The Manors (map one)
'Bordesleie' was first recorded as a separate manor in 1226. It covered 3133ha, 3.1km². The hamlet was at the west end, where the Coventry Expressway joins the Middleway near Bordesley Station. Its open fields lay all around. The rest of the manor was covered in wood and heath, with scattered farms. Those hereabout were Heybarnes (Haybern ref. 1370), Little Hey, and Danford Farms. This last was named after a crossing-point, probably dene-ford (dene - a small valley), of the Spark Brook. In Georgian times, perhaps earlier, there was a large fishpond on the brook, and its dam was used as a causeway across the mire.
The manor of Yardley ('Gyrdleahe' ref. 972 A.D.) covers 27.5km³ and extends from Solihull Lodge to Sheldon and from Sparkbrook to Olton. It therefore includes Greet, Sparkhill, Tyseley, Acocks Green and Hall Green. The first open fields were in the north, where later the manor house and church were built, but there were other field systems at Stockfield/Acocks Green, to the east of our vantage point, and over Sparkhill, associated respectively with the lost hamlet of Tenchley ('South Yardley') and the scattered settlement of Greet. The manor house of Greet, a small estate within Yardley, but in different ownership, stood near the modern Greet Inn on Warwick Road: its Georgian successor, 'Manor Farm', is remembered in a street-name. The water-worn stones in the streambeds are the 'greot' (grit, gravel) which gave a name to the district and provided a few wide but firm and shallow crossing points in the boggy denes.
Hay Hall, not visible from the hill, is a medieval timbered hall, one of the great houses of Yardley manor, which was later encased in Stuart brick and tile. It was the home of the Delahayes and the Ests. The south front is Regency, rebuilt after fire. The factory firm which nearly surrounds the Hall has preserved it: a side view may be had from Redfern Road.
The Warwick Canal (maps two to six)
Two hundred years ago the whole of Bordesley manor and most of Yardley were enclosed in small hedged crofts, largely used for pasturing stock and market gardens, which supplied meat on the hoof, hides, vegetables, fruit and dairy produce for the growing town of Birmingham. The many ponds, created when clay was dug out for brickmaking and for spreading over the less fertile surface drift, were used both for stock watering and for fish crops. Poor roads and a lack of navigable rivers made the transporting of materials and fuel to, and manufactures from, the town very expensive, so the wealthy citizens were eager to pay for artificial waterways - canals. Birmingham was linked by water to coal-fields and ports by 1790, but the way to London was indirect and long. Warwick's townspeople wanted cheaper coal and a better route to the capital, and they formed the Birmingham and Warwick Canal Company. Work began in 1793 from a junction with the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham Canal Navigation: the canal crossed the Rea on an aqueduct, and climbed out of its valley by way of six narrow locks. From Camp Hill it was able to maintain its summit level (117m) all the way to Knowle. Water to fill it came from streams en route, including a long feeder from the Spark Brook, the Rushey and Westley Brooks, and Olton Reservoir, built by French prisoners of war.
Crossing the Spark and the Cole has always presented problems. Provision for free flow of great volumes of flood-water had to be made if the embankment of clay, sand and gravel was not to be damaged. Bank breaks were the constant fear of canal engineers. The Warwick Canal runs parallel to the Spark Brook along its valley side before bending to cross the multiple watercourses about the confluence by the shortest route, bending again to skirt Hay Hall, then cutting and tunnelling through Stockfield ridge. By 1799 it had been extended beyond the Avon to join the Oxford Canal at Napton: other canals from there provided a direct way to London from 1820. The system was prosperous for some decades, despite railway competition from the 1840s, carrying Black Country coal and Yardley red tiles and bricks southward. Flyboats for travellers, drawn by horse teams, plied smoothly and swiftly along the summit level. Short arms were cut - at Camp Hill top lock - on the feeders, later to the B.S.A., and at Kings Road a turning pool was made. To public works yards at Montgomery Street and Kings Road came road metal, setts and paving stones, and from them refuse went to be dumped at the Borough Boundary, and night-soil to be sold to farmers. The roving bridge on the canal west of the railway viaduct crosses the (blocked) tunnel entrance to the B.S.A. arm. During World War One, a basin was dug east of the viaduct for use by boats serving factories thereabout.
