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Great Barr Hall - Walsall's 'Downton Abbey' - is at an historical crossroads

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 23, 2014

  • An image of Great Barr Hall from around 1840 supplied by Paul Leslie Line of Mapseeker Archive Publishing Ltd

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A PLAN by Developers BCG Lakes and Lapworth Architects to convert the derelict Great Barr Hall, which has stood empty on the Walsall-Sandwell border since 1978, into a hotel and conference venue, along with 57 homes, has led to a big debate locally. Bugle columnist Ian Henery looks at the history of the hall which he describes as Walsall's Downton Abbey and says the site is at an historical crossroads.

GREAT Barr Hall, the ancestral home of the Scott family and situated in Walsall is on the borders of Sandwell and Birmingham.

It consists of a Grade 2 (star) Listed Building and a Registered Park built by the Scott Family with imprints from the architect John Nash and landscape architects William Shenstone and Humphrey Repton.

The Parkland of the Great Barr Hall Estate is hugely important and is on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.

Great Barr Hall and its associated lakes and historic parkland lies just off Junction 7 on the M6. Great Barr Hall, once home to the Scott family, gave its name to the nearby Scott Arms pub and shopping centre. The site is of international importance because of its links with the Lunar Society, which included pioneers of the Industrial Revolution like James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin.

The Lunar Society have been described as "the most remarkable group of thinkers and innovators in the 18th century which had a more potent effect upon civilisation than that of any other society in history," according to Peter Allen, Secretary to the Great Barr Hall Action Committee and Chairman of the Barr and Aston Local History Society.

These 18th century industrial pioneers called themselves The Lunar Society because they held meetings at Great Barr Hall over the full moon period to avoid journeys in the darkness by horseback or coach. Other members of the Lunar Society who attended Great Barr Hall included Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestly. Research unearthed by Peter Allen has revealed that Great Barr Hall was "the favourite meeting place of the Lunar Society."

These founding fathers of the Industrial revolution kept no records of their meetings and the only eyewitness accounts of their meetings at Great Barr Hall were the memoirs of the daughter of Samuel Galton, a Quaker who took over the lease of Great Barr Hall after the near bankruptcy of Sir Joseph Scott in 1788.

The history of Great Barr Hall in Walsall reads like a script for the TV drama, Downton Abbey. In the mid-17th century Richard Scott acquired the property which was known as Nether House. In 1777 Joseph Scott (later Sir Joseph Scott, 1st Baronet Scott of Great Barr) replaced Nether House with a two-storey, nine-bay mansion in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style, complete with battlements and a chapel. The mansion was much altered and extended between 1840 – 1863 by Sir Francis Scott.

Sir Joseph Scott was a spendthrift and, according to Peter Allen, "gave wings to three fortunes." He was close to bankruptcy following his grandiose plans for the development of Great Barr Hall and its parkland. He went on a Grand Tour of Europe and Great Barr Hall was leased out to Samuel Galton, a member of the Lunar Society. Despite being a Quaker, and therefore a pacifist, he was also a gun-maker whose factory was based in Smethwick, where 10,000 guns a year were sold to slave traders."

Samuel Galton's Smethwick factory made guns for merchants in the "Africa Trade" who in turn supplied or traded them to African chiefs in return for slaves.

It is very difficult to reconcile this fact with Peter Allen's description of the Galtons as "genial hosts" and Quakers, whose faith is opposed to violence. Samuel Galton's daughters boycotted sugar from slave plantations. Mary Galton (whose memoirs described the Lunar Society meetings) and her sister were committee members of the West Bromwich, Birmingham and District Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves.

In 1792 a committee was appointed to collect subscriptions to enlarge the local Quaker Meeting House and raised an ethical point: should Galton's "blood money" be used from the "Africa trade"? Samuel Galton, to his credit, retired from the gun-trade but his son, also called Samuel, mounted a spirited defence in his pursuit of profit in the arms industry and slavery in 1796 and lost. He was disowned as a Quaker and when he gave up the gun-trade in 1804 and started banking he was allowed to re-join Quaker meetings once more. Interestingly, this was after the Quakers accepted a donation from him towards the enlargement of the Quaker burial ground in Birmingham.

The mansion reverted to the Scott family in 1791. Sir Francis Scott (3rd Baronet) inherited Great Barr Hall from his maternal uncle, Thomas Hoo, and the Scott family moved back in after the expiry of the lease. Sir Francis Scott died in 1863 and his widow, Mildred (Lady Scott), lived on in the hall until her death in 1909. She was the last of the Scott family to live in Great Barr Hall.

Following Lady Scott's death Great Barr Hall remained empty until 1911 when it was bought by the West Bromwich Poor Law Guardians and, in 1918, became St Margaret's Mental Hospital. Many detached hospital buildings were erected near the hall, including farm buildings so patients could work the farmland, including an open-side tractor shed made out of corrugated iron sheets and an isolation unit near St Margaret's Church on Chapel Lane. According to Peter Allen, the Woodlands site was built in 1926 as an infectious disease hospital for Walsall Council and the most severe cases from the workhouse infirmaries were accommodated here, such as terminal cases of diphtheria, scarlet fever, TB and every other form of contagious disease. In the 1980s the parkland around Great Barr Hall became a nature reserve managed by the South Staffordshire Nature Conservation Trust. Great Barr Hall itself was abandoned in 1978 and, despite its Grade 2 (star) Listed Building status was left to decay.

St Margaret's Mental Hospital began to close in phases from the late 1980s with the male department closing in 1992 and the female department in 1997. Residents with high dependency left the newer part of the site in 2004 and then the hospital closed for good. The site has also included a special school, The Queslett School, but that closed in 1988.

In 2006 Bovis Homes purchased the 40 hectare site and obtained planning permission for redevelopment. In 2011 Nether Hall Park, a residential housing development, was constructed on the site of the former St Margaret's Mental Hospital.

However, the mansion itself is still in ruins and was on the market for £2.2 million by the Manor Building Preservation Trust who purchased it in 2002 for £900,000. It was then put up for auction on February 6, 2012, by Van Weenan Estate Agents in London with a guide price of £1,250,000 and remained unsold (highest bid was £1,140,000). In May 2012 Great Barr Hall was bought by a consortium of 10 local families, BCG Lakes, who then instructed Lapworth Architects to consult with the public and investigate new uses for Great Barr Hall.

The derelict Great Barr Hall is now at a historical crossroads. Great Barr Hall remains in a derelict state. Hopefully in the not too distant future the corner will be turned and the hall and park will be returned to its former glory.

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