Chamberlain 1877), one of the forty-one designs for the Birmingham School Board produced by Martin & Chamberlain between 1873 and 1898, in this case built to three storeys to make best use of a cramped site.

From 1906 it was the Pupil Teachers’ Centre for Girls, later the Commercial College Day Department and latterly the College of Food and Domestic Arts until 1967.

After years of neglect in the blighted Broad Street area, it was redeveloped for gallery use and its saddle-back ventilation tower rebuilt by Levitt Bernstein Associates (1997).

It’s a superb conversion, for the most part using the original classroom spaces, with modern access needs, including a glass-sided lift, carefully inserted.

Its excellent Café Ikon [http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/about/visiting/cafe_opus] is open to visitors without entering the gallery itself, and is a particularly pleasant place to sit on warm days.  It’s a good idea to beware of the teapots, though:  they’re good to look at but come adrift in the act of pouring.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesBirmingham's Heritage

St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham (1977)

St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham – viewed from the old Snow Hill Station (1977)

Birmingham’s Catholic St Chad’s Cathedral was conceived in a white-heat enthusiasm following the Emancipation of Britain’s Catholics in 1829.

It was the first major work of the architect August Welby Northmore Pugin, built 1839-41 for around £20,000.

Pugin himself gave an “ancient German carved oak figure of the Blessed Virgin and Child...said to have been the first image of the Blessed Virgin exposed for public veneration in England since the Reformation”.

John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury gave £1,000 towards the construction-costs and a fifteenth-century brass lectern from Louvain, along with an elaborate set of High Mass vestments.

It was one of the first Pugin churches in which he installed, despite opposition from Cardinal Wiseman, one of the rood screens about which he quickly became notoriously obsessive.

Pugin’s total plan was only fully complete when the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor was constructed to a design by Sebastian Pugin Powell in 1933.

St Chad’s became a cathedral on October 27th 1850.  Edward Ilsley, who had been bishop since 1879, became the first archbishop when the see was elevated in 1911.

During the Birmingham blitz, on November 22nd 1941, an incendiary bomb penetrated the south-aisle roof and burnt a radiator which extinguished it.  This remarkable incident is commemorated in the replacement roof-panel, which is marked “Deo Gratias”.

This romantic North German structure once towered above Birmingham’s Gun Quarter until 1960, when the surrounding buildings including Pugin’s Bishop’s House across Water Street was demolished to make way for a bleak stretch of the inner-ring road.

In 1967 the rood-screen was taken down and transferred to the Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Reading and in the same remodelling the lectern given by Lord Shrewsbury was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of New York for £105,000.

St Chad’s is still an awe-inspiring place, but it’s no longer seen as Pugin visualised it.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2013

Category:Sacred placesBirmingham's Heritage

St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

The parish church of St Philip was designed by Thomas Archer in 1709 and consecrated in 1715.  It was intended to serve the new northern streets, then called High Town, away from the ancient parish church of St Martin in the Bull Ring.

Archer was an interesting character, brought up in Henley-in-Arden, the son of the MP for Warwick, and as Groom Porter to Queen Anne he effectively held a patent to tax gambling across the nation.

St Philip’s was his first attempt at church-design and he went on to build St John’s, Smith Square, in London (1712-30) and St Paul’s, Deptford (1714-28).

He gave up architectural work when he was appointed Controller of Customs at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1715.  He died in May 1743 worth £100,000, which he bequeathed to his youngest nephew, Henry Archer, MP for Warwick.

As well as knowing the right people to make a lot of money, he was an exceptional designer.  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner & Alexandra Wedgwood point out that St Philip’s was “the first English church since St Paul Covent Garden to be designed by an architect who had seen for himself major Continental buildings”.

Its form is rectangular yet subtly varied and makes lively use of Doric and Corinthian orders.

The tower, which was not completed until 1725, is immediately recognisable by its scrolls and octagonal dome and may have inspired Cuthbert Brodrick’s tower for Leeds Town Hall (1853-8).

Archer’s original plan was to surmount his tower with a large cross, but this was replaced by a boar’s-head weathervane to acknowledge Sir Richard Gough’s influence in obtaining the £600 donation from King George I that enabled the lantern to be finished.

Money talks.

The Victorian architect J A Chatwin (1830-1907) extended the original chancel, adding extra Corinthian columns and a stepped entablature in white and gold to Archer’s square piers and round arches.  Ian Nairn described Chatwin’s work as “grand-slam Classical”.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1838-1898), who was born at Bennett’s Hill a short walk away and had been baptised in the church, designed for the three windows of Chatwin’s apse a triptych of the Nativity, Crucifixion and Ascension in William Morris glass, and subsequently gifted the design for the West Window which represents the Last Judgement.

St Philip’s became the cathedral when the Anglican Diocese was formed in 1905.

Incendiary bombs destroyed the roof in 1941, and the Cathedral was restored in 1947-8 by Philip and Anthony Chatwin, the son and great-nephew of J A Chatwin.