In 1929, five independent canals including the Warwick joined with others to form the Grand Union Canal Co. During the 1930s, the cuts were dredged and piled with steel or concrete to take motor boats and their towed 'butties'. Improvements stopped at Camp Hill, where terminal warehouses and facilities were provided. Stockfield tunnel was rebuilt. After wartime revival, commercial traffic dwindled to nothing. Pleasure cruising was tried from Stockfield after the War, and during the Yardley Festival of 1972: nowadays only private vessels disturb the canal's solitude.
Railways (maps two to six)
In 1852, the broad gauge (7 feet, 2.16m between rails) double lines of the Oxford to Birmingham railway were laid across Yardley and Bordesley. A station was opened at Acocks Green, encouraging its development as a residential district. The spanning of the Cole/Spark confluence by a second embankment higher than the canal blocked free air movement down the valley: the damp meadows became subject to fogs, which were slow to disperse. The railway cut into the Golden Hillock before running at level beside the canal on its way to a massive blue-brick viaduct over the Rea valley, a tunnel under the town centre, and a terminus on Snow Hill. In 1863, the Oxford Company was taken over by the Great Western, and Small Heath and Sparkbrook Station was opened on Danford Lane (Golden Hillock Road) for the growing suburbs and for the use of workers at the B.S.A.
Because most railways were built to Stephenson's gauge (4 feet 8½ inches; 1.43m) the G.W.R. Company was obliged to add a third rail to accommodate narrow-gauge rolling-stock. Broad gauge was finally abandoned in 1892, and the inner rails were then taken up. This left a wide gap between the up and down lines, in which signals could be erected.
In the 1880s Bordesley Junction marshalling yards were laid out between the main lines and the canal, with coal and timber wharves: a peak 27 lines were in use. A decade later the planned railway through Sparkbrook and Sparkhill to Stratford was abandoned due to the cost of demolition across those built-up suburbs. The G. W. R. took over the scheme, proposing to start the new line from the Oxford line east of the Cole, whence it would run through open country. 11 'steam navvies' and 23 locomotives were employed on the cuttings and banks. The line opened in 1907. Works included a junction station on Tyseley Hill, a later terminus at Moor Street, and quadrupling of the lines as far as Olton. Sidings and engine sheds were built across the meadows between Tyseley Junction, Warwick Road and the Cole valley edge. During World War One, branches were laid to munitions factories on the Hay Hall estate from the junction; to serve the B.S.A. Waverley Works and Singer a spur was run from west of the widened viaduct almost to the Coventry Road, with three branches. The spur has long since been taken up: its line is followed by the Expressway.
[The multi-stationed North Warwickshire Line was under sentence of closure for many years, but is now better used]. Bordesley Junction sidings are largely removed and replaced by the Expressway. Part of the Tyseley site is occupied by the Railway Museum, the rest by the Area Maintenance Depot of British Rail's Western Region. Beyond the junction, the main lines have been reduced to two.
Industry (maps three to six)
There are factories new and old, in use and closed, large and small, all around "the Ackers". Industry began hereabout in early Georgian times. At a former confluence of the Cole and the Spark not far from the Coventry Road, a mill was at work in the 16th century. This may have been the mill recorded two hundred years earlier in Bordesley: it was associated with the sub-manor of Heybarnes, which was then in separate ownership. In 1722, Beighton's map showed it (incorrectly on the Yardley bank) as a 'boreing mill', presumably engaged in the making of rifle barrels, and it was 'Medley's Mill' on Tomlinson's map of 1750. Later maps do not show it.
Hay Mill was originally a corn-mill built by the Delahayes of Hay Hall. It is known to have been engaged in blade-grinding by 1820. William Deakin operated the mill for a decade from 1830: he was fulfilling contracts for weapons from the East India Company. The medieval mill and miller's cottage had been rebuilt in Stuart times: the replacements survived into this century, although a later mill had been built 130m downstream between 1750 and 1817, below a triangular pool. It is not known whether both mills remained in use: if they did, the name 'Hay Mills' is correct, not due solely to the local habit of pluralising.
