Fox Hollies since the war
At the end of the Second World War prefabs were built to house people who had lost their homes as a result of bombing. Several places in Fox Hollies had groups of these small but very well designed homes. There was a row on Shirley Road near Oakhurst Road. A level platform at the entrance to a park often shows were prefabs were, as it does here. At the other end of the park, on Gospel Lane, there was another row, and there were prefabs at the Hall site. 'American' prefabs arrived in September 1945, as five crates for each unit. The platforms for each prefab had been built by German prisoners of war, together with sewer trenches and road access, all this from January 1945, but they were still not ready for occupation in April 1946. The tenants left c. 1960, and vandalism started straight away. People were able to buy them, it is said, dismantle them and erect them outside the City perhaps as holiday homes! Unfortunately, once they were all cleared, travellers came onto the land.For more information on local prefabs, go here.
Fox Hollies Park is perhaps the most historic part of Acocks Green. Two of Colonel Walker's farms were here: Sandpits (for breeding horses), and Pool Farm (agriculture). It had an 18th century mill, whose sluices were still there in 1936, and its pool from Pool Farm, but the star is the bronze age saunas. It did not have the same level of equipment by the war as the Recreation Ground did: Pat Smith called Fox Hollies Park a snogging park.
During the Yardley Millennium celebrations a Medieval Fayre was held there, on Saturday 20th May 1972. There was jousting, falconry, archery, the Band of the Queen's Own Hussars, manoeuvres by the Royal Horse Artillery, a period encampment by the Queen's Royal Lancers, and an ox roast, plus many crafts and other entertainments, including Morris dancing and a mock hanging. The weather was very bad on the day, which spoiled the fun.
On the Sunday, there was a Children's Anti-Pollution Crusade, led by Rolf Harris. Children walked along the streets in costume, singing a Wally Whyton anti-pollution song; he entertained them in a marquee later in the day. In the evening, there was a folk concert in a 2000-seater marquee with Wally Whyton, the Ian Campbell Folk Group, and others. Fox Hollies Park has had play equipment since then, and its prefabs have gone. It suffers from anti-social behaviour, which is difficult to control because of the many access points. A youth 'pod' proved successful recently in giving young people something to do.
The investment the City was able to make in housing between the wars occurred again in the 1950s and 1960s. Many maisonettes and tower blocks were built throughout the city, and also housing designed for elderly people. We have mentioned the local belief that the area by the Hall had to stay parkland because of Colonel Walker. However, not only Hall Green Little Theatre was built here from 1950 onwards, but three tower blocks, homes for elderly people and other facilities, were built on this supposed parkland by 1964.
Eric Northey rented one of the allotments in the grounds from about 1953. He went out to work on his allotment one day, and found it had all been scraped off. He knew his tenancy was on a six-month basis, but had been given no notice of this. A complaint resulted in an apology and £5 compensation, he recalls.
It seems that the building of the towers happened as a result of pressure by a local Labour Party activist, John Curtis. Permission for use of part of the site came in 1959. In 1960 it was decided to add flats on top of the planned garages. In 1961 a community hall, fourteen bungalows and an 'occupational centre (the special school) were approved. An article appeared in the Birmingham Mail on 29th July 1965, to commemorate the opening of a new park here, which said that he had pressed for improvements to the site for twelve years. In 2017 Mary Keating of Brutiful Birmingham praised the setting of the towers, but criticised poor maintenance , cleaning, and alterations unsympathetic to the original design, like balcony screens and plastic windows.
"Fifteen years ago the site was an eyesore. There was just an old house falling in ruins where vagrants stayed, and a few tattered allotments. I was brought up in a slum area at Wednesbury, and with people wanting homes, I kept nagging away to have them built on this site."
Apart from flats and specially designed house for the elderly, there were now tennis courts, play areas for children, a meeting room with stage for the Tenants' Association, and a landscaped park. A Training Centre for disabled people was also provided, which later became Fox Hollies Special School. So a ceremony to open the gardens took place, with the newly laid-out park being called Curtis Gardens to acknowledge his efforts. The plaque can be seen on the image below. It is now at Acocks Green Library, having been kept safe for many years by Matt Redmond, M.B.E., a local councillor, now Honorary Alderman, with many years of commitment to Fox Hollies himself.
A somewhat curious addition was a facility for children to play in during wet weather. In 1964 one hundred children said they had nowhere to go when it rained, and petitioned the Lord Mayor for a bus or railway carriage to play in. After, all the adults now had a tenants' hall. British Railway gave them a guard's brake van.
