The first reference we have to any road is in the Charter of 972, which records on Yardley's south boundary Leommannincgweg, the way of Leomann's folk. This is believed to be the Stratford Road, or at least that part of it which crosses the flat Solihull Plateau through Hall Green, winding between tributary valley heads. There would be a ridgeway between Cole and Spark, which was probably the west bound of Greet's first field, the second being cleared later. When Greet Mill was built to grind the produce of the fields, the gravelly shallows usually to be found below the dams would become a favoured ford, with a well-used track down to it from Sparkhill and Hall Green. In time this was to be the route by which the hides and timber of Arden went to Birmingham and Black Country coal and iron went to Arden, a regional highway. Greet Mill Ford was to claim horses and men when crossings were attempted during flood: Roger Fullard was the first victim to be recorded in 1275.
The Warwick Road followed a much more difficult route, and it is not surprising that the Stratford Road (not so called until the Avon Navigation made an inland port of Shakespeare's town) was the preferred route to the shire capital as far south as Hockley Heath. The Warwick Road starts at Spark Green on the drift which the Stratford Road is able to use for most of its way across Yardley, but beyond Cole the steep slope is on uncapped clay. This stretch, and the valley of Tyseley Brook beyond, must have been practically impassable in and after wet weather. Beside the Turnpike road of 1725-6 maps show a quarter-mile strip sixty yards wide going over the ridge east of Manor Farm. This was certainly the holloway worn by feet, hooves, and wheels in the wet clay. There was a worn way on the Stratford Road where it climbs towards the Council House. When the Turnpike was made alongside - and presumably before the No-Man's Land strip could be taken in by the owner of the adjacent land - two squatters' huts were thrown up in it. (See the 18-19th centuries map) By the ancient law of Arden they were permitted to stay and enclose a patch.
It is probable that all the lanes shown on the first O. S. Map (c.1820) were in existence by the later Middle Ages. They and their former names appear on the appropriate map herein. As Formans Road crosses clay, a furlong of river silt, then clay again, its ancient name 'Foulmore Lane' is justified; if a way across the valley there had not been essential, it would have been abandoned as unusable!
Except for Hay Hall, which is 15th century half-timbered with Stuart brick encasing, there are no buildings anywhere in our district more than 250 years old. The Manor House of Greet, not to be confused with the later Greet House, stood on a moat platform beside the early 20th century Greet Inn. It was originally a close-timbered hall like the Trust School in Yardley Village. Whether it was rebuilt by Humphrey Greswold or not in Blakesley Hall style, it was certainly rebuilt in later Georgian times, being known thereafter as Manor Farm. Manor Farm Road, made when the buildings were demolished, commemorates them. Across the highway was a Stuart mansion, known in its last years of decay, the 1920s, as 'The Miser's House'. Other houses stood about the junction with Weston Lane, for this was the hamlet of Greet; among them were the 'Blew Ball' inn of 1741, and the 'Swan' near the bridge, of 1756. At about that time Greet House was built on the gravelly summit nearby: it survived until the decade following World War One.
To the east were Tyseley Grange, demolished in 1967, a Stuart brick and tile house much altered and enlarged about 1860, and Tyseley Farm. This was a group of brick buildings, probably Georgian, built beside the moat of the ancient farmhouse. South was Shaftmoor, a three-gabled half-timbered farmhouse of the 16th century. Greswold property, it was the home of the Steedmans for two centuries before its demolition in 1910. Nearby was Greet Mill Hill Farm, a low 18th century house with outbuildings. One of these, a barn of 1850, survived the demolition of a century later, and is used as a store by a timber merchant.
In a site between Grove and Greswolde Roads stood (until 1896 when the Freehold Land Society bought the estate) Grove Farm. An earlier building on or near the spot was Fulford (Foul Ford) Hall. Latterly home of the Izods, Grove Farm was 15th century and Stuart half-timbering, much added to and patched, interesting rather than attractive. Woodlands Farm nearby lasted a few years longer. Showell Green House was an undistinguished Georgian mansion, latterly a hospital annexe. It stood on Showell Green Lane north of Philip Sidney Road until replaced by a row of 'town houses' a decade or so ago. In 1978 Showellhurst, a shuttered Regency mansion nearly opposite, was a regretted loss. Up the lane are Yew Tree Cottage and part of No. 123 which are early 19th century, and on Yardley Wood Road is 'The Firs' of about 1840. A recent development on the remnant of Showell Green has incorporated a row of cottages of mid-19th century date.