In 1847, James Horsfall moved from Digbeth to Hay Mill, where he produced excellent high-tensile steel wire. The firm of Webster and,Horsfall (1861) became famous for all kinds of wire, supplying it for the first telegraph cable across the Mediterranean, and made sheathing wire for the second (successful) Atlantic cable. The company still flourishes in premises built after the abandonment of waterpower for steam in 1865. The lower pool was drained by 1887 and nearly all of its bed has been overbuilt: but the earlier pool not only survives but has been improved, an unexpected amenity within the Waste Disposal Unit's precincts. Excess water still flows from a rebuilt sluice beside the ancient mill site, alongside the factory beneath St Cyprian's Church, and so into the Cole 150m from the Coventry Road.
When the newly-formed Birmingham Small Arms Company, an 1861 amalgamation of small firms in the town, sought a site for a purpose-built factory, it was found on the Golden Hillock: 10ha of farmland between the canal and the railway had a frontage of 550m on either side for wharfs and sidings. The original buildings, opened in 1863, were at the end of the site nearest to Ackers Hill, just north of Hales Industrial Services. The firm's fortunes fluctuated with the demand for firearms, and the Works were actually closed for a year (1878-9). Bicycle production began in 1880. This was successful, new buildings were erected in 1895, and Boer War contracts required more for armaments manufacture in 1900. One four-storey block is all that remains of huge extensions, the New Buildings erected in 1915 to make motor- cycles, aero engines and folding bicycles in addition to rifles and Lewis guns. The factory then extended to Golden Hillock Road, across meadows where formerly sheep had grazed.
Between the wars, bicycles, motorcycles and sporting guns kept the B.S.A. prosperous. Five bridges of steel spanned the canal from works to sports field and motorcycle test track. From 1935 - the year when the Graf Zeppelin flew low over the site and photographed it very thoroughly - the B.S.A. was again making armaments. Mass production of Browning, Boys and Bren guns was seriously disrupted by air raid destruction in 1940, when 53 workpeople were killed and 89 injured. Canal water was invaluable for fire-fighting when mains had been breached: pumping and losses due to bank damage lowered the level drastically for some time. Air-raid shelters for the workforce had been constructed within what is now the National Motorcycle Circuit. Other damage was caused at Waverley Works across the railway. (To ease traffic between the two sites, the G.W.R. had leased a footwalk across the multiple lines at a cost of 30 shillings - £1.50 - a year!) Fronting the Coventry Road the large factory block was the Singer Company's World War One extension for military vehicle production. Since World War Two it has been owned by Rootes Parts, Chrysler, Peugeot-Talbot and is now for sale again.
There was steady development of industry on the Hay Hall estate, conveniently near the canal and the railway and (later) tram routes, from the 1890s when Tyseley Foundry and nearby firms started up. By the outbreak of World War Two, the whole district between the railway, Stockfield Road and Tanyard Lane (Amington/Speedwell Roads) was wholly industrialised. The Rover Car Works stretched from Tyseley Station to Hay Mill race: large enterprises like Bakelite were interspersed with small engineering premises. More light industry came to Hay Mills, and factories spread across the fields of Greet, Manor and Tyseley farms. Smaller claypits closed, but two huge excavations, the Waterloo on Red Hill and the Burbury at Greet, continued to grow until the 1950s. Tyseley Destructor Works was built overlooking the site of Hay Mill Cottage, and a wide concrete span replaced the humped brick right-of-way bridge over the canal. The canyons in which the streams flow were created during the 1930s by the deposition of clinker, transported by light railway, and canal-borne industrial refuse. Legislation has required the recent costly erection of the ultra-efficient Waste Disposal Unit on a raised site which had been a football pitch, and demolition of the Destructor.
Local industry became much less varied after World War Two. The great expansion of such firms as Lucas, Serck, Wilmot Breeden, and Harmo, testified to increasing dependence on motor vehicle and parts production. The B.S.A. closed in 1976, one of many firms unable to meet foreign competition.
What can be seen from Ackers Hill
The natural landscape
Early settlement and boundaries
The Warwick canal
Parks and open spaces
Churches and schools
The Ackers leisure park