Sunday, 3 June 2012

Report of the North Arden History Society - May 2012 - Aston history

Nigel Cripps
Photo by Pete Millington

Members and visitors of the North Arden Local History Society met in Arden Hall on Thursday 10th May where we learned a little of the fascinating history of Aston Manor of which Castle Bromwich (and Water Orton) were once a part. Our speaker was Mr Nigel Cripps who, as he told us, is a retired Engineer and no historian however, as he ably proved, has an excellent knowledge of his chosen subject.

Mr Cripps explained that his talk would comprise four parts starting with Astons’ place in the medieval and up to the 1970’s, secondly the surviving listed buildings in Aston including some that were only identified in 2011 – a year that marked the centenary of Aston becoming part of Birmingham: he would then discuss the monuments within the Church and conclude by asking our audience some questions about our own area that, (as above), was once part of Aston. Nigel had collected quite a large number of relevant photographs which were used to illustrate his talk and were quite nostalgic for those of the audience who knew Aston.

Aston Parish Church (Saint Peter and Saint Pauls) was the only church in the “Greater Birmingham Area” to have been recorded by William I commissioners for the Domesday Survey of 1086 – in fact Aston was much larger in the 11th Century than Birmingham and also included Digbeth/Deritend, Witton, Erdington, as well as Castle Bromwich and Water Orton within it’s bounds.

The first stone church was built in the 12th Century (1120) and the present day tower that can be seen from the Aston Expressway and M6 dates from 1480. In 1879 there is evidence of rivalry between Aston and Birmingham in that a Mr J. A. Chatwin an architect was given the task of ‘re-ordering’ (renovating/restoring) both St Martins (Birmingham Bull Ring) and St Peter and St Pauls with strict instructions that Aston should be 50% larger. Aston had its own Urban District Council in the 19th Century and its former Council House is one of the listed buildings identified in the 2011 centenary survey; Mr Cripps showed us pictures of both the exterior and interior of this impressive piece of Victorian civic architecture.

Aston Manor Urban District Council demised in 1911 when Birmingham ‘took over’ all the civic responsibilities (coincidently taking parts of Worcestershire as well– Yardley, Stechford and Kings Norton included). Quite when Aston became ‘Aston Manor’ is uncertain but ‘Aston Juxta Birmingham’ occurs frequently to distinguish this Aston from others (i.e. Aston Cantlow, Warwks); Aston derives from the ‘Old English’Estone meaning ‘East Farm’ and is quite common.

In the 1960’s there was a lot of demolition and clearance of low grade houses, back to backs and such like - as was also happening in other parts of the city – and, almost regrettably, the area was changed forever by the construction of the Aston Expressway linking the city centre to the M6 interchange at Spaghetti Junction. The 1951 Census recorded 13,000 people registered but this figure reduced by 80% to 7,500 by figures in the 2001 returns for the same area.

This section of the talk concluded with the details on how much the area and the churches congregation has changed in the last fifty years, now-a-days it is very multi-racial and has families from all regions of the Commonwealth within its numbers. A very good example of revival and success since the authorities considered closing it down once and for all back in 1975.

We were next moved back in time to the historical Parish at its greatest extent in the latter half of the 19th Century; the northern boundary was shared with Sutton Coldfield and Perry Common, in the west it met with Lozells/Handsworth and in the South with Sparkbrook and Small Heath; the east included Castle Bromwich and Water Orton and ceased at the medieval Parish boundary of Coleshill. Mr Cripps map showed that it skirted round medieval Birmingham but it should be noted that Deritend/Digbeth – thought by many to be the heart of medieval Birmingham with a larger population than Birmingham itself – was actually in Aston!

Because of the great size of this Parish many settlements had what were known as‘Chapels of Ease’ that the residents could attend for obligatory Sunday Services especially in Autumn and Winter and other times of inclement weather we heard of the first of these, St John’s in Deritend and many others. St Mary and St Margaret’s at Castle Bromwich may have had independent origins and was possibly associated with the local lord (i.e. Anselm de Bromwych in the 14th Century if not earlier) –Water Orton however did have a Chapel of Ease set in Old Church Road until the present Church was built in the 1870’s.

A ‘Survey of Listed Buildings’ was conducted as part of Aston’s Centenary Events in 2011 and a list was shown on screen of these and Mr Cripps told us that 3% of these were Grade One which is higher than the national average. Obviously Aston Hall itself and the Church are high on this list but others, known to many, included the Barton’s Arms Public House built to a very high standard by Mitchells and Butlers (Brewers) in 1901 across the road from the famous but vanished Aston Hippodrome Theatre consequently many famous turns of the Variety Theatres/Music Halls would have patronised the ‘Barton’s’.

The once famous Aston Lower Grounds (recreation grounds) of the 19thCentury are remembered in the only surviving building – the restored Holt Hotel.