This must be one of the most intimate and welcoming of all the English cathedrals.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 7, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Bell Edison Building, Birmingham

One of the finest terracotta buildings in the centre of Birmingham is this rhapsody of ornament by Frederick William Martin (1859-1917), whose partnership, Martin & Chamberlain, was one of the leaders of the local ‘terracotta school’ of architects and best-known for their board schools and other public buildings.

It was originally the Bell Edison Building (1896), Birmingham’s first telephone exchange and headquarters of the National Telephone Company.

Its decoration is a riot of beasts and foliage with turrets, Dutch gables and chimneys enlivening the skyline.

The exchange equipment was originally installed on the top floor, where up to two hundred operators could connect callers.  Female operators had their own entrance and cloakroom.

The decorative wrought-iron gates are by the Bromsgrove Guild.

It was modernised as an office block, Exchange Buildings, with an additional floor by Mark Humphries Architects in 1994.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

The absurdities of Victorian railway competition are only equalled by the profligate waste of the railway closures in the 1960s.

Birmingham’s two main stations lie at right-angles to each other, on different levels and several hundred yards apart, because three entirely separate and competing companies built the lines into Birmingham.

The Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill Station, first opened in 1852, developed into a magnificent red-brick and terracotta structure of 1911-12 behind J A Chatwin’s grand Great Western Hotel of 1875.

In 1961 a scheme was published to turn Snow Hill into “the most modern railway terminal in Europe”.

As late as 1964, during the electrification of the West Coast Main Line, it handled 130,000 trains and 7,500,000 passengers, compared with 175,000 trains and 10,000,000 passengers at New Street.

Later in the 1960s many former GWR services were closed or diverted to the redeveloped New Street, except for Stratford and Warwick local services which terminated at the suburban-relief station at Moor Street, south of the Inner Ring Road.

The Great Western Hotel was demolished in 1971.  Snow Hill Station itself remained derelict after the last train-service finished in 1972, became structurally unsafe and was eventually cleared in 1979.

However, from 1987 the Moor Street services again ran through the reopened tunnel, and a new Snow Hill Station was incorporated in the unlovely Colmore Court office-development. 

Since 2001 the Birmingham to Wolverhampton service of the West Midlands Metro has used a platform of Snow Hill station as its city-centre terminus.

So, apart from the fact that more trains run from Moor Street than Snow Hill, and the second London service runs to Marylebone rather than Paddington, there are relatively few significant differences in the availability of services now than there were in 1960.

Hindsight is a wonderful luxury, but I can’t help wondering if the planners’ plans really added up correctly in the 1960s, any more than the haphazard eccentricities of Victorian laissez-faire did 110 years previously.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Great Western Arcade, Birmingham

Birmingham’s finest shopping arcade, the Great Western Arcade, was built, as its name suggests, on the girders which were installed to cover the open railway cutting leading into Snow Hill Station in 1874.

Designed by the Birmingham architect W H Ward, it lost its top storey, its dome and the original design of the entrance to Colmore Row in the Birmingham blitz.  Sympathetically refurbished by Douglas Hickman of the John Madin Design Group in 1984-5, and further restored in 2009, it remains one of the pleasantest of Birmingham’s shopping experiences.

Even if you hate shopping and shops, one of the great pleasures of central Birmingham is the Victorian Restaurant [http://www.greatwesternarcade.co.uk/shop-detail.php?ID=15] in the Great Western Arcade – an ideal place for breakfast, lunch or tea, preferably on the first floor, looking out on to the gallery and a glazed roof that could be Victorian, but isn’t.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 13, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Duddeston Viaduct

Almost every time I travel from Sheffield to Birmingham, the train pauses outside New Street Station to wait for a vacant platform.

Looking to the south, it’s possible to discern two railway viaducts, one carrying trains into Moor Street Station, from where they traverse a tunnel at right angles to the New Street lines under the city centre to Snow Hill Station.

There’s another viaduct that carries only bushes and small trees.

This is the 1,100-yard-long 58-arch Duddeston Viaduct, built by the Great Western Railway as a linking curve towards the old Curzon Street station that closed when New Street opened in 1852.

The companies operating into New Street, the London & North Western and the Midland railways, blocked the Great Western access to their old and new stations, and the Great Western instead built Snow Hill station and tunnel at great expense.

Duddeston Viaduct halted at the land-boundary and, though it still exists, has never been used to carry trains since it was built.

See http://warwickshirerailways.com/gwr/gwrbg671.htm.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 28, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1976)

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1977)

Opposite the National Indoor Arena is a circular island with a signpost in the middle of the canal, for all the world like a waterway roundabout.

It dates back to the Second World War, when LMS Railway engineers installed it to hold stop-planks which would dam the canal in the event of bomb-damage, with the aim of protecting the railway-tunnel below from flooding.  The signpost, beckoning in three directions, to Liverpool and Manchester, Nottingham and Lincoln, and to Coventry and London, is a cross-roads of the English canal-system.

One arm of the junction leads on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which shortly begins the descent of the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks.

This was the eighteenth-century equivalent of the motorway system around Spaghetti Junction.

At one time there were 124 separate wharves and works between Farmer’s Bridge and Aston Junction, and until at least the 1920s the locks were gas-lit in order to operate twenty-four hours a day.  This stretch is a varied and spectacular piece of canal-scape, whether viewed from the towpath or by boat.