Shrubbery Farm, latterly Sparkhill Nursery, was a large group of brick buildings on three sides of a yard. Its site, between Ivor and Esme Roads, is now overbuilt. Sparkhill Farm, lying back from the Stratford Road opposite Baker Street, lasted until the 1880s. Sparkhill House and its outbuildings still stand at the end of Showell Green Lane, embedded in a row of shops. They were built in the late 1890s, a half-century after the house.
The 'Mermaid' inn before its rebuilding in the 1880s was a three-storey house of about 1740, with a farmhouse alongside. The corner towers were destroyed in the blitz, but the old carved sign was restored and reset. On the Warwick Road were Rose Cottage opposite St. John's Road, and Greet Farm. With 115 acres on both sides of the highway and the river, this was one of the largest farms hereabout, and its lush meadows must have produced fine livestock. The farm buildings stood until the 1880's when Percy Road was cut, and Greet School was built on the site a few years later. James Place on Avon Street (1856), Perseverance Place nearby (1870), and Somersault and Coleman Cottages (1869-70) on Baker Street, have been incorporated into terraces of a decade or so later.
Greet Mill was sited so as to take advantage of a small break of slope in the river bed. The Cole was ponded behind an earthen bank in or before 1261, and a mill continued in use there until about 1840. This was the manorial mill of Greet, grinding corn from the great fields. During the Civil War and later it also engaged in blade-edging. In 1775 Greet Mill was advertised as a 'new-erected water corn mill with a regular supply of water, adjacent to the turnpike road'. An estate of 75 acres was attached. The new building stood above a brick culvert in which one or more breast-shot wheels were set. Excess water fell over the weir and a side-race, the highway crossing on two humped bridges. After steel-rolling in its last years, Greet Mill went out of use, the pool was drained, and the buildings were demolished and forgotten - until excavation of a new central channel for the Cole in 1913 disclosed the culvert. Long-buried brickwork from the mill, with material from the old bridges, filled the former channels, and a wide balustraded bridge was built to take tramlines. With the demolition of the farm, even the name of Greet Mill Hill has gone out of use.
At the confluence of the Cole and the Tyseley Brook a mill is shown on Beighton's map of 1725. River works have destroyed any evidence hereabout, and no field-names survive as they do elsewhere to confirm its existence. Downstream was Hay Mill, medieval property of Hay Hall. Was there a mill on the Spark at Danford ? Again, there is no evidence. Full details of all Cole mills are in my 'Watermills of the Cole and Blythe Valleys'.
The clayland roads were notorious even when all roads were bad. Never properly founded, rarely and grudgingly repaired, they were obstacles rather than aids to travel. They lacked surface, rain, and ditch. Deep and narrow holloways on slopes that became water-courses in rain, strips of morass hundreds of yards wide across valleys, dangerous unpaved fords with a flimsy footbridge at best, these were the traveller's lot. Improvement only began with the setting up of Turnpike Trusts, and came but slowly. The Birmingham to Edgehill Turnpike (Stratford Road) and the Birmingham to Warmington Turnpike (Warwick Road) were created in 1725-6. Tollgates and keepers' cottages were built at the 'Mermaid', Greet Mill, Cole Bank (School Road Hall Green), and at Acocks Green. Money and engineers were provided to improve the worst stretches, but for labour local parishioners were still called upon to perform their ancient six days a year stint. Effective drainage of flood-meadows was still a century away, and it was necessary to build causeways over them, to pave fords and later to bridge them. The gorges had to be filled up and the sharpest turns reduced, or entirely new stretches laid down.
After 1745 milestones had to be provided: on the Warwick Road they were sited almost opposite Greet School and on Tyseley Hill (2 and 3 miles from the 'Mermaid'), and on the Stratford Road (which was the highway to London until the Telford improvements to the Coventry Road ninety years later) the stones showed the distance from the capital - 114 miles on the one opposite the Park gates. Fifty years after their establishment the Turnpikes were required to make drastic improvements, but tolls were raised by a half to pay for them. In 1780 William Hutton could still report that both roads were 'much used and much neglected'. However they were to become so much better that by 1836 the journey from Birmingham to London was being completed in 12 hours including stops. In addition to the inns there were smithies en route, by Greet Mill tollgate, opposite Greet Farm, and on Tyseley Hill.