In respect of transport links Nigel told us that within the Parish of Aston area are very important junctions of both Canals and Railways; for example the earlier canal system has an impressive junction of the Birmingham to Fazeley and the Tame Valley Canal both still used in the shadow of Spaghetti Junction at Salford Bridge and later in the mid 19thCentury the Birmingham to Manchester and the Birmingham to London railways. No doubt many readers would have attended the ‘Aston Commercial and Technical School’ when in their youth (as Apprentices or such like) this can still be seen in situ but as was explained it is a Grade 2 listed building in a high need of a lot of TLC but owned by Birmingham City Council. Surprisingly the Clock and adjacent lamppost that mark Aston Cross (with Ansell’s Brewery in the back ground of many ‘classic’ photos’) is also Grade 2 listed but although it has been there for over 100 years and made of cast iron was originally made in Scotland. If you know why and what is the connection please let us know? We saw the Britannia Pub (1898) the Roman Catholic Church (built 1920) with a Byzantine style interior well worth seeing and Aston Fire Station where Ozzy Osbourne gave his first live performance; these were all high-lighted by the English Heritage Inspector during 2011. Aston Manor Council House (above) has recently been sold to an Islamic organisation who plan to develop it into a school consequently relieving the City Council of their responsibilities – so well were many of these buildings constructed by our Victorian forefathers that they have survived with very little maintenance!

Built in 1882 for Steam Trams and converted to Electricity in 1904 the Tram Deport in Miller Street is currently vacant having been closed by Birmingham Council when the Transport Museum decided they could not afford the Annual rental charges the Council demanded! – You may recall this event gave rise to many reports in the Birmingham Mail at the time. Mr Cripps related the history of the building with several photographs (some showing the original tram rails and inspection pits still in situ). The Museum has now relocated to a site at Aldridge and has undergone a complete change of life and attracted numerous new volunteers who are carrying on the work. Mr Cripps’ understanding was that the building is currently ‘under offer’ but since English Heritage has told “the Council”that as it was designated as a museum this designation must be retained. There are a lot of items of engineering significance under storage with nowhere to display them that fall within Birmingham Museum’s collections, the Miller Street buildings may be a possibility but with the political change resulting from the May local elections the future remains to be seen…This section concluded with photographs of several Victorian Buildings – many Public Houses as well as breweries (Ansell’s, Atkinson’s, and Holte’s) the HP Sauce Factory etcetera all of which are ‘C’ grade as being of significant local interest.

There was also an in-depth study of memorials within the Parish Church and included the Jacobean Memorial/Tomb for Sir Edward Devereux – the builder of Castle Bromwich Hall with his wife (Katherine Arden from Park Hall Castle Bromwich) and children. In respect of Park Hall the Arden Tomb is worthy of note showing Sir Ralph Arden in plate armour of the 14th Century (died 1360) accompanied by, in effigy, by Elizabeth Clodeshalle the widow of Robert Arden who died c1459. There is also a stained glass window (most likely Victorian) showing ancestors of William Shakespeare -Walter Arden and his wife Eleanor Hampden in 1454. Until 1815 burials from Castle Bromwich had to take place at Aston which remained the ‘mother church’ till 1894. There are other memorials of note including the de Erdington Family. We heard of the theft and recovery of the memorial for Joseph Ansell the founder of Ansell’s Brewery and a long serving church warden. Nigel told us about a unique painted glass window that is preserved in protective storage in the Church; it was painted (1798) in three layers to give the image depth and King George III visited Aston to study the painting and commissioned the artist (Eggington) to provide windows for the Chapel Royal –these have not survived. There is a medieval (Catholic) style brass from a tomb dated 1545 (post Reformation) that was damaged in the 1960’s and information on how it looked before being damaged is eagerly sought by the Church. A tomb for Sir Lister Holte was shown and Mr Cripps related how he is assigned the responsibility for the demise of Holte family’s ownership of the Hall and Manor – leaving it to his nearest male relative who ‘frittered’ (gambled?) it away!

We then heard of another window and the history relating to it that has come to light from fairly recent research; this was needed because the window itself is badly in need of restoration. Some of the people involved with the design and manufacture showed fascinating backgrounds including the building of the original Winson Green Prison and other Victorian edifices that once adorned our city centre. After telling us about the history behind a memorial that was erected in the 1950’s we heard of John Rodgers an Aston resident who was burned at the stake by Queen Mary in 1555 for translating the bible into English and has a bust in the Church that came from St John’s Chapel in Digbeth when that was closed in the late 1940’s.

In conclusion we were asked five questions that Nigel and others at the Church would like clarification on. Initially, why was there a significant religious presence at Aston 1086 when Domesday recorded the presence of a Priest [evidence of a priest is generally taken to indicate a church/religious building JGD]. Then why was Sir Ralph Arden brought to Aston (according to Dugdale), is the lady next to him actually Elizabeth Clodeshale, and is Sir William Harcourt’s armour actually English? Finally information was requested on the history of the Devereux and Bridgeman families.

We have since sent Mr Cripps a copy of our 2009 publication, ‘Castle Bromwich in Times Past Part 2’ –Section One of which provides information on most of these. In respect of English Plate Armour in the 14thCentury we could hazard a guess that it may have been taken in battle (Crecy or Poitiers) where it had been developed to counteract (unsuccessfully) English arrows!

It was a most wide ranging and informative talk, especially by, as Mr Cripps said, a non historian. For in spite of all the late 20thCentury redevelopment we learned that quite a lot of Aston’s past has survived, it is certainly worth going to see. Thank you, Nigel, for sharing this with us.

For Internet users wishing to follow up Aston try Bill Dargue’s ‘A History of Birmingham Places and Placenames from A – Y’ and  

We are always pleased to welcome guests and visitors at our meetings, the next of which will be on 12th July when the topic will be The Liberation of the Disabled in Birmingham presented by Pete Millington. There is no meeting in August consequently the following meeting will be 13th September on Customs and Traditions of the British Army by Nick Ward. Meetings are held in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall, Water Orton Road at 7.45pm.


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