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The 'village' which defied the developers to retain its rural aspect

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: July 14, 2005

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The origin of the name of Smethwick has variously been interpreted as meaning either the smith's dwelling or the village on the plain. While the former is appropriate for an area that once rung with the activities of various metalware trades, it is rather more difficult to trace much that is village-like about the town nowadays.

However, as the majority of these Edwardian postcards show, the township still retained a surprisingly countrified atmosphere well into the twentieth century, with winding lanes lined with trees. Our thanks are extended once more to regular contributor Frank Higgitt, of Mary Road in Tividale, for supplying these rare images of Edwardian Smethwick.

Smethwick was originally a township within the ancient parish of Harborne, lying on the main road between Birmingham and Dudley and Oldbury. Before the nineteenth century, it was a sparsely populated area, with only 49 people within the township assessed for hearth tax in 1666, and the first church not built until 1732.

However, the cutting of the Birmingham Canal through the northern part of Smethwick in the 1760s led to a population rise. But this was still relatively small, the populace amounting to just over a thousand people in 1801, with agriculture remaining the main occupation. The area still consisted of open farmland, interspersed by coppices and woodland, but increasingly, businessmen from Birmingham came to settle in the town, attracted by its bucolic aspect on the fringes of the city, and built grand houses set in fine estates.

But still the population remained scattered until Thomas Telford opened his new canal in Smethwick in the 1820s, with the railway following in 1852. The new lines of transport and communication brought new industries, including the glassworks of Chance Brothers & Co., the engineering firm of Boulton, Watt & Co., Fox, Henderson & Co., famed for their work on the Crystal Palace, the tube making company Evered & Son, and the nut, bolt and screw manufacturers Watkins & Keen and Nettlefold & Chamberlain (later Guest Keen & Nettlefold). The innovations of the Industrial Revolution also made it increasingly difficult for farmers to extract a living from their lands; new roads split farms, canals and railways made access to fields difficult, and smog polluted crops.

With the decline in agriculture and the boom in industry came more people, all jostling to join the new trades. The population was 8,379 in 1851; just fifty years later, over 54,000 people swarmed within the town's borders.

To house all these workers, what had previously been ancient farms were swallowed by housing estates, and once quiet country lanes became lined with houses. Old Chapel Farm, Blakeley Hall Farm, between Spon Lane and the boundary with Oldbury, Holt Hill Farm in Roebuck Lane, and the romantically moated The Beakes, in the south of Smethwick, were all sold off and broken into building plots by the early twentieth century.

The fine houses and gardens of the Birmingham merchants also suffered, with many of them purchased, demolished, and their lovely gardens turned over to building. Among those that have disappeared in the name of progress are Capethorn, a Regency house built over by Capethorn Road; the similar period Woodlands, the house still in use until the 1950s although the surrounding acres had all been developed; the seventeenth century Shireland Hall, the home of the wealthy John Reynolds, the master plater, which was demolished after partial collapse in 1887, as was a later Georgian house on the same estate; The Coppice, probably built for John Reynolds, and later home of G.F. Muntz's brother and partner P.H. Muntz; Smethwick House (later Smethwick Hall), dating from 1746, which stood at the west end of Stony Lane, until destroyed in 1937; the late eighteenth century Spout House, demolished the same year; and The Uplands, a handsome villa built by Samuel Thompson, demolished in 1958 to make way for the tower blocks known as Thompson Gardens. Similarly, when the Warley Woods portion of Oldbury was added to Smethwick, it was then still partly rural, although by 1938 almost the whole area was laid out with housing.

Other farms and estates, including the Ruck of Stones Farm, which existed as early as the sixteenth century and occupied most of the north of the town, the French Walls Farm, Piddocks Farm and Rabone Hall (previously Smethwick Hall), all of which were similarly ancient, were developed for industry, as well as for housing thousand of employees. For instance, G. F Muntz & Co.'s metal works were established at the French Walls in 1842, James Watt built the Soho Foundry on part of Piddocks Farm, the Surrey Works of Evered & Co. covered part of the Ruck of Stones Farm, Smethwick Grove, a fine house near the eastern boundary of Smethwick, later housed the St. George's works of Guest Keen and Nettlefolds, and by 1864 Rabone Hall provided the site of Tangye Bros. & Price's engineering works. Cranford Farm, near the Soho Bridge, was devastated by the advent of the railway.

Similarly, while much of West Smethwick was still comprised of open country well into the last century, the areas around Holly Lane and Coopers Lane were beginning to develop. As development from Smethwick spread westwards, the houses became grander and larger, and the still green and pleasant surroundings made the district a much sought after address by the middle classes, as well as the artisans who occupied the smaller houses in streets such as Coopers Lane.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the scattered settlement along the Birmingham-Dudley Road increasingly became the focus of Smethwick, and in 1906, a stretch of the road was renamed as the High Street, reflecting its rising importance as a commercial and retail centre. The photograph on the right was taken soon after the renaming, the striped awnings, cobbled streets and resting horses lending the street the look of a country market town.

From Victorian times, the great and the good of Smethwick had attempted to ensure that islands of green remained amid the rapid tide of housing. Victoria Park was laid out in 1887-8 around Pool Farm (previously Berwoods Hill Farm), and the grounds of Smethwick Hall were purchased by the Corporation and also laid out as a park. Warley Park, centring on the beautiful Gothic masterpiece that was Warley Abbey, became a public park in 1906. West Smethwick Park, shown here in all its glory on the left, was opened in 1895 on 43 acres of farmland granted and endowed by local glass magnate James Timmins Chance. In 1928 Smethwick Corporation bought the remaining land of the now much shrunken Smethwick Hall estate and opened Smethwick Hall Park, although the house itself was demolished to make way for a school. The Holly Lodge estate in Holly Lane, on the other hand, was purchased by the Corporation with the intention of developing it for housing, but thankfully they changed their minds, turning the Victorian Holly Lodge into a school and the grounds into playing fields, preserving something of the character of an estate which could trace its history back to 1710.

By the early twentieth century, from when these views date, most of the streets which exist today had already become established residential areas. By the time that these postcards were sent, between 1912 and 1918, Smethwick was, however, still changing. The town had become an urban district in 1894, reflecting the loss of its rural aspect, and a county borough in 1907. By 1928, the borough consisted of almost 2,500 acres, added to by the transfer that year of Warley Woods from Oldbury. Such was the continuing boom in development that by the late 1940s only 21 percent of its land was not built upon, compared to 56 percent for the rest of the Black Country, and it was the mostly densely populated borough outside London, save for Salford.

Nevertheless, as these postcards show, the town of Smethwick managed to defy the developers for many years and hang on to the vestiges of its rural past, when the place richly deserved its name of the 'village on the plain'.

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