Aris's Birmingham Gazette recorded the dangers of road travel in later Georgian times. Footpads haunted the Turnpikes. One Jones a milliner was beaten and robbed of 22 guineas at Spark Brook, and one Mander, knocked from his horse by a rope stretched across the Stratford Road near Formans Lane, was relieved of his purse. A man unnamed lost £5 to a footpad 'at the bottom of Wake Green', and Mr. Swinburne (the Hall Green schoolmaster) was robbed near Greet Mill. He was lucky, because a horseman pursued the footpad across the Common and caught him. There is no record of a gibbet on either Turnpike as there was at Washwood Heath to discourage highway robbers. The Gazette printed dire warnings by the lords of Yardley Manor of the consequences of poaching. The Grevises jealously retained their sole fishing rights in the Cole, a trout stream, and their successors, the wealthy Taylors, were no less concerned to maintain their privileges. In those times before refrigerated meat came from abroad, game and fish were important sources of winter protein to rich and poor alike; the latter risked buckshot, man-traps, and deportation for poaching, but it continued as long as there was anything to poach!
In 1752 and 1759 horses were drowned while fording the Cole at Greet Mill. Later the county (Worcestershire) built a bridge over the river: there was one already over the mill-race. The Warwick Road had had a bridge since at the latest 1725: it was drawn with two arches on Beighton's map. A 1766 plan of Greet Farm shows five arches, the outer ones for flood-water under the approach causeway. This bridge was rebuilt 11 years later. It had been badly damaged in a flood which had swept away the timber footbridge at Formans Lane - not for the first or last time. As still happens at Greet Mill bridge, gravel tended to pile up against the piers, and by the start of the 19th century the river was flowing in two channels round an island. It should be remembered that the Cole was then a larger stream than now. Not only were there more tributaries fed by woods and bogs, but much of the rain which is now taken into drains and sewers formerly found its way to the river. Depletion of the gravelly water-table by wells and pumps has dried up many of the brooks, and the survivors in their culverts lack replenishment.
Damage by flood in 1807 made the Warwick Road Bridge unusable, and the Yardley Overseers were indicted for their failure to repair it. A major reconstruction followed and this survived until the most recent rebuilding, by Yardley Rural District Council in 1902. Formans Road Bridge was rebuilt as a road bridge a few years later. The streets between the Stratford Road and Stoney Lane stopped short of the Spark Brook until it had been culverted in 1896. The Showell Green Brook was straightened when the Park was laid out in 1904, and culverted under the Stratford Road and down to the Cole.
Since the reign of Elizabeth I parishes had been obliged to appoint their own overseers for Highways and Poor Relief. These unpaid and untrained officials, drawn in turn from among the wealthier tenants, could not be expected to administer the affairs of the whole of a very large parish, so Yardley originally had three sets of Overseers for areas bounded by highways: Church End north of the Coventry Road, Greet north of the Warwick Road, and Broomhall south of it. Doubtless it was the power of the Greswolds which caused the name of Greet, at the far west end of the area, to be given to the whole. Population growth in the south brought a later division: from the 17th century there were four nominal Quarters, all of Yardley south and west of the Stratford Road becoming Swanshurst Quarter. See my booklet ‘Swanshurst Quarter’.
The overseers continued to serve, in the guise of parish councillors with paid officials and servants, until the formation of the Rural District Council in 1894. They were the same people thereafter, with different hats. Joseph Malins, whose home in Wilton Road has been demolished, was their leader, a great man in local affairs and ‘a power at County Hall’. He did so much for Yardley. The Rural District Council met first in the Sparkhill Institute, which had been built a few years before, opposite Inglewood Road.
The 1930 building on its site was first a Commercial then a Boys’ Secondary School, and is now the Sparkhill Centre. Eighty years ago Worcestershire feared that Yardley would vote to join Birmingham, a wealthy City which was offering blandishments to its neighbour districts. So the County hurried to provide public buildings in advertisement of itself. Police and Fire Stations, large schools at Springfield and a magnificent Council House. This was built on the Hill, population centre of the District, not in the backwater village far to the north. The Rural District Council sat in the fine Aston Hall-ish building from 1902 until 1912 only. Then, with Yardley having voted to become part of Greater Birmingham, it declined to housing a suburban library and a sub-registry. But the initials ‘YDC’ (looking ahead to future importance as an Urban District) may still be seen above the porches, and its denizens still call it the Council House. Most of those who voted for the City’s promised amenities and services were recent immigrants, refugees from sooty slums, quickly populating the new terrace streets of Greet, Sparkhill, and Springfield. The out-voted natives continued to think of themselves as Wigornians, and never spoke of ‘town’ but always of ‘Birmingham’, which to them was the foreign city in the next county.
Relief and drainage, geology, and the natural landscape
First footers and Anglo-Saxon settlement
The manor of Yardley, the boundaries of Yardley, and the 'Manor' of Greet
Ancient roads, ancient buildings, and watermills
Turnpike roads, bridges, and administration
Urbanisation, and amenities and services
Churches, schools, and commerce and industry
Between the Wars and since, and references