A Council vehicle knocked down the post on the right some years ago, and has been reinstated, together with wrought iron gates as similar to the originals as could be made. There is seating as well. In 2001 a new playground was built, thanks to the sale of the Fox Hollies to Lidl, who also provided a piece of public art outside their store. The concrete fish, a piece of sculpture in its own right, is still there. According to Alderman Matt Redmond, public art was provided on many new sites at the time.
Traveller incursions onto the site happened several times between 2010 and 2011, and rails were fitted around Curtis Gardens in 2012.
In February 2015, the origin of this sculpture was confirmed. It is now listed Grade II by DCMS. Funnily enough, the initiative for this came not from Birmingham, which had been behind the provision of sculptures on new housing estates in the 1950s and 1960s, but from Warwick District Council. The sculptor, John Bridgeman, who had been Head of Sculpture at the Birmingham School of Art until 1981, had retired to Leamington, and died there in 2004. Bridgeman is perhaps most famous for his Mater Dolorosa in Coventry Cathedral. In 2013 there was a Bridgeman exhibition at Leamington.
Play sculptures were an unusual and innovative idea. It appears that Acocks Green's fish is the only one still in situ, which has influenced English Heritage in its wish to have it listed. The hole in the sculpture is reminiscent of Henry Moore. However, here it enables children to crawl through the sculpture. The full English Heritage listing is here.
Acocks Green now has several pieces of public art within a few minutes' walk of each other. William Bloye's Fox and Hollybush bas-relief plaque was created for the Fox Hollies pub in 1928, and is now in a wall of Lidl, its replacement. Lidl also has a metal screen nearby, and opposite these artworks stands the metal and wood structure commissioned by Network West Midlands. The park called Curtis Gardens has the concrete fish. These are on former Fox Hollies Hall land. One wonders what Zaccheus Walker III, who had an art gallery installed in his rebuilt Italianate Fox Hollies Hall, would have thought of these pieces. The other metal sculpture nearby is on Hazelwood Road, and dates from 2007. It is by Tony Vellam.
The reference to the Hall site having become neglected raises the uncomfortable issue of investment and maintenance. Often, especially as years pass and economic conditions change, the resources
needed to maintain the City's estates, parks and other facilities have come under great pressure, and the quality of the infrastructure has deteriorated. For many years, government money flowed
into the inner city wards in vast quantities to rescue the areas from collapse, but the outer suburbs did not receive the same help. In recent years, however, it has been recognised that huge
problems have developed on the outer city estates, and not just to do with the infrastructure. Roy Hattersley wrote an article about the desperation and poverty on the Fox Hollies estate, and the
low educational ambition of the families he visited, during his time as M.P.
The Conservative policy of right to buy has resulted in around half of the houses on the Fox Hollies estate now being in private hands. However, some people have not been able to afford the upkeep of their homes, and so the condition and appearance of some homes is now worse than when under Council ownership. Also, as those living there are no longer tenants, one avenue of influence the Council had is no longer there. One success story has been the conversion of the towers one by one to elderly only occupation. These form part of what is claimed to be the largest sheltered housing scheme in Europe. Another is the City's visionary ambitions for leisure activities, which produced the first class facilities at Fox Hollies Leisure Centre in the 1980s. It is an irony that the majority of users come from outside the area, though. Ninestiles Technology College, opened originally as Hartfield Crescent Council School in 1929, has made great strides in recent years, and its Head, Dexter Hutt, has been knighted for his work in turning the school round.
There have been noble efforts for several decades to intervene and mitigate the social problems. Fox Hollies Forum with Dave Swingle at the helm, the former Community House at the corner of Severne Road and Oakhurst Road ably run by Elsie and Pauline Carter, and the tireless work of Bari Aziz from the school/leisure centre site are shining examples to add to the work done by the churches and other agencies statutory and voluntary.
Many people talk about loss of community. The word 'community' is itself overworked, and threatens to lose meaning as it is used in ever wider contexts, but in respect of Fox Hollies it is undoubtedly true that social problems are a significant issue for everyone. There are conflicts between the generations, especially between young people and the elderly, over things like anti-social behaviour, noise and vandalism. Drug-taking, drug dealing and car theft are other known problems in the area. Many people who have a long association with Fox Hollies and who care a great deal about their locality are distressed to see others treat it with contempt, and wonder what can be done to halt social disintegration. As we have said, many agencies are active in the area, and resources and skills are being applied with determination and coordination under the auspices of the Community Council and local political and professional leaders.