The canal plunges beneath the high-rise buildings associated with the 498-foot Telecom Tower (1965-6), which actually straddle Locks 9 and 10.  Locks 12 and 13 are similarly located beneath the bridges of Livery Street, the Great Western Railway approach to Snow Hill Station and Snow Hill itself.

The Farmer’s Bridge flight is a powerful and evocative walk beneath the streets of central Birmingham, the city that boasts it has more canals than Venice.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 26, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Gas Street Basin

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham (1976)

I first came across Gas Street Basin, the heart of Birmingham’s canal-system in 1976, when it still had the patina of a neglected, workaday industrial site.

The canal basin lies at the end-on junction of the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the site of one of the famous absurdities of the waterways system.

From the moment the Worcester & Birmingham gained its Act of Parliament in 1791, the Birmingham Canal refused to share its water supplies, and set up the notorious Worcester Bar, a physical barrier 7ft 3in wide and 84 yards long over which freight had to be craned.

Eventually the Birmingham Canal consented to install a lock in return for heavy compensation when the Worcester & Birmingham line was fully opened in 1815.

The area was riddled with wharves, most of which have been filled in at various times during the twentieth century, and what few warehouses survive have been rehabilitated.

Nowadays Gas Street is positively gentrified, with apartment-blocks, canal-side pubs and restaurants and trip-boats, and the mirror-glass slab of the Hyatt Regency Hotel (Renton Howard Wood Levin 1990) dominates the area.

There’s no point regretting the loss of the scruffy patina.  Decay is destructive.

But I do regret the demolition of the Gothic Unitarian Church of the Messiah (J J Bateman, 1860-2), which stood above the short tunnel at the west end of the basin, a landmark both for street-passengers and boatmen.

It was the place of worship of the enormously significant Chamberlain, Nettlefold, Kenrick and Martineau families, and it contained the memorial of Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the discoverer of oxygen, political radical and victim of the Priestley Riots of 1791.

This monument of Birmingham’s history deserved better than to be obliterated.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 12, 2012

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

The Rotunda, Birmingham

The post-war redevelopment of Birmingham was a sorry story.

The City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), notoriously declared in 1957, “I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past.  They are often more sentimental than valuable. In fact, I sometimes deplore the modern tendency to pay exaggerated respect to everything old…

“As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture.  Its replacement should be an improvement, provided we keep a few monuments as museum pieces to past ages.  Such buildings as the Town Hall, the Law Courts and a few churches will undoubtedly be retained...As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.”

Ironically, much that Manzoni’s generation built in Birmingham in place of Victorian and older buildings is now under threat, but James A Roberts’ Rotunda (1964-5) remains most dominant, memorable and perhaps the most satisfying of the 1960s buildings in the city.

271 feet high from road level, it was designed to provided accommodation for two storeys of shops, three storeys for a bank, one of them the strong room, sixteen office floors and two floors for services, plus a parapet.

The penthouse floor was occupied as offices by the James A Mander Design Group, an architectural practice of which the senior partner was James A Roberts.

Roberts had the satisfaction of seeing his design become the subject of an outcry when it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s.  Listed in 2000, it was refurbished as apartments for the developer Urban Splash by Glenn Howells (2004-8).

Not everything that was built in the 1960s was regrettable.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 10, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham

Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham

Birmingham is Britain’s terra-cotta city.

The material was extremely popular in late-Victorian British towns and cities, because it was theoretically washable, though the rain was rendered sulphurous by coal-fired homes, factories and trains.

Of all Birmingham’s terra-cotta buildings, there can be few more exciting than Birmingham’s Victoria Law Courts (1886).

Building this ambitious structure was in fact part of the deal by which Birmingham gained its own Assizes.

The design-competition was assessed by Alfred Waterhouse, designer of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington and house-architect to the Prudential Assurance Company, who loved the material so much that his colleagues nicknamed his style “slaughterhouse Gothic”.

What Waterhouse loved about terra-cotta was that it rendered rich detail crisp and plastic, so that sensuous curves flow across and die into the structural forms of wall surfaces and apertures.

The competition was won by Aston Webb (1849-1930) and Ingress Bell (1887-91), an ambitious pair who astutely chose as the pseudonym on their competition-entry, ‘Terra-cotta’.

The exterior is built of Ruabon brick and terracotta, but the interior is entirely in buff clay by Gibbs & Canning of Tamworth, Staffordshire.

The design is stuffed with Arts and Crafts statues and reliefs, by William Aumonier, William Silver Frith with Walter Crane, and Harry Bates.  The ornamental stained glass was designed by Walter Lonsdale, and the furnishings – many of which survive – were supplied by Chamberlain, King & Jones.

Mottos moulded into the decoration include “Truth is the highest thing that man may keep” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”.  The clear intention was to inspire wonder in visitors and awe in clients.

The Grade I listed Victoria Law Courts has become increasingly impractical for dispensing justice efficiently.  Like the terra-cotta Methodist Central Hall (Ewan Harper & James A Harper 1903-4) across the road, it will present a problem to tax both planners and conservationists.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.


Previous page: Amenity